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"Got some bad news, boss."
Clay Forrester looked up as his assistant ducked beneath the painter's scaffolding and played hopscotch over the electrical cords crisscrossing his office. Wallpaper swatches hung from a wall streaked with paint samples. Drop cloths protected his leather couch and chairs, but a fine layer of construction dust covered his mahogany desk. "What is it, Marie?"
Marie Cirillo opened her mouth just as the electrician started a high-powered drill. For a brief moment, the earsplitting electrical squeal seemed to emanate from his assistant. Clay choked back a laugh as she shot the construction worker an exasperated look.
The drilling stopped, and Clay asked, "Has anyone ever told you thatyou have apromising future as a ventriloquist's dummy?"
"You know, walking in here, I felt bad having to tell you this, but I'm feeling better about it now." She smirked. "Doug Frankle's sick."
His smile faded. "Our office Christmas party is in less than two hours, and our Santa is sick?"
The company party was being held two weeks before the holiday so it wouldn't interfere with family gatherings and vacations. The event was the culmination of a long, difficult year, and Clay was determined nothing would go wrong.
"Tell me we have a backup," he pleaded.
"His wife dropped off the costume if you want to substitute," Marie offered, with a cheeky grin.
Unfolding his six-foot frame from his leather chair, he ran a frustrated hand through his hair. "Do I look like a fat old man with a beard?"
"If Christmas was for the naughty instead of the nice, you're exactly what Santa Claus would look like."
"Very funny." Pulling out his wallet, Clay tossed two one-hundred-dollar bills onto his desk. "Go steal some supermarket Santa."
"You dare to bribe St. Nick?" Marie gasped in mock horror.
"Why not? Good ole St. Nick has been putting the thumbscrews to overworked parents for years. Accepting a bribe would be a step up from consumer extortion and emotional blackmail."
"You know, for a guy about to host a holiday party, you don't sound very festive." As the electrician left the office, mumbling something about splitters, she added, "You really haven't been yourself since" She shut her mouth so quickly, her teeth clinked together. That his outspoken assistant even tried to curb her tongue was proof of her worry.
"Since my father died," he filled in for her. "You can say it, Marie."
She stepped closer. "You've changed, Clay. Back when your father was running the company"
"He's not running the company anymore. I am."
Marie drew back slightly. "That's right. And you're doing a damn good job. So don't you think it's time you start living in the present again?"
"What do you think I've been doing?"
"You're locked on the future and where you want the company to go, as if you can erase where it's been."
Clay flinched at the reminder of where the company had beenheld tight within his father's hands. Only after Michael Forrester passed away had Clay realized how ruthless and relentless those hands could be.
"This is business, son," his father had once explained. "And business is all about the bottom line."
Growing up, Clay had accepted that statement, the same way he'd accepted that his father often missed the big game or the science fair, phoning in an excuse and leaving Clay and his sister to pretend to understand. It was business, after all, and business came first.
But not to everyone, Clay thought grimly as he recalled a confrontation several weeks after his father passed away. He'd been leaving for the day when an older man wearing a beat-up trench coat stopped him in the lobby. Taking one look at the man's bloodshot eyes and unkempt hair, Clay had assumed some bum had wandered in from the streets. Until the man called him by name.
"Where are your promises now, Forrester?" the man had demanded. "All the lies my grandchildren were foolish enough to believe about how you would 'turn the company around'? With a little more time, the loan would have come through, and I would have turned it around. But thanks to you, I never got the chance. You went behind my back, bought out the company from my own family and sold it off piece by piece until there was nothing left. Nothing." His voice had broken on the word, and he'd pushed past Clay to rush out onto the sidewalk.
He hadn't tried to stop the man, hadn't said a thing. What was there to say? That time wouldn't have made a difference?
That no bank would give a struggling company a loan? That his father had been the one to decimate the man's business?
It was only later, on the long drive home, that Clay realized that he had no idea who the man was. That his business could have been any one of dozens.
Slowly, he was reversing the company's philosophy, from tearing down troubled companies to building them back up. His first move had been to give Kevin Hendrix, the CEO of Hendrix Properties, some practical business advice and infuse the company with capital, saving it from certain bankruptcy and assuring them both an impressive profit. He'd built on that success, certain he could change the company and his father's legacy.
