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WHAT was that old proverb...? Something about keeping your friends close but your enemies even closer...Penny mused as she walked into the head offices of Lucas Shipping. Well, this was her first step into the rival camp and it felt strangely liberating. At least she was doing something constructive, not just sitting waiting for the axe to fall, as her father seemed intent on doing.
A blast of cold air washed over her skin as she went from the tropical Caribbean heat into the air-conditioned foyer, and a shiver ran through her...but whether it was from the cold or the thought of what her father would say if he knew she was here, she didn't know. A few weeks ago, when she had phoned him and voiced the idea of approaching Lucas personally, appealing for more time to pay what was owed, her father had gone almost apoplectic with rage. "Lucas is the devil incarnate," he had bellowed.
"But, Dad, you don't really know that," Penny had insisted softly. "It was Lucas's father that you had trouble with, and he's dead now. Maybe his son will be better."
"You can be very nai¨ve sometimes, Penny," her father had grated angrily. "Lucas Darien is just like his father, and I'll tell you this: I'd rather go under than ask a member of that family for any favours."
Penny could just have left things. After all, it was really nothing to do with her; this was her father's business. She had her own career to think about, and as manageress of a beauty spa on board one of the world's biggest luxury cruise liners she was too far away to do anything anyway. However, a few phone calls later she had heard her father's anger turn to depression and she had known that she cared too much about him not to try to step into the breach. If she'd had enough money she would have tried to bail him out herself, but the next best thing had been to ask for leave from work and fly out to Lucas Darien's head office in Puerto Rico. Maybe her father was too proud to ask for help, but Penny wasn't.
Okay, maybe the estate had to go...maybe it was time her father retired. The sugar industry had been going through a bad patch, and he had been struggling for a long time to make the estate pay, but surely he didn't have to lose their family home as well as all their land? That house had been handed down through three generations of their family...it was far too precious to let go without a fight...even if that did mean humbling herself before the enemy.
"Can I help you?" The receptionist looked up enquiringly as she approached. She was a young woman in her early twenties, with ash-blonde hair and a slightly harassed expression in her blue eyes.
"I'm here to see Lucas Darien," Penny said with brisk confidence, as if she had every right to see the man straight away, sidestepping the little fact that she had no appointment and knew that the man's time was like gold dust.
"Oh, you must be Mildred Bancroft, Mr Darien's new PA." The woman's whole demeanour suddenly seemed to lighten, and she smiled at Penny warmly. "Gosh, am I glad to see you..." Before Penny could say anything the phone next to them rang and the woman turned away to pick it up. "Excuse me a moment..."
Penny was left in a quandary. If she owned up straight away to the fact that she wasn't Mildred, the new PA, she probably wouldn't get past the reception and wouldn't see Lucas Darien today. She had already phoned twice, trying to make an appointment, and had been told she'd have to wait until the end of the month. Her father didn't have that much time to spare. He had already been warned that an eviction order for the twenty-fifth of this month was likely.
"Oh, hi." The receptionist giggled at whatever was being said to her at the other end of the line. "No, things are getting better around here now; the cavalry has finally arrived in the shape of the new PA, so that should take some of the pressure off me...thank God. Yes, I can make dinner tonight —"
"Shauna." A deep voice boomed from the inner office...a voice that was unquestionably disgruntled. "Will you please get me the files I asked for half an hour ago?"
"Got to go, Paul." Shauna hurriedly put the phone down and grimaced at Penny. "That's the boss," she hissed. "But don't worry, his bark is worse than his bite...he's quite nice, really."
"I'd like them today, Shauna, if that wouldn't be too much trouble," the voice continued in an even fiercer tone.
"Coming, Mr Darien." Shauna flushed bright pink. "He's not in a very good mood recently," she whispered to Penny as she searched through a pile of papers that were sitting next to her in an untidy heap. "His girlfriend broke up with him a few weeks ago, then his PA left to get married, and he's been snowed under with work...what with trying to organise things here and sort through his late father's business affairs. I'm having to do more and more..."
"Really?" Penny murmured. It was good to know that the enemy was having his fair share of problems, and she couldn't help hoping the guy was absolutely miserable. He deserved it after the way he and his family had treated her father. She watched as Shauna started to rummage through the papers with increasingly nervous fingers.
"Where the heck did I put those files?" she wailed under her breath. "I had them a moment ago. You can't see them, can you? They're in a green folder."
Penny couldn't help liking this girl, with her dizzy manner and careless chatter. "Is that them over there?" She pointed to a shelf behind, where two green folders sat next to a cup and saucer on a silver tray.
"Thank heavens for that!" Shauna exclaimed. "Whoops...I forgot his coffee and it's cold now...another bad mark for me..."
"Well, you can't do everything," Penny said sympathetically.
"No..." The woman smiled at her gratefully. "I'm so glad you are here."
The words were said in such a heartfelt fashion that Penny started to feel a bit guilty that she was not Mildred, the perfect new PA.
"Shauna, what is taking you so long?" Lucas Darien appeared in the doorway, one expensively shod foot tapping impatiently.
Penny's gaze went from that black shiny shoe up over the dark business suit. He was very tall and lean, and yet he had a powerful breadth to his shoulders. Her gaze locked with the dark intensity of his eyes and a frisson of shock surged through her. Lucas Darien was not at all what she had been expecting. The man was absolutely gorgeous. He was probably about thirty-six, he had melting dark eyes and a ruggedly handsome face; his jaw was firm and square, giving the impression of strength and determination, yet his lips had a sensual curve. She wondered what it would be like to be kissed by those lips...
