Read an Excerpt
He was just as heart-stoppingly gorgeous as the first time she'd laid eyes on him. And those lips
Margaret Cole stepped into William Tanner's office and couldn't tear her gaze from her new boss's mouth as he introduced himself as CFO of Cameron Enterprisesthe company that had bought out Worth Industries. She'd heard he was from New Zealand originally. She wondered briefly if his home country's British colonial background was responsible for that slightly stiff-upper-lip way he had of speaking. Oh, Lord, there she was, fixated on his lips again. And no wonder. That very mouth had claimed hers in a kiss that had seared her senses and made her toes curl only six short weeks ago.
Even now she could remember the pressure of his mouth against hers, of the way her blood had suddenly heated, then rushed through her veins. The sensation more exhilarating and intoxicating than anything she'd ever experienced before.
She'd wanted more then, and she wanted more now, but men like William Tanner were pretty much off-limits for a girl like her. Especially a man who probably paid more for a single cut of his neatly trimmed dark brown hair than she spent on her own hair in a year. Not that he appeared vain. Far from it. With his casual elegance he probably never thought twice about the cost, never had to. Nor the price of the tailored business suit that fitted the width of his shoulders and now hung open, revealing his flat stomach and lean hips. Even with the two-inch heels on her sensible pumps boosting her height to five foot nine, he stood a good five inches taller than her.
Maggie found herself nodding and murmuring in response to Mr. Tanner's invitation to sit down. She really needed to gather her wits about her, but for the life of her she just couldn't. Every cell in her body vibrated on full alert. Did he recognize her from behind the elaborate mask she'd worn? She'd certainly recognized himalthough, on that night, she hadn't had any idea of who he was until after the kiss that had surpassed her every fantasy.
The second he'd arrived at the company Valentine's Day ball, she'd felt his presence like a tangible thing. He'd entered the room alone, standing for a moment in the doorway, his dark costume fitted to his body, his cloak swirling gently around him. Her eyes had been instantly drawn to him. Dressed like Zorro, he was the perfect foil to her Spanish lady and it hadn't taken him long to find her and swing her away in his arms to the dance floor. They'd danced the minutes until midnight together, and he'd kissed her just as the countdown to unmasking had begun. But then someone had called his name, and as he'd taken his lips from hers she'd realized exactly who he was.
Her behavior that night had been completely out of character. She would never in a million years have believed she could feel so much so soon, for a man she'd never met before that night. A flush of heat surged through her body at the memory. A surge that came to a rapid halting crash as she became aware that he clearly awaited a response to something he'd said.
She cleared her throat nervously and fixed her gaze on a point just past his ear.
"I'm sorry, could you repeat that please?"
He smiled, no more than a smooth curve of his lips, and her internal temperature slid up another notch. This was insane. How on earth was she going to work for the man when she couldn't keep her wits about her in his presence? She'd be out of here in two seconds flat if she couldn't perform. He had a real reputation for being a hard-ass. She could deal with that. He hadn't gotten where he was at the age of thirty-one without that particular character trait, she was sure. Focused people didn't scare hershe admired thembut in his case she had to admit that she admired him just a little bit too much.
"Are you nervous?" he asked.
"No, not exactly. Perhaps a little surprised at my appointmentnot that I'm complaining about it."
"I was merely commenting on your length of service with Worth Industries. You're what, twenty-eight, and you've been with Worth for eight years?"
Even his voice was a distraction. Rich and deep and with a texture that sent a tiny shiver of longing down her spine. And his accent. A little bit Upper East Side and a little bit Kiwi. The combination and inflections in his tone did crazy things to her insides.
"Yes. My whole family has worked, or does work, for Worth."
"Ah, yes, your brotherJason, is it?" She nodded. "And my parents, too, when they were alive. They were both on the factory floor."
"That's quite a loyal streak you're showing there."
Maggie shrugged. "Not really. Especially when you consider that Worth IndustriesI mean, Cameron Enterprisesis the major industry and employer in Vista del Mar."
This promotion to Mr. Tanner's executive assistant, even in its temporary capacity, since he'd been seconded to Vista del Mar short-term only to complete financial viability studies, was not only unexpected, but the increase in income would prove very welcome. Paying off her brother's college tuition was an ongoing cost for both Jason and her, and one they looked forward to seeing the end of. Even with Jason working here for the past two years and contributing to their monthly expenses, including the payments on the small house that had been their home from childhood, the college loans had remained a yoke around their necks. Maybe now, with her promotion, they could plan for a few luxuries for themselveswithin reason, of course.
"Have you never wanted to branch out? Go further afield with your work?" he asked, leaning back against the edge of his desk.
Go further afield? She was afraid if she told him the truth he'd laugh at her. Ever since she was a child she'd had a map of the world pinned to her bedroom walla round red pin pressed into every city or country she wanted to visit. For now, she contented herself with travel books and DVDs. But one day she'd fulfill those dreams.
William Tanner awaited an answer. Wow, way to go on impressing the new boss, she thought. So far she'd let her mind wander, what, how many times?
"Travel isn't my priority right now," she said firmly, and sat a little straighter in her chair.
He gave her another one of those smiles and she felt it all the way to the pit of her belly. She'd travel to the ends of the world with him, she thought and allowed her lips to curve into an answering smile.
"There may be some travel involved in your position with me. Will that be a problem?"
"No, not at all. I have no dependants."
While that was technically true, and she and Jason shared their family home, the habits of ten years were pretty darn hard to break. Besides, she still felt a deep sense of responsibility toward her younger brother. He'd gone through a very rocky time after their parents died. Guiding his decisions had become second nature, although she knew he sometimes resented her continued interest in his whereabouts and friends.
