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James leaned back in his chair, rubbed over his face with both hands and then ruffled them through his hair. The flight from Kuala Lumpur had landed just after five that morning and he'd come straight to the office, showering and changing on site. He'd already caught up on most of the essentials and now he desperately wanted another coffee and something more substantial than a rubbery in-flight muffin. He'd read the paper and relax for ten.
Thankfully he heard sounds of movement in the office outside his door. Good. His secretary must have arrived. A little later than usual but he didn't mind; she was the best there was—usually.
He picked up the papers he'd been skimming earlier, grinning as he walked to the door.
'Bridge, did you break all your fingers and thumbs or something? The typos in this report are appalling. I can hardly read it.'
He looked up from the page he'd been chuckling over and stopped on the threshold, staring at the stranger rising from behind the desk.
She was tall, she was dark, she was stunning, she was…
'Not Bridget,' he said stupidly.
'No.' Her voice was quiet but firm, with a foreign lilt and a tinge of guilt to it.
And in that one beat he lost all power of thought— couldn't process a thing. Could only look at the most beautiful woman he'd ever seen. The only word remaining in his brain was wow. It seemed to take an age for his heart to beat again. When it finally did, he walked closer. The colour in her cheeks seemed to rise higher with every step he took nearer.
'Princess Elissa.' He remembered now, kicking the grey cells back on. He'd told her brother he'd give her a job. He'd forgotten that in the hype of the conference. She must have been here in Sydney at least a month already?
He couldn't help himself—kept staring and stared some more. He'd seen her photo countless times in papers, magazines, on telly. But this was the first time he'd ever met her in person. He'd never thought she'd be such a stunner in real life—so often these model types were actually a disappointment live and up close, without the benefit of tons of make-up, accentuating lighting and airbrushing. But in truth no photo could capture the dancing lights in her dark eyes, or the richness of colour in her long brown hair. Hair that invited the touch of fingers, and that would feel like silk brushing across skin. And nothing could prepare anyone for the perfection of her body—both slim and curvy, womanly and tantalising.
'Bridget is on holiday. I was told to work up here while she's away.'
James nodded, still too busy processing her presence to be able to speak much.
'I'll redo that report.' The colour in her cheeks was deeper, she wouldn't look him in the eye, and as she held out her hand for the document he saw it shook a little.
It brought him back to reality. A smidge of compassion made him feel the need to give her some sort of excuse, to ease her embarrassment. 'Some of the buttons on the keyboard are probably different in Europe.'
She looked up at him then, for just a second before looking back down to take the report. Apology shone in her eyes and something akin to—panic? 'Must be.'
Fascinated, he watched the dull red splotches spread over her lightly golden skin; his fingers itched to trace over the patterns—to see if it felt as hot as it looked. Then he realised he was still holding onto the paper that she was trying to take back. He let it go and in the same instant, turned away. He'd been staring a little too long. But it had been a bit of a shock— she really was something else. Hell, he must be more tired than he thought—damn jet lag.
He shook his head, wanting to flick away the haze. But all he could see was red—the colour of temptation. It was interesting how someone who must be so used to scrutiny still had an all-over body blush like that. It never showed in the photos of her. It must be airbrushed out.
He retreated into his office and told himself to get a grip. Intriguing blushes or not, he didn't want her taking up any of his brain space. She was way too beautiful for him—the kind of woman every man would want and one who would want the attention of every man. And he wasn't one for sharing.
Liss let out the breath that had been held so long her lungs were bursting. She flung back in the chair like a rag doll. So that was James Black? For some reason she'd imagined her hotel tycoon boss to be fifty-ish, a little squat, balding. Not maybe thirty, tall and with a head full of slightly unruly dark brown hair. He was gorgeous. He was more than gorgeous, and when she'd looked into his eyes she'd seen the most tantalising golden gleam that had her aching to reach out to touch him—to capture it and keep it.
She should have done her research. Just as she should have taken an emergency 'brush-up-your-secretarial-skills' course on the flight over from Aristo. This was it: her last chance— or the last chance she wanted to be given. She had to prove herself here or she'd never get to go back home. She'd have to start over again someplace else and she refused to let that happen. Sydney was it. This job was it.
And what a great first impression she'd made. Completely fouling up that report and then blushing all over like some schoolgirl. She never blushed. But she really hadn't expected him to come out of his office with that warm smile, and the humour twinkling in his eyes. And she hadn't expected the heat to rise in her body in such an instant response. Just looking at him had turned her lust switch on.
Distracted, she messed up a call and mortifyingly had to ask the receptionist, Katie, to come up and explain the phone system to her once again. She'd already written down step-by-step instructions on how to operate it but still she couldn't quite get it—she was always putting a caller through to answering machine instead of transferring them to someone else, or worse still cutting them off completely. She could manage her own mobile well enough and her PDA and they were much more complex pieces of equipment. There was just something about this system. They were five minutes into it when he walked out of his office again.
'Welcome back, James.' The receptionist gave him a stunning smile.
Only a small smile flickered on his face in return. 'Thanks, Katie. I'm just going for coffee. Back in twenty.' He looked at Liss. 'Can you have that report for me by then?'
'Certainly,' Liss replied with far more conviction than she felt. But he was halfway across the room already and in another instant out the door.
Katie gave a mock swoon once they'd heard the door to the stairwell slam. 'He's back.' She sighed and gave Liss a sly look. 'Something else, isn't he? Lucky you, getting to sit outside his office all day.'
Liss nodded vaguely, not really wanting to dissect the undeniable hunk-factor of her new boss. Of course she wasn't the only one who saw it. But gossiping wasn't the way to get herself taken seriously.
