Read an Excerpt
An hour before the office officially opened Monday morning, Holly Lombard smiled as she walked into Noah Brand's office. She'd been summoned to see him and she had a stack of papers, assuming he had questions about the new line they were introducing. She crossed his office, her footsteps silent on the thick Oriental carpet.
"Morning, Holly," Noah said, looking up from his desk. "Have a seat. I want to talk to you before everyone starts arriving."
"Congratulations," she said, sitting on a chair that was the finest leather Brand Enterprises carried. "I read your e-mail and saw that you got what you wanted."
"Thanks. Jeff starts today," Noah said, looking at her across his wide, antique mahogany desk, and she could hear the triumph in his tone of voice. "And that brings us to my purpose in talking to you. I have a proposition for you."
Surprised, she placed her stack of papers on the table beside her and waited.
"I made Jeff an offer that he accepted, but it's contingent on you taking a new position."
The first quiver of apprehension pricked her, but she dismissed it as ridiculous. "This is out of the blue," she said.
"I know, but I had to do some arm-twisting to get Jeff. He's excellent, Holly."
She reserved judgment. From Noah's conversations over the years, she knew his twin had walked out on Brand Enterprises a long time ago to become, over the years, a cowboy out on a West Texas ranch. She couldn't imagine that he could cope with the business.
"I want you to work with Jeff. In turn, I'll move you up from my assistant to Executive Western Marketing Manager and give you a twenty-percent pay raise. That's a big move, Holly. And you're young."
"Do I have a choice here?" she asked, appalled by the thought of working with Jeff Brand.
"Of course. I'm not going to lose you just because you won't accept. It's only a year. You'd get a jump in salary, title and responsibility. That's a career builder."
"I'd work for your brother, instead of you?" she repeated, thinking it would be death to her career. She'd leave the dynamic head of the corporation to work for a cowboy.
"That's correct. And I've told him he can work all but one day a week at his ranch."
"Oh, no!" she cried, jumping to her feet. "I'm not getting stuck out on a ranch in the middle of nowhere working for someone who has almost no business experience. I'm sorry, but I won't do it," she said, wondering if her career at Brand was going to end today. "I'm sorry, but that's absurd to even ask someone to do such a thing. It would kill my career." Hurt and furious that Noah would ask this of her, she drew herself up. "I can look for another job—would prefer to."
"Calm down and sit again," Noah said, sounding as if he were just telling her about a new design they were getting for one of their furniture lines. "Jeff may be a little rusty and needs to be brought up to speed, but you'll be pleasantly surprised. You can have a company car and all expenses paid. Look, I want Jeff and you're perfect to work with him. It'll be as good as if I was there to help him myself, which I can't do with Dad gone."
Noah rubbed his neck and she knew he was mulling over some bigger incentive. This was lousy thanks for all the work and success she'd had with the company.
"Any way you look at it, this is a demotion. You're sticking me in the boonies with an inexperienced cowboy. I loathe horses, country and Western stuff."
Noah shot her a look and she wondered if she'd overstepped her bounds, but it no longer mattered. Better her career crumbled before her eyes than she moved to the boonies. Noah waved his hand.
"Hold it, Holly." Noah did some figuring as he scribbled on a piece of paper. She sat, but wanted to pace the floor and scream at him. This was unfair and a huge waste of her talents. She wished Knox Brand were back on the job.
Noah came around his desk. "Here's the deal I'll make you. In addition to the raise and promotion, I'll pay you a bonus when you start and a bonus when you finish—$125,000 to start, $125,000 when the year is up."
With her stomach churning, Holly gazed out the window, knowing the offer had just become too lucrative to turn down without serious consideration. She envisioned West Texas—mesquite, cactus and dust. How out of touch could she get?
"You're not bowled over by my offer," Noah remarked dryly. "Make each payment $250,000, Holly."
Startled, she looked up at him. "That's a half-million-dollar bonus to do this. You want me in the worst way."
"Yes, I do. I told you, he's a negotiator and a financial whiz. He didn't make all of his fortune on cattle. I can count on him. He isn't an unknown. The two of you would be the best possible team. I won't worry about anything I turn over to you."
"I'm flattered by that endorsement," she remarked dryly. The amount he'd just offered dazzled her. "For that much money plus the promotions, Noah, I can put up with a lot. I'd work with a gorilla at the zoo," she said and he smiled.
