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This was not how her morning was supposed to play out.
Ziara Divan rushed down the hallway of Eternity Designs, her brain pounding with the knowledge that she was late. Her cheeks burned as a result of her jog from the parking garage in workday pumps, and her suit skirt rode up the panty hose strangling her legs.
She threw her purse under her desk and grabbed her tablet from the drawer, turning it on as she continued down the hall with more speed than decorum. Rounding the corner into Vivian Creighton's outer office, Ziara ground to a halt. Vivian's assistant's desk was empty.
Breathe, Ziara. Pull yourself together.
She straightened her clothes in an attempt to regain her prized professional facade. But the agitated urgency to move, to get into the office quickly, still pounded in her chest. She wasn't perfect, but she made sure she came pretty dang close as an executive assistant in training, no matter how many minutes she spent stuck on a backed-up Georgia interstate.
As she struggled to regulate her breathing, Ziara heard voices from beyond the door to the inner sanctum. At first, she couldn't grasp the idea that someone was yelling, because this was Vivian's office. Vivian didn't yell. It went totally against the traditional Southern rules of behavior for all ladies. But Vivian's voice was definitely raised. Ziara inched closer.
The other voice was male, deep. Oh no. . .will not let you ruin my father's company "
Sloan Creighton. Vivian's stepson. He came into the office rarely, but when he did he brought a tornadic level of energy and caused an unwanted tingle of awareness at the base of Zi-ara's spine. Though she studiously avoided him on his rare visits, he always seemed to find her. And flirt with her. And just generally turn her sense of professionalism upside down. The best reason to avoid him.
Vivian's own voice was muffled, but parts of Sloan's words came through the solid wood.
. .our biggest buyer rejected all the designs "
Ziara's heart sank, threatening to drop out of her chest. Her knees went weak enough to force her to grab the frame of the door.
Ziara had suspected that last week's meeting with their largest retail account hadn't gone as planned, but the few who had attended were keeping quiet. Losing that buyer could mean ruin for Eternity Designs, something Ziara didn't want to see happen. She loved her job; this place, these people had also provided the stability and acceptance that had been lacking her entire life.
" you have no choice "
And neither did Ziara. She had to go through that door. Vivian had said to be in her office at eight sharp; it was now 8:17 a.m. But the thought of Sloan and the way his cool, effortless good looks and flirty attitude affected her body and her psyche made her want to return to the crowded freeway.
But backing down wasn't an option. With a deep breath to fortify herself, she headed through the doorway.
Sloan stood tall over Vivian, his voice ringing clear in the room. "I will have more voice in Eternity Designs, starting now. I'll need the next three months. If my fall line is a hit with our buyers, you will sign over enough of your shares for me to own fifty-five percent and relinquish complete creative control. To. Me."
Ziara paused just inside the door, her mind absorbing those incredible words, while Sloan and Vivian glared at each other across Vivian's desk. For a moment Ziara's panic overrode everything, even the tempting sight of Sloan's strong shoulders and firm backside.
As the tension crept higher and higher, Ziara finally broke. Into the silence, she said, "Would you like me to come back, Vivian?"
Like pushing Play on a paused DVD, Vivian and Sloan both turned and looked in her direction. She met Vivian's eyes first, checking in with her boss and mentor. The narrowed glare and tight mouth signified a frustration that radiated like a cracked web through Vivian's normal composure. As if she realized how she must look, Vivian straightened, smoothing her elegant close-cropped curls into place. "Good morning, Ziara. Please sit."
"Now, Sloan," she said, turning her attention back to him. "Explain to me why I would ever agree to such ridiculous demands."
Sloan was too happy to comply. "Let me guess, commissions are down, creditors are closing accounts and you don't have a clue how to get yourself out of this situation." He straightened with confidence. "But I do."
"I'm sure I can find someone else to do the same."
"In enough time to make a difference? I don't think so."
She conceded to her stepson's ultimatum by leaning back in her chair, her composure shaken enough that she fiddled with the wedding band still gracing her left hand.
At least she didn't seem to noticeor carethat Ziara was late. Sloan, on the other hand, started cataloging everything about her. His gaze traveled down the length of her body to her toes, then back up with leisurely enjoyment.
Dragging her own composure around her like a cloak that granted her invisibility, Ziara walked with measured steps across the carpeting to a chair beside Vivian's desk. A glance from under her lashes caught Sloan's interested stare zeroing in on the V of her suit jacket, where the modest edge of a lacy camisole peaked into view. With a great struggle, she forced herself not to adjust, to hold still while his eyes wandered back up to her vulnerable neck. The knowing smirk on his contoured lips sparked arousal beneath her irritation, confusing her further.
