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Emilio Cabrera smiled broadly as he greeted his granddaughter Monday morning and received a hug from her. Faith Cabrera felt a rush of love for him, wishing she could do more to help him.
"Good morning," she said.
"Ah, how did I ever get such a beautiful grand daughter?"
She smiled. "Thanks, Granddad. Could it be you're a little prejudiced?" She smoothed a wayward tendril of blond hair back in place.
"So what's happening in our world this morning?" Emilio asked.
Faith waved a piece of paper she had received from their receptionist-secretary, Angie Nelson. "For one thing we've had another call from someone with Brand Enterprises. I'm not taking any more calls from those people."
Emilio nodded. "They can't get it through their collective heads that I won't sell our family business. They think I'm old and need to give it up."
"That's not it, Granddad," she said, always hating to hear him talk about getting older. "I've always been told that they've been after this company since it started. I have never known if that's what started the feud between the two families or if the feud came first, causing them to try to buy us out."
"The feud goes so far back, even I can't answer your question completely. What I do know is that my grandfather and my father both fought the Brands. There were buildings and trucks damaged. We have some bullet holes in the back of this building from Brands shooting at our family. No one was ever sent to their grave, but it was bad. Trucks run off the road, all sorts of things. The violence ended with my father and there's never been any that involved my gen-er ation. Now it'sbitter feelings. Of course, the Cabreras blame the Brands. Just as the Brands said they were here first and blame the Cabreras. Don't you worry over it. I don't mind telling them no again."
"I intend to see that you don't have to deal with them. I'll handle the Brands. Or rather, avoid the Brands. They've wasted enough of our time."
"When I walked in, I saw you poring over the books. How did we do last month?"
"I haven't gotten it tallied," she said, trying to avoid getting specific until she checked thoroughly, but their sales were still slipping.
"You don't have it tallied, or you don't want to worry your grandfather?" he asked with a twinkle in his dark eyes. Even though he would be seventy-nine this year, he still had some dark hair sprinkled with the gray curls that covered his head. He was a master craftsman and once again, she regretted that there weren't any family members left to carry on the craft.
"I know you can handle the truth about Cabrera Custom Leathers, and we're still in the black, I'm sure."
Nodding, he stepped away. "I don't know what I'd do without you, but I wish you hadn't given up your own job running that department store."
"We've been over that, Granddad," she said with a smile.
He left the room and she straightened her shoulders.
As she ran her hand along the antique mahogany desk, she touched scratches from years of wear. In a corner of her office an ancient saddle was mounted on a wood stand, her great-great-grandfather's saddle that he had made and then used for years. This office was part of her grandfather. He was the most important person in her life and she intended to protect him from the Brands.
She returned to her desk to get back to work until the next person knocked at her open office door and she looked up to see their tall, sandy-haired receptionist. "Come in, Angie," she said, wondering what was causing Angie's panicked expression.
"Faith, I stepped out to pick up our mail and I saw a limo parked out front. A tall man in a suit was getting out."
"A limo in this old industrial part of town? Even rarer than the suit."
"That's what I thought," Angie said. "It's not exactly jeans and overalls."
"Chances are the Brand company again," Faith snapped while her mind raced. "Thanks, Angie. I'm slipping out the back. I have errands anyway. I don't want to talk to another Brand employee, not even Noah Brand himself," she said, still surprised that a week earlier, after two calls from a vice president, the COO of Brand Enterprises had called her. She hadn't taken his call.
"Stall him briefly while I leave. I'll have my cell phone. You can honestly tell him that I'm not here. They quit long ago trying to talk to Granddad, so they won't ask for him." As she grabbed her purse and a book, she rushed for the door. "Thanks a million."
Stepping into the shaded alley, Faith let the door swing shut behind her. When a shadow moved, she spun around. With a gasp she looked into thickly lashed, dancing gray eyes that appeared filled with amusement. Slight creases bracketed his well-shaped mouth. Startled, she knew she was facing Noah Brand.
