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"I hate to discourage you, but you're not going to be able to convince Meg to come work for you. And I'm afraid… I'm sorry, but I'm not at liberty to tell you why."
That small bit of information was all Etienne Gavard had been able to glean from one of Meg Leighton's former coworkers. It echoed in his head as he drove his sleek black Porsche into a rundown Chicago neighborhood, located the apartment building he was looking for and pulled into a parking spot two doors down. Not an especially promising situation, but Meg Leighton was the expert he needed to help him complete the near impossible task he'd taken on.
"So, this is what it's come to." He muttered the words as he stared at the dingy building where Ms. Leighton apparently lived. He had crossed the Atlantic and had been driven to following questionable women he'd never met to even more questionable neighborhoods. Do you even know why you're here or what you're doing? he wondered.
Of course, he did. His calendar said that it was June first. Six weeks from the anniversary of the worst day of his life, the day that would haunt him forever but which especially haunted him in June and July. And for the past two summers he'd handled things badly. He'd closed himself off from the world and tried to drink himself into oblivion to forget the death of his wife and the unborn child she had agreed to bear only because she'd thought he needed and wanted a Gavard heir. Not this year. This year he wouldn't allow himself to sully their memories that way. If he could just get through this one year without losing it… if he could just do one good thing to replace the bad memories… then maybe…
Well, never mind the maybes. The truth was that he'd built an empire saving dying companies and he was good at what he did, maybe even better since the tragedy and what had followed had led him to decide that this job would be his only life and love, his only world from now on. And this year, to keep himself sane, he would attempt the impossible. He'd located a company so far gone that it seemed beyond saving, one where no one cared that it was going under other than the people who worked there. Attempting to breathe life into it would take up all his time. He wouldn't have time to think about the past.
One task accomplished.
Now, he needed the right person to assist him. Usually this was the easy part. There was always someone who knew the details, had some idea what was going on and who knew at least a little about what had made the company a success in the first place.
This time with this in-a-total-tailspin company? Not so simple. Everyone was running around crying that the sky was falling, and the best person to help him, he'd been told by someone with an interest in his success, was no longer with the company. Furthermore, there was a mystery attached to her departure, one that her former coworkers had refused to discuss. But he'd been able to glean this much. The woman, Meg Leighton, was here in this building right in front of him.
Etienne stared at the crumbling brown brick and the unkempt lawn. One would think a person living in such a place would be easy to influence, but no. He'd been told that she would be extremely reluctant and he would have to find another avenue.
"Oh, but I'm a very determined man, Meg Leighton," he muttered to himself as he exited the car. "And I need you, mademoiselle. Very much. I intend to have you." Now that he'd made the commitment to save the company, there was no going back. He hadn't just bought a company. He had taken on the responsibility for people's lives and he absolutely was not going to fail them. That would be unthinkable, the past repeating itself, and it would be totally unbearable to damage another person again.
Besides, most people had tipping points. They could be persuaded once one discovered their weaknesses.
Etienne wondered what Meg Leighton's weaknesses were. Time to find out. He stepped forward and pushed open the door to the building.
"Lightning, there's a man coming to see us," Meg told her cat as she hung up the phone. "I hear that he's French. He's also tall, blue-eyed and very handsome."
Lightning looked incredibly bored. The cat yawned.
"I agree," Meg said to herself. "Who cares about that? Handsome Frenchmen come to our door every day."
The cat simply stared.
"All right, so maybe we don't have Frenchmen ringing our doorbell, or handsome men tapping on the windowpane or…well, let's face it, sweetie, we just don't get too many men around here at all. Even our mailman is a mail-woman," Meg conceded. "But that's not the point."
The point was that Meg's friend, Edie, from the home office of Fieldman's Furnishings, had just called. It appeared that the new owner of the company was going to try to persuade Meg to do something she didn't want to do; come back to the company. But that just wasn't going to happen. Fieldman's had once been the closest thing to a real home that Meg had ever had. Mary Fieldman had hired her when she had only been sixteen and an at risk teenager. She had literally saved Meg from herself, but after Mary's death, the business had also been the site of Meg's biggest and most public and painful humiliation. The once warm feeling Fieldman's had given her had been completely replaced by scalding regret, pain and anger directed at herself. She had allowed herself to forget the ugly lessons she'd learned growing up an outsider at home and in school and all that had followed as a result of her outsider status. The end result of that forgetfulness had been the shame-inducing fiasco at Fieldman's.
Nevertheless, Edie had told her that she should prepare to be wooed by a man who wanted her to return to the scene of the crime.
Meg closed her eyes and counted to ten. "I'll just have to be strong and firm and make him understand that no means no," she whispered out loud. I could never go back there after what happened, she thought. The memory of the total humiliation when Alan Fieldman had publicly dumped her, fired her and thrown her out on the street, or that she had not taken it quietly or with any degree of dignity could still make her blush with shame if she allowed herself to think about it. She seldom did. She certainly wasn't going to do so now.
Not for all the blue-eyed men in France, she thought. Downstairs, she heard the outer door to the apartment building open. Immediately, Meg's heart started to race. She had done her best to move on past her life at Fieldman's, to let go of her stunned pain at having lost the business that had been her anchor, and she had come so close to succeeding. The fact that Etienne Gavard's impending visit was bringing back her ugly past… the fear that she might be asked questions about that day at Fieldman's and about her relationship with her boss… the waiting… she had always been so horrible at waiting…
"Darn it," she said, moving to the door and throwing it open just as the man made it to the top of the stairs.
So much for being standoffish. She hadn't even waited for him to knock.
