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"I am not for sale, Mr. Hawke."
Jackson Hawke bit back a smile as he stared at the woman across the desk. "I'm not trying to buy you, Ms. Spencer. I'm merely offering to employ you."
"I already have a job," she informed him with the cool disdain of a true Southern belle. "I'm the general manager of the Contessa Hotel."
He had to give her points for moxie, Jack thought. He had expected any number of reactions to the news that he had acquired the defaulted bank loan on the small New Orleans hotel. He had made a career of taking over financially troubled companies, revamping them and turning the once-failing operations into profit centers. In each case, his presence was seldom welcome. More often than not his arrival was met with trepidation or anger, and in some cases both. He had expected no less from the owners of the Contessa Hotel. What he hadn't anticipated was defiance. And defiant was the only way to describe the woman seated across from him. Unfortunately for Ms. Laura Jordan Spencer, her defiance didn't change the fact that he now owned her family's hotel. "True. But given the circumstances, your position here could prove to be temporary," he countered.
"There is nothing temporary about my position here, Mr. Hawke," she advised him, a hint of temper coloring her voice. "My great grandfather built this hotel nearly a hundred years ago and it's been owned by the Jordan family ever since. I'm sorry if you were led to believe that we would consider selling the property. But I can assure you, the Contessa is not for sale."
"I have a receipt for fifteen million dollars that says otherwise," he told her.
"Which I'm sure the bank will refund you once I've straightened outthis this misunderstanding."
He leaned forward, met her gaze. "Take another look at those documents, Ms. Spencer," he said, motioning toward the packet of legal papers he'd presented her, which outlined his acquisition of the hotel via her mother's defaulted bank loan. "There is no misunderstanding. Hawke Industries now owns this hotel."
Anger flared in her green eyes. "I don't care what those papers say. I'm telling you there's been a mistake," she insisted and punched the button on the intercom. "Penny, try Mr. Benton at the bank again."
"You're wasting your time," he told her. He already knew from his meeting with the bank chairman the previous afternoon that the man had left town that morning.
"The only one wasting my time, Mr. Hawke, is you," she fired back.
While she waited for her assistant to place the call, Jack used the opportunity to study her more closely. He noted the almond-shaped eyes, the stubborn chin, the smooth skin and lush mouth. She wasn't classically beautiful or slap-you-in-the-face sexy. But there was something about her, a sensuality that simmered beneath the all-business exterior. Judging by the quelling look she shot him, his appraisal hadn't gone unnoticed. Nor had it been appreciated.
At the buzz of the intercom, she grabbed the phone. "Yes. I see," she said. "Thank you, Penny."
"Still not available, I take it," he remarked when she hung up the phone.
"He and his family have left for the Thanksgiving holiday. His office is trying to reach him. When they do, I'll get this mess straightened out."
"Talking with Benton isn't going to change the facts, Ms. Spencer.Your mother pledged this hotel as collateral on a loan and Hawke Industries purchased that note, along with several others, from the bank. Since your mother defaulted on that loan, the Contessa Hotel now belongs to Hawke Industries."
"I'm telling you, you're wrong," she insisted. "There is no way my mother would have ever pledged the Contessa."
Tiring of her refusal to accept the obvious, Jack snatched the stack of legal documents, pulled out the collateral mortgage note signed by her mother and slapped it in front of her. "Look at it," he commanded. "That's a promissory note signed by your mother, pledging her stock in the Contessa as guarantee on the loan. Are you going to deny that's her signature?"
Something flickered in her eyes as she stared at the damning document. For the first time since he'd arrived and introduced himself to her as the hotel's new owner, the lady looked uncertain. Just as quickly it was gone and the defiance was back. "I don't care what that says. Even if my mother had wanted to use the hotel as collateral for a loan, she couldn't have."
"And why is that?"
"Because my sister and I each own ten percent of the hotel's stock. And neither of us would ever consent to her using the hotel."
"She wouldn't have needed your consentnot to pledge her own stock.Which is exactly what she did," he pointed out.
"My mother would never do such a thing. Not without telling me first."
There was something in her voice, a hint of uncertainty. There was also a flicker of fear in her eyes. It was that fear that stirred something inside him. "Didn't you say your mother was out of the country on business?"