"Miss Cabrera," he said in a deep voice, "I'm Noah Brand." He offered his hand.
"Mr. Brand—" she said, hating to shake hands with him, but unable to avoid the polite gesture. The minute his warm hand closed firmly around hers, a tingle raced from his touch. She was held as much by his grip as his steady gaze that drove all thoughts of business out of mind.
"Sorry if you're late for an appointment," he said. "You seem in a big rush."
"I am. I—"
"I've tried to contact you, but of course, I had no idea how beautiful the youngest Cabrera in this business is. Had I known, I would have been here sooner."
"Mr. Brand—" she tried again, feeling her face flush.
"It's Noah, Faith," he said, both names rolling off his tongue, stirring a flash of warmth in her. She made an effort to break the unwavering stare as she removed her hand from his.
"With families that go back for generations—since the Cabreras first settled here—I'm surprised we haven't crossed paths before now. The Brands go as far back as the Cabreras do."
"And the Brands have been trying to buy out their competition since the beginning. Your family has always been after mine. Unsuccessfully, I might add," she said, causing a faint smile.
"Are you saying your family is stubborn?" he teased.
"No, I'm saying we like what we do and aren't worried about our competitors."
To her chagrin, he chuckled.
"As I understand it, you're handling the business side for your grandfather. I'd like to talk to you about the future of your company and present an offer we have. It never hurts to listen."
Exasperated, she faced him, even though it was difficult to keep her mind on business. The man was drop-dead handsome and she could feel an unwanted, fiery chemistry sending her pulse racing. She fought an urge to smooth her hair. "Of course," she said without thinking, and realized she had just succumbed to his mesmerizing spell. "Just not at this moment," she added hastily. What had gotten into her to be so dazzled by the man's mere appearance?
"How about over dinner tonight?" he asked, moving a step closer. She could faintly detect an enticing aftershave. "You might be pleasantly surprised by what I have to say. It would benefit your grandfather tremendously."
He was smooth, she'd give him that. He'd hit on the one reason she might possibly listen to his plans. "In these circumstances, isn't a dinner invitation an unorthodox way to present a business deal?" she asked. "Your family has been after my family's leather business for generations and it's always been no. That hasn't changed."
"You don't even know what I'm going to say. Don't you at least want to know what we have in mind?"
"I can well guess. I doubt if it's changed much from the last time you talked Granddad into seeing you," she said.
"It might be worth more to you now," he said. "And your granddad has worked a long time. He's bound to have considered retirement."
"Granddad is far from wanting to retire. He's doing what he loves," she said, letting her animosity show with a harsher tone. "Thank you for the dinner invitation," she said, inching toward her car, which was parked in her space at the back door. "I really can't discuss business now. I have another engagement," she said stiffly, knowing she had no such thing, but she wasn't going out with Noah Brand to listen to his annoying sales pitch.
After she had unlocked her car, Noah's hand stretched out to open the door for her. Glancing up, she met a dazzling smile that made her knees weak.
"When my grandfather is ready to talk, I'll call you, Mr.—"
"No," he said, shaking his head. "I told you, call me Noah, Faith."
For the second time, when he said her name, it stirred a tingling inside. "It was nice to meet you," she said, knowing that statement was the biggest stretch of all. It had been unnerving and disconcerting to encounter so much sexy charisma in the COO of Brand Enterprises. Sliding into her car, she closed the door.
Noah stood watching her, looking relaxed and in command, with one hand in a pocket of his navy suit trousers. His demeanor didn't resemble that of a man who had just been rebuffed. Far from it. He looked as if he already owned her grandfather's business. She knew down to her toes she hadn't seen the last of Noah Brand.
Annoyed with herself for even looking at him, she put her car in gear. He stepped out of the way and she drove off as the back of her neck prickled. She glanced in her rearview mirror to see him still standing outside her door.
Feeling ruffled and unnerved, she drove to her condo near the residential area where her grandfather had lived since he was a young man. Trees had leafed out and early spring flowers bloomed in beds. How happy she'd been to leave her condo for work earlier only to return now to work at home because she wanted to avoid another encounter with a Brand.
