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'We have a problem.'
Four words Rory Devlin did not want to hearespecially at his first Devlin Corp Shareholders' Ball.
He glanced around the Palladium ballroom, ensuring everyone was engaged in drinking, dining or dancing, with no visible crisis in sight, before acknowledging the waiter hovering at his elbow.
'What kind of problem?'
The kid, barely out of school, took a backward step and he belatedly remembered to temper his tone. It wasn't the waiter's fault he'd been dealing with non-stop hold-ups on the Portsea project all day.
Attending this shindig was the last thing he wanted to do but it had been six months since he'd stepped into the CEO role, six months since he'd tried to rebuild what had once been Australia's premier property developer, six months of repairing the damage his dad had inflicted.
The waiter glanced over his shoulder and tugged nervously at his bow tie. 'You better see for yourself.'
Annoyed at the intrusion, he signalled to his deputy, who saluted at his 'stepping out' sign, and followed the waiter to a small annexe off the main foyer, where the official launch of the Portsea project would take place in fifteen minutes.
'She's in there.' She?
He took one look inside the annexe and balked.
'I'll take it from here,' he said, and the waiter scuttled away before he'd finished speaking.
Squaring his shoulders, he tugged at the ends of his dinner jacket and strode into the room, eyeballing the problem.
Who eyeballed him back with a defiant tilt of her head, sending loose shoulder-length blond waves tumbling around her heart-shaped face.
She wore a smug smile along with a flimsy blue cocktail dress that matched her eyes.
He hoped the links around her wrists and ankles were the latest eccentric fashion accessory and not what he thought they were: chains anchoring her to the display he had to unveil shortly.
'Can I help you?'
'I'm counting on it.'
Her pink-glossed lips compressed as she sized him up, starting at his Italian handmade shoes and sweeping upwards in an allencompassing stare that made him edgy.
'Shall we go somewhere and discuss?'
She rattled the chains at her wrist and the display gave an ominous wobble.
'As you can see, I'm a bit tied up at the moment.'
He winced at her pitiful pun and she laughed.
'Not my best, but a girl has to do what a girl has to do to get results.'
He pointed at the steel links binding her to his prized display.
'And you think chaining yourself to my company's latest project is going to achieve your objective?'
'You're here, aren't you?'
What was this? Some kind of revenge?
He frowned, searching his memory banks. Was she someone he'd dated? A business associate? Someone he'd slighted in some way?
If she'd gone this far to get his attention, she wanted something. Something he'd never give, considering the way she'd gone about this.
He didn't take kindly to threats or blackmailor whatever this was.
Having some bold blonde wearing a dress that accentuated rather than hid her assets, her long legs bare and her toenails painted the same silver as her chains, bail him up like this no way in hell would he cave to her demands.
She wanted to sell him prime land? Put in a tender for a job? Supply and interior decorate the luxury mansions on the Portsea project?
Stiff. She'd have to make an appointment like everyone else. This kind of stunt didn't impress him. Not one bit.
She chose that moment to shift her weight from one leg to the other, rattling the chains binding her slim ankles, drawing his attention to those long bare legs again.
His perfectly male response annoyed him as much as the time he was wasting standing here.
'You wanted to see me specifically?'
'If you're Rory Devlin, CEO of the company about to ruin the marine environment out near Portsea, then, yep, you're the man.'
His heart sank. Since he'd taken over the reins at Devlin Corp six months ago he'd borne the brunt of every hippy lobbyist and environmentalist in town. None that looked quite as ravishing as the woman before him, but all of them demonstrating the same headstrong fanaticism.
Eco-nuts like her had almost derailed the company. Thankfully, he had a stronger backbone than his father, who'd dilly-dallied rather than making firm decisions on the Port Douglas project last year.
Devlin Corp had ensured the rainforest in far North Queensland would be protected, but that hadn't stopped zealot protestors stalling construction, costing millions and almost bankrupting the company in the process.
If he hadn't stepped in and played hardball he shuddered to think what would have happened to his family legacy.
'You've been misinformed. My company takes great pains to ensure its developments blend with the environment, not ruin it.'
'Please.' She rolled her eyes before focussing them on him with a piercing clarity that would have intimidated a lesser man. 'I've researched the land you developthose flashy houses you dump in the middle of nowhere and sell for a small fortune.'
She strained against her chains as if she'd like to jab him in the chest, and his gaze momentarily strayed to hers before her exasperated snort drew his attention upwards.
'Your developments slash trees and defile land and don't give a rat's about energy conservation'
'Stop right there.'
He crossed the room to stand a foot in front of her, feeling vindicated when she had to tilt her head back to look up at him, and annoyed when a tantalising fragrance of sunshine and fresh grass and spring mornings wrapped around him.
'You're misinformed as well as trespassing. Unlock yourself. Now.'
Tiny sapphire flecks sparked in her eyes before her lips curved upwards in an infuriatingly smug smile.
'Can't do that.'
'Because you haven't agreed to my terms yet.'
He shook his head, pressing the pads of his fingers against his eyes. Unfortunately, when he opened them, she was still there.
