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"I don't feel comfortable with this, Irene."
As soon as the words were out of her mouth Callie knew she'd said the wrong thing. A mere shift in Irene's expression was all it took. A barely perceptible change, but it was enough to forewarn her of her employer's displeasure—displeasure that generally had most staff at Palmer Enterprises scurrying for the nearest hiding place.
"Why is that, Callie?"
"Well," she foundered a moment, lost for words. "Is it even legal? He's bound to want me to sign a confidentiality agreement."
"Should that be your worry?" Irene countered. "As one of our valued employees, you know we'd look after you if there happened to be any fallout."
The older woman's subtle emphasis on the word valued sent a chill down Callie's spine. She owed the Palmers—and in particular, Irene Palmer—everything. Without Irene she would have had nothing—not her education, her job, where she lived; even the designer shoes on her feet.
"This works to our advantage, you know," Irene's voice interrupted Callie's thoughts.
"What do you mean?"
Callie looked up at her boss and mentor—the first adult to ever give her hope for a future. The woman who'd actually made her believe she could make something of her life rather than disappear down a drain lined with drugs and crime.
Only no one had ever told her that with debt came a duty to repay it. After twelve years Callie had been forced to ask herself, when would enough be enough?
"Obviously any other time I'd miss having you here as my assistant, but the Guildarian honorary consul position will be announced on Christmas Eve. That's in, what, nine weeks' time?"
Callie nodded, her gaze locked on Irene's face.
"Don't you see, Callie, it's the perfect opportunity. Everyone knows you're my assistant and the whole of New Zealand knows the announcement of Bruce's appointment is only a matter of time. And while it's well documented how fiercely loyal you are to me, when Bruce and I move to Guildara you will be forced to seek other employment."
At Callie's in-drawn breath, Irene waved a graceful, perfectly manicured hand in the air.
"Yes, I know you expected to head up the new special developments team, but if we don't identify Tremont's mole, and nip his steady undermining of our business firmly in the bud, there won't be a special developments team for you to head because in all likelihood, in a couple of years, there would be no Palmer Enterprises." Irene leaned forward in her chair, her eyes suddenly bright with unexpected tears. "I will do whatever it takes to protect Palmer Enterprises and you're going to help me. This is the ideal opening for you to be seen to be seeking something else."
Callie felt sick to her stomach. She knew Josh Tremont's activities had affected the Palmers—but to the extent that he could destroy the business within a couple of years? Things were worse than she thought.
Inevitability settled like a fatalistic dark cloak around Callie's shoulders.
"So I'm supposed to go in there and spy on him?" She fought to keep her voice level.
"Well, far be it from me to suggest such a thing," Irene blinked back the remnants of weakness in her eyes and composed a smile, the action barely creasing her smooth complexion.
No one would guess, from looking at her, that she was sixty-five. She had the kind of elegant beauty that was timeless, ageless, although there was an air about her that didn't invite confidences. Not many people ever got close to Irene. Callie was one of her chosen few.
"Of course not."
Callie's answering smile was equally lacking in humour. Irene would never stoop so low as to verbalise such a command, but the implication was clear.
"My dear, you know how grateful we will be," Irene said with an inclination of her elegantly coiffed head. "Essentially, you'd still be working for us, just… differently, that's all. You know I'm not one to over-dramatise things but, right now, you're our only hope."
Suddenly filled with nervous energy, Callie pushed up out of her chair and stalked back and forth across the carpet.
"We don't even know that he's going to offer me a job," she blurted. "He only asked me to meet him for lunch."
A small crease formed between Irene's brows. "Don't be naive, Callie. I taught you better than that. Of course he's going to offer you a position. It's how he works. Each one of the key staff he's poached from us has been invited to lunch with him first. It's not as if he hides his intentions."
"Does he really believe all he has to do is snap his fingers and everyone will drop everything to do his bidding?" Callie responded in impotent frustration.
"Generally, my dear, people do," Irene Palmer observed dryly as she leaned back in her leather executive chair, the serenity on her face giving no clue as to her thoughts.
"Well, not people like me."
"Which is why this will be all the more convincing. I'm sure I don't need to tell you about how difficult things are in the marketplace right now. Jobs are increasingly hard to come by. And with your position on the verge of disestablishment… Suffice to say that no one would blame you for jumping ship, as it were. Besides, you can't deny that Tremont has a certain magnetism about him."
Callie threw herself back into one of the button-back leather armchairs in front of Irene's desk and sighed. Magnetism. From what she'd heard, Josh Tremont had it in spades. But that didn't mean she wanted to work for him.
"What if, after meeting me, he doesn't want me?"
Irene laughed, the sound like wind rustling through dry leaves in autumn. "Oh, Callie, you underestimate yourself. The man wants you all right."
Something in Irene's voice made Callie stiffen. Just how far did they expect her to go in this spying mission?
More to the point, how far was she prepared to go for the Palmers and for her future?
Two days later, Callie gripped the steering wheel of her late-model hatchback and groaned in frustration. A sleek black Maserati coupe slid neatly into the last parking space in the restaurant car park. Now she'd have to find a parking lot blocks away, and she'd be late.
She hated being late even more than she hated the reason for this meeting.
Her stomach pitched as she recalled what she'd agreed to do. Irene had advised her not to appear too eager initially, in case it might put him off. Well, Callie had no problem with that. She had no respect for the man. None whatsoever. She only hoped that when the offer came she could verbalise the word yes when every instinct in her body screamed the opposite.
She reminded herself again of Irene's expectations and why she'd agreed to do this, but it did little to assuage the slow-burning anger that began to seethe deep inside.
