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Christmas was commerce and retail excess. Christmas was family and sometimes it was farce.
Add to the day a wide-open wallet and a city bathed in neon and the memory of a Hong Kong Christmas burned brightly for ever. Ruby Maguireborn to riches and living in Hong Kong for over six years nowknew this from experience. Which meant that she should have been able to organise a perfectly splendid Christmas for the children of one of Hong Kong's foremost investment bankers in her sleep.
A trip to Hong Kong Disney or Ocean Park. A holographic Christmas tree or three. More presents than they knew what to do with, a mad mix of Christmas lanterns and fake winter wonderlands and, if Santa was really on the ball, maybe their charming, handsome, super-important father would put in an appearance and make their day.
Except that the West children were all grown up these days, and, from the snippets of information Russell West's executive PA had let slip, Russell's eldest son was unlikely to be in attendance, his firstborn daughter was recovering from serious injury, his other daughter was a reclusive genius, and his fourthbornanother sonwas either a crime lord, a charming wastrel or James Bond. So much for taking them to Disneyland.
Instead, Ruby had decked the halls of Russell West's pristine marble penthouse with as much high-class folly as she could find. White orchids; real ones. Poinsettias; silk ones. Tapered white candles just waiting to be lit and more fat goldfish for the glass-covered pond. The pond ran beneath the base of the stairs and along the atrium wall until it reached the tiny rooftop terrace where the songbirds reigned supreme. The only thing missing from the scene was a pet cricket in a bamboo cage. For Australian-born Russell West, owning a pet cricket was taking cultural assimilation one chirrup too far.
December twenty-second already, with the three younger West siblings due to arrive tomorrow. Upon arrival they would find immaculately prepared rooms, festive touches in the strangest places, and reservations for one of Hong Kong's premier restaurants, should they wish to dine out.
Ruby wasn't a housekeeper or a cook, though her current job strayed into such territory at times. She far preferred to think of herself as Russell West's social accountanta position created just for her, out of pity most likely, but she'd tried to make herself useful, and the hefty bonus Russell had just presented her with gave credence to the notion that he thought her service of value.
She wrote Russell's charity dinner speeches, briefed him on the changes in status of Hong Kong's elite, and basically made his social engagements as stress-free and fruitful as possible.
Ruby's latest challenge had been the buying of Christmas gifts for the children of Russell's employeesan endeavour she had seen to with pleasure. Furthermore, Russell now had an up-to-date database citing the names, birthdates and interests of his employees' spouses and children. She'd even done one for the wives and children of his major business contacts. Whether Russell would use the information remained to be seen.
Trust a financial wizard to pay absolutely no attention whatsoever to the little things that went such a long way towards the cultivation of solid business relationships in Hong Kong.
As for the choosing of gifts for his own children; be they genius, wounded, idle, or missing that was Ruby's job too and she had approximately twenty-four hours to do it in. Russell hadn't even given her a price range, let alone a guide as to what type of gifts they might enjoy.
'Not even a hint,' she muttered to herself as she dumped the box of sparkling mineral water on the kitchen counter and opened the French doors leading out to the terrace. 'It's not right.' She plucked a pair of thin plastic gloves from the terrace cupboard and headed for the songbird enclosure.
No tiny bamboo cages for these little oriental white-eyes but a large bamboo aviary that ran the length of the courtyard wall and incorporated branches and greenery, nesting and feeding areas, and a newspaper lined rollout litter tray that Ruby refreshed every day. Western, very Western, and a source of no little amusement to many of Russell's acquaintances, but the birds sang their pleasure, and both Ruby and her employer took pride in the freedom of movement the little birds enjoyed.
'There should be a rule that says a father should damn well buy Christmas gifts for his children himself, she told the flitty little birds who clung to the side of the cage in greeting. 'Why is that such a stretch?'
'Beats me,' said an amused male voice from the direction of the kitchen, and Ruby glanced around, eyes widening at the splendid vision that had just presented for her perusal. A raven-haired blue-eyed stranger stood just inside the terrace doors, wearing nothing but a snowy-white towel that rode low on his hips and clung lovingly to well-packed thighs. His chest was bare, his shoulders impressive. Not an everyday sight in penthouse sixty-one.