'We do this the easy way or the hard way. Easy way: you unlock yourself. Hard way: I call Security and they use bolt cutters to humiliate you further.'
Her eyes narrowed, not dimming in brilliance one iota.
'Go ahead. Call them.'
Damn, she knew he was bluffing. No way would he draw attention to her and risk the shareholders getting curious.
'Give me the key.'
He took a step closer, deriving some satisfaction from the way she inhaled sharply and wriggled backwards before he realised his mistake.
He'd wanted to intimidate her; he'd ended up being an inch away from her.
Her tongue darted out to moisten her bottom lip and he stared at it, shaken to the core by the insane urge to taste those lips for himself.
He never backed downever. He'd taken on every challenge thrust upon him: changing schools in his mid-teens so he could be groomed to take over Devlin Corp one day, ousting his layabout father from the CEO role, stepping up when it counted and dragging an ailing company out of the red and into the black.
She wanted him to capitulate to her demands?
'I'm not playing this game with you.'
He used his frostiest, most commanding tone. The one he reserved for recalcitrant contractors who never failed to delay projects. Predictably, it did little for the pest threatening to derail his evening.
She merely smiled wider.
'Why? Games can be fun.'
Exasperated beyond belief, his fingers tingled with the urge to throttle her.
Dragging in deep, calming breaths, he stared at the model of Portsea Point, the largest project he'd undertaken since assuming CEO duties.
He needed this project to fly. Needed it to be his biggest, boldest success to push the company back to its rightful place: at the top of Australia's luxury property developers.
If he could nail this business would flood in, and Devlin Corp would shrug off the taint his father had besmirched the company with in his short stint as CEO.
Failure was not an option.
He glanced at his watch and grimaced. The unveiling would take place in less than ten minutes and he needed to get rid of this woman pronto.
Thrusting his hands into his pockets and out of strangling distance, he squared his shoulders and edged back to tower over her.
'What do you want?'
'Thought you'd never ask.'
His gaze strayed to her glossed lips again and he mentally kicked himself.
'I want a little one-on-one time with you.'
'There are easier ways to get a date.'
Confusion creased her brow for a second, before her eyes widened in horror.
'I don't want a date with you.'
She made it sound as if he'd offered her some one-on-one time with a nest of vipers.
'Sure? I come highly recommended.'
'I bet,' she muttered, glancing away, but not before he'd seen the flare of interest in her eyes.
'In fact, I can give you the numbers of half the Melbourne female population who could verify exactly how great a date I am and'
'Half of Melbourne?' She snorted. 'Don't flatter yourself.'
Leaning into her personal space, he savoured her momentary flare of panic as she eased away.
'You're the one who wanted one-on-one time with me.' 'For an interview, you dolt.'
Ah so that was what this stunt was about. An out-of-work environmentalist after a job.
He had two words for her: hell, no. But against his better judgement he admired her sass. Most jobseekers would apply through an agency or harass his PA for an appointment. Not many would go through this much trouble.
He crooked his finger and she warily eased forward. 'Here's a tip. You want an interview? Don't go calling your prospective boss nasty names.'
'Dolt isn't nasty. If I wanted nasty I would've gone with bast'
His jaw ached with the effort not to laugh. If his employees had half the chutzpah this woman did Devlin Corp would be number one again in next to no time.
'What do you say? Give me fifteen minutes of your time and I'll ensure you won't regret it.'
She punctuated her plea with a toss of her shoulder-length blond hair and once again the tempting fragrance of spring outdoors washed over him.
He opened his mouth to refuse, to tell her exactly what he thought of her underhand tricks.
'I don't want to disrupt your Portsea project. I want to help you.'
She eyeballed him, her determination and boldness as attractive as the rest of her.
'In the marine environmental field, I'm the best there is.'
Worn down by her admirable persistence, he found himself nodding. 'Fifteen minutes.' 'Deal.'
Her triumphant grin turned sly. 'Now, if you don't mind fishing the key out of its hiding spot, I'll get out of your way.'
Her gaze dropped to her cleavage. Jeez, could this evening get any crazier? 'Uh okay.'
He'd reached a tentative hand towards her chest when she let out a howl of laughter that had him leaping backwards.
'Don't worry, I've got it.'
With a few deft flicks of her wrists she'd slipped out of her chains and kicked the ones around her ankles free. 'You set me up.'
He should have been angry, should have cancelled her interview on the spot. Instead he found himself watching her as she deftly wound the chains and stuffed them into a sparkly holdall she'd hidden under the table, wondering what she'd come up with next to surprise him.
'I didn't set you up so much as have a little fun at your expense.'
She patted his chest. 'I snuck a peek at you earlier in the ballroom and it looked like you could do with a little lightening up.'
Speechless, he wondered why he was putting up with her pushiness. He didn't take that from anyoneever.
She pressed a business card into his hand and the simple touch of her palm against his fired a jolt of awareness he hadn't expected or wanted.
'My details are all there. I'll call to set up that interview.'
She slung her bag over her shoulder, the rattle of chains a reminder of the outlandishness of this evening.
'Nice to meet you, Rory Devlin.'
With a crisp salute she sauntered out through the door, leaving him gobsmacked.