"Does that mean you'll accept? Usually women are quite receptive to Jeff, but I know circumstances are different." His smile was contagious as he came closer to shake her hand. "You won't regret it."
"I think I'll regret it constantly, but I'll remind myself of what I'm getting. One year only."
"I intend to hire someone to take Jeff's place, so it might not be one year exactly, but close. You get your first payment and your new title and position today. I want you to start now. Jeff will be in soon to get on the payroll. Take this week to wind up what you are working on as much as you can. I'll have someone moved over to be my assistant. Your suggestions are welcome. I've already told Jeff he can handle the Cabrera line."
"You trust him to do well," she said, thinking about the premier line of boots and saddles they would start marketing. "Three generations of Brands have fought for that line. Now that you've got it, you're turning it over to your inexperienced brother," she said, thinking Noah might be losing his touch.
"Stop looking at me as if I've sprouted two heads," Noah said with amusement and she once again was reminded of his keen perception.
"Very well," she replied, feeling her face flush. "What time does your brother arrive?"
"Soon, I imagine. The front desk will just send him up. Holly, thanks for taking this offer. If you'll give Jeff half a chance, I don't think you'll be sorry."
"I'll try," she said stiffly, knowing she was going to have to remind herself daily of the financial reward. "I brought things to go over with you, but we'll do it later. My mind is spinning. My whole life changed!"
"Later works for me," he said easily. Scooping up her papers, she fled his office for the safety of her desk. She clung to the prospect of the money and advance in her career for taking this job.
She just hoped she wouldn't have cause to quit. She'd definitely have to return the first half of the payment. She thought of the picture of Noah with his brother—a cocky grin on his twin's face and a big Western hat tilted back on his head. In boots, he was taller than Noah in the picture and he'd worn hip-hugging jeans. She shivered and hoped she could last.
When Jeff passed through the front doors of the Brand Enterprises headquarters, revulsion rippled in him. Memories of working here in his twenties and how trapped he'd felt returned. His dad had been a continual overbearing presence, trying to micromanage the least decision.
Jeff's boot heels clicked on the polished marble floor of the entrance. He stopped at Security to tell the guard his name. He was given a badge to wear and ushered past the small office. He thought about the payment that would go into the bank today and his spirits lifted a fraction. One year and then he could do as he pleased again. He thought about the line of cutting horses he would like to raise. Surely, for one year, he could assume the uneasy weight of his father's legacy again.
The lobby was elegant and expensive—glass, marble, leather and greenery. An atrium flooded the center of the lobby with light. He was certain every item had been selected to impress all who entered—employees, competitors and customers. Noah could have decorated the lobby, but Jeff knew it had been the decorators his grandfather and his dad had hired, not his brother. Before their grandfather, Brand Enterprises headquarters had been without fancy trappings. He took the elevator to the top floor to see his brother.
As he walked down a hall and rounded a corner, a woman rushing in the opposite direction ran into him, spilling the papers she carried. Jeff reached out to steady her. "Sorry," he apologized.
"I'm sorry," she said. "I was lost in thought. I should have—" Huge green eyes riveted him and he drew a deep breath. Her perfume was as enticing as everything else about her. Her auburn hair was caught up in a clip behind her head. A few wayward tendrils escaped, the silky strands relieving the aloof perfection of her navy suit and silk blouse.
Consumed in the depths of her wide eyes, Jeff realized he was staring. He wondered how long she would gaze intently at him. As if she realized what she was doing, she blinked and wriggled away. Flawless skin, a straight nose and full red lips made him think of long, slow kisses. Her face was beautiful. She blinked as if coming out of a daze and glanced up at his hat. He could see the disapproval in her expression. Tight-lipped, she looked down. Toes of his alligator hand-tooled boots stuck out beneath the pant legs of his charcoal business suit. He detected her distaste and wondered who she was.
She knelt to gather her spilled papers and he leaned over to scoop them up. "I'll get them," he said, picking up papers quickly to hand them to her. His hand brushed her warm fingers.
"You're Jeff Brand, aren't you?" she said as if discovering a pit viper at her feet.
"Yes, I am," he replied, intrigued at her reaction. "You know me, but I don't believe I've had the pleasure—I wouldn't forget you," he said, offering his hand.
