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"I'M THIRTY-TWO years old, and tired of being fe˄ted and pursued as one of Sydney's most eligible bachelors." Nicholas Monroe, millionaire owner and boss of Monroe Global Security Systems, leaned back in the leather desk chair and crossed his suit-clad arms.
His gaze was sharp, direct and controlled, save for a very mild hint of irritation Claire would have missed if she hadn't come to know the enigmatic face so well in the past six months.
"I can see how that could become wearying after a while." Claire's imagination went into overdrive, conjuring situations he might have endured. "All those women jumping out from behind pot plants to accost you, telling you they want to have your babies—and all for the sake of your money, really. Not that I'm saying you aren't appealing in your own right."
She smoothed her chainstore pleated skirt across her knees, and hoped the pulse that beat at the base of her throat wasn't visible beneath the crisp white blouse.
He was attractive, all right. Far beyond what was fair and reasonable in her opinion. All dark hair, tanned skin, and interesting angles to blend with the deep, velvety voice. He even smelled good, in a way that made her want to bury her face in him and just breathe him in for the next century or three.
The thought caused a familiar little catch in her chest, right about where her heart was located.
"There haven't been hordes of pot-plant-hiding females." His mouth curved. "But I've had my share of unwanted attention. And, contrary to what the media seems to believe, I really don't enjoy having my name on every Top Ten Bachelor list in existence. Frankly, it's an annoyance I could do without."
"Especially as you move into this new, more settled phase of life that you want."
Claire hoped she looked and sounded intelligent, understanding, enlightened. Anything other than completely oblivious as to where he was headed with this conversation and wholly besotted by him into the bargain.
Aside from all the happy-fuzzy feeling he brought out in her, she struggled just to ignore the way his shirt stretched across his muscled chest. Which probably made her as bad as all those pot-plant-hiding women.
To have muscles like that, he had to work out regularly. She pictured him sleek with perspiration, doing bench presses in some trendy city gym, and stifled a groan.
"Do you plan to announce a big change of lifestyle to the media in the hope it will get them off your back? Some actors take up an interest in monk-like religion for a while. Something like that would certainly prove a deterrent, since it would take you out of the running for a relationship."
"That's an interesting option." The look he gave her suggested he might think she had rocks in her head. "I have to confess I hadn't actually thought of taking to any kind of priesthood to solve this particular set of challenges, but thanks for the thought."
"I can't imagine you celibate, myself," Claire blurted, then wondered if she should just bite her tongue off now and be done with it. Crushes did that to people. Made them say and do things they normally wouldn't.
Much good it did her to have this crush, anyway. He wasn't her type, and certainly wouldn't be interested in her. Millionaire bosses didn't fall for clerical pool upstarts. Not in the real world. No matter how gooey those upstarts might feel about their boss.
What had made Nicholas speak of personal things anyway, this fine January morning, ensconced in the opulent Sydney office suite overlooking the harbour? His life had been the key topic for the last five minutes. Plans, aspirations, intentions. All of them private, not business-related.
It made her uncomfortable. What had she to do with his desire to 'settle his life, move on to a new phase'?
"Are you really on every list?" 'Every one." He gave a tight upward tilt of his firm lips. "Apparently there are others who can't imagine me being happy alone, either."
"I guess it's supposed to be kind of flattering, finding yourself on bachelor lists. Women who read those lists would want to..." Spend hours making slow, languorous love with you. She coughed. "Get to know you better, I'm sure. If they had a chance. You know. Nice women. Ones who don't hang around behind potted palm trees."
Claire Dalgliesh. Shut up this minute. Before you stick your foot any further down your throat.
"Perhaps you're right." He smiled that killer smile that sent her insides crazy every time. "I can't say I've ever given it a lot of thought."
"Um, no." Good one, Claire. Comparing women to pot-plant-lurkers. Of all the inane things she could have said. "I don't suppose you would have."
He leaned back in his chair in the seemingly casual pose he had used a hundred times before, but his eyes were watchful. Assessing. "You and I have worked together closely for the past six months, since Clerical moved you up to fill in as my personal assistant."
"I've enjoyed it." His change of subject was off-putting. She hoped he wasn't about to tell her she was no longer needed. That would be an utter disaster. She couldn't stand the thought of not seeing him every day. Not talking with him, or laughing with him. "It's a great job. I've valued the opportunity to get involved in the company at this level."
"And Clerical did the right thing in recommending you for the position. You've done well." He pulled a file from the top drawer of his desk, flipped briefly through its pages, and dropped it in front of him.
Claire recognised her personnel file, and her heart started to thump. He was going to dismiss her back to her old job in the pool. But why?
"In fact, you've not put a foot wrong since you started in the downstairs division three and a half years ago. Your record's impeccable."
"Thank you." Her brain jittered around, weighing up whether it should fly into a full-blown anxiety attack or not. So far the odds were for the attack. "I do my best."
He nodded, as though pleased. "I've come to know you, Claire. You're honest, reliable, straightforward."
