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"Please send him in, Monica." Erica Prentice checked her hair and smoothed the front of her sleeveless black dress. She turned to glance out the narrow window behind her desk and took a quick moment to enjoy the pitifully small glimpse of the ocean afforded her.
Situated firmly at the bottom of the totem pole at Brighton and Bailey, a PR firm in San Francisco, Erica didn't exactly rate the best view. But that was okay, she told herself. She'd prove herself—both to her employers and her father, no matter how long it took.
But right now, she was meeting with an attorney who had refused to tell her what he wanted to see her about. Which accounted for the jangle of nerves in the pit of her stomach. She was enough her father's daughter to realize that the sudden appearance of a lawyer rarely heralded good news. The Prentice Group, one of the largest clothing manufacturers in the country, were constantly dealing with attorney-led problems. Briefly, she thought about calling her father to ask him if he knew anything about a lawyer from Colorado, but then realized she didn't have time for that.
Behind her, the office door opened and she turned to greet her visitor. But whatever she might have said died unuttered at her first look at the man standing in the doorway.
The elegantly cut dark blue business suit he wore only emphasized the muscular body beneath. His shoulders were broad, his legs were long and his dark brown eyes were narrowed on her. He had a strong, square jaw, neatly trimmed brown hair and a mouth that looked as though it didn't smile often.
It only took seconds for Erica to get an impression of cool confidence. It took even less than that for her to feel an attraction to him that sent what felt like champagne bubbles shooting through her veins.
When she was sure she could speak without making embarrassing gulping noises, she held out her hand and said, "Mr. Hanford, I'm Erica Prentice."
He crossed the room, shook her hand and then held on to it for just a bit too long before releasing her. "Thanks for seeing me."
As if she'd had a choice, she mused. He'd arrived at her office ten minutes ago, unannounced, to claim to have something important to discuss with her. The fact that he hadn't even hinted at what that might be made her wary even as her hormones continued to do a dance of appreciation.
Erica waved him to one of the two chairs opposite her desk. "I have to admit, I'm intrigued. Why would a lawyer from Colorado come all this way to see me?"
"It's a long story," he said, glancing around her office.
She knew what he was seeing and that he was probably singularly unimpressed. The beige walls of the tiny room were mostly bare but for two paintings she'd brought from home to lessen the grim atmosphere. Erica's office was nearly claustrophobic, as befitting someone just getting started on their career. Of course, she thought, not for the first time, if she'd been offered a job in the family company, things would have been different.
Though her older brothers all ran different arms of the Prentice Group, Erica's father had made it clear that she wouldn't be a part of the family business. They'd never been close, she thought, but she'd hoped that she'd be given at least a chance to prove herself, as her brothers had. But her father wasn't a man you could argue with and once his mind was made up, the decision might as well have been set in concrete.
Still, she thought, dragging her brain away from the problems of family, now wasn't the time to be thinking about any of that. As tempting as it might be to indulge in a long meeting with a gorgeous lawyer watching her through amazingly dark chocolate eyes, she simply didn't have time for it today. As it was, she'd only managed to squeeze out a few minutes from her already packed schedule to accommodate Christian Hanford. She couldn't give him more.
Leaning forward, she folded her hands on her desktop and smiled. "I'm sorry, but your long story will have to wait for another time. I have another appointment in fifteen minutes, Mr. Hanford, so if you wouldn't mind, could you just tell me what you're doing here?"
His gaze met hers and held. Erica couldn't have looked away if she had wanted to.
"I represent the estate of Donald Jarrod," he said quietly.
"Jarrod." Erica thought about the name, trying to place it, when suddenly, she made the connection. "Colorado. Jarrod. You mean the Jarrod resort in Aspen, Jarrod? "
He gave her a brief smile and inclined his head. Reach ing down for the briefcase at his feet, he pulled it onto his lap, opened it and took out a legal-size, manila envelope. Sliding it across the desk to her, he said, "Yes, that Donald Jarrod."
Confused but curious, Erica picked up the envelope and opened it. She pulled out a document and glanced at the title. "His will? Why do I have a copy of the man's will?"
"Because, Ms. Prentice, you're one of the beneficiaries."
She glanced from the document to him and back again. Her stomach did a wild spin and flutter that left her feeling off balance.
"That makes no sense," she murmured, slipping the will back into the envelope and deliberately flattening the brass clasp. "I've never met the man. Why would he leave me anything in his will?"
His features tightened and Erica thought she caught a glimpse of sympathy shining in his eyes before he took the envelope back from her and slid it into his briefcase. "I told you it was going to be a long story."
"Right." She watched him close up his black leather case and wished she had the document in her hands again. She'd like the chance to read it herself before they went any further. But apparently, Christian Hanford wanted his say first. Which didn't do a thing to ease the tension flooding her system.
What was happening here? How had her average, run-of-the-mill day taken such a bizarre turn? And what did a dead empire builder from Colorado have to do with her?
"Then perhaps we can meet later, when you have more time."
She didn't want to wait, but didn't see how she could avoid it.
"Time. Yes. That's probably a good idea. I'm…" Erica shook her head, met his gaze and said, "I'm sorry. This is just all so confusing. Maybe if you gave me some idea what this was about. Why I was mentioned in his will…"
"I think it's best to get this done all at once," he said. "No point in getting into it now when we can't finish it."
