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"Memo to self: Cancel all employee vacations," Brandon Duke muttered as he reached for his coffee cup and realized it was empty. Yet another reminder that his invaluable assistant, Kelly Meredith, was still away on vacation. She'd been gone for the past two weeks, and that was fourteen days too long as far as he was concerned.
It wasn't like Brandon couldn't get his own cup of coffee. He wasn't that lame. It was just that Kelly always beat him to it, showing up with a piping hot refill at the right time, every time. She was a dynamo in every other way, too. Clients loved her. Spreadsheets didn't intimidate her. And she was an excellent judge of character, something he'd recognized early on. That was a quality worth its weight in gold and he'd taken advantage of it from the start by having Kelly accompany him to various business meetings all over the country.
Brandon's own instincts were spot on when it came to judging a potential business partner or the motives of a competitor, but Kelly was a strong backup. Even his brothers had gotten into the habit of having Kelly vet new hires and solve problems in other departments. They called her the miracle worker, for good reason. If there was a thankless job that needed handling, Kelly grabbed it with both hands and worked her magic. Everything ran more smoothly because of her.
Taking advantage of the early morning quiet in the still empty office suite, Brandon grabbed a legal pad and began to scribble notes for a meeting with his brothers later today. Now that the Mansion at Silverado Trail, the Dukes' newest resort in Napa Valley and the jewel in the crown of the Duke hotel empire, was about to celebrate its grand opening, it was time to focus his energies on new properties and new challenges.
Reading what he'd written, he was reminded of another reason he needed his assistant to come back from vacation: she could decipher his handwriting.
In the middle of bulletpointing several options for a takeover bid on a small chain of luxury hotels along the picturesque Oregon coast, Brandon checked his calendar. Every hour of the day was filled with appointments, conference calls and deadlines, many of them connected to the grand opening celebration. Good thing his assistant would be back today, and about damn time. The temp replacement had been competent, but Kelly was the only one who could handle the myriad pressures and scheduling conflicts involved in the upcoming festivities.
And speaking of pressures, his brother's wife was about to pop out a baby soon. This would be Mom's first grandkid, and you would've thought no other child had ever been born. Talk about a major celebration. But what in the world was Brandon supposed to buy the kid? Season tickets on the 49ers' fiftyyard line he could swing, but otherwise, he was clueless. Didn't matter. Kelly would know the perfect gift to buy and she'd probably wrap it, too.
Brandon heard rustling and the sound of drawers opening just outside his partly opened door.
"Good morning, Brandon," a cheery voice called out.
"About time you got back, Kelly," he said with relief. "Come see me after you've had a chance to settle in."
"You bet. I'll just make a pot of coffee first."
Brandon checked his watch. Sure enough, she was fifteen minutes early, one more indication that she was an ideal employee who deserved all the perks the job offered. But he still planned to outlaw vacations from now on.
"Ah, it's good to be back," Kelly murmured as she powered up her computer. Hard to believe, but she'd actually missed Brandon Duke while she was gone. The sound of his deep voice gave her a little thrill she attributed to the fact that she loved her job.
She stashed her tote bag and purse in the credenza behind her desk and quickly made coffee. Her hand shook as she filled the pot with water at the small kitchen kiosk across from her office and she forced herself to relax. She really was happy to be back at the job she loved, so why was she so nervous?
Okay, she'd made a few changes while on vacation, but nobody would notice, right? Nobody ever noticed anything about her except for her savvy business sense and cando attitude, and that was just the way she wanted it. So if she happened to be wearing a dress today instead of one of her usual pantsuits, who would care? The fact that she'd never worn a dress to the office before wouldn't stand out to anyone here. Even if today's dress was a beautiful dark gray knit that buttoned up the front and clung subtly to her curves. And that was just fine and dandy.
And if she'd finally changed over to contact lenses, so what? She'd been wearing the same boring eyeglasses for the past five years. Change was a good thing.
"Kelly," Brandon called from his office. "Bring the Dream Coast file with you when you come in, will you?"
"Be right there."
