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JAKE DEVILA finished shaving and slapped some Platinum around his jaw, a cologne that had most women sniffing with interest. But not his prim and proper personal assistant, the indomitable Merlina Rossi. She invariably wrinkled her nose at it as though it was offensive.
He grinned to himself in the vanity mirror.
The idea that had come to him last night was sure to blast her usually impenetrable composure.
He really enjoyed getting to her, sitting back and watching the fireworks explode in her amber eyes. The eyes of a tiger, he'd often thought, and wondered if she'd ever unsheathe her claws and cut him to ribbons. Could be exciting—all that repressed passion bursting out, attacking him.
Unfortunately such a loss of control would probably lead to the end of the game and he didn't want that. Mel— she hated being called Mel and her endurance of it was another source of amusement to him—was his salt, a piquant contrast to the sugar of all the other women who sweetened his life. He'd miss her if she walked out on him. Still, he couldn't give up the exciting sense of brinkmanship with her. It was irresistible.
Must be close to eighteen months since she'd come to work for him—the perfect Girl Friday, following his instructions to the letter, keeping his business and social diary on track at all times, fronting for him when he was committed elsewhere. He remembered now that it was this last requirement which had started the entertaining clash of wills.
The memory kept the grin on his face as he left the bathroom and walked into his dressing-room to select the clothes he'd wear today. Out of the many résumés he'd ploughed through to find the gem he was looking for, he'd picked Merlina Rossi's because she'd been P.A. to the editor of a teen magazine, which suggested she would be tuned into the teen market, by far the most profitable one for Jake's business, Signature Sounds.
She'd turned up to the interview in a loose-fitting black business suit, her long brown hair pulled back and held away from her face by severely placed tortoiseshell combs. She had a sensual look about her—a full-lipped mouth, large thickly lashed eyes, a golden tan to her skin, very curvy figure—probably her Italian genes coming to the fore, and she seemed intent on minimising their impact.
Not my type, Jake had thought. His preference ran to tall, slim, leggy blondes who specialised in maximising their impact, sophisticated women who aimed to win in the desirability stakes. He was perfectly happy to accommodate their female egos on that score, though he knew they always had their eye out for someone who would accommodate them even better. He'd lived in that world all his life, and observation and personal experience had taught him not to get emotionally attached to any of the women who walked through it.
"Enjoy them, my boy,'his grandfather had advised. "The trick is not to take them too seriously or they'll take you."
At the time his grandfather had been in the throes of his fourth divorce settlement and Jake remembered asking, "Why do you keep marrying them?"
"Because I love weddings," had come the blithe reply. His grandfather could afford them, regardless of the end cost.
Jake didn't care to part with his own wealth so cavalierly. He'd worked for it and wasn't about to give any woman an easy ride with it just because she was sexually attractive. Work was something he did take seriously. He enjoyed being successful with his business and was very careful about selecting good people to help him maintain and build its success.
Merlina Rossi was in that category.
Definitely a prize find on many levels.
The initial interview with her had revealed she had a quick intelligence and would probably be very competent at doing whatever he required. However, the one thing that had niggled him was her strait-laced appearance. It was old-fashioned, out of step with his thinking, and if she wasn't flexible enough to change it...
"If you want the job, you'll have to dress for it," he'd said. "Your image is all wrong."
It had been fascinating to see a flush rise up her long neck and flood into her cheeks, even more fascinating that she'd managed to keep her cool. "It would be helpful if you'd explain what image you require,'she'd stated primly.
"Not that of a forty-year-old woman," he'd tossed at her, his interest totally captivated by her determination to rise above any discomfort. Did Merlina Rossi have true grit? Was she a survivor against all odds? "Your résumé says you're twenty-nine. Is that correct?" 'Yes."
He'd strolled around his desk, propping himself against the front of it, his gaze deliberately sweeping her from head to foot as he explained, "You should be dressing young, not old. We sell Signature Sounds to the owners of cell-phones and that market is predominantly young. If you're to represent me and my business you have to have street credibility."
She'd calmly appraised him from head to foot. "Does that mean jeans and T-shirt?"
It would have done, but the devil in him had been stirred by her slow, flat-eyed taking in of his appearance. "No. That's fine for the guys who work for the company." Including himself which she'd already noted. "I would want you reflecting up-to-the-minute trends in young fashion. Jeans don't really make that statement for a woman since they're a constant. Let your hair down and show some flair, Ms Rossi."
"My hair is down,'she'd said in a tight, challenging tone. Which had instantly compelled Jake to take the point one challenging step further. "Ah, yes, your hair. Might I suggest a more modern style? Something razor cut would be more in keeping with the image we want to present."
Her cheeks had absolutely flamed and the devil in Jake had revelled in the fiery heat. Such a wonderfully tantalising question—would she play or would she fold?
"Are you asking for spikes?" she'd asked, the amber eyes spiking him as though he were a chicken she'd like to turn over a slow-burning fire.
Although tempted to fan the flames higher, Jake had realised a line was being drawn and she'd walk out if he went too far. Down boy, he'd told himself, deciding he could have a lot more fun with Ms Rossi down the road if she came on board with him. "No." He'd cocked his head, considering what might suit her well. "Maybe a fringe and wispy bits framing your face and neck. Discuss it with your hairdresser. What you need is a trendy style to jazz yourself up. Understood?"
She made no comment on his suggestions, cutting straight to the major point. "Are you offering me the job?"
