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Victoria Houghton had never been so humiliated.
Watching her father lose in a hostile takeover the hotel that had been in their family for generations had been almost more than she could bearand now she was expected to be a personal assistant to the man who was instrumental in sealing the deal?
The Duke of Morgan Isle, Charles Frederick Mead, lounged casually behind his desk, smug and arrogant beneath the facade of a charming smile, the crisp blue of the Irish Sea a backdrop through a wall of floor-to-ceiling office windows behind him. Dressed in a suit that was no doubt custom-made, his casual stance was at odds with the undeniable air of authority he oozed from every pore.
"I was told I would be taking on a managerial position," she told him. And along with it a generous salary and profit sharing. Or had they changed their minds about that part, too?
He leaned back and folded one leg casually atop the other. "Until the second phase of the hotel opens, there's nothing for you to manage. And since my personal assistant recently left, you will temporarily replace her."
He must have thought her daft if he believed she would buy that flimsy excuse. She would work in housekeeping, changing linens and scrubbing commodes, if it meant not seeing this man every day. He may have looked pleasant and easygoing, but underneath he was cold and heartless.
"So put me in the part of the hotel that's already completed," she said. "I'll do anything."
"There aren't any openings."
He shook his head.
Of course there weren't. Or so he said. To men like him, lying was as natural as breathing. And what of their financial agreement? Surely he didn't expect to pay an assistant the exorbitant salary they had quoted in her contract? "What about my salary and profit sharing?"
He shrugged. "Nothing in the terms of your contract will change."
Her brow perked up in surprise. What was he trying to pull?
"If you consult your attorney, he'll confirm that we're honoring our end of the deal," he assured her.
According to her father, their own attorney had sold them out to get in good with the royal family, so unfortunately he wouldn't be much help. She doubted there was a single attorney on the island who would take on the monarchy, so basically, she was screwed.
"And if I refuse?" she asked, though she already knew the answer.
"You violate the terms of your contract."
He had no idea how tempted she was to do just that. She'd never wanted this job. But refusing it would devastate her father. The sale of his hotelher legacyto the royal family for their expansion project had been contingent on her being hired as a permanent manager, and at nearly twice the salary she had been making before. Not to mention incredible benefits. He wanted assurances that she would be well taken care of. And she was helpless to object.
Losing the hotel had put unneeded strain on his already weakening heart. Despite sitting on the prime resort land of the island, since the opening of the newly renovated Royal Inn hotel, occupancy in their much smaller facility had begun to drop. The way the lawyers for the royal family had begun buying up ocean-side property, both she and her father feared it would only be a matter of time before their number was up.
And they had been right.
In his fragile state, more bad news might be all it took to do him in. Since the day her mother and older brother were killed in an automobile accident, when Victoria was only five, he had been her entire life. He had sacrificed so much for her. She couldn't let him down.
With renewed resolve, she squared her shoulders and asked, "When do you expect the second phase of the hotel to open?"
"The additions and renovations are scheduled for completion by the beginning of the next tourist season."
The next tourist season? But that was nearly six months away! Six days would be too long to work for this man, as far as she was concerned. But what choice did she have?
Something that looked like amusement sparked in his deep, chocolate-brown eyes. Did he think this was funny?
"Is that a problem?" he asked.
She realized the duke was baiting her. He wantedher to violate the terms of her contract so he could get rid of her. He didn't want her services any more than she wanted his charity.
Well, she wouldn't give him the satisfaction of seeing her buckle. He may have broken her father, but there was no way he was going to break her.
She raised her chin a notch and looked him directly in the eye, so he would see that she wasn't intimidated. "No problem."
"Excellent." A satisfied and, though she hated to admit it, sexy grin curled the corners of his mouth. Which she didn't doubt was exactly what he wanted her to think.
He opened the top drawer of his desk, extracted a form of some sort, and slid it toward her. "You'll need to sign this."
She narrowed her eyes at him. "What is it?"
"Our standard nondisclosure agreement. Every employee of the royal family is obligated to sign one."
Another trick? But after a quick scan of the document, she realized it was a very simple, basic agreement. And though she wouldn't be working directly for the royal family but instead for the hotel chain they now owned, she didn't feel it was worth arguing. Their secrets would be safe with her.
Yet, as she took the gold-plated pen he offered and signed her name, she couldn't escape the feeling that she had just sold her soul to the devil.
She handed it back to him and he tucked it inside his desk, then he rose from his chair. Short as she was, she was used to looking up to meet people in the eye, but he towered over her. At least a foot and a half taller than her measly five foot one. And he looked so perfect. His suit an exact fit, his nails neatly trimmed and buffed, not a strand of his closely cropped, jet-black hair out of place.
But men like him were never as perfect as they appeared. God knows she'd met her share of imperfect men. Despite his looks and money and power, he was just as flawed as the next guy. Probably more so. And being that he was an attorney, she wouldn't trust him as far as she could throw himwhich, considering their size difference, wouldn't be very far.
"Welcome to the company, Victoria." He extended a hand for her to shake and, determined to be professional, she accepted it.
His hand enfolded her own, gobbling it up, big and warm and firm. And she felt a strange stirring in the pit of her belly. A kind of fluttering tickle.
His hand still gripping hers, he said, "Why don't we discuss your duties over lunch?" But his eyes said he had more than just lunch in mind. Was he hitting on her?