The familiar sound of Brandon Duke's voice made Kelly smile. He should've intimidated her from day one. At six feet four inches tall, he towered over her, and she knew for a fact that he was rocksolid muscle underneath his designer suits. She knew, because she'd run into him more than once at the hotel gym and seen him in shorts and a Tshirt. A former NFL quarterback benchpressing ridiculously heavy barbells was quite a sight. Sometimes, while watching him, she found it hard to breathe steadily, but she chalked up those moments to spending too much time on the treadmill.
She chuckled at the thought of some of her girlfriends, who'd told her they would kill for a chance to see the stunningly handsome Brandon Duke working out in gym shorts. Luckily for Kelly, she'd never been tempted by her boss.
Yes, he was gorgeous, almost unbelievably so, but to Kelly, having a great job meant a lot more than having a brief, meaningless affair with some superstar athlete. And yes, an affair with Brandon Duke would never be anything but brief and meaningless. She'd seen firsthand the women who lined up to date him, and she'd seen them flicked off without a backward glance within a couple of weeks. It wasn't pretty, and she never wanted to find herself in that line. Not that she would qualify to stand in that line, but
"What are you thinking?" she whispered to herself.
She'd never thought of her boss in those terms before and she wouldn't start now. Shaking her head in disgust, she had to wonder if maybe she'd taken too many days off.
As the coffeepot filled, Kelly took a moment to glance out the wide bay window and felt both proud and lucky to be here in this job. Who wouldn't want to work on a hilltop in the heart of Napa Valley, overlooking lush fields of grapevines as far as the eye could see?
Brandon and his small corporate staff had been working onsite at the Mansion at Silverado Trail for the past four months. They would stay here another month or so, until the resort was up and running and the grape harvest was over. Then they would all relocate back to Duke headquarters in Dunsmuir Bay.
By then, Kelly's plan would be complete, and her life would settle down to normal. But until then, she would simply have to remind herself to relax and breathe.
"Do you hear me, self? Just relax," she murmured as she ran her hands over her dress to smooth away any wrinkles, then filled two large mugs with hot coffee. "Breathe."
She stopped at her desk to drop off her own mug and pick up a short stack of mail, then pushed her boss's door fully open.
"Good morning, Brandon," she said breezily, and placed the mail on his desk.
"Morning, Kelly," he said, as he wrote rapidly on a legal pad. "Great to have you back."
"Thank you, it's nice to be back." She placed his mug on his blotter. "Coffee for you."
"Thanks," he said absently, still writing. After a moment, he reached for his coffee and looked up. His eyes widened as he cautiously put the cup down. "Kelly?"
"Yes?" She gazed at him, then blinked. "Oh, sorry. You wanted the Dream Coast file. I'll be right back with it."
"Kelly?" His voice sounded strained.
She stopped and turned. "Yes, Brandon?"
He was staring at her in disbelief? Shock? Horror? Oh, dear. Not a good sign. And the longer he stared, the more nervous she became.
"Oh, come on," she said. "I don't look bad enough to have stunned you into speechlessness." She fiddled with her dress collar as she felt heat moving up her neck and settling into her cheeks. No need to be embarrassed, she scolded herself.
"But, what did you do to " His voice trailed off as he continued to stare at her face.
"Oh, you mean the contact lenses? Yeah. It was time for a change. Be right back with the file."
"Kelly." His tone was demanding.
She turned again. He was still staring, this time at her hair. With a sigh, she brushed a strand back from her cheek. "I had it lightened and shaped. No big deal." Then she waved him off and rushed to find the file.
Great. If Brandon was any example, people would be staring at her as if she were an alien. How was she supposed to relax and breathe and put her plan into action under those circumstances, darn it?
As she anxiously rifled through the file drawer, she heard the distinctive sound of Brandon's leather executive chair rolling back from his desk. Seconds later, he was standing in the doorway. Still staring.
"Kelly?" he said again.
She stared up at him from the files. "Why do you keep saying my name?"
"Just making sure it's you."
"Well, it is, so cut it out," she told him, then found what she was looking for. "Ah, here's that file."
"What did you do?"
"You asked me that already."
