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Olivia Lawson would rather walk naked in a hailstorm than say what she had to say to her boss. Again.
She hesitated outside his office-which also happened to be in his house, because it was a really big house. Brady O'Keefe owned and headed an internet conglomerate and, except for her, all of his one hundred plus employees worked remotely from leased office spaces in L.A., Chicago, New York and Austin. He managed everything effortlessly from his six-thousand-square-foot command center in a very exclusive, very upscale housing development in Blackwater Lake, Montana.
Her parents still lived in the house where she'd grown up, several doors down from the O'Keefes. She'd known Brady since they were kids and had worked as his administrative assistant for the last five years. Delivering the news that the professional relationship was about to end wouldn't be easy. She knew that because she'd tried to do it twice before.
As much as she loved her job, and dare she say it, cared for her boss, she had to make a break. She saw Brady not as her boss, but as a man. A handsome, charming, intelligent man. The problem was, he hadn't noticed her as a woman. As far as Brady was concerned she could be a piece of office furniture. She was as necessary as a computer, desk or stapler. The reality had finally hit her that this wasn't going to change and unless she wanted to end up a spinster with too many cats, she had to leave.
His door was open, so she knocked on the frame of the doorway separating their offices and heard the usual grunt that meant she should come in. He was at the familiar spot behind his L-shaped desk, staring at the computer screen. His back was to her and, as always, he didn't look up.
"Brady, I need to talk to you." His focus was extraordinary and normally she was awed by it. Not today. "There's a fire in the kitchen and I called nine-one-one."
In the spirit of today, this was the first day of the rest of her life; today was the day she was going to tell him that everything was going to change. But she couldn't do that until he was listening. Time to get creative.
She walked over to his desk and picked up the orange foam rubber ball that he squeezed when deep in thought. After crushing it in her palm, she threw it at his head.
He glanced over his shoulder. "The kitchen's not really on fire, is it?"
"So you heard me."
"I always do."
If only that were true. "There's something I have to tell you."
"I guess it's important enough to hurl spheres at me." He slid his chair away from the computer, swiveled and faced her. Then he picked up the orange ball that had landed on his desk. Squeezing it he said, "Okay. You have my undivided attention."
Since turning fifteen years old, she'd wondered how it would feel to have all his concentration focused on her. This token of his interest wasn't what she'd had in mind, but sadly, it was all she would ever know. And that wasn't enough for her. But this was a poor substitute. She had to get away before her spirit shriveled and disappeared.
"I'm giving my notice."
For a smart guy, he could be irritatingly dense. Or he was deliberately deflecting, hoping to get her off message. Not this time. This time was going to be different.
"I'm tendering my resignation."
"You're leaving me? There's nothing tender about that."
"Not you." That was a lie of self-protection. No way could she tell him how right he actually was. "I'm leaving your company."
"You're abandoning me?"
"You're so melodramatic. Not everything is about you." He squeezed the orange ball until his knuckles turned white. "Didn't we just go through this?"
"Same time last year."
"Pretty close," she allowed.
It was exactly the same time. There was something about being a few weeks into a new year that made a person want to change their life. And she should have known better than anyone that this man would remember, because he had a mind like a steel trap.
Not to mention a face and body that could make him a model or movie star instead of the megasuccessful businessman he was. Dark brown hair, short and carelessly mussed, complemented the scruff on his cheeks and jaw. He probably hadn't shaved because he didn't have to. There were no outside meetings today. No hot date later. Since she kept his calendar, she knew about things like that.
He certainly wasn't trying to impress her. She thought he looked amazing no matter what. Not that he cared.
Olivia secretly sighed over the scruff-and everything else about her boss. Piercing was the only way to describe his green eyes, which snapped with intelligence and wicked humor. The casual white cotton shirt and worn jeans perfectly showcased his broad shoulders, muscular chest and flat abdomen that were the result of disciplined workouts on the state-of-the-art equipment in his upstairs gym. He could be People magazine's sexiest CEO and most eligible bachelor.
She would miss the view when she was gone, but sacrifices had to be made for the greater good.
