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"Please don't die on me, please don't die on me," Solange Washington muttered under her breath as the ancient Plymouth she was driving lumbered up a steep hill blanketed in the deep green of pine trees.
"If you get me to the interview in one piece," she continued her plea bargain, "I promise to put you out of your misery once and for all. You have my word." Her fingers were crossed because junking the Plymouth and buying a new car weren't in her plansnor in her budget.
Unless, of course, she landed the job with Crandall Thorne.
She felt a surge of excitement at the thought. Three weeks after being contacted by Thorne's secretary, Solange still couldn't believe the incredible opportunity she'd been given. Crandall Thorne, a wealthy criminal defense attorney, was one of the most powerful men in Texas. Solange knew many peoplenot just aspiring lawyers like herselfwould give their eyeteeth for the chance to work for him. He'd probably been inundated with hundreds of résumés from people vying to become his new personal assistant. And out of those many applicants, Solange was the only one who'd been invited for an interview.
She couldn't believe it. What were the odds?
Don't question your good fortune, she told herself, as her mother had been fond of saying. Just focus on convincing Crandall Thorne that you're the best candidate for the job!
Solange grimaced as the old Plymouth lurched and groaned in protest. Too bad Thorne had insisted on conducting the interview at his remote ranch tucked deep in Texas Hill Country. She'd expected to be interviewed at his downtown law firm, and was surprised to be informed that she would meet Thorne at his home instead.
She glanced at the directions his secretary had faxed to her and wished for a landmarka Whataburger, a bank, a gas stationanything to reassure her that she was going the right way. But all she could see for miles was an endless stretch of road that wound through the lush foothills of a mountain range.
And then, suddenly, a hacienda-style ranch house perched high on a bluff came into view. As Solange gazed upon the house, she realized the glossy photographs she'd seen in an old issue of Architectural Digest had not done the property justice. No photograph, professional or not, could capture the way the sprawling house sat proud and erect on a hilltop, framed against a vivid blue sky and reigning above a lush green valley that stretched against the backdrop of vast, rugged mountains.
With a mixture of excitement and nervousness, Solange steered the car uphill and through a heavy iron gate bearing the name C&C Ranch. She drove past several barns and outbuildings and a large roping arena before reaching the main house. She parked in one of the three detached garages as she'd been instructed and turned off the ignition. The Plymouth shuddered and groaned loudly, as if heaving its last breath.
"God, I hope not," Solange muttered, reaching over and grabbing a battered leather briefcase from the passenger seat.
She didn't have time to dwell on the fate of the old car. In five minutes she'd be late for the interview, and based on everything she'd read about Crandall Thorne, he wouldn't tolerate tardiness from a prospective employeeor anyone else, for that matter.
Clutching her attaché case, Solange hurried across the manicured ranch yard toward the rambling two-story house that boasted a red-tiled Spanish roof and a wide, curving porch that beckoned visitors.
The tall, handsome woman who answered the door beamed a smile at Solange that was equally welcoming. "Why, hello," she said in warm, lilting tones that whispered of a Southern accent. "You must be Crandall's three o'clock appointment."
Solange smiled. "Yes, that's right. My name's Solange Washington."
The woman, who appeared to be in her midsixties, arched a finely sculpted brow. "Solange? What an unusual name. I imagine you must hear that all the time, though."
Solange chuckled softly. "Yes, ma'am, I do. I think my mother wanted to name me something different, something unique. Either that, or she just ran out of ideas and thought she was making up something."
The woman's smile widened with pleasure. "A sense of humor. Good. You'll need it if you want to work for Crandall Thorne." At Solange's mildly alarmed look, the woman laughed and swung the door wide to usher her inside the house.
"Goodness, where are my manners?" she exclaimed as Solange paused to glance around the wide, spacious foyer. "Been working for Crandall too long. Thirty-three years, to be exact. My name is Rita Owens."
"Nice to meet you, Ms. Owens," Solange said, shaking the woman's warm, slightly calloused hand. Work hands, like her mother's had been.
"May I offer you something to drink, Miss Washington?" Rita Owens asked. "Some coffee, tea or hot chocolate? It is December, though it doesn't quite feel like it. Are you from Texas?"
"Yes, ma'am. Born and raised."
"Then you're already used to our unseasonably warm winters. Let me take you on back to Crandall before he thinks you're running late. He doesn't like to be kept waiting."
Solange nodded. She'd already figured as much.
The entryway spilled into a large living area that boasted the finest in contemporary furnishings, a far cry from the worn, shabby furniture that had filled the tiny farmhouse Solange had grown up in. Tall glass windows soared to cathedral ceilings, and custom ceramic tile floors gleamed beneath her feet as she followed Rita Owens down a wide hallway with archways on both sides that opened into several spacious rooms, each showcasing the work of a very talentedand no doubt expensive interior designer.
"Did you find the ranch with no problem?" Rita asked over her shoulder.
"Yes, thank you," Solange said, silently wishing she'd remembered to buy self-adhesive pads for the new black pumps she'd gotten on sale at JCPenney. The smooth, slippery soles were no match for the polished floors of Crandall Thorne's home.
As they reached the end of the hallway, Rita stopped and rapped her knuckles lightly on a closed door. "Your three o'clock appointment is here," she announced.
After another moment, a deep, gravelly voice called, "Show her in."
Rita smiled at Solange before opening the door and guiding her into a room that smelled of leather, ink and freshly polished wood. It was a large, richly appointed suite that boasted a twenty-foot ceiling and mahogany-paneled walls lined with rows and rows of books, more than Solange had ever seen outside an actual library. The upper rows of bookshelves were accessible by a pair of ladders on wheels.
