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Lucy Sutton disliked first days.
Standing before the half-open door leading to her new boss's office, Lucy admitted to herself that in truth she hated first days. As family legend had it, she'd hidden at the back of her closet on the first day of kindergarten. While that wasn't clear in her memory, she could recall in vivid detail the first day of high school, the way the tag on her new shirt scratched the back of her neck, how she'd scratched at her nerve-induced hives. The worst, however, was the first day of a new job. Without a mother's hand to hold or a gaggle of girlfriends with whom to get through the hours, that initial eight-to-five at a new place of employment could be excruciating.
Which didn't help explain why Lucy had put herself through quite a few of those new days since graduating from college with an accounting degree three years before.
Swallowing to ease her dry mouth, she reminded herself that despite how her employers had liked her and her work, each of those three number-crunching jobs had not been quite right for her. Still, she knew that more than one of her relatives thought it was Lucy who wasn't right for successful employment. That was family legend, too, that Lucy, nicknamed "Lucy Goosey" thanks to one of her ultraperfect elder siblings, was just too flighty and too fluffy to take anything seriouslyor to be taken seriously by anyone.
Worst of all, though, was how legends like those had an uncomfortable way of becoming fact.
"Not that legend," Lucy murmured to herself, steeling her spine and scratching at a rising bump on her left wrist. "This time I'm going to show every other Sutton that I'm as capable as they are." This job would be different.
Even though it was only temporary secretarial work, she'd stick with it and succeed. Then she'd move on to finding the very best place for herself and her accounting skills. The right position was out there and this was her stepping stone to it.
Her gaze slid over to the nameplate on the wall beside her new boss's office door. Carlo Milano. She had something to prove regarding him, too.
Specifically, that she was over him.
Taking a deep breath, she rapped gently on the grained wood.
"Come in," a man's voice called out.
Lucy found herself hesitating, and instead of moving forward she thought back to the last time she'd seen Carlo. It had been at a big do a couple of years before at her sister, Elise's, home. He'd been making one of his rare appearances, leaning his rangy, six-foot-two body against a wall in a corner of the kitchen, dressed casually in jeans and a button-down shirt. Yet he'd looked anything but casual, his incredible face serious and leaner than ever, as if any soft and approachable thing about him had been pared away.
Pared away by heartaches she knew he wouldn't speak of.
Oh, she'd attempted to lighten his mood that night. Nobody ever said Lucy wasn't one to bring fun to a party. But after trying to get a laughshe would have settled for a smile!out of him with an amusing story about an old roommate, Carlo had merely shaken his head.
"Goose," he'd said gentlyyes, he'd actually called her Goose"Use your pretty smiles and your charming wiles on someone who'll appreciate them."
Then Carlo had drawn his knuckle down the side of her suddenly heating cheek. In response, and on impulseanother of her weaknesses according to family loreLucy had risen to tiptoe and tried one last thing to give Carlo a little jolt of life by brushing her mouth against his.
Seven hundred and thirty-four nights had passed since then, and her lips still burned at the memory.
Her pride still smoldered around the edges, toobecause within seconds Carlo had pushed her away and left his corner
never to be seen by her again.
"I said 'come in.'" Carlo's almost impatient-sounding voice interrupted her reverie.
Showtime, she thought, and with one last stroke of right-hand fingernails against her itchy left wrist, Lucy walked into the office.
Her breath caught.
Carlo's massive desk stood in front of her, the leather chair behind it empty, but the wall behind thatah, that was really something, a whole expanse of glass that revealed a spectacular view of San Diego Bay. It looked like a huge, ten-by-twenty-foot postcard, in which Crayola sky-blue met grayer-blue waters dotted with sailboats and motorboats and yachts. The watercrafts' movement created frothy, egg-white trails across the Pacific's surface and was the only proof they were actually moving and not just part of a lifelike painting titled Stupendous Southern California.
It was a multimillion-dollar view that made clear to Lucy that Carlo Milano, longtime family friend and former cop, had struck gold in his high-priced and highly regarded events security business. Obviously he was busy enough to need her to fill in for his secretary for the next three weeks. The man who was her newalbeit temporaryboss had done well for himself.
