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'It looks like I missed the party.'
Emily Wood turned from her rather dour perusal of the leavingparty detritus, surprised that anyone was left. Stephanie had gone an hour ago, full of high spirits and plans for her wedding in a month's time, and the rest of the employees had trickled away afterwards, leaving nothing but a few tables of crumbscattered plates and glasses of nowflat champagne in the office's party room.
'Jason!' The name burst from her lips as she stared in surprise at the man lounging against the doorway. 'You're back!'
'My plane landed an hour ago,' Jason replied, glancing ruefully around at the mess. 'I thought I might make the end of the party, but obviously I was mistaken.'
'Just in time for the cleanup,' Emily replied lightly. She crossed the room and, standing on her tiptoes, reached up to kiss his cheek. 'How lovely to see you.' His skin was warm and she inhaled the citrusy tang of his aftershave; the scent was more pungent than one she would have associated with stoic, straightasanarrow Jason, the boy who had kept her out of trouble, the man who had left Highfield for a highprofile career in civil engineering. He was her boss and oldest family friend, although whether he was her friend was another matter altogether. Looking at his rather cool expression now, Emily remembered how Jason always seemed to disapprove of her just a bit.
She stepped back with a brisk smile. Jason hadn't moved, but Emily was gratified to see the tiniest quirk of his mouth. Amazing, but it almost looked like a smile. 'I didn't know you were due back in London.' As founder and CEO of Kingsley Engineering, Jason travelled for most of the year. Emily couldn't even remember the last time she'd seen him beyond a flash of sober suit in the hallway, or amidst the chaos of a family gathering back in Surrey. He'd certainly never sought her out like this.
Although, she acknowledged as she began to gather up the icingsmeared plates, he wasn't really seeking her out. He'd just missed the party.
'I thought it was about time I came home,' Jason said. He glanced around at the empty tables. 'It looks like it was a successful party. But then, of course, I wouldn't expect anything less.'
Successful, Emily thought, rather than fun. So typical of Jason. She arched her eyebrows. 'Oh, and why is that?'
'You're quite the busy little socialite, Em.'
Emily bristled, because the words did not sound complimentary coming out of Jason's mouth. Just because she enjoyed a party hardly made her some kind of scatty socialite. And the childhood nickname surprised her, even though it shouldn't. Jason had been the only one to call her that. Little Em, he'd tease, yanking her plaits and giving her a smile that wasn't quite condescending. More just knowing. Yet he could hardly say he knew her now; despite working for his company, with his intense travel schedule she'd barely seen him in the five years she'd been at KE. And she couldn't remember the last time he'd called her Em.
'I wasn't aware you kept tabs on my social activities,' she said, only halfjoking.
'I'm honour bound to, considering our history. And, in any case, you've made the social pages enough it would be hard not to notice.'
Emily gave him a playful smile. 'And you read the social pages?'
'I eagerly await them every morning.'
Emily burst out laughing, for the thought of Jason poring over photos of ageing debutantes and profligate playboys was utterly ludicrous, though she'd hardly expect him to joke about itor joke about anything, really. More than once she'd wondered if he'd had his sense of humour surgically removed.
'Actually,' he continued, his tone serious and even severe once more, 'my PA scans them for me. I need to know what my employees are up to.'
Ah, there he was. The real Jason, the Jason she knew and remembered, always ready to deliver a scolding or shoot her one of those stern looks. Emily gave him a sunny smile. 'Well, as you can see, this was quite the wild party. Cake and streamers, and I believe someone might have brought out the karaoke machine. Scandalous.'
'Don't forget the champagne.'
Emily reached for several empty plastic flutes. 'How did you guess?'
'Actually, I provided it.'
'You did?' She couldn't keep the surprise from her voice, and Jason's mouth quirked again in a small smile. He propped one shoulder against the doorway.
'Really, Emily, I'm not quite that stern a taskmaster. And I did actually try to make it to this party. Stephanie has been with the company for over five years.'
'Ah, so that's the reason. You probably give out some kind of honorary plaque.'
'You only get one of those for ten years' service,' Jason told her, and Emily's mouth dropped open. He had to be kiddingthen she saw a telltale glint in his eyes and realised he was. Two jokes in one day. What had happened to him in Africa?
