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Lily Ford wasn't thrilled to see Gage Forrester standing in her office, leaning over her desk, his large masculine hands clasping the edge, his scent teasing her, making her heart beat at an accelerated pace. She wasn't thrilled to see Gage, the man who had turned her down, but her body seemed to be on a different wavelength.
"I heard that Jeff Campbell hired your company," he said, leaning in a little more, his shoulder muscles rolling forward. He certainly didn't spend all of his time behind a desk in a corporate office. A physique like that didn't happen by accident. She knew that from personal experience.
It took her four evenings a week in the gym to combat the effects of her mostly sedentary job. But it was important. Image counted for a lot, and it was her job to keep the images of her clients sparkling clean in the public eye. She felt that if her own image wasn't up to par she would lose her credibility.
"You heard correctly," she said, leaning back in her chair, trying to put some distance between them. Trying to feel as if she had some measure of control. It was her office, darn it. He had no call coming in here and trying to assume authority.
But then, men like Gage operated that way. They came, they saw, they conquered the female. Not this female.
"So, are you here to offer me congratulations?" she asked sweetly.
"No, I'm here to offer you a contract."
That successfully shocked her into silence, which was a rare thing. "You rejected my offer to represent your company, Mr. Forrester."
"And now I'm extending you an offer."
She pursed her lips. "Does this have anything to do with the fact that Jeff Campbell is your biggest competitor? "
"I don't consider him a competitor." Gage smiled, but in his eyes she could see the glint of steel, the hardness that made him a legend in his industry. You didn't reach greatness by being soft. She knew it, she respected it. But she didn't necessarily care for Gage, or his business practices. Generally speaking, she thought that he was somewhat morally bankrupt. But an account with Forrestation Inc. would be a huge boon for her company. The biggest account she'd ever had.
"Like it or not, he is your competitor. And he's quite good at what he does. He doesn't leave half the mess for me to clean up that you would."
"Which is why he isn't really my competition. He's too politically correct, too concerned with his public image."
"It wouldn't hurt you to be more concerned with it. The endless stream of actresses and supermodels on your arm doesn't exactly give off an aura of stability. Plus you've had a series of very unpopular builds lately."
"Is this a free consultation?"
"No. I'm charging you by the half hour."
"If I remember correctly your services aren't cheap."
"They aren't. If you want cheap, you have to suffer incompetence."
He sat down on the edge of her desk and effectively threw half of her office supplies out of alignment. Annoyance coursed through her, along with the desire to reach out and straighten her stapler, which was nearly as strong as the need she suddenly felt to touch his thigh, so close to her hand now, and find out if it was as hard and muscular as it looked.
She grimaced at her own line of thinking, her train of thought irritating and confusing her. She didn't indulge in fantasies about men, she just didn't.
"That's one thing I liked about you when I interviewed you, Lily. You're confident in your skills."
"What was it you didn't like about me, Mr. Forrester? Because as you and I both know, you hired Synergy to represent your company, not me."
"I make it a practice not to hire women under a certain age. Particularly if they're attractive."
She felt her mouth fall open in shock, and she knew she looked like some sort of gasping guppy, but there was nothing she could do combat it. "That's sexist."
"Maybe. But I haven't had to deal with unwanted affections from my male personal assistant, unlike my previous PA, who fell hopelessly in love with me."
"Maybe you were imagining things. Or maybe you encouraged her." Privately, she had to admit that Gage was an attractive man, but that didn't mean that every woman under a certain age was immediately going to fall in love at first sight with him. Yet he probably believed it. Power did that to people, men especially. They started thinking of everyone as their property, like they were entitled to the slavish devotion of everyone around them.
Some men didn't even need wealth. They just needed someone weaker than they were.
She shook off the memories that were creeping in.
"I wasn't imagining it, trust me. And I never encouraged her," Gage said. "I was never interested in her. Business is business, sex is sex."
"Never the twain shall meet?"
"Exactly. To compound the matter, when I fired her she made a huge scene."
"Why did you fire her?"
One dark eyebrow shot up. "I came into the office one morning to find her perched naked on my desk in a pose that would make a centerfold blush."
Lily's mouth dropped open. "Are you serious?"
"Unfortunately, yes. But since then, I haven't hired women to work closely with me, and since then, I haven't had any other issues." He regarded her closely. "You aren't engaged or expecting a baby anytime soon, are you?"
She almost laughed. "No worries there, Mr. Forrester. I have no plans for wedding or baby in the near, or distant, future. My career is my focus."
"I've heard that said by more than one woman, more than once. But then the woman meets a man who makes her hear wedding bells, and I end up having wasted my time training someone who never intended to stay on with the company."
"If I ever hear wedding bells, Mr. Forrester, you have my guarantee that I will run in the opposite direction."
"I still think you're sexist. Assuming that just because a woman is a a woman she's going to fall madly in love with you the moment she looks into your eyes, or that the moment she gets a job she's going to run off and get married and abandon everything she's worked for."
"I'm not sexist. It's called covering your bases. I don't make the same mistake twice. But I've seen the press releases you've prepared for Campbell. I've also watched his stocks go up."
"Yours have been going up, too," she added.
"That may be, but his were on their way down. The only thing that's changed is his hiring you."
She held a hand out, pretending to examine her merlotcolored nails, hoping he didn't notice the slight tremor in her fingers. "So, now you want me to go back on my contract with Mr. Campbell? It would have to be a pretty sweet offer, Mr. Forrester."
"It is." He named a figure that made her heart slam into her ribs.
She'd been working so hard, struggling to keep things going with her small public relations firm for so long the thought of all that money made her feel lightheaded.
And money was only part of it. There was the notoriety, good and bad, that would come from working for Forrestation. Gage had a reputation as being a bit of a rogue, which was both appealing and frightening to investors. He took risks, sometimes at the expense of popularity, and they paid off.
