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"What are you doing in here?"
Samantha Thompson almost dropped her pen as her head snapped up, the desk lamp shedding enough light for her to see the handsome man standing in the doorway. "Blake, you scared me!"
Her heart didn't settle down once she knew who it was, it only increased pace as she looked at him in a dinner suit that fitted his well-toned body flawlessly. His commanding presence was of a man born to lead. This was Blake Jarrod, owner of Blake Jarrod Enterprises' Las Vegas hotels, and now the new CEO of Jarrod Ridge, his family's renowned resort in Aspen, Colorado.
And as his assistant of two years there was nothing unusual about her being in his office at ten at night. Just because they were now in Aspen at the Jarrod Manor and she was using the desk in his late father's office didn't change a thing. She had her reasons for being here.
And they concerned her boss.
Or soon-to-be-ex boss.
"It's late," he said, cutting across her thoughts in the way he usually did.
She took a steadying breath and looked down at the letter in front of her, giving herself one last chance to change her mind. Then she remembered this evening. The final straw had been watching a famous blonde actress flirt outrageously with Blake, and him sitting there enjoying it, taking it as his due.
Samantha couldn't blame him for wanting to sample what was on offer if he so chose. It was just that she wanted a little taste of him herself. She usually dressed sedately in finely tailored clothes whether she was in Vegas with Blake or here in Aspen, but tonight she'd outdone herself. She'd worn this slinky cream evening dress designed to grab his attention, putting her long, brunette hair up in a chignon when she usually wore it pulled back at the nape with a barrette, but it was clear now that nothing was going to happen between her and Blake.
It was never going to happen.
She'd realized that when he'd caught her eye and she'd smiled for all she was worth, looked the best she could be, and he'd turned back to the actress without a second glance, rejecting her just like Carl had rejected her. Her moment of epiphany had been that simple. She'd come to a decision then. The right decision for her. The only one for her.
She lifted her gaze. "Yes, it's late, Blake."
He walked toward the desk, almost as if he sensed something wasn't quite right. "I thought you said you were going back to Pine Lodge."
That had been her intention. She'd even stood in the lobby of the manor, her coat resting on her shoulders, waiting beside the doorman for the valet to bring the SUV around. She'd been determined to go back to their private lodge at the resort--she in her own room and Blake in the master suite.
Then someone had entered the hotel and the doors had slid open, and the cold night breeze from a midfall wind had slapped her in the face and chilled her to the bone, reminding her that it didn't matter what she wore or what she did, her boss would never take any notice of her except as his assistant. She'd spun around and headed for the private elevator, coming up here to the office in the family section of the manor.
"I needed to do something first," she said now.
There was an alert look to his eyes. "It's Friday night. Work can wait until tomorrow."
They'd been working every Saturday, trying to keep on top of things until they moved here permanently. And now that wasn't going to happen. Not for her anyway. "This can't wait."
He paused, those blue eyes narrowing in on her. "What can't?"
She swallowed hard. "My resignation."
Shock flashed in his eyes then went out like it had never been. "What are you talking about?" he said, his voice quiet. In control. He was always in control, especially where she was concerned.
"It's time for me to move on, Blake. That's all."
The question shot at her like a pellet but she managed to shrug. "It just is."
He put his hands on the desk and leaned toward her. "What's this about, Samantha? What's the real reason you want to leave?"
She'd faced him down over business issues occasionally but this...this was personal. Cautiously, she pushed the leather chair back and rose on her stilettos, then went to look out the large arched window behind her.
The scene below at the luxurious resort was surprisingly charming in October. Tonight, pocketed in amongst the tall peaks, the sleepy hamlet twinkled like fairy lights in the alpine breeze, a tapestry of winding streets, lodges, and village square. To a southern California girl who now lived in Vegas, this place had something nowhere else seemed to have.
It had heart.
"It's time for me to go," she said, keeping her back to him.
"You're unhappy here?"
