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Ali Pendrake sat at her desk at the Carlino Wines office, hitting the computer keys in rapid succession. She'd been at the top of her keyboarding class in college seven years ago, being not only a speedy typist but an accurate one. Today her usual tenacious focus waned and mistakes abounded.
"Darn it, Ali. You dummy," she muttered under her breath. She hit the backspace key and fixed her error, her concentration lost today.
Stealing a glance at her boss, Joe Carlino, Ali sighed. Joe's attention was glued to the computer screen in his executive office as he mumbled and crunched numbers. Deliberately, she'd positioned her desk in the outer office to afford herself this view of him.
No matter how hard she'd tried, she couldn't get Joe off her mind. Working alongside him in New York last year for a software giant, Ali had come to know him fairly well. Tall, dark-haired and extremely handsome behind the glasses he wore, Ali admired his intelligence, dedication and honest work ethic more than his good looks. He'd always treated her with respect, and Ali appreciated that.
Usually men took one look at her and discounted her intellect and ability. All they saw was a rather buxom auburn-haired woman with a pretty face and nice legs, so of course, she couldn't possibly have any brains. Most male employers had never given her a chance. Oh, they'd pretended to hire her for her capabilities, but all too soon harsh reality would set in when they made nonprofessional overtures.
The last thing Ali wanted was to be like her mother. Umpteen boyfriends and five husbands later, Justine Holcomb, a one-time beauty queen, gloried in the attentions of men. The former Miss Oklahoma never missed a chance to scope out wealthy, powerful men and manipulate them into marriage.
Ali only wanted one real good man. And that man wouldn't look at her twice.
"Ali, could you come in here?" When Joe popped his head out of his office, his thin black-rimmed glasses slipped down his nose Clark-Kent style.
Excitement buzzed within her at the sound of his voice. She'd never wanted her feelings for Joe to show. She'd enjoyed working with him in a professional manner in New York. It had been a rarity and an experience she'd valued. But then his father died, and he'd been called home to help run the family wine empire.
She'd driven him to LaGuardia Airport as her last official act as his personal assistant. He'd taken her in his arms and kissed her goodbye. Now memories of the exquisite press of his mouth on hers, his musky scent, the scratch of his day-old beard on her skin and the way he held her tight in his arms flashed through her mind. In that instant, everything inside her had gone hot; her body had oozed with desire. She'd looked up and met the gleam of desire in his eyes.
They'd stared at each other for a long time, saying nothing. She didn't know what to say. He'd obviously felt the same awkwardness in the situation after that kiss and had left her standing there pondering what had happened.
Since then, there wasn't a day that went by when she didn't think of him, and to her great surprise those thoughts weren't G-rated. In fact, her traitorous mind conjured up sexy images of Joe that stole her breath.
So when he'd called, offering her the opportunity to uproot her life and work to join him in northern California, the decision hadn't been difficult. She'd been ecstatic and jumped at the offer. She figured she'd have another chance with Joe. She happily left the Big Apple's rat race behind.
But after three weeks on the job, Ali was sure the potted plant in the corner of the room got more attention from Joe than she did. He was all business, pretending that the kiss they'd shared at the airport hadn't blown them both away. In truth, no man she'd met recently had been less interested in her.
"Sure, Joe. I'll be right in." She picked up her notepad, her BlackBerry and her wits and followed him into his office.
He waited for her to sit down before taking a seat behind his desk. His warm smile devastated her. "I realized that I haven't asked you how you're settling in here in Napa." He leaned back in his leather seat, waiting for her to reply.
"Just dandy, boss." She returned his smile. "It's different and all, but you know what they say, a girl's gotta do what a girl's gotta do."
Joe peered over his glasses at her. "How's that?"
She shrugged, and her white peasant blouse slipped off her shoulder. Joe didn't appear to notice when she adjusted it back into place, his focus staying on her face. "I like working with you," she said truthfully. "I'm glad to be here. I think we make a good team."
Joe nodded slowly. "I appreciate that. So you have no problems? No questions?"