But where was the man who was now her boss?
From the corner of her eye she caught movement at the far end of the room, beyond a spacious seating area that included a love seat, coffee table, two chairs and a built-in bar. A man in a dark jacket was standing there, his back half-turned to Lucy, his attention on a woman in an exquisite, powder-blue suit with matching sling backs. Shiny, pin-straight hair fell in a bright chestnut waterfall toward her waist.
The nape of Lucy's neck burned and new hives popped out on her arms. Her hand reached up to finger the ends of her own wheat-colored, wavy hair. In her beige heels, khaki skirt and plain white blouse, she'd never felt so, well
And so like a third wheel. The pointy toes of Little Blue Suit's little blue shoes were just inches from the toes of Carlo's cordovan loafers, and the beautiful woman looked one breath away from latching on to his mouth.
What should Lucy do now? Interrupt the moment?
Surely not. Surely it would be better to backpedal out of the office. A woman who wantedno, neededto succeed at this job should go back to her desk. A woman who neededand yes, wantedto prove to herself she was over her unrequited crush on her boss should do nothing to bar the man from getting lucky.
Or from Carlo getting kissed. She should be happy for him as she snuck away. That's what a grown-up, dignified, over-the-infatuation woman would do.
Grown-up, dignified, over-the-infatuation Lucy heard her throat clear. Not too loudly. But loud enough that her presence couldn't be avoided or ignored.
Argh. How could she have done something so intrusive? Now Carlo wasn't going to be pleased. Now she wasn't feeling the least bit adult and dignified during her first moments on the first day of this new job. And then she heard herself make that attention-demanding, throat-clearing sound again.
Carlo's head turned. He looked her way. "Hey."
Lucy's heart wobbled. There it was, that handsome face she'd never forgotten, those dark eyes taking her in. She couldn't read their expression. Displeasure? Or was that relief?
She wiggled her fingers in return greeting. "Hey." She hoped she looked more together than she felt. Dignified, remember? Adult. But
Carlo about to be kissed by someone else! Did her weird reaction to that show on her face? "I'm sorry, but you, um, you told me to come in and
"No problem." He was moving away from the woman in the teensy suit. Her expression was annoyed, but Carlo didn't appear to be the least affected, let alone angry that Lucy had interrupted his t te- -t te. If a kiss had been in the offing, he didn't seem worried about the missed opportunity.
Her spirits lifted a little. Maybe this particular first day wasn't going to be too bad, despite her fears. As a matter of fact, Carlo did look somewhat pleased as he came toward her. See? It was all good. He didn't appear aware of that little crush she'd once had on him. He may not even recall that impulsive lip-lock she'd laid on him herself two years ago.
Though his nonreaction at the time had only added to her embarrassment, now she was grateful that he seemed to have forgotten it. Yes, in his eyes at this minute she must appear dignified, not to mention all of her twenty-five grown-up years. She took his attitude as an omen for her upcoming job success.
"Damn," he said as he came to a stop in front of her.
His long arm reached out to muss her hair the way an uncle would do to a favored young niece. "Long time no see, Goose."
Apparently if she hadn't interrupted a smooch between Carlo and Little Blue Suit, it would have been a kiss-off kind of kiss, anyway. At least that's what he intimated to Lucy"Please, Carlo, no one calls me Goose anymore," she'd said firmlywhen, after ushering his chestnut-haired guest from the office, his first request as her brand-new boss was to ask her to send two dozen roses to the lady who'd just departed. Recipient: a Ms. Tamara Maxwell. Message line: It wasn't you, it was me.
He didn't quite meet her eyes when he imparted that interesting nugget, but muttered as he turned back to his office, "Look, we only went out a few times and she didn't get it. I don't do the couple thing."
Lucy got it. She'd always gotten it, though the knowledge had never seemed to cool the particular thing she had for Carlo. Besides the paycheck, putting out that fire for good had been the most pressing reason to accept the job at his company.