"No!" she blurted out, swinging around, then winced inwardly, knowing she sounded contradictory and that he'd have to wonder why.
To be truthful, she'd been feeling slightly down ever since Blake's sister Melissa had announced her pregnancy a few weeks ago. She'd been happy for Melissa, so why it had bothered her she didn't know. Yet since then she hadn't been able to shake a feeling of being slightly depressed.
He'd straightened away from the desk. "So what's the problem?"
I want you to notice me.
Dammit, I just want you.
But how did you say that to a man who didn't even notice you as a woman? She was his trusted assistant and that was about it. She'd never acted overtly female around him. She kept everything businesslike between them. Looking back, perhaps occasionally she should have let her feminine side show. If she had, then perhaps now she might not be in this predicament.
Yet it wasn't that she was in love with him either. She was intensely attracted to him. He was an exciting, charismatic man who effortlessly charmed women like they were going out of fashion, but he was still discerning in whom he took to his bed.
She wanted to be charmed by him.
She wanted to be in his bed and in his arms.
Oh, God, it truly was hitting home that she'd never be in his spotlight. Until now a glimmer of hope had kept her going, but after his subconscious rejection of her tonight, she'd realized that if he knew her feelings about wanting him, then everything would change. She'd be totally embarrassed and so would he. She couldn't work like that. She'd be humiliated just like she'd been with Carl. It was better to leave with some dignity.
Hearing her name on his lips struck her like never before. She tilted her head at him. "Do you know something, Blake? You've never called me Sam. Not once. It's always Samantha."
His brows drew together. "What's that got to do with it?"
She wanted to be Sam once in a while. Sam the woman who'd left her ordinary upbringing in Pasadena to embrace the excitement of Vegas after a one-sided love affair gone wrong. The woman who wanted to have a purely physical affair with a man she admired, without ever risking her heart again. Not Samantha the personal assistant who helped run his office and his life and who kept the whole lot in check for him, all nice and neat and tidy, just the way he liked it. She couldn't believe she'd actually thought she'd had a chance with him.
And he was waiting for an answer.
"I have my reasons for resigning and I think that's all you need to know."
"Is someone giving you a hard time?" he asked sharply. "Someone from my family? I'll talk to them if they are. Tell me."
She shook her head. "Your family's great. It's..." She hesitated, wishing she'd given herself time to come up with a suitable explanation. Needless to say, she hadn't expected to be here tonight writing out her resignation, or that he'd even come upon her. She'd assumed he'd probably go off nightclubbing with Miss Hollywood. "I simply want something more, okay? It's nothing against you or your family. This is about me."
One eyebrow rose. "You want something more than first-class travel and a world-class place to live?"
"Yes." She had to tread carefully. "Actually I'm thinking of going home to Pasadena for a little while," she fibbed, then realized that wasn't such a bad idea after all. "Just until I decide what I want to do next."
"And that will give you more of what you want? I seem to remember you saying you'd left Pasadena because you'd been looking for more excitement."
She'd definitely said that--and she had been looking for more than weekly piano lessons and weekend shopping with her girlfriends--but it had been so much more four years ago. Having fallen in love with a young architect who'd gone off to travel the world after she'd told him she loved him, she'd decided to find her own excitement. Her job with Blake had provided that excitement without any emotional involvement. Until now. And even now it was about lust, not love.
His eyes pierced the distance between them. "You seemed happy enough before the move to Aspen."
"I was... I am... I mean..." Oh, heck. She was getting herself tied up in knots. When Blake said he was moving back home and she should come with him, she'd been delighted. His estranged father's will had stated all the Jarrod offspring had to return to Jarrod Ridge for a year or lose their inheritance. Blake, being the eldest--only by a few minutes ahead of his fraternal and more laidback twin, Guy--had taken up the challenge of running the resort.
She'd looked forward to it, too, and they'd been traveling back and forth between Aspen and Vegas a couple of times these past four months, getting everything sorted. Blake would keep his hotels but would spend most of his time in Aspen. She'd been very happy with that. Until tonight.