Yes, you don't seem to know I'm alive.
"Not really. Not about work. I would love to learn more about the Napa area, though. I thought I'd start venturing out on the weekends."
"Sounds like a good plan."
She straightened her calf-length skirt. She'd gone for the gypsy look today. Hoop earrings and her bright auburn hair down in curls added some flavor to her outfit. She had smarts and was proud of her achievements, but she also loved fashion. Her flamboyant style often garnered compliments from the other Carlino Wines employees. If nothing else, it was an icebreaker and a way to meet people who had worked for the family for a long time.
Joe stared at her for a moment. She sat, waiting for him to voice the reason he'd called her into his office. Usually, it was to go over accounts, check monthly reports or give her an assignment. His silence made her wonder. "Is there anything I'm doing wrong?"
"Hell, no," Joe said. "You're the best employee we have on-site."
"Well, thank you."
"That's the reason I've asked you in here today. I, uh, well, I have a favor to ask. And I won't hold it against you if you can't help me out with this."
Ali waited for a moment before the suspense got to her. She gestured impatiently with both hands. "Spit it out, Joe."
He chuckled and shook his head.
"Okay, okay. I've offered to give Rena and Tony a wedding reception. You've met my brother and sister-in-law, right?"
"Great people," Ali said.
"It's a long story, but they got married secretly a short time ago, and well, now they want to renew their vows and have a reception."
"You offered to throw it for them?"
"More like my brother Nick roped me into it. What do I know about planning a party like that, right?"
"That's where you come in. I need your help. I'll understand if you're too busy to help me out with this—"
"Are you kidding?" Ali stood, excited at the prospect. "I love a good party. You won't have to ask me twice. What's the timetable on this?"
"Well, the sooner the better. Tony mentioned he wanted to do it ASAP. Say, in three weeks?"
"Really? " Joe stood, too, an expression of relief washing over his features. "It may mean working together some weekends—that's if you're not too busy."
"I'm not too busy." Was he joking? She'd sat around her apartment at night bored to tears. Not that she couldn't have company, but the men who'd asked her out didn't compare to the computer brain—she refused to call Joe a geek—who seemed to occupy her mind lately.
"You might not have time to check out the sights around here."
Ali's mind clicked into high gear. "I'll make you a deal. If I help plan this successfully, then you can show me the sights in wine country. Fair is fair, Joe."
Joe adjusted the glasses on his nose, and Ali recognized that sign. Whenever Joe needed extra time to contemplate a question, he played with those glasses. "I can show you the inner workings of a computer better than I can be your Napa Valley tour guide."
"Joe," Ali said, refusing to let him off the hook, "you grew up here. You know this area." This was her opportunity to see Joe in less sterile surroundings. She really wanted to get to know him better. Her recent work relationship with Dwayne Hicks made her extremely wary of all men. Dwayne had exacted more from her than secretarial skills, and things had gotten ugly. Joe was the only man she'd trusted to take a chance with. And she really did love a good party. "Are we on?"
"I really appreciate this, Ali. Yes, we're on."
After returning to his office, Joe picked up his phone and dialed Nick's number. He reached him on the second ring.
"Hey, Joe. What's up?"
"Tony's wedding reception is in the works as we speak."
"That's good news. I knew you'd come through."
"Hey, not me. I'm not the wedding planner. I've got a one-woman task force, and I know she'll do a great job."
When his father died, his brother Tony had called both he and Nick home to honor the terms of Santo Carlino's will. All three sons were to take the helm at Carlino Wines for a period of six months and figure out which son would be better suited to run the family empire. It was his father's dying wish. Joe had left his life behind on the East Coast to help Tony and Nick, but he'd never have guessed part of his job description would be as a wedding planner.
Secretly, Tony had married his first love and high school sweetheart, Rena Fairfield, shortly after her husband's death in order to save her winery and provide for her unborn child. After they fell back in love with each other, Rena had finally come around to letting their secret out. And Tony didn't trust anyone outside the family to see that his renewal of vows and reception were done right. He'd entrusted his brothers with the honor.