You have got to be kidding me.
She came this close to rolling her eyes. The tabloids were forever painting him as a shameless, ruthless womanizer, but she had always assumed that was just gossip. No man could possibly be that shallow. Perhaps, though, they weren't so far off the mark.
If he believed for an instant that he would be adding her to his list of female conquests, he was delusional.
As graciously as possible she pried her hand loose. "No. Thank you."
He regarded her curiously. Maybe he wasn't used to women telling him no. "My treat," he said, dangling the word in front of her like bait.
Did he really think she was that hard up?
"We're going to be working somewhat closely," he added, and she could swear she heard a hint of emphasis on closely. "We should take the time to get to know one another."
They wouldn't be working that closely. "I prefer not to mix business with pleasure."
She wondered if he would insist, citing it as part of their contract, but he only shrugged and stepped around his desk. "Well, then, I'll show you to your office."
Instead of taking her back through the outer office, past the grim-faced, aged secretary she'd met on the way in, he led her through a different door to a smaller, sparsely decorated, windowless office with little more than an empty bookcase, a comfortable-looking leather office chair, and an adequately sized desk. On it's surface sat a phone, a laptop computer and a large manila envelope.
"Everything you need is on your computer," he explained. "You'll find a list of all your duties, along with any phone numbers you may need as well as a copy of my personal schedule. If you're unsure of how to use the program you can ask Penelope, my secretary, for help."
"I'm sure I can figure it out."
He picked up the envelope and handed it to her. "Inside is a badge for this building, and another that will give you access to the business offices at the palace"
"The palace?" She never imagined that going to the palace would be a part of the job description.
"I keep an office there and often attend meetings with King Phillip. Have you ever been there?"
She shook her head. She'd only seen photographs. Not that she hadn't imagined what it would be like.
"Well, then, I'll have to give you a tour."
Okay, maybe there would be some perks to this job. The idea of being in the palace, and possibly meeting members of the royal family, filled her with nervous excitement. Then she reined in her wayward emotions by reminding herself that this was not going to be a fun job. And given the choice, she would rather be anywhere but here.
"You'll also find a set of card keys," he continued, "for both your office and mine. They're marked accordingly. And in a separate envelope is your personal security code for my house."
Why on earth would he give her access to his house?
"My driver will be at your disposal twenty-four hours a day. Unless, of course, I'm using him, in which case you will be reimbursed for your petrol use."
A driver? She couldn't imagine what she would need that for. This job just kept getting stranger and stranger.
He gestured to a second door, adjacent to the one connecting their offices.
"That door leads to Penelope's office and will be the entrance that you use. She'll take you on a tour of the building, show you the break room and facilities. If you need to speak to me specifically, call first. The line to my office is marked on the phone. If I don't answer that means I'm busy and not to be disturbed."
"My business calls go through Penelope, but any personal calls will be routed through your office or to the cell phone I'll supply you."
Answering phones and taking messages? Not the most challenging job in the world. But the duke was obviously a man who liked things done a certain way, and if nothing else she respected that. More than once her employees at the Houghton had suggested she was a little too rigid when it came to her business practices, but she had never felt an ounce of regret for running a tight ship.
She had been working since the age of twelve, when her father let her help out in the Houghton Hotel office after school. But only after earning her master's degree in business at university was she promoted to manager. Her father had insisted she earn her education, should she ever need something to fall back on.
And, boy, had she fallen back.
"Take some time to look over your duties, then we can discuss any questions you have," he said.
"I have to warn you, I've been without an assistant for a week now, and I'm afraid things are in a bit of a mess."
Honestly, how hard could it be, being a glorified secretary? "I'm sure I can manage."
"Well," the Duke said, with one of those dazzling smiles, "I'll leave you to it, then."
He turned and was halfway through the door before she realized she had no idea how she was supposed to address him. Did she call him Sir, or Sire? Did she have to bow or curtsy?
"Excuse me," she said.
He turned back to her. "Yes?"
"What should I call you?" He looked puzzled, so she added, "Mr. or Sir? Your Highness?"
That grin was back, and, like his handshake, she felt it all the way to the pit of her belly.
Stop that, she warned herself. He only smiled that way because he wanted her to feel it in her belly.
"Let's go with Charles," he said.
She wasn't sure if that was proper. Calling him by his first name just felt too casual. But he was calling the shots, and she wasn't going to give him any reason to accuse her of violating the contract. "All right."
He flashed her one last smile before he closed the door behind him, and she had the distinct feeling he knew something she didn't. Or maybe that was just part of the game. Either way, she refused to let him intimidate her. If they thought they were going to force her out, they had no idea who they were dealing with. She hadn't earned her reputation as a savvy businesswoman by letting people walk all over her.
She took a seat at her new desk, finding the chair to be as comfortable as it looked. But the office itself was cold and impersonal. Since she would be spending at least six months here, it wouldn't hurt to bring a few photos and personal items into work.
She opened the laptop and booted it up. On the desktop were the documents he had mentioned. Convinced this job couldn't get any worse, she opened the one titled Duties. Starting at the top, she read her job description, working her way down the two-page, single-spaced list, her stomach sinking lower with each line, until she could swear it slipped all the way down near the balls of her feet. Personal assistant, my foot.
She had just agreed to be Charles Frederick Mead's indentured slave.