At that, Claire felt a twinge of discomfort. She had worked hard, and had been completely transparent in every way possible. But she wondered what he would think if he knew she was keeping secrets from the law, and paying off a blackmailer into the bargain.
"I try to do my work to the best of my ability. I'm committed to Monroe's." 'And I'm committed to the plans I have in mind for the future, Claire." He leaned forward. "I want you to be clear about that."
"Clear. Yes. Certainly." She nodded and hoped that she looked clear, for in point of fact she was still mystified.
"I've said that I want to change my life. The bachelor-related attention is a side issue." He dismissed those hundreds, probably thousands of women with a flick of one elegant wrist. His steely gaze pinned hers. "What matters to me is that I settle my future the way I want it to be settled. It's something I feel is past due. In short, my plan is marriage. To a suitable woman. Of my choosing."
"Marriage?" The last solution Claire would have imagined he'd choose. She crossed her legs, un-crossed them again. Moved to smooth her already smoothed skirt, and stopped herself, jerking her hands back into her lap to clench around her notepad. "I'm sure you'll find marriage very helpful if you want to become more settled."
But what did it have to do with reviewing her work performance? Nevertheless, he wanted to get married, and that had ramifications of its own.
As the idea sank in, a jealous, possessive part of her objected violently. She didn't want him to marry. Didn't want to see some wife hanging off his arm at every turn. Fair enough that Claire herself couldn't have him. She knew that. But did he have to rub it in so thoroughly?
Suddenly, illumination struck. There could only be one reason for him to tell her all this. He must want her to help him make it happen. He wasn't going to send her back downstairs. He'd talked up her efficiency and other qualities, so she would do her best for him with this, too.
Diabolical man. Just how much was a temporarily promoted admin assistant with a stupid crush supposed to be able to take? A lot, apparently. And she would take it, drat him, because she always did her professional best.
She lifted the notepad and poised her pencil above it. "What sort of help can I give you? Do you have a lady in mind already? Or shall I get up a list of likely candidates? A few names come to mind, and I suppose I could scan the society columns for more."
Would you like to see X-rays of their teeth? Hip span measurements? To hear their views on plastic surgery and liposuction for possible future reference? I can arrange all that, and more. Maybe if she remained flippant she wouldn't be tempted to cry.
"What particular attributes are you looking for?" 'No." The solitary word cut across her questions. "Let me explain the rest."
He paused. In anyone else Claire might have believed it was a glint of vulnerability that flashed through the sharp hazel eyes, and as quickly disappeared. But Nicholas Monroe? Vulnerable? The idea was ludicrous. He simply wouldn't suffer from that kind of weakening attack. He wouldn't allow it.
The object of her thoughts cleared his throat. "The thing is, I don't believe in romance. I've observed a lot of relationships, and I've seen what happens when people think they're in love. Their personalities alter. They go from sensible to irrational, seemingly overnight."
"I see." Beyond those two words she didn't know how to respond. Couldn't imagine anything that she could possibly say that would be even mildly appropriate. He was discussing love. Disparaging it, in fact. How did one respond when one's boss did that?
"Yes." He laced his fingers together on top of her file. The gesture looked almost possessive, but Claire rejected this thought as soon as it formed. She was becoming fanciful. Imagine how much her boss would dislike that!
"When people believe they're in love," Nicholas went on, "every sane thought goes out of their heads. Simple matters become the most complicated on earth. If their partner wakes up grumpy one morning, they worry it's the end of the relationship. They tell lies because they're afraid the other person will fall out of love with them if they're too truthful."
Claire's heart thunked into her shoes for a second, before she reminded herself this wasn't about her. She wasn't a liar, anyway. Keeping your own counsel about your problems was another thing entirely. But how could he feel like that?
"All right. I guess you obviously don't want those sorts of complications in your life." She hoped her tone was sufficiently bland that he wouldn't guess that his attitude had shocked her.
"Correct. What I want is someone sensible, who won't be swayed by silly emotional ups and downs. Someone I'll be able to tolerate at my side for decades to come. A woman who respects, as I do, that the concept of being in love is an illusion."
"Tolerate. Yes, right. And no being in love." This was more like the man she knew and worked for. The vulnerability angle summarily banished, she wrote the words 'Must be able to tolerate husband who does not love her" at the top of her notepad.
With effort, she held off from adding anything about liposuction or teeth. Then, with a confidence that was born purely of blind hope, she added, "We'll find someone appropriate for you. Don't worry."
Claire could do this. It wasn't as if she really cared about Nicholas.
"I've already found her."
Who is she? I'll rip her throat out. Claire's pencil drew a deep, squiggly line across the page and tore through to the pages below. She forced her hand to stop, and looked up, feigning a calm expression she didn't feel. "You have?"
"Indeed." He seemed quite pleased about it, too. "You understand, Claire, that I've been very impressed with your work performance?"
They were back to that again. "I appreciate it." 'We've tested our ability to get along with each other." Abandoning his connection with her file, he unravelled his long, lean fingers and began to tick points off on them. "At times we've disagreed on subjects, solutions to problems, ways to move on a matter."
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
A fun and easy read and an enjoyable story.