"I'm glad to hear it." He shoved his hands into his trouser pockets and pushed up off the desk edge, pacing over to one of the floor-to-ceiling windows that looked out over the Cameron Enterprises corporate campus. "You mentioned you were surprised to be given this position. Why is that?"
Maggie blinked several times behind her glasses. Surprised? Of course she was surprised. For eight years she'd been virtually invisible to her peers and certainly invisible when it had come to her previous applications for promotion.
"Well " She chewed her lip for a moment, choosing her words carefully. "As you said, I've been here quite a while. I guess I thought that no one ever saw me as capable of rising to a position such as this. That's not to say that I don't think I am capablenothing could be further from the truth. I've worked in several departments here and I believe my experience makes me a valuable asset to any of the executives."
He laughed. "You don't need to convince me, Margaret. You already have the job."
She felt a heated blush rise from her chest to her throat before flooding her cheeks with color. Now she'd be all blotchy. She forced herself to remain calm and focused instead on the fact he'd called her Margaret. No one called her that. Since she was a little girl everyone around her had called her Maggie, and she hadn't really minded much. But hearing her full name from his lips made it sound special, particularly with the way he spoke with that slightly clipped intonation. Yes, as the executive assistant to the CFO of Cameron Enterprises, she would be called Margaret. She replayed the syllables in her mind and let a small smile play across her face in response.
"Thank you, I do know that. I just want you to know you won't be sorry you chose me."
"Oh, no, I know I won't be sorry," he replied.
Will looked across his temporary office at the woman he'd specifically requested be brought to him. It was almost impossible to believe that behind those owlish, dark-framed old-fashioned glasses and the poorly fitted suit lay the siren who'd infiltrated his dreams every night since the masquerade ball. But it was definitely her. Even with her long black hair scraped off her face and dragged into a knot that was tight enough to give him a headache, there was no denying the delicate line of jaw and the fine straight nose were those of his Spanish lady.
His gut tightened in anticipation. He'd waited quite long enough to revisit that kiss. Tracking her down hadn't been the easiest thing he'd ever done, but he wasn't known for his tenaciousness for nothing. The trait had stood him well over the years and gave him an edge that saw him succeed where others failed. And he would succeed with the delectable Ms. Colehe had no doubt about it.
She'd done a runner on him the night of the ball, but not before enticing him in a way no other woman hadever. He wasn't a man to be denied, not under any circumstancesespecially not when his reaction to her had been very obviously mirrored by the object of his attention.
And here she was. He blinked. It really was hard to believe they were one and the same woman. She fidgeted in her chaira reminder that it was up to him to do something about the silence that now stretched between them.
"Tell me about your time here. I see from your file that you spent some time in the factory before moving into office work?"
"Yes," she replied, her deceptively prim lips pursed slightly as she appeared to choose her next words carefully. "I started in the factory, but the shifts made it difficult for me to be available for my brother before and after school. I requested a transfer into admin and learned what I know now from the ground up."
"Available for your brother?"
A cloud filled her dark brown eyes and she took her time before responding.
"Yes, that's right. Our parents died when I was eighteen and for the first couple of years afterward we got by on a small insurance policy my father had left us. Of course, that wasn't going to take care of us forever and Jason was still in school so it made sense that I find work. Worth Industries was pretty much the only place that was hiring at the time."
None of this was news to him but it was good to know his sources had been accurate in their dissemination of information.
"That can't have been easy for you."
"No, it wasn't."
Again, a careful response. One that answered, but failed to give any details. Clearly his Ms. Cole was one to keep her cards close to her chestand what a chest. Even the unbelievably unflattering cut of her suit failed to hide the lush curves of her body. For someone who appeared to actively want to hide her attributes, she still maintained deliciously perfect posture. It was that very upright bearing that confirmed his first impressions of her had been spot on. Margaret Cole was all woman, with the type of figure that would have seen her painted on the nose cowl of every fighter plane in aviation history.
Will forced his thoughts back to the business at hand.
"And I see you've been here, on the financial floor, for the past five years."
"I like numbers," she said with a small smile. "They tend to make better sense than other things."
He smiled back; he felt exactly the same way. His eldest brother, Michael, worked in human resources back in New York. To this day the problems Mike faced and relished each day made Will's head ache. He'd rather face a root canal than that. There was comfort in the cohesion of working with numbers. The defined parameters, yet with infinite possibilities were the types of challenges he excelled at. Which brought him very squarely back to the woman seated in front of him.
"Most of what you'll be doing for me will probably fall outside the usual reports and things you've been doing for middle management here."
"I enjoy a challenge," Margaret answered back.
"I'm glad to hear it. Here, let's get you started on something I've been working on." He reached across his desk and grabbed the file that lay in solitary splendor on the highly polished surface. "Take a look at that and give me your first impressions."
Margaret accepted the file from him and he saw her forehead wrinkle into a small frown as she concentrated on the report. He leaned his hip against his desk and simply watched her as her lips pursed while she read through the columns. Did she give everything in her life that intense concentration? he wondered. The prospect was both intriguing and enticing and occupied his thoughts as she thumbed methodically through the pages.
She must indeed have had a good head for figures, because she closed the folder after about ten minutes and looked him square in the eye.
"It would seem that the figures don't match up. The error margin isn't large, but it's consistent."
Her quick discernment gave him a punch of delight. Not only beautiful under that frumpy disguise, but sharply intelligent, too. The knowledge made him look forward all the more to what he'd planned.
"Good," he replied as he took the file back from her. "I think we're going to work very well together. Tell me, what would you recommend if you had discovered such an anomaly?"
"Well, I'd probably suggest a deeper audit of the bookssee how long this has been going on. Then perhaps a more specific check as to who has been involved with the accounts and has access to the funds."