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YOU WANT ME to go where? To do what? With whom?"
After uttering those questions, Kayla stared at Nelson. Until thirty seconds ago, she'd thought her boss was a rational human being. Clearly, however, the man was insane.
Nelson stared right back at her over the tops of his bifocals. "To Peru. To spy. On Brett Thornton."
Brett Thornton. Kayla barely managed to suppress a grimace. How was it possible to so thoroughly dislike a man she'd never even met? In the course of only four months, he'd become the bane of her existence. She was well accustomed to dealing with everything from the media to demanding executives to high-maintenance, diva-like models. Who would have thought that some unknown nerdy scientist could prove such a problem?
"I flunked Spying 101," she said with a breezy laugh.
"So clearly I'm not the best choice."
"You are the best choice," Nelson said in the deep, implacable tone Kayla recognized all too well after working for him for the past ten years. It was the tone that indicated he'd made up his mind and there'd be no changing it. "Thornton's claims of developing an anti-aging formula that will not only render cosmetic surgery obsolete but has aphrodisiac qualities, as well, is the cutting edge we need."
"Unfortunately every other cosmetics company in the world feels the same way."
"Exactly. Which is why I want to make sure La Fleur has the upper hand right from the beginning. We lost out two years ago on that new sunless-tan formula. We're not losing again."
"But Thornton's been dangling that golden carrot for four months and hasn't produced yet."
"Doesn't mean he won't."
She made a disgusted sound. "My personal opinion is that he's loving all the attention every cosmetics firm--including us--is lavishing on him. Basking in the perks, the wining, dining and wooing--he's milking it for all it's worth, and when it finally comes time to put out his so-called miracle product, he'll have nothing."
"That is a possibility," Nelson agreed. "But it's also just as likely he's being cautious, and as aggravating as that is, I can't blame him. If his claims are true, the product will revolutionize not only skin care but foreplay as well. Who could resist such a product? You know as well as I do that sex sells. And La Fleur will own the product."
There was no need for him add "or else"--it was fully implied. And certainly if Thornton's claims were true, Kayla wanted La Fleur to own the miracle formula. But after months with no physical proof, she had serious doubts as to whether Thornton's claims were valid.
And then there was her personal dislike of the man. While she'd been spared dealing with him personally, her staff had not been so fortunate, reporting that Thornton was standoffish, refused interviews and didn't return phone calls. Bad enough--but her one near-encounter with him two months ago had convinced her he lacked any redeeming qualities.
She'd spent weeks arranging a fabulous party in Thornton's honor to introduce him to key La Fleur people, seen to it that every mover and shaker in New York had been invited, along with a host of local celebrities and all the La Fleur models. And what did Brett Thornton do? He'd abruptly left--without a word, before the party had barely begun. And before he'd been introduced to the managerial team, herself included. Furious and appalled by his rudeness, she'd been forced to improvise a plausible excuse to the company's president, CFO and board of directors who looked to her to explain why the guest of honor was MIA.
Just thinking about it now fueled her anger all over again. As far as she was concerned, Brett Thornton--oops, sorry--Dr. Thornton as he'd insisted upon being called--was more of a headache than a roomful of hungover supermodels. He was just another arrogant overnight sensation who courted media interest, then turned into a first-class whiner about the "intrusive" attention. Exactly the sort of person she most disliked.
Nelson slid a sheet of paper toward her over his lakesized glass-topped desk. "Here's your itinerary. Your flight to Lima leaves at nine o'clock. That gives you plenty of time to go home and--"
"Whoa, hold it," Kayla said, extending her hand like a stop sign. "Nine o'clock tonight?" Good grief, she hadn't even unpacked from yesterday's re-booked Miami flight.
"Tonight," Nelson confirmed.
Everything inside Kayla groaned. In an effort to save herself, she said, "I'm attending the launch for the Hidden Secrets fragrance line tomorrow--"
"I've reassigned that to Caroline," Nelson interjected, naming Kayla's senior publicist. "She can handle your calendar until you return."
"Caroline--or someone else on my staff--can just as easily make this trip to woo Thornton."
Nelson shook his head. "You're missing the point. This trip isn't about wooing or schmoozing. It's about gathering information--discreetly. I want to know why he's going to Peru, of all places."
Kayla's curiosity was piqued in spite of herself. "You think it has something to do with his formula? That maybe there's a secret ingredient in some plant found only in South America?"
"Maybe. If the man merely wanted a vacation, why not just go to the Caribbean or Hawaii or even Europe? Why Peru?"
"You have a point--it is a bit off the beaten track."
"That's what I thought. Especially since it's obvious he's gone to great pains to keep this trip secret."
"How did you find out about it?"
Nelson treated her to a razor-sharp smile. "I'm not at liberty to say. Suffice it to know that my source is impeccable."
"And how do you know that Lancôme and Estée Lauder and all our other competitors aren't sending spies to Peru, as well?"