Some of his larger building projects had been unpopular with a vocal minority, and while the hotel properties had been resounding successes once completed, he'd had protestors lining the streets in front of his San
Diego office building on more than one occasion. A lot of the protests were simply against any new building being built, but some of the issues had seemed understandable to Lily.
As controversial as Gage might be, he was a billionaire for a reason. And even if, sometimes, she had sympathized with the protesters, she couldn't argue with the numbers.
"Say I was interested," she said, feigning a lot more absorption in her manicure than she felt. "There's an early termination fee on my contract with Mr.
"I'll cover it."
She blinked. "And I need an expense account."
He leaned in slightly, his scentshe was noticing it again for the second time in ten minutesmaking her heart beat faster. "Done, as long as you don't consider manicures a business expense." He reached out and took her hand in his for a moment.
His hands were rough. Rougher than she imagined a man with a desk job's hands would be. It was just the right amount, though. Not too rough that having him touch her was uncomfortable. Although his skin was hot, and it made a rash of heat flare through her body, raising her core temperature at a rate that didn't seem physically possible.
She tugged her hand back, trying to seem as though his casual touch hadn't just flustered her like that. Nothing flustered her. Ever. She didn't do flustered. Especially not during business hours.
She cleared her throat. "I don't. Although I consider image to be an extremely important part of my job. I always present myself in a professional, polished manner. Your presentation and my presentation matter to each other. Our success is linked, which makes our business relationship very important."
"Is that your standard speech?"
She felt her cheeks heat slightly. "Yes."
"I can tell. It's very wellrehearsed. And I think I heard it during your interview."
She tightened her lips, trying to hold her temper in check. Something about Gage made her feel very shaky and almost unpredictable. He brought her emotions very close to the surface. Emotions she was usually very good at holding down.
"Well, rehearsed or not," she said, eyes narrowed, "it's true. The better I look, the better I make you look, the more money you make. And the better you behave, the better you follow my advice, the more money you make, the more success I'll have."
"So, is this lecture your form of consent?"
"Yes," she said, not missing a beat.
"I want you to work with me personally. I don't want anyone else on your team involved with my account. It has to be you."
"I wouldn't have it any other way."
"The building project in Thailand is already controversial, which has my shareholders clutching their wallets in terror."
"And what about the Thailand project is controversial?"
"The fear that by building more resorts we're distorting local culture. That such a Westernized focus doesn't show people the real Thailand. That we're giving tourists a theme park rather than reality."
"And are you?"
He shrugged. "Does it matter to you?"
"I don't have to like you, Mr. Forrester, I just have to make sure everyone else does."
"So, even if you did have a personal problem with the project?"
"Like the wedding bells, not an issue. This is business. My business is presenting your best to the public and to your shareholders."
"I need to get the details hammered out as quickly as possible." He leaned over and picked his briefcase up from the floor, opened it and pulled out a thick stack of papers. "This is the contract. If you need anything changed, let me know and we'll discuss it. And you need to terminate your dealings with Jeff Campbell. One thing I require is that your firm no longer represent him in any capacity. Conflict of interest."
He looked at her, and reached across her desk, picking up her cell phone and holding it out to her.
"What? You want me to call now?"
"Time is money, or so I've heard."
She snatched the phone from his hand and dialed Jeff's number, her palms slick with sweat. She hated that he had the ability to make her lose her cool. It didn't help that Jeff Campbell had definitely been giving her the "let's make this business into pleasure" vibe. Which made terminating the contract sting just a little bit less, as the last thing she wanted to deal with was working with a man with sex on his brain.
The phone rang once before Jeff answered. "Hi, it's Lily."
Gage raised his eyebrows but didn't comment.
"I know." Jeff sounded far too pleased about it for her peace of mind, his tone of voice almost intimate. It made her skin crawl.
"I'm really sorry to have to tell you this, but I've been offered a better contract and I feel I can't afford to turn it down."
She listened while Jeff expressed his disappointment, in a very nice fashion, considering she was breaking a contract they'd drawn up a week ago. He was probably still hoping to get a date. Which was confirmed when he asked if they could meet over dinner to discuss it further.
"Sorry. I'm going to be really busy with work. Because of the contract. The new one." Gage's blue eyes were locked on her and it was making her nervous, which she hated. Men never upset her personal balance. She never let them close enough to do that.
"There's a monetary penalty for terminating the contract," Jeff said, his voice icy now.
"I know. I was there when the addition was made and I read the contract thoroughly before I signed it." She looked at Gage, trying to judge his reaction. "But this is a business move that I feel I have to make. It's the best thing for my company."
"So ethics, fulfilling your commitments, aren't as important as money?"
Ouch. She took a breath. "It's business, Jeff. In my position you would do the same. Business is business," she said, unconsciously echoing Gage's earlier statement.
"You certainly never treated it like it was only a business arrangement." The inference and the venom in his tone shocked her. Though she knew it shouldn't. Men seemed to think a polite greeting meant she wanted to hop into bed with them. And that was their problem, not hers.
"Sorry to have given you the wrong impression," she bit out, conscious of Gage's close study of her. "But as far as I'm concerned, yes, it was only a business arrangement. And now, it's a defunct business arrangement."
Gage took the phone from her hand, his expression far too satisfied for her liking. "Just wanted to affirm that Lily is working for me now."
And now Lily felt like a treat being fought over by two dogs, and it was not pretty. She didn't like that she was in the middle of some kind of alpha war. And the feeling was only magnified by the fact that Jeff had, apparently, assumed she was interested in him as more than just a source of income.
She could hear the tone, not the words, to Jeff's curt reply before Gage snapped her phone shut and set it back on the desk.