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"You." The word came out as an unfriendly accusation. "Hello, Max."
Rachel Lansing had been bracing herself for this meeting all day, and now that it had arrived, it was so much worse than she'd imagined. Her heart stopped as the gunmetal gray of Max Case's gaze slammed into her with all the delicacy of a sledgehammer.
She dug her fingernails into her palm as his broad shoulders loomed closer, blocking her view of the tastefully decorated lobby with its soothing navy-and-olive walls and stunning original art.
Was it her imagination or did Max seem bigger, more commanding than the creative lover that haunted her memories? Or maybe his presence overwhelmed her because in a charcoal business suit and silver tie, he was less approachable than the naked fantasy man that frequented her dreams.
Only the public nature of this reunion enabled her to subdue the flight impulse in her muscles. She rose from the comfortable couch in the reception area at a deliberate, unhurried pace. Keeping her body relaxed and her expression professional required a Herculean effort while her pulse jittered and her knees shook.
Pull yourself together. He won't appreciate you melting into a puddle at his feet.
"Thank you for seeing me." She stuck out her hand in a bid to restore her professional standing and wasn't disappointed when Max ignored it. Her sweaty palm would betray her nerves to him.
When he remained mute, Rachel plowed into the tense silence. "How great that Andrea had her baby. And two weeks early. Sabrina told me she had a boy. I brought her this." She raised her left hand to show him the pink and blue bag dangling from her fingers. She'd bought the gift for his assistant weeks ago and was disappointed she wouldn't get to see Andrea's expression when she opened it.
"What are you doing here?"
"I was supposed to meet with Andrea."
"You're with the employment agency?"
She whipped out a business card and extended it across the three feet that separated them. "I own it." She made no attempt to disguise her pride at what she'd accomplished.
He rubbed his thumb over the lettering on the business card before glancing down. "Rachel
"My maiden name." She wasn't sure why she felt compelled to share this tidbit with him. It wasn't going to change how he felt about her now, was it?
She nodded. "Four years."
"And now you run an employment agency here in Houston?"
She'd come a long way from the girl who was barely able to support herself and her sister on the tips she made wait-ressing in a beach restaurant in Gulf Shores, Alabama. And yet, how far had she come when no matter how well her business did, she never felt financially secure?
"I like the freedom of running my own business," she said, pushing aside the worry that drove her day and night. "It's small, but growing."
And it would grow faster once she moved into larger offices and hired more staff. She had the space all picked out. A prime location that wouldn't have lasted on the market more than a few days. She'd signed the lease yesterday, gambling that the commission she'd get from placing a temporary assistant with Case Consolidated Holdings would give her the final amount she needed to move. Maybe then she could stop living day to day and start planning for the future. However, now that she'd run into Max, that fee seemed in jeopardy, and just to be safe, she'd better back out of the lease.
If only Devon had been able to come here in her stead. A skilled employment specialist, he was her right hand. Unfortunately, his mother had gone to the hospital yesterday with severe abdominal pain and had been rushed into surgery to remove her gall bladder. Rachel had told Devon to stay with his mother as long as she needed him. For Rachel, family always came first.
"How many assistants have you placed here?" Max's piercing stare didn't waver from her face as he slid her business card into his breast pocket. The effect of so much icy heat coming to bear on her was starting to unravel her composure.
"Five." She dropped her hand into her jacket pocket to keep from plucking at her collar, lapel or buttons and betraying her disquiet. "Missy was the first. Sebastian's assistant."
"That was your doing?"
Rachel blinked at the soft menace in his voice. Did Max have something against Missy? She'd been with Case Consolidated Holdings for four years and had worked out great. In fact, it was that placement that had jump-started her business.
"I heard she recently got promoted to communications director." And married Max's brother, Sebastian. Surely that proved how good Rachel was at her job.
"That means you've been in Houston four years?" The question rumbled out of Max like a guard-dog growl.
Anxiety spiked. "About that."
When she'd left him in the Alabama beach town, he'd never wanted to see her again. Was he wondering if it was fate or determined stalking on her part that she'd shown up at Case Consolidated Holdings?
