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DESPERATION WAS SUCH an ugly word. Unfortunately it described Beth Krayton's situation. She had roughly forty-eight hours to find a good job and a nice place to live in her brand-new hometown of Lake Geneva, Wisconsin, before her brothers discovered her whereabouts and attempted to bring her back to Chicago.
She knew just what weapon they would use, too. Guilt. And she had never been good at handling guilt. Her brothers and former guardians had always been excellent at ladling it on, but after her "incident" two years ago, things had gotten worse. And lately, since she'd lost her job-
The memory of the totally humiliating scene that had unfolded two days ago sent a sick feeling rushing to her stomach. When she'd overheard her brothers and their wives discussing solutions to "the Beth problem" she had finally realized that, as hard as she had fought for her independence, the older she got the more determined to manage her life her family became.
When her parents died, years ago, her brothers had vowed to raise her and protect her. She'd been convinced that one day they would see her as an equal. But that overheard conversation, which branded her as a woman incapable of making good decisions, had killed her hopes. Now she understood: They would never rest until they felt she was safely in some other man's care. Only by proving that she could go it alone without a husband would she convince them to stop interfering in her life.
"If that's even possible," she whispered to herself as she barely refrained from groaning.
It wouldn't make the right impression in her upcoming job interview if people reported that she had been seen talking to herself and moaningout loud in public places. And she had to make a good impression, because with the clock ticking away, all that stood between her and her goals (and her brothers) was a man named Carson Banick, a wealthy hotelier who had advertised for an assistant well-schooled in the hospitality industry.
Beth didn't have a single ounce of experience in the hospitality industry.
That can't matter, she told herself, heading toward the building where her interview was being held. Perusing the classifieds, she had found few jobs she was qualified for that would pay a living wage. This job would ensure basic survival, it hadn't mentioned a college education and, more importantly, it might help her establish a career and an identity of her own. She'd never had either and she needed them with an ache she couldn't explain.
Carson Banick had to hire her. She had to convince him to like her. She had to exude charm in spite of the fact that she had never been called anything close to charming.
"I'll be charming today, darn it," she said, forgetting her vow not to speak to herself as she pushed open the door to the trailer thrown up on the edge of a leveled building site, stepped inside and came face-to-face with the most gorgeous, dark-haired man she had ever seen.
He was frowning at her.
Carson looked up from the stack of papers on his desk, irritated by the distraction of the door opening. He had already interviewed a number of people, but he still hadn't come close to finding what he was looking for. Judging by the appearance of the woman standing just inside the door, it was unlikely that this interview would turn up anything more positive.
It wasn't her dowdy sack of a brown skirt that troubled him. Neither was it the slightly ragged edges on her chin-length, astonishingly red hair. Clothing and hair could be fixed with an infusion of money, and he had plenty of money to spend.
No, it was the wounded, defiant expression in her eyes. The woman clearly had issues, and he was the last person in the world who ought to be allowed near wounded creatures with issues. He'd already proven that several times in recent history. People, important people-his former fiancée, his brother-had been damaged in the process.
Carson tried not to think of how Emily had looked when he'd left her. He fought not to remember his brother's pain-racked face right after the accident or Patrick's complete lack of responsiveness when Carson had visited him last week. He battled like crazy to keep from remembering that he was the one responsible for his brother's fall on that mountain. And he was nearly slayed by the injustice of Patrick losing the use of his lower extremeties while Carson took his brother's rightful place here at this desk.
Rising, Carson fought to keep his hands from curling into fists. Concentrate on this minute and this place and this woman, he told himself. Do the job. Keep things going until Patrick heals. Carson prayed that Patrick would heal, even though the doctors had told him that Patrick wasn't making the kind of progress they had hoped for. The only way Carson could help his younger brother was to hold his position and do the work well.
Carson took a breath. He looked the woman over carefully. No, she wouldn't do at all. He certainly wasn't going to hire someone who would need nurturing or who would remind him of his own failings.
He needed an assistant who was competent and knowledgeable, someone who could help him make a miracle happen at his hotel and help him make it happen fast. The woman before him didn't look as if she'd had any recent experience with miracles. She looked fragile, vulnerable and-
Damn! Why was he even noticing such things, and anyway perhaps she wasn't even here about the job. She might be a salesperson or someone simply lost. He frowned. No, she had the desperate look of a jobseeker. Carson stepped around the desk.
