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'That's a very generous invitation, Mr Allonby.' An invitation that took geek-girl Molly Taylor completely by surprise. She wanted to assure the man there was nothing wrong with her boss's business whatsoever. There couldn't be! And yet the man sounded so sure.
Molly's gaze moved past him, to the view outside the fourteenth-floor windows of the Brisbane office that housed Banning Financial Services. The Australian sky was as bright a blue as ever, the buildings in the cityscape as tall, the river area below as wide and calm.
Yet a few words from this stranger and Molly's cheerful, all-but-perfect worldif you ignored the few niggling things that weren't so perfect about itdidn't feel quite so bright and secure after all.
What if Allonby was correct, and Jarrod's business was in deep trouble? Allonby was offering her a job, but nothing could compensate for having to walk away from her boss.
'You've taken me by surprise.' She turned back to face the man, smoothed a few strands of dark-brown hair back into the ponytail that had a tendency to slip its moorings when she least expected it. One long, slim finger pushed her funky black-framed glasses farther up her nose as she stared at the middle-aged man.
'I'm sure what you've heard must be some sort of mistake.' It had to be. Molly's boss loved the challenge of investing enormous amounts of money in complicated portfolios for a diversity of wealthy clients, and he was really, really good at it.
'I can only assure you what I've been told came from reliable sources.' Though they were alone in the middle of what was both Molly's office and the reception area for the business, her boss was only a closed door away from them.
A fact Peter Allonby must have considered, because he leaned forward and lowered his voice. 'Even billionaires can get into difficulty. They simply have more at stake if that happens.'
'Ah, well, I'd guessed millions, actually.'And this was not a topic for open discussion either way. 'I'm afraid I know very little about my boss's finances,' Molly said primly.
Oh, she knew of the Banning family wealth. Everyone had heard of the long-established Road Ten furnishings. And Molly knew her boss had worked in the family business for some time before striking out on his own. He had told her that much of his history when he'd employed her, but as for his own business situation nowcould he be in difficulty? It seemed absurd, but, if he was, how and why?
Molly met Allonby's gaze. 'Could you tell me who gave you this information?'
The man cleared his throat. 'I learned of it from several different people among my society associates and colleagues.'
Not an original source, by the sound of it, nor one he would divulge, but of concern anyway.
Allonby dipped his head. 'My interest right now is in securing your services if the opportunity arises to do so.'
'That's very flattering, though I'm not sure why you would want me "sight unseen", so to speak.' A few short steps took her to her desk. She plopped into the seat and laid her hands on the familiar wood surface.
'I like to keep my eyes and ears open. I've heard Banning mention his satisfaction with your skills.' The man murmured it as though in enticement.
All Molly heard was that her boss had praised her. Her heart suddenly churned with all sorts of silly feelings, the greatest of which was a completely out-of-proportion pleasure that Jarrod had mentioned her at all.
Settle down! So what if Jarrod talked you up at some point? Maybe you'd done a good job of picking up his dry cleaning for him that day!
A light disappeared on the new interoffice phone-system, indicating her boss had ended a call. Another light came on.
Molly didn't recognise this light. She and Jarrod had installed the phone system less than an hour ago. It still needed to be properly coded and labelled, but nothing was ringing
Allonby came forward. He drew a business card from his pocket and dropped it onto her desk. 'I know Banning would demand a lot of you in this working environment, and I feel you'd be an asset to my company. Consider my offer.'
Molly lifted her gaze from the business card. 'I'll consider what you've said.' Right after she got rid of him and asked Jarrod what the heck was going on.
Allonby smiled politely and left the office a moment later. Molly slumped in front of her computer. Yes. Brave thoughts. Just march up to her boss and start hammering out questions about his finances.
She wanted to contact her mum, or Aunt Izzy or Faye. They worried her sometimes. In fact, they all but drove her demented with their disregard for the future, but they were also her nearest and dearest.
Well, Molly couldn't ring or text any of them. Not now. Not about this. She should stop relying on them so much anyway.