"I moved here because of my sister. She went to the University of Houston and has friends here. It made sense for us to settle in Houston after she graduated."
Inferring that Rachel hadn't had friends where she'd lived before. Curiosity fired in Max's eyes. The intensity of it seared her nerve endings. Five years had passed since she'd last seen him and her physical response to his proximity hadn't dimmed one bit.
"I have three clients in this building," she told him, her tone firming as she reclaimed her confidence. She'd been dealing with executives for over ten years and knew exactly how to handle them. "The fact that I've placed five assistants here and we've never run across each other should tell you that my interest in your company is purely professional."
He surveyed her like a cop in search of the truth. "Let's talk."
"I thought that's what we were doing." She bit the inside of her lip as the smart-ass remark popped out.
Once upon a time he'd liked her cheeky banter. She doubted he'd say the same thing today. Five years was a long time to stay mad at someone, but if anyone could manage, it would be Max Case. "In my office."
Pivoting on his heel, he strode away from her down the hallway that led into the bowels of Case Consolidated Holdings. He didn't look back to see if she was following. He expected obedience. He'd always been bossy that way. Telling her where to put her hands, how to move her hips, the areas of his body that needed her attention.
Her skin flushed. Desire found a warm and welcoming home inside her. She couldn't move. What was she doing? Her memories of those four days with Max belonged in the tomb with all her girlish hopes and dreams. Her moratorium on men and sex remained in full force. Indulging in lusty thoughts of Max was the height of stupidity if she hoped to cultivate a professional relationship with him.
Max disappeared around a corner. This was her chance to run. She should make some excuse. Send Devon to do the interview tomorrow.
No. Rachel squared her shoulders. She could do this. She had to do this. Her future required this placement fee.
Five years ago, she'd learned a hard lesson about running from her problems. These days, she faced all difficulties head-on. Lansing Employment Agency needed this commission. She would do a fabulous job for Max, collect her money and treat herself to a bottle of champagne and a long bubble bath the day the agency moved into its bigger, better office. It all started with this meeting.
Rachel forced her feet to move. Step by step she gathered courage. For four years she'd been scraping and clawing her way upward. Convincing Max that Lansing was the agency for him was just one more hurdle, and by the time she reached the enormous office bearing Max's name, she had her chin set at a determined angle and her eyes focused on the prize.
"Did you get lost?" he asked as she crossed the threshold. A long time ago.
"I stopped at Sabrina's desk and asked her to send the baby gift to Andrea."
Rachel glanced around Max's office, curious about the businessman. During their four days together, she'd learned about his family and his love of fast cars, but he'd refused to talk about work. In fact, until she'd met Sebastian four years ago, and noticed the family resemblance, she didn't know he was Max Case of Case Consolidated Holdings.
The walls bore photos of Max leaning against a series of racecars, helmet beneath his arm, a confident grin on his face. Her heart jumped in appreciation of how handsome he looked in his one-piece navy-and-gray racing suit, lean hips and broad shoulders emphasized by the stylish cut. A bookshelf held a few trophies, and books on muscle cars.
"You cut your hair." Max shut the door, blocking her escape.
She searched his expression, but he'd shut all emotion behind an impassive mask. His eyes were the blank stone walls of a fortress. Nevertheless, his personal comment aroused a tickle of awareness.
"Never liked it long." Her ex-husband had, however.
A softening of his lips looked suspiciously like the beginnings of a smile. Did he recognize her attempt to camouflage herself? Shapeless gray pantsuit, short hair, no jewelry of any kind, a sensible watch, flat shoes, minimal makeup. Dull as dirt to look at, but confident and authoritative about her business. She'd never been any man's fantasy. Too tall for most boys. Too flat-chested and skinny for the rest, the best she'd been able to hope for from her male classmates in high school was best friend or buddy. She'd grown up playing soccer, basketball and baseball with the guys.
Which is why it continued to blow her mind that a man like Maxwell Case, who could have any woman he wanted, had wanted her once upon a time.
