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ITWAS not yet seven-thirty and Gabriel Gessi was already at his desk. It was his daily routine. Half an hour running on the treadmill at his gym, half an hour scything through the empty pool, a quick shower, a shave and then on to his office, already charged to face the onslaught that constituted his average day. The only interruptions to this brutally physical routine came in the form of his frequent trips overseas, although, even then, he would try his level best to kick-start his working day on a physical high.
The past three months had not seen him deviate from this punishing routine, even though the accus-tomed high had been marred by a succession of ir-ritations that he really should not have been expected to handle. Even though they concerned him.
Gabriel Gessi inhabited that rarefied world of the supremely wealthy and, as such, was not ac-customed to dealing with life's minor irritations.
His adrenalin rush came from the aggressive cut and thrust of deals and acquisitions, not from the more prosaic set-backs that dogged most people's working lives.
Set-back number one had come in the form of the temp who had sailed through the interview process under the successful camouflage of an ef-ficient working girl but who, after one week, had turned out to be a ditzy emotional wreck who spent the majority of her two weeks sniffing dis-creetly into a handkerchief and muttering lame excuses about boyfriend problems.
Gabriel had no time for females with boyfriend problems and even less time for females who cried. He had had to get rid of her and thereafter had followed a catalogue of mediocrity which had left him gritting his perfect white teeth in frustration.
He couldn'timagine how the incompetents who appeared in front of him could ever have been fortunate enough to find gainful employment and yet, by all accounts, they had.
He had seen off the last one the Friday before with an audible sigh of relief. She, at any rate, had lasted longer than the expected fortnight, but he reckoned that that had only been because he had swallowed his irritation and, with laudable patience, tolerated her annoying tendency to cower whenever he spoke and to address him so quietly that he'd constantly had to tell her to speak up. Whenever he'd told her to speak up, she'd invari-ably jumped and spilled something. Coffee. Water. Her cup of tea. Something of a liquid nature had always seemed to be around waiting to be nudged accidentally over, which, in turn, had rendered her even more incapable.
The whole thing had been extremely trying and Gabriel was overjoyed that his life was now going to return to normal.
For the first time in three long months, he had actually strolled through the smoked glass doors of his very plush four-storied offices without a scowl on his face.
Rose would be back today. Life could return to its normal smooth course, leaving him to get on with the process of running an empire without having to worry about the tiresome nuts and bolts.
Of course it was not yet eight and, even though he half expected her to demonstrate her enthu-siasm to be back at the helm, he did not reasonably expect her to appear, like him, at the crack of dawn. She would, after all, probably still be recuperating from jet lag. A flight back from Australia was enough to throw even the most seasoned traveller, and Rose was not a seasoned traveller. Even though a fair percentage of his business was founded on the leisure industry, including a range of exclusive hotels scattered all over the world, her knowledge of foreign shores was limited. In the four years she had worked for him, she had only travelled with him a handful of times and, even then, only to Europe. He hadn't minded. He needed her back at the office anyway, in his absence, making sure that things were ticking over.
In that quiet time before employees started arriving, time which he usually spent going through the emails which would have been for-warded overnight, Gabriel instead swivelled his leather chair round so that he was facing the huge window, staring out at a skyline that was cluttered with the busyness of the concrete jungle, but still oddly beautiful against the crisply blue May sky.
The past three months had showed him how much he relied on Rose. She was well paid but he contemplated giving her another pay rise. Or maybe a company car, although he couldn't imagine her driving to work. Who did? He, per-sonally, either took a cab or else was driven in by his chauffeur, sparing him the horrors of the London traffic. But she might be able to use a car if she ever wanted to get out of London.
Briefly, Gabriel wondered whether she ever did. Despite his occasional prodding, he realised that he knew precious little about her personal life. She had a talent for deflecting unwanted questions that would have guaranteed her a career in the dip-lomatic service.
Did she even have a driving licence? He vaguely assumed that everyone did, but maybe not.
Wrapped up in the lazy perambulations of his thoughts, he was only marginally aware of time passing and not at all aware that it was nine until, reflected in the glass pane through which he was still staring, he saw her standing in the open door-way that separated his office from her working area.
For a few seconds he was aware of an unusual slam of emotion, then he glanced at his watch and swivelled round.
Rose involuntarily drew in a deep breath, re-leasing it very slowly. It steadied her nerves. Even when she had been coming in every day, seeing him every day, he still had, had he but known it, an oddly destabilising effect on her. Something about his sheer, overpowering physicality.
