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New York City-Today
Kensington Steele picked up the two dozen long-stemmed red roses-freshly cut and still quivering from their time in the florist's freezer-and dropped them into the trash. Although it pained her to throw away such a thing of beauty, she couldn't hold back the anger at the card that had accompanied the red blooms.
To a most worthy opponent- Looking forward to next time. Jack
"Bastard." She muttered the word under her breath as her gaze danced from the card to the glorious beauties that winked from the top of her office garbage can. On a weary sigh, she reached in and retrieved the roses. With the exception of one slightly bent stem and a few missing petals on the flowers that edged the bouquet, her aim had been quite good.
Further proof he'd purchased excellent flowers from one of the city's top suppliers.
Kensington laid the roses back in the large white flower box and resolved to have her assistant handle the arranging. At least she could get them out of her sight.
A loud honk outside pulled her attention from the flowers, and she crossed her office to the windows that fronted the family brownstone that now served as the headquarters for the House of Steele. Their Upper East Side street was normally quiet and the racket currently taking place on the street below-two cabdrivers who'd clearly disagreed on who had the right of way on the tight street-was rare.
About as rare as losing a major contract.
The word bastard rose once more to her lips but she tamped it down. She wasn't a sore loser and didn't hold those who were in high regard. But damn it, her bid package had been flawless. So had the one two months ago when she'd gone up against Jack Andrews for the museum job in Memphis. And three months ago on the gallery opening in San Francisco. And five months ago for the Ming Dynasty artifact recovery in Hong Kong.
The man kept beating her out on key proposals and she had no idea how he was doing it. It clearly wasn't location based because each job was vastly different from the other. She'd had yet to find any other obvious connection, either.
So how was it every time the House of Steele went up against Andrews Holdings they lost?
The knock on her door pulled her attention from the drama on the street below. Her assistant, Molly, stood at the door, a thin tablet in hand. "You ready for our morning status?"
"Can I ask a favor first?"
"Does it involve delivering anything to your brother at home again? I'm still convinced I interrupted a rather delicate moment between him and his fiancée."
Kensington smiled at that. Molly had, in fact, interrupted Campbell and Abby in a moment in flagrante delicto. Of course, that's what he got for attempting a morning quickie when there was work to be done. "Not at all. Would you mind getting those roses out of my sight?"
Molly let out a long, low whistle. "These are gorgeous. When did they arrive? I've been here since eight-thirty and we haven't had any deliveries."
"Bright and early this morning. Nothing like being served up a portion of crow over your first cup of coffee."
Her assistant set her electronics down and picked up a few of the stems. "These look like flirtation and romance far more than arrogant gloating. Who's the new man?"
A light zing of awareness skimmed her spine, but Kensington banished it. Just like she banished any of the nine million other delicious thoughts she'd had about Jack Andrews over the past six months. "Trust me. They scream gloating arrogance."
"Gloating arrogance in a sexy package."
"Why are the petals all wonky on this side?" Molly turned a few of the blooms over, her concern evident in the lines that crinkled her forehead.
"They've already spent a few minutes in the trash."
Another low whistle left Molly's lips before she tossed Kensington a broad smile. "Oh, my, my. I think I read this just right. There is a romance afoot."
"There's no romance."
Molly waved a hand over her head as she walked out the door, the roses spilling from the crook of her arm.
"Save your breath, oh, straitlaced one. Thou doth protest too much."
Kensington clamped her mouth shut, her assistant's words hitting home with the force of a battering ram.
It was long moments later when she finally took a seat at her desk, the morning's drama fading so that she could concentrate on work.
But damn it if the sweet, fresh scent of roses still lingered in the air.
Jack Andrews tossed some money to the driver and slid across the backseat of his cab. The impressive Upper East Side brownstone stood five stories above him as he walked toward the front stoop of the headquarters of the House of Steele.
A small shiver of anticipation gripped him, the sensation something of a surprise after far too many years of minimal interest in anything.
It was a calculated risk to come here. Just like the roses.