Joe sighed with relief. With Ali's help now, he knew it all would work out. She was always up for a challenge, and he had faith that she'd do a superb job.
"And you're going to come in on deadline with this?"
"Yeah, we'll be in the right time frame," Joe replied.
"You talked your gorgeous assistant into helping you, didn't you?"
"Nick." Joe sighed. "Her name is Ali Pendrake. And yes, she's taking on the project. We'll need a female's input, and she's very capable."
Nick chuckled. "So you've told me about a hundred times. Beauty and brains is a dynamite combo in a woman, Joe."
"I guess so," Joe said, fidgeting with his computer keyboard. He didn't like the direction this conversation was taking.
"So, you're really not interested in her?" Nick asked.
"No, of course not. She's my employee. I thought I made myself clear on that."
Joe dismissed the one time he'd held Ali in his arms and kissed her. His gesture of farewell at the New York airport that day had gotten a little out of control. But his emotions had been running high at the time. His father had just passed away, and he'd been called home. His life had changed drastically, and Ali was there for him, lending support and comfort. Kissing her had been impulsive—and so damn good that his head had spun.
He'd thought of her often after that. But after his assistant and ex-fiancée Sheila's betrayal, an office romance of any kind was out of the question. She had cut his heart out when she'd dumped him for another man. Joe had a will of iron, and though Ali was beautiful and had traits he admired, he knew he'd never pursue anything with her but a working relationship. He'd offered her the job in Napa only because he knew he could work beside her and not get emotionally involved. It was hard for both of his brothers to understand that he just simply didn't see Ali that way.
"So, you wouldn't mind if I asked her out?" Nick questioned.
Joe furrowed his brows. He hadn't seen this coming. Nick had his fair share of women. He wasn't one to spend his nights alone. But Ali and Nick? Joe couldn't picture them together. His jaw clenched, and he contemplated for a moment.
"Joe? Did you hear me?"
"I heard you, little brother."
"We've never stepped on each other's toes when it came to women, but if you're clearly not interested in Ali—"
"So, I can ask her out without causing you sleepless nights?"
"No, you can't ask her out."
"I can't?" Nick didn't sound too upset. "Why?"
"No offense, but I wouldn't subject any of my employees to dating you, especially Ali. You'd likely break her heart. And then she'd leave town, and I'd be out one damn good personal assistant."
"You don't give me much credit."
"History doesn't lie."
"Maybe I'm a changed man."
"Maybe…but I don't want you to use one of my employees as your test subject."
Nick laughed. "Man, you really don't have a good opinion of me, do you?"
"In any other arena, you're a great guy. Just not when it comes to women." Joe was ready to leave this subject behind. "So when are you leaving for Europe?"
"In a few days. But have no fear, I'll be back in time for the big hoopla. I wouldn't miss Tony's wedding reception."
"Yeah, your timing is impeccable. Leaving me to deal with all the details, while you're off—"
"Selling wine, schmoozing with customers and making sure Carlino Wines stays on top."
"Among other things," Joe muttered.
In truth, it bothered him how glad he was that Nick would be out of the picture for a couple of weeks. If he wasn't around, he couldn't be romancing Ali. In his analytical mind, that shouldn't be a factor. But he was damn glad of it just the same.
"I'll see you at home tonight," Nick said.
"I'll be working late with Ali."
"Hey, I can't blame you, bro." Joe visualized his brother's smirk. "Regardless of all your denials."
Joe hung up the phone and shook his head.
Ali came in then, holding a calendar in her hands. "Joe, I think we'd better set a date for the wedding reception."
Ali's darn blouse had slipped down again, and it was all he could do to keep from staring at her soft shoulder. She had such beautiful creamy skin. He'd have to be blind not to notice.
Every day with Ali was a fashion extravaganza. Today she looked like a gypsy princess—a very sexy, approachable one. He'd never noticed her style much in New York, but now, Nick and Tony's prodding was making it hard for him to keep from noticing her.