He stood up and Erica was forced to tip her head back to look up at him. That frisson of attraction was still there, but now there was more. There was a sense that once she met with Christian Hanford and heard the whole story, nothing in her life was ever going to be the same.
She could see the truth in his eyes. He was watching her as if he could read her mind and knew exactly what a tumult her thoughts were in. She read understanding in his eyes and once again thought she caught a flicker of sympathy.
Nerves rattled through her and Erica knew she'd never make it through her whole day now without know ing what was going on. How could she possibly meet with clients and do the myriad other little jobs that required her attention with this mystery hanging over her head?
Nope, an impossible task. On impulse, she stood up and said, "On second thought, I think we should have that talk now. If you could give me a half an hour to clear up a few things, we could meet…"
Where? Not her apartment. She wasn't inviting a strange man into her home, even if he was a lawyer. Not here in the office. If she was about to get hit with bad news, she'd rather it wasn't done in front of people she had to work with every day.
As if he were still reading scatter-shot thoughts, Christian offered, "Why don't we meet for lunch? I'll come back in an hour and then we'll talk."
She nodded. "One hour."
Once he'd left, Erica took a deep breath in a futile attempt to steady herself. Her stomach was jumping with nerves and her mind was whirling. What in the world was going on? Once again, she was tempted to call her father and ask his advice. But at the same time, she knew he would simply tell her to think it through and make her own decisions. Walter Prentice had never been the kind of man to "mollycoddle" his children. Not even his youngest child and only daughter.
No, she would meet with Christian Hanford, get to the bottom of this and then decide what to do about it.
But before she could do that, she had to clear her appointments for the day. She had no idea how long this meeting with Christian Hanford was going to take—or if she'd be in any kind of mood to deal with business once their meeting was over. She hit a button on her phone. Her assistant, Monica, opened the office door an instant later. Her blue eyes sparkling, she asked, "What's up with Mr. Gorgeous?"
Erica sighed. Monica was more friend than assistant. They'd bonded shortly after Erica had come to work for B&B nearly a year ago. The two of them were the youngest employees in the company and they'd forged a friendly working relationship that had resulted in lots of after-business drinks and dinners. But today, Erica was feeling too jumbled to enjoy her friend's teasing.
"I have no idea."
Monica's smile faded. "Hey, are you okay?"
"I'll let you know later," she said, sitting down at her desk again. "For now, I need you to cancel today's meetings. I've got something important to take care of."
"That won't be difficult. When do you want everything rescheduled?"
"Work everyone in as quickly as possible," Erica told her. "We'll just double up a little and stay late if we have to."
"Okay," Monica said. "This does sound important. Is everything all right?"
"Honestly, I don't know." The unsettled feeling in the pit of her stomach kept warning her that things were about to get very weird.
And there wasn't a thing she could do to avoid it.
Christian was waiting for her when Erica came down the elevator and crossed the lobby of the office building. Something inside him stirred at the sight of her. He'd felt it earlier, too. The moment he'd looked into her whiskey-brown eyes, Christian had known that this woman was going to be trouble.
He didn't do trouble. Not for years, now. He had exactly what he'd spent most of his life working toward. A position of respect and more money than he could spend in two lifetimes. He hadn't worked his ass off for years to get where he was just to let it all go because his body had reacted to the wrong woman.
And Erica Prentice was definitely off-limits to him.
Not only was she the illegitimate daughter of his long-time employer…there was also the fact that any "fraternization" with members of the Jarrod family could see him lose the job he valued so much.
Hadn't ever been an issue for him before this. Melissa Jarrod was a sweetheart, but she'd never interested him.
But he had the distinct feeling that Erica Prentice was going to be a different matter altogether.
As she crossed the glossy floor, his gaze took in everything about her. Shoulder-length light brown hair, soft and touchable. Smooth, pale skin, amber eyes and a mouth that had a tendency to quirk to one side as if she were trying to decide whether to smile or not. She was short, but curvy, the kind of woman that made a man want to sweep her up and pull her in close. Not that he had any intention of doing anything like that.
Her eyes met his and Christian told himself to take care of business and get back to the jet waiting for him at the airport. Safer all around if he concluded this trip as quickly as possible.
"Sorry I'm late," she said as she joined him.
"No problem." Of course the fact that he wanted to take her hand again just for an excuse to touch her might be looked on as a problem. Shaking his head to dislodge that thought, he said, "Look, I saw a café just down the street. Why don't we go have some lunch and get this situation taken care of?"
"Fine." She headed for the glass doors and walked outside when they swished open automatically. She stopped on the sidewalk and pushed her hair out of her eyes when a cold San Francisco wind tossed it into the air. Looking up at him, she asked, "Tell me this much first. Are you about to make me happy? Or is this going to screw up my world?"
Christian looked down into eyes shining with trepidation. " To tell the truth, maybe a little of both."
"You must be crazy," Erica said fifteen minutes later.
The outdoor Italian café sat at the corner of a busy intersection in downtown San Francisco. Only a few of the dozen small round tables covered in bloodred tablecloths were occupied by people stopping for an early lunch. Inside the restaurant there were less hardy souls, diners not wanting to deal with the capricious wind. Fabrizio's was one of Erica's favorite places, but now she was sure this visit was going to forever take the shine off the restaurant for her.
Staring across the table at the man who watched her through steady eyes, she repeated what she'd said only moments before. "You're wrong. This is crazy. I am not Donald Jarrod's illegitimate heir."