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'I thought you were going to be late,' his PA said as Roman O'Hagan walked into the empty conference room.
'I don't know if I've ever mentioned this, Alice, but you have a very uptight attitude to timekeeping,' Roman observed, shrugging off his jacket and laying it across the back of a chair. 'And in case it's slipped your mind, I'm the boss so I'm allowed to be late.'
Alice, who had worked for him for four years and had no recollection of him ever being late during that time, planted a cup of coffee in front of him on the long polished table.
'Well, boss, I managed to get us on the four-thirty Dublin ﬂight.'
'Excellent.' Swivelling his chair around, Roman stretched his long legs out comfortably in front of him and added with a pained grimace, 'Which is more than I can say for this coffee! And I use the word in the loosest possible sense.' He stared down suspiciously at the pale brown liquid in his cup.
'It's decaff, and in case it's slipped your mind making coffee is not part of my job description. I do it simply because I have a nice nature.'
'I'm a lucky man,' Roman returned, deadpan.
'Yes, you are.' She paused by the door. 'By the way, your brother rang.'
'Did he leave a message?'
'Not for you.'
Roman's darkly deﬁned brows lifted at the cryptic response. He was as sure as he could be without written proof that his brother, Luca, had a lot to do with the fact his assistant had gone down a dress size during the past couple of months.
It was getting hard to maintain a tactful silence on the subject of his brother not being the marrying kindAlice was.
'He said he'd call back.'
The conference call started off really well, but went rapidly downhill once the second speaker came on the line.
How is it possible for anyone to talk for so long and say absolutely nothing?
Roman interrupted the interminable ﬂow. The response was if anything even more rambling. It also cleared up the question of whether this well-paid individual had grasped the problem or done the necessary researchhe hadn't!
Roman listened with a half-smile as the man's junior managed to bail out his boss without making it obvious that was what he was doing; he also predicted and responded to the two further questions Roman had planned to ask.
Roman wouldn't forget his name.
'So you think the European market is ready for a project of this' Before he got to complete his question a female voice, a low, husky, very attractive female voice interrupted him.
'Excuse me, but am I speaking to Mr O'Hagan?'
'Who is that?'
'A Mr Roman O'Hagan?'
'How on earth...? I'm afraid this is a private...'
'I'm trying to contact a Mr O'Hagan. Could you tell me who I'm speaking to?'
That combination of selective deafness and persistence, even if she did have an extraordinarily sexy voice, was going to get wearing very quickly, Roman decided.
F. O'Hagan and Sons had recently been held up as a shining example of ﬁrms that employed a higher number than average of females in top-management-level jobs, but none of them was taking part in this conference call today.
Roman didn't have the faintest idea who this woman was or how she had turned up smack bang in the middle of a highly sensitive discussion. He doubted if it was worth the bother of ﬁnding out.
Who did people blame for cock-ups before the advent of computers?
'I don't know how you got on this line...' Roman stopped. The lazy smile that formed on his wide sensual mouth held more than a hint of self-derision. Could it be, he wondered, that his display of uncharacteristic tolerance might not be totally unconnected with the fact the gatecrasher had a very attractive voice? In his head those smoky, sultry tones were inextricably linked with long legs, seductive lips and long blonde hair.
'Well, don't ask me! Perhaps it was your turn to fob me off?' came the bitter speculation. 'I've been put through to every other blessed person in the building!'
Goodbye sultry seductress, hello schoolteacher. Oh, well, the harmless fantasy had been nice while it lasted.
'I've been fobbed off and made to wait'
'Do you mind hanging up? This is a private and conﬁdential discussion.' Some men might like their women bossyeach to his own, that was his mottoonly his own taste didn't run in that direction.
Unlike his top management people from across Europe who were hanging on every word of this conversation, the woman on the other end of the line didn't appear to realise that when the head of O'Hagan Construction used this tone the conversation was at an end.
'I've not the slightest interest in your discussion,' the owner of the husky voice promised him with considerable feeling.
Roman expelled his breath in a hiss of frustrated irritation. He ﬂicked his wrist, exposing the metal banded watch. 'That's what all the industrial spies say, however'
'Is that meant to be a joke?' the voice demanded, dropping several degrees below freezing. 'Because I have to tell you I'm really not in the mood. And I warn you if I have to listen to ''The Blue Danube'' one more time I shall not be responsible for the consequences,' she warned darkly. 'Do you want a gibbering female running naked through town on your conscience?'
'It would depend on the female'
'I'm so glad you ﬁnd this amusing.'
'Do you ever let anyone ﬁnish what they're attempting to say?'
'For heaven's sake, I'm not asking for a personal audience with the Pope, I just want to speak to Mr O'Hagan.'
Roman leaned his head into his hands. 'Obviously she doesn't'
'I think it's extremely bad manners to speak about someone in the third person when they...me...I can hear every word you're saying! As I've already explained to umpteen people, this really is important.'
Roman's lips twisted in a cynical grimace.
Hands clasped behind his head, he leaned back into his upholstered leather chair.
'I'd be surprised if it wasn't,' he observed drily.