She fed the flames by recapping Josh Tremont's insidious methods to undermine the corporate structure at Palmer Enterprises. In the past five years he'd poached several key staff, even going so far as to attempt to buy out their employment contract restraint clauses. When that hadn't worked for the last two executives he'd lured away, he'd simply paid them for the year's standdown period while they languished, ostensibly on holiday, while he'd waited patiently for the months to roll by, secure in the knowledge that Palmers was hurting for their loss.
Now he had his sights set on her.
By the time Callie found a metered car park about three blocks from the restaurant, she'd built up a head of steam to match the rich auburn tint of her hair. She walked with sharp, clipped steps to her destination, oblivious to the catcalls and whistles directed her way from a nearby building site.
She'd deliberately dressed down for the meeting today, in pencil-slim, chocolate-brown trousers and an apricot, chocolate-and-white-striped, long-sleeved blouse. Never mind that the clothes had cost more than she had ever dreamed she would earn in a week, let alone spend on clothing. To her they screamed blasé, certainly not what one would wear to try to impress a prospective employer of Tremont's calibre. They would set the tone nicely, she thought, with a private smile.
Up until this morning she hadn't been too sure how to play this interview, but on choosing her clothes she'd reached a personal compromise. She didn't want to look too keen, and that certainly wouldn't be difficult, but she didn't want to be too reluctant, either. A balance between the two suited nicely, and if she came off a little brash, well, it wasn't as if he'd withdraw his job offer once he'd made it. He wasn't that kind of man.
Auckland's typically humid spring air had already begun to play havoc with her hair. Wisps that had strategically been pulled free from her ponytail to smoothly frame her face now began to curl flirtatiously. Not exactly the image she'd wanted to project, but short of an interlude in the ladies' room with a hair straightener there was little Callie could do.
Finally, she approached the green canvas awning that heralded the entrance to the restaurant. It was one of Auckland's longest-standing and finest eateries— mind you, she didn't expect anything less from Josh Tremont. A man like him commanded the best at all times, and he wasn't afraid to pay for it. She should feel flattered, she supposed, that he'd requested a meeting with her. Obviously, he thought her integral enough within Palmers that her leaving would cause more of his signature range of trouble.
Callie paused at the threshold to the restaurant lobby. Her reflection in the highly polished glass door showed that, aside from the recalcitrant strands of hair and the slight shine on her nose and cheeks from her power walk to the venue, she looked just fine. She drew in a deep breath and tucked her slim brown Vuitton document case under one arm.
The sudden gloom of the entrance forced Callie to push her sunglasses up onto her head and she scanned the dining room beyond for a sign of Tremont.
"Can I help you, madam?"
Callie fought back a smile at the hoity-toity demeanour of the maitre d'. She doubted he'd be as polite if he knew that twelve years ago she'd dined frequently from the Dumpster at the back of this kitchen and others like it, but then the insides of places like this were all about appearances, and she knew all about how important such appearances were. She arranged her features into a screen of patronising calm before responding.
"I'm meeting Mr Tremont."
"Ah, yes, you must be Ms Lee. Please, come through. Mr Tremont is already waiting."
His implication that she was late and that Mr Tremont wasn't in the habit of being kept waiting was painfully clear in the disdainful glance he cast her. Callie followed the stiff-backed maitre d' as he preceded her through the nearly full dining room, toward a private alcove near the rear. She fought the urge to poke out her tongue at the man's back. But at the sage old age of twenty-eight she knew better than to give in to impulses that could lead you into trouble.
"Ms Lee for you, sir."
Callie had seen pictures of Josh Tremont in the gossip columns as well as in business magazines, but she was unprepared for the sizzling power of being pinned by his electric-blue eyes when he lifted his gaze from the PDA in his hand. Now she knew what people meant when they referred to that "caught in the headlights" moment. That time in space when you froze, unsure of whether to flee or fight.
She'd come prepared for the latter, but face-to-face with the man himself she wished she'd been in a position to have refused his invitation outright. A flutter of something she didn't want to admit might be attraction shifted in the pit of her belly.
"Mr Tremont," Callie said, deciding to take the initiative and offer her hand.
Josh Tremont uncrossed his leg and placed his PDA on the crisp white linen tablecloth in front of him before standing to accept her hand. Callie's heart jumped a beat as his long fingers closed around hers and irrationally she wondered how his hands would feel on other parts of her body. Strong, capable, warm. Another tiny pull threaded through her body and yanked, hard.
No wonder the man featured so widely in all the papers. His allure was overwhelming and, she realised, he'd yet to utter a single word.
He let go of her hand and gestured to the seat opposite, waiting for the maitre d' to pull out her chair and see her settled before he sat again himself.
The dark silver-grey suit he wore, teamed with a black shirt and tie, befitted his outlaw-type dark good looks. And, even though it was only one in the afternoon, already he'd begun to sport a shadow on his cheeks—just enough to take the completely polished edge off the man who she knew was ranked right up there on New Zealand's rich list.
"I'm pleased you could make it, Callie Rose."
Callie stiffened in her chair as his deep voice washed over her like a brush of warm velvet.
"Only those close to me call me Callie Rose," she said firmly, determined to draw her line in the sand as quickly as possible. "You may call me Callie, or Ms Lee."
The slow smile that spread across his face was mesmerising. Genuine humour sparked in his eyes, tiny lines appearing at the corners, before the corners of his sensually shaped lips pulled into a curve. He bent his head slightly in acknowledgement.
"Callie," he smiled fully now, the full strength of his charisma aimed front and centre. "Can I offer you something to drink before lunch?"
"Just iced mineral water, thank you."
She kept her posture upright, her features schooled into an expression of polite disinterest. She would not smile back at him. She. Would. Not.
The man was unscrupulous.