A tall, broad-shouldered man stood beside one of these ladders, thumbing through a thick leather-bound book. He wore a crisp white shirt over impeccably tailored coffee-brown trousers and dark Gucci loafers that had probably cost more than everything in Solange's closet.
As she stepped into the room, the man lifted his head from the book he'd been perusing and slowly turned. Behind a pair of rimless glasses perched on the bridge of a strong, aristocratic nose, eyes the color of bittersweet chocolate landed on Solangeand widened in surprise.
"This is Miss Solange Washington," Rita announced.
Crandall Thorne didn't move or utter a word. Instead he continued staring at Solange in a way that knotted her stomach. Did he hate her gray pinstriped skirt suit? Or did he hate her patent-leather shoes? Could he tell she'd bought them on sale at a department store? Was he already dismissing her as an unsuitable candidate simply because of the way she looked?
Mustering a polite smile, Solange crossed to him with an outstretched hand. "It's an honor to meet you, Mr. Thorne," she said briskly, just as she'd rehearsed on the way over. "Thank you for giving me this wonderful opportunity to discuss my skills and qualifications in person."
When Crandall's mouth twitched, she inwardly cringed. Had she overdone it? Had she come across sounding too eager, too brown-nosey?
Crandall's large, elegant hand swallowed hers in a firm handshake. "A pleasure, Miss Washington," he drawled in a voice that resonated with authority. At sixty-six years old, Crandall Thorne was even handsomer than he'd appeared in the newspapers, with salt-and-pepper hair, deep brown skin, dark, piercing eyes and a neatly trimmed mustache that framed firm, no-nonsense lips. According to the articles Solange had read, Thorne's deteriorating health over the past three years had forced him to take a backseat role in the multimillion-dollar legal empire he'd built with his own two hands. He'd retreated to his secluded estate in the Hill Country and was seldom seen at the power luncheons and lavish galas he'd once headlined.
But as Solange stood in his library that warm winter afternoon, she realized there was nothing frail or feeble about the man before her. With little or no effort, Crandall Thorne exuded the confidence and power of a man who knew he wasand always would be a force to be reckoned with. She doubted he ever took a backseat role in anything, much less the running of his own company.
"Please have a seat, Miss Washington," Crandall said, gesturing toward a pair of oxblood leather chairs opposite a mahogany island of a desk. how you got here, Miss
why you're to use this position as an opportunity to 'learn from the best,'then I'm afraid you're wasting your timeand mine. It's been years since I took it upon myself to mentor anyone, and I don't intend to start now."
Solange swallowed, keeping her expression carefully neutral. "With all due respect, Mr. Thorne, I'm not looking for a mentor, although I'd be lying if I said the opportunity to learn from you wasn't one of the main things that attracted me to this position."
Crandall regarded her in thoughtful silence for a moment. "Contrary to what you may have read in the papers or heard about me, Miss Washington, I'm still very active in the daily operations of my corporation. I'm looking for an energetic, highly capable professional to handle my scheduling, correspondence and travel needsat any and all hours of the day. That means when I say 'Jump,' you not only ask 'How high?' but you demand perfection of yourself in carrying out the task. I'm looking for someone who can represent me well at any business, political or social function I deem important. Discretion and integrity are not optional character traits in the individual I'm seekingthey're mandatory. I don't want to spend time worrying about my personal assistant leaking sensitive information about me, my company or my family to the media or to competitors."
"I understand that, sir," Solange said. "I can assure you that this wouldn't be an issue with me."
He appeared vaguely amused. "Talk to me after you've been approached by someone offering you thousands of dollars for confidential information about my financial or medical status. You'd be surprised how often it happens," he added grimly at Solange's disconcerted look. He studied her another moment, then said, "Ted Crumley spoke very highly of you. He said you were one of the best paralegals he'd ever hired."
Solange couldn't stop the wry smile that curved her lips. "Makes you wonder why he was so willing to part with me then, doesn't it?"
Crandall chuckled dryly. "Not at all. When I told him about the position and asked if he could recommend anyone, he indicated that you, out of all his employees, would benefit the most from a change of scenery." He paused for a moment, then added soberly, "Allow me to express my condolences on the passing of your parents."
Solange nodded. "Thank you."
With his elbows braced on the desk, Crandall steepled his fingers in front of his face and quietly studied her. "Ted tells me you grew up in Haskell."
"Yes, that's right."
"Not much to do in a small town like that, I would imagine." Solange bristled. "Depends on what you're looking for," she said archly. "I liked my small town just fine."
"Touché," Crandall murmured, his mouth twitching. "I never meant to imply otherwise, Miss Washington. Were you born there? In Haskell?"
Solange hesitated. "Yes, I believe so."
Crandall raised an eyebrow. "You don't know for sure?"
"I was adopted as a child. Some of the details of my past are a bit, um, fuzzy to me." Eager to change the subject, she said, "I assume you've had a chance to review my résumé. Are there any questions you'd like to ask about my employment history?"
Crandall gave her a long, assessing look. "As you can imagine, I have a vast number of resources at my disposal. For this position, I could have selected a qualified candidate from a pool of prescreened applicants courtesy of an executive search firm. But I decided to cast my net wider and open the search to the general public, in the hopes of finding someone truly extraordinary. A diamond in the rough, if you will." He paused, his eyes narrowing on her face. "What can you tell me to persuade me you're that diamond, Miss Washington?"
Solange smiled. "One of my college English professors always lectured me on the importance of showing, not telling, in my writing." She reached inside her attaché case and withdrew a laptop computer containing the PowerPoint presentation she'd prepared for the interview. "Rather than tell you why I'm the best person for this job, Mr. Thorne, I'll show you."
Crandall leaned back in his chair with a coolly amused expression. "You have my undivided attention."