She nodded. "She and her husband are opening a nightclub in France."
"Well, maybe she meant to tell you, but just never got around to it," he offered, surprising himself with this sudden surge of empathy. He frowned. Emotion was something he never allowed to enter into his business dealings. It was his own cardinal rule. In the dozens of takeovers he'd engineered, no amount of tears, pleas or offers of sexual favors had deterred him from his course.
"She has been busy getting ready for the grand opening."
But he could tell from the lack of conviction in Laura's voice that she didn't believe that telling her about the loan had slipped her mother's mind any more than he did. He had learned firsthand that when it came to money and sexblood was no thicker than water. Apparently, Deirdre Jordan Spencer Vincenzo Spencer Baxter Arnaud had sold her daughter's legacy and hadn't bothered to inform her of what she'd done.
"At any rate, if, and I'm not saying that she did, but if my mother did pledge her shares of the Contessa as collateral on a loan, I'm sure she didn't understand exactly what that entailed," she told him.
Her stubborn denial sobered him. Shaking off his un-characteristic spurt of compassion, Jack reminded himself that this was business. Sentiment had no place in business. He didn't intend to let a pretty face, a great pair of legs and a mountain of attitude deter him from his plan. "Or perhaps your mother understood exactly what pledging the hotel as collateral meant."
She stiffened. "Just what is it you're implying, Mr. Hawke?"
"I'm not implying anything, Ms. Spencer. I'm simply pointing out that if your mother had wanted to sell the hotel, but knew you would be opposed to it, using it as collateral on a loan and then defaulting on that loan would be a means of accomplishing her goal."
"How dare you!"
"Why don't we skip the outrage, Ms. Spencer. You strike me as a smart woman. Don't tell me it hasn't crossed your mind. Your mother isn't interested in this place. Why else would she have dumped it in your lap and left the country?
Not that I blame her. The hotel was barely breaking even when your grandfather was alive. Since his death, it's been losing money steadily."
She narrowed her eyes suspiciously. "I won't waste my breath asking where you got your information." Temper laced her voice causing the trace of a Southern accent she bore to be more pronounced. "But apparently your source doesn't have all the facts. If he or she did, they would have informed you that the hotel has shown a steady improvement over the past four months. Whatever difficulties the Contessa may have had in the past, they're over. The hotel is doing just fine now."
"Showing a slim profit on last month's financial statement is a long way from being fine."
Jack held up his hand. "I'm aware of what you've done since you took over the management six months ago. But you and I both know that this hotel is in need of major upgrades. I intend to see that it not only survives, but that it dominates the small luxury hotel market in this area." He paused, then pressed his point home, saying, "Since you own ten percent of the hotel's stock and are familiar with its operations, I'm willing to allow you to be a part of those plans. Or not. It's your choice. Either way, I'm prepared to make you and your sister both a fair offer for your stock."
"I'm not interested in selling my stock. And neither is my sister."
"Don't be too hasty, Ms. Spencer. After all, you haven't heard my offer yet. And neither has your sister."
"I don't need to hear it. I don't"
"I'll give you and your sister each two million dollars for your stock. And"
"I'm not interested."
"Please, do allow me to finish," he said pointedly and noted the angry color flooding her cheeks. "In addition, I'm willing to offer you a management contract with the Contessa at a substantial increase in salary. A salary, which, I might add, is far greater than the one you earned when you were working for the Stratton Hotel group or the Windsor," he added, mentioning the two hotels where his research revealed she had held positions previously.
She hiked up her chin a notch. "Perhaps you should have your hearing checked, Mr. Hawke. As I've already told you, I'm not for sale and neither is the Contessa."
But before he could point out that he already owned the majority of the hotel's stock, there was a tap at the door. "I'm sorry to interrupt, Laura," the perky brunette assistant who had ushered him into the office earlier said from the doorway.
"It's okay, Penny. What is it?"
"You're needed downstairs." She looked over at him, then back at her boss. "You know, for that meeting you scheduled with the kitchen staff."
"Thank you, Penny. Tell them I'm on my way."
