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"I need your help."
Gabe Piretti struggled to conceal the intense wave of satisfaction those four simple words gave him, spoken by the only woman he'd ever loved. After twenty-three months he thought he'd be able to see Catherine Haile without experiencing any lingering emotions. Foolish of him to think such a thing was even remotely possible. After all, they'd worked together. Lived together. Tangled hearts and minds and bodies into what he'd once believed an inseparable knot. The passion that erupted between them had been an inferno that even eighteen months together had done nothing to lessen. If anything, it had grown stronger with each day they'd shared.
And then she'd left. He knew the excuses she'd offered, what she'd said oreven more damninghadn't said. For the first time in his life, Gabe "the Pirate" Piretti had been unable to solve the problem. Not by hook or crook. Not by demand, nor wit, nor full frontal attack, nor carefully crafted stealth. When Catherine had left him, he'd lost his anchor. And as much as he hated to admit it, he'd been adrift ever since.
If she hadn't chosen to come to him today, he'd have seen to it that their worlds collided in the very near future. Over the endless months they'd been apart, he'd given her the space she'd requested. And he had watched from a distance while she set up her business and professional life on her terms. Keeping that distance had been the hardest thing Gabe had ever done, harder even than when he'd swooped in and taken the helm of Piretti's away from his mother in order to snatch the business from the teeth of bankruptcy.
Well, now Catherine was back, and he'd find a way to keep her. She wanted his help? So be it. He'd give it to her. But the price would be high. The question was would she pay it, or would she run again?
Aware that he'd kept her standing, Gabe waved her toward the sitting area that occupied a large corner of his office. Liquid sunlight, still damp from a recent shower, spilled in through tinted glass windows that overlooked a broad sweep of Seattle, as well as Puget Sound. The brilliant rays caught in Catherine's upswept hair, picking out the streaks of gold buried in the honey warmth.
"Coffee?" he offered.
After taking a seat, Catherine set her briefcase at her feet and shook her head. "I'm fine, thanks."
He took the chair across from her and tilted his head to one side as he studied her. She wore a chocolate-brown silk suit that shimmered richly over subtle curves, revealing that she'd recently lost weight, weight she could ill-afford to lose. The fitted jacket nipped in at a miniscule waist and ended just shy of a feminine pair of hips. She'd chosen sandals that were little more than a knot of sexy straps with the prerequisite three-inch heels, which she invariably wore to give the illusion of height. The heels also performed double duty by showcasing a stunning pair of legs. Clearly, she'd dressed to impress or distract.
"It's been a while," he commented. "You've changed."
He lifted an eyebrow and offered a bland smile. "Stop what?"
"You're mentally undressing me."
It was true, though not the way she thought. He couldn't help but wonder what had caused the recent weight loss, but was careful to hide his concern beneath gentle banter. "Only because I figured you'd object if I undressed you any other way."
A reluctant smile came and went. "What happened to your motto of strictly business?"
"When it comes to work, I am all business." He paused deliberately. "But you don't work for me, do you?"
"And haven't for three and a half years."
His humor faded. "Do you regret your choices, Catherine?"
He caught a flicker of distress before she rearranged her expression into a mask of casual indifference. "Some of them. But that's not what you're asking, is it? You want to know if I had the opportunity to do it over again, would I choose differently?" She gave it serious consideration. "I doubt it. Some things you simply have to experience in order to learn how to live your life or how not to."
"Some things? Or some people?"
She met his gaze, dead-on. "Both, of course. But I'm not here to discuss our past."
"Straight to business, then."
She continued to study him. He remembered how disconcerting he'd found those amber-gold eyes when they'd first met. Nothing had changed. They were still as intense as they were unusual, seeing far more than he felt comfortable revealing. "Isn't business first how you prefer it?" she asked. "I seem to recall that's practically a cardinal rule at Piretti's. Whenever you buy and sell companies, put them together or dismantle them, it's never personal. It's just business."
"Normally, that would be true. But with you " He shrugged, conceding the unfathomable. "You were always the exception."
"Funny. I'd have said just the opposite."
Her mouth compressed, a habitual gesture when the spontaneous part of her nature ran up against the bone-deep kindness that kept her more wayward thoughts in check. In the past, he'd taken great delight in kissing those wide, full lips apart and teasing the truth from her.
Somehow he didn't think she'd respond well to that particular tack. Not now. Not yet.
"Sorry," she murmured. "Water under the bridge."
"Quite a bit of water. But not quite enough to break the dam. I'll have to see what I can do about that."
A hint of confusion drifted across her expression, but he moved on before she could question what he meant. In time, he'd find out why she'd left. In time, he'd break through that calm, polite facade and force the fury and passion to the surface. He'd poke and prod until the dam finally broke and the truth spilled out.
"How have you been?" he asked, hoping the mundane question would help her relax.
A hint of strain blossomed across her elegant features. When he'd first met herand hired her on the spothe'd thought her delicate. And though her fine-boned appearance gave that impression, he'd quickly learned she possessed a backbone of steel. But right now she seemed more than delicate. She looked undone.
"I'm a little stressed right now," she confessed. "Which is why I'm here."
"Tell me about it," he prompted.
She hesitated, gathering her self-control and wrapping dispassion around herself like a protective cloak. "About eighteen months ago, I started my own business."
He'd surprised her. "How did" She waved the question aside. "Never mind. You would have made it your business to know what I did after we went our separate ways."
"You mean after you left me."
The correction escaped without thought or intent, the words whisper-soft and carrying an underlying edge. An edge she caught. The strain she fought so hard to conceal deepened, melded with an old anger and an even older hurt. Her hands curled tight, her knuckles bleached white. This time when she compressed her mouth he suspected it was to control the betraying tremble. Time stretched taut.