"Okay." He nodded as if he'd made up his mind. "Based on past data from this time last year, giving notice is your way of asking for a raise."
"Not really." When she tried to quit last year, he'd offered her more money, but that wasn't why she'd stayed.
"Let's call it a cost-of-living increase. When you do the paperwork, give yourself however much you think is reasonable." The right corner of his mouth quirked up, unleashing a rogue dimple.
Damn that dimple. It opened the incredibly insubstantial door that was holding back all her insecurity and weakness. Determination, don't desert me now, she silently begged.
"What if I think the majority share of the company is a reasonable increase?" she asked.
"How do you know?"
"There's not an unfair or dishonest bone in your body."
So, he'd taken note of her bones. Should she be flattered? Just thinking that made her pathetic. "You can't be sure I haven't turned demanding and greedy."
"I'm willing to risk it."
The grin punctuating his words was proof that he saw her as a Goody Two-shoes. Wow, warm fuzzy from that.
Back on task. "I'm not here for a raise. I just want to resign."
"No, you don't."
"Yes, I do," she said firmly. "Giving notice is the courteous thing to do when one is leaving one's employer."
The smile curving his mouth disappeared and those green eyes narrowed, as if he'd finally noticed something different this time. "You can't be serious about leaving."
"Sure I can."
"Well, I don't accept your resignation."
"You don't have a choice."
"The hell I don't," he said stubbornly.
"That's up to you." She slid her hands into the pockets of her slacks to hide the shaking. "But you're on notice that two weeks from now I'm not showing up."
He stood and walked around the desk. This was the part she dreaded, the part where he invaded her personal space without any clue how his blatant masculinity threatened to chase off her determination.
She turned away and concentrated on the fireplace, where wood was burning and crackling. The fire, the furniture, the man-everything-made a person feel warm and cozy inside as a dreary rain soaked the world on the other side of the window.
"Two weeks' notice is all you're giving me?"
"It's standard." She turned to face him.
"I can't find a replacement in that short a time. You need to give me a month. Two would be better."
She shook her head. "I know you, Brady. If I don't give you a deadline, you won't even look for anyone."
"I don't have time. You know that."
"So you better get cracking on my replacement." She turned away again, because the look on his face showed it was starting to sink in that she was completely serious this time. Feeling sorry for him was a luxury she couldn't afford.
"Don't do this, Liv."
The nickname chipped away at her defenses, weakened her resolve. "I have to."
"Why now? Nothing's changed in your life."
She whirled around to look at him. "How do you know?"
"I just do."
It was his cocky confidence that had anger coiling in her belly. The smug expression in his eyes conveyed his utter belief that her world revolved around him and he was very nearly right about that. Twice before she'd caved after giving notice, and if she didn't have anything to fight back with she'd cave this time, too.
She could barely breathe, almost as though she needed an oxygen mask, which was why she blurted out the first thing that popped into her mind.
"You're wrong, Brady. Something in my life has changed, and it's big." She looked him straight in the eye and told the biggest lie ever. "I met a man and I've fallen in love. I'm moving away from Blackwater Lake to be with him."
There was some satisfaction in the fact that he was sincerely shocked. "You're leaving town?"
That's what got his attention? Not the fact that she was in love? "Yes. For a man."
She felt compelled to add that last part in case there was any question.
"Where did you meet this man?" His tone was neither suspicious nor curious. Mostly he sounded irritated.
Clearly Olivia hadn't thought through the made-up boyfriend exit strategy. It never crossed her mind that Brady would ask questions, and she wasn't particularly good at spontaneous deceit.
"It's none of your business."
He folded his arms over his chest and stared her down. "I couldn't disagree more. You're not just a valued employee, you're "
Olivia made sure the expression on her face didn't change. For just a second she'd felt hope that he might think of her as more. After five years of not being more it was silly, foolish and stupid to be disappointed, but none of that stopped her. Still, she was determined that he wouldn't know, not even by the barest flicker of an eyelash.
"You're my boss," she corrected him. "That's all. Our working relationship doesn't entitle you to information about my personal life."
