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The Boss and Her Billionaire
By Michele de Winton, Ruth Homrighaus, Bethany Halle
Entangled Publishing, LLCCopyright © 2012 Michele Powles
All rights reserved.
"We're clear then? I want this mess with the all equity rate cleared up by close of business Friday. We can't be seen to be letting things slide just because the dollar is a little fragile. I don't want to hear any more excuses."
No one spoke or met his eye, and Dylan Johns let loose a grim smile. He resorted to threats and intimidation more and more often these days. Maybe he needed a holiday.
"Great. What's next?"
"Excuse me, sir?" Dylan's assistant must have been listening at the door, waiting for the pause. "There's someone in your office for you."
"Not now. We're in the middle of —"
"Sorry, sir, I think you'll want to take this."
Dylan looked up. His assistant had been with him for three years and knew this meeting had been booked for over a month. Her face gave nothing away, but the hard edge in her eyes made him stand. "I'll be right back. Gary, go through the acquisition premiums on the Luther portfolio with everyone."
Dylan stood and walked through to his inner office.
The woman who turned toward him bore almost no resemblance to his sister-in-law. Tears had carved tracks through her makeup, and her face was puffy and red.
"Lily?" Dylan reached for her instinctively. "What's happened? Oh my God, the kids?"
"No. They're fine." Lily wilted into him. "I'm sorry. I shouldn't have come. You're busy."
Dylan held back a grimace. Lily was prone to exaggeration, but she didn't usually turn up at his office a sobbing mess. "Stop it." With a firm grip on her arm, he led her to the plush couch, which afforded an amazing view over a glittering slice of Sydney Harbor. "We're family." He handed her his navy silk handkerchief and sat beside her, putting a hand on her knee.
She took a deep, shuddering breath. "I just didn't know what else to do."
"I said it was okay. What's he said? He hasn't hurt you, has he?"
"No, no. It's just ..." She wiped ineffectively at her eyes, smearing her makeup further. "I saw something on his cell. A number I didn't recognize, and I asked him about it. He went mental. Accused me of all sorts of things."
Dylan patted her knee to stop himself from clenching his fists. "I'm sure he didn't mean any of it."
"I bloody knew it!"
Dylan recognized the owner of the angry voice even before he looked up. He steeled himself to be calm. "Brian, whatever you've done this time isn't any of my business, but don't you think you should cut Lily some slack?"
"That's right. Stick up for her again." Brian wrenched his arm out of Dylan's assistant's grip. "Get your hand off my wife's knee."
Dylan lifted his hand in mock surrender. "Calm down. Don't think I won't have security throw you out if you don't get a grip."
He stood to face his older brother, and the two men glared at each other, eye to eye. If it weren't for the frown lines and the gray nudging at his temples, Brian could have been Dylan's reflection. His older brother had the same broad shoulders, flashing green eyes, dark hair, and a firm chin set in grim determination.
You're doing Lily and the kids no favors getting him angrier. Dylan shook his head almost imperceptibly at his assistant, and she stepped out of the room, quietly closing the door behind her. There would be no need for security. No one needed any more of a scene. Dylan turned to Lily. "So what do we need to do to sort this?"
Lily stood. "I'm sorry. It's nothing. Really. I shouldn't have come."
"Of course it's nothing." Brian's eyes glittered dangerously.
"I'm talking to Lily just for a moment, Brian. Perhaps you'd like to wait outside for five? Just so Lily can gather her thoughts."
"So you two can plot about getting rid of me, you mean." Folding his arms across his chest, Brian stood firm. He was clearly going nowhere.
Dylan looked carefully at his brother. Was that really hurt in his eyes? "Hang on a minute. Do you think —"
"I should go. The children will be coming home from school soon." Lily made for the door.
Dylan took her arm again. "Wait. We all need to talk about this."
"No. Let her go. It's the two of us who need to talk." Brian pushed Dylan's hand away and led Lily to the door. He whispered something in her ear. She nodded tightly, and Dylan sighed inwardly at the way her tears seemed to have miraculously dried up.
Brian waited for the door to close before he turned back to Dylan. "You have to get out of her head."
"You heard me. She's my wife."
"She's your wife again now, is she? What about the last twenty times you've disappeared these past ten years? Has she been your wife then? Or perhaps when you were in bed with your Yankee mistress, what about then?"
"I haven't disappeared. And it's hardly been twenty times. Anyway, she's still my wife. I'm back now, aren't I?"
Yes. Not that I'm sure I like it. "You can understand why she might have a few trust issues," Dylan said dryly.
Brian turned his back to Dylan and stalked to the massive window. "Sure. She doesn't need to now, though." His shoulders hunched as if he was building up to something. "She relies on you when I'm not here, but I'm back. She took me back. And she is my wife. We're never going to make it work if every time we have a fight she comes running to you." He turned, and Dylan was shocked at the pain that tightened Brian's face. "We've got to try and make this work. You know what it's like to not have a father. I want the kids to trust me again. Give me a chance to figure things out with Lily."