The though sent further shock waves through her and she mentally pulled herself up. Okay, he was attractive...so attractive that he probably wouldn't be out of place playing some macho romantic lead in a movie. But she couldn't let herself forget exactly why she was here. This was Lucas Darien, her father's enemy, not some heart-throb off a movie set.
"This is Mildred Bancroft, Mr Darien," Shauna said quickly. "Your new PA."
"Really?" Surprise registered in his dark eyes. "You're not what I was expecting." His gaze swept over her in an almost brutally assessing way that made heat run rampantly through her. How dared he look at her like that? And what did he mean by that statement?
"You are not what I was expecting either," she murmured, tipping her chin up defiantly.
"What were you expecting?" he asked immediately. The question took her by surprise, as did the sudden softening of his tone, the smile that played around the dark eyes.
"Well..." She shrugged. In truth she had been expecting him to look more like his father. She had met Lucas's father twice. He had been tall and handsome, but that was where the similarity ended. Lawrence Darien had possessed cool English looks: pale blond hair, pale blue eyes and an aristocratic nose down which he had seemed to peer rather contemptuously. No, Lucas was nothing like his cold, autocratic father...obviously he took after his Spanish mother. Maybe there was some hope that he would be more compassionate than his father...
"Well?" Lucas prompted her, and she realised he was still waiting for an answer. "You're younger than I expected," Penny improvised hastily. If she told him who she was before she got into his office, she ran the risk of being shown the door before she could have her say.
"Strange, I was going to say exactly the same thing to you." Lucas smiled. "From the CV that the agency sent me, I expected you to be at least fifty."
Penny felt herself blushing wildly. Obviously he knew she wasn't Mildred Bancroft. "Eh...well...I can explain..."
"Shauna, bring us through a coffee when you have a minute." Lucas cut across her to instruct his receptionist, who seemed mesmerised by their exchange.
"Come through into my office." He stood back and waved Penny through to the inner sanctum.
This was very promising, Penny thought with a smile. He knew she wasn't his PA, but he was still going to give her some of his time.
"Thank you." She gave him the benefit of her sweetest smile as she passed him in the doorway. He didn't respond, which was somewhat unusual.
Penny was an attractive woman, twenty-eight, with long golden blonde hair, wide green eyes, and a petite figure that curved in all the right places. She was used to men smiling back at her. Persuading this man to treat her father leniently was not going to be easy, she acknowledged grimly.
The office was dark after the brightness of the outer reception. It took a moment for her eyes to adjust to the gloom. The walls were lined with bookshelves. The central desk was awash with files, and behind that were filing cabinets, their drawers wide open as if someone had been searching for something. Another desk in the far corner was covered in boxes that were filled with books and files. It looked as if Lucas Darien had recently disturbed a robbery in progress...either that or he was desperately in need of clerical help.
He motioned her towards the leather chair opposite his and watched as she sat. It wasn't lost on her that there was a brief flicker of interest in his dark eyes as she crossed long shapely legs. At least he wasn't completely immune to her. She had selected her pale green dress very carefully this morning, with the knowledge that it emphasised her curvy figure and had a small split at the front that was teasingly provocative. Penny had figured that if she was going to throw herself on the mercy of her father's enemy she needed all the help she could get.
"Obviously your CV isn't entirely accurate...Ms Bancroft." He sat down behind the desk and leaned back in his chair to survey her through slightly narrowed eyes.
The statement took Penny by surprise; she had thought he had already figured out that she wasn't Mildred Bancroft. Before she could formulate her reply he was proceeding briskly.
"Let's see...there was ten years at Danovate...five years as PA to Sir Gordon Marsden...then your last job, three years as PA to Lieutenant Colonel Montgomery Cliff in Barbados?" One dark eyebrow rose. "Unless you started work at the age of ten, I'd say something doesn't add up, Ms Bancroft."
The sarcasm in his tone grated on her sensitive nerves. "Or may I call you Mildred?" He leaned forwards suddenly, as if intently interested in hearing her answer.
There was something about his manner, or maybe it was the way his eyes seemed to linger on the softness of her lips, that made her nerves drop into freefall. "Eh...well, you see, the thing is... You can call me Mildred if you like, but really...my name..." She was starting to sound as if she suffered from a bad speech impediment. Pull yourself together, Pen, she told herself crossly. Tell him who you are and how worried you are about your father. Damn it, cry if you have to...
"Good." He didn't give her the chance to finish her sentence, just sat back with a satisfied smile. "Mildred it is, then." He drummed his fingers on the walnut desk. To Penny's overwrought nerves the noise sounded like a drum roll prior to an execution. She really needed to tell Lucas the truth now. Prolonging this misapprehension was just getting in the way of her reason for being here.
"You see, the thing is, Mildred, as long as you are up to the job here I'm prepared to overlook a slight exaggeration with your qualifications." The drum roll seemed to be getting louder. "As you can probably tell, I'm desperately short of staff here. So we'll give it a two-week trial, shall we?"
"Actually, Lucas, we are at cross purposes here," Penny plunged in. "I feel I must tell you —"
"Really, Mildred, I don't want or need to know your explanation about the CV. You obviously impressed the agency, because they have said you are worth waiting for, and they have a terrific reputation, so that is good enough for me. If you could just start as soon as possible that would be great."
Shauna shouldered her way in with a tray of coffee. "We really need an extra pair of hands around here, don't we, Shauna?" Lucas said jovially.