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Genevieve Patchett stared at the solid mahogany door of the office where she was scheduled to have the first job interview of her life. Despite being twenty-six, she had an empty resume, a lot of explaining to do and a stack of bills so high that her throat closed up every time she looked at it. And Lucas McDowell, the man who held her future and her very survival in his hands, was reputed to be a cold, hard businessman who only hired the best. She was not the best.
Reaching for the doorknob, her hand trembled and she gripped the knob tightly, turning her attention to getting in and trying to at least appear competent. She had to have this job. Her friend Teresa had gone out on a limb to get her this interview.
Genevieve opened the door just a touch and immediately stopped. Muffled, angry sounds came from the other side of the door. Female sounds.
Suddenly the door flew open, and she found herself staring at a tall, frowning brunette beauty.
Gen took a step back, and the woman barked out a harsh, ugly laugh. "Oh, don't run away, sweetheart. He's all yours now. Just be careful and don't fall for him. He doesn't have a soul." Tossing her head, the woman glanced back over her shoulder. "Lucas, your next victim is here."
With that, the woman moved down the hall, and Genevieve could finally get a good look at the broad-shouldered, dark-haired man standing behind a desk. For half a second she wondered if running was an option. Lucas McDowell might be wearing a suit most men couldn't afford to even dream of owning, but he had the strong-boned face of a street fighter, gunmetal-gray eyes that seemed to see right through to all her insecurities and he was frowning. At her. Not at the disappearing back of the woman, but at her.
"Come in. Shut the door. Sit down," he said, motioning to a plush blue chair that faced the desk.
She did as he said, quickly and without a sound. She was used to anger and to being treated like a mouse. Her parents had been volatile people. Of course, she'd never before had so much riding on her behavior .
The man gave her a long once-over. His gaze passed over her face to the pulse in her throat and down to where her hands were clamped on the arms of the chair. With some effort, she slowed her breathing and loosened her grip.
"You're Genevieve Patchett, I take it," he said. "All right, let's begin." But it was clear as the wall of windows behind him that he had no interest in beginning anything with her. He was still frowning.
Genevieve wanted to whimper. For the thousandth time since her world, her security, and all that was familiar to her had been stolen six months ago, she felt as if she was hanging over the edge of a cliff by her fingertips. And slipping. The fear inside her was like a living being. Her reputation was destroyed, and soon the last of her money, all that was left of her fortune after her ex-fiance financial advisor had emptied most of her accounts, would be gone. Then she'd be reduced to sleeping on the streets. So running from the only job interview she'd been able to secure didn't appear to be an option. Lucas McDowell was either going to save her or eat her for lunch.
Stop it, she told herself. The man might have eyes with steel gates, he might be an industry giant, his recreational equipment company in the Fortune 500, but she had grown up in a family that was feted by the elite of the world. The fact that she was now reduced to scrambling for her next meal didn't change that. And her parents had always told her that attitude, or at least the pretense of it, could get a person anything.
"Mr. McDowell." She sat up very straight and tall and forced herself to ignore the unpleasant scenario with the woman she'd just witnessed. She did her best to stare straight into those intimidating silver-gray eyes.
"I would like."
"No," he said, his voice like a silken knife as he cut her off. "Ms. Patchett, we both know that what you would like isn't what's going to decide your fate today."
"My fate?" The way he said it, as if he already had some sort of power over her when she'd walked in here of her own volition, made Genevieve feel ill. More alone than she already felt. Still, she'd been lucky that he'd granted her this audience, because the result of this interview would affect her a lot more than it would him. "Okay," she agreed, waiting for him to go on. The urge to squirm under his insolent inspection was intense.
"Let's make one thing clear. The only reason you're here is that one of my employees just eloped to Australia and you've been recommended to me by Teresa March," he said, although Genevieve already knew that. It was a sheer stroke of luck that Teresa had been in town visiting relatives and mentioned that Lucas, a man Teresa had once worked for, was in Chicago looking for an assistant just when Genevieve was starting to count her last pennies. Teresa hadn't even hesitated. She'd insisted on trying to get Gen a job.
What should I say? Genevieve wondered. Should I say anything? Should I tell him how grateful I am to Teresa? Will that make me look too desperate? She didn't know. Despite being twenty-six, this was all virgin territory for her. Debutantes didn't have to worry about such things.
Go with your gut feelings, she thought, but doing that had made her trust Barry and enabled him to steal all her money and betray her, to hurt her. Still, Teresa might well have saved her life by getting her this interview. She deserved praise.
"Teresa is a saint," she said, then blushed when Lucas lifted one eyebrow. Teresa had a well-known reputation as a fun-loving party girl even if she was a very intelligent party girl who never let her fun get in the way of work.
"Well, she's not exactly a saint, but she's really a very nice person, once you get to know her," Genevieve corrected. "I Of course you do know her and "
Lucas's expression told her nothing. He simply waited as she grew more flustered.
Genevieve wanted to clap her hand over her mouth. Why was she babbling? Lucas McDowell clearly didn't consider her his dream candidate. Now, he was going to think that she had air for brains and send her away without a job!
"I'm incredibly grateful to her for getting this interview for me," she concluded somewhat lamely, then immediately wondered if that comment made her sound too pathetically eager.
Giving her a quick but very thorough glance, one that made her feel as if he could read her thoughts and see right down to the pale pink stripe on her underwear, he casually scribbled something on a notepad. Genevieve's heart started to pound more furiously than it already had been. She had a vision of herself spending her last dime and not knowing which way to turn or where to go.