"Yes. Providing that..." 'I fit the image." She'd stood up and held out her hand to seal the agreement—all brisk business. "Understood and agreed upon, Mr Devila. When do you want me to start?"
She had certainly socked it to him with the image, Jake reflected, putting on his usual casual gear for work. Mel Rossi was not only salt, but pepper, too—red-hot pepper when she put her mind to it.
She'd come strutting in that first day, looking very with it and sexy, her new hair-do swinging, the fringe on her high-heeled boots swinging, not to mention her curvaceous hips in the mini-skirt swinging, and the large ornate buckle of her low-slung belt had been centred just above the apex of her thighs, conjuring up images that had nothing at all to do with company business. Every guy who worked for him had been distracted.
But she'd just sailed around as though what she wore was nothing more nor less than a stipulated uniform, completely impersonal. She didn't flirt. There was no female wrangling, getting smitten guys to do any part of her job for her. She was Miss Efficiency. Had been from the word go. And Jake had to live with what he had brought upon himself.
So he had developed the game. Battle of the sexes. Exciting, exhilarating, sweetly satisfying. It could be said that Mel was the sex he had when he wasn't having sex. All in the mind and that was where it had to stay. However tempted he was at times, getting physical with her would be a big mistake. Any number of women were willing to share his bed. There was only one Mel Rossi and he didn't want to lose the delicious sizzle of the contest between them.
The idea that had come to him last night was sublime. Mel wouldn't just sizzle, she would burn.
Jake could hardly wait for today's battle to be joined.
Merlina checked her appearance in the full-length mirror attached to the door of her clothes cupboard. Floaty, almost ankle-length skirts were in, a welcome change from the minis which invariably made her feel uncomfortably exposed to Jake Devila's endlessly provocative gaze. Not that this outfit would stop him from looking her over and smiling that smug little smile of his, taking personal credit for jazzing up her image. Personal satisfaction, too.
It always got under her skin but she never let it show. She held it firmly in her mind that she dressed for the job, not for him, though if she was completely honest with herself, she had become addicted to flouting her femininity in front of him, addicted to the sexual charge that simmered between them. And it wasn't good for her.
It dominated her life far too much, causing her to lose interest in other men. Here she was, looking down the barrel of being thirty years of age, and her current life was completely focused on a sexy devil who had absolutely no interest in getting married and having children. If ever a man epitomised the label of swinging bachelor it was Jake Devila. And he had all the attributes to go with it.
He was gorgeous; big brown eyes twinkling with wickedness, ridiculously long curly eyelashes that a woman would kill for, expressive eyebrows that worked like exclamation marks to whatever he was saying, very thick, finger-inviting, wavy black hair, a strong straight nose, a strong square chin, a soft sensual and highly provocative mouth and dimples in his cheeks.
Merlina wished she wasn't so hopelessly fascinated by them.
The rest of him was eye candy, too. He had the physique of a prime athlete; broad shoulders, muscles where there should be muscles, not an ounce of flab anywhere, his whole body perfectly proportioned to his height, which was also perfect—tall without being too overpoweringly tall.
The man was born with not only a silver spoon in his mouth but a whole canteen of silver cutlery, and everything dished out to him on a silver platter. He came from a very wealthy family and he'd made millions himself with Signature Sounds, his own clever idea, tapping into pop culture. At thirty-five he had the world at his feet, including a stack of beautiful women—topline models, A-list socialites, television stars, all rolling through his social diary and no doubt his bed.
Despite meticulously carrying out her duties as his personal assistant, Merlina suspected Jake regarded her as his play-thing at work. He liked sparring with her. He liked baiting her. He liked giving her challenging tasks to see if she would perform as requested. The man was a playboy through and through. She knew it, yet couldn't stop herself from taking pride in successfully jumping through all his hoops and meeting his demands.
He couldn't defeat her.
She wouldn't let him.
Even so, she was more and more acutely aware of having become locked into an obsessive relationship with her boss—the exhilaration, the colour, the excitement he brought to her life. She admired the cleverness of his mind—the way he attacked business situations and fired enthusiastic creativity in his employees. His generosity in always giving recognition and rewards to those who came up with good marketable ideas also won her heartfelt approval.
Being with him was a constant buzz. There was so much about him she loved. And hated. Mostly because he wasn't ever going to view her as a partner he'd always want at his side. Not for everything. That truth was too clear for her to ignore. Or to hope for it to change. Jake Devila organised his life into games where he held the controlling hand, directing play, and the only game she had a part of was exclusive to the work-place.
Nevertheless, despite this knowledge and all her wary defences, he'd sucked her right into an emotional whirlpool and kept tugging her more deeply into it all the time. If she didn't climb out of it, she'd end up losing all respect for herself. Eighteen months with Jake Devila was really all she could afford. Her rational mind told her so.
Once she turned thirty, playtime had to be over and the serious business of finding a life partner for raising a family had to begin. She had only so many good child-bearing years, as her Italian papa kept reminding her, muttering that she had already wasted most of them in pursuing high-flying careers.
Her sisters were married with families.
Her brothers were married with families.
She wanted that, too...but on her own terms, not her family's. She had refused to let her father browbeat her into moving straight onto what he considered the appropriate life path for his daughters. Not until she was good and ready, she had vowed. There was no freedom in living up to parental expectations all the time. She had the right to be her own person and find out who she was by herself.
Except she wasn't her own person around Jake Devila. She had to face up to that, put a stop to it and move on. Soon.