Damn man. She could see why Vivian found him so infuriatingprofessional behavior seemed to be a foreign concept to him. She'd seen the spark of interest before, though never quite this blatantly. Of course, his simple presence had always created an uncomfortable heat in her core that prompted her to keep any previous meetings as short and far apart as possible.
If she'd simply passed him on the street, Ziara would never have suspected him of the professional dedication he was displaying now. His collar-length, sun-streaked hair and the slight crook of his previously broken nose said "surfer boy" more than it did "hard-hitting negotiator." But the perfectly tailored dress shirt and pants, paired with his take-no-prisoners attitude, demonstrated the real man inside. His electric-blue eyes confirmed her suspicions that his core was pure steel.
She was thankful when he turned back to his stepmother. "This is my father's legacy we're talking about, Vivian. I save other people's businesses every day. Resurrecting Eternity Designs is right up my alley," he said.
"Yes," Vivian said, letting the word draw out. "Your fix-it-up business."
"You could call it that. I call it the very lucrative process of taking failing companies and turning them into profit-making machines. Too bad you didn't get in touch with me sooner, but then you'd have to admit that you screwed up."
The slap of Vivian's hand on her desk made Ziara jump. She watched her with wide eyes, shocked by the venom scarring Vivian's normally genteel facade.
"Your father didn't trust you to take care of his legacy enough to leave it all to you. Why should I?"
Sloan stalked back and rested his hands on the desk, so he could loom over his stepmother. "And whose fault was that? Who slipped poisonous thoughts into his mind from day one, turning him against me so he could be yours and yours alone? Hell, Vivian, if I didn't know better, I'd think you set his whole will up. You're the one who made him insist I go for my MBA instead of continuing to pursue my own plans of fashion design, aren't you?"
"I don't know what you're talking about."
"Of course you do. After all, going from Daddy's assistant to his wife meant you got to control his entire life and not just his business, didn't it?"
Oh. Dear. Ziara's lungs shut down, trapping the air inside. Vivian's early involvement with Eternity Designs had never been explicitly discussed. Ziara had simply assumed she'd started working with the company sometime after she'd married Mr. Creighton.
The knowledge left Ziara reeling. How many times had Vivian admonished her that only tramps got involved with their coworkers? Ever since her childhood, when Ziara had been bullied because of her mother's lack of morals, she'd avoided anything that would suggest she was the same. Vivian's lessons had simply reinforced Ziara's focus on professionalism and the building of a flawless reputation.
Vivian's hand shook as she pointed at her stepson. "Don't talk to me that way, Sloan. It's disrespectful. Your father would never approve of your tone."
Sloan leaned in, hard. "Well, he's not here to reprimand me. If you wanted my respect, you should have tried earning it a long time ago. Now it's too late."
"It's never too late to expect you to be a gentleman. But we just couldn't get those lessons to stick."
Sloan laughed, collapsing into the chair as his body shook with a tainted kind of humor. Ziara felt like she was watching a tennis match. Sloan clearly thought he was the winner.
Vivian conceded with less graciousness than Ziara had ever seen her display, but then again, she'd learned quite a few new things about her mentor in the past ten minutes. Vivian hadn't always been a lady. Disbelief still ricocheted throughout Ziara like the ball inside a pinball machine.
"Fine, Sloan. Do whatever it is you do," Vivian forced out through clenched teeth.
"I'll have that in writing, I think," Sloan said.
"As demanding as you are, I'm amazed anyone will work with you."
"Oh, I'll manage," he said with a cocky quirk of his shapely lips.
"Not alone, you won't. The last thing I need is you wandering around unattended."
"Aw, Vivian. I didn't know you cared. Oh wait, you don't," Sloan said with saccharin sweetness.
"I care about Eternity Designs," she said.
His gaze scanned Vivian's face as if to determine the catch. "Anyone you saddle me with better know what they're doing and how to take orders."
"Oh, I have no doubt she'll work like a charm and be able to keep you in line."
Ziara's heart picked up speed when Vivian's elegant, bejew-eled fingers waved in her direction. No. No, no, no. The effort to hide her sudden panic and appear in control might just give her a heart attack.
Vivian's voice trickled through her consciousness, breaking her inward focus. "Your history with assistants is well-known, Sloan. They crawl all over you like bees in honey. That won't be an issue with Ziara. I've trained her well. She knows more about how we conduct business here than anyone except my own assistant. And her behavior is impeccableunlike yours."
What was shea slave girl at auction? Would the buyer prefer pretty and pliable or plain but talented? Though dependable was exactly the look she was going for, the thought still disconcerted her.
