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His voice always made goosebumps break out on her arms. Madeline would have thought that after a full year of working for Aleksei Petrov, the startling effect of his rich, slightly accented voice would have faded. Nope.
"Ms. Forrester," he said, his voice coming in loud and clear through her cellphone, making her stomach tighten, "I trust you have everything prepared for tonight."
Maddy surveyed the ballroom from her place on the entryway steps. "Everything is right on schedule. Tables set, decorations done, guest list confirmed."
"I had to check. Especially after the incident at the White Diamonds exhibition."
Madeline bristled, but kept her voice calm. An advantage, one of many, to having a boss she never saw face to face. As long as she kept her voice steady, he would have no idea of her true feelings. He couldn't read any tension in her face or body. Or see her roll her eyes.
She clenched her fists and allowed her fingernails to dig into her palms. "That was hardly what I would classify as an incident. We had partycrashers, and they took dinners not designated for them. But we solved it. A couple of people went dinnerless for about twenty minutes, but no one was gravely inconvenienced." She hadn't realized he'd heard about that.
This was the first major event she'd coordinated for Petrova, the first event she'd done since her move to Europe. Aleksei had never attended any of the small exhibitions she'd put on in North America. He conducted all of his business from his offices in Moscow and, more rarely, Milan, saving his brilliant presence for the more essential eventswhich this most certainly was.
And his presence was going to make the event a madhouse. Attempted crashersboth civilian and press alikewere going to be a huge issue. Aleksei was a brilliant businessman, a man who had brought himself, and his company, from obscurity to be the creator and owner of the design house that produced the most coveted designer jewelry in the world.
His success, coupled with the fact that he wasn't the type of man to court media attention, only made him more of a fascination to the public and the press.
This would also be her first time meeting her boss face to face. She didn't know why, but the thought of it made her stomach tight.
"Those who had to wait for their dinner beg to differ," he said dryly.
She looked down at her fingernails and noticed a chip in her polish. That would have to be fixed before the party. "The issue was with the security, not with my planning. And the security does not fall under my jurisdiction."
His deep chuckle reverberated through the phone. Through her. "Your ruthlessness is always inspiring."
Ruthlessness? Yeah, okay, maybe she had become a bit ruthless. Although she'd been kidding. Kind of. But she loved her job, she needed her job, and Aleksei expected perfection. And she always achieved perfection, which meant she wasn't taking the fall for someone else's mistake.
She hadn't recently achieved a promotion within Petrova Gems by taking the fall for other people's errors either.
"Well, I've spoken to Jacob about the measures in place for tonight, and I don't think we'll be having any more issues."
"Good to know."
"You were trying to rile me up, weren't you?" she asked, annoyance and adrenaline spiking in her system.
She was able to hold her cool with everyone, always. But Aleksei Petrov and his sinfully sexy voice rattled her more than anything else in her life. There was just something about him another reason to be glad they had a remote working relationship.
"Maybe. I would have fired you right away if I thought you were incompetent, Madeline, and I certainly wouldn't have promoted you," he said, the sound of her name on his lips making her arms prickle.
"Then I'll take my current employment status as a compliment," she said, working to put her cool, calm and collected self back together.
It had been so long since she'd allowed a man to become a distraction, so long since she'd allowed anything to be a distraction. When she'd taken control of her own life she'd done it in a big way. She'd moved on, moved up, and had never looked back at the insecure, vulnerable girl she'd been five years ago. She wasn't about to let Aleksei, or his voice, shake any of that.
"But everything is right on track for tonight," she said, her voice still steady. She was anxious to get the conversation back on the topic it should be on. Back in the safe zone.
"That's good to know."
She wasn't just hearing his voice through the phone anymore. It was deeper, richer, filling the empty ballroom and making her feel warm and flushed all over.
The back of her neck prickled.
She turned and found herself at eye-level with a broad, masculine chest. It was covered, quite decently in fact, by a perfectly fitted buttoned-up shirt. But not even that concealed the perfect, hard muscles that lay beneath.
She swallowed hard, her throat suddenly dry, tight. Her hands felt shaky. Because it was her sexy-voiced boss, in the flesh. And he was even better looking than she could have possibly anticipated.
She'd hoped that the pictures she'd seen of him had just caught him at good angles, that he wasn't really as handsome as he seemed like he might be. But pictures didn't do him justice. He was so big, broad and tall, well over six feet. And his face was arresting. Dark, well-shaped brows, an angular jaw. His eyes were deep brown, captivating but completely unreadable. Hard. Everything about him was completely uncompromising.
Except for his lips. His lips looked like they might soften to kiss a woman. She found herself licking her own lips in response to that thought. And then she realized she was standing there, staring like an idiot at her boss. The man who signed her paychecks.