"I just asked where you met him. How is that personal?"
"I'm curious. So take me out back and flog me."
"Tempting," she said. "But it's raining and I don't want to get my hair wet."
"Oh? Do you have a hot webcam date?" She gave him a look and he held up his hands. "The least you can do is tell me his name."
"Are you ashamed of him? Ichabod? Aristotle? Sven?" He tapped his lip thoughtfully. "Maybe it's a girl name. Lindsay? Lynne? Carroll?"
She almost laughed, almost succumbed to the charm. Instead, she decided to run for cover. She turned away and headed for the door. "You're incorrigible and listening to this isn't in my job description."
"Why can't he move here to Blackwater Lake?"
Because he doesn't exist, she thought. "It's just easier if I go there." That was sort of true.
"Easier on who?"
"So where are you moving?"
"Again-prying. Look, I did what I had to do. You've got your two weeks' notice. Now I'm going back to work. There are a lot of loose ends to tie up."
Behind her he said, "Most administrative assistants would be eager to give their boss all the juicy, gossipy details of a love affair."
"I'm not most assistants."
"Tell me about it." He sounded like a petulant little boy, pouting about not getting his way.
That should have reinforced her decision, but as always, she found the behavior oddly endearing.
She stood in the doorway between their offices. "So, I'll advertise my position and hopefully you can promote from within the company. I'll also contact an employment agency and recruiters we've used in the past. I'll work over the weekend and on Monday there will be a slate of candidates for you to interview."
Olivia closed the door, then walked over to her desk and sat behind it. She let out a long breath and realized the last few minutes in Brady's office were just a preview of what she could expect from him for the next two weeks. Giving him her resignation was a walk in the park compared to the prospect of actually working with him every day until she left.
He wasn't going to make this easy on her.
Three days after Olivia had given her notice, Brady leaned back in his desk chair and squeezed the orange ball. It was Monday and she'd kept her word about lining up people for her job. He'd just completed the second of two interviews she'd scheduled for today and she was seeing the applicant out.
"Olivia must be really anxious to get out of here," he said to himself, crushing the round foam rubber in his palm.
Who was this guy she'd met?
He'd never thought about her dating, let alone getting serious. And he wasn't sure what bothered him more- losing the world's best assistant, or the fact that she was leaving because she'd fallen in love. He hated change- and the thought of her with a guy made him want to rip what's-his-name's head off.
The situation basically sucked.
He swiveled in his chair and looked out the big arched window. No rain today. It was beautiful outside, with the sun turning the surface of Blackwater Lake to sparkling diamonds. The other window had a view of the mountains and he knew that from her desk just a few feet away Olivia could look at the same beautiful surroundings.
Was there mind-blowing scenery where what's-his-name lived?
"So, what do you think about the interviews?"
Brady knew Olivia's voice, but he'd realized she was in his office before she'd said a word. The scent of her filled the room and always made him think of flowers. A garden. Serenity.
But not anymore. Now she was going to turn his life upside down to move somewhere he didn't know with a guy she wouldn't name.
He swiveled his chair around and looked at her. She was wearing a very businesslike, conservative navy pantsuit and matching pumps. Today her strawberry-blond hair was pulled away from her face in a ponytail, emphasizing her high cheekbones. Her big blue eyes filled with eager anticipation when she sat in one of the club chairs on the other side of his desk.
She wasn't tall and willowy or classically beautiful, but her smile always brightened the room on a cloudy day. And there was something about her voice, a huskiness that wasn't quite a lisp but tapped into his devilish streak and made him bait her into saying S-words.
She was staring at the rubber ball in his fist. "You've clearly been giving the interviews some thought."
"Sort of. In a manner of speaking. But only because you forced me into this."
She rolled her eyes, then looked at the yellow legal pad in her lap that she used for notes. "Okay, then. Let's start with candidate number one. Shannen Dow."
The corners of his mouth curved up. "I like her name."
"That's a good start. The recruiter says she's one of their strongest applicants."
"Of course they would. Commission is their revenue stream."