Would she see it as a taunt? Or would she give him the time and hear him out?
The crisp notes of early December whipped around him and Jack huddled deeper into his wool coat as he took the front stoop two steps at a time and hit the doorbell. He'd lived in Chicago for the better part of fifteen years and he still hadn't adjusted to cold weather.
A small buzz and the sound of the front door clicking gave him entrance. As he stepped into the warmth, he wasn't surprised to see a large man hulking in the hallway, ready to greet him. Although the brownstone housed a business, no one walked in off the street. "Can I help you?"
"I'm here to see Kensington Steele."
"Ms. Steele has no appointments on her agenda. I'm afraid you're going to need to leave."
Jack took a moment to strip off his gloves. His gaze took in the large marble-floored entryway, the dark-paneled study he could see off the hall and the small camera that sat in the far corner of the elegant foyer, capturing visitors. The brownstone might have been built more than a hundred years earlier, but he had no doubt it was outfitted from top to bottom with the latest security and technological capabilities. "Please let her know Jack Andrews of Andrews Holdings is here."
"Ms. Steele isn't taking visitors."
"She'll see me."
The man stepped closer, his predatory gleam hard to miss. Jack knew his six-one wasn't small by any means, but the muscles stalking him across the hall had to have him beat by at least three inches and a hundred pounds.
The sound of heels clicking on marble pulled both their attention toward the long hallway that led to the back of the house and that shiver gripped him once more.
Tighter, this time, like a fist wrapped around the base of his spine.
"Mr. Andrews. I wasn't aware you felt it necessary to make house calls all the way from Chicago to gloat. I would have thought two dozen long-stemmed roses were more than adequate to make your point."
Kensington waved off the large man in the foyer. "Thanks, Brandon. Although I wouldn't say Mr. Andrews is a welcome visitor, I'm hardly going to kick him out."
The hulking man shot him one last dark look before taking a wary stance against the wall. "If you change your mind Ms. Steele, you know where to find me."
When Jack simply stood there, taking in the long, artful waves of her dark hair and the mile-long legs that stretched from beneath her power suit, Kensington swept out a hand. "You coming, Mr. Andrews?"
And damn if he could hold back the grin that tugged the corners of his mouth at her prim tone. "Of course."
Curious, he pressed her. "You really keep security out in the hallway all day?"
"Brandon has better things to do than spend all day hanging out in my hallway. He's obviously decided to make an exception for you."
Jack filed away the interesting fact that the House of Steele felt it needed some degree of hired muscle in-house as he followed her down the long hallway. She led him into a large dining room opposite a swinging door to what had to be the kitchen. "Your home is impressive."
"It's my business now."
"Can't it be both?"
A small nod had that lush hair drifting around her shoulders. "I suppose so. It's also why we still keep a few bedrooms ready on the top floor. One of us often crashes here."
He stripped off his coat and didn't miss the scrutiny of her gaze before she moved quickly toward the sideboard and busied herself with a waiting coffee service.
They'd only been in each other's company a few times, but each time had captivated him more than the last. He'd thought her unaffected, but perhaps he'd been hasty-too stunned by his own attraction-to recognize a fair bit of it in return.
"Please help yourself to coffee to warm up. The wind's brutal out there."
He used the few extra minutes to take in the room. The brownstone was a classic and even as it screamed subtle opulence, it whispered something else far more powerful.
He stalled over his cream and sugar, curious to get more personal details out of her before she firmly shifted things to business. "This is your family home, yes?"
"My mother's family, actually. She grew up here and her mother and grandmother before her."
He knew of Kensington Steele's lineage-it was hardly a secret among New York's elite. Her parents, Charles and Katherine, had delighted society when a woman with some of New York's bluest blood married into one of Britain's most elite families.
Katherine Kensington Steele's lineage had given her first-born daughter her name.
And it was an accident on Charles and Katherine's twentieth anniversary trip that had left the home he now sat in-and a world of hurt and grief-to their four children.
"The Kensington family home."
"It's beautiful. Now it's functional, too."
