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"Ms. Ross? Mr. Fiori has arrived."
He was here.
"Thank you, Becky. Show him in."
Mari ran a hand over her already smooth hair, trying hard not to resent a man she'd never met. Luca Fiori, golden son of the Fiori Resort empire. Rich, powerful, and according to her online research, a bit of a playboy.
Just what she—and the hotel—needed. Not.
She could just make out the sound of his voice, smooth and warm, coming from the reception area. The sound sent a flutter through her tummy. Becky would be bringing him back any moment. Perhaps she should go out to meet him. Yes, that would probably be the genial, professional thing to do. But her feet wouldn't move. Instead she turned her head to both sides, assessing the office as if through a stranger's eyes. Her new office, though she couldn't help feeling a bit of an interloper. What Fiori needed to see was a woman confident in her new position. Even if she wasn't, she had to give that appearance. She made sure everything was in its place. Not a speck of dust or scrap of paper. Everything had to be perfect. The only thing that revealed she'd even been there that morning was her mug, half-full of cold tea, a faint half-moon of lipstick marring the cream-colored ceramic.
Mari inhaled, then let it out slowly, trying to relax her shoulders. She carried all her tension there and right now they were sitting close to her ears, she was so nervous. She pushed them down and attempted a smile. She had to show him she was up to the job the job she'd had for exactly two weeks and three days.
Seconds later Becky returned, extending a hand and showing Luca into the office.
All Mari's practiced greetings flew out of herhead.
The pictures didn't do him justice, she realized, as her heart gave a definitive thud. He was taller than he seemed from the online pictures. He was wearing a suit, but with such a casual flair she wasn't sure it actually could be called a suit at all. Black trousers and shoes and a white shirt, open at the collar, with a black jacket worn carelessly over top. The unbuttoned collar revealed a slice of tanned skin and she saw his hand tuck into his trouser pocket just before she lifted her eyes to his face.
She'd been caught assessing. His twinkling eyes told her so and the crooked, cocky smile confirmed it. Her cheeks flushed as her gaze skittered away.
"Ms. Ross, the acting manager, I presume?"
She wet her lips and pasted on a smile, trying hard to ignore the heat that blossomed anew in her face at the sound of his smooth, rich voice. She extended her hand. "Yes. Welcome to the Bow Valley Inn."
"You mean the Fiori Cascade."
Mari went cold. Of course. She'd received the memo about the name change and had simply forgotten it in her nervousness. She looked up at Luca's mouth. He was smiling, at least, not angry with her for the slip.
She pulled her hand out of his, attempting to keep the polite turn of her lips in place. "Yes, of course. Old habits." She gestured to a small seating area. "Come in and sit down. I'll ask Becky for some refreshment."
"Why don't we go to the lounge, instead?" He raised one eyebrow at her. "I passed one as I came through the lobby. It'll help give me a feel of the place. And the lounge will be much more intimate, don't you think?"
Mari's hand froze on the handset of the phone. This wasn't what she'd planned. Her pulse drummed at the word "intimate." She'd wanted coffee and the chef's signature scones, followed by a brief presentation of what she considered the Inn's finest points and some basic proposals for changes and upgrades. She'd spent hours getting it the way she wanted—flawless. And with an appropriate amount of distance between them.
"Is something wrong, Ms. Ross?"
She rubbed her lips together. "No, not at all." Her voice came out thin and reedy and she cleared her throat, stretching her lips in a smile again. "Coffee in the Athabasca Room would be fine." She'd simply have to remember what she'd put in her report and make her points as they went along.
"I look forward to hearing your ideas. Perhaps you'd take me on a tour later?" He stepped aside, letting her exit first. His voice was smooth, his smile charming. Mari exhaled again, trying to keep her shoulders down. She could do this. She wasn't used to thinking on her feet, but she could do it. She'd just ignore what she knew about his reputation. Or the fact that he fairly exuded charm without even trying.
