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"Your ex-wife applied for the job as your assistant."
Nick Andreas glanced up at his current assistant, soon-to-be-retired Julie Farnsworth. He'd just flown back to North Carolina after six weeks in New York City. He was exhausted and wanted nothing more than to go to his beach house, get out of his monkey suit and take a nap on his hammock. He'd only popped into the office because he had a huge bid due to renew the government contract that was the bread and butter of his manufacturing plant. He had to get an assistant in now.
He just wasn't sure hiring Maggie Forsythe as Julie's replacement was the best way to go. When he had a bid due, his assistant worked with himdirectly with him, at his sideten hours a day, six days a week. No man wanted to spend that much time with his ex-wife. Not even an ex-wife he hadn't seen in fifteen years. An ex-wife he barely remembered.
He tossed his pen to his desk. "You wouldn't be telling me this if she wasn't qualified."
"She's qualified. Overqualified in some respects."
"And she actually applied?"
"Well, we certainly didn't drag her in off the street." He laughed and leaned back in his chair. So Maggie wanted to work for him? He smiled skeptically as weird feelings assaulted him. He hadn't thought about Maggie Forsythe in over a decade. Now, suddenly, he could vividly recall how the sun would catch her red hair and make it sparkle, her wide, happy smile, the sound of her laughter.
"Sorry if I'm finding all this a little hard to believe, but we didn't exactly part on the best of terms. Andreas Manufacturing should be the last place she wants to work."
His sixty-five-year-old assistant caught his gaze with serious dark eyes. "She needs the money."
She was broke? The way he'd been when they'd met?
Memories of his childhood and teen years cascaded through his brain like water spilling from a waterfall. Maggie at six, toothless in first grade, dividing her morning snack with him before they went into the building so no one in their class would see he hadn't brought one. Maggie at twelve, fishing with him so he and his mom could have something for supper. Maggie at sixteen, hanging out in the souvenir shop where he worked, entertaining him on long, boring afternoons before the tourist season picked up. Maggie at eighteen, swollen with his child.
A long-forgotten ache filled his chest and made him scowl. The woman he was remembering with such fondness had dropped him like a hot potato when she'd lost their baby. She hadn't loved him. She'd only married him because he'd gotten her pregnant one reckless night. Twenty minutes after they'd returned from the hospital after her miscarriage, she'd been out the door of his mom's house. Out of his life.
"She should have as many reservations about working with me as I have about working with her."
"Her stepmom died while you were in New York. Rumor has it, she came home for the funeral and decided her dad needed her. She quit her job and moved back permanently but in three weeks of looking she couldn't find workunless she wants to commute to the city." Julie peered at him over the rim of her glasses. "Aside from tourism, you're the only real employer in Ocean Palms."
He picked up his pen again. "Hire her."
Julie gasped softly. "Really?"
"Sure. We were married as kids. Fifteen years have gone by." He wasn't such a selfish, self-centered oaf that he'd let someone suffer because she had the misfortune of having a history with him. He knew what it was like to have no options. He'd spent his entire childhood living hand-to-mouth. He wouldn't ignore the person who, as a child, had shared with him, helped him, even rescued him a time or two.
Plus, if Julie said Maggie was the person for the job then she was.
Julie rose. "Okay. She's in my office. She said she can begin today. I'll bring her in and we can get started."
Nick sat up in his seat. Today? He didn't even have ten minutes to mentally prepare?
Julie walked to his office door and opened it. "Come in, Maggie."
A true Southern gentleman, Nick rose from the tall-back chair behind his huge mahogany desk. Ridiculously, he couldn't squelch the pride that surged up in him as he took in the expensive Persian rugs that sat on the hardwood floors of his office, the lamps from China, the heavy leather sofa and chair in the conversation area, the art from the broker in New York City. He was rich, successful, and his office showed it. He'd fulfilled the promise of his youth. He had brains and skill and he'd parlayed those into wealth beyond anyone's expectations. One look at his office would tell Maggie he wasn't the eighteen-year-old boy she'd deserted anymore.
