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"Well , sis," Asher Chatam said, smiling across his desk at Petra, "you're bringing the old Vail Hotel back to life. How does it feel?"
"The Anderton Vail," Garth Anderton, CEO of Anderton Hotels, corrected, passing a stack of papers to the man on his right.
Petra flashed a careful smile at her older brother, who, as the attorney for Bowen & Bowen Construction, had drawn up the contracts now being signed for the renovation of the historic hotel. Knowing well her reputation among the members of her own family, she silently prayed for success.
Lord, this is my chance to achieve something, to finally find my place in the world. Please help me pull this off.
At twenty-eight, Petra had flitted from one "career" to another, never quite finding her calling, her passion, while her siblings, high achievers all, had long ago settled into their chosen fields. Now, as Special Assistant to the CEO of Anderton Hotels, she finally had an opportunity to do something meaningfulright here in Buffalo Creek, Texas, the hometown of her parents, both physicians who resided in Waco, where she had grown up.
She had brought the Vail to the attention of Garth Anderton soon after going to work for his company. Garth, who had built the Anderton chain by renovating small, historic hotels in good locations into unique and profitable properties, had been skeptical at first, as Buffalo Creek lay nearly forty miles to the south of the downtown centers of both Dallas and Fort Worth. The value of the property, however, along with the cost-plus contract that Petra had negotiated with Bowen & Bowen, had convinced Anderton of the viability of the project.
Now, if Petra could just bring this off on budget and schedule, she stood to be named manager of the hotel. Then, Garth had promised, after a few months he would bring her on to the acquisitions team. She would be perfectly placed, and on a career trajectory at last, when he took the company international.
Yet so much could go wrong. Her business degree hadn't exactly prepared her for overseeing the renovations of a historic hotel, let alone managing it. Plus, Garth himself presented something of a problem. Twice divorced, he had a reputation for dating and marrying his employees. Though he constantly cast out lures, Petra was determined not to bite. It meant walking a tightrope on the job, never taking up Garth on his more personal suggestions and constantly doing her best work.
Walton Bowen, the senior partner at the construction company, finished signing the papers and laid aside his ink pen. A big man with graying brown hair and smiling hazel eyes, he rose to his feet and shook hands all around before leaving the office. Petra and Garth followed a few moments later, strolling along the square to the southeast corner in the ninety-plus-degree heat. They crossed the street to the Vail and pushed through the bronze-and-glass doors.
Petra did not recall a time when the hotel had been operational. During her many visits to see her aunties in Buffalo Creek, the old hotel had stood silent and empty, the peachcolored marble columns and grand staircase rising in ghostly splendor behind the thick glass of its murky windows. As a child, Petra had often stood with her nose pressed to the glass, imagining those who had climbed the steps and moved through the lobby.
Though the major contracts had just been signed, work had already begun on the first phase of the project, which involved Garth's personal quarters. The new construction had left the soaring lobby looking more like a war zone than a luxury hotel in the making, however. Dust coated everything in sight, from the dull but intricately carved registration desk to the gapped crystal chandeliers overhead.
Suddenly dismayed, Petra scrunched her toes inside her shoes. It didn't help that her spectator pumps, which perfectly complemented her paper-white linen suit and black, sleeveless turtleneck, had turned out to be nothing more than attractive vises to torture her feet. Picking her way through the debris littering the marble floor, she wished mightily that she'd worn sensible flats.
"We've got quite a job cut out for us," Garth Anderton decreed, nodding his frosty head.
"Still," she said determinedly, "the beauty is here. Just look at that." She pointed toward the scrolls beneath the pediment of the nearest column.
"Of course, it's not real gold leaf," Garth pronounced, tilting back to eye the rich metallic glow far overhead.
"Oh, but it is," said a new voice. Firm and masculine, that voice carried the weight of knowledge.
