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"A job," Caitlin Taylor muttered for the hundredth time. She paused from straightening her silk stockings to roll her eyes upward with a wry grimace. "I hope you and God are having a good laugh, Dad. You certainly got the last one on me."
Her heart ached as it had all month, ever since her father had unexpectedly passed away from kidney failure.
It might have hurt a little less, she admitted, if he hadn't given away his fortune to everyone but his own daughter. Instead, he'd left her a job.
At least he'd done that. In her ice-blue satin lingerie, she faced the full-length mirror. Her reflection wavered as fear gripped her, but she had no illusions. Her naturally wavy blond bob, no matter how she combed it, made her look as if she'd just climbed out of bed. Her overly curvaceous body refused to be tamed by exercise. This morning, her deep brown eyes were heavy from lack of sleep, and already carefully accented with liner and mascara. She looked like a young, beautiful woman with the world at her fingertips.
If only it were true.
Caitlin gave a half laugh and shoved back the unaccustomed fear and panic.
She'd never held a job in her life. Her father had spoiled his only child. In all her twenty-four years, she had only a handful of memories of him, mostly due to his heavy traveling and prominent social schedule. Still, as her only family, he'd made sure her every material need had been met. Fashion had been her first love, and he'd given in to it. Milan, Paris, New York, Los Angeles she knew these places intimately; they were her playgrounds. She'd gone to designing school in Paris and New York, both on her father's bank account, but the truth was, she wasn't talented enough to make it in that cutthroat world. Since then she hadn't been idle-far from it, for organizing society events was a particular talent of hers, even if it didn't count as a job, or earn her money.
Her father had kept her in style, making sure she had a healthy monthly allowance deposited directly into her account.
That had stopped abruptly with his death, and grief had been forced to take a backseat to survival.
With every credit card her father had ever given her maxed out, less than one month's rent in her bank account and no more allowance, Caitlin faced serious trouble. Enough trouble, she'd finally admitted to herself, that she'd have to swallow her pride and take the poor-paying job she'd been left in her father's will.
"A clerical position," Caitlin said with another humorless laugh that didn't quite cover up her confusion and pain. "And me not knowing the difference between a fax machine and a scanner."
She walked to her brimming wall-length closet and sighed, knowing that by this time next month she would be living in some dismal little apartment. Bye-bye southernCalifornia beachfront condo. Again, her heart leaped at the betrayal of her father's abrupt desertion. Why? she wondered frantically. Why would her father indulge and spoil her all her life, then desert her this way? She didn't understand, but wallowing was getting her nowhere.
With effort, she shrugged into the devil-may-care persona she showed the world. What did one wear for a job that required an eight-o'clock showing? But while she dressed, her thoughts continually drifted back to the burning questions-why had her father pawned her off on some little subsidiary of what had once been a huge engineering conglomerate? A conglomerate split up by his will, all the pieces going to different investors who'd been his close friends.
Friends had rated higher than his own daughter.
Now Caitlin was slated to work for some pencil-laden, calculator-carrying engineer nerd named Joseph Brown-ley. Because he'd worked with her father for years, she imagined him as old, crusty, tough. Mean.
Shuddering, she slipped into what she hoped looked businesslike enough-a short red crepe de chine suit. The pumps she added gave her an extra three and a half inches, and some badly needed self-confidence. She wanted to look sophisticated. Polished. But while she seemed to be able to fool everyone else, she couldn't pull the wool over her own eyes. She looked flighty, ditzy and wild, which sent her back to the bathroom in another attempt to tame her hair with ruthless brush strokes and styling spritz.
She could do this. But for one weak moment, she sank to the bed. Could she? Could she do anything but organize parties for the rich and famous? And how hard would it really be to charge for those services?
Hard, she admitted.
So hard she'd rather do this work in an office.
But could she really survive on her own?
Swallowing back a sudden sob, Caitlin lifted her chin and forced a bright smile. Her knees trembled as she stood, but she stiffened them and lifted her chin. She had no place in her life for pathetic self-pity or fear, only determination.
The outfit didn't work.
Too showy, she decided with a hasty glance at her slim gold watch. She ripped off the suit to try again, tossing it carelessly aside. No telling what Mr. Brownley thought of tardiness, but if he fired her before she'd even started, she'd really be in trouble. And with her only true working talent being that she could navigate the mazed streets of any garment district blindfolded, who else in his right mind would hire her?
Coming to yet another abrupt halt in front of her mirror, she took a tough, no-holds-barred look at herself. Snug, cropped frost-blue sweater over a long, flowing flowery skirt. Heels, of course-she never went anywhere without heels. But too casual, darn it! She added a muted linen jacket and hoped for the best. As she ran to her car, huffing and puffing from the exertion of the morning, she grumbled about the unearthly hour.