"Well, Vivian, isn't that thoughtful of you?" he said.
Ziara glanced up to find Sloan's gaze directed her way. His earlier anger had turned his bright blue eyes icily sharp, his body rigid, his jaw tight. But now he eased back in a chair, propping his elbows on the arms. His fingers absently stroked the upper ridge of his lip, drawing her attention to the sensuous curve of his mouth. His turbulent look suddenly softened like ice thawing beneath a heat lamp.
Her emotions seesawed as his gaze traveled south, visually caressing the extra length of leg exposed by her hasty drop into her chair. She could almost feel his touch sliding along the edge of her skirt, tickling the sensitive skin on the backs of her legs.
Bit by bit, Ziara used up her willpower forcing herself to sit impassively. The twitch of her thighs urged her to shift her feet, but she resisted. That would tell him just how much he affected her. Tightening her muscles, she tried to crack down on the spreading fire, to no avail. Ignoring physical desire had never been a problem before him.
Her new boss.
Her soothingly subtle gray business suit, so comfortable in the luxurious air-conditioning only moments ago, now felt heavy, itchy. Her nipples peaked against their confinement. She felt that he peered through her professional armor to the woman she kept hidden deep inside.
How could a simple look make her so aware, too aware? As if she lacked something only he could provide.
As casually as possible, she adjusted her position and her skirt, covering her legs down past her knees.
Knowledge leaked into his eyes, as well as smug satisfaction. He did that on purpose. Feeling a need to defend herself, she met him with a flick of her lashes. Slowly she lifted her left brow.
He grinned, not at all intimidated by her challenge. "Be in my office and ready to work first thing tomorrow morning."
She could handle his antagonistic, dismissive tone; she welcomed it to counteract her strange reaction to him. Unlike efficient orders and professional expectations, the sensations created with that hot, hard stare set her nerves on edge.
But she could handle it. She'd pulled herself up from a sludge-pile existence and become a woman with goals and dreams and skills. She could control herself for the three months it would take to get Eternity Designs back in the spotlight and earn her stripes as an executive assistant. But how was she going to control him?
Ziara. Her classic beauty and calm demeanor distracted Sloan from Vivian's condescension. Staring his new assistant down made him hotter than he'd been in a long time. Vivian's insistence that Ziara wouldn't follow the path of his previous assistants didn't worry him. As annoying as it had been to replace three employees in less than two years because they insisted they were in love with him, he might have to pursue this woman. Her pretend lack of interest challenged him, but turning Ziara's head could provide plenty of ammunition in his war with Vivian.
How ironic that the very thing he'd avoided in his professional lifeintimate involvement with an employeecould give him a leg up in this situation. It felt wrong even thinking that way, but winning her loyalty could give him the freedom to do whatever he wanted without Vivian's interference. He needed every advantage to fight against Vivian. His stepmother was totally immune to his charm, which drew cheeky toddlers, blue-haired dames and women of every age in between. If Vivian had been a typical trophy wife, at least Sloan could have fallen back on his practiced grin and genuine appreciation of the female species, but, instead, dear old Dad had the foresight to marry a savvy woman. One steeped in Southern tradition and brimming with a Southern belle's ingenuity to survive. Too bad her temperament had always favored Scarlett's machinations as opposed to Melanie's sweetness.
She viewed his father's memory and Eternity Designs as hers; Sloan was a threat to her reign as queen. His frustration had been building over this situation for years and he let it out for once.
"We need to shake things up," he said. "We can't afford to lose our biggest account because we're afraid to break out of the mold. Reliance on tradition is getting you nowhere. Eternity Designs needs a modern edge, a new designer, a revamped portfolio. Pronto."
That was exactly what Vivian didn't want to hear. "Your father prided himself on the tradition inherent in this company and its designs," she said, elegantly restrained anger sharpening her tone. "This discussion demonstrates exactly why he chose me to continue the legacy of Eternity Designs."
The wedding gown design firm had been in his family for three generationsif his current 40 percent share of it counted for anything. With Vivian, it didn't. But the words of the accountant told him now was the time to insist on the control she'd denied him for so long.
"The whole company will go under if something isn't done immediately."
"Sixty percent ownership doesn't mean you're God," he said, ignoring the burn of betrayal. "It's a good thing dear ol' Dad isn't alive to see how you've run it into the ground." Yep. Payback was a bitch.
A quick glance revealed Ziara stiffening, in surprise or defense he wasn't sure. If she knew what the posture did for her magnificent breasts, she'd hunch in on herself for eternity. He paced back and forth in front of Vivian's desk, arousal and frustration fueling his restlessness. The business expert in him was tired of talking.