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Sweat prickled the back of his neck. It was too hot for a suit, but professional pride insisted he drag his Hugo Boss jacket from the backseat and shrug it on anyway.
Funny, he hadn't thought he had any pride left.
Ronan Conroy surveyed the scene from inside the car a bit longer, delaying the moment he'd need to turn off the engine and lose the blast of cool air from the ventslittle as it was doing to assuage the heat.
Two women stood outside the Country Style furniture warehouse in the grimy, industrial outskirts of Melbourne. Heat shimmered in air that smelled of dust and smoke, perceptible even inside the car. Concrete buildings and asphalt roads only magnified the temperature. It was hot as hell and that was probably fittingthis was, after all, supposed to be a punishment.
The women were talking animatedly. Stacks of furniturechairs, tables, cabinets, bed frameswere haphazardly arranged around them. Guys dripping sweat emerged from inside the warehouse, grabbed an item and disappeared back into the darkness with it.
As jet lag pulled at his eyelids, Ronan watched the women continue to talk, each of them occasionally pointing at a clipboard one of them was holding.
The one closest to where Ronan had parked was short, blonde and dressed in a light green skirt and matching short-sleeved suit jacket. Her hair was cut in a neat bob, shiny and precise. Even from a distance he could see her lips were outlined in bright lipstick.
The other was taller. She wore dark trousers and a pale blue shirt with the Country Style logo emblazoned over one breast, the sleeves rolled up. A streak of dust marred one pant leg, and her cheeks were flushed. But her hair. .long, dark, wavy. It was barely constrained by a clip at her nape and hung down to midway between her shoulder blades. As he watched, she tucked a stray lock behind one ear. If that beautiful mane was out, allowed free, it would swing forward, over her shoulders. Would it cover her breasts? Maybe. Maybe not quite. Maybe just
Ronan gave himself a mental shake. It was just this sort of thing that had got him into trouble before.
It was why he was here, on the other side of the world, while his disapproving father was back in San Francisco waiting to see if he could prove himself. Again.
He grabbed his briefcase and turned off the engine, stepping out of the car. This one was going to be strictly business. There was too much riding on it for it to be anything but. His chance to finally prove that he was good enough for the partnership in Conroy Corporation that should have been his long agoeven if it was by completing a job that barely matched his skill level. It was going to be a walk in the park.
He'd been sent here to work with Cassidy Hartman, the head of operations for Country Style. He straightened his shoulders and headed toward the women. He'd bet she was the one in the suit.
Cassie noticed someone approaching out of the corner of her eye, but she was too absorbed by the figures on her assistant's clipboard to pay much attention. The delivery was shortvery shortand they were going to have a problem meeting customer orders, never mind having floor stock for display in the fifty-seven Country Style stores around Australia. The tedious task ahead of them now was to match the consignment note with every item that had been delivered and then she'd be on the phone to the manufacturer, making her displeasure clear. This was the third time this company had short-delivered and Cassie's patience was running out.
"I'm not standing for this, Mel," Cassie said, one hand going back to play with her hastily gathered-up ponytail. Her other hand grasped her paper coffee cup dangerously tightly.
"I know, I know," Melanie said soothingly. "They've tried this on us before. But don't worry, we'll get on to it and it will be sorted."
"As if we didn't have enough to deal with today," Cassie said under her breath. Being caught in the middle of an argument with a supplier was the last thing she needed.
A surprise phone call from her boss the previous afternoon had informed her that some high-flying international business analyst would be arriving this morning to begin a review of the entirety of Country
Style's operations. Graham Taylor, the owner of Country Style, hadn't needed to spell out that Cassie's own performance was what was really under the microscope here.
Cassie checked her watch. It was only just before eight, so she figured she had at least another hour or so to prepare. She did a mental run-through of her to-do list, checking off priorities on her fingers. "I still have to confirm the travel arrangements for the store visits, finalize the contracts for the new ad campaign and iron out the problems with the signage on the new Hawthorn store before the opening next Monday."
"I know," Melanie repeated sympathetically. "I'll deal with this and I can work on the travel stuff. You just focus on Hawthorn and do what you need to do."
Cassie was grateful for her assistant's encouraging smile and composed demeanor. Normally a very cool, calm and collected businesswoman herself, today's inspection had Cassie feeling jittery, doubting herself and her management abilities. She'd barely slept last night after staying up late to prepare herself for the inquisition. She'd worked through every possible scenario, rehearsing her responses to any question she could think of. It hadn't helped. Now she was just nervous and sleep deprived. She took a long sip of her coffee, hoping that the caffeine would give her a jolt, get her back to her normal, take-charge self.
Still caught up in self-analysis, Cassie was just taking another sip of coffee when a tall, suited man suddenly appeared next to them, making her gasp in shock.
He held his hand out to Melanie.
