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'Try to stay calm, but Mr Terrific-in-a-tux over there is undressing you with his eyes.'
Celeste Prince quietly grabbed her friend's arm and forced her to look away too.
'For heaven's sake, Brooke,' Celeste hissed under her breath, 'don't encourage him.'
Yes, the sexy stranger who'd just arrived was beyond intriguing. Neat dark hair, strong shadowed jaw, beautiful big shoulders that left her feeling a little weak at the knees. Superior specimens like that didn't magically appear every day. But, damn it, tonight she didn't need the distraction.
Over a hundred guests, all shimmering and crisp in their after-five wear, had gathered at the behest of Australia's franchise genius, Rodney Prince, to celebrate his company's twentieth successful year. But this soirée meant far more to Celeste than just another party. Tonight her father planned to step down as head of Prince Landscape Maintenance and hand over the Sydney empire's reins to his only child.
After her mother's death fifteen years ago, her dad had withdrawn from everything but business and they'd drifted apart. How she'd waited for this momentthe chance to be visible in his world again and make both her parents proud. Nothing mattered more.
Not even meeting that tall, dark, delectable dream.
Buckling, Celeste dared one more glance from beneath her lashes.
The stranger was leaning against a French door jamb, this side of the mansion's manicured courtyard. As his hand slid into his pocket his left leg bent and the ledge of those shoulders, magnificent in a white dinner jacket, slanted into a casual but confident pose. He was handsome in a rugged yet refined way, a toned powerhouse cloaked in classicArmani. However, his eyes mesmerised her the most seductive pools of vibrant blue light. Captivating.
Smiling straight into hers.
A bevy of exquisite tingles raced over her skin and she spun away again. Still she felt his heated gaze caressing her back, stroking her arms, slipping the satin straps from her shoulders, easing the dress all the way down
Brooke tipped closer. 'Who do you think he is?'
Celeste tossed back a mouthful of chilled champagne. Her throat was suddenly parched. 'I don't know,' she replied, 'and I don't care.'
She needed to concentrate on reciting her acceptance speech without her cheeks turning into torches and her tongue tying itself in knots. "Stuttering Celeste" rarely made an appearance these days. After years of torment in junior school, she'd learned to slow down, think ahead and ease her way through most situationseven something as overwhelming as tonight.
Brooke arched a brow. 'You don't care, huh?' With one arm crossed beneath her gown's scarlet bodice, she rested her champagne flute near her cheek. 'We went through high school together, back-packed Europe together. Never once have I seen you this cagey over a man.'
Celeste couldn't smother a grin. 'Let's face it he's not just any man.'
Drawn again, she glanced over a hitched shoulder. Like a cool-headed hit man, now the stranger was perusing the room, checking out the territory, assessing his targets. Such a composed air of indifference, yet she had the eeriest feeling he had his thumb on everyone's pulse particularly the one beating a mouth-watering rhythm right between her
'Celeste, I need to see you in private.'
Heart leaping, Celeste pivoted around to see her father's serious suntanned face gazing down at her.
When she'd arrived this afternoon he'd talked about the future of PLM, hinting again at his retirement and subtly sussing out her aspirations with regard to the company. Was she happy running the central Sydney handbag and accessory store she'd opened this year? Did she want to look at doing something more?
She'd replied that her profit margins were healthy. And, yes, she was definitely ready to do something new. No gushing or taking the words from his mouth, but clearly her father had wanted to confirm his decision before making the big announcement that had been coming for months. Soon the room would be toasting a new CEO.
Celeste Ann Prince.
Noticing that her stranger had disappeared into the crowd, she excused herself from Brooke and accompanied her father down a wide airy hall. As they passed the ethereal image of her mother's portrait, Celeste heard more clearly the crystals rustling around her evening gown's hem.
She'd considered wearing a smart black jacket and trousers ensemble, but had decided on the feminine look her mother had said suited her best. The peachy tone complemented her long Titian-blonde waves, and in no way challenged the last faint smattering of freckles that refused to leave her nose and shoulders. Anita Prince had said her daughter's sun kisses made her glow like an angel. She'd never understood that Celeste hadn't wanted to glow quite so much.
When they reached the study, her father shut the door on a room stacked with filing cabinets. He drew her towards his desk, then held her eyes with his. 'In ten minutes I'll make an announcement. I've given it a great deal of thought.'
Celeste gathered herself against rising excitement. 'I'm sure you have.'
'Prince Landscape Maintenance has grown into a huge enterprise a swag of employees to oversee and organise. Master and subordinate franchises that need to be monitored. Its director should be involved at all levels, and can't be above driving a Bobcat or trimming a tree.'
Although Celeste nodded, her toes wriggled in their silver high heels. She didn't intend to be that hands-on; a great second-in-charge could handle any day-to-day grind. Rather she planned to invest her time in branching out to incorporate a chain of florists, which would accommodate only the biggest occasions, like celebrity weddings and gala events. She wanted the new section to be exclusive, celebrated, in demand by the elite. It would be her personal contribution to the further development of the company. Under her leadership, they would reach even greater heights.
Her father crossed his arms. 'Papers need to be signed, but I've invited Mr Scott to stay a few days to help ease him in.'
Celeste's smile wilted. 'Who's Mr Scott?'
A new accountant? Lately, whenever she visited her father here at the office he ran from home, he'd been poring over the books, his face more lined than she could ever remember and not merely from years spent in the sun. At sixty-five, he needed to relax and leave the toil to her.
'Mr Scott has enjoyed a meteoric financial rise these last five years,' her father went on. 'He's offered to buy Prince Landscape Maintenance. I thought you should meet him before I address our guests and share the news.'
