Read an Excerpt
Adam Palmer stood back from the milling players spread out before him like a pack of colorful cards oblivious, as usual, to the assessing glances sent his way by women of all ages and marital persuasions.
His business guests were happily ensnared by Lady Luck at one of the gaming tables here in Auckland's Sky City Casino, their eyes glued to the movements of the croupier as if their lives depended on the turn of the deck. The evening was going extremely well. He should be satisfied.
It still rankled that his personal assistant, Lainey Delacorte, had been otherwise occupied tonightand since when had she put her life ahead of work? Certainly not once in the two and a half years she'd worked at his side, and, dammit, he had come to rely on that very availability.
At last he'd found an assistant whose work ethic equaled his own. Surpassed it on occasion, he reminded himself as he remembered the number of mornings he arrived at the office and Lainey was already there ahead of himready with a cup of his special blend of coffee and the international newspapers he scoured at the start of each day.
He'd really needed her here to help ensure that his clients' and, more importantly, their wives' needs were all covered. Experience had taught him the value of keeping clients happywhen Adam Palmer wooed a company, he made it his business to woo the individuals who held the power first and Lainey had become his secret weapon.
In her unobtrusive way, she served to make everyone more comfortablefrom the most dogmatic of CEOs all the way through to their video game obsessed grandkids. And it was her complete unflappability and quiet calm thatinvariably invited confidences from their clients. Information he might otherwise not be privy to. Information that consistently ensured a strong win-win situation for both sides of the table when it came to negotiation.
Damn, but he missed her tonight.
A movement across the room caught his eye. A flash of red, the glow of smooth, toned bare skin, the sheen of copper-highlighted rich brown hair caught by the subtle overhead lights.
Adam's internal radar honed in on the woman. Tall and elegant, she moved away from him with a grace that seemed vaguely familiar. He willed her to turn around, to see whether the front of her was equally as enticing as the back. To see if he recognized her.
Despite the way his body had attuned to her presence, he was absolutely certain he'd never known her intimately. Adam preferred tiny brunettesthe kind of women who looked as if they needed the protection of a man like him, a man who was strong, tall and totally in command of his domain. The woman in red was definitely not that kind of woman. He gauged the heels she was wearing and guessed that in them, she would meet his gaze face on. Strangely, the idea was suddenly very appealing.
This woman certainly didn't have the demeanor of someone who needed protection. She carried herself as if she had it all and could pick and choose what came next in her life.
Adam savored the sensation that warmed to life through his body, the anticipation of a hunt and of a mutually satisfying finish. The way the luxurious fabric of her gown caressed her lush curves left little to the imagination and it would certainly be no hardship to expose more of that delicious creamy skin, inch by painstaking inch, in the privacy of the apartment he kept here in the city for nights such as this.
He clenched his hand around the base of his whiskey tumbler. He loved womeneach nuance, each difference. Each new discovery. Unfortunately, each ending didn't necessarily work out quite as planned. Not everyone wanted the no-strings relationship he'd perfected over the years. But the end was a long way from sight right now. For the moment all he was interested in was a new beginning. It had been months since he'd indulged in more than a polite flirtation, and he was ready for more.
Last month's memorial service at his old school, for his favorite schoolteacher's wife, had driven home to him again just how isolated he'd become. Professor Woodley had looked as if he'd lost the very best part of him. Oh, sure, he wasn't a wailing wreck, but Adam sensed there was a depth of grief beneath his old teacher's demeanor that no one would ever be able to ease. And for all that, Adam had envied Professor Woodley that he'd had that kind of love and sharing in his life. The devotion that made two people a whole couple. He doubted he'd ever share that sense of belonging with another.
Across the room, his woman in red circulated amongst the crowd. Adam's eyes followed her movements as if mesmerized. What would she be like in bed? he wondered. Adventurous? Fun? Or perhaps, more in keeping with the sensuously elegant style in which she moved, slow and languorous.