Meg swallowed hard as she came face-to-face with Etienne Gavard. He was, as Edie had noted, very tall. Meg, no Lilliputian herself, was a good half a head shorter than he. With that dark hair, those silvery-blue eyes and that slightly amused smile…
"Mr. Gavard?" she asked, as casually as possible, hoping her voice sounded calm and disinterested.
"Yes, Mademoiselle Leighton. I'm Etienne Gavard. I see you were expecting me a little?" he said, raising one dark eyebrow that Meg was sure made any number of women feel dizzy and disoriented.
A little? She'd practically ripped the door off its hinges. If Meg had been a blushing kind of woman she would have blushed. As it was, her blush was only on the inside. "Edie called me. That is…Edie's a total sweetheart, but she's totally loyal to me. You probably shouldn't tell her anything you don't want her friends to know."
"Ah, loyalty," he said. "I see. I like loyalty." When he said the last word he looked at Meg as if he could see right into her heart where all her most fervent and darn irrepressible emotions lay no matter how hard she tried to repress them. This man was staring at her as if he knew things about her that no one else knew, the places she kept under wraps and hid carefully. Always.
A trickle of panic ran through Meg. No way was she letting some man rip off her carefully applied emotional bandages and make her consider going back to Fieldman's just because he could do that sexy eyebrow thing.
Meg, unable to raise her eyebrow, simply stared. "I'm not like Edie," she said. "Edie is a very special and nice person."
Etienne Gavard's smile grew. The man had dimples. Gorgeous, sexy dimples. Meg almost hated him just for standing here in her hallway spreading all that virility around. She was, as her father used to say, as plain as toast. Slightly plump. With a fading scar on her cheek that had caused her grief in her youth. And worst of all, an outspoken manner and attitude that had gotten her in trouble and kept her there all her life.
"I'm happy that on only ten seconds' acquaintance that you're willing to share that bit of information with me, but…are you trying to tell me that you would be disloyal to Edie?"
Meg blinked. "I would never harm Edie."
He nodded. "Excellent! Because Edie is one of my employees now. I have to have her best interests at heart, so the fact that you would care about her welfare is a very good thing to know. I like loyalty in my employees and… I'm hiring. I'd like to discuss hiring you." The man tilted his head. He studied Meg closely.
Meg felt suddenly naked. She most definitely didn't want to feel naked in front of a man like this. "I'm afraid that's not possible. Mr. Gavard, let me be frank. You obviously went to all the trouble of coming from France to buy a company, so you must be an incredibly busy and important man. I'm flattered that you would want to hire me, but I just… I don't want to waste your time."
"You're not." His voice was very deep with that enticing accent. Meg glanced up at him. That was a mistake, since she noticed the breadth of his shoulders and immediately felt a forbidden thrill slip through her body. Men who were that good-looking made her nervous. They were on her "don't touch, don't even notice" list. Especially since that incident with Alan Fieldman. Besides, she didn't want or need to notice anything more about this man. He'd be gone in minutes.
"Mademoiselle Leighton, I understand that this… my methods today are… abrupt and unconventional, but the situation at Fieldman's is complex. I'm not sure how much Edie or any of the others understands about this, but… Is there somewhere we can go to talk?" he asked. "I don't want to alarm you by suggesting your apartment, but surely…"
"I'm never alarmed," Meg said, lying. "And it's not as if you're a stranger. You own Fieldman's. You're Edie's boss. Still, I'm sorry, but there's no point in the two of us continuing this conversation. I don't have any idea why you would want me to come back to Fieldman's, other than the story Edie told me about you needing an expert on the company, but if that's the case, then I'm afraid you're mistaken. I'm not who you need."
"Who is?" he asked, studying her intently. Meg almost felt as if she couldn't tear her gaze away. As if she had no brains or self-control at all, her heart began to pound in a terribly disconcerting way. She ignored it. She'd always had brains, and she was working on the self-control. It was, in fact, the prime goal of her life, to escape her past and become a strong, successful woman. Eliminating her too impetuous, reactive ways was a necessary part of that plan. Self-control was key.
Etienne raised that dark, expressive eyebrow again, and Meg's breathing hitched in her throat. She wondered just how many strong women he had won over with that seemingly insignificant move. "I'm truly sorry for this intrusion, Mademoiselle Leighton, but the company seems to be in total disarray," he said. "The books are in arrears, production has all but shut down, confusion reigns. Even the most mundane things are out of order. There's not even any soap in the washroom, and no one seems to know where it's kept."
"Third aisle of the stockroom on the fourth shelf from the bottom. Or at least that's where it was kept," she said.
He smiled. "See. You know things."
"No," she said, trying not to smile at his blatant attempt to stroke her ego. "I know how things were when I was there, but I've been gone for a year. Besides, Mr. Gavard, I hardly think that knowing where the soap is kept is going to help you very much."
"When I wash my hands it will help," he said with that low, sexy voice that made it sound as if he was talking about far less mundane things than where supplies were kept. "But you're right. I'm looking for very much more than soap. I'm looking for someone who's willing to begin an adventure and make a difference in people's lives."
Meg shook her head. "You're obviously way more misinformed than I thought you were, Mr. Gavard, if you think I'm capable of any of those things, and…" She blew out her breath in a slight sigh.
He waited as she chose her words. Or at least she thought he was waiting. "Why don't you want to come back?" he asked suddenly.
She chose the easiest answer. "I have a new job, you know. I've been there for a year, ever since I left Fieldman's."
"Edie said you worked in the office of a local fruit and vegetable market."
"And I fill in at the store sometimes, as well," she admitted. "I like it. Fieldman's is in my past. Gina's Fruits and Vegetables is my present. I like stocking the bins. It's a useful task."