An enormous cherry desk dominated a position in front of the windows. The piece seemed too clunky for Max. Rachel pictured him behind an aerodynamic glass and chrome desk loaded down with the latest computer gadgets.
Instead of leading the way toward his desk, Max settled on the couch that occupied one wall of his office. With a flick of his hand, he indicated a flanking chair. Disliking the informality of the setting, Rachel perched on the very edge of the seat. Her briefcase on her lap acted as both a shield and a reminder that this was a business meeting.
"I need an executive assistant here first thing tomorrow."
Rachel hadn't been prepared for Andrea to have her baby two weeks early. She had no one available that was skilled enough to fill in starting in the morning. "I have the perfect person for you, but she can't start until Monday."
"That won't do."
With her commission slipping away, panic crept into her voice. "It's only two days. Surely you can make it without an assistant until Monday."
"With Andrea gone today, I'm already behind. We're up to our necks in next year's budgets. I need someone who can get up to speed swiftly. Someone with world-class organizational skills." His focus sharpened on her. "Someone like you. You're exactly what I need."
Her gut clenched at the flare of something white hot in his eyes.
A matching blaze roared to life inside her. Five years ago, that similar fire had charred her self-protective instincts and reduced her sensible nature to ash. She'd flung herself headlong into his arms without considering the repercussions.
The last time she'd lost herself that way, he'd ended up hating her. Meeting his gaze, she realized that his anger hadn't been blunted by the passing years. Time hadn't healed. It had honed his resentment into a razor-sharp tool for revenge.
Rachel braced herself against the earthquake of panic that threatened her peaceful little world and set her jaw. "You can't have me."
Her declaration hung in the air. But he could have her
As his assistant.
In any of the dozens of ways he'd had her before. His choice. Not hers.
Energy zipped between them, fascinating and unsettling. The scent of her perfume aroused memories. Reminded him how sharp and sweet the desire was between them.
"Are you really ready to risk disappointing a client?"
"No." A rosy flush dusted her high cheekbones. Had she picked up on his thoughts? "But I can't abandon my business to be your assistant."
"Hire someone to fill in for you." He bared his teeth in an unfriendly grin. "Even you can see the irony in that."
For the last few minutes, cracks had been developing in her professionalism. "You're being unreasonable."
"Of course I am. I'll call someone else." The telltale widening of her eyes was gone so fast he nearly missed it. This is where he challenged her reputation for providing excellent customer service to test how badly she wanted his business. "I'm sure another agency would have what I need."
"Lansing Employment has what you need," she countered, the words muddy because she spoke through clenched teeth.
He held silent while she tried to stare him down. Every instinct told him to send her on her way as he would any other supplier who couldn't provide him with exactly what he wanted.
But they had unfinished business. At some point in the last five minutes he'd decided he needed closure. Four days with her hadn't been enough time for the passion to burn out. Much to his dismay, he still wanted her. But for how long was anyone's guess. From past experience he knew his interest rarely lasted more than two months.
And when he grew tired of her, he would end things on his terms. On his schedule.
"Fine." She glared at him. "I'll fill in for two days."
She stood, ready to stalk out of the office, but something held her in place. Her eyes were troubled as they settled on him. "Why are you doing this?"
"Demanding that I act as your assistant until I can find a replacement."
"You're here. It's expedient."
His current workload was crushing him. His managers had finalized their forecasts and forwarded next year's budget numbers a week ago. With the economy slow to recover, controlling spending and increasing sales was more important than ever. Case Consolidated Holdings owned over a dozen companies, each one with very different markets and operations. It was an organizational challenge to collect and analyze data from the various sources given that each entity operated in a completely unique environment with it's own set of parameters and strategic plans.
Andrea knew the businesses as well as he did. Losing her now threw off his entire schedule.
"Are you sure that's all it is?" Rachel demanded.
Max stopped worrying about deadlines and reminded himself that his desperate staffing situation was only half the reason he'd insisted Rachel fill in for a few days. "What else could it be?"