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Don't be such a baby. Feel the fear and, for God's sake, do it anyway.
Resolved, Serena Stevens gulped down a breath, raised a trembling fist and almost, almost, knocked on her boss's imposing double doors. But why the early summons before she'd even had time to hang her bag? Was it coincidence that today marked the end of her probation period?
Three months ago, David Miles, President of Miles Advertising Australia, had given Serena her first real break. At twenty-four, with a marketing degree but no experience, she'd been thrilled.
But was Mr Miles unhappy with her performance as Junior Account Executive? Would he roll back those impressive shoulders, furrow the steep slashes of his dark brows and level her with a stern, disapproving look? Did he want to discuss a demotion?
Her stomach back-flipped and her hand dropped like a weight.
Not a dismissal!
Beyond anything, Serena wanted to prove herself. Growing up with the nickname Miss Least-Likely-to-Succeed had not been pleasant. Chubby, self-conscious, a delayed dyslexia diagnosis school days were more forgettable than memorable. Thank God for her sense of humour. Corrective tutoring, self-improvement books, grooming courses and perseverance had eventually paid off. Now the sky was her limit!
Sydney, with its big-city verve, café-culture and holiday climate, would always be her true home. But as a teen she'd felt so caged by her excess baggage and learning disabilityadd to that a father who questioned her every decisionshe'd vowed to some day break free and reach every inch of her potential.
London, Paris, NewYork. Nothing and no one would hold her back. Who knew when or even if she wouldever return?
Serena pressed her lips together and kicked up her chin.
But first things first. She more than liked this job, she needed it. 'Junior Account Exec' not only paid the bills, it was an important step in her climb to the top.
After ironing damp palms down the sides of her white jersey skirt, she crossed two fingers behind her back and rapped on the timber. Before she could swallow the jet of nerves clogging her throat, the right-side door swung open. She smiled too hard and said the first stupid thing that popped into her head.
Mr Miles' deep blue eyes sharpened and one eyebrow quirked before he gestured her in. 'Ms Stevens. Thanks for coming so quickly.'
Tugging each onyx cufflink in turn, he accompanied her to the guest chair adjacent his desk. Cheeks burning, Serena slowly folded down as David Milestop gun, millionaire, hunksauntered around the bend of a long curved teak desk.
He ran a finger and thumb down an already perfectly aligned crimson tie, which complemented a crisp white shirt. 'You must be wondering why I asked to see you?'
Did she see thunderclouds brewing behind those sooty lashes? Serena smothered a sigh. No use beating around the bush. If Mr Miles wanted to sack her, she might as well know now.
Heartbeat thudding in her ears, she watched him sit and draw in a high-backed chair. 'Is it bad?'
A muscle leapt in the square line of his jaw as he collected a pen and tipped it like a see-saw between middle finger and thumb. 'The news, Serena, is partly bad. But partly very good.'
She eased out a breath. Not fatal then. Her hand loosened its vice-like grip on the chair's armrest. 'As long as I'm not queuing for a new job next week, that's good enough for me.'
She couldn't be sure, but that twitch of his lip might have been a smile.
He sat back, his coal-black hair a little spiky, as if he'd shovelled a hand through it just before she'd arrived. 'You've heard we've won the Hits account?'
She perked up. 'The new music video programme? Sure. Everyone's saying it'll be the biggest thing to grace the tube since Idol.'
'You'd also know I hired Jezz McQade to plan and run the campaign.'
Yes, she knew, and had consequently read some industry pieces about this lady's vast achievements. 'Jezz McQade is the best. Any woman who can go from lead singer in an eighties rock band to a brilliant track record in advertising qualifies as a legend in my book. This year she's been working in the States, supervising top-name music-clips.'
Apparently pleased with her reply, he nodded, then laid both palms flat on the leather-bound day pad to push to his feet. 'As I said, there's some bad news. Jezz flew into the country from LA last night. This morning she slipped on some wet bathroom tiles.'
Serena cringed. Oh, God. 'Is she all right?'
'Broke her leg, the tibia, quite badly, I'm afraid. I received a call from Emergency. She hopes to be back on boardnot without the help of painkillers and crutches in seven, possibly eight weeks.'
How awful. But why tell her? Did Jezz McQade need a gofer?
Mr Miles crossed his arms over his broad deep chest and paced to where a run of silver award plaques, mounted on the far wall, shimmered in the artificial light. 'I have several senior people who might fill Jezz's shoes till she's back on her feet again. One in particular would climb over dead bodies to head this account.'
A name sprang to mind. 'Rachel Bragg.'