She cleared her throat. "All my family and friends are back in Pasadena. I miss them."
"I didn't know you had any friends."
She pulled a face. "Thanks very much."
There was a flicker of impatience. "You know what I mean. You're always working or traveling with me and rarely go home except for the holidays. Your friends have never been a priority before."
"I guess that's changed." Thankfully Carl had never returned and she'd heard he'd married an English girl. Of course, time and distance had only shown her that she hadn't really been in love with him at all. She'd been in love with the idea of being in love with a man who'd talked of adventure in far-off places. She'd thought they'd do that together. God, what was wrong with her that she kept wanting men who didn't want her?
He held her gaze. "What are you going to do after Pasadena, then?"
"I'm not sure. I'll find something. Perhaps even one of those rare friends of mine might help me get a job," she mocked. All she knew was that she wouldn't continue working for Blake, not in Aspen nor in Vegas. A clean break was needed.
He eyed her. "You have plenty of connections. You could use them."
All at once she had an ache in her throat. It sounded like he was beginning to accept her decision. And that more than anything showed he really didn't care about her. She was just another employee to him. Nothing more.
"I'm thinking I might get right away from this type of work."
"And do what? "
"I don't know." She took a breath. "In any case, I'd really like to leave Aspen as soon as possible, so that I can wrap up things in Vegas before going home. It shouldn't take more than a couple of days." She'd make sure it didn't.
He scanned her face. "You're not telling me everything," he said, sending her heart bumping against her ribs.
"There's nothing else to tell. I do have a life and a family away from you, Blake, as hard as that may be for you to believe." She couldn't take much more of this. Going over to the desk, she picked up the letter. "So I'd appreciate it if you would accept my resignation." She walked toward him. "Ideally I'd like to leave here as soon as possible. Tomorrow even." Reaching him, she held out the letter.
He didn't take it.
There was a measured silence, then, "No."
The breath stalled in her throat. "Wh-what?"
"No, I won't accept your letter of resignation and certainly not on such short notice. I need you here with me."
His words sent a jet of warmth through her until she remembered this evening. It had been torturous watching him and that actress flirt with each other. How could she stay and keep up the pretence that she didn't want Blake for herself?
She continued to hold the letter out to him. "I can't stay, Blake. I really need to leave."
Certainly no later than that.
He ignored the sheet of paper until she lowered her hand. "I'm the new CEO here, Samantha. It wouldn't be professional of you to leave me in the lurch like this."
She felt bad but it came down to emotional survival. "I know, but there are others quite capable of replacing me. Just contact a high-end employment agency. I'll even do it for you before I go. Someone else would love to work here in Jarrod Ridge. They could be here by Monday."
His mouth tightened. "No."
She lifted her chin. "I'm afraid you have no choice."
"I don't?" he said silkily, inching closer. "You can't quit without a month's notice. It's in your contract."
She sucked in a sharp breath. "Surely you could waive that for me? I've given you two years of my life, Blake, and I've done the job exceptionally well. I've been at your beck and call 24/7. I think you owe me this."
"If you insist on leaving before your contract is up then I'll see you in court." He gave a significant pause. "I don't think that would look good on your résumé, do you? "
"This is business," he continued. "Don't take it personally."
She almost choked then. That was the problem. Everything was business between them. Nothing was personal.
Her hands shook with anger as she began folding the letter in four. Then she leaned forward and tucked it into his jacket pocket. "Fine. You've got your month. Two weeks here and then two weeks back in Vegas to finish up. After that I'm leaving for Pasadena." She went to step past him.
In a flash he grabbed her arm and stopped her, looking down into her eyes. It was the first time he'd ever touched her with meaning and something passed between them. She saw his spark of surprise before he dropped her arm. It surprised her, too.
"I never take no for an answer, Samantha. Remember that."
"There's always the exception to every rule. And I'm it, Mr. Jarrod."