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Multi -colored lights winked at Sebastian Case, enticing him to come try his luck. He ignored the electronic clatter of slot machines as they chimed, beeped and sang of fortunes won and lost. Gambling didn't appeal to him. He believed in hard work and perseverance, not chance.
A couple in their sixties halted in front of him, forcing Sebastian to slow. The wife insisted the buffet was to their left. The husband assured her they'd missed the turn near the keno area. Both were wrong.
Before he could circle past, the woman spied him.
"There's someone who can help us." Her bright-red lips parted in a cheerful smile. "Hello " She scrutinized his chest, where a name tag might be. "Young man. We love your hotel, but it's very confusing. Can you direct us to the buffet?"
She'd mistaken him for a hotel employee. Not surprising. He was probably the only person in the casino wearing a business suit who didn't work there.
"If you angle to the right, you'll see it." He pointed in the direction they needed to go.
"I told you." The woman shot her husband a smug look, dead wrong but taking credit anyway. "Thank you."
With a nod, Sebastian resumed walking toward the bank of elevators that would sweep him to his fifteenth-floor suite. Missy better be there. While he'd been on a conference call with their lawyers, going over last-minute changes to the contract for the purchase of Smythe Industries, she'd pulled a vanishing act. That had been almost six hours ago.
Concern buzzed. He'd left three messages on her voice mail and sent her four or five emails. Not a single response. Assistants didn't come any more efficient or reliable than Missy. Should he be worried that she'd gotten into trouble?
Noisy, crowded, chaotic Las Vegas lured tourists with over-the-top promises of adventure and spit them out with blurry memories and empty pockets. Had Missy fallen prey? Her small-town upbringing in west Texas couldn't have prepared her for such dangers. Was she somewhere in the maze of slot machines, pouring her paycheck into one? Or perhaps she'd left the hotel and been accosted on the street.
A cheer went up from the craps tables on his right. If his BlackBerry hadn't been set to vibrate, he never would have known he'd received an email. Slowing his pace, he pulled the handheld out of his coat pocket. Missy had finally responded. The two-word subject line stopped him cold.
He stared at the concise note in disbelief. Missy was quitting? Impossible.
His executive assistant had been with him for four years. They were a team. If she were unhappy, he'd know it.
Sebastian dialed Missy. After four rings he was directed to her voice mail.
Without waiting to see if she would, he shot her a terse text message demanding her location. Thirty seconds later, he received a response.
The bar. Which bar?
He gnashed his teeth during an even longer pause.
He pulled up a mental image of the casino's layout and turned to his left. A five-minute hike brought him to the bar. Red walls, black-lacquer accents and Asian-inspired art gave Sebastian the feeling he'd been transported halfway around the world. Enormous fish tanks lined the wall and provided most of the room's light. Twelve-inch koi drifted through the clear water as Sebastian strode into the room, scanning the occupied tables for his assistant. A redhead at the bar derailed his search.
She faced the bartender, gesturing as they conversed. With her back to him, Sebastian couldn't hear her laugh but suspected it would be husky and intimate, a siren sound that lured men into her sensual web. She sat with her long legs hitched to one side, her modest hemline offering a view of slender calves and delicate ankles.
Even without seeing her face, he was hooked.
Her allure was so potent he'd taken half a dozen steps in her direction before he recalled why he'd come here. A quick survey of the room assured him that Missy didn't occupy any of the small round tables. He would deal with her later.
First, he needed to meet the redhead at the bar.
"No, no. Really. He did that?"
Sebastian was close enough to recognize the redhead's voice. Shock vibrated through him. "Missy?"
His assistant turned her head and peered up at him through a screen of long, dark lashes. If it had been another woman, he would have described the action as flirtatious. But this was Missy.
"Hello, Sebastian." Her voice rasped along his nerves like nails dragged over bare skin. She pivoted the stool a quarter turn and gestured at the empty seat beside her. "Joe, get my boss a shot of Patron."
Sebastian sank onto the stool, unable to believe what he was seeing.
Where were her glasses? Her eyes, the rich hazel of a mossy grotto, watched him with open curiosity, waiting for him to say or do something.