The click of high heels on the hardwood announced her arrival two seconds before she appeared in his doorway. Her gorgeous red hair flowed around her, but it was shaped and curled in a way that framed her face, not straight as she had worn it when they were married. Her once sparkly green eyes now held soul-searching intensity. Her full red lips rose slightly in a reluctant smile.
Just as he wasn't the eighteen-year-old she'd left behind anymore, she didn't look a thing like his Maggie.
He relaxed as his gaze involuntarily fell from her face to her dress. A simple red tank dress that showed off a newly acquired suntan, but also couldn't hide her slightly protruding stomach.
She was pregnant?
He gave her tummy a more thorough scrutiny. She was pregnant.
And suddenly he was that eighteen-year-old boy again. Seeing his woman, the love of his life, swollen with his child. More memories washed over him. The dreams he'd had for the kind of father he would be rose up as if he'd been lost in them only yesterday. Love for her, the woman bearing his child, burst in his chest.
But this wasn't his child. She'd lost their child.
And she didn't love him.
Hell, he no longer loved her.
"Come in," he said. His voice was tight with a bit of a squeak but he ignored that, motioning to the chair in front of his desk.
Maggie took a few hesitant steps inside. Now trim instead of lanky, she wore her pregnancy the same way another woman would wear a designer dress.
That was when he realized she was probably married.
Happily married. Not scared and hesitant, with no other options because her stepmom had kicked her out of the house. But happy. Having a child with the man she loved.
He swallowed the knot that formed in his throat, reminding himself that these emotions churning through him were ridiculous. He was over her. Plus, they hadn't even seen each other in fifteen years. The feelings weren't really feelings. They were residue. Like cobwebs that had clung to the walls of his brain and would disappear once he got to know the adult Maggie.
"Julie wants to hire you but I have a few reservations."
He didn't even try to stop the words that flowed from his mouth. Though he'd already told Julie to hire her, now that he saw she was pregnant, he had some concerns. Not about the "feelings" seeing her pregnant aroused, but about her ability to do the job.
She gracefully sat on the chair in front of his desk, smiled softly. "You mean because we were once married?"
He snorted a laugh, but Julie's hand flew to her throat. "You know, I think I'll just go get us some coffee."
Nick said, "She can't drink coffee," at the same time that Maggie said, "I don't drink coffee."
Julie said, "Then I'll get some coffee for myself." She fled the room, closing the door behind her.
Nick sat back in his chair, reaching deep inside himself for the calm that was his trademark. He had to treat her as any other employee and speak accordingly.
"For the next four weeks I need my assistant to work ten-hour days."
"Six days a week. I get that. Julie told me."
"Can you keep up?"
"Of course I can keep up. I'm pregnant not sick." The room plunged into eerie silence. Memories of the day she'd lost their baby haunted him like menacing ghosts.
As if recognizing where his thoughts had gone, Maggie sighed. "Nick, I'm fine. Really. And I need this job. If you don't hire me I'll have to get work in the city and commute an hour each way."
"An hour commute might be better for a pregnant woman than racing around the plant looking for documents I need, assembling information from different departments"
He paused to catch her gaze and when he saw green eyes sparking with fire, everything he intended to say fell out of his head. He remembered that look very well, remembered how many times it had taken them straight to bed.
"I already told you I can keep up."
He took in a quiet breath, reminding himself that Maggie was a married woman who wanted to work for him. The last thing he needed to be thinking about was how her fiery need for independence had played out between the sheets.
"Yeah, well, maybe I want some kind of proof."
She smiled sweetly, calmly. "In a couple of months, I'm not going to be pregnant anymore. Then you're going to be sorry you lost the chance to hire me."
A laugh escaped. Dear God. This really was his Maggie. Fiery one minute, serene the next. And the common sense, logical Maggie could be every bit as sexy as the impassioned one.
But she was married.
And he was a runaround now.
Having a father who'd abandoned him had made him want commitments, but Maggie leaving him had set him straight on that score. And he'd changed. He wasn't simple Nick Roebuck anymore. The guy who hadn't taken his father's name. The guy who wanted commitments. A wife. Family. Nope. Nick Roebuck was gone. He was now Nick Andreas, playboy.
