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The woman's voice rang across the large space. Dominic Di Bari blinked in the fierce light that poured through a wall of windows.
Apparently she had no idea who he was. He took a step forward.
"I heard what you said." He could just make out a figure at the far end of the room, small in the cavernous space. "I don't believe we've met."
"The sales training conference is on fourteen. This is fifteen." She strode toward him, heels clicking on the marble.
He squinted, but still couldn't see much. She had a white lab coat on. Computers and other high tech equipment punctuated long countertops. A white marble floor magnified the late-afternoon sunlight blasting through the windows.
"Is this some kind of lab?"
"I hardly see that it's any of your business."
"A week ago, I'd have agreed with you." Before the strange phone call that turned his life upside down.
"I warned you I'd have to call security." She pulled a phone from a pocket in her lab coat. He couldn't help but notice that her legs went on forever. She dialed the number and tapped her foot on the floor, looking anywhere but at him.
He crossed his arms and fought a smile that kept trying to sneak across his mouth. Judging from those legs, he'd bet there was quite a body hidden under all that white permanent-press polyester. Straight brown hair with natural-looking gold highlights grazed her shoulder as she pressed the phone to her ear.
"Yes, Sylvester, there's an intruder on fifteen. I told him to leave but he won't." She shot him a hostile glance. Gray eyes. "Thank you, I'd appreciate that."
She snapped her phone shut. "Security will be here in a few moments.Now is your chance to exit with dignity."
"Dignity can be so dull." He leaned against the doorframe. Her anger lit her cool eyes and hardened the determined set of her chin. "Are you a researcher here?" he asked.
"As it happens, I'm an executive vice president in the cosmetics division." She pursed her lips.
"Interesting." So Tarrant's eye for the ladies extended to those he picked to run his company. This woman didn't look a day over twenty-five. Obviously legs trumped experience around here. Hardly surprising, given what he knew about Tarrant Hardcastle, the jerk that DNA tests had proved to be his biological father.
He heard an elevator open behind him.
"This is him." She pointed a long, graceful finger at him.
No nail polish. Shouldn't she be wearing some if she was EVP of cosmetics?
"Mr. Hardcastle." The friendly middle-aged security chief who'd been instructed to give him the run of the building gave a little nod.
Dominic knew he should correct him. He'd been Dominic Di Bari his whole life and he had no intention of changing his name now to suit some egomaniacal billionaire who needed an instant son.
But right now being Mr. Hardcastle suited his purposes.
Her pretty pink lips parted. "What?"
"You heard the man." Dominic shifted his weight. "Sylvester, is there a problem?"
"Ms. Andrews mentioned an intruder."
"I think there's been some mistake." Dominic spoke slowly, and let that smile he'd been fighting pull his mouth upward. "Dominic." He held out his hand for her to shake.
She stared at it in horror. Then she stepped forward and shook it. "Bella Andrews. I had no idea. I must apologize. We deal with a lot of sensitive material in this lab and we can't have strangers " She trailed off.
"I quite understand." Her skin was soft and smooth—as it should be, given her chosen profession. Her palm heated against his as he held her hand a couple of beats longer than was truly polite.
Her gray eyes gave away nothing of her thoughts.
When he let go she pulled her hand back fast and turned to the security guy. "Thanks, Sylvester. Sorry to have bothered you."
They stood in silence while Sylvester made his exit. He could almost feel her burning curiosity as a palpable force in the chemical-scented air. He smiled, as if to invite her most probing questions.
"You're one of Tarrant's relatives?" Her skin colored after she asked.
"His son." He gave her a cool smile. "You're going to say you didn't know he had a son, aren't you?"
"I, um." She pushed a stray wisp of hair behind her ear.
The story wasn't a pretty one, and he decided to keep it to himself for now. Sometimes it was fun to keep people guessing. Especially a scientist who probably lived to have her hypotheses proven correct.
"My father invited me here to show me how the company works." He took a step toward her. "So, to repeat my question, is this a lab?"
"Yes, it's the development lab." He watched her elegant fingers brush a speck of imaginary dust from a computer monitor. "I must apologize again. I hope you realize that I'm just protecting the company's interests."
"I understand. The fountain of eternal youth must be safeguarded at all costs."