The woman clenched a fold of that ugly brown skirt. "May I help you? I assume you're here about the position," he said.
She nodded tightly, but she raised her chin as if he'd just insulted her. "Yes, I'm here to apply for the assistant's job at the Banick Resort."
She looked as if she might be holding her breath, but her chin remained high, her shoulders back, almost as if she was daring him to ask her to leave.
He managed not to sigh. "Then you've come to the right place. I'm Carson Banick."
Those brown eyes blinked. "You-own the place?" "You don't believe me?" "It's not that. It's just that I wasn't expecting someone so exalted to be conducting the job interviews."
Carson shrugged. "The person who gets this job will be working directly with me."
She lowered her lashes and nodded curtly. "Do you have an application?"
"Yes, of course, and I'll have you fill one out, but an application is a formality. I'd rather get my information firsthand." There was no point in putting her to the trouble of filling out paperwork when she would be gone in the next two minutes. The people he had already interviewed had not been right but every one of them had seemed more professional than she did.
It was, Carson conceded, proving to be difficult to find the appropriate person. It was high season in Lake Geneva and there were more jobs to fill in the exclusive resort town than there were people to fill them.
That was unacceptable. He had to make a decision within the next few days. He'd known things were falling behind schedule, but he'd waited, hoping Patrick would make a miraculous comeback. He had ignored his parents' demands the way he always had. But, eventually he'd been forced to concede that he would have to take over the building of this hotel, his brother's greatest project. When the doctors had told him that Patrick's lack of progress seemed to be stress-related, Carson had finally stepped in. At least he could help his brother in this one rather inadequate way. He could get the stockholders and Rod and Deirdre Banick off Patrick's back. For once Carson could be the responsible older brother and do what he could to protect Patrick.
The irony didn't escape Carson. His parents had spent years trying to get him to take his rightful place, but he had always rebelled. He'd done as he liked, shunning the family business. Patrick had been the genial one who had sat at the helm of Banick Enterprises for five years since their father's health had forced him into retirement. But now things had changed. When Patrick was healed and ready to reclaim his place as the Banick heir, the hotel had to be up and running smoothly. It had to be a masterpiece. That meant Carson had to do what he'd never done before: leave his rebellious days behind and become a true Banick. It also meant that a top-notch assistant was imperative, but right now the room was empty of candidates except for this lone woman.
The pale curve of her jaw was rigid as she waited for him to take the next step. No wonder. He'd kept her waiting and he was staring at her a bit too hard, he realized.
"Have a seat," he said, motioning her toward the guest chair.
She moved forward quietly, sitting and smoothing the skirt over her knees. There was something innocent and feminine about the gesture, despite that bold chin. Carson wanted to throttle himself. He and innocence didn't belong in the same room, and the woman's femininity or lack of it was none of his concern.
"Tell me something about yourself," he said, moving back to the issue at hand. It was a rotten interview question, but the answer tended to be revealing. Interviewees told him what they thought he wanted to hear. That could be important. An assistant needed to be able to anticipate what was needed in sometimes trying situations.
"My name is Beth Krayton. I'm new to Lake Geneva, but I've visited before. I've always loved it and I hope to build a wonderful life here."
It was a bit of a beauty pageant-style answer, but when Carson looked into Beth Krayton's eyes he saw that she was sincere. He saw something else, too. She had latched on to the folds of her skirt again, twisting it a bit.
When his gaze touched on her fingers, she let go of the cloth. Suddenly she sat up straighter.
"Look, Mr. Banick, I can see that you have no intention of hiring me."
Now he was the one who blinked. He leaned back and folded his arms across his chest. "What makes you say that?"
"Other than the fact that you're frowning, you're clearly capable of hiring anyone you please, and I'm sure you have plenty of qualified candidates camping out on your doorstep."
He waited to see if she had more to say. She had given him the perfect opening to dismiss her, and that was just what he should be doing. But her actions hadn't matched her words. She wasn't rising to leave, and curiosity got the best of him.
He had always been a sucker for the unpredictable. "So why did you come if you're so sure you wouldn't get this job?" he challenged.
She looked up into his eyes, and something shifted inside him. That wounded look still lurked but there was something else as well, something he couldn't quite name but that he knew was admirable.
Carson almost smiled. His mother had always admonished him to do something admirable. He never had.