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Xony Ryder couldn't suppress his jubilation.
It had taken years for him to acquire Morris Enterprises. Yearsplus being in the right place at the right time.
Late at night, he had stepped off the elevator on the nineteenth floor of the twenty-story glass Morris building in downtown Dallas. Wall lights shed a softened glow in the empty corridor as he passed open doors. His father had made offers over the years for this company and never succeeded in acquiring it. Now one giant coup would make his controlling father back off. That made all the hours of work more than worth his efforts. Tony was growing as wealthy as his father and finally gaining the man's respect.
Tony had grown more pleased with the offices from the lobby to the top floor. Strolling the empty hallway, he paused to look at framed awards mounted on the beige walls. Farther along was a glass-enclosed case of trophies for graphic arts achievements. He noticed the same director's name on several awards and trophies. Moving on, he passed through open doors into a darkened office and switched on the light. He was in the graphic arts sectora part of the company that he would change drastically. He intended to retain a few of the graphic arts people and offer the others generous severance packages, absorbing the remaining employees into his own public relations department.
He shut the light and continued along the silent, dimly lit hall, turning at the next open door into an anteroom. Light spilled inside from a doorway. Crossing the anteroom, Tony entered another spacious, elegant office. He stopped abruptly as a blonde looked up.
"Sorry, I didn't mean to startle you," he said, surprised and curious to find someone working after ten. His first thought was that he was looking at his most gorgeous employee. As she stood, his gaze drifted swiftly over her. In an all-business navy suit and matching silk blouse, she looked as if she had just arrived at work instead of putting in extra hours. Her blond hair was secured in a roll on the back of her head. He had the strange feeling of meeting her before, but he knew he would have remembered her. A sizzling current startled him. He was caught in wide blue eyes that darkened and mesmerized. Silence stretched until he realized they were entrapped in each other's gaze. When she touched a paper on her desk, the spell broke.
"You're working late," he remarked.
"I believe you, too, are working late," she replied.
He stepped forward to extend his hand across her desk. "Sorry, I'm Tony Ryder."
"Isabelle Smith," she said. "I know who you are." Her hand was slender, warm, and should have been like other feminine handshakes. Instead, the electric current he had first experienced just at the sight of her, magnified. Startled by his intense reaction, he focused intently on her, momentarily immobilized by his reactions.
"I'm here because I had something to finish. You're visiting rather late," she said. "Looking over your new acquisition?"
While her voice was neutral, her eyes were cool and assessing. He sensed she did not approve of him.
"You're right. And you're the Morris graphic arts department director."
"You've either done some homework about the business you just bought, or read the sign on my door." She walked around the desk and motioned to a chair. "Please have a seat," she said, taking a leather chair that was turned to face him. As she moved closer, he caught a whiff of exotic perfume. "I don't know whether you actually get involved or have staff who do that for you."
"I have staff, but I also want to be knowledgeable about my investments," he said as he sat near her. She crossed her legs and he couldn't resist one swift glance that made him want to look back for a thorough assessment. She had long, shapely legs. "I'm involved in whatever I own. What's so urgent to keep you working this late when you know your department will be split up?"
"So the rumors are true," she remarked, the frostiness in her tone increasing. "I intend to finish a few projects because we've already signed contracts. That won't change with the new management. I feel I need to wind things up before you actually take charge."
"You say that as if doomsday approaches."
She shrugged a slender shoulder. "That seems to be your approach to your acquisitions. I've done my homework and you have a reputation."
"Do I now?" he asked, amused. "Tell me what this reputation is."
"Ambitious. Driven. What I might label 'smash and grab.'" He tried to bite back a smile. "I never thought of my actions in such a manner."
"I'm sure I'm not winning kudos with my new employer, but
I suspect it really doesn't matter what I say. I imagine you've already made decisions about the direction you will go."
"How would you describe yourself? You work far into the night. You're a director. Ambitious? Driven?"
She smiled faintly. "Touche."
"So we are both workaholicsthere are rewards. Regarding the future of the company, I change only what I feel needs changing. As a director, you'll retain a position if that relieves your mind."
"'A position'but not necessarily a director? I know changes are coming. I have a feeling you've looked into my background."
"So is your family patiently waiting at home?" he asked, having already noticed the absence of a wedding band. Her manicured nails were long. Everything about her looked precise, immaculate, professional. Keeping a barrier around herself, she was reserved with him. She made no effort to hide her resentment of his purchase of the company.
"I'm single. You make the news enough for me to know that you are, too."
"The single life lends itself to becoming a workaholic. There are far less distractions."
"You view a family as a distraction." Even though she spoke in the same tone, her disapproval had obviously escalated.
"At this point in life, family is not for me, because I'm wound up in business. Evidently, not for you, either."
She gave him a frosty smile.
They were lightly sparring, yet he experienced a scalding attraction that she seemed to also feelan odd combination he had never encountered. Challenges were always interesting and she was definitely one.
"Do you often work this late?" he asked, enjoying talking to her. She was a beautiful woman, yet she wore the suit as if it were armor, hiding her figure. He rarely received such a cool reception from a gorgeous, single woman, much less one who was his employee. He couldn't resist the urge to try to break through the puzzling wall she maintained. Was it all men? Or just him, because he had bought out her employer?
"Occasionally," she replied, tilting her head. "Do you usually work this late?"
"If necessary. I haven't seen the building and this is a good time to wander freely. It surprised me to find you working."
"You bought this company sight unseen?"
"The building, offices and layout weren't significant factors. It's the people, the departments and what Morris Enterprises is involved in. I'm sure you know that."