"I'm sorry. I Mr. McDowell, could we please start over?" she asked.
He put the pad down and came around the desk, leaning back against it and crossing his arms. Now he was close and so tall that Genevieve was forced to look up into those too perceptive eyes.
"Yes. Like this. I'm Genevieve Patchett, I understand that you have a job to fill and I would very much like to be the person to do that job. I have references." She pulled out the list Teresa had helped her compose and held it out. The fact that those references were mostly from people who might not yet have heard all the evil rumors Barry had spread about her made her feel guilty. She wanted to ask Lucas not to believe any gossip he heard about her, but Teresa had warned her not to. Still, it was difficult to keep her mouth shut. Dishonesty, even by omission, didn't come naturally to her.
Lucas took the paper, his big hand just inches from hers. Her breath felt as if it was trapped in her chest as Lucas put the paper behind him on his desk without looking at it.
"You don't want them?" Her voice came out too breathless.
"I don't need them. I've already checked your background. I know all I need to know. If I hadn't checked you out beforehand, you wouldn't be here."
"I see," she said softly. But her mind was a whirl. What did he know? What had he heard? What hadn't he heard?
For the first time, Lucas smiled slightly. He was a rough-hewn man, but even that hint of a smile transformed his face into something mesmerizingly male and virile. And dangerous. Genevieve realized she was trying to push back farther in her chair before she stopped herself and years of lessons in posture kicked in. She sat up even straighter, raised her chin higher. Try to at least look confident and competent, she ordered herself.
"You don't see," he said. "But that's not your fault. This job won't be exactly like anything you've done before."
She opened her mouth to tell him that she hadn't ever had a job, then closed it. He'd said that he knew her background. If that was true, then he undoubtedly knew that. But maybe he wanted to test her honesty. She opened her mouth again, then shut it once more. Honesty could lose this for her. And then she'd starve and then.
"I" She closed her eyes, prepared to do the right thing or at least hope that the words that came out of her mouth would be the right ones. It was still a matter of choosing truth over famine. A woman couldn't eat truth for breakfast.
"You've never had a real job before, have you?" he asked, ending her dilemma.
A wave of nausea swept over her. She swallowed hard. "Does it matter?" Please say no. Please say no.
"I don't know yet. It depends."
Her heart started pounding. This must have been what walking a tightrope over a roiling river felt like. There were so many mistakes a person could make, and any one of them would land her in the water.
Genevieve took a deep, shaky breath, hoping that the man didn't notice how nervous she was. "Whatwhat does it depend on?"
"For starters, you don't have a clue what this job even entails yet, do you?"
"Not really." She hoped that it didn't entail anything too revolting or something that was beyond her abilities. "What do you want me to do?"
"What I want if you suit, if I give you the job.. well, let's begin with a few questions about you."
Exasperating man. He hadn't answered her question and oh, no, here came the tough part. Don't ask me about the lies Barry spread about me, because I've already had too many people turn their backs on me because of that.
"What do you consider to be your talents?"
Uh-oh, this felt like one of those questions that could get her thrown out the door before the interview had even begun. "I " Under less nerve-racking circumstances, I can make small talk, I know how to dress, how to choose a good wine, how to oversee servants. Somehow she doubted that any of those were going to be of any assistance here. "I'm not sure exactly what kind of talent you're looking for," she said, stalling and hoping he would give her a hint that she could build on.
"Not really an answer, is it?" he said, catching her in the act. "All right. I need someone who knows how to make things happen."
Bad news, since the only things she'd made happen lately were bad things. She was not going to say that, she thought, feeling suddenly faint. Don't keel over, she ordered herself. Just don't.
"I've " Her voice cracked. Somehow she managed to swallow, take a deep breath and start over. If she didn't come up with a suitable answer now, if she didn't sound convincing, she was going to lose this chance. Genevieve struggled to keep breathing normally. "I'veI've organized events and managed guest lists," she said, her voice coming out amazingly strong, given how frantically her heart was pounding. Okay, the event was merely a big society party her parents threw every year, and frankly, her part had never been that difficult. Her parents always told her exactly what they wanted and they always wanted the same thing. As for the guest list, people had always flocked to see her parents' art, so her main task had been whittling the list down to manageable proportions. Her role had always been a quiet one both in planning the party and in keeping records of her parents' work.
Lucas folded his arms over his chest, which only served to emphasize the breadth of his shoulders and made her feel even smaller than she was. A small smile lifted his lips. As if he knew what she was thinking. She hoped he didn't know what she was thinking.
"Your parents, Ann and Theo Patchett, certainly set the world on fire with their flair for design and their talent with stained and blown glass. I understand that you traveled with them everywhere, were at their side at every event, and I imagine that you were born making things happen."
But he imagined wrong, Genevieve thought. Her parents had been personalities and she had learned how to do all the things they wanted, how to dress and walk and talk and smile and how to quietly live in the large shadow they cast, how to bolster their egos. There was nothing powerful about her. And in recent history, nothing wise. After her parents' deaths, she had been taken in by a con man, one her parents had adored and introduced her to. She had been engaged to that con man, robbed by him and dumped by him, too. She hadn't made things happen.
Apparently, Lucas McDowell thought otherwise. Should she tell him the truth?
No, you're good at following orders. Just follow orders and try to do what he tells you. If he hires you, that is.
"Your parents decorated some of the most luxurious homes in the world," he was saying. "Teresa caught me just when I was going to begin interviewing candidates. I need someone who knows decorating and has organizational skills. I'm extremely interested in that kind of talent."