Every fiber of Dylan's being hummed with resentment. Brian wanting forgiveness and space was a bit rich after the way he'd bailed out on everything. These past ten years had been a mess as far as Dylan was concerned. First there'd been an affair, which had taken Brian over two years to end. Then he'd been away more than he'd been home as he checked out a series of "business ventures" that never turned into anything tangible. He'd returned four months ago full of apology, and Lily lacked either the strength or the inclination to kick him to the curb. "Why should I trust you?"
"Because I'm your brother. And because you'd never actually marry Lily. She's not your type." Brian held up his hand as Dylan's mouth dropped open. "Don't play dumb. I know Lily and the kids adore you. She'd marry you in an instant if you asked her."
"I would never —"
"I'm glad to hear it. I'm your brother." Brain waved his hand at the office. "And a partner here. But Lily and I need some space. Some time alone to work out how to be a family again."
Barely able to speak, Dylan sat heavily in his chair. Brian thought Lily and he ...
"I know you've held the company together. I never said sorry for dropping you and Mom in it when I left the first time. But like I said, I'm back. I need to reestablish myself in the company and sort things with my family. So take a break. Give Lily and me some space, and give yourself a holiday. You probably need one."
I should leave him in charge, just like that? Unlikely. "What if I say no?"
"Why would you?" Brian scoffed. "When was the last time you had a holiday?"
Dylan shrugged. Never.
"It's not like I can't run the company. I did it for plenty of years before you took over."
Before you ran away and then got distracted. "I'll have to talk to Mom about it."
"I already have, and she agrees. You need to leave. Just for three months or so, to let Lily and me make a real go of it."
"It's not that long. Anything shorter and nothing will really change."
"I should just do what you say? Get out of your way?"
"Pretty much." The pain had left Brian's face, but there was a stretched look about him that belied his assertive tone.
Dylan caught a glimpse of his reflection in the window. He looked tired. Hadn't he just been thinking about how he needed a holiday before Lily's appearance interrupted his meeting? It wasn't as if Brian had embezzled company funds — he'd just been absent enough that Dylan had needed to head up all their accounts for fear that Brian wouldn't be there for critical meetings. But he'd been back for four months now, living with Lily and the kids for two of those. It was the longest he'd been around for years. Perhaps he was serious this time. "What about the launch of the new credit scheme? You can't roll that out without me. Clients will freak."
"So you'll go?"
"Maybe. I'll talk to Mom about it."
Brian's face relaxed.
He thought I'd put up more of a fight. Maybe I should have.
Dylan stroked his jaw. He didn't owe his brother anything. "I didn't leave Lily alone because of you. And I wouldn't even consider going if I didn't think it could be good for her and the kids. You're going to have to earn the right to be their father again." He put up his hand as Brian began to protest. "I have a meeting to get back to. We'll talk later."
The meeting finished without further incident, and Dylan was buried in paperwork the rest of the day, but at the back of his mind, Brian's words reverberated. Dylan did know what it was like to not have a father. Theirs had died when Dylan was young.
The fading sun cast a rosy glow over the city as Dylan packed up his notes. Looking down from his office window, he watched people strolling along the harborside. Not a bad idea. He dismissed his driver, hoping a walk would clear his head.
As the last warmth of the day bounced off the concrete footpath, he pondered the events of the previous few months. His brother was back. If his father had come back after being gone for ten years, would he have been pleased to see him? Without a doubt.
Dylan sighed. Lily's kids needed their father. It still baffled him that Lily had taken his brother back, that she'd stuck by him all this time. Perhaps she simply wanted to believe love would conquer all.
Brian was right when he said Lily wasn't Dylan's type. Not that Dylan really had a type. It was more that he didn't believe in marriage. Lily and Brian were an excellent reminder why. Someone always loved more, and someone always got hurt.
"It's none of my business." Dylan looked up to check that no one had heard him muttering and glanced at the window display he was passing. He did a double take. The image could have been a copy of one he had at home of his mother from her days as a professional dancer. A woman dressed in white struck a strong yet graceful pose, frozen in fluid motion.
Adventurer Cruises entertainment team. Open auditions this week.
A cruise, perhaps? He needed something to occupy himself for three months. Lying around doing nothing would drive him crazy.
No one he knew was likely to be cruising the Pacific. They all had their own yachts, so he'd be almost incognito.
"I could carry on another family tradition," he said quietly. "Dance again. Mom might like that."
The idea was appealing. Ten years ago, he'd been all signed up for dance school when Brian had disappeared with his lover and left Dylan scrambling to study business and help his mother run the company. His mother knew how disappointed he'd been, but she had also known she couldn't run the business by herself. Neither of them had talked about his dancing again.