Petra turned her dark amber gaze toward the sound, her blond ponytail swishing between her shoulder blades. The speaker stood in the doorway of one of the inner offices. Easily one of the best-looking men she'd ever seen, present company included, he stood at least an inch or two over six feet. Like Garth, he seemed exceptionally fit, but the tool belt slung about his slim hips proved that the muscles bulging in his upper chest and forearms came as the result of hard labor, while Garth's slender physique was owed entirely to the workout routine designed by his personal trainer. Other differences stood out starkly.
Casually dressed in jeans, boots and a yellow T-shirt that brought out the vibrant green of his eyes, the stranger obviously depended less on packaging than Garth, who prided himself on his grooming and wardrobe. At thirty-nine, Garth appeared several years the elder, but his frosty blond hair had been cut and styled to reflect the latest trend, while the longer, gold-streaked bronze locks of the interloper appeared somewhat unkempt. Yet not even the shadow of a morning beard dimmed the impact of that wryly smiling face, with its deeply set eyes, and lean cheeks grooved with dimples. In short, Petra found this unfamiliar man disturbingly attractiveand to her horror, everyone seemed to know it!
Garth's dark eyes narrowed behind the rectangular frames of glasses the exact shade of silvery gray as his summer-weight Italian suit. "I beg your pardon?" he intoned, his voice cold enough to leave icicles on the newcomer's perfect nose.
"The gold leaf on the capitals," said the other man easily, his vibrant green gaze on Petra as he walked across the floor to place a hand on one of the smooth columns. He smiled and nodded before addressing Garth again. "It's real. Which is why it was scraped off the bases."
Garth folded his arms, a sure sign of irritation, but then he quickly stepped forward to offer a perfectly manicured hand. "Garth Anderton, and you are?"
So this was the other half of Bowen & Bowen Construction, Walton Bowen's son. Petra silently thanked God that she hadn't had to deal with him during the contract negotiations; her discussions with his father had been tense enough, and he did not set her on edge the way the younger Bowen did. Torn between fleeing for cover and basking in that openly interested green gaze, she just stood there staring mutely. When he clapped palms with Garth and switched his attention there, she felt a spurt of relief.
The two men measured each other with blunt, level looks. Finally, Garth put on his easy, gleaming white smile, the one meant to disarm.
He knew as well as she did that Dale Bowen was a partner in the construction firm to which they were now legally bound, but he had to try to take the guy down a peg by saying, "You must be the project manager."
"I am," Bowen said, sounding amused.
Petra cleared her throat in warning to Garth. Clearly, here was one "construction type," as Garth would say, who wouldn't be easily intimidated. Garth took the throat clearing as a bid for introduction and waved her forward with a frown.
"My Special Assistant, Petra."
"Pleased to meet you," Bowen said, and once again she felt the full impact of that green gaze. He shook her hand, his own much larger one emanating bone-melting heat. The man was human lava. Garth, by comparison, always managed to be as cool as a cucumber. Petra suddenly wanted to cuddle up to Bowen. Instead, she yanked her hand back.
"Well, Dale," Garth said, purposefully using the other man's given name, "I'm sure you agree that we should consider a less costly alternative to real gold leaf." He looked up at the gold gleaming far overhead, and so missed the shake of Dale Bowen's head. "How difficult will it be to match the color?"
"Not very," Bowen answered, "but it doesn't matter. Use anything other than original materials anytime they're available and the BCHS will be all over you."
Garth settled a frown on the other man. "BCHS?"
"That would be the Buffalo Creek Historical Society," Petra volunteered.
"It would," Bowen confirmed, smiling at her before switching his gaze back to her boss. "I've worked hand-in-hand with them for years, and I'm warning you now. Use the wrong materials or methods such as pre-hung doors, and they'll go to the state to shut you down."
"But the security of our guests"
"Won't be compromised in the least if we reuse the original doors," Bowen interrupted.
"What about cost?" Garth demanded.
"Probably about the same. The real issue is the time it'll take to strip and refinish."
"Time, as I'm sure you know," Garth growled, "is money."