However, inside she dissected his response to Katie's openly flirty greeting. The smile had been far more reserved than the one he'd had on his face when he'd thought she was his secretary Bridget. She found herself wondering what Ms Perfect Typist Bridget looked like.
'Be careful though. He's mercurial.'
Liss paused at Katie's comment, curiosity mounting.
Katie's smile was sly and Liss knew if she ever wanted to know anything about the organisation or its staff, all she had to do was ask the receptionist.
'Can't be caught.'
'Oh?' Liss wasn't interested. Really wasn't interested.
'He doesn't do commitment.' Katie kept chatting as if knowing full well Liss was all ears.
But Liss wasn't here to learn about the boss's love life. She was here to work. 'No?'
'Three dates and it's over.'
Focus on the phones, Liss. 'Can you show me how to transfer again?'
Katie didn't bother to hide her laughter as she showed Liss once more which buttons to push. 'You'll get it after a bit. You're probably not used to having to work like this.'
Liss had to admit that was true. But cut off from her trust fund she had little choice. Alex had set her up. Until she learnt to settle down she was to be without her funds, and having to work—at a job Alex had selected. For a business acquaintance of his, who just happened to be based on the other side of the world. It was so convenient for them—Elissa the embarrassment shipped off again, no longer a concern to the family. Out of sight, out of mind. They seemed to be able to do that so easily and inside she was crushed. She'd wanted to stay on Aristo after her father's death. Had wondered if there was some way in which she could be useful. Instead she'd been installed into a serviced apartment in Sydney— one of James's complexes, she'd discovered—and by the time the rent was taken out of her wages she had minimal cash left to get by. For the first time she was forced to earn her own living—to curb her impulses and to take some responsibility.
And for the first time she intended to succeed. She was determined to do a good job and to make some sort of a life for herself here. That way she could prove to them, and to herself, that she was as capable as any of them. Maybe then their rejection wouldn't matter. Maybe then they'd want her to come back. She sure wasn't going to stuff up that possibility by wasting time thinking inappropriate thoughts about her new boss.
'He'll be back in a minute and you haven't done that report.' Katie nudged her.
James wished he'd shut his office door. But he hardly ever did—able to call through to Bridget if he needed something. He was dreading the day she'd come to him and tell him she was pregnant and he had the suspicion it was going to be sooner rather than later—especially with this romantic cruise she was on with her husband. But he couldn't even begin to worry about that—right now he had one hell of a replacement secretary to deal with.
He picked up the pile of newspapers that had accumulated the few days he'd been overseas. He quickly flicked through, having caught most of the important news online while travelling. But he stopped at the society page. There she was—his new secretary, looking particularly glamorous in black and white, a brilliant smile in place at the opening night of some new play. He picked up the paper for the day before and flicked through to the society page in that one—yes, there she was again, smiling straight into the camera, surrounded by several handsome men. He looked through more—the same. Another paper, another photo, another escort.
She sure had been busy. She hadn't been here long and had been out every night. No wonder she could barely type a report. Her concentration would be shot if she'd been cutting up the dance floor till all hours every night. What a fool he was for feeling sorry for her. For thinking perhaps nerves had impacted on her performance. James loathed nothing more than being made a fool of.
He spread out the page of the last paper and stared narrow-eyed at the picture. Beautiful as she looked in it, he now knew it was nothing on the real thing.
There was absolutely no denying he was attracted to her. Extremely attracted. You couldn't be male and straight and not be attracted to her. But James had spent plenty of time in and around beautiful women and had learned the lesson some time ago not to take any of them seriously. Social butterflies spent their time flitting—from one partner to the next, without pause. Liss was the most beautiful butterfly of them all. She had scores of suitors—shipping heirs, media magnates—the pictures ran in every rag and glossy gossipy mag there was. And undoubtedly she'd have the knack of playing the men off down pat too. For a woman as desirable as Liss there would be no fun in plain and simple attraction; she'd be the sort to play games and to fool around to keep life interesting.
James's lips twisted. To get involved with her would be begging for trouble and he didn't need that. Been there, done that, learned the lesson. Nowadays he liked his fun plain and simple and pretty much forgettable. Nothing long term, nothing serious, nothing complicated. Nothing to attract too much attention.
Elissa was all about attention. Clearly she couldn't get enough of it.
His irritation level skyrocketed. He pushed away the newspaper and picked up another report she'd given him—it only took a quick flick to see the graphs were all hopelessly askew.
He craned his head so he could see part of her at the desk through the door. Even the way she sat was regal. Her head erect, as if there were some imaginary tiara on it as she frowned at the computer. The party-princess was playing at a real job; it seemed there was no real effort on her part. His frown grew to twice the size of hers. He'd been born into money too—not quite at the level as her family, for sure, but he could have chosen a more leisurely, decadent life had he wanted. But he hadn't—quite the opposite in fact. His family's name and money had made him even more determined
to succeed on his own merits. His grandfather and his father had worked hard to build their wealth. And James was the same. He certainly wouldn't expect to have everything handed to him on a silver platter. He thrived on the satisfaction of working hard and getting the job done well. Princess out there had probably never savoured that sort of satisfaction— employing her looks, her fame and name to get what she wanted rather than doing an honest day's work. No doubt she was used to an endless stream of silver platters delivered to her by fawning servants. Well, there wasn't room on James's boat for indolent passengers—everyone was expected to pull their weight, especially spoilt princesses.
He stood, grabbed the report and gritted his teeth. 'I need you to redo these graphs as well.' He walked through, tossed the pages onto her desk and watched for her reaction. Only this time there wasn't a blush. She visibly blanched. Shying away from more work? It irritated him more.