"I'm trying to do what's right," Clay finally said to Marie. "And in case you've missed it, not everyone agrees."
Marie waved aside his comment. "Albert Jensen thinks only the bottom line counts."
Clay's smile twisted. "He wasn't my father's right-hand man for nothing." And while he didn't give a damn what Jensen thought, Clay couldn't escape the knowledge that his father would have disapproved.
Shaking off the dark thoughts, he said, "Look, no more business tonight. We've got a Christmas party to save. Go find someone to play Santa, and I promise to enjoy myself at the party."
"Sorry, Tiny Tim, but no can do," she responded.
"Oh, come on!" he exclaimed. "Don't tell me I've insulted your Christmas spirit."
Marie laughed. "Not quite. The caterers called. Their delivery truck broke down. I've got two dozen red-and-green cheesecakes to pick up."
"So it's a toss up between Santa and dessert?"
"Exactly. And I'm saving the cheesecake." She tossed the words over her shoulder as she strode from the office. "See you tonight." And then, as if to assure them both all was forgiven, she turned back, with a challenging glance. "And it better be in a red velvet suit."
You've changed, Clay. The accusation echoed in his mind long after Marie left. It was the same one Victoria had hurled at him the night she stormed out of their apartmentand out of their marriage.
She'd been furious that he'd missed some party. "I was working," he'd argued, the excuse uneasily familiar. And even though he and Victoria had lived like strangers for the last months of their relationship, at one time she'd known him very well. Well enough to make sure her pointed comments hit their mark.
"For a man so determined not to walk in his father's shoes, you're covering some well-worn ground."
As much as Clay wanted to argue, the proof was therein the forgotten parties, the late dinners, the missed holidays.
Ever since the divorce, he'd kept his life simple, with no one to disappoint, no one to let down. No one
The office door opened again, interrupting his thoughts. The electrician reentered, toolbox and several wires in hand. "Sorry to disturb you, Mr. Forrester."
The office remodeling had taken so long, Clay had grown accustomed to the ever-present construction workers. With a sigh of frustration, he asked, "I don't suppose you know where I can find a Santa Claus?" Hearing how stupid he sounded, he vowed he would fire the electrician on the spot if the man said "The North Pole."
Setting his toolbox on the floor, the man said, "There's been a Santa in the lobby all week. In front of that flower shop."
"You're kidding." Clay walked by the flower shop on his way to the elevator every day. How had he missed a fat man in a velvet suit? Maybe Marie was right. He had focused too much on work lately. He glanced at his watch. Floral Fascinations closed at six. He still had a few minutes. "Thanks for the tip." Grabbing his jacket from the back of his chair, he said, "Are you almost finished for today?"
"I'll be done in a few minutes." A shower of sparks flared from the Christmas-colored wires. Clay shook his head and left his office, with the man's curses following him out the door.
The reception area was empty. Marie was already en route to rescue the stranded cheesecakes. A small stack of files lined the edge of her otherwise bare desk. For all her teasing remarks, she was an amazing assistant. He couldn't have managed this last year without her. No doubt the files were ones he needed first thing Monday morning.
As Clay stepped inside the elevator car, he vowed to put work aside. He needed a night to relax, and the party promised to be a good time. He'd invited the employees to the elegant Lakeshore Plaza Hotel ballroom. He had caterers and a band lined up, gifts to raffle. All he needed was a substitute Santa.
Moments later, the elevator bell chimed, and the doors slid open to reveal the elegant gray and white marble lobby. Green garlands trailed down either side of the black granite water feature. Red bows and mistletoe decorated the floor-to-ceiling marble columns. Piped-in music played Christmas carols.
And, sure enough, a red-suited St. Nick stood outside the flower shop. After a quick greeting, Clay cut to the bottom line. "I have a holiday party tonight and a sick Santa. How about a hundred dollars to fill in?"
He pulled the money from his wallet and watched the man's eyes widen above his snowy beard. Looking far more greedy than jolly, the man protested, "I already got another gig lined up."
Recognizing the negotiating tactic, Clay pulled a second bill from his wallet. "Does it pay two hundred dollars and include a meal catered by one of Chicago's finest restaurants?"
Santa snatched the money from Clay's hand.