Bowen looked him in the eye, his sculpted mouth curving in a tight smile. Petra noticed that the square tip of his chin flattened when he smiled. Her own somewhat pointed chin had a tiny cleft in it, a Chatam family trait, and it tended to disappear when she smiled.
"Trust me," he said, "reusing the original hardwood doors will take less time and money than fighting the BCHS."
"We'll see about that," Garth muttered. Turning to Petra, he ordered, "Do a cost analysis."
"Yes, sir." She nodded, carefully avoiding Bowen's gaze.
"I want to see my private apartment now," he barked at Bowen. With that, he headed for the staircase. Petra trailed after him on her aching feet.
Behind them, Bowen asked dryly, "Wouldn't you prefer to use the elevator?"
Garth stopped so suddenly that Petra bumped into him from behind. Turning on his heel, he glared at the construction manager over the top of her head. "Fine."
Petra closed her eyes in relief. The thought of climbing five flights of stairs to the roof in these shoes made her want to weep. Garth didn't seem as pleased. Grasping her by the elbow, he grimly marched her toward the elevator tucked into a corner at the end of the reception area. Dale Bowen fell in beside her as they drew up in front of the outer doors of the elevator. Constructed of glass inlaid with bronze, the doors showed the polished wood interior of the waiting elevator car. Bowen pushed a button and the glass doors slid open. The trio walked into the elevator and turned to face the front. Dale took a key from his pocket and inserted it into a lock in the control panel. When he turned it, the doors slid closed.
"You can take them off now," he said as the elevator slowly lifted away from the ground floor. "What?" Garth snapped.
Bowen ignored him, dropping his leaf-green gaze on Petra instead. "You can take off your shoes now," he said gently. "The floors in the penthouse are clean."
"Oh." Surprised, she looked down at her feet. "How did you " She broke off, wincing with embarrassment. And she'd thought no one had noticed. Garth certainly hadn't!
"My mom and sister like pretty shoes, too," Bowen told her with a knowing smile. "They call them 'cruel shoes' because they can't resist buying them even though they hurt when they wear them."
Garth finally realized what Dale Bowen had obviously surmised with a glance. Not to be outdone, he slipped an arm about Petra's shoulders. "By all means," he cooed solicitously, "take off your shoes if they're uncomfortable."
The intimacy of his tone and gesture heightened Pe-tra's embarrassment. Quickly stepping out of the shoes, she stooped to pick them up by the heels. Thankfully, the elevator came to a stop just then, and the door slid open.
"Well, well," Garth said, sounding pleasantly surprised.
"This way," Bowen directed, lifting a hand and sliding past Petra to push open the tall, carved doors that stood across a narrow length of gleaming wood floor.
Petra gasped as she stepped into the private apartment. Twelve-foot-high ceilings radiated with hidden lights, augmenting the sunshine that spilled through the broad windows set deeply into the paneled walls. French doors in one end of the living area overlooked an enclosed patio. Black granite and steel appliances accented the small, well-appointed kitchen, separated by a bar from the greater room. The two bedrooms, each with a private bath, opened off a short hallway.
As was his practice with every hotel added to the Anderton chain, Garth had contracted the apartment separately and given his personal decorator, Dexter, control of this portion of the overall project. Dexter had done well.
"Excellent," Garth said, brushing back the sides of his suit coat with both hands. "At least the historical society didn't hold up things on this end."
"This falls under the heading of new construction," Bowen pointed out.
"Excellent," Garth said again, looking around. "Quality work."
"And on budget," Bowen added. The sound of a revving engine had him reaching for his pocket, from which he pulled a cell phone. "Excuse me." Crossing the room, he tapped the tiny screen and lifted the phone to his ear. "This is Dale."
Petra turned away, affording him as much privacy as possible, and found Garth watching her. He stepped close enough to lightly brush a hand down her arm.
"Pretty nice, huh?"
"Lovely," she agreed, shifting away.
"And roomy," he went on, adding softly. "You know, staying here would be much more convenient for you than that old family mausoleum across town."