"Yet you'll change the people and the departments." Her voice held a touch of frost. Otherwise she sat still, poised, looking as if she discussed an ad campaign.
"Some things will change. I've just acquired three highly successful hotel chains, plus a restaurant chain and a trucking business. This will grow my business. Even as we absorb this company, I think we can enlarge Morris Enterprises. You've built this department significantlyMorris has grown since you came on board. You have an impressive record," he said, recalling being briefed on Morris executives' performance reports. He'd decided then that she held potential, but he would move her down the corporate ladder because she would be going into a larger company. In spite of the compliment, he could not get a smile from her.
"Thank you. No one seems to know when you'll actually take over and begin changes."
"Soon. When I do, I'll interview the executives first," he said, unable to resist another swift glance at her legs.
"This encounter can almost count as my interview. You've asked some direct questions and I'm certain you've formed an opinion."
She was direct, straight-forward and not the least intimidated to be talking to the new owner of her company. She continued, coolly composed, yet along with their matter-of-fact conversation, he felt an undercurrent of awareness.
Amused again, he shook his head. "No, you'll have your formal interview. This is just a late-night chat, nothing more."
"Why do I think you've already made your decisions?" Big blue eyes stabbed into him.
"I can have an open mind. On the other handcan you? Morris sold the company to me. I didn't do any arm-twisting." He couldn't resist another brief glance at her long legs. What would she be like when she let down all the barriers?
"You came to him with an offer he couldn't refuse and you knew he has been on the verge of retirement for the past three years." This time she didn't hide the frost. Her voice conveyed a cold anger.
"Can you blame me? This is a first-rate company."
She looked away and he studied her profile, long thick eyelashes, flawless peaches-and-cream skin, a straight nose looks that would be unforgettable. Again it crossed his mind that they had met before, yet how could he forget her? If he had met her, the recollection would come.
"If you'll excuse me, it's late. I think I'll close for tonight," she said, standing.
Amused that he was being dismissed by her, as he stood, he asked, "Can I give you a ride home?"
She shook her head. "Thanks, no. I have my car."
"I'll see you out. I've been all through the building." He was unaccustomed to being brushed off by a woman where there was an obvious chemistry between them.
She smiled. "You don't have to see me to my car. This wasn't a date."
"I know I don't, Ms. Smith."
"And I'm Tony to my employees," he said. "I'll walk out with you. Then I'll know where to park when I come in Monday."
"I think you can find the parking spot that will have Reserved on a placard in front of the best space in the lot," she said.
He watched while she shut down her laptop and placed it in a bag that she shouldered. She pulled keys from the bag, switched off a desk light and turned toward the door. When he blocked her path, she looked up, wide-eyed.
"I wish now we'd met under other circumstances. You're definitely annoyed with me," he said.
"It won't matter. You have many interests and a sprawling enterprise that has absorbed this one. We'll rarely see each other. I hated to see Morris sold. You can't blame me for that."
"I think it's more than the sale," he said quietly, standing close enough to smell the perfume she wore. Her blue eyes were incredible, crystal clear, deep blue, thickly lashed. Glacial at the moment. When his gaze lowered to her mouth, he inhaled as he viewed full, heart-shaped lips, a rosy mouth that looked soft.
As he looked, her lips parted and he glanced into her eyes again. For an instant her guard had fallen and the look he caught was warm, receptive. It was gone in a flash as she gave a tiny shake while she passed him.
"It's very late, Tony "
Against all human resources training, he reached out and touched her arm. "I don't have a policy against employees seeing each other off the job, dating, getting engaged or marrying."
Again that surge of electricity sizzled to his toes as she looked up sharply with a flash of fire in her eyes. But just as suddenly, the fire died and whatever she had been about to say was gone.
"Where I'm concerned, it won't matter."
"No deference to your employer?" he asked quietly, fighting an urge to ask her for a drink.
"Tony, it's getting late," she whispered, and broke away. He had seen the pink rise in her cheeks. Why was she fighting him and so angry with him? He hadn't moved her out of her job yet.
Puzzled over the degree of her animosity, he walked with her to the elevators. He pushed a button before she could reach it and they rode down in silence.
He could feel the barriers back in place, the chill in the air between them.
"I saw your ad campaign for the Royal Garden chain. It was well thought out and successful. Bookings jumped after the television ads started," he said.
"Thank you from my staff and me. They did an excellent job."
"Do you ever take full credit for anything?" he asked, looking at silky strands of blond hair wound in a roll and wondering how she would look with her hair unpinned.
"If I'm the only one to work on it. Otherwise, I don't deserve to take all of the credit."
"Will there ever be a time you can see me in any way other than your employer?"
"Of course. If I leave Morris, or if you do," she answered sweetly, and he smiled.
When the elevator doors opened, he stepped back to let her exit. He fell into step beside her and they both greeted the night security guard before going outside. Tony crossed the parking lot with her to her car.
"I hope you give my company a chance," he said. "I have the feeling you've already formed an opinion and have one foot out the door."
"Not yet," she said, as she clicked her key to unlock her car. While he held her door, she slid behind the wheel.
"I'll see you next at the reception we're having for the executives Thursday evening. You will attend, won't you?"
"Certainly. I believe it's mandatory unless one is in the hospital."
"We all need to meet one another." She gave him a doubting look as if she didn't believe a word he said.
"Good night, Isabelle," he said, wishing he could prolong the time with her.
"Good night," she replied.
When she started the engine, he walked to his car. As she drove past, her profile was to him and she never glanced around.
"Isabelle Smith," he said, mulling over her name and the past hour. The only things he knew for certain were that she didn't like him and she resented his buying out Morris.