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Once Upon A Mattress
By Kathleen O'Reilly
Harlequin Enterprises Ltd.Copyright © 2003 Harlequin Enterprises Ltd.
All right reserved.
Chapter OneBen MacAllister studied her from across the conference room table. "Bad breakup?"
"I beg your pardon?" she replied, lifting her head.
Hilary Sinclair wasn't the sort of woman that men would notice at first glance. At first glance, a man might overlook her - dismiss her even. The second time, Ben had noticed the "I'm bookish" stiffness - the social difficulty that came from being highly intelligent.
The third glance turned his head and made him wonder why the world didn't pay more attention to Hilary Sinclair. He settled back in his chair, the old wood squeaking under his weight. "I don't mean to be rude, but you're very hostile toward younger men and you certainly aren't happy."
Ben was new to his father's company - MacAllister Beds - but Hilary was even newer. Ten days ago she'd come on board, and it was only in the past week that he'd begun to analyze her.
"You've sat around and contemplated what you've assumed is the absolute misery of my love life, and you've divined all this in the short time since I've started?" she asked, leveling her green gaze at him as if he was the scourge of the earth, which in a perverse way proved his theory.
"I'm intelligent, not completely understanding of the workings of the female mind, but I think that's an impossibility. So, to answer your question, yes."
"A woman must have a man to be happy. Is that what you think?" Her eyes flashed and came alive. He liked it when she was angry.
"No, but it doesn't hurt."
She arched a dark brow, not quite as well as he could, but the intent was there. "You're absolutely right. And if you must know, I castrated him." Then she took a sip from her Starbucks coffee cup, two drops leaking onto her shirt. She didn't even notice, just put down her cup and stared determinedly at the blank sheet of paper in front of her.
He didn't believe her for a moment, but protective male instincts made him press his legs together.
The conference room was quiet, the rain drumming on the old roof of the warehouse. He'd shown up early, to be prompt for what might be an important meeting, but also because he knew she'd be early, too.
Oddly enough, he found himself compelled to talk to her, compelled to garner her attention. "You know, I think I watched a movie about you on Lifetime."
She lifted her head again. "Very funny. If you don't mind, I don't think the workplace is the proper forum for a conversation on my personal life."
Ben shrugged. "I was curious, that was all."
She tapped her pen on the long wooden table, not meeting his eyes. "Why did your father invite you to the product launch meeting? I wasn't aware that the Director of Security would be involved."
Ben winced, and he was sure she noticed. "With Sylvia's broken leg, I think my dad wants everyone to pitch in and help cover for her. Even Security," he added, more sarcastically than necessary, which ruined any effort at a nice recovery.
Director of Security, my ass. Being offered the gimme position had been a low blow, but he could prove to his father that he'd underestimated him.
He'd come back to Dallas to help his family out, thought that maybe he could make a difference. MacAllister Beds had never been Ben's idea of excitement, but this time he was determined to sweat it out. He'd never cared much about the company; his family was the reason he was here instead of completing number thirty-seven on his "list of things to do before I die."
"So you're going to work on the product launch?" she asked, either overlooking his sarcasm or else not noticing it. He'd bet good money it was the latter.
"If I'm needed, sure." The new Dreamscape line was scheduled for product launch at the ISPA trade show in Las Vegas three months from now. Ben had hoped to be a part of the project.
She nodded coolly and stared back at the paper, dismissing him.
But he wasn't ready to be dismissed. Yet. "The new mattress is ready to go?"
"Certainly," she said.
He wanted to ask more questions, ask how many lines were on that yellow legal page, ask her if she hated all men, or should he take it personally. Before he could annoy her further, his father walked in, and that was Ben's cue to sit back and watch. Ben took out his notes for the meeting, not sure what he'd be doing, but he still wanted to be prepared.
Ben's father was the undisputed head and Ben's brother, Allen, was the heir apparent to MacAllister Beds.
MacAllister Beds, the last bed you'll ever buy.
Too bad MacAllister marriages didn't last as long as their mattresses.
Ben clenched his folder a little tighter.
Martin MacAllister sat down at the end of the conference table, situating his big frame into the old chair. His brown hair - the same light shade as Ben's - had just now started to turn gray, but his dark eyes were full of humor and youth. He settled back, sighing in relief when he finally got comfortable.
Allen trundled in, late as usual, then sat down at their father's right hand.
Martin MacAllister put on the bifocals that Ben knew he hated and looked at his meeting agenda. "Ben, glad you could join us. Got big plans today?"
"I thought I'd write some new security procedures," he answered, almost as a joke.
"Procedures, huh? Good, good. Let's get started, shall we?"
And for the next forty-five minutes, Ben might as well have been wallpaper. His father asked Hilary all sorts of questions about the launch, what time the press conference was scheduled, what media contacts they had, shipping timetables and meeting plans.
And absolutely nothing about security at all.
Ben carefully took his notes and folded them into a paper airplane.
He could be in Colorado right now, breathing fresh mountain air at the J&D ranch, number thirty-seven on his list of things to do before he died. But he'd put that off, because he thought it was important to be here - for the company, for his family.
He almost laughed.
While the others were occupied doing real work, he got up and walked to the windows. For a while he simply stared out of the diamond panes at the modern gray lines and squares that made up the skyline of downtown Dallas. He was slowly going out of his mind.
Excerpted from Once Upon A Mattress by Kathleen O'Reilly Copyright © 2003 by Harlequin Enterprises Ltd.
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