"What's with your email?" he demanded, struggling to pull free of the whirlpool of attraction he'd been sucked into. "You picked a hell of a time to quit."
She nudged the shot glass toward him. "There's never going to be a good time."
He swallowed the tequila without tasting it. The alcohol's burn was a mild discomfort compared to the inferno raging elsewhere in his body.
At some point in the six hours since they'd gotten off the plane, she'd freed her lush, auburn hair from its long thick braid and cut off twelve inches. The shorter style waved and cascaded over her shoulders like Chinese silk. Had it always been that vibrant and alive? His fingers itched to comb through the cinnamon ripples and wrap the long strands around his hands. He could almost feel the sensual caress against his skin.
His gaze traveled downward. She'd traded her amorphous pantsuits for a figure-hugging dress that framed and flaunted the creamy curves of her breasts. Had her skin always been this pale, this flawless? Or did it just appear that way in contrast to the black of the dress?
And speaking of skin. Had he ever seen her bare this much?
The Missy he knew was modest and reserved. The woman occupying the stool beside him reveled in her sensuality. Sebastian shook his head. "What did you say?"
"I said it's your turn." His turn. His turn to what?
The valley between her breasts called to him. He imagined plunging forward and burying his face in her cleavage. To arouse her with lips and tongue. To suck one nipple after another into his mouth until she wept for joy.
The intensity of the urge shocked him. He hauled a steadying breath into his lungs. Her seductive scent infiltrated his senses and fogged his brain.
"What?" He wrenched his gaze from her stunning cleavage and blinked to refocus his thoughts.
"Is something wrong?" Her lips curved in a way both mysterious and feminine. As if she knew exactly what he was thinking. And liked it.
What had happened to the levelheaded, professional girl he'd come to rely on these last four years? Maybe bringing her to Las Vegas hadn't been such a good idea.
"No. I'm fine." What the hell was wrong with him? He couldn't seem to think straight. He peered at the empty shot glass. Had he been drugged? "What were we talking about?"
Her words slapped him out of the sensual daze. His brain cleared. Heat receded. Or perhaps retreated was a better word. "What do you want? More money. Or are you after a better title?"
"I want to get married. Have babies."
More shocking revelations. She'd always struck him as a career girl. His entire image of her consisted of the efficiency and dedication she exhibited within the walls of Case Consolidated Holdings' offices. Sure, it made sense that she'd have a personal life that involved friends and lovers, but it had never occurred to him that she did.
"You don't need to quit your job to do that."
"Oh, but I do."
"Are you trying to tell me I'm keeping you from getting married and having kids?"
"Yes." Her long lashes fell over whatever she didn't want him to read in her eyes. "How?"
Sebastian signaled the bartender for another tequila, shaking his head when the man glanced at Missy's drink. How much alcohol had she consumed? Her clear gaze didn't suggest intoxication. But what else could explain her rash decision to resign?
"You keep me working late most nights," she began. "You call me at all hours to make changes in your travel arrangements or to pull together conference calls. How many times have I worked through the weekend making last-minute changes to whatever presentation I'd spent the entire week creating for you?"
Was she trying to say he expected too much? Maybe he'd come to rely on her more and more the longer they worked together, but he liked knowing he could call on her whenever and wherever he needed her help.
"You never take a break," she complained, finishing the last of her pink-tinged drink. "And you never give me one."
"I promise not to interfere with your weekends anymore."
"It's not just my weekends. It's making your doctor appointments and getting your car serviced. It's dealing with the contractors remodeling your house and choosing the tile, color scheme, fixtures. It's your house. You should be making those decisions."
They'd had this discussion before. "I respect your taste."
"I know, but decorating a house is something your wife should do."
"I don't have a wife."
"Not yet." She regarded him in obvious frustration. "Your mother said things are heating up between you and Kaitlyn Murray."
"I wouldn't say heating up."
Although it annoyed him that she and his mother had discussed his personal life, he had no right to complain. He'd been the first to step across the line when he'd made requests of Missy outside her duties as his executive assistant. It was just easier to have her take care of his needs both professionally and personally.