"Hello, you must be Cassidy Hartman." Smiling broadly, his American accent rang out as if someone had just turned on a TV. "I'm Ronan CMcGuire from the Conroy Corporation. I understand Graham called to let you know to expect me."
Cassie's world slowed for a moment.
This was the pencil-pushing number-cruncher Graham had sent to check up on her?
But there wasn't a bow tie, pocket protector or pair of horn-rimmed glasses in sight. Instead, everything about this man screamed money and sophistication, from the tailored shoulders of his fine wool suit all the way down to the shiny, no doubt Italian, leather lace-ups. His dark hair was artfully tousled, just enough to look as though care had been taken, but not so much that it would look fussy.
If this was a sitcom, then the star had just walked instraight out of central casting, with "tall, dark and handsome" written in script under his name. Cassie half expected to hear whoops and mad applause in the background.
Melanie, flustered, looked from the man who held his hand out toward her to Cassie and back again, her pretty face creased with confusion and anxiety.
Cassie, for her part, remembered to breathe at the same time as she also remembered to swallow her mouthful of lukewarm coffee. Bad idea.
Choking and spluttering, she struggled to draw breath.
"Um, I'm " Melanie stuttered, clearly unsure whether to introduce herself, deal with Cassie's coughing fit, or maybe just run away.
Ronan looked over at Cassie and patted her on the back firmly a few times. "Are you okay?"
His eyes sent a ribbon of heat through her that had nothing to do with the oppressive northerly wind whipping around them. Blue. Perfect reflections of the summer sky above them. Sultry and flirtatious, his gaze made Cassie's heart skip, even as she tried to swallow and breathe normally.
She fought to restore her composure. "I'm fine," she said hoarsely. She blinked back the tears threatening to stream down her cheeks from the coughing fit.
"Good." Ronan nodded and turned back to Melanie. "So, Ms. Hartman, I know Graham probably told you to expect me at nine, but I like to arrive a little early so we have a chance to get to know"
Finally Melanie recovered enough to speak. "Sorry, but my name's Melanie. Cassie is"
"I'm Cassidy Hartman." Cassie drew herself up straight and held out her hand. She knew her face was red and not just from the coughing. This was Graham's consultant, and he'd mistaken Melanie for her. who could blame him? She was filthy from crawling through the recently arrived stock trying to do a rough estimate on quantities. She'd barely slept so she knew her eyes were baggy and her hair was in its usual messy pony-tail. Whereas Melaniewell, she was Melanie. Cool, crisp and utterly perfect.
The mistake was understandable, but no less embarrassing. And, much as she didn't want to admit it, it hurt. Part Two of her recently drawn up Plan-with-a-capital-P was all about making sure this kind of misunderstanding didn't happen, but she had to get Part One bedded down firstand that meant making her position at Country Style rock solid. She just hadn't considered that the report she'd spent her nights and weekends researching and writing would prompt her boss to call in professional analysts instead of simply granting her the CEO position as she'd recommended.
The smarmy-but-gorgeous Ronan turned to Cassie and gave a slight bow, extending his hand to grasp hers. His eyes flashed with a moment of regret at his misstep, but he covered it quickly. "My apologies, ma'am." He cocked his head to one side as she stifled another cough. "I admire your new caffeine delivery system, but perhaps it still needs some work?"
Cassie had been about to apologize for her appearance, explain about the short-delivered order, but his condescending expression stopped her in her tracks. She wanted more than anything to slap that grin off his face and send him packing back to his big glass office in America. Instead, she forced herself to smile, as much to stop herself insulting him out loud as anything else.
She shook his hand and released it quickly when a jolt ran through her body, as if she were holding hands with the devil.
"Can I get you a coffee, Mr .uh," Melanie stuttered.
Cassie looked over at Melanie and was surprised to find her unflappable assistant looking at a loss.
He hesitated just a split second before answering smoothly. "Mr. McGuire," he reminded her, "but please, call me Ronan. And I'd love a coffee. Black, no sugar I'm sweet enough," he added with a wink and Cassie was staggered by Melanie's response. She gave a shy giggle and a telltale blush marched across her face. Melanie was the target of flirting from just about every man she met. This was the first time Cassie had ever seen it work.
She guessed any woman would fall weak at the knees faced with this perfect specimen of the male sex. Objectively, Cassie could see why. He wasn't her type, though. Too polished. Too worldly. Too good-looking. Too overwhelming. It'd be too easy to lose yourselflose controlwith someone like him. It wasn't something she would ever allow to happen.
Besides which, it was pointless even thinking those kinds of thoughts. He was here to assess her performanceat work, not in the bedroom. Thank goodness. At least at work Cassie knew what she was doing.
Well, she'd thought she did up until Graham had called for this review.
Her stomach twisted into ever-tighter knots.