The lounge was nearly empty at ten in the morning. Two other couples sat at tables, sipping from large mugs and chatting quietly. Mari led him past the main bar to a smaller corner one, perching on one of the backed stools, making sure there were several inches between them. Luca took the seat next to her and the scent of his expensive cologne reached her nose. There was no mistaking the confident ease with which he carried himself. This was a man completely out of her league. Not that she was looking. She wasn't even close to looking, not when the very thought of any physical contact with a man sent chills down her spine.
"This might be my favorite view in the whole hotel," she began, focusing on her job, determined he see the Inn the Cascade at its best. The way she was turned, she could look out over the hotel front grounds and down over the valley, the turquoise-blue of the Bow River a shining snake through the gold and green hues of autumn. "And our coffee is superior. We import it from—"
"The scenery is spectacular." He interrupted her and she realized that he wasn't looking at the view at all, but at her. Nerves tumbled in her stomach and her voice trailed off, unsure of how to continue. He must think her provincial, not the standard of management Fiori employed. Certainly not up to bantering, like he seemed to expect.
Mari turned back to the bar and put her hand on the coffeepot that was set out. It didn't matter. This was her job and she wanted to keep it. Wanted it more than anything else in the world.
"Coffee, Mr. Fiori?"
She looked up when he remained silent and their eyes met.
Her hand shook on the handle of the pot. He was watching her steadily, so unwavering that tightness cinched her chest. She willed it away, telling herself it was his power as her boss that had her so unsettled. It wasn't his fault that he was so handsome. Wasn't his fault that his eyes were the color of melted molasses toffee, only a slightly deeper shade than his hair. He wasn't responsible for the perfectly shaped lips, either, or the way he spoke, with flawless inflection and just a hint of Italian accent. He was possibly more magnetic than he was in the pictures on the computer or in the industry magazines she kept filed on her bookshelf. She would imagine he got his way often simply from his looks and charm. But not here, not with her. There were important things at stake.
"Call me Luca, please," he answered finally.
She forced herself to pour the coffee as the waitress returned with a basket of warm scones. "Luca, then."
"You're not going to tell me your first name."
She raised an eyebrow, cautiously determined not to let him ride roughshod over her. "You own this hotel. Don't you know it already?"
He laughed, the sound devoid of any pretence. A genuine laugh that nearly warmed her from the inside out. "Remind me, then."
A smile crept up her lips; she couldn't help it. She'd expected him to be practiced, but the truth was everything about him was natural. From the way he wore his clothes to his manners to his easy chuckle. There was nothing fake about Luca Fiori. His charm was innate and genuine.
And therein lay the danger, she realized. In her books, charm equaled trouble. She didn't need trouble. In any form.
"Mari. My first name is Mari."
"Oh, Mari, I believe you've short-changed me."
She picked up a spoon and stirred sugar—a heaping teaspoon of it—into her coffee. "Short-changed you? How?"
"Because I know your name is really Mariella."
Her fingers gripped the spoon. She much preferred Mari now. She'd been Mari ever since moving to Banff three years ago. No more Mariella. Mariella had been scared and obedient and faceless. She hadn't been a person at all.
"I go by Mari. Or you may continue calling me Ms. Ross." She didn't even attempt to keep the cool out of her voice.
Luca split a scone and buttered it. "Mariella is a lovely Italian name. It means beloved."
"I know what it means."
Undaunted, he continued. "It was also my grandmother's name."
Mari swallowed a mouthful of coffee too fast and it burned all the way down her throat. His grandmother's name wasn't what was important right now; it didn't even register on her radar. She was Mari, manager of a four-star resort and she'd had to leave a lot of pain behind to get here. Mariella reminded her of things she kept trying to forget. How many times had her mother told her about her father's so-called family? The family she'd never known?
A family she never would know. Not now. It was just one of the missing gaps in her childhood.