Jarrod's office door opened, and he strode out and caught her eyes with a blazing gaze of grey and green and yellow. His face was tight, his dark hair ruffled as though he'd run his hand through it. A muscle twitched at the base of his jaw.
'Get your bag.' His brows drew down as he waved his hand towards her desk drawer. 'We're going to lunch early. We need to talk.'
'All right. I guess there's nothing here that can't wait.' It was a little early, but her boss was rather irritable, and Molly didn't want to think his need to 'talk' might have something to do with business troubles. Even so, she asked, 'Waswas your phone call with Mr Daniels problematic?'
Molly grabbed her purse, and almost had to trot to keep up with him as he locked them out of the office and strode towards the building's lift.
'Did Daniels's call trouble me?' He gave a bark of unamused laughter as he jabbed the lift's button for ground level. 'You could say that, among other things.'
They had the lift to themselves. Molly watched him from the corner of her eye.
A powerful businessman, in tailored beige trousers and a white shirt with the sleeves rolled halfway up his forearms. His mind for figures and investment strategy amazed her. He was aggressive sometimes, that was true, but when he gave himself to something that mattered to him he did it utterly, and Molly
Well, it didn't matter how that made her feel, did it? But it made it hard to believe he could get his finances into horrible trouble. She fiddled with the catch of her purse until they disembarked and hit the busy central business district street.
'I heard your discussion with Allonby through the intercom on the new phone-system. His offer of a job.' Her boss bit out this announcement as they made their way through the crowd.
'You did?' She squeaked the words and had to clear her throat. 'I guess I know what that particular red light means on the phone now.'
'Quite.' Jarrod took her elbow to guide her to the entrance of a waterside café. 'Did you?'
'No.' No. She would never simply agree to leave him. 'I wanted him to go so I could ask you what's going on, but I wasn't sure how to tackle it. "I've been offered a job out of the blue" somehow didn't seem the right opening line.'
Nor did blabbing out her internal monologue on the topic, but it was too late for that now, wasn't it?
His fingers squeezed her elbow, and a reluctant huff of grim laughter passed through his lips. 'Perhaps not.'
The squeeze of his fingers was merely an impersonal touch. He wasn't even in a good mood, so there was no need for her to feel all tingly and warm. She should be feeling chilled to the bone and worried.
Actually, she was those things, too. 'Sorry. I babble when I'm uneasy. Mostly I don't, because usually I have good control over the things that impact on me, though I do it sometimes because of Mum, Izzy and Faye. If they're causing me more hassle than usual. But you don't need to hear about that. It's boring family stuff.'
'Your job is safe, and I don't want you leaving the company.' He spoke as she finally wound down. 'How about we start there and work our way through the rest?'
Good idea. 'Thank you. I was worried about that a little, though not hugely, because I couldn't see how you could be in trouble, but I'm relieved.' She was babbling. Again. 'Anyway, I didn't accept Allonby's offer.'
'You won't need to.' Jarrod gave his order. Molly quickly added hers, and her boss paid for the food with cold politeness.
'This table, I think.' He led her to a table away from the others that was partially obscured from diners by a bank of potted plants, but with an unobstructed view of the river.
'So, if everything is okay, why did Mr Allonby come to try to headhunt me?' Other than Jarrod talking her up to the man at some point?
Dry cleaning. It could have been about dry cleaning.
'There are rumours circulating. They're widespread, very recent, and they've been placed for maximum effect to try and damage me financially.' The words were pushed through his teeth as his gaze bored into hers. 'Daniels's call was my first knowledge of this. He wanted to withdraw his portfolio from the company. I had a hard time convincing him to change his mind, despite refuting the rumours utterly.'
'So you're not in financial difficulty.' She nodded. That was as she'd expected. 'But someone wants you to be?'
Apparently so.' His fist clenched on the table.
Who would do such a thing to him?
'Molly, things could get rough for a little while.' His gaze held hers as he uttered the words. 'Whoever started these rumours apparently has influence in the social circles I mix in.'