"Mr. Petrov," she said. Then she realized she was still holding her phone to her ear and quickly dropped her hand to her side. "I."
"Ms. Forrester." Aleksei extended his hand. She was extremely grateful for the reminder of what normal human behavior was in this situation, because all thoughts had been momentarily knocked from her head.
She lifted her hand and clasped his. His handshake was firm, masculine. His skin hot against hers. She released her hold on him, trying to look calm. Unaffected. She flexed her fingers, trying to make the impression of his touch go away.
She looked over her shoulder, away from him, at the ballroom, which was decorated beautifully, everything in place except for the jewels, which wouldn't be put in their display cases until just before the event started. Until the armed guards arrived.
"I hope everything is to your satisfaction," she said, knowing that it had to be. She didn't do half-measures. If it wasn't perfect, there was simply no point.
"It will do," he said.
She turned to face him. "I hope it will more than do," she said tightly.
"It will do." A slight smile curved his lips and she found herself warring with the desire to keep staring at his fascinating mouth, and the desire to turn and stalk out of the room.
She fought desperately to gain a grip on her control. If he hadn't surprised her, it wouldn't have been an issue. If she had known that he was going to walk in the room when he had, if he hadn't sneaked up on her like that, and if he didn't look like some bronzed Adonis, she would be fine.
Just remember the last time you let your body do the thinking.
That brought her back firmly on solid ground.
"I'm glad you approve," she said, wishing that she had the buffer of the phone again so he couldn't see the annoyance she knew she was clearly telegraphing. And because it was just easier when she couldn't see him.
Aleksei walked down the stairs and into the main area of the ballroom. She waited while he examined the table settings and the glittering white lanterns that were suspended from the ceiling.
"You work hard for me," he said finally.
A rush of gratification flooded her. "Yes. I do."
"I've always wondered why you decided to work for a living. Your family is affluent enough to have supported you."
Of course he knew about her family. They were all so successful in their own right. But her parents hadn't even spoken to her in at least ten years. They hadn't offered her any support as a child. They certainly wouldn't give her any as an adult. And she would never dream of taking one penny from her brother. Gage had already done enough for her. She wasn't going to let him take care of her for the rest of her life, even though he gladly would have.
At least now he had a wife and children to distract him from worrying about her. She would always be grateful for everything he'd done for her, but every time she had a problem Gage dropped everything to make it go away, thanks to his overdeveloped sense of responsibility. She didn't like taking advantage of him in that way.
"I wouldn't get any satisfaction from life enjoying the success of others. I wanted to make my own success. Earn my own reputation."
It had become especially important after her reputation had been destroyed by a youthful indiscretion and the overzealous media. Although, even now, she wasn't angry at the press. They'd just been reporting her stupidity to a scandal-hungry public. Everything that had happened had been her own fault. She couldn't even pin it solely on her former boss, no matter how much she wanted to.
The only consolation was that the whole thing had died a pretty quick death in the papers. Another day, another scandal. But in the circles she moved in, the damage had been done.
"You've certainly done that. You've had how many people have tried to poach you from me in the past few months?"
"Eight," she said, voice crisp. "And I didn't know you knew about that."
He nodded and made his way back to the stairs. As he got closer, the tension in her stomach wound tighter, that little bit of ease she'd felt proving to be an illusion.
"I make it my business to know what is happening in my company. Especially when someone is trying to steal one of my key players."
"I turned them down," she said. "I enjoy the work that I do for Petrova." Her job enabled her to take part in both practical and creative tasks. She had a huge budget to work with, paid travel, a discount with the hottest jewelry designers in the world and, until today, had never had to deal with her boss. In the physical sense anyway.
Plus, it was high-profile. Every event she coordinated ended up with full-color spreads in some of the most popular magazines in the world. It was a dream job, no question.
But now she was tempted to take the next offer and run.
No. She was stronger than that. She wasn't going to let this errant thing hamper her success in any way. She was older now, wiser. A handsome face and flattering compliments weren't going to make her lose focus.
Of course, Aleksei wasn't handing out compliments, which helped.
Aleksei stood there for a moment, just looking at her, his dark eyes intent on her. She sucked in a breath.
"I prefer to sit near the displays," he said, gesturing to the empty row of glass cases.
"Of course," she said, making a mental note to shuffle some of the people she'd originally had at the tables near the jewelry display. She'd been planning on seating Aleksei at the front of the room. But he was the boss, and therefore not wrong.
"And that's for you and a date?" she asked, hoping he was still bringing a date. It put up yet another barrier between them. A barrier she shouldn't even need, but apparently did.
"No, I'm attending alone. My date had to cancel a couple of weeks ago."
Oh, no. She had really, really hoped he was bringing a woman with him.