God, she hated mornings.
She thrust her little BMW into gear, leaving her exclusive Newport Beach neighborhood hours before she normally even stirred from her bed. As she hit the packed 405 freeway, she realized her first mistake in allowing only thirty minutes to get from the beach to downtown Irvine. It seemed the entire population of southern California started work at the same time, and given that she was cut off three times before she even hit the first on-ramp, apparently everyone was just as irritable and late as she.
At the interchange, no one would let her over. Frustrated, she tried one of her flirtatious winks and got a very rude hand gesture.
Did normal people do this every day?
The thought made her shudder. Yes, she was sheltered, but she had friends who worked. No, she didn't, she reminded herself. Hadn't she learned that in the past few weeks, as one by one, her so-called friends had ditched her when the terms of her father's will became public?
She was alone, truly alone, for the first time in her entire existence.
And she was going to be very late. No big surprise, of course. Her father had always claimed she'd be late for her own funeral. She'd certainly been late for his, but that had been because the limo she'd counted on all her life had vanished. Repossessed. By the time she'd driven herself, she'd missed the entire service. She knew her father wouldn't have been surprised, but she had a feeling being late today was a luxury she couldn't afford.
This little bubble of stress sitting uncomfortably in her belly was new and entirely unwelcome. So was the apprehension about her future, and the lingering, gnawing wound of her father turning his back on her.
She came to a grinding halt in the fast lane, surrounded by thousands of other idling cars. Never one to obsess about anything, she couldn't believe she'd been doing just that all morning.
Shaking her head, she cranked up the music, sat back to wait out the traffic and cleared her mind.
Joe's fingers flew over the keyboard. Deep in concentration, he'd been working for hours, but he couldn't stop now. He was so close, so very close, to getting it right. "Joe."
Vaguely, he heard a female voice calling him, and just as vaguely, he knew it was Darla. He ignored her.
All those years, he'd had to work on hardware, designing computers for his bread and butter but no more. Now, with Edmund Taylor's generosity in death-Joe's heart squeezed at the reminder-he could work on his first love. Software. And he was inches away from perfecting the system he envisioned revolutionizing every office in the country.
Just another few minutes, he thought, stretching cramped legs that were far too long to be shoved beneath a desk for so many hours. A few more minutes and things might click into place. He could almost hear the big software companies knocking at his door. Bill Gates, eat your heart out.
Without taking his eyes off the keyboard, he growled, waving one hand wildly over his shoulder, his usual sign for Leave me the hell alone! With the ease only the hyper-focused can achieve, he sank back into his thoughts. Just put that command here instead of over there-
"I'm sorry, Joe."
"No problem," he murmured automatically, not looking up. Why had he chosen to work in the front office, instead of his own down the hall, which would have given him more privacy?
Because he'd been in a rush, that's why. Always in a rush. "Go away."
"Joe," said a now laughing Darla. "Could you please look at me?"
With a sigh, he straightened, biting back his impatience. He shoved his fingers through already unruly hair and took his gaze off the screen long enough to glare at the only person who would dare interrupt him. "What? What do you want?"
Darla smiled sweetly. "Lovely to see you, too."
"Great. Nice. Now go away." He'd already turned back to the computer when she spoke again.
"Joe, could you focus those baby blues this way for just another minute? Pretty please?"
"I'm really busy," he said evenly, through his teeth. His fingers itched to get back to the keyboard.
"This," he announced, "is why I need an assistant. To keep people out."
"You couldn't keep an assistant," Darla told him, gesturing to the cluttered office, which admittedly looked as though World War III had gone off in it. Papers were everywhere. So were books, files and an entire city of computer parts. "No one but those other crazy computer programmers you've got back there wants to work for a perfectionist, a workaholic, a technical-"
"Why are you here? Just tell me that much," he begged, resting his fingers on the keyboard and eyeing the screen longingly.
"Oh, wipe that frown off your pretty face-I'm not here to bug you for your tax info. Yet."
Darla's insulted scowl worked, and Joe laughed. As the only accountant in their small building, the tall, waiflike Italian beauty had taken on all of the other four businesses in the place, his included. Besides handling most of their bookkeeping, she dished out unwanted advice, unsolicited sisterly affection and more than a few good dirty jokes. "And what could be more important than tax stuff?" he teased, and resigned himself to a break.
"Not much." She grinned, too, making her look much younger than her thirty years. "But remember that assistant you were just mentioning? I think she's arrived. I saw her roaming around downstairs, scrutinizing the different suites and the business names on the front board as if she had no idea where she's going."
"I didn't hire an assistant."
