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I miss waking up with you.
The note struck a pang of wistfulness in Clair Daniels's chest. She wondered if anyone would ever write something so romantic to her. Then she recalled the waves of emotional highs and lows Abby had been riding for months, all under the influence of that elusive emotion called "love." Being independent was more secure and less hurtful, she reminded herself. And the roller coaster she'd been through in the last two weeks, after losing a man who was merely a friend and mentor, was brutal enough.
Still, she had to hide envy as she handed the note back to Abby and said with a composed smile, "That's very sweet. The wedding is this weekend?"
Abby, the firm's receptionist, nodded with excitement as she placed the card back in the extravagant bouquet Clair had admired. "I was just saying to everyone" She waved at the ladies gathered with their morning coffee. "I texted him that after Saturday, we can wake up together forev " She trailed off as it struck her who she was talking to.
The horseshoe of women dropped their gazes.
Clair's throat closed over a helpless I wasn't waking up with him. She'd never slept with anyone but couldn't say so. Her confidentiality clause with Victor Van Eych had made such confessions impossible.
Still, she knew everyone had thought her relationship to the boss went deeper than merely being his PA. The gossip had eaten her up, but she'd let it happen out of kindness for a man whose self-assurance had been dented by age. Other people's opinions of her shouldn't matter, she'd told herself. Victor was nice to her. He had encouraged her to start the foundation she'd always dreamed of. Letting a white lie prevail in return had seemed harmless.
Then his family had refused to let her into his mansion to so much as share condolences, turning their backs and pushing her to the fringes like a pariah.
She wasn't someone who wore her heart on her sleeve, but the one person she had begun to count on had died. Shock and sorrow had overwhelmed her. Thankfully she'd had a place to bolt to for a week and absorb her loss. Ironic that it had been the orphanage, but what a timely reminder how important the home and foundation were, not just to her, but to children as alone as she was.
Now she was feeling more alone than ever, trying not to squirm under the scrutiny of her colleagues, not wanting to reveal that her chest had gone tight and her throat felt swollen. It wasn't just Victor's unexpected death getting to her, but a kind of despair. Would anyone ever stick? Or was she meant to walk through life in isolation forever?
Into the suffocating moment, the elevator pinged and the doors whispered open. Clair glanced over her shoulder to escape her anxiety, and what she saw made her catch a startled breath.
A hunting party of suits invaded the top floor. It was the only way to describe the tribe of alert, stony-faced men. The last off the elevator, the tallest, was obviously their leader. He was a warrior whose swarthy face wore a blaze of genuine battle injury. At first that was all Clair saw: the slash of a pale scar that began where his dark hair was combed back from his hairline. It bisected his left eyebrow, angled from his cheekbone toward the corner of his mouth, then dropped off his clean-shaven jaw.
He seemed indifferent to it, his energy completely focused on the new territory he was conquering. His armor-gray suit clung with perfect tailoring to his powerful build. With one sweep of his golden-brown eyes, he dispersed the clique of women in a subtle hiss of indrawn breaths and muted clicks of retreating heels.
Clair couldn't move. His marauding air incited panic, but her feet stayed glued to the floor. She lifted her chin, refusing to let him see he intimidated her.
Male interest sparked to life as he held her stare. His gaze drifted like a caress to her mouth, lowered to her open collar and mentally stripped her neatly belted raincoat and low-heeled ankle boots.
Clair set her teeth, hating these moments of objectification as much as any woman, but something strange happened. Her paralysis continued. She wasn't able to turn away in rejection. Heat came to life in her abdomen like a cooling ember blown into a brighter glow. Warmth radiated into her chest and bathed her throat.
His attention came back to her face, decision stamped in his eyes. She was something he would want.
She blushed, still unable to look away. A writhing sensation knotted in her stomach, clenching like a fist when he spoke in a voice like dark chocolate, melting and rich, yet carrying a biting edge.
She didn't understand him.
Clair blinked in surprise, but he didn't switch to English. His command had been for one of his companions, yet she had the impression he'd been talking about her if not to her. He swung away, moving into the interior offices as if he owned the place. One of the men flanking him murmured in a similar language.
"Was that Russian?" Clair asked on a breathless gasp as the last pin-striped back disappeared. She felt as if a tank had just flattened her.
"They've been coming in all week. That tall one is new." Abby dragged her gaze away from the hall and became conspiratorial as she leaned over her keyboard. "No one knows what's going on. I was hoping you could enlighten us."