His eyes had adjusted to the light and he could see the end of the long room. The sinks and burners he might have expected in a lab were there, carefully separated from racks of computing equipment and other robotic-looking devices. He didn't see any beakers or test tubes. Those must be hidden in the expensive cabinets lining the far wall. "Let me guess, you're really seventy-eight years old?"
A dimple pierced the smooth skin of her cheek. "Not quite. Though we've made some impressive advances in antiaging products. Do you have experience in the field?"
She shoved her hands in her pockets, which had the delightful effect of pulling her lab coat tight over her shapely backside as she crossed the lab.
"Not a lick, I'm afraid. I'm here to learn."
To learn as much as he could about Tarrant Hardcastle and his evil empire, where until a week ago he'd been very unwelcome.
Dominic still smarted over losing his bid for the bankrupt chain of drugstores he'd counted on as real estate for his chain of food stores. Tarrant had undercut him on the price and still got them. Now every store was sitting boarded up—a blight on the main drag of at least fifty towns in America.
Did Tarrant know he'd screwed over his own son? Had he done it deliberately, as a kind of power play?
Just thinking about it heated Dominic's blood. But he'd get his own back, one way or another.
Bella Andrews gathered some papers that were spread out on a counter and shoved them into a drawer. Her breathing shallow, she looked nervous.
And maybe she should be. Her high-handed attitude—and the way those luscious lips pressed together in a line of disapproval—gave him an appetite for a little sweet revenge.
She had to get rid of him. Thank God he didn't get a look at the files she'd been reading. The entire team of research chemists was at a conference in Geneva and she'd been sure of some privacy for serious snooping. Now she'd almost been caught red-handed by the boss's son.
Tarrant Hardcastle had a son?
"This is where our staff of chemists experiments with new formulas and improves on the current ones. We have a strict chain of procedures and each product is thoroughly tested before it hits the market."
"On animals?" His eyebrow raised.
Funny question. Despite his elegant suit, Tall, Dark and Dangerous looked like a man more likely to eat animals raw than to worry about their welfare.
"We eliminated animal testing when I arrived. It's not necessary for our products." She sucked in a breath. "Right now we're working on a new line of age-defying cosmetics. In fact, our first product launches in a few days. Tarrant hopes to secure global distribution by the end of the year."
"I don't doubt he'll succeed." Something in his tone made her glance up. His black-coffee eyes locked onto hers. "Do you like working for Hardcastle Enterprises?"
"Of course, why?" Her voice came out kind of squeaky. It sometimes did that when she was lying.
And something about this man put her on edge. Not his L'Uomo Vogue good looks. She was used to that. Tarrant Hardcastle put a premium on pretty faces—male and female—in his employees.
Nor was it the tall, broad-shouldered frame lounging against the marble counter.
There was something in his expression that gave her the idea he could see right through her. A possibility that made her belly contract with anxiety.
The look of satisfaction on his face suggested he'd read her traitorous thoughts. Her gut tightened into a knot, even though she knew that was impossible. "What would you like to see?"
His dark gaze drifted across the front of her lab coat, implying that his answer was "more of you." "So far I've only seen the inside of corporate offices and conference rooms. I'd like to see the lab, then " He tilted his head and narrowed his eyes. Was he laughing at her? "If you can take some time from your busy schedule, I'd like to see the retail floors."
Of course she had time. All her other plans were irrelevant if the boss's "son" needed her. Couldn't he find someone in retail for that? He was definitely laughing at her. Now that she'd insulted him by trying to throw him out, he was going to toy with her like a cat with freshly trapped prey. Irritation prickled over her—along with something else she couldn't put her finger on.
She crossed the room, conscious of his big body keeping close to her. "This is a photon microscope." She gestured at her pride and joy. "We're working with microfine powders that can reflect light to create the illusion of optical smoothness."
Instead of glazing over, his eyes fixed on hers. "Nanotech-nology."
A spark of surprise leapt inside her. "Yes. We've found that by manipulating photons in layers we can create dramatic effects with both colors and surfaces."
"Fascinating." He ran a big thumb over the top of a microscope, which caused a disturbing ripple of sensation in her belly. "And you've created a marketable product?"