"You told me Edmund wrote off his investment in this company, making it effectively yours-as long as you guaranteed his pathetically spoiled daughter a job."
"Yeah." Joe rubbed his hand over his chest at the twist of pain. Edmund, gone. Forever.
At the thought of Edmund's daughter, whom he'd never met, his usually receptive heart hardened. "She never even bothered to show up for her own father's funeral." He tried to remember what Edmund had told him about her. A flightly clotheshorse. A party girl. A world traveler- on her daddy's budget, of course.
Nothing particularly flattering.
"Whoever you saw couldn't be her," he stated. "A software company that has yet to prove itself has nothing to offer a socialite."
Darla shrugged. "Maybe not. But Marilyn Monroe's here." She sniffed and gave him a haughty glance that he had no trouble deciphering.
Joe wasn't ashamed to admit he'd had more than his fair share of women flit in and out of his life, and his good friend Darla had hated most of them. But nothing got her goat more than a blond bombshell. "She looks like Marilyn Monroe?" he asked, unable to contain his wide grin when Darla rolled her eyes. "Really?"
"Barbie meets Baywatch, actually," she snapped, making him laugh. Darla snorted in disgust. "What is it about that blond, wide-eyed, come-hither look that renders a man so stupid?"
"Ahh.a come-hither look?"
She glowered and straightened, her considerable height accentuating her thinness. "And she's got huge-"
"Darla," he said, still grinning as he cut her off. "She's not looking for me-she couldn't be. No way would Edmund's daughter show up." He hadn't read all of Edmund's book-length will, hadn't been able to bring himself to even open the five-inch-thick file that had been sent to him by Edmund's attorney, but he imagined Caitlin Taylor had gotten a very nice chunk of change. She'd have no need for a job.
He glanced at his watch. "And anyway, it's ten o'clock. What kind of an assistant would start work this late?" He happily gave his computer his full attention. "Now go away and let me be."
"Okay.but you asked for it."
Breathing a sigh of relief when she was gone, Joe looked at his screen with anticipation. Now he'd get some work done.
He'd simply kill the next person who interrupted him, he decided, and promptly forgot about everything except what he was doing.
In the back of his mind whirled the vision of his program up and running. And for once, thanks to Edmund, that dream was obtainable.
Not again! He needed a weapon. Yeah, that was it. A squirt gun, maybe, or a-"Excuse me."
"If the place isn't burning down," he growled, "then I don't-" Out of the corner of his eye, he saw her; words vanished from his brain. She was petite, luscious and one of the most beautiful women he'd ever seen. She smiled and his tongue actually went dry.
"Hi," she said, wiggling her fingers at him.
Trailing behind her, gawking with their collective mouths hanging open, were Vince, Andy and Tim, his three techs. At the moment, they resembled Larry, Curly and Moe. He sent them looks loaded with daggers, and they slunk back, closing the door behind him.
"I'm looking for Mr. Brownley," the exotic creature said in a sweet, musical voice. "I'm Caitlin Taylor."
Caitlin Taylor. Professional socialite. Ditzy, spoiled princess. his new assistant.
An imaginary noose settled around his neck. He liked gorgeous women as much as the next guy-maybe even more-but no way could he work with one, especially one with the lifestyle and attitude this one was reputed to have. He couldn't respect someone who didn't know what tough work meant, or the value of a hard-earned dollar, and Joe never worked with anyone he didn't one hundred percent respect. Never.
"This is CompuSoft, Inc., isn't it?" Her voice could arouse the dead, and Joe wasn't, unfortunately, dead. "I checked the suite number downstairs," she said. "You must be the receptionist."
He groaned inwardly and stood up from the front desk. Never again, he promised himself. He'd work from the seclusion of his own office from now on.
She flashed another dazzling smile, leveling him with a pair of warm, dreamy brown eyes so deep he felt like swimming. "My father-"
Shit. Her father. His own mentor, beloved friend, father figure. Edmund Taylor had meant everything to him, and Joe had made him a promise. The noose tightened. "Your father told me about you," he managed to say around the month-old lump in his throat.
"He did?" She seemed surprised. "So you know I'll be working here?"
Joe nodded, wondering what to do. He'd never broken a promise and he didn't want to start now, especially not when it came to Edmund, but he had absolutely no use for this woman in his company. None at all.
"Maybe you can tell me something about this place. About the boss," she added with another sweet smile as she moved gracefully into the room. Her skirt flowed around her ankles, clung to her thighs. The light blazer she wore parted in the middle, revealing her sweater, snugged tight over her soft, perfect curves.
In any other situation, Joe knew he'd be flashing his most charming smile and already be deeply into flirt mode. This sort of woman was made for seduction, and while he didn't want to employ one, he loved the interplay.