In large organizations, personality clashes and petty jealousies were bound to occur. A human relations manager on the ninth floor was employed to sort differences out. But Rachel
Suffice to say, she was a first-class witch. And Serena wasn't the only one who thought so.
Legs braced apart, David Miles concentrated on his words. 'Rachel is zealous about her position here. However, I'm more than aware of her shortfalls. She's an excellent account executive, but not the easiest person to handle.'
Excellent account executive? Oh, yeah. She'd heard that before. From Rachel.
David cocked his head and actually smiled. The expression touched his eyes and made them shine like prisms of blue light reflecting over water. 'You know, you really do have expressive features, Ms Stevens. Hope you don't play poker.'
She smiled. '"Expressive features." My high-school drama teacher used to say that. Can't count the number of times I had to demonstrate to my classmates elation, resentment, and, my absolute favourite, silly-buggers.'She pulled a face that included hooking her fingers in the sides of her mouth. When he laughed, she threw up her hands. 'Hey, at least I was good at something.'
An icy shaft fell through her middle.
Blabbermouth! Why stop there? Why not show him your junior-year photo, bottle-lense glasses and all?
But David Miles didn't bat an eye at her gaffe. Rather, he slid both hands into the pockets of his dark trousers, which had been tailored by a genius, and strolled over to the window. Eyes narrowed on the view, he picked up the thread of their previous conversation.
'After discussing it this morning, Jezz and I agreed the person we need should not only have knowledge of how things run around here, but also be able to bring a fresh look and natural enthusiasm to this product. Someone who has an affinity with pop culture, is in tune with demographics and has novel ideas on how to promote the show and its celebrities.'The ledge of his shoulders rotated back and he pinned her with a look. 'Someone like you.'
Serena's jaw unbolted and her mouth dropped wide open. She blinked several times at the shock, as well as a spike of doubtful excitement. 'You want me?'
Soft lines branched from his eyes and the sweep of his mouth relaxed as he moved forward to congratulate her. 'Yes, Serena. I want you.'
He cupped her hands to help her up. Trembling on rubber-band legs, she sucked down a disbelieving breath.
'I don't know what to say. Except ' Emotion stung the back of her nose as her shoulders thrust back. 'You won't regret this, Mr Miles. I promise.'
Sandalwood, soap and masculine heat all registered as those incredible eyes smiled down at her. 'David,' he said. 'It's time you called me David.'
Okay. Sure. She could do that. Just as soon as she got her mind around this wild feeling. Nothing compared. Not even accepting first place for her senior essay, 'Why and How I Want to Succeed', in front of both her parents and the entire school. That paper had been an effort to write. But this! This was an unexpected gift from heaven.
Although five-foot-four could never compete with well-over-six-foot, she drew up to her tallest.
'When would you like me to start?' Now? Yesterday? 'And you don't have to worry about my commitment, Mr Miles. I'm totally yours, one hundred and ten per cent. Weekends. Late nights. No sacrifice is too big.'
A pulse ticked in his shadowed jaw before he dropped her hands and moved away. She gazed down and wiggled her French-tips. Whoa. Her fingers were tingling.
'Serena, come over here. I'd like to show you something.' She blinked up. Above a polished timber credenza desk, which sat flush against the wall, that galaxy of industry awards glittered out. David stood with his back to her, arms folded, immaculate white oxford pulled tight between his widely spaced shoulder blades.
Warmth seeped through her body.
Never mind those awards. He was impressive. His determination. That decadent chocolate-over-gravel voice. Best of all, his belief in her. That meant more than anything. Heck, if she were on the lookout for Mr Right, David Miles might well be the one.
She shook herself and moved to join him.
Good thing she wasn't. Looking, that was. Not now, not this year, not even this decade, or maybe the next. Career. Travel. Breaking free. Reaching the stars. Nothing and no one would hold her back. And this promotion meant she was truly on her way.
He nodded at a space on the wall. 'See that?' By his side nowsandalwood, soap, heatshe tipped forward. Her contact lenses were in, however, 'I don't see a thing.'
'Exactly.' He dropped onto his haunches and yanked open one of four credenza doors.
As he rustled around inside, she enjoyed a bird's-eye view of those tailor-made trousers being tested over his squatting thighsall rock-solid sinew was her guess, just like his arms.
After retrieving a gigantic spiralled notepad, he pushed up and thumbed through the pages.
His profile shot. Straight nose, Hollywood strong jaw, small scar interrupting the wing of his left brow
Her gaze fluttered down.
