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Cade McMann smelled trouble all around him.
At the moment, trouble smelled like honeysuckle, or at least what he imagined honeysuckle would smell like if he had the opportunity to sniff some. Sort of sweet and fresh and...inviting. And, truthfully, the scent was not all around, but definitely wafting from behind, if he wasn't mistaken.
And Cade made it a point to avoid mistakes at all costs. Trouble cleared her throat. "Did you want to see me, Cade?" He spun his chair around from his view of Park Avenue seventeen stories below and looked across his desk at the young woman whose expectant expression was only partially covered by the hideous horn-rimmed glasses with lavender-tinted lenses. She hadn't worn those in her interview six months ago, of that he was certain.
But since the first day of her internship at Charisma magazine, Jessie Clayton had hidden behind the glasses and kept her waist-length auburn hair pulled tightly back in a braid or a bun. Although, by the end of the day, some silky strands usually slipped out of their prison and caressed the creamy complexion of her cheeks. Caressed?
Oh, boy. Serious trouble.
He forced himself to focus on the business situation, not his suddenly poetic imagination.
"I did need to see you, Jessie." He indicated one of the empty guest chairs. "Have a seat."
She clutched a cheap vinyl-covered day planner to her chest, her gaze still on him as she sat. "Everything cool, Cade?"
No. As a matter of fact, nothing was cool when this vivacious twenty-something was in the room. A situation that a man who ran a predominately female staff and boasted of having four younger sisters didn't relish.
"Totally cool, Jessie." He let his mouth kick up in a smile as he spoke, and was rewarded with a quick and easy laugh that had become as common a sound in the cubicles of Charisma magazine as a ringing phone.
"Careful, Cade. You're starting to sound less like the boss and more like one of Charisma's loyal readers." She brushed one of those careless strands away. Of course, it was past four o'clock. The braid would start to give way soon.
"I'm only thirty, Jessie. I can say cool. Plus," he reminded her, "I'm not the boss. I'm just her right-hand man."
But, of course, he was the executive editor, and way up the publishing food chain in this intern's eyes. "And speaking of our illustrious editor-in-chief, I have some very exciting news for you."
He could have sworn some color drained from those creamy cheeks, leaving behind a dusting of freckles as natural as the darker streaks in her cinnamon-colored hair. "Really?" She made a show of opening her day planner and getting out a pen, to take notes.
"You don't need to write this down. I know you won't forget." She looked up at him, hesitancy in her smile. "I won't?"
"You've been selected as Finola Elliott's shadow intern." The smile froze as she stared at him, pen poised. Then it faded, replaced by a little crease in her forehead. She swallowed, dry-throated enough for Cade to see that she had to struggle with the action. "Shadow intern? It sounds...mysterious."
"It's not. Every year we pick one intern who gets to shadow the editor-in-chief for one month. Fin goes to a meeting, you go to a meeting. Fin previews the next month's issue at the printer, you preview the next month's issue at the printer. Fin gets wined and dined by an advertiser, you get—"
She held up her hand. "I get the idea."
He waited, and watched her try to swallow again.
The reaction validated the very suspicions that motivated him to pick her as the shadow intern. Sure, she had all the professional qualifications—she was smart and hardworking and well-liked—but something was off about Jessie Clayton.
And, he reminded himself as he forced his gaze to stay on the colored lenses, he'd better start paying attention to her bizarre behavior instead of the concave dip in her throat, just in case it had anything to do with the business of Charisma magazine. Although, for some reason, when Jessie Clayton was around he thought less about business and more about...Jessie.
"It's funny," he said slowly. "I would expect you'd be a little more excited about this opportunity."
She gave her head the tiniest negative shake and pushed her glasses firmly into place. "I—I can't take that assignment."
"I'm sure there are other interns more deserving. And Scarlet just gave me this incredible layout project to handle myself and, with the whole place upside down trying to...well, you know, working so hard to win the family thing...I just don't think the timing is right."
Cade took a deep breath and tipped his chair back as he regarded her. "By the family thing, I assume you mean the ultimate management of Elliott Publication Holdings."
She shifted uncomfortably. "Well, I mean, everyone knows that Patrick—Mr. Elliott—has pitted the four magazines of EPH against each other to see which of his offspring will run the overall company."
Of course, from the boardroom to the janitor's closet, the whole of EPH was discussing the "contest" among the four Elliotts and the magazines they each ran. The lucky one would replace Patrick at the helm, and the competition among the four editors-in-chief to make the highest profit was getting downright dirty.
It didn't surprise him that Jessie Clayton would know about the situation. Especially if his suspicions about her were correct.
And her response was only confirming those suspicions. Why would she be reluctant to accept what had to be a coup among the interns at one of the world's most successful fashion magazines?
"Let me make sure I understand this. Are you saying you don't want to be Finola Elliott's shadow intern for the month of September?" He didn't bother to hide the incredulity in his voice.
Her tongue darted over her lips as though they were as parched as her throat. "That's right. That's what I'm saying."
He let out a small choke of disbelief. "You know this is the most coveted assignment for an intern at the magazine?"
Her eyes widened, but the color was so hard to discern behind the tinted glasses. "I am honored and grateful, Cade. I can't imagine why I'd get picked, but—"
"Because you are an excellent candidate," he interrupted.
"Because your ideas are fresh, your energy is constant, you've never been late or out sick in five months, and you've shown great promise in the world of high fashion publishing."