"And I'm still waiting for an answer."
Her shoulders drooped for a split second, then she straightened. There was no reason to feel selfconscious, especially not with Brandon. He'd given her glowing reviews and generous raises. He respected and admired her ability to work hard and solve problems. He was her employer, not her overlord, for goodness sake. "I got a little makeover."
She raised one shoulder in a casual shrug. "That's right. I lost a few pounds, got a haircut, some contact lenses. No big deal."
"It is from where I'm standing. You don't even look like you."
"Of course I look like me." She wasn't about to mention the week spent at the pricey spa or the private etiquette and speech lessons. He would think she'd gone insane. Maybe she had. She'd always been levelheaded, and rational to the point of being called a nerd back in college. Now she wasn't sure what they would call her.
"But you're wearing a dress," he said accusingly.
She looked down, then back at him. "Why, yes, I am. Is that a problem?"
It was his turn to look discomfited as he took a step back. "No. God, no. No problem at all. You look great. It's just that " Scrubbing his jaw with his knuckles, he searched for the words. "You don't wear dresses."
He'd noticed? Color her surprised. With a resolute smile, she said, "I do now."
"I guess so," he said, searching her face, still looking doubtful. "Well, like I said, you look great. Really great."
"Thank you," she said, still smiling. "I feel great."
"Yeah. That's great." He nodded, then gritted his teeth and exhaled heavily.
If everything was great, why was he scowling?
"Oh!" she said, feeling ridiculous as she thrust the thick manila folder at him. "Here's the Dream Coast file."
His hand grazed hers as the file passed between them and she felt a buzz of awareness all the way up her arm.
Brandon's frown lines deepened. "Thanks."
He walked back into his office, then turned. "It's great to have you back."
And that was how many greats so far? she wondered.
"Thank you," she said. "And I'll have the monthend sales figures calculated for you in twenty minutes."
He closed the door and she sagged down into her chair. Grabbing her own cup of coffee, she took a big gulp. "Oh yeah, it's great to be back."
Brandon tossed the Dream Coast file onto his desk and continued walking across the plush office until he reached the floortoceiling window that lined one long wall. He and his team were working out of the owner's suite on the penthouse level of the Mansion at Silverado Trail, and he never grew tired of the view. Normally, when he gazed out at the gently sloping hills of chardonnay grapevines, he relished the pride he felt when he saw such visible symbols of his family's success.
A hot air balloon drifted silently in the sky overhead and birds skittered from tree to tree across the hills. But he ignored all of it as he caught the barest whiff of flowers and spice drifting in the air. He wasn't used to his assistant wearing perfume, or maybe he'd never noticed that she did, but for the first time ever, the arresting scent conjured up visions of a cool hotel room and a hot blonde. Naked. Wrapped in sheets. Under him.
Kelly. He could still smell her. Damn it. He'd made a fool of himself just now, gaping at her as though she were a juicy steak and he were a starved puppy. Hell, he hadn't even been able to speak. He'd sounded like a damn parrot, repeating her name over and over. But he would lay the blame for that solely at her feet. She'd succeeded in shocking the hell out of him and that never happened to Brandon Duke.
A makeover? He shook his head as he paced the length of the wall of glass. Who could fathom a woman's mind? Kelly didn't need a makeover. She'd been fine the way she was. All business, completely professional, smart, discreet. Never a distraction.
Brandon didn't like distractions in the workplace. In his office, it was all business, all the time. After ten years in the spotlight of the NFL, he was all too aware that distractions ruined your game. You took your eye off the ball and the next thing you knew, you were buried in a pile of tough, ugly defensive ends who would just as soon see you dead.
Brandon splayed one hand on the plate glass window. Talk about a distraction. Who knew his competent assistant had those amazing curves and worldclass legs hidden beneath the boxy pantsuits she'd worn every day? And those eyes, so big and blue a man could get lost in them?
Most disturbing of all, she seemed to be wearing some kind of new, glossy lipstick. It had to be new, otherwise he would've noticed her incredibly sexy, beestung lips long before today. But he was noticing now. He'd almost spilled his coffee noticing.