"I wasn't here," Clair reminded her. She hadn't even been in London. "But Mr. Turner told me before I left that everything would carry on as usual, that the family were keeping things status quo until they'd had time to settle his private affairs. Are they lawyers?" She glanced toward the hall but was certain that man wasn't anything as straitlaced as a lawyer. He struck her as someone who made his own rules rather than living by any imposed on him. Her skin still tingled under the brand of ownership he'd imprinted on her.
"Some are, I think," Abby answered. "Ours have been meeting them every day."
"Our? Oh, right." Clair forced herself back to the conversation. Lawyers. Not just her friend deceased but the boss and owner, leaving the place on tiptoes of tension. She'd noticed the mood the second she returned. Having strangers prowl like bargain hunters at a fire sale didn't help. Clair decided she didn't like that trespasser of a man.
Abby glanced around before hunching even closer. "Clair? I'm really sorry for what I said. I know losing Mr. Van Eych must be hard for y"
"It's fine. Don't worry about it," Clair dismissed with a light smile. She stepped back to freeze out the empathy.
Putting up walls was a protective reflex, an automatic reaction that probably accounted for why no one ever sent her flowers or love notes. She wasn't good at being close to people. That was why she'd let herself fall into a fake romance with Victor. He'd offered companionship without the demands of physical or emotional intimacy, protecting her from anyone else trying to make a similar claim. No risk, she'd thought. No chance of pain. Ha.
That Russian would make incredible demands, she thought, and her stomach dipped even as she wondered where her speculation had come from. No way would she let someone like that into her private life. He was a oneway ticket to a broken heart. Forget him.
Nevertheless, trepidation weakened her knees as she looked toward her office, the direction he'd taken. Silly to be afraid. He would already have forgotten her.
"I'll check in with Mr. Turner," Clair said, holding the smile of confident warmth she'd perfected as Victor's PA. "If I'm able to tell you anything, I will."
"Thank you." Abby's worried brow relaxed.
Clair walked away, determined to push the Russian from her mind, but she'd barely hung her coat and bent to tuck her purse into her desk drawer before Mr. Turner appeared in the doorway. Waxen paleness underpinned the flags of red in his sagging cheeks.
Clair stood to attention, heart sinking with intuitive fear. "What's wrong?"
"You're to report to" He ran a hand over his thinning hair. "The new owner."
Aleksy Dmitriev set the waste bin next to his feet, reached for the first plaque on the wall and tossed it in, taking less satisfaction in the loud clunk of an industry award hitting the trash than he'd anticipated. This coup had been too easy. Clunk. The bastard wasn't alive to see his world collapse. Clunk. Van Eych had succumbed to the lifestyle he'd enjoyed at the expense of men like Aleksy's father rather than face the revenge Aleksy had intended to wreak. Clunk.
The blonde in the foyer was that filthy dog's mistress. Smash!
A delicate crystal globe shattered in the bottom of the can, leaving a silver heart exposed and dented.
"What on earth," a clear female voice demanded, "do you think you're doing?"
Aleksy lifted his head and was struck by the same kick of sexual hunger he'd experienced fifteen minutes ago. The part of his anatomy he couldn't control suffered another tight, near-painful pull.
At first sight he'd judged her snowflake perfect, delicate and cool with creamy, unblemished skin, white-gold hair and ice-blue eyes. As potent as chilled vodka with a kick of heat that spread from the inside. He'd demanded her name and details.
Now the dull raincoat was gone, revealing warmer colors. Her peach knit top clung to slender arms and hugged smallish but high breasts, while her hips flared just enough to confirm she was all woman.
He smothered reckless desire with angry disgust. How could she have given all that to an old man, especially that old man?
Under his stare, her lashes flickered with uncertainty. She turned one boot in before setting her feet firmly. Her fists knotted at her sides, and her shoulders went back. Her chin came up in the same challenge she'd issued when they first came face-to-face.
"Those might have sentimental value to Mr. Van Eych's family," she said.
Aleksy narrowed his eyes. The heat of finding the fight he'd been anticipating singed through his muscles. She was an extension of Victor Van Eych, and that allowed him to hate her, genuinely hate her. His sneer pulled at his scar. He knew it made him look feral and dangerous. He was that and more. "Close the door."
She hesitatedand it irritated him. When he spoke, people moved. Having a slip of a woman take a moment to think it over, look him over, wasn't acceptable.
"As you leave," he commanded with quiet menace. "I'm throwing out all of Van Eych's trophies, Miss Daniels. That includes you."
She flinched but remained tall and proud. Her icy blue eyes searched his, confirming he was serious.
As the heart attack that killed your meal ticket, he conveyed with contempt.
She turned away, and loss unexpectedly clawed at him.