"Mr. Fiori " At his raised eyebrow she reluctantly amended, "Luca, I don't mean to sound impolite, but you are here as a representative of Fiori Resorts, here to evaluate your latest acquisition. My first name should be of little importance. Perhaps we should begin the tour now."
Luca took another bite of scone and considered how to answer. The general manager was a prickly sort, but pretty. And he did enjoy a challenge. "And miss out on this superior blend? I think not. We'll get to the rest. In time."
He sipped his coffee thoughtfully, letting his eyes roam over her. Her dark hair was pulled back into a simple, elegant twist, not a hair out of place. She had great legs, but she hid them beneath a conservative navy skirt and completed the look with an equally plain jacket. She gave new meaning to the words "power suit." Even her shoes dio mio. His sister would have had a fit at the sight. Her shoes were plain, unadorned navy pumps. Hardly inspired. All in all she was a package that screamed "stay away."
Until she finally looked into his eyes, and then he knew.
Hers were stunning, nothing at all like the cold, efficient package she presented. They were gray-blue and smoky, soft and sexy, holding a lifetime of secrets.
"Mariella " He let his voice soften and was gratified to see her turn those eyes on him again. This was more than a challenge. This was unvarnished curiosity, something unusual for him. He was generally happy to skim the surface. On his arm was just about close enough for any woman to get. But there was something in Mari's eyes that drew him in. A mystery begging to be solved.
"Mari," she corrected coolly.
He frowned. Usually that soft tone worked on women. There was more to her than frosty order and sensible shoes, he could sense it. But as her eyes blazed at him, refusing to let him use her full name, he knew that this was one time his charm was going to fail him. With it came the unholy urge to laugh, along with grudging respect.
Who would have thought a trip to Canada would turn out to be so intriguing?
He had the most incredible desire to reach out and rest his fingers on her belligerent cheek. Even sitting on the stool, she was several inches below his face. So petite and feminine, even when she was standing her ground. What would she do if he tried such a thing? Blush? He didn't think so. Some of the women he knew would slap his face in a bout of indignant passion, but he didn't think Mari was the type for that, either.
No, an icy diatribe was more her style and he almost did it just to see what would happen. To see the sparks ignite, and flare.
Something held him back.
That wasn't why he was here. He was away from Italy, away from the constant demands and in a place where he alone could call the shots. He'd let himself be distracted before and it hadn't been pretty. It had cost him. Not quite so much as it had cost his father when his mother had walked out on them, but it had been adequately messy. He'd let Ellie make a fool of him. He'd risked his heart and had lost. No, his initial instinct was right. He would enjoy himself, but not take it any further than that.
He was here to make the Bow Valley Inn into the Fiori Cascade and in order to do that he had to work with Mariella Ross.
He stepped back. "Show me the rest, Mariella. And we'll see about taking the Fiori Cascade to a whole new level of opulence."
Luca stared at the papers once more, leaning back against the plush sofa and crossing his ankles on the coffee table. There was nothing really wrong with the hotel, not really. It was a nice establishment, comfortable, good service.
But good wasn't Fiori. His father had taught him that.
The new manager was something else, too. Mariella. Right now it appeared the only thing she shared with his grandmother was her name. She'd let down her guard for a few moments, but she was a woman bound up in rules and boundaries, that much was crystal clear. All through the tour she'd mentioned how profitable or efficient their amenities were. Which was all well and good—he wanted to make a profit. But it wasn't the be all and end all. There was more to the Fiori brand than a balance sheet. It was what set Fiori apart from the rest.
He put the papers down and wandered over to his balcony. He slid open the door, crossing his arms against the chill of mountain fall air. Listening, he caught the whispered rustle of the wind through the gold-coin leaves of the trees below. He hadn't missed the way she kept putting distance between them, either. After that preliminary handshake, it had been like there was an invisible shield around her. The woman was a big contradiction. A sexy woman wrapped up in bubble-wrap. He wondered why.
And he really had to stop thinking about her.
Posted December 9, 2013
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