The mahogany panelled walls warped and receded as her legs threatened to buckle and give way. She held her somersaulting stomach and forced the bitter-tasting words from her mouth.
'You want to sell our company to a stranger?'
She was hit by a frightening impulse to grab her father's tux lapels, shake him and shout, Don't do this. You can't do this! But she'd learned long ago that such displays of emotion got her nowhere. The last time she'd 'acted out', she'd been sent to boarding school. Thank heaven for Brooke.
Her father droned on about 'the generous offer' and 'everything working out well'. But Celeste could only think of how she'd always done what was expected of her. She'd excelled at schooleven in reviled Mathsand had never attracted trouble while she'd waited in the wings.
How could he do this to her? More importantly, how could he do this to her mother?
She wouldn't hold her tongue. 'You knew I wanted to step in when you bowed out. We spoke about it just today.'
Her father's arms unravelled. 'Sweetheart, we talked about your handbag shop. I asked whether you'd thought about expanding.'
On the surface maybe. But the subtext had been there hadn't it? Although she loved her shop, it was a placeholder businesssomewhere to build on her university knowledge and practical skills until this happened. She constantly inquired about PLM, whether the franchises were growing, if there was anything at all she could do to help. Damn it, it had always been understood!
She grabbed at a likely buoy. 'You said no papers have been signed. Tell this Mr Scott you've changed your mind. That you're handing your daughter over the f-f-firm.'
While her cheeks caught fire, her father's brow lifted in surprise, then furrowed with mild disapproval at the stutter he hadn't heard in years.
He shook his head. 'This is best. It's a man's business, and, believe me, I've found the right man for the job.'
Celeste set her jaw. She was the only man er, woman for the job. Besides robbing them of a chance to reconnect, selling PLM was tantamount to betraying her mother's memory. Anita had been yesterday's New-Age woman. She'd stayed so strong and had given so much, and she'd done it not only out of loyalty to her husband, but in the staunch belief that Celeste would benefit by taking over one day. Without her mother's sacrifices, frankly, the Prince franchise wouldn't exist.
A knock on the door echoed through the high-ceilinged room. Her father glanced over and raised his voice. 'Come in, Benton.'
Benton ? Benton Scott. Yes, the name rang a bell. Exceedingly wealthy, rather an enigma. Big on charity but stayed well clear of the press.
Her free hand fisted by her side while the other clenched her flute's stem. She didn't care if Scott was a monk. PLM was hers. Watch out anyone who stood in her way.
But when the enemy entered, the oxygen seeped from her lungs until there was no air left to breathe.
That jacket. Those eyes. Oh, Lord.
Her tall dark delectable hit man.
His eyes met hers and widened at the same time he stopped dead.
So he'd been just as clueless about her identity when he'd given her the once-over earlier. Well, if he was still interested, so was she in getting rid of him as fast as she could.
She jumped in to take advantage of the awkward moment. 'Sorry to sound rude, but my father and I are in the middle of an important discussion. Perhaps we could talk later.'
Her father went to protest, but perceptive Benton Scott held up a hand. 'It's fine, Rodney. This doesn't appear to be the best time for introductions. And possibly tonight isn't the night for announcements either.'
Celeste shivered. Those exquisite tingles again, but this time at a voice that was as rich and tempting as it was dangerous, like a stream of darkest chocolate undulating over jagged rock.
'No, no.' Rodney Prince moved toward his guest, his five-ten stature minimised beside this other man's impressive height. 'Come through.' He flicked a glance at his daughter. 'We've finished here, haven't we, hon?'
Emotion thickened in her throat. Had he forgotten that much? Did her feelings matter so little?
Benton Scott spoke up. 'Actually, Rodney, I overheard a guestSuzanne Simmons. She said she needed to find you to say goodbye. She'd already called for her car.'
Her father's moustache twitched and he cleared his throat. 'I should go. Ms Simmons is one of my most important clients.'
The younger man stepped aside. 'I understand.'
When her father clapped his guest on the back and left without a backward glance, Celeste braced herself against another twinge of hurt. But she didn't have time for self-pity. Savvy businesswomen didn't pout; they dealt the hand rather than merely played it. And, as much as it pained, Benton Scott could well be her trump card.
Outwardly cool, she concentrated on her words and indicated a leather tub chair. 'Please, take a seat.'
He smiled almost gently, then caught the door knob. As I said earlier, it's best we leave more thorough introductions for now. Goodnight, Miss Prince.'
No way. She had a plan and this man was her key. She needed to keep him here and talking.
She shot out the first ammunition that came to mind. 'Can't handle being alone with a woman?'
He stopped, then slowly turned. His grin was lopsided and shamelessly sexy. 'That's never been my problem.'
Inventing an easy shrug, she moved towards the wet bar. 'There's always a first time.'
He leant against the door, one long leg bent, his fingers gripping the rim near his head. 'You look like a nice lady'
'I noticed you doing some looking earlier.'
While her heart pogo-jumped in her chest where had she found the nerve?his hand fell from the jamb and he straightened. 'I didn't know you were Rodney's daughter.'
'That would've made a difference?'
A muscle in the sharp angle of his jaw began to tic. 'Perhaps.'
Her hand barely shook as she refilled her glass from an opened bottle set in a shiny silver bucket. She crunched the Bollinger back into its ice. 'Aside from being someone's daughter, I also have a double business degree. I run a successful concern of my ownCelestial Bags and Accessories,' she finished with a note of pride.
With what looked like a straight Scotch in his hand, he sauntered closer, a naturally languid and predatory gait. 'I'm suitably impressed.'
'Because I'm a woman?'
His eyes narrowedamused or assessing? 'Because of your age.'
Good grief! She was tired of hearing about that too. Twenty-five was hardly a baby.