"You've been seeing her for six months," Missy continued. "Your mother said that's the longest you've dated anyone since "
She trailed off.
Since his divorce six years earlier.
Sebastian wasn't opposed to remarrying. He might have done so years ago if his ex-wife hadn't trampled his ability to trust. Chandra's antics hadn't just dented his domestic side. She'd turned him into a remote bastard with no interest in developing romantic entanglements.
Unfortunately for the women in his life, he'd tended to focus his attention on something he could controlmaking money. Growing Case Consolidated Holdings.
"Okay. I won't ask you to do any more personal stuff." He would eliminate one excuse after another until she ran out of reasons to leave him. "Does that about cover it?"
Her hazel eyes became polished jasper. "Nothing you can say or do is going to change my mind, Sebastian. I'm quitting. Effective as soon as this week is over."
"You gave me a two-week notice."
"You can have four for all I care. I have at least that much vacation banked." She caught the bartender's eye and pointed to her drink.
"Don't you think you've had enough?"
He clasped her hand and lowered it. Contact with her skin had caused a startling revelation. He wanted her in ways that were primitive and defied rational thought. What was wrong with him? This was Missy. They'd worked side by side for four years with no sizzle, no fireworks. No craving to spend hours lost in sensual exploration.
She was his employee and as such, he was responsible for her. Only he wasn't thinking responsibly. He wasn't thinking at all. He was feeling. Hot. Intense. Sexual.
"You aren't my father," she said, sliding her hand free. "Stop telling me what to do."
He rubbed his thumb over his fingertips but couldn't eradicate the way her softness lingered on his senses. "This isn't like you."
"It isn't like the old me." She chugged half the drink the bartender set in front of her before continuing. "Do you know what today is?"
"April fifth. The leadership summit starts tomorrow evening." The annual week-long event brought together the executives of the dozen companies Case Consolidated Holdings owned. It was a chance to talk strategy for the future and facilitate a cohesive, global outlook among what were individually run companies.
"It's my birthday."
Sebastian winced. He'd forgotten again. Usually a card got passed around the office that he'd sign and there would be crepe paper and balloons decorating her desk to remind him to wish her a happy birthday. But he'd been preoccupied with the summit and the last-minute details for his motivational opening speech. What a poor leader he was if he couldn't even remember the birthday of the second most important woman in his life.
"Did I get you something nice?"
She threw her arms wide and gestured down her body. "A day of pampering in the spa and a total makeover."
"I have excellent taste," he said, his smile rueful. "You're the most beautiful woman in the bar." It probably wasn't the best comparison in the world because men occupied most of the chairs. The few women he noted were older and downright frumpy.
Her eyes narrowed. "Gee, thanks. Knowing that I'm hotter than a bunch of grandmothers is a huge boost to my confidence."
Regret pinched him. He could do better than that. She deserved better from him. It was her birthday, after all. But the only way he could think of to show her how gorgeous she was involved taking her upstairs to his suite and peeling off her very sexy dress.
He took another kick to the groin. The residual ache made him frown. He was speeding down a dangerous path. Whatever had awakened a latent fire inside her, turning her into a seductress capable of ripping out a man's heart, was having a detrimental effect on his self-control.
"No, really," he assured her. "You look incredible."
"Incredible, incredible?" she demanded, seeking clarity as she often had to do with him. "Or incredible for thirty?"
Ah, a milestone number. No wonder she'd freaked out. She was facing another decade. That was especially difficult for a woman with a ticking clock.
She pulled a face at him. "You probably think I'm overreacting to the whole turning-thirty thing." She paused so he could inject a comment, but Sebastian held his peace. "It's just that I always figured I'd get married at twenty-eight. Seemed perfect, you know? I'd have enough time for a career. Travel the world. Sow some wild oats. Make some mistakes."
He couldn't picture Missy doing any of those things. She liked going to movies. Knitted prayer shawls for her church. Rescued cats and fostered them out. If any woman seemed doomed to stay close to home and live a quiet life, it would be Missy.
But that was before she turned up tonight looking like sin, smelling like heaven, and tasting like.?
He leaned forward and brushed his lips across her cheek. Tasting like perfection.