"I'd like to think so." Kensington took a seat at the head of the table, the subtle power play intriguing him like nothing else could have. "What can I do for you, Mr. Andrews?"
That cultured tone did something to his insides, he admitted to himself. The tones weren't quite British, yet they were sharp with the same elocution the Brits had made their own. Her voice made him think of how he wanted to poke underneath the surface.
"First, let's get this out of the way. I have no reason to gloat and that's not why I'm here. You're a worthy opponent and I respect your business."
Her raised eyebrows let him know exactly what she thought of his statement, but she kept her voice level. "I thought the note that arrived with your flowers suggested otherwise."
"I don't know. I've always found a little spirited poking is healthy for business." He leaned forward, pleased when her crystal-blue gaze stayed level on his. "Nothing like a sense of competition to keep a person engaged."
"I have no interest in being poked."
"Oh, really?" He couldn't hold back the smile.
"Really." The light flush that was visible at the V of her blouse suggested she wasn't unaffected and he couldn't resist one more attempt at ruffling her. "Because partnership does have its benefits, Kensington."
"I've got enough partners, Jack." The fingers of her right hand trembled ever so slightly before she wrapped them around her coffee cup. "What I want is the opportunity to work with new business prospects."
"What if I can offer you that?"
He'd spent the past few days thinking about the solution he was about to offer her and could only curse himself he hadn't come up with it sooner. "Business partners. It makes sense."
"I don't need a business partner. My brothers and sister and I run the House of Steele as a family. We're not selling."
"I'm not suggesting anything of the sort, especially since I've no interest in selling or merging Andrews Holdings."
The sharp set of her lips faded and the same shrewd sense-the one that had allowed Kensington to lead their family enterprise into a wildly successful business in a handful of years-took over. "What did you have in mind?"
"You and I went up against each other on the Rome job."
"As well as Memphis, San Francisco and Hong Kong." He ignored the litany of their recent skirmishes, instead focusing on the reason he'd come. "I'm talking about Rome. I met with the Italian embassy on Monday and was smugly told I nearly didn't get the assignment."
"I maintain a small firm, by choice. Seems the Italians were looking for something a bit more expansive. There was a fair amount of infighting among the selection committee before I gained the nod."
"I still don't see how this involves me."
How did he explain it to her? He prided himself on reading his adversaries-and he typically put clients in that category until proven otherwise-but the meeting with the embassy's staff had caught him unawares. "They've changed the scope of the assignment."
"How so? It's a pretty straightforward protection detail with a bit of snooping on the side. Eyes and ears on the ambassador and his surroundings on his upcoming diplomatic mission."
"The Italians have begun to suspect Hubert Pryce of some unsavory practices."
Confusion stamped itself immediately on her face, but underneath he saw the flicker of interest. It was subtle, he'd give her that, but it was there all the same. She leaned forward a bit more eagerly and a small spark lit that vivid gaze. "I'm not following. A host country has to accept an ambassador from another country and can, at any point, dissolve the relationship, declaring the diplomat persona non grata. It's a basic tenant of the Vienna Convention."
"The Italians think it would be worth their while to follow Ambassador Pryce for a bit longer."
"Why? He comes from a small country in central Africa. If they're concerned, and I can't imagine why they are, they need to remove him from his post. They're within their rights to do so and no explanations are needed."
Jack briefly toyed with filtering the limited information he had but realized it was, at best, unfair and, at worst, dangerous to keep her in the dark. "Tierra Kimber may be small, but the country has seen incredible growth in the past decade as a major center for both diamonds and fashion."
Kensington took a sip of her coffee, her expression thoughtful as that interest honed to a sharp point. "They're not even a top-ten player in Italy's economy. I realize Pryce's family background is European and he's spent considerable time cultivating a reputation across the region, but the Italian government is under no obligation to allow him to remain in Italy if they have any concerns whatsoever."
"Hubert Pryce is the tip of the iceberg if what the Italians suspect him of is true."
"And what's that?"
"If they're correct, he's smuggling diamonds through the Italian wine trade."