And a prime-time chest. Very agreeable, in a way she'd never quite sensed about any guy before. Must be the 'older man' thing. Weren't they supposed to be sexier, smarter, somehow forbidden? Not that she should think about her boss that way. Even if she were looking. Which she was not.
He bent the book wings back over one another. 'This diagram,'he said, 'summarizes the agency's history, clients and revenue. Here's where we began.'A long blunt-tipped finger slid up the paper in a forty-five-degree angle. 'This is where we are now.'
Head bowed, she scuffed a fall of fair hair behind an ear and held it back. At a glance, the red and yellow lines indicated a steady yet extraordinary performance in the marketplace. Except
'What happened here?'She tapped an area near the start where the values spiralled to an alarming point, in fact, beyond the line of the X axis.
Her fingers barely escaped as he clapped the book shut. His words grated out. 'Bad judgment call. Hasn't happened since. Won't happen again.'
David slid the book away across the desktop, then turned to lift a hip and one of those muscular thighs over the credenza's edge. Loosely laced hands, big and tanned, fell between his parted legs as he locked her gaze with his.
'I'll be honest with you, Serena. I not only need this campaign to do well, I need it to do exceptionally well. I need the top prize at the Awards to fill that space. The international sponsors of Hits have assured me that if we take out gold for their account this year, we've got the rest of their business, an astronomical coup. If not ' His nostrils flared the barest amount. 'They'll take their business elsewhere and many others will follow. Miles Advertising's reputationmy reputationwill be manure.'
The enormity of it began to press in. This was the chance she'd waited for. Her springboard into an exciting future.
Her stomach muscles double-clutched.
But, given all the facts, this seemed almost too big. She'd faced challenges before, but this wasn't just about her. Her performance would affect others, most particularly the president of this company, her boss. What if she messed up? What if she couldn't deliver? What if her best wasn't enough?
Her hip met the credenza edge as blood rushed to her feet and her forehead prickled hot and cold. 'Is it okay to be terrified about now?'
He chuckled and the rumble comforted her, even if her smile was still wobbly.
'Nothing wrong with feeling fear. It's natural. Some might even say necessary.' His gaze intensified. 'As long as you can push through to the other side, learn to adapt, and do what needs to be done.'
Feel the fear, do it anyway. She nodded. Of course he was right.
He eased back. 'I'll be fully involved and Jezz is ready to hold it together from her sickbed, but '
She finished the sentence. 'You're depending on me.' His eyes dared hers. 'You ready?'
Ready as I'll ever be.
Keen to start, she set her mind to the task and stood up extra tall. Something crackled under her foot. Both his gaze and hers dropped. She bent first to retrieve
'A paper plane?'She fired looks into every corner of the enormous office at the granite and stainless steel wet bar, around the huge desk, then the black leather settee. 'You have a son tucked away in here somewhere?'
A bracket formed around one side of his mouth. 'Not here. Not anywhere.' She weighed the injured plane in her palm, then bogus-tested her throwing arm. 'It works better if you hold it further down toward the nose.'
She studied the plane, then the sophisticated man perched on the desktop, one leg swinging. She must be mistaken. 'You're telling me this is yours?'
He reclaimed his property. 'Only if you're done with it.' His bottom lip jutted as he concentrated to smooth out the crumpled bits. 'After a couple of modifications to the cobra design, I was rather pleased with this one's performance. Exceptional gliding ability. Not sure about the landing.'
Collecting stocks, bonds, antiques, thoroughbreds but paper planes?
A small laugh coughed out.
David's gaze kicked up and brows swooped together. 'What's so funny? It's not as if I wear ladies' underwear on weekends.' He examined the plane. 'This is a good, clean boys' pastime.'
'Exactly. It's a boy's pastime. And you're'She bit her tongue. Big Mouth Stevens strikes again.
His head slanted and he set the plane down. 'You were going to say old?'
She lied. 'Of course not!'
With lazy grace, he slid off the credenza and turned around to stand before her. 'It's okay. I'm aware of the age difference. Thirty-two must seem ancient.'
Ancient? Or doable?
She stomped on that notion and averted her gaze to her fingertip doodling figure eights on the desktop. 'It's just that you seem so dedicated and nose-to-the-grindstone. I never pictured you ' the figure eights stretched longer ' never thought of you as '
'Fun?'A crooked finger under her chin urged her to look up. 'At least not on the days I need my walking stick.'
She met his amused eyes as his knuckle grazed her jaw line and fell away. Cue those tingles again, but this time they'd taken over her neck, stomach, breasts.
Her arms knotted over her chest. 'I didn't say that.'
'But you wanted to.'
'A walking stick never entered my mind.'
Damn. Now his eyes were laughing at her.