Surprised and a little discomfited by their banter, Emily paused in her clearing up to look at him properly; he wore a suitof courseof expensive grey silk, a muted navy tie knotted at his throat. His hair, chocolate brown, the same colour as his eyes, was cut short. He looked crisp and clean and neat, remote and untouchable with that small, rather superior smile Emily had never completely liked but accepted as part of who Jason was, the exalted older brotherinlaw, separated from her by twelve years, distant and just a little disapproving.
He'd never taken part in their silly childhood games. She, her sister Isobel, and Jason's younger brother Jack had always got into the most amazing scrapes, and Jason had been the one to bail them out and lecture them afterwards. She'd accepted and resented it at turns, yet never questioned his innate authority. It was too much a part of him, and the relationship he'd had with them all. Yet it had been months since she'd seen him, years since they'd really talked.
Five years ago, when she'd arrived in London looking for a job, he'd directed her to Stephanie, then Head of Human Resources, and then barely seen her settle in as a secretary before he'd been off again, directing a building project in Asia. The times he'd seen her since then had been at the office, where he kept a cool, professional distance, or back in Surrey at various family gatherings, where he was no more than what he'd always beenJason, as good as an older brother, bossy and perhaps a little bit boring but still Jason. An essential part of the landscape of her life, steady and staid and there.
'So are you back for long this time?' she asked, turning back to the table of paper plates.
'A few months I hope. I have some business locally to take care of.' He spoke casually enough, yet Emily sensed an undercurrent of intensity that sparked her curiosity, and she glanced back at him. Jason's impassive face gave nothing away.
'Local business?' she repeated as she dumped another load of paper plates into the bin. 'I didn't know KE had a local project going on.' As a civil engineer, Jason's speciality was water management in Third World countries. It was a rather impressive line Emily trotted out when conducting interviews, although she'd yet to really understand just what it entailed. He'd never done a local project before, as far as she knew.
'It's not to do with the company,' Jason replied, his voice mild.
'Personal business?' she asked. 'You mean family?' She thought of Jason's taciturn father, his tearaway brother, now married to her own sister. Was someone in trouble or ill? Her brow furrowed, and Jason's mouth quirked once more in that knowing little smile as he shook his head.
'You're full of questions, aren't you? No, as a matter of fact, it's nothing to do with family. But personal.' He stressed it lightly yet pointedly, making her feel a bit like the bratty little girl she'd undoubtedly been to his very cool teenager. Or twentysomething. He'd always been a little godlike in his maturity and sophistication. When she'd been getting braces, he'd already started his own company and made his first million.
'Sorry. I'll stop.' She smiled just as teasingly back, determined to keep it light and breezy, although now her curiosity was well and truly whetted. What kind of personal business could Jason Kingsley have? There had always been a fair amount of office speculation about the boss's personal life, for while he was in London he always had a different woman on his arm at various social functions, usually someone glamorous and shallow, and in Emily's opinion totally unsuitable for Jason. Yet she'd never seen him with a serious girlfriend and, despite the office's occasional forays into speculation about that aspect of their employer, Emily hadn't given too much thought to Jason's personal life. Of course, she'd hardly seen him at all. And although their families were intertwined through the marriage of her older sister to Jason's younger brother, he hardly ever went back to Highfield, the village in Surrey where they'd both grown up. And he'd already said it wasn't familyrelated, so what was it?
After another few seconds of silent speculation, Emily shrugged it aside. Clearly Jason's personal business had nothing to do with her. It was probably something incredibly boring, like taking care of an old debt or an ingrown toenail. She thought of Jason sitting on a doctor's examining table, and a sudden, bizarre image of him in nothing more than one of those awful little paper robes flashed across her brain. The mental picture was both ridiculous and yet strangely enthralling, for her overactive imagination seemed to have a rather good idea of what Jason's bare chest would look like.
An unexpected bubble of laughter erupted from her and she clapped her hand over her mouth. Jason glanced at her, shaking his head. 'You've always been able to see the lighter side of life, haven't you?' he said dryly, and she dropped her hand from her mouth to dazzle him with her brightest smile.
'It's a great talent of mine, although it takes some work in certain company.' His eyes narrowed and her smile widened. She knew Jason disapproved of her breezy attitude. She still remembered how sceptical he had looked when she'd come to London and asked him for a job. In retrospect, she had been a bit scatty, blithely assuming that Jason would have something for her to do, and pay her for it as well, but still it had been all too clear just how much Jason had doubted her capabilities.