"Besides, my father needs me."
Shifting in his chair, Nick blew his breath out in a gusty sigh. Who he was didn't matter. Who she was didn't matter. She was off-limits. "I'm sorry about your stepmom."
"I was out of town or I would have paid my respects." Her gaze dipped. "I know."
"Was everythingyou knowokay?" He nearly bit his tongue for his clumsiness. But what could he say? How could he ask if she and Vicki had mended fences? If they'd ever gotten beyond the fact that Vicki had favored Charlie Jr. over her? If Vicki had ever forgiven Maggie for getting pregnant? If Maggie had ever forgiven Vicki for kicking her out of the house?
"It was fine." She shrugged. "Losing someone is always hard."
Which told him nothing. Not that it was any of his business. He scrambled for something safe to say, but the only thing he could think of was, "Yeah. My father died last January. I know how hard these things can be."
She smiled and her eyes brightened. "Oh, so you met your father? You had a relationship?"
"Yes and no." He tapped his fingers on the edge of his desk, tamping down the sudden, unexpected urge to tell her everything. They weren't friends anymore. She might act like the girl he'd known and loved, but she wasn't. And he wasn't the lovesick boy she'd married.
Still, he couldn't ignore her question. "I met my father but we didn't really have a relationship. Unless you call having dinner every other year a relationship."
"That's too bad." Genuine regret colored her voice. "So how's your mom?"
He chuckled. "She's just like a little general at the day-care. Loves the kids, but keeps them in line."
Maggie's laugh was quick and easy. "God I've missed her."
"We missed you." The words slipped out and he knew why. He was getting comfortable with her. And that was wrong. If they were going to work together, he had to draw lines. Be professional.
She looked away. "No point in staying once I'd lost the baby."
Hearing her say that now hurt almost as much as it had the day she'd left. "Right."
"Before I got pregnant, we both had plans."
"Is that what you were thinking about while I was talking to my father's attorney?" For years he'd wondered. What kind of coincidence could it have been that the dad who'd ignored him his entire life suddenly wanted to give him a trust fund? Had it been a gift from fate to Maggie, or a curse of fate for him?
She caught his gaze. "Yes."
When his heart squeezed, he swore at himself inwardly for asking the stupid question. He'd already reasoned all this out in his head. Gotten beyond it. There was no point going over it again. Certainly no point rehashing it with her. Fifteen years had passed and he loved the life he'd built without her.
If they were going to work together, the past would have to be forgotten. His only goal should be to make sure she really did have the education and experience to do the job.
"So you have a business degree?"
"Yes." She shifted on the chair. Her shoulders went
back. Her expression became businesslike. "But I'm not looking down on this job. I think there a re a lot of ways I can help you."
"What did you do at your last job?"
"I was an analyst for a firm that put venture capitalist groups together with struggling businesses looking for investors or a buyer."
"Do you know much about manufacturing?"
She laughed. "Most of the businesses looking for investors or buyout are manufacturing companies."
He tapped his pen on the desk. He needed somebody and, as Julie said, Maggie was qualified. Now he and his ex-wife would be spending ten hours a day, six days a week together.
He looked over at her just as she looked at him and the years between them melted away. Her eyes weren't as wary as they had been when she'd walked in the door. Her smile was genuine.
Doubt rumbled through his soul. In the sea of women that he'd dated since he'd hit puberty, she was the only one he'd loved. It had taken almost five years to really get beyond her leaving; years before he stopped hoping every ring of the phone was her calling; years before he stopped looking for her in crowds. One five-minute conversation had already brought an avalanche of memories. This was not going to be easy.
Suddenly the door opened and Julie walked in. "Human Resources called. Before Maggie can actually begin working, she's got to spend the afternoon with them, filling out papers. You won't get to work together until tomorrow."
Maggie said, "Oh."
Nick said, "I hadn't planned on starting on the bid until tomorrow anyway."
Julie motioned for Maggie to follow her and she rose and walked out the door.
He dropped his head to his hands. After weeks of running the multibillion-dollar shipping conglomerate owned by his family, he needed this day out of the office to relax before he jumped into the intense work of the bid.