'Who are you?' she said as she straightened from her crouching position, the roll of bird-dropping stained newspaper still firmly in hand.
'My thoughts exactly,' he murmured with a grin that put Ruby in mind of mischief and at least one other thing she really shouldn't be thinking about if this was indeed one of Russell's sons.
'I'm Russell West's social organiser,' she said, ignoring that lazy smile as best she could. 'And you must be one of his sons. Trouble is, which one?' She let her gaze drift once more over his very fine form. 'One of you I wasn't expecting until tomorrow. The other one I wasn't expecting at all.'
'I could be the pool boy.'
'Yes, and I have absolutely no doubt that you'd make an excellent one, but alas there is no pool.' Ruby continued to study him. 'You'd think I'd be able to tell the difference between a mission-fatigued special intelligence officer and a feckless rogue by now, but you know what?' Ruby shook her head. 'You could be either.'
'I've never had an insult wrapped so skilfully inside a compliment before,' he murmured, that devilish gaze of his not leaving her face. 'You must practise.'
'And you must be Damon,' she guessed. 'Russell's youngest.'
Ruby dumped the soiled newspaper into the mulching bin, peeled off her gloves and brought forth her manners and her hand. 'I'm Ruby Maguire. I'm looking after Christmas for your father.'
'I see.' Damon West had a nice touch. Firm but not bone-crunching. A man fully aware of his own strength. 'How's that working out for you?'
'So-so,' she said and took back her hand. 'Your sisters are due in on flights tomorrow afternoon. I'm afraid there's no word from your brother.'
Ruby watched a shadow steal across Damon West's well-cut face. She was an only child with a raft of step-siblings she tended to avoid. Family politics was not her forte and she had no intention of getting involved in the West family's woes. 'I gather you've made yourself at home?' There were half a dozen bedrooms in the marble delight, each with en-suite. 'You've been here before, right? You don't need the grand tour?'
'Coffee?' Ruby headed for the wondrous stainless-steel-and-glass kitchen and set to washing her hands in the sink there. 'Tea? Cold drink? I'm hoping it's too early for gin but you never know in the tropics.'
'It's too early for gin,' Damon said and padded over to the other side of the counter. 'Coffee would be good. Espresso if it's an option.'
'It's an option.'
'So Ruby. You live here?' he asked just a little too casually as she set up the coffee machine and took a cup from the cupboard.
'Hardly. No one lives here, unless you count your father sleeping here on occasion and entertaining here every so often. I feed the fish and the birds, water the plants, pick up your father's dry-cleaning, stock the fridge, organise housekeeping and gardening and prepare for house guests.'
'Has this always been your lot in life?'
'No. In another life I was a law graduate working my way through the corporate law system but that all fell through when my father the investment banker decided to go to the Caymans rather than to prison. It was a good call on his part. The prisons here aren't very nice.' Ruby opened the fridge and reached for the sugar bowl. 'Sweetener?'
'You're Harry Maguire's daughter?'
'Guilty.' She set the sugar down in front of him and leaned forward, elbows on the counter, wondering just what it was about this man that made her want to poke at him. 'I'd never have taken you for someone who reads the finance pages?'
'Sweetheart, your daddy skimming eight hundred and seventy-two million dollars in point-one-cent increments and then disappearing into the ether didn't
only make the finance pages. He's quite the crime star.' Damon crooked his head in what Ruby decided was reluctant admiration. 'So, where is he now?'
'That's the eight-hundred-and-seventy-two-million-dollar question, Damon. And truthfully, I have no idea.'
'You weren't close?'
'We were very close.' Ruby dropped her gaze to the glossy countertop and gave him the truth. 'I grew up in a family of two. Me and my father and a neverending raft of nannies, butlers, cooks and tutors. I worshipped the ground he walked on. Now I don't.'
'Because he broke the law? Or because he left you behind?' asked Damon West gently and Ruby looked at him, really looked at him, and she didn't see a charming wastrel any more. She saw a man who knew his way around the dark places of a person's psyche. One who seemed entirely comfortable dealing in shades of grey.
'The law's a slippery thing, Damon.'
'So it is.' Damon leaned across the counter as if to meet her halfway.