And you've made a point to avoid any contact with Finola Elliott.
But he didn't add that little piece of information. She didn't know that her unusual behavior had landed her on his radar screen. Of course, her silky hair and slender body, that porcelain complexion and melodic laugh also got his attention. Too much of it, actually. But it was her proactive avoidance of the woman most interns did handstands to impress that had ultimately landed her in his office.
"You're a model intern and you've earned this reward." She opened her mouth, then closed it again. One more time she adjusted the frames of her glasses. "No. Thank you. I'd rather not."
Every highly trained cell in his body screamed in alert. Before him sat a young woman who was smart, attractive, qualified and ambitious enough to work for nothing but exposure to the business. Why would she turn down a plum high-profile assignment?
"Why not?" he asked.
"We're days from the editorial deadline for January, and Scarlet let me have this whole Spring Fling layout for March, which will mean I'll have to go to the photo shoot and meet with..." She trailed off and wet her lips again. "I just would rather not take on that kind of assignment right now," she finished quietly.
There was only one explanation that occurred to Cade.
She didn't want Finola's close attention and examination. And there could be a very good reason why.
Business instinct told him that nothing he asked could get her to reveal that reason. He couldn't scare it out of her, even though he'd been known to intimidate a few employees on occasion. He couldn't coax it out of her, even though he'd seen her react with a sweet blush to his friendly teases.
No, neither his MBA training nor his legendary management skills were going to do the trick here. He'd need to resort to something more ingenious, something a little trickier and lot more appealing.
"You know, Jess." He leaned forward a bit. "I'm just not buying this."
This time there was no doubt that some blood drained from her cheeks. "You're not?"
He shook his head. "You're not telling me something." Behind the tinted lenses, he saw her eyes widen. If he was right, and she was a mole from Pulse or Snap or even The Buzz, then one of Finola's family had picked a lousy liar for the spy job.
He'd get the truth out of her. He just needed to take down her defenses a little.
"Tell you what." He put his elbows on the desk and lowered his voice. "Why don't you meet me for a drink after work, and we'll talk about it in some friendlier surroundings? Maybe you need a little time to think about it."
"A drink?" She backed up ever so slightly.
Now he had her disarmed. Lying about something, and not sure if she had just been asked out on a date by the magazine's executive editor. "You know the Bull and Bear? At the Waldorf?" When she nodded, he said, "Good. Then we can talk about the shadow assignment there."
He held her gaze for a moment too long. Which wasn't difficult at all, because he'd been fighting the urge to flirt with the redheaded dynamo from the minute he'd first interviewed her. But professionalism demanded that he never, ever date employees of the magazine. That would be a serious mistake.
However, this wasn't really a date. This was the only way to get a woman to confess everything.
Jessie Clayton was hiding something, and he intended to find out what it was and how it would impact his magazine.
"What do you say, about six o'clock? In the bar?"
"I don't know...."
He winked at her. "Come on, Jess. It's just a drink."
She straightened her glasses again. "Okay. Six o'clock. At the Waldorf."
If he could just see into her eyes, he might be able to figure out what she was hiding. What would he have to do to get her to take those glasses off?
"I'll see you there," he promised.
She left his office, but there was no mistaking the pretty aroma of trouble that lingered in her wake.
At exactly five-forty, Jessie dialed Lainie Sinclair's extension. "Is he gone yet?" she asked her roommate, who had a birds-eye view of the executive editor's office from her cubicle.
"He left a few minutes ago," Lainie said softly. "Stopped in the men's room first, came out with his tie straight, but no new hair gel or cologne."
"You'd make a great spy, Lainie." Jessie laughed. But she knew Cade McMann wouldn't gel up his burnished gold hair. He wore it tousled, and casual. Touchable. For the fortieth time since she'd left his office, her stomach flipped. "Wish me luck."
"What do you need luck for? Your boss's boss has plucked you from intern obscurity for the coolest job in the company. I still don't get why you're turning it down."
The urge to confess all welled up in Jessie. Lainie had befriended her on the day of her internship interview, and then became her roommate and closest companion in New York City. If she were ever to confide in someone, Lainie was the one.
But the time wasn't right. Lainie was a doll, as trustworthy and true a girlfriend as there could ever be, but Jessie's secret would be the most sizzling gossip to hit EPH since Patrick Elliott announced his year-long battle for the board-room. Even Jessie's new best friend might not be able to hold in the truth. Lainie had been bouncing off the walls for the past hour and all she knew was that Cade had offered Jessie a great assignment and was taking her for a drink to discuss it.
If Lainie knew the truth... "I told you, Lainie. I don't see shadowing Fin as a great plus for me. I'd have to give up the Spring Fling layout Scarlet offered me."
"Spring Fling Schmling. You're nuts. Did you talk to Scarlet?"
"She's out at a photo shoot today," Jessie said, peering at the empty cube where Charisma"s flamboyant assistant fashion editor worked in a sea of photos, clippings and fabric swatches. "Which I guess is why Cade delivered the news, since Scarlet is technically my boss."
"But it doesn't explain why he wants to drag the meeting into a swanky hotel bar for further discussion." Lainie paused, then added, "Think he got a room upstairs?"
"Get real, Lain." Not that the same thought hadn't occurred to her. But, for once, fantasies of rolling around on high-end sheets with Cade McMann were not what caused the flipping in her stomach. "It's just a drink." An invitation to a drink, she had to admit, that was issued with a look that practically singed her down to her toes.