When she'd moved back to San Diego, her dad, who was old friends with Carlo's dad, suggested she fill the temporary position at McMillan&Milano before she started a serious search for an accounting position in town. It was supposed to be a favor to Carlo, but it worked for Lucy, too. Moving back to California from Arizona had left her strapped for cash, and acting as his secretary would solve another lingering problem.
The way she figured it, three weeks at McMillan&Milano would finally, for-once-and-for-all, extinguish what she'd always felt for him.
Heck, she decided, watching him walk away from her without a second glance and remembering how easily her humiliatingly juvenile nickname had tripped off his tongue, by quitting time today her libido should finally have heard the message. There was no hope. Carlo would never look at her with the kind of heat a man should hold for a woman.
The idea didn't depress her in the least.
So she went about her duties, finding this office not so different from any otherincluding walking into the break room in the late afternoon to find the water cooler drained desert-dry. Stacked on the floor beside it were several full, capped bottles.
"'Water, water, everywhere, but not a drop to drink,'" Lucy murmured, paraphrasing Coleridge to the empty room. She hadn't just crunched numbers at school. Shaking her head, she pushed up the cuffs of her sleeves. Even though she wasn't the one who'd tapped the last of the liquid, everyone knew first-day employees couldn't leave the rest of the staff waterless.
No matter that at five foot two and a mere few orders of French fries over her ideal weight, it would be a struggle to replace the bottle. The task was still up to Lucy.
The empty one was a snap to lift away from the top of the water cooler. The blue cap on the closest full bottle took only seconds to peel off. Then, staring down the plastic barrel at her feet as if it were a wrestling opponent, she bent her knees to grasp it around its cool, rotund belly. As she straightened, she staggered on her feet, her heels clattering against the smooth hardwood floor.
Oh, Lord, don't let me drop this. "Goose, what are you doing?" Instinct had her swinging toward the voiceCarlo's voicebut that only made her more unsteady on her business-beige heels. Before she could do more than wheeze, there were a man's arms around herCarlo's arms. Her back was up against his chest, her butt pressed to his
"Stop," he ordered into her ear.
"I wasn't thinking anything!"
"Obviously not. You're too small to take care of this. I meant 'stop trying to help.' Let go and let me have the bottle."
"Oh." She dropped her hands from the heavy plastic, but that still left her in the circle of Carlo's arms. His warmth was at her spine, his delicious aftershave in her nose, his breath stirring the hair at her temple.
As a wild rash of prickly awareness broke out like more hives over her skin, she dipped under his arm and freed herself from his faux embrace. Without a glance at her, he stepped forward to flip the bottle on top of the cooler.
He turned to find her fanning her face. "GooLucy
" His voice trailed off as his gaze dropped lower. His eyes widened, then he looked back up. "You, uh, have a couple of buttons that came loose."
She glanced down, gasped. In her struggles with the water bottle, apparently some of the buttons on her all-business blouse had popped free, revealing most of her white lace demibra. Her face burning, she clutched the shirt's edges together with one hand while hastily re-fastening with the other.
"Relax," Carlo said. "It's just me."
"Yeah. Just you," Lucy repeated.
Just the man she'd dreamed about since she was fifteen years old.
She managed to get decent once more, but was still struggling with the top buttonhole when her new boss made a brotherly noise and moved in as she continued to fumble. "Here. Let me finish it up."
He was wearing an easy, indulgent smile as he pushed her hands away and reached toward her collar. For an instant, his fingertips brushed the hollow at her throat and she jerked in helpless reaction, her pulse pounding against his touch. He froze, his fingertips now only making contact with button and fabric.
Still, his nostrils flared and she could smell her perfume rise around them, the scent surging stronger as her heart continued to hammer in her chest.
He cleared his throat. "Goose," he said. "You smell like a girl."
A nervous bubble of laughter escaped her throat. "Carlo, I am a girl."
"Right. Yeah." He made quick work of the stubborn top button, then retreated toward the doorway. There, he shoved his hands in his pockets and cocked his head, studying her. "Actually, you're more than a girl. You're a woman."