Lively gray eyes came to mind and she blinked, shaking her head. She had no intention of spending time with him. The vast Brand leather business wanted to swallow up her family's small boot and saddle business. Why Brand was so persistent she didn't know, because Cabrera was only a blip on the Brand radar. But she could guess why. They could match or exceed Brand for craftsmanship, as well as fine leathers, too. A pair of Cabrera boots had sold for as much as $75,000. They were worn by presidents, royalty, stars, celebrities of all types, as well as by cowboys, oilmen and various other people. She had seen the Brand names on the customer list. The Cabrera name meant the pinnacle of craftsmanship and luxurious leather.
Her granddad didn't want to sell out. Nor had her father or her great-grandfather or even her great-great grandfather. She thought about Noah's dinner invitation. What a shame—she would have accepted in a flash if he hadn't been a Brand. As it was, Noah Brand was the last person on this whole earth she cared to spend an evening with.
Noah watched her drive away and smiled, rubbing the back of his neck and wishing she had agreed to go out. No one had mentioned that Faith Cabrera was a stunning woman. He knew she was single, twenty-eight years old, refusing to sell because her grandfather didn't want to relinquish the business.
As he headed to his car, Noah wondered if his vice president of marketing had already gone back to the office in the limo. It had been a ploy that had worked to a degree. He'd flushed her out and talked briefly. Patience and time, he reminded himself. He'd get Cabrera Leathers, just as he had gotten other businesses he'd gone after.
Thinking about blue eyes and full, rosy lips, he drove back to the plain vanilla office building in a complex of three tall buildings that housed the current Brand Enterprises headquarters.
Faith Cabrera was a beauty—that attraction between them had been sizzling. He could tell she felt it, too. Even though she had attempted to be polite, her hostility showed. He hadn't met a woman who couldn't be won over and he didn't expect Faith to be any different from the others. Only a degree more challenging.
Entering his office that occupied the top floor of the twenty-story red-brick building, he sat at his desk to go over the morning calls. After a light tap at his open door, his assistant, Holly Lombard, entered his office.
All business, from her conservative hunter-green suit to her thick auburn hair in a bun on top of her head, she was efficient, and about as driven as he was. Unlike him, Holly was very engaged. As she sat across from him and set folders in her lap, she smiled.
"Tell me you got to talk to one of the Cabreras."
"I did," he said. "And good morning to you. How are you and the fiancé? When I saw you last Friday, you said you thought he was going to set a date."
She smiled. "Yes, as a matter of fact we did. Doug and I are getting married in December."
"Congratulations," Noah said, studying her briefly. "That's a long way off."
She shrugged. "We have busy schedules and he has some business projects coming up, so there we are. Now, tell me about the Cabreras. Which one did you talk to? Let me guess—the granddaughter."
"Shrewd girl. It was Faith Cabrera. I struck out, but I've met her and I'll try again. I'll see her eventually," he said, hoping it would be soon.
"She was successful where she worked before. She moved up to chief buyer in the huge retail chain she was with. She's probably pretty sharp."
"Maybe I'll be able to hire her. I want the grandfather's methods, craftsmanship and expertise. I could use her, as well."
Holly smiled. "I know how much you like a contest." She slid a folder across his desk. "I have some purchasing agreements I need you to sign."
"Let me have them," he said, taking a stack of papers from her. "Get me an appointment to talk to our marketing vice president. I want to know how he's coming on the deal to buy the leather company in El Paso."
"Will do," she said, waiting while he signed the purchase orders and handed them back to her. She left the room and closed the door behind her quietly.
As he worked the rest of the morning, Noah's thoughts kept returning to Faith. How to approach her again?
Promptly at noon he left the office to meet his brother for lunch. Jeff slid out of a booth and waved. Noah told the hostess he had spotted his brother.
She smiled. "He had me fooled, Mr. Brand. I thought it was you."