"I can see you understand the business. Our biggest challenge wasn't finding something that worked, it was making it marketable. People won't buy a cake of white powder just because they're told it's a great red lipstick that never bleeds and won't wear off. We've come up with a compound we're calling ReNew, because it makes damaged skin look new again."
"Are you a chemist?" His eyes drifted over her lab coat again. Made it feel hot against her skin.
She lifted her chin. "I have degrees in chemistry and business. I'm here to lead the team." And take back my father's stolen legacy.
Tarrant Hardcastle would never give her dad a word of credit, even if his life's work made millions for the company. They had no idea she was his daughter. If Tarrant found out he'd probably fire her.
She needed to get this new Hardcastle out of her lab, and now. She'd been surprised in the middle of her unofficial "research" and didn't want Tarrant's son poking around and jumping to any conclusions.
She started to unbutton her lab coat. "You wanted to see the public areas. Shall we start with the department store?"
He seemed distracted by her fingers on the buttons. When his eyes lifted to meet hers they were darker than ever. "Sure."
His voice was low, suggestive.
He hung behind her as they walked out of the lab and she could feel his gaze on her. Her fitted, dark red skirt and blouse had been chosen to curry favor with her boss, Tarrant Hardcas-tle—lover of all things expensive and feminine. Making an effort to look good was part of the unofficial job requirements around here. Apparently she'd succeeded, because she sensed Dominic Hardcastle's approval radiating like a heat wave.
She hung her lab coat on a hook by the door, ushered him out then locked the door behind her.
The tour didn't require much travel, since Tarrant was such a megalomaniac and control freak that he had gathered his entire empire under the slate mansard roof of a former hotel, a robber-baron-era extravaganza overlooking the southern tip of Central Park. The palatial building contained the corporate offices, conference rooms and auditoriums, the lab, a private art gallery, three glittering retail floors and a world-class restaurant on the top floor.
Costly fragrances hung in the air as they stepped out of the elevator on the ground-level retail floor. Hardcastle's exclusive products took pride of place among Chanel, Dior, et al, in the cosmetics department. Bella watched Dominic stride unselfconsciously past counters laden with seventy-dollar lipsticks and "miracle" skin-renewing potions.
His easy chatter with retail associates demonstrated an insider knowledge of the business. It also revealed total ignorance about cosmetics—or was that feigned to encourage more blushing and fluttering explanations from the stunning girls behind the counters? He even let one raven-haired goddess spray him with the latest unisex Calvin Klein scent. Bella resisted the urge to roll her eyes.
"Where are you going so fast?" A big hand closed around her upper arm as she tried to march onward. Heat gathered under the silk of her blouse.
She eased her arm out of his grasp. "There's a lot to see."
"Indeed there is. Can you blame me for wanting to take my time to enjoy the view?" His face revealed a raised eyebrow and a twinkle of humor. Though his eyes were on her face she had a distinct impression he was appraising her body.
She lifted her chin. "It's nearly seven o'clock and I imagine you'll want to at least see the couture and designer collections on our women's apparel floors."
"Not really." He continued to smile pleasantly. "I had something else in mind."
For a second she thought his voice was thick with suggestion, then she decided she must have imagined it.
"What, exactly?" Her voice sounded clipped.
"Oh." She distracted herself from his hungry stare by brushing a tiny piece of white lint from her sleeve. "Is that your specialty as a retailer?" She was following the usual lawyer's advice to never ask a question unless you knew the answer. Several associates had gushed over his chain of food stores.
"In fact it is, but I was thinking dinner."
She blinked rapidly. Did he expect her to have dinner with him? She needed to get back to the lab and put those files away.
"I think you owe me, don't you? You did try to get me thrown out of the building."
He cocked his head and let his gaze drift over her mouth. The mouth that had called security to eject the boss's son.
"I hear The Moon is quite the place to be."
"Oh yes. Five stars," she murmured. She'd read the reviews but had never been there. Way out of her price range.
"Tarr—my father told me to be sure to eat dinner there, on his tab." Something about the way he said the word father made her ears prick up. His tone had a guarded quality that surprised her. "It would be my pleasure if you'd join me."
His expression looked entirely genuine, and warmth shone in his dark eyes.
Posted March 30, 2012
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Posted August 10, 2014
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