Three months spent away intensified the effect to the point that she felt faint, even though her face remained as pleasantly unrevealing as always.
"It's nine o'clock,'Gabriel said, scowling. "You normally get in by eight-thirty."
The brusqueness of his tone released her from her immobility and she walked towards the chair positioned in front of his desk and sat down. "I see you haven't changed, Gabriel," she commented dryly. "Still avoiding all the rules of common po-liteness. Aren't you going to ask me about my trip to Australia?"
"No need. I gathered from your emails that you were having a whale of a time. You've changed. You've lost weight."
Rose couldn't help it. She blushed as his blue eyes gave her the once-over.
She fought to remember what her sister had said about getting out of the rut she was in, tearing herself away from her hopeless infatuation with a man who was a health hazard when it came to members of the opposite sex.
But he was just so sinfully sexy. It was impos-sible not to feel her toes curl in her sensible flats as she drank in the sensuous curve of his mouth, the powerful beauty of his features, the daunting "Yes, I have," she admitted steadily, looking down at the letter on her lap and nervously smooth-ing her fingers over it. "It was hot over there. I lived on salads. I'm sorry you had such a problem with my replacements," she said, changing the subject because those amazing eyes of his were boring holes through her. "I honestly thought that Claire was going to work out or else I wouldn't have recruited her. What exactly was the problem?"
Gabriel, however, was still reeling from the transformation, not sure that he liked what he was seeing. Gone was the comfortably plump Rose, last seen in a practical navy-blue suit and white roll-neck sweater. In its place was a very slim Rose, showing off a surprisingly eye-catching figure in a tan and black checked skirt that actually revealed a bit of thigh and a figure-hugging black three-quarter length T-shirt that revealed breasts that would be more than just a good handful. The only sensible thing about her were her flat ballet style shoes.
"I never knew you had legs," he mused aloud. "Of course I have legs, Gabriel! How do you think I manage to get from A to B? On wings?"
"But you've always hidden them before, ' He moved swiftly from chair to desk and perched there, staring down at her assessingly. "And very attractive they are, too. But you might want to observe a little more decorum in the office."
Rose's mouth dropped open in outrage at his openly sexist remark.
"What have you done to your hair? Have you done something to your hair? It looks different."
"I haven't done anything to my hair, Gabriel, aside from having it trimmed, and shall we leave the subject of me behind just for a moment, ?' She fiddled with the letter, not quite knowing how she was going to give it to him without having to sit through the torturous process of watching him read it.
"Why? I'm fascinated by the transformation. I thought you were going over to help your sister with her new baby. I had no idea you were going for a complete make-over."
"I did go to help Grace!' "And in the process decided to go on a crash diet, cut your hair and lounge around in a bikini all day so that you could go brown, ?"
Rose counted to ten and wondered what exactly she saw in a man who was as arrogant as they came and saw nothing amiss in barging through every warning red light she was giving off without a second's thought.
"Have you ever been in the company of a newborn, Gabriel?"
"Now that's something I've always tried to avoid, "
"Thought so, because if you had you would know that screaming newborns and tanning on loungers are two things that don't go hand in hand."
"Surely your sister didn't expect you to look after the thing the whole time!"
"It wasn't a thing. It was a baby. A beautiful little boy. They called him Ben." Her voice softened as she remembered the feel of that small, that had kick-started her determination to change the rut into which she had comfortably sunk. Grace, two years older than her, had been so bliss-fully happy. Next to her, Rose had had an ugly vision of her own life and its sad limitations and she hadn't cared for what she had glimpsed. In two years' time she would be twenty-eight, the same age as her sister, but would she be cradling a newborn infant with a loving husband by her side if she continued doing what she was doingworking flat out for a man who didn't have a clue she existed aside from her role as his capable sec-retary? Or would she be the eternal career girl who spent her life improving her house and bet-tering her lifestyle with nothing to show for it in the end? Well, nothing worth having, anyway. A certain wistfulness crept into her voice as she told him about her experiences in Australia. Grace's husband, Tom, was an orthopaedic surgeon and had needed his nights to be free of interruption so that he could get enough sleep to enable him to operate safely. Hence, Rose's input had been more than just a luxury. She had done her fair share of waking up during the nights, settling the baby back to sleep after his feed, but she had enjoyed every minute of it.
Gabriel was hardly listening to her spiel about the baby. Babies would doubtless eventually come for himhe was, after all, half Italianbut for the moment he couldn't care less about the antics of some undersized human being on the other side of the world.