"Do you really want to go there?" she asked at last. She pinned him with a single look. "Do we need to deal with the past now? Is that the only way you're willing to help me?"
"It's not the only way."
"Just the way you prefer." She didn't wait for the confirmation. "Fine. I'll make this as straightforward as I know how. You, with your unrelenting need to keep business and personal in separate compartments, gave me a choice. I could work for you or love you, but not both. I, foolishly, chose love. What I didn't realize is that you were already in love. And that love would always come first with you."
"You were the only woman in my life," he bit back.
She lifted a shoulder and smiled in a way that threatened to tear his heart right out of his chest. "Perhaps the only woman, but not the only thing. Piretti's was always your first love. And because of that, it will always be the love you put first."
"You left me because I worked late on occasion?"
he demanded in disbelief. "Because sometimes I was forced to put work ahead of you or our social life?"
She didn't bother arguing, though he could see part of her yearned to. The anger and disillusionment could be read in her expression, the bitter words trembling on the tip of her tongue. She waited until both faded away before speaking.
"Yes," she said with painful simplicity. "Yes, I left you for all those reasons."
"And a host of others?" he guessed shrewdly.
She inclined her head. "And a host of others." Before he could demand more information, she held out a hand in supplication. "Please, Gabe. It's been nearly two years. There's no point in beating this issue to death after all this time. Can't we move on?" She paused a beat, a hint of wry humor catching him by surprise. "Or am I wasting my time coming here today?"
He had no intention of moving on, but he could be patient. Maybe. If he tried really hard. "You aren't wasting your time. If it's in my power to help, I will. Why don't you start by explaining the problem to me?"
She took a deep, steadying breath. "Okay, let's see if I can't keep this short and straightforward, the way you like it. In a nutshell, Elegant Events is an event-staging business geared toward upper-echelon corporations and large-budget clientele."
"Of which there are plenty in the Seattle area."
She nodded. "Exactly. My goal wasand isto plan and stage every aspect of the event in order to spare clients any and all worry and headaches. They tell me what they want, and I provide it. If they're willing to pay for it, I'll find a way of fulfilling their every desire, and if possible, to exceed their expectations."
"And you do it with grace and elegance and panache."
Pleasure gave her cheeks a hint of much-needed color. "You should write my PR releases. That's precisely our goal. We strive to bring something unique to every event, to set the perfect stage, whether it's to highlight the release of a new product or to create the perfect memory for a special, once-in-a-lifetime occasion."
"Like the Marconi affair tonight."
She shook her head in amused disbelief. "Is there anything you don't know? Yes, like the Marconi affair tonight. You're only ninety once, and Natalie is under tremendous pressure to make her father-in-law's birthday celebration an unforgettable occasion."
Gabe couldn't remember the last time he'd seen Catherine so happy, and that fact filled him with regret. She'd suffered at his hands. It hadn't been deliberate on his part, but that didn't alter the facts. "I don't doubt you'll pull the party off in grand style," he stated with absolute conviction.
"During my years at Piretti's, as well as during the time we were together, I learned a lot about what works, and more importantly, what doesn't. And though I didn't expect the business to take off right away, to my surprise and delight, it did." Energy and enthusiasm rippled through her voice. "We've scored some impressive clients and they seemed pleased with the various events. At least, I thought they were."
Her excitement dimmed and he frowned in concern. "Obviously, something's gone wrong. What's happened to change all that?"
The last of her vivaciousness drained away, leaving behind the tension. "Two things. First, we're losing clients. It's nothing overt. Just contracts I thought were a sure thing have suddenly gone away without any explanation. Everyone's polite and makes encouraging noises, but when it's all said and done, they choose another company."
"And the second problem?"
"Is the most serious." Worry darkened her eyes and turned her voice husky with nerves. "We're on the verge of bankruptcy, Gabe. And I don't know why. I thought we'd been careful with our profit margin, but maybe there's been more waste than I realized. I can't quite get a handle on it. It's not my area of expertise. I can tell something's off, but I can't seem to pinpoint what. I'm hoping you can figure it out and suggest changes to correct the problem before we go under."
He keyed in on one very pertinent word that he hadn't noticed until then. "We?" he repeated.
She hesitated. "I have a partner, someone who prefers to remain anonymous," she hastened to add.
He didn't like the sound of that. "Why?"
Catherine lifted a shoulder. "She just does. Since half the startup money was hers, I respect her desire for privacy."
She. Gabe refused to allow his relief to show that the partner was female rather than a male. It was petty of him, but he couldn't seem to help himself. Not when it came to Catherine. Still, it seemed odd that this partner would want to keep her identity a secret. Maybe he'd do a little digging and see if he couldn't find out what the mystery was all about. "Depending on what I find, that may need to change," he warned. "There's an excellent chance I'll want to meet her."
"I did discuss that possibility with her. She's agreed that if it means the difference between salvaging the business and having Elegant Events go bankrupt, she's willing to meet with you."
"Good decision," he said dryly.
"Agreed." A quick smile flashed. He didn't realize how much he missed it until it was there, reawakening an ache that had been tamped down, but never fully excised. "Tell me what you require in order to get started," she requested.
He forced himself to switch gears. "All bank and accounting records since you opened your doors." He ran through a mental list. "Debts, creditors, cost of goods purchased, billables, write-offs. Your prospectus, past and current contracts, a list of services offered and what you charge for them."
"In other words, you want a copy of everything." She reached for her briefcase. Pulling out a thick folder, she handed it to him. "I have most of that information with me."
He nodded. "Excellent. I'll go over what you brought and have Roxanne prepare a list of anything more I might need."