Jack didn't miss the look that passed between the two women before her assistant retreated. He suspected it wasn't a meeting that required Laura Spencer's immediate presence. More than likely it was another crisis, one of the many that had plagued the hotel in recent years. As beautiful as the Contessa was and the potential profit she would generate for Hawke Industries, age had taken its toll on the structure. The hotel would continue to deteriorate unless it underwent the necessary maintenance and upgrades it so sorely needed. He intended to see that the hotel was returned to its former glory and became profitablewith or without Laura Spencer's cooperation.
She stood. "As you heard, I'm late for a meeting, Mr. Hawke. So this discussion is over."
It wasn't often that he found himself so clearly dismissed and certainly not by someone who was in no position to call the shots. A part of him was annoyed. While another part of him couldn't help but admire her spirit. Standing, Jack adjusted his gray suit coat. "I suggest you call your attorneys, Ms. Spencer, and have them review the documents I gave you."
"I intend to."
"Once you've confirmed that Hawke Industries is now the majority stockholder of the Contessa Hotel, I want to meet with you to discuss the hotel's operations. Preferably, tomorrow morning."
"I won't be available tomorrow morning," she informed him.
"Then the afternoon. Two o'clock okay with you?"
"I'll be tied up then, too."
Jack stared at her. Once again, he was surprised by her defiance. His name alone had struck fear in the hearts of many a hardened CEO. Apparently, that wasn't the case with Laura Spencer. He liked the fact that she wasn't afraid of him. And he wasn't averse to the rest of the package, either, he admitted. Under different circumstances he might have entertained the idea of something more personal with her. While he didn't consider himself to have a specific type, he enjoyed the company of intelligent, attractive women. He knew from her education and work history that Laura Spencer was smart. With her big eyes, soft skin and hair that was some shade between red and brown, she certainly was attractive. The perfect package reallyexcept for her connection to the hotel deal. It was that connection that was the problem. Regardless of how attractive he found her on a personal level, he had no intention of letting it get in the way of business. Reminding himself of the business at hand, he said, "Tomorrow evening then. We can discuss my plans for the hotel over dinner."
"I already have plans," she told him.
The intercom buzzed. "Laura, they really need you for that meeting."
"I'm on my way," she said. "I have to go."
"I don't suppose there's any point in suggesting another day or time because you'll be tied up then, too," he stated, knowing full well what she was doing. If she agreed to a meeting with him, then she would, in effect, be admitting that everything he had told her was true. Her family no longer owned the Contessa Hotel.
"How perceptive of you, Mr. Hawke. As a matter of fact, my entire week is full and I won't have a moment to spare."
"Then I suggest you make time, Ms. Spencer. Because like it or not, you are going to have to deal with me." And without waiting for her to respond, Jack turned and exited the office.
As she left the hotel's kitchen, Laura pressed her fingers to her temple. The splitting headache that had started with the arrival of Jackson Hawke earlier was quickly working its way toward a migraine. Nodding to various hotel employees, she made her way across the lobby to the elevators. At least her temperamental chef's latest emergencytable salt being substituted for kosher salthad been fixed relatively easily. She'd simply borrowed some kosher salt from a neighboring restaurant so Chef André could finish his masterpiece. Then she had dispatched one of the busboys to the supply house to swap the incorrectly delivered salt. While the celebrity chef she had hired away from a major restaurant caused her a few hassles, the income he generated by keeping the hotel's dining room filled far outweighed the headaches, she reminded herself. Besides, at the moment dealing with a temperamental chef was the least of her worries. Her real worry was Jackson Hawke. Just the thought of him made the pounding in her head increase.
Laura stepped into the elevator and pressed the button for the executive floor. If only the real emergency that Jackson Hawke had dropped in her lap could be solved as easily. Of course, she could always hope that the man was wrongthat her mother hadn't pledged her hotel stock and that Hawke hadn't actually bought her note. Laura called up an image of him in her mind's eye. She thought about the way he'd trained those blue eyes on her, the confidence in his expression, the hard line of his jaw. She sighed. Sure, she could hope he was wrong, Laura told herself. But Jackson Hawke hadn't struck her as a man who was often wrong about anything.
Stepping out of the elevator, she headed down the corridor toward the block of offices. When she entered the reception area and discovered her assistant on the phone, she retrieved her messages and began to flip through them.