Holly Bainbridge flipped the hanging sign to Closed, slipped out of the flower shop, and locked the door behind her. Six o'clock. She had a half an hour to get to the foster home. Pocketing the keys, she turned and was surprised to see Clay Forrester talking to the storefront Santa.
Working in the same building as Forrester Industries, even if it was thirty some floors below his skyscraping offices, Holly knew his company's reputation as an avaricious giant, gobbling up small businesses. And she'd seen for herself how ruthless Clay Forrester could be. Months ago, she'd watched, unnoticed, as he stared down some poor old man whose company he had destroyed. Forrester hadn't bothered to say a single word; his featuresand his heartcould have been carved from the same stone that filled the lobby.
Holly had dealt with that kind of ruthlessness before, with the kind of hardball businessmen who cared more about turning a profit than turning foster children out of their home. Fury filled her, but Holly buried the useless emotion and the ache of tears that accompanied it.
She watched Forrester hand the Santa a piece of paper. Was he donating to charity? Perhaps the holiday spirit had the power to touch even the most cynical hearts. Forrester smiled, but the twitch of his lips reflected the look of a man who accepted victory as his due.
Holly waited until he strode away before approaching. "We'll have to hurry to get there on time, Charlie," she told the costumed Santa.
A bad feeling crept into her stomach the second he glanced toward Clay Forrester's departing figure. "Uh, Miss Bainbridge, something's come up. I've got another party to go to."
She couldn't believe it. "I have half a dozen kids waiting for Santa, and you're going to disappoint them?"
"Sorry, Miss Bainbridge."
Sorry. People always said they were sorry. But apologies didn't make heartaches heal any faster or hurt any less. She had promised the foster kids at Hopewell House a Santa, and she was not going to disappoint them! Especially this year, when the group home would soon be closing its doors for good.
Determined, Holly marched toward the elevators where Clay Forrester stood waiting. A bell chimed, and the gilded mirrored doors slid open. The rapid tattoo of her boots striking the marble floors increased as she ran toward the elevator. She squeezed through the doors, with inches to spare.
He glanced at her with a touch of curiosity as the elevator rose. Holly had seen the handsome businessman before; a woman would have to be blind not to notice six feet of black-haired, blue-eyed perfection. But she'd never had the chance to study him up close. Never noticed the straight, serious eyebrows, the stubborn jaw, his sculpted, sensuous mouth
"Mr. Forrester " Flustered by the huskiness in her voice, Holly stopped speaking.
He looked again, charting a course from the top of her dark hair, to her sweater and jeans, to her ankle boots. By the time his lingering gaze made its way back to hers, curiosity had turned to interest, and somehow the elevator reached high enough altitude to steal the breath from Holly's lungs.
"I'm sorry. Do I know you?"
It should have put her at an advantage, knowing who he was when he didn't know her. Instead, Holly felt insignificant. "Holly Bainbridge. I work at the flower shop, and you stole my Santa."
She flushed. If only he weren't so darn good-looking, maybe she could complete an intelligent sentence. "Charlie promised me he would make an appearance tonight."
"He did mention another job, but"
His words cut off as the elevator jerked to an abrupt halt. Holly gasped, losing her balance and falling against Clay. He caught her body with his as the elevator went dark. She couldn't see a thing.
But she could feel. Oh, yes, she could feel. The imprint of each finger grasping her upper arms. The slight catch in his breath as her breasts grazed his chest, the quickening of his heartbeat. His rock-solid chest beneath her hands. And his belt buckle, hard and cold against her stomach, a sharp contrast to the rest of him, which was definitely hard and warm.
Awareness skittered along nerve endings, and her own heart beat double time, nearly drowning out the sound of their combined breathing.
"What happened?" she asked when she found her voice.
Holly felt the slight shaking of his chest a split second before laughter filled the small space. Jerking away, she demanded, "What's so funny?"
"I've got the Three Stooges remodeling my office, and my guess is that Larry just blew a fuse."
Adrift in the darkness, without his touch to anchor her, she reached back for the elevator wall. "The building's lost power?"
"With the luck I've had recently," he said wryly, "all Chicago's probably lost power."
A faint electronic hum punctuated his words, and after a tense moment hanging in space, the car resumed its ascent. Giving a sigh of relief, Holly closed her eyes and sank against the side of the car.
"Are you okay?"