You're here to work, Emily, not for a lark
Well, she hoped she'd proved herself in that area at least over the last five years. She was poised to become the youngest Head of Human Resources the company had ever hadadmittedly there had only been two before herand Jason himself had suggested her promotion, according to Stephanie.
Despite that, as she looked back at him watching her with that knowing little smile, his eyes crinkled at the corners and she couldn't help but still feel like the silly young girl she'd once been. And, despite the promotion, he apparently still thought she was.
'So Stephanie is to be married in a month,' Jason mused. 'This Timothy fellowhe's all right?'
'He's lovely,' Emily said firmly. 'I had a hand in getting them together, actually.'
Jason arched an eyebrow, coolly sceptical as always.
'Yes, really,' she replied, slightly nettled. 'Tim is a friend of a friend of Isobel's, and she told me that Annie told her'
'This is sounding far too complicated.'
'For you, perhaps,' Emily shot back. 'I found it quite simple. So Annie said'
'Give me the condensed version,' Jason cut her off, and Emily rolled her eyes.
'Oh, very well. I invited them both out to a party'
'Now that part I have no trouble following.'
'Actually, it was a charity fundraiser,' Emily informed him. 'For terminally ill children. In any case, they met there and'
'And it was love at first sight, was it?' he filled in mockingly, and Emily pursed her lips.
'No, of course not. But they never would have even met if I hadn't arranged it, and in point of fact Tim was a bit shy after his wife died, and Steph has an absolute horror of blind dates, so'
'It took a bit of handholding?'
'Or helping them to hold each other's hands. You can't make someone love you, of course'
'I should think not.'
Emily glanced at him curiously, for there was a sudden, darker note to Jason's tone she didn't expect or understand. She shrugged it aside. 'In any case, they're getting married in a month, so it all worked out nicely.'
'Very nicely indeed.' Jason had closed the space between them so she inhaled the citrusy whiff of his aftershave once more, felt the sudden heat of his body, and a strange new awareness prickled along her bare arms and up her spine. He really was awfully close.
'You have icing in your hair,' he said, and reached out to brush a sticky strand away from her cheek. His fingers were cool, the touch as light as a whisper, yet Emily stiffened in surprise anyway. She was conscious of how dishevelled she must look, with her hair falling down and a coffee stain on her skirt. Definitely not at her best.
She laughed lightly and pushed the unruly tendrils behind her ears. 'Yes, I'm rather a mess, aren't I? I just need to finish this clearing up.'
'You could leave it for the cleaning lady.'
'Alice? She's taken the day off.'
'You know her name?'
'I am about to become the Head of HR,' Emily reminded him. 'Her mother's ill and she's gone to Manchester for the weekend to see her settled in a care home. It was a terrible wrench for her to make the decision, of course, but I think it will work out'
'I'm sure,' Jason murmured, effectively cutting her off yet again, and Emily gave him a knowing look.
'So sorry to bother you with details, but I thought you kept tabs on your employees' lives? Or just the ones who make the social pages?'
'I'm more concerned about how a social scandal reflects on Kingsley Engineering,' Jason replied, 'rather than the hows or whys of a cleaning lady taking the day off for her elderly mum.' He gestured for her to keep speaking. 'But do go on. It's fascinating how you take such an interest in other people's lives.'
Emily felt herself flush. Was that a criticism? And while she'd been highspirited on occasion, she'd never involved herself in an actual scandal. Although she supposed highspirited and scandal were synonymous in Jason's view. 'I suppose,' she told him rather pointedly, 'it's what makes me good at HR.'
'Absolutely, among other things.' He smiled, a proper one, not just a little quirk of his lips, revealing a dimple in one cheek. She'd forgotten about that dimple, forgotten when Jason smiled properly his eyes turned the colour of honey. They were normally brown, just as his hair was brown. Brown and boring. Except when he smiled. Abruptly, Emily turned back to the table. She could tell Jason was watching her, felt his assessing gaze sweep over her. Strange, how you could feel someone watching you.
'Are you planning Stephanie's wedding, as well?' he asked now. 'Some big fancy do?'
Emily turned around, brushing another unruly strand of hair from her eyes. 'The wedding? Heavens, no. That's far above my capabilities. And she's having it back home where she grew up.'
'But you'll be there, won't you? Maid of honour, I suppose?'
'As a matter of fact, yes.'