"I don't, but I'd lay odds that no one else knows about Thornton's plans. It was just by a stroke of freakish luck that I found out about them. Worst-case scenario is that the competition will be there, too, in which case, I'd need you there to run interference and represent our interests. But my gut tells me that won't be the case and that this is the perfect opportunity for us to learn more. Not just about the formula and its properties, but the man himself. All without him realizing it's being done, especially by someone connected to La Fleur. Which is one reason why Caroline is out--she's met Thornton."
"What about April or Ted?" she asked, naming two more of her staff.
"No. Ted met Thornton last week. You're the best, and the best is what's required for this trip."
Part of her was flattered at Nelson's recognition of her job skills. But another part--the part that had lately grumbled with discontent over some of the things she'd done to be the best--was less than pleased. "Thank you, but April is very competent and she's never met Thornton."
"She has back problems."
Kayla frowned. "What does that have to do with anything?"
"The trip would be too vigorous for her."
"Vigorous?" Her eyes narrowed with suspicion.
"What sort of trip is this? Some kind of rafting expedition down the anaconda-filled Amazon?"
Nelson looked insulted. "Of course not. I know you don't like snakes."
"Amen to that."
"Besides, you'd need yellow fever shots for the Amazon."
She blinked. "It scares me that you even know that."
"Not to worry. This trip is perfectly safe and doesn't involve the Amazon at all. I know what a girly girl you are."
"Uh-huh. And this seems like a good time to remind you that there's nothing wrong with that. This is a cosmetics company after all--not Extreme Sports-R-Us."
Nelson smiled. "Not to worry--"
"The fact that that's the second time you've said that in the last ten seconds is not reassuring. Exactly what sort of trip is this?"
"You want the good news or the bad news first?"
"Oh, God." She squeezed her eyes shut for several seconds, took a bracing breath, then said, "Good news. I definitely could use some good news."
"The good news is that the hotel where you're scheduled to stay in Aguas Calientes is incredible. Breathtaking views, gourmet food, five-star treatment all the way."
"And the bad news?"
"It's a four-day hike to Aguas Calientes."
A deafening silence filled the room. When Kayla finally found her voice, she said, "Hike?"
"Hike. Aguas Calientes is the town nearest to Machu Picchu, the lost city of the Incas in the Andes mountains. You'll enjoy a four-day hike along the famous Inca trail to the ruins, which are reputed to be spectacular. Then, at the end of the journey, you'll be pampered at the Sanctuary Lodge which is the height of luxury."
"You sound like a travel agent."
"Just trying to focus on the positives. And it's not as grueling as it sounds."
"That's a relief, because I must tell you, a four-hour hike sounds grueling. A four-day hike sounds...insane."
"You'll have a guide and porters who carry the tents and cooking gear."
"Tents and cooking gear are the positives?" She shook her head. "Limos and facials and sun-drenched tropical beaches are positives."
"You'll be fine. I recall you once mentioning you were a Girl Scout."
"Yes. When I was ten. Nowadays, I'm afraid my idea of roughing it is staying at a Holiday Inn instead of a Hyatt."
"You have a gym membership. You can handle this."
"I'm not worried about my ability to hike up the mountain. But neither yoga, spinning nor Pilates prepare one for sleeping in the wild outdoors. In tents."
"Think of this as an opportunity to do something new for a change. To step outside the box."
Nelson's words halted her, and she immediately recalled the article she'd read yesterday. No Change, No Gain. According to the article, if she always did what she'd always done, she'd always be where she'd always been. To get her life back in balance, she needed to challenge herself. Step outside her box. Go somewhere she'd never been, and do something she'd never done.
No doubt about it, a four-day, tent-sleeping, gear-lugging, outdoor-roughing-it hike in the Andes qualified for waaay outside her box. She'd been thinking more along the lines of a spa trip to St. Bart's for a seaweed wrap--something she'd never done in a place she'd never been.
But even she had to admit that such pampering wouldn't qualify as "challenging." Was it fate that had Nelson scheduling her for this trip? Let's hope so, her inner voice whispered. Right. As opposed to it being a bone-breaking, nightmarish, hikers-eaten-by-giant-snakes coincidence. Which probably just proved that this trip was fate. A mighty, between-the-shoulder-blades shove outside her comfort zone. One that, based on her St. Bart's spa idea, she sure as hell wouldn't have planned on her own. And one that was exactly what she needed.
In fact, if Dr. Brett Thornton wasn't in the mix, everything would be perfect. Or at least as perfect as a four-day hike up a mountain could be.
The timing, however, was not great. With Meg's wedding only a month away, her sister was bound to freak when she heard Kayla would be away for a week. Kayla took her maid-of-honor duties seriously, and she hated to leave Meg now--especially since her future in-laws were arriving this weekend from California. But unless she wanted to resign from her job here and now, she had little choice.
"Listen, Kayla, I know this is a bit outside your realm," Nelson's voice jerked her away from her thoughts, "but surely if Thornton, who no doubt spends all his time peering through microscopes, can make the hike, so can you.