He didn't have time to examine it before she pressed the door closed, remaining inside. Inexplicable satisfaction roared through him. He told himself it was because he would get the fight he craved, but what else could he expect from a woman of her nature? She didn't live the way she did by walking away from what she wanted.
Keeping her hand on the doorknob, she tossed her hair back and asked with stiff authority, "Who are you?"
Unwillingly, he admired her haughtiness. At least she made a decent adversary. He wiped the taint of dust from his fingertips before extending his hand in a dare. "Aleksy Dmitriev."
Another brief hesitation; then, with head high, she crossed to tentatively set her hand in his. It was chilly, but slender and soft. He immediately fantasized guiding her light touch down his abdomen and feeling her cool fingers wrap around his hot shaft.
He didn't usually respond to women like this, rarely let sex thrust to the forefront of his mind so blatantly, especially with a woman he regarded with such derision, but attraction clamored in him as he closed his hand over hers. It took all his will not to use his grip to drag her near enough to take complete ownership, hook his arm across her lower back and mash her narrow body into his.
Especially when she quivered at his touch. She made a coy play at pretending it disconcerted her, but she'd been sleeping with a man old enough to be her grandfather. Acting sexually excited was her stock in trade. It made him sick, yet he still responded to it. He wanted to crowd her into the wall and kindle her reaction until she was helpless to her own need and he could sate his.
Disappointment seared a blistering path through his center. He wanted her, but she'd already let his enemy have her.
Aleksy Dmitriev released her hand and insultingly wiped his own on his tailored pants, as if her touch had soiled his palm.
Clair jerked her hand into her middle, closing her fist over the sensation of calluses and heat. He was hot. In every way. All that masculine energy and muscle was a bombardment. She didn't want to react, especially to someone who wanted to fire her.
She dragged at her cloak of indifference, the one she'd sewn together in a school full of spoiled rich kids. "What gives you the right, Mr. Dmitriev, to take away my job?"
"Your 'job' is dead." His curled lip told her what he thought her job was.
"I'm a PA," she said tightly. "Working under the president. If you've taken ownership, I assume you're moving into that position?"
"On top of you? A predictable invitation, but I have no use for his leavings."
"Don't be crass!" she snapped. She never lost her temper. Poise was part of her defense.
He smirked, seeming to enjoy her flush of affront. It intensified her anger.
"I do real work," she insisted. "Not whatever you're suggesting."
His broken eyebrow went up. They both knew what he was suggesting.
"I manage special projects" She cut herself off at his snort, heart plummeting, suddenly worried about her own very special project. The foundation was a few weeks from being properly launched. After last week, she knew the building she'd grown up in was badly showing its age. The home needed a reliable income more than ever. And the people
"Clair, are you okay? You're more quiet than usual," Mrs. Downings had said last week, catching her at the top of the stairs where she'd been painting. They'd sat on the landing and Clair hadn't been able to keep it all in. Mrs. Downings had put her arm around her, and for once Clair had allowed the familiarity, deeply craving the sense that someone cared she was hurting.
She'd come away more fired up than ever to get the foundation off the ground. She had to keep people like Mrs. Downings, with her understanding and compassion, available to children with the same aching, empty hearts that she had.
"Are you shutting down the whole firm?" Clair asked Aleksy with subdued panic.
He turned stony. "That's confidential."
She shook her head. "You can't let everyone go. Not immediately. Not without paying buckets of severance," she guessed, but it was an educated one. There were hundreds of clients with investments managed here.
"I can dismiss you," he said with quiet assurance.
Another jolt of anger pulsed through her, unfamiliar but invigorating. "On what grounds?"
"Not turning up for work last week."
"I had the time booked months ago. I couldn't have known then that my employer would pass away right before I left." And she would have stayed if Victor's family hadn't been so cutting. If someone, anyone, had said she was needed here.
"You obviously cared more about enjoying your holiday than whether your job would be here when you returned."
The annual blitz of cleaning and repair at the home was the furthest thing from a holiday, not that he wanted to know. "I offered to stay," she asserted, not wanting to reveal how torn she'd felt. With her world crashing around her here, she'd been quite anxious to escape to the one stable influence in her life.
"The VP granted my leave," she continued, scraping her composure together by folding her arms. With her eyes narrowed in suspicion, she asked, "Would I still be employed if I'd stayed?"
"No." Not a shred of an excuse.
What a truly hateful man! His dislike of her was strangely hurtful too. She tried hard to make herself likable, knowing she wasn't naturally warm and spontaneous. Failing without being given a chance smarted.
"Mr. Turner assured me before I left that another position would be found for me. I've been here almost three years." She managed to hang on to a civil tone, searching for enough dignity to disguise her fear.
"Mr. Turner doesn't own the company. I decide who stays."