Adam took a sip of the whiskey and let the heat of the smooth malted liquid swirl around his tongue before
he swallowed. Whatever she was like, he had no doubt he'd be discovering it, and her, very soon. He put his drink down on the bar behind him and started forward. It was time for an introduction.
Halfway across the room, he hesitated and his mouth twisted in a grimace of disgust as a short, heavy-set man came up to her and linked her arm through his. Lee Ling. The man prowled the waters here like a great white. Nothing overt, of course, or he'd be summarily blacklisted from the premises, but anyone who ventured into the world of gambling knew that if they were short of a few thousand during the course of a night, he was your man.
Adam quelled his disappointment. There was only one kind of woman who willingly associated with Lee Ling, and she wasn't the kind that he was prepared to indulge in a dalliance with. Not even for a night. Disappointed, he began to turn away until the woman in red tilted her face down toward her companion. Her profile, before being partially obscured by the magnificent fall of her hair, was instantly recognizable.
Adam's blood ran cold in his veins. Lainey? What the hell was she doing here? And, more importantly, what the hell was she doing with Ling?
The heat of simmering desire morphed into the fire of anger in a heartbeat. If Lee Ling was linked to Palmer Enterprises in any way, shape or form, Adam could kiss goodbye the potentially lucrative negotiations tonight was the precursor for. The man was not above trading industry information in return for negating a debt, and Lainey knew that full well. What the hell was she playing at, hanging on his arm as if he was her heart's desire? Especially looking the way she did tonight.
The couple turned and Adam felt the air rush out of his lungs. Lainey's gown was indeed as enticing from the front as it had been from the rear. Slender shoulder straps, as fragile as threads of a spider's web and defying all the laws of physics, supported an elegantly shaped beaded bodice which cupped her full breasts invitingly.
Who knew she had a figure like that? He couldn't stop himself as his eyes roamed over her shapely form. Man, if she'd ever dressed like this in the office he'd guarantee there'd be no work done. No wonder she kept herself under wraps at work in clothing that did absolutely nothing to accentuate her tantalizing femininity. And that hair. Adam realized he'd clenched his hands into fists as if by doing so he could deny the urge to lift his hands to the rich burnished silk of her hair. Hair which was usually bound tight into a knot at the back of her head.
She was two different people. This siren who, even now he'd identified her played havoc with his libido, and his hardworking assistant, happy to stay in the background at work.
Work. The reminder was like a cold jet from a high-pressure hose. She was supposed to be working here tonight. For him. Not adorning the arm of a shyster like Ling.
She and Ling were walking toward him, stopping every now and then as Ling spoke to someone before moving on. Working the room, Adam noted with a bitter taste in his mouth. While he was no stranger to gambling himself, he took calculated risks. Not for him the highs and lows of the serious gambler, or the addicted one the type that men like Ling made their fortune from.
Adam ran his eyes over Lainey again, from her silver-and-diamanté clad feet to the top of her sexily tousled head. Who exactly was this version of Lainey Delacorte? He'd find out soon enough, he decided as the distance between them closed step by slow step.
He noted the instant she realized he was there in her path. Her green eyes widened in shock, her pupils dilating until they almost consumed the pale emerald color. Emerald? Her eyes were usually brown. Nondescript, unassuming brown. Had everything about her been a lie, right down to the color of her eyes?
He gritted his teeth together until his jaw ached, the discomfort reminding him to relaxnot to give anything away as to the depth of his anger at this very moment.
What else had Lainey Delacorte lied to him about? She was his right hand and suddenly he had to worry whether that hand held a knife. If she was capable of this level of duplicity, was she also capable of selling Palmer Enterprises's secrets? Was her loyalty a front?
They were closer now and he could see the fear that tightened her features as the inevitable confrontation loomedsaw the way her hand tightened on the expensive fabric of Ling's jacket sleeve. Adam allowed a slight smile to curve his lips. Let her think what she wanted, but Lee Ling wouldn't be able to stop him when he demanded his answers.