The people who wanted to speak to him inevitably considered what they had to say was important. Ninety per cent of them wanted to make him a fortune; all they needed was just a bit of his own money to get their schemes up and running. Very few of these cranks got to tell him about their projects in person because as a rule his calls were screened.
This was one of the concessions he'd been forced to make to security after he'd badly misjudged a situation. He'd turned up at the ofﬁce one morning to ﬁnd his stalkera mild middle-aged woman whom he, in his wisdom, had considered sad, not dangeroushad already been there complete with kitchen knife delusions and a hostage in the shape of his terriﬁed PA.
Alice still had the scar. Unconsciously his hand went to his face. Fortunately you couldn't see hers, but his own reminded him of his poor judgement every time he looked in the mirror.
'Alice,' he yelled, swivelling his chair around and positioning it to face the open door, 'I've got a damned crank on this line, can you do something about it?'
'I'm not a crank!' The disembodied voice ﬁlled the room with husky outrage.
'Fair enough,' he drawled. 'However, you are on a private line so hang up! If you have a message there are channels you can go through.'
'Haven't you been listening to anything I've said? I don't have time for channels. Has anyone ever told you that you're an extremely rude man?'
'This has been said, but rarely to my face.'
'Very ironic,' came the blighting response. 'But I'm not talking to your face. If I was I might be able...listen, are you Mr O'Hagan?'
'I am Roman O'Hagan. If you're not going to hang up, do you think you might get round some time in the next hour to telling me who the hell you are? If only so that I can make sure you never have an opportunity to harangue me in the future.'
This threat produced an audible sigh at the other end. 'Well, I do think you might have said so straight away instead of wasting my time.'
'Wasting your time...?' Roman hoped his silent and invisible executives would stay quiet.
'My name is Scarlet Smith.'
Scarlet... Roman found he was thinking long legs again and, deﬁnitely, blonde hair. Not that any amount of hair or legs would make the woman who had this runaway mouth someone he'd ask for a second date...or even a ﬁrst!
'I manage the cre'che at the university.'
So he'd been halfway right with schoolteacher.
'Your mother is ofﬁcially opening it today.'
'My mother is in Rome.' Roman stopped, having a vague recollection, now that he thought about it, of his mother having mentioned she was interrupting her holiday with her family to ﬂy back and fulﬁl some commitment...it could well have been this one.
'No, she's in my ofﬁce, and I'm afraid she isn't very well.'
Roman levered his long-limbed frame into an upright position, his languid air vanishing. 'What's happened?'
'I don't mean to alarm you'
'Well, you are, so get to the point,' he advised tersely.
'Your mother fainted a little while ago. She seems better now.'
His mother didn't faint. 'What does the doctor say?' Roman asked, settling his loose Italian-de-signed jacket smoothly across his broad shoulders.
'She hasn't seen a doctor.'
Roman picked up on the defensive note that had entered the attractive voice and his brows drew together in a disapproving straight line.
'Why the hell not?' he demanded. 'I need the car,' he added seamlessly as he turned to his attentively hovering PA, who, like all good assistants, knew when to say nothing. 'And cancel all my appointments for the rest of the morning, then tell Phil to meet me at the university.'
'What if Dr O'Connor is busy?'
Roman turned his head and looked at her; Alice took the hint.
'Right, I'll tell him to drop everything, though that might be hard if he's in the middle of heart surgery.'
'He's a medical man; he doesn't operate,' Roman retorted. 'Just explain to him what's happened, Alice, and tell him to bring his bag.'
'Your mother wouldn't let me call a doctor or an ambulance.'
Roman turned around as if to face the bleating voice. 'Let you? She was unconscious,' he derided scornfully.
'For less than a minute.'
Roman knew when he heard someone covering their back; there was nothing he despised more. He came down hard on people who preferred to shift the blame because they lacked the guts to carry the can for their own mistakes.
'Let me tell you, Miss Smith, if my mother suffers a broken ﬁngernail that could have been avoided if you had called for medical assistance I'll sue the pants off you and your university!' he promised darkly before cutting her off.
His PA was unable to remain silent. 'Really, you can be so mean!'
'What is this? Sisterly solidarity?'
'I don't think you realise how much you terrify people,' she reproved, shaking her head.
'No, Alice, I know exactly how much I terrify people.' He gave a white wolﬁsh smile. 'It's the secret behind my success.'
'Nonsense,' returned Alice. 'The secret of your success is you live for your work and don't have a life,' she observed disapprovingly. 'You lack balance.'
'A little more terror, Alice, and a little less lip would be appreciated,' Roman drawled.
'That poor girl is probably crying her eyes out.'
'Pardon me but I don't empathise with incompetence, especially when that incompetence puts my family in danger,' he explained grimly.
Contrary to Alice's prediction, the 'poor girl' in question was neither terriﬁed nor crying. She was walking down a university corridor where people who would normally have called out a cheery greeting took one look at her usually sunny face and changed their minds.
Others stared curiously when she walked past practising out loudthe acoustics were excel-lentone of the cutting home truths she would like to deliver personally to Mr Roman O'Hagan.
'Get to the point,' he'd said. What did he think she'd been trying to do while he'd been cracking jokes at her expense?