And draw your business from.' Molly drew a deep breath. The glittery, glamorous, totally out-of-her-league world of Brisbane's highest society.
He dipped his head in acknowledgement. 'If more of those people become concerned about the safety of their investments'
'You could lose accounts. Big accounts.' Anger and protectiveness welled from somewhere deep inside her. 'Who would do this to you? Why would anyone want to hurt your business? We have to put a stop to this!'
'I don't have business enemies.' He grimaced, shrugged his shoulders. 'Well, maybe I do. Apparently I have some kind of enemy out there. But I'm the one who makes more money for my clients. My dealings are fair and equitable, and I either work with people or I don't, depending on whether they choose to use me.'
His gaze roved to the river before it came back to rest on her face. As he stared at her, his expression hardened. 'I will put an end to this threat, you can rest assured of that.'
She believed him. And as her heart calmed her protective -ness became deep-seated determination. 'I'll do whatever I can to help you. We have two appointments for later this afternoon, with clients who wouldn't say why they wanted to come in. I wonder if they've heard the rumours?'
'It's probable, and probable they'll also want to pull their funds.' Their meals arrived and he fell silent. 'If I thought it would do any good, I'd phone some of my key social contacts and demand they reveal the source of the rumours. I will do that, as soon as we get back to the office, but I know it will be a waste of time.'
He jabbed his fork into his steak sandwich and carved off an end with his knife. 'There's a code about things like that, maybe because legal action is so easily entered into and can be so time-consuming and costly once it starts.'
'If your colleagues won't tell you who started the rumours, what will you do?' Molly picked a piece of walnut from her chicken Waldorf wrap and popped it into her mouth.
They ate in silence for a few minutes, and then the silence stretched and her skin began to prickle. She glanced up to find her boss's gaze fixed on her. He had a light ofsomething in his eyes, and suddenly she felt uncomfortable, uncertain. Trapped in the beam of a pair of very determined eyes.
' Molly wrapped her A-line black skirt more firmly about her knees, and adjusted the green-and-black top though it needed no adjustment.
'It's imperative the company puts the strongest foot forward at this time. I want the person who started these rumours. I want the rumours stopped.' His face was a tight mask as he spoke the words. 'And I want any negative impact on my business not only fixed, but put so far behind in the face of my success no person would ever believe such a suggestion again.'
Well, she would have expected such strong assertions. In the three years she'd worked for him, he'd built his business from his own personal investments to a vibrant, diverse service on the cutting edge of financial investment for some very wealthy clients.
'You want a three-faceted approach to the problem.' She murmured the words as she thought it over. 'Catch the person who started the rumours and bring them to account for it. While working on that, fix any negative impact to the company. And, during that process, make us stronger than before so such a threat can't even touch us in the future.'
'That's it, and of course, after Allonby's offer to you, I also want people to understand you're staying with me.' He said this last in a low tone that brooked not even the thought of an argumentfrom anywhere. 'You'll be useful in any case, to help present a consolidated front.'
It was a simple desire to strengthen the company's position. The first part of his statement shouldn't have rushed across her senses. That it did was a problem, because it was one thing to have an intellectual admiration for his mind, even his personality, provided she kept that admiration work-related.
Anything else would be inappropriate, foolish. There couldn't be 'anything else'. And, yes, she'd had somewhat of a crush on her boss kind of from the beginning, actually, but that fact had to stay subjugated to the power of her will and common sense.
If occasionally she slipped, she understood the danger of it and quickly shored up her defences again.
Molly attempted to do so now. 'I'll be happy to put in extra hours in the office, make calls, send out letters. Whatever is needed to set these plans in action.'
'I do want extra hours from you.' He linked his fingers in front of him beside his plate.
He had beautiful hands, strong and lean, with a light dusting of hair across the backs.
Molly drew a deep breath and straightened her spine. Now was not the time to dwell on such things about her boss. Particularly when he was looking at her with such