Dancing on a cruise ship would keep him busy, and it would provide a new challenge. He still took dance lessons every now and then just to keep himself in shape. The discipline of keeping his posture strong, of holding his muscles in perfect line, was intense — good practice for ensuring his mind was calm and precise in business. It would be interesting to find out whether he had what it took to dance on a cruise ship. Why not?
"How hard could it be?"
* * *
Her eyes flicked back to him again.
Michaela Western was trying her best to ignore the new crew member, but something kept drawing her eye, something more than his height and broad shoulders. He was a bit older than the dancers usually recruited for her team, but there was something else as well. Something she could almost taste.
Perhaps it was his square jaw and brilliant emerald eyes.
"Twenty bucks says that tall dancer you're staring at is shacked up with the choreographer by the end of the week. The new guy from admin, however? I think he might just be mine."
Michaela shook herself. Damn, had she really been staring?
"Felly!" she said to cover her embarrassment. "You wouldn't be admitting to your cruise director that you'd start something with one of your direct reports?"
They both laughed, but the humor was hollow for Michaela.
"I know you don't go there, darling," Felicity said, "but it's always nice to look, isn't it? And we can't all be as wonderfully chaste and professional as you. You have to admit, this intake has some exceptional hotties."
Michaela followed the head purser's gaze from the front-row seat in the cruise ship's theater to the stage, where the new crew members stood huddled under the lights like performing sheep, waiting for their onboard induction. "I'm not sure I'd call any of them hotties," she whispered, feigning lack of interest. Truth was, the tall male dancer was definitely hot. Even the way he stood, like a cat about to pounce, sent a thrill though her. Michaela couldn't help the blush that stole up her neck. "We should stop it, Felly, someone might hear."
"Sorry," Felicity sighed. "It gets to me sometimes. You know, the romantic setting, the heat, the short, tight uniforms ..."
Michaela's laughter was real this time as her friend fell into a mock swoon. "Come on, let's get this over with." She stood, smoothing down her dress uniform, the neat navy blazer with gold braid emphasizing the lean line of her body. "Smiles on."
She stole another look at the hottie as she stepped onto the stage and launched into her practiced speech.
"Good morning, everyone." One hundred heads turned toward her, one hundred dewy, expectant faces looked up at her, and one expectant face in particular seemed to look with careful interest. A face with green eyes like the clear Pacific Ocean and a slow smile that was making her heart beat far too quickly. Michaela forced herself to take a controlling breath. "Welcome to the Pacific Empress, and welcome —" She paused for effect. "— to our family."
As she went through her standard spiel, Michaela kept noticing those emerald eyes on her. Pinpricks of tension again whispered over her skin. Enough already, she scolded herself and turned her head to block any part of him from her view. The tension faded. She stood straighter as she continued.
This was her sixth year working in the cruise industry, her second year on this ship. Perseverance, skill, and luck had landed her this position. She was the only woman to hold the cruise director job in the entire Adventurer Cruises fleet. The work had taken its toll, though. The hours were long, the focus it required extreme. She knew it sometimes made her snappish — even cold — with her staff.
When she first started, she'd been after a new challenge — a challenge and a bit of adventure, promising herself she'd stay in the cruise business for five years max. She'd met too many people who had been onboard for too long, and it had sapped something vital out of them. You could see the strain in their faces.
Now here she was, six years later and with the top job. An international management position back on land was next on her wish list, but it would be hard to leave such a good setup. No one was exactly falling over themselves offering her anything better, and having had a taste of life in the cruise business, Michaela sometimes wondered whether a desk job would be drab in comparison.
"I know this is the fulfillment of a long-held dream for many of you, and you're right to be excited. The Pacific Empress is not just any ship," she said. "This is a new life. A new world. A world where you will be part of other people's dreams. A world where you'll see Pacific Island life up close, swim in perfect waters, and work tirelessly with amazing people."
"I'll take over from here. Thank you, Cruise Director."
Michaela jumped. The man behind her had appeared out of nowhere. Gold-encrusted epaulettes covered his shoulders, and his white uniform was starched so heavily, it probably stood up all by itself. Damn.
She covered the microphone. "What are you doing down here? I mean, you're more than welcome, sir, but are you sure you want to take over? I've only just started."
The captain nodded tightly and held his hand out for the microphone. His dismissive expression made her wince, but her professional veneer was practiced, and she kept her smile firmly fixed. She turned back to the new recruits. "One of those amazing people, in charge of your safety and mine, is your captain. Ladies and gentlemen, I give you Captain Atkinson."
Excerpted from The Boss and Her Billionaire by Michele de Winton, Ruth Homrighaus, Bethany Halle. Copyright © 2012 Michele Powles. Excerpted by permission of Entangled Publishing, LLC.
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