She shook her papers as if to indicate she couldn't shake hands for the papers she held, which was not true. "I'm Holly Lombard," she said with reluctance and then he guessed the cause of her frosty manner must be her new assignment with him.
"I suppose Noah has told you about me. I'm glad to meet you, Holly," Jeff said, dropping his hand and studying her, wondering if she had refused to work with him.
Judging from the cold reception, it seemed something more disastrous had happened. But he felt, with his entire being, that he was the cause of her icy animosity.
"We'll see each other later," she said and rushed past him.
"Yes, ma'am," he drawled, turning to watch her attractive figure disappear in a warren of cubicles. What a waste. She was stunning, but he was chilled from the encounter. How did Noah work with someone like Holly Lombard? He knew the answer as swiftly as the question had risen. Noah would be delighted with someone who was all business.
Shaking his head, Jeff proceeded on his way.
He was shown into his brother's office on the top floor. In amusement he glanced around at the handcrafted fruitwood desk, the dark wood paneling, the elegant oils on the walls. "I think you've topped Dad in the lavish office competition. This ought to intimidate the opposition. If they ever get in this rarefied atmosphere."
Noah laughed. "It's comfortable. You can have one here just like it if you want. I was afraid you might get cold feet and not show."
"You know me well. I kept thinking about the money going into my account today."
"I've already sent it to your bank and talked to your banker about it. It's done."
"Thanks. I just ran into Holly Lombard. If looks could kill, I'd be back there on the floor."
"Holly?" Noah sounded surprised momentarily until a sheepish grin spread on his face. "She's a little leery of working with you. You'll inspire her confidence quickly I'm sure. She worries you might be a bit inexperienced."
"She may be smarter than you. I am definitely rusty."
"Not really," Noah said dryly as he picked up folders and crossed the room to hand them to Jeff. "I want you to see these—the latest about the company. I know you already get them in the mail, but I also would guess that you don't read them."
"I read a few," Jeff said.
"Back to Holly. You might as well know—she's sour on men because her fiancé kicked her out and broke the engagement. She lives for her job and she's not enthused about working at your place. So your legendary charm's not going to work on her."
"I didn't used to question your business judgment, but she may not be the person for this job. Is she going to be uncooperative?"
"Holly? She's way too professional. If she has a job, she'll give it her best. You'll see. I just wanted to clarify why she may seem prickly." Noah spoke on his intercom and in minutes there was a light knock at the door.
"Come in. Holly, I think you've already met my brother, Jeff Brand. Jeff, this is your new assistant."
Jeff's pulse sped up as he watched the auburn-haired beauty he had collided with earlier. He walked toward her and offered his hand again, certain she would feel compelled to shake hands in Noah's presence.
She extended her hand, a gesture nullified by her glacial look. Yet the moment there was physical contact, he felt a tingle. As he gazed into her green eyes, he saw a glimmer of shock and realized she had felt sparks, too. She inhaled and then yanked her hand away, but the chemistry was there—she had been as aware of it as he was.
In that moment, the prospect of his new job made a subtle shift from dull to dangerous. He didn't want to experience any kind of fiery attraction to someone from the city who didn't like country living.
"I hope we can work together," he said and sincerely meant it. She wasn't quite the snow queen he'd first imagined.
She gave him a frosty smile. "I've heard great things about you," she said.
"I'll see if I can live up to them," he said, wondering what Noah had done to get her agree to work for him, because he suspected it was a dilly.
"This morning I'll take Jeff to Human Resources to get his paperwork. This afternoon I've cleared my calendar at three. Can you do the same, Holly?"
"Of course," she answered smoothly.
"If you'll meet with us, I'll go over what I want Jeff to handle and we can get started. I've asked him to work in the office this week to get reacquainted with people, departments and sections. You'll start at his ranch next Tuesday."
Jeff noticed the color in her cheeks—she must view this whole endeavor as a fate worse than death. He wondered again if she would even cooperate with him. He guessed she would or Noah wouldn't have placed her in this position. Jeff sighed. Waste of a beautiful woman.
In minutes she was gone and he gave his brother a lopsided grin. "I can shake off the icicles now. You're sure she'll work with me at home?"
Noah smiled. "Holly's smart and I'm paying her plenty to do this. This is going to be great, Jeff. Thanks."
"Keep that thought in mind the first time we disagree."
Noah laughed. "I know we'll disagree, but we'll work it out."