He stepped forward, blocking their path, and nodded to the other man, "Ling."
"Ah, Mr. Palmer, I believe. How are you this evening?" The money lender's eyes gleamed as he estimated whether Adam was in need of his particular services or not.
"I'm intrigued, Ling. Why don't you introduce me to your " Adam deliberately let his voice trail away and was rewarded with a flash of green lightning in Lainey's eyes as anger flared there at his carefully measured insult.
"Of course, Miss Lainey Delacorte, meet Adam Palmer." Ling's attention was taken by a man who appeared at his side and after a softly spoken exchange he turned back to Adam. "If you'll excuse me a moment, I'll leave Miss Delacorte in your hands. Business, you understand."
Adam barely trusted himself to speak and merely nodded his acquiescence.
Lainey shifted uncomfortably on her high-heeled sandals. Of all the people she hadn't wanted to bump into, her boss was definitely at the top of that list. She averted her gaze from his piercing blue stare, wracking her mind for some explanation that would appease the fury she could see there.
"So Ling was your long-standing prior engagement?"
He didn't waste any time in cutting to the chase. Lainey drew in a sharp breath at Adam's tone and summoned all the composure she could manage.
"As a matter of fact, yes."
The fact that the engagement had been a matter of blackmail was something she could never disclose.
"You're supposed to work for me. Not him."
"Who said I'm working for him."
Adam snorted, an inelegant sound she'd never heard from him before.
"Please, don't insult me by trying to convince me you two are an item. I know exactly who Ling is and what he does. What I want to know is how that involves you."
"I work for you between the hours of nine and six, Monday to Friday, and I believe I do my job well, yes? So really, with all due respect, what I do outside of those hours has nothing to do with you. It's my business and my business alone."
Lainey forced herself to hold her ground as Adam stepped closer. The combined wood and citrus scent of his cologne teased her nostrils, inviting her to inhale the warm fragrance deep into her body. She fought the urge. He was her boss. They'd never overstepped that mark before and she wasn't about to now. Not when she needed her salary more than ever.
"What if I want to make it my business?" he said, his voice a low vibration on the air between them.
She summoned all the courage she had left. "Then you'll be disappointed, won't you."
She took a step back from him, her eyes searching for Lee. Who'd have thought she'd actually be pleased to see him coming back toward her? To rescue her from a man she'd always admired. Strange how she and Adam worked side-by-side every day. Sometimes accidentally touching, sometimes sharing the same space more closely than they had just now. Yet then she'd felt nothing for him. Nothing beyond the respect that was his due as her employer and as one of New Zealand's sharpest business minds.
But tonight. Here. Now. Oh, God, that was another story altogether.
She'd felt naked when their eyes had met only moments ago. Had felt the heat of his gaze as he'd taken in every inch of what she was wearing, how she looked. Her physical response had shocked herthe way her skin had suddenly felt too tight for her body, the way a shimmer of basic need had magnified from her centre. She'd always found Adam attractive, who wouldn't? But she'd always sublimated that attraction, until now.
Had she gone too far, telling him to mind his own business? She hoped not. He looked none too pleased at her words, but seriously, what could he do? She'd been right when she'd said that what she did in her own time was her business, and she worked hard to make sure he had nothing to complain about as far as her role as his personal assistant was concerned. Her job couldn't be in jeopardy because he'd seen her tonight with Lee, could it?
Adam, too, had noticed Lee's return and a dark frown slanted his eyebrows in a forbidding line.
"Don't think this is over, Lainey. You owe me an explanation, and I will have it. Tomorrow, first thing."
A fine tremor ran through her as he spun away and made his way over to the gaming table where she recognized the European business guests who had arrived in the country today. She should have known she would see him here tonight and pleaded off from her arrangement with Lee. But she also knew that short of being seriously ill, Lee would not have cut her the slack she'd have needed. Not when so much money was involved and certainly not when she'd vowed to see he was paid back.