Hard not to let her gaze linger on his mouth but she managed. Hard not to enjoy the potent mix of lazy intensity in his eyes and wonder whether or not it would carry through into the bedroom. A betting woman would have to go with yes.
'Do you have any plans for the day?' she asked, for it was definitely time to change the subject.
'What are you suggesting?'
'Oh, I don't know. You. Me.' She had his absolute attention. 'Christmas gift shopping for your sisters.'
He drew back abruptly and Ruby smiled, wide and warm. 'Gotcha,' she whispered, rocking forward ever so slightly before turning back to the coffee maker to retrieve his espresso and set the machine up for a long black for herself. 'Do you really think I can afford to proposition the adored son of the only man in Hong Kong who'll employ me? Trust me, I'm not that reckless.'
'I'm not that adored.'
'Yes, you are, Damon. You'd only have to listen to the way your father talks about you to realise that. He speaks of you with a mixture of love, frustration, pride and respect, and I have to confess: the first couple are what I'd expect of most fathers, but that last one the fact that one of the most influential money movers in the world respects you Makes me wonder what you've done to earn it.'
'Keep wondering,' he murmured. 'I'm all in favour of keeping a fine mind exercised. As for going Christmas shopping with you, the answer is a reluctant yes. Give me five minutes to put some clothes on.'
'Good idea. Take your time. I'll need about fifteen to finish up here anyway.' Ruby pushed the tiny cup of super-strong coffee across the counter towards him and Damon West's fingers brushed hers as he took it. This time his touch sent desire skittering along her skin, and Ruby frowned as she whipped her fingers away from his. What the hell was that?
Apart from a rhetorical question for she knew desire when she felt it, knew the bite of it and the chaos it could bring. The question now became how could she have let this happen? Between one touch of hands and the next?
To her of all people. Ruby Maguire, who'd been outplaying players her entire life.
'What's wrong?' Lazy smile on a dangerous man. 'Coffee too hot?'
'That's one interpretation.' Ruby sighed. 'Regretfully, I'm going to have to ban the touching from now on in. And the teasing. Probably the question time as well. Sorry, Damon. I can't afford to play with you.'
'Because you work for my father? Would he really have to know?'
'Damon, please. I'm insulted that you even tried that line on me. Your father may not keep up with the social lives of all his business acquaintancesthat's my jobbut when it comes to the romantic liaisons of his children? Men like your father?' Ruby slanted him a quelling glance as she topped up her long black with cold water before lifting it to her lips. 'They always know.'
Ruby Maguire was a babe, decided Damon as he took his coffee back to his bedroom. A high-maintenance glossily gift-wrapped bundle of temptation and contradiction, and what was more she knew it.
Damon couldn't have asked for a better distraction.
Something to take his mind off a missing brother and a wounded sister and a Christmas that was shaping up to be anything but festive.
He slung his towel on the bed and rummaged through the meagre collection of clothes he kept at his father's house. A collared cotton shirt in white and a charcoal pinstriped suit. Bespoke, not made to measure. The expensive sports watch that his sisters had given him last Christmas. Clothes to suit his father's house and reflect his father's statusa Christmas tradition whereby Damon would look to be the type of son his father expected to see and in return his father would ask no questions as to what Damon had been up to the rest of the year.
What kind of man had Ruby Maguire's father been before his fall from grace? wondered Damon as he tossed the suit on the bed. Already a wealthy one, if he remembered correctly. Manhattan banking family. Influential. Chances were that Harry Maguire hadn't stolen the money because he'd needed it.
Maybe he'd been bored.
And colour Damon perceptive but the delectable Ruby Maguire also seemed somewhat overqualified for her current gofer position.
Ruby Maguire was used to dealing with the corporate lions of the world and holding her own. Ruby had severely underestimated her usefulness if she thought that no one but his father would employ her.
Which made Damon feel infinitely better about the seduction campaign he intended to wage on her.
She'd banned touching, teasing and question time but she hadn't banned looking and she hadn't banned scent.
The cologne collection in the en-suite cupboard gave him a wide and varied selection to choose from. Eeeny meeny miney mo. Catcha That was the aim. To catch Ruby Maguire and play a while.
Gucci it was.
Run his fingers through his hair, find some shoes, put them on. Plastic in wallet, wallet in pocket. Damon West was ready to shop.