The Boss's Proposal CATHY WILLIAMS Ëèòàãåíò HarperCollins EUR Vicky's relationship with Max Forbes, her sexy new boss, had to stay strictly business…just in case he discovered her secret - her young daughter, Chloe.Even after their passionate night together, Vicky was just as secretive about her private life. But when Max accidentally came face-to-face with Chloe, the secret was out. Chloe looked exactly like her father, Max's late brother! And Max wanted Chloe to have the Forbes name; even if that meant marrying his secretary! “You’re out of a job. You realize that don’t you?” He didn’t give her time to answer his rhetorical question. “And I won’t be conveniently supporting my niece from a convenient distance. Close up and personal. That’s the role I intend to play.” His mouth was a grim line. “I can survive happily without your money,” Vicky bit out sharply. “I’ve managed on my own for years and I can carry on managing.” She could feel tears pricking against her eyelids and she blinked them away. Max trailed a finger along the shelf, in the manner of someone checking for dust. “So here’s our little problem. Out of the blue, I have a niece, someone who deserves to carry the family name. I don’t intend to run away from my responsibilities, such as they are, which means an investment of time as well as money, and please—” he held up one hand to cut off the heated protest forming on her lips “—spare me the aggrieved pride. As far as I can see it, everything has a solution and here’s mine. My niece inherits the family name and so, on an incidental basis, do you. I’m proposing to marry you.” Getting down to business in the boardroom…and the bedroom! A secret romance, a forbidden affair, a thrilling attraction… What happens when two people work together and simply can’t help falling in love—no matter how hard they try to resist? Find out in our new series of stories set against working backgrounds. This month in The Boss’s Proposal by Cathy Williams Since Vicky had started sleeping with her boss, Max Forbes, she was worried he would discover her secret. But when Max met the secret—her young daughter, Chloe—he realized immediately this was his late brother’s child, and insisted on marrying Vicky! The Boss’s Proposal Cathy Williams CONTENTS CHAPTER ONE CHAPTER TWO CHAPTER THREE CHAPTER FOUR CHAPTER FIVE CHAPTER SIX CHAPTER SEVEN CHAPTER EIGHT CHAPTER NINE CHAPTER TEN CHAPTER ONE ‘AH, YES, Miss Lockhart!’ The severely coiffeured and immaculately suited middle aged woman who’d emerged from behind the smoked glass doors leading into the impressive foyer of Paxus PLC favoured her with a beaming smile. ‘I’m Geraldine Hogg and I’m in charge of the typing pool.’ She grasped Vicky’s hand and shook it firmly. ‘I have your application form here, my dear—’ she waved the stapled papers at her ‘—and you’re in for something of a surprise.’ At which, Vicky’s heart sank. She didn’t like surprises, and she hadn’t spent half an hour battling with rush-hour traffic to find herself confronted with one. She’d applied for the post of typist at Paxus PLC because the pay offered was excellent and because working as a typist, whilst going nowhere career-wise, was just the sort of reliable job she needed while she got her house in order. Something undemanding which would give her the time she desperately needed to sort herself out. ‘Now, my dear, why don’t we go to my office and I’ll explain all to you?’ Geraldine Hogg had the sort of booming, hearty voice that Vicky associated with privately educated girls who had spent their school years getting their teeth into vigorous outdoor sports like hockey and netball. Her manner was brisk without being aggressive, and whatever so-called surprise lay ahead, Vicky felt that she would work well for the woman now ushering her through the smoked glass double doors and into a luxuriantly carpeted corridor flanked with offices. ‘I must say, you seem rather over-qualified for the job advertised,’ she said confidingly, and Vicky tried to suppress a sigh of disappointment. ‘I make a very hard worker, Miss Hogg,’ she ventured, half running to keep up with the enormous strides of the other woman. She could feel her long, curly hair beginning to rebel against the clips she’d painstakingly used to restrain it and she nervously tried to shove it back into place with one hand, without missing a step. She needed this job and it wouldn’t do to create the wrong impression, even though it was virtually impossible to look mature and sophisticated when her red-gold hair was congenitally disobedient and her expression, however hard she tried to look stern, was constantly ambushed by her freckles. ‘Here we are!’ Geraldine Hogg stopped abruptly in front of one of the doors and Vicky only just missed careering into the back of her. ‘My typists are just through there.’ She waved one sweeping hand at the large, open-planned area opposite her office, and Vicky peered into the room, imagining what it would be like to work there. Her last job in Australia had been a far cry from this. There, she had been one of the personal assistants to the director of a sprawling public company. ‘Come in, come in. Tea? Coffee?’ She indicated a chair facing her desk and waited until Vicky had sat down before summoning a young girl through to bring them something to drink. ‘I can recommend the coffee, my dear. None of this instant stuff.’ ‘Yes, fine, I’d love a cup,’ Vicky said faintly. She felt as though she had been yanked along at dizzying speed so that she needed to recover her breath. ‘White, no sugar. Thank you very much.’ ‘Now, I won’t keep you,’ Geraldine sat forward, both elbows on the desk and gave her an intent stare. ‘I’ll just tell you about the little surprise I have in store for you!’ She linked her fingers together and cocked her head to one side. ‘First of all, let me say that I was highly impressed with your CV.’ She glanced down at the highly impressive CV and flicked through it casually while Vicky’s head whirled with all the dreadful permutations of this so-called surprise in store for her. ‘Lots of qualifications!’ She rattled off a few of them, which only served to emphasise how ridiculously over-qualified Vicky was for the job in question. ‘You must have been quite an asset to the company you worked for!’ ‘I’d like to think so.’ Vicky attempted a confident smile but was quietly glad for the interruption of the young girl bringing two cups of coffee. ‘Why did you decide to leave Australia?’ Sharp blue eyes scrutinised Vicky’s face, but before Vicky could answer Geraldine held up one hand and said, ‘No! No point answering that! I’ll just fill you in on your position here. First of all, we feel that you would be wasted working as a typist…’ ‘Ah.’ She could feel the sting of disappointed tears prick the back of her eyes. Since leaving Australia four months previously, Vicky had worked in various temporary jobs, none of which had been satisfactory, and the two permanent posts she’d applied for had both turned her down for the very reason Geraldine Hogg appeared to be giving her now. Unless she secured a proper job she would find herself running into financial problems, and she couldn’t afford to start dipping into her meagre savings. Not in her situation. ‘But, fortunately,’ Geraldine swept on in a satisfied voice, ‘we have something far better to interview you for, my dear, so there’s no need for you to look quite so dejected. The head of our organisation will be spending a great deal more time in this particular subsidiary and he needs a secretary. Admittedly, you’re a bit young for the post, but your qualifications provide a good argument for putting you forward for the job, which, incidentally, will pay double the one you were to be interviewed for!’ ‘Working for the head of the organisation?’ From past experience Vicky knew that nothing came without a catch, and this opportunity sounded just a little too good to be true. ‘I’ll take you up to see him now, and while I don’t, obviously, guarantee that the job is yours, your past experience will certainly stand in your favour.’ It occurred to Vicky that none of this was happening. It was all some bizarre dream which would end the minute she opened her eyes. In fact, applying to the company had had a dream-like feel about it from the start. She had seen the advertisement in the newspaper and the name of the company had triggered a memory somewhere in the dark recesses of her mind. Shaun, in one of his eternal, self-glorifying rambles, had mentioned it as one of the myriad companies his family owned and the name had stuck because it had been the name of the road on which she had lived with her aunt in Sydney. Just answering the advert had taken will-power, because Shaun was possibly the one person in the world whose memory made her recoil in revulsion. But answer it she had, partly through curiosity to see proof of the great Forbes Dynasty and partly because the pay offered had been too good to refuse. Now, she curiously looked around her as she was shown up to the third floor. The dåcor was muted and luxuriant. The central areas were open plan but fringed with small, private offices, sheltered from prying eyes by the same smoked glass as in the foyer. The company—which, she recalled from the newspaper advert, had not been going for very long—had obviously chosen the nursery supplying its plants with some care, because in between the usual lush green artificial trees that most successful companies sported were expensive orchids and roses which couldn’t be very easy to maintain. ‘Hope you don’t mind the walk up,’ Geraldine was saying briskly at her side. ‘I can’t abide elevators. Much prefer a spot of good old-fashioned exercise. World would be a better place if people just got off their arses, pardon my French, and used their legs a bit more!’ Vicky, busy looking around her, puffed and panted an agreement. Somehow she found it difficult to associate Shaun with clean, efficient, seemingly well-run surroundings like these. She could feel her mind going down familiar paths and focused her attention on Geraldine and what she was saying, which appeared to be a congratulatory monologue on the massive and successful Forbes Holdings, of which Paxus PLC was a small but blossoming satellite. She wondered whether any mention would be made of Shaun, or even the brother, the one who lived in New York, but there was no mention of either in between the steady stream of growth, profit and share price chat. ‘’Course, I’ve worked for the family for twenty years now. Wanted a career teaching sport, but I did the back in, my dear, and ended up going along the secretarial road. Not that I’ve regretted a minute of working here,’ she confided, and just when Vicky imagined that the bracing talk might become less factual and more personal, Geraldine paused in front of a door and knocked authoritatively. ‘Yes!’ Mysteriously, Vicky saw that the plain, down-to-earth face had turned pink and, when Geraldine pushed open the door and poked her head in, her voice was almost kittenish. ‘Miss Lockhart here for you, sir.’ ‘Who?’ ‘Miss Lockhart.’ ‘Now?’ Vicky gazed, embarrassed, at the unappealing abstract painting on the wall opposite. Was this ‘surprise’ job offer also a surprise to the man in question, or were heads of organisations exempt from good manners? ‘I did inform you a week ago…’ Geraldine said, lapsing into her more autocratic voice. ‘Show her in, Gerry, show her in.’ At which, Geraldine pushed open the door wider and stepped back to allow Vicky through. The man was sitting behind a huge desk, lounging in a black leather swivel chair which he had pushed away from the desk so that he could cross his legs in comfort. Under the rapid pounding of her heart, Vicky was dimly aware of the door gently being shut behind her, and then she was left, stranded, in the middle of the large office, like a fish that had suddenly found itself floundering in the middle of a desert. Her breathing was laboured and she hardly dared move a muscle, because if she did she suspected that her shaky legs would collapse completely. All she could see was the nightmare in front of her. The dark hair, the strong angular face, those peculiar grey eyes. ‘Are you all right, Miss Lockhart?’ The question was posed in an impatient voice from which could be dredged not even passing concern. ‘You look as though you’re about to faint and I really haven’t got the time to deal with a fainting secretary.’ ‘I’m fine. Thank you.’ Fine, she thought, considering the shock that had rocked her to the foundations. She was still standing, wasn’t she? If that wasn’t fine, what was? ‘Then sit down.’ He nodded curtly at the chair facing him. ‘I’m afraid it slipped my mind that you were supposed to be coming today… Your application form’s somewhere here…bear with me for a moment…’ ‘That’s fine!’ Suddenly Vicky found her voice. ‘In fact, there’s no need to waste your time interviewing me. I don’t think I would be suitable at all for this job.’ She just wanted to get out of the office and out of the building as fast as her legs could take her. Her skin was on fire and her temples were beginning to pound. He didn’t immediately answer. Instead, he paused in his search for the elusive CV and the pale grey eyes became suddenly watchful as they scanned her flushed face. ‘Oh, really?’ he said slowly. ‘And why do you think that would be?’ He stood up. A towering, well-built man, he strolled to the bay window behind his chair, from where he perched against the ledge, all the better to watch her. Between the host of emotions and thoughts besieging her, Vicky tried to locate a functioning part of her brain which might come up with a good excuse for showing up at this company for a job, only to spuriously announce that she had to leave immediately. Nothing was forthcoming. ‘You know, you do look a little nervous.’ He brushed his chin reflectively with one finger while continuing to scrutinise her face with the lazy intensity of a predator eyeing up potential prey. ‘Not one of these highly strung, neurotic types, are you?’ ‘Yes,’ Vicky agreed, ready to clutch any lifeline offered that might get her out of the place, ‘highly strung and very neurotic. No use to a man like you.’ ‘A man like me? And what kind of man might that be?’ Vicky dropped her eyes rather than reveal the answer to that particular question. The strength of the response she would give him might just blow him off his feet. ‘Sit down, why don’t you? You’re beginning to interest me, Miss Lockhart.’ He waited until she had made her way to the chair and flopped down, then allowed a few more seconds to pass, during which he looked at her as though trying to unravel the workings of her mind. ‘Now, tell me why I’m beginning to feel that there’s something going on here that I know nothing about.’ ‘I don’t know what you mean.’ ‘I’ll let that pass.’ He flashed her smile that indicated that the subject had been dropped but by no means abandoned. He has a God complex, the bastard. He’s always felt that he could run my life, along with everyone else’s. She could hear Shaun’s voice, high and resentful as it always had been whenever he spoke about his brother. Vicky’s tightly controlled mind slowly began to unravel as her eyes locked with Max Hedley Forbes. Because that was his name. She’d heard it often enough from Shaun’s lips. A litany of bitterness and antagonism towards a brother whose mission in life, she’d been told often enough, had been to undermine as many people as he could in the minimum amount of time. He’d been a monster of selfishness, Shaun had said to her, a man who only knew how to take, a man who rode roughshod over the rest of the human race and most of all over his one and only brother, whose name he’d discredited so thoroughly that even his father had chosen to turn his back on his son. It had never occurred to her when she applied for this job that fate would be waiting for her just around the corner. Max Forbes lived in New York and had done for years. She’d never thought that she would end up finding him in an office building in Warwick, of all places. The past squeezed her soul and she briefly closed her eyes, giving in to the vertigo threatening to overwhelm her. Shaun might have turned out to be a nightmare, but nightmares were not born, they were made. The world and the people in it had shaped him, and the man coolly inspecting her now had been pivotal in the shaping of his brother. However awful Shaun had been, wasn’t this man opposite her worse? ‘So,’ the dark, velvety voice drawled, dragging her away from her painful trip down memory lane and back to the present, ‘you claim to be neurotic and highly strung, yet—’ he reached forward to a stack of papers on the desk and extracted one, from which he read ‘—you still managed to sustain a reasonably high-powered job in Australia from which you left with glowing recommendations. Odd, wouldn’t you agree? Or perhaps your neuroses were under control at that point in time?’ Vicky refrained from comment and instead contented herself with staring out of the window, which offered a view of sky and red-brick buildings. ‘Has Geraldine given you any indication as to why this post has become available?’ He moved around the desk and perched on it, so that he was directly facing Vicky, looking down at her. ‘Not in any great detail, no,’ Vicky told him, ‘but honestly, there’s no point launching into any explanations. The fact of the matter is…’ What was the fact of the matter? ‘The fact of the matter is that I had really set my heart on working in a typing pool…’ His lips twitched, but when he answered his voice was serious and considering. ‘Of course. I quite understand that you might not want to compromise your undoubted talents by getting a good job with career prospects…’ Vicky shot him a brief look from under thick, dark lashes, momentarily disconcerted by the suggestion of humour beneath the sarcasm. ‘I have an awful lot on my plate just now,’ she said vaguely. ‘I wouldn’t want to take on anything demanding because I don’t think that I would be able to do it justice.’ ‘What?’ ‘I beg your pardon?’ ‘What have you got on your plate?’ His eyes scanned her CV then focused on her. ‘Well,’ Vicky stuttered, taken aback by the directness of the question, ‘I’ve only recently returned from Australia and I have a lot of things to do concerning…my house and generally settling in…’ This explanation skirted so broadly around the truth that she could feel the colour rise to her cheeks. ‘Why did you decide to go to Australia?’ ‘My mother…passed away…I felt that the change would do me good…and I just happened to stay a great deal longer than I had anticipated. I landed a job in a very good company quite early on and I was promoted in the first six months. I…it was easier than coming back to England and dealing with…’ ‘Your loss?’ Vicky stiffened at the perceptiveness behind the question. She’d once considered Shaun to be a perceptive, sensitive person. Perhaps illusions along those lines ran in the Forbes family. ‘I would appreciate it if we could terminate this interview now.’ She began getting to her feet, smoothing down the dark grey skirt, nervously brushing non-existent flecks of dust from it rather than face those amazing, unsettling grey eyes. ‘I’m sorry if I’ve wasted your time. I realise that you’re a very busy man, and time is money. Had I been aware of the situation, I would have telephoned to cancel the appointment. As I said, I’m not interested in a job that’s going to monopolise my free time.’ ‘Your references,’ he said coolly, ignoring her pointed attempt to leave his office, ‘from the Houghton Corporation are glowing…’ He looked at her carefully while she remained in dithering uncertainty on her feet, unable to turn her back and walk out of the office but reluctant to sit back down and allow him to think that the job in question was open for debate. ‘Very impressive, and all the more so because I know James Houghton very well.’ ‘You know him?’ Several potential catastrophes presented themselves to her when she heard this and she weakly sat back down. It wouldn’t do for Max Forbes to contact her old boss in Australia. There were too many secrets hidden away there, secrets she had no intention of disclosing. ‘We went to school together a million years ago.’ He pushed himself up from the desk and began prowling around the room, one minute within her line of vision, the next a disembodied voice somewhere behind her. If his tactic was to unsettle her, then he was going about it the right way. ‘He’s a good businessman. A recommendation from him counts for a hell of a lot.’ He paused and the silence from behind her made the hairs on the back of her neck stand on end. ‘Where in Australia did you live?’ ‘In the city. My aunt has a house there.’ There was an element of danger in this line of questioning but Vicky had no idea how to retrieve the situation. ‘Did much socialising?’ ‘With whom?’ she asked cautiously. It would help, she thought, if he would return within her line of vision so that she could see the expression on his face—but then, on reflection, perhaps it wasn’t a bad thing that she couldn’t. After all, he would be able to see hers, and she had a great deal more to hide than he would ever have imagined in a million years. ‘People from your work.’ She could sense him as he walked slowly round to the side of her. His presence made her feel clammy and claustrophobic. Out of the corner of her eye, she could make him out as he lounged against the wall, hands shoved deep into his trouser pockets, head tilted slightly to one side as though carefully weighing up what she was saying. Weighing it up and, she thought with a flash of sudden foreboding, storing up every word to be used at a later date in evidence against her. Not that there would be a later date, she reminded herself. Powerful though he was, he couldn’t compel her to work for his company. He might grill her now because she had been stupid enough to make him think that there was more to her than met the eye, but very shortly she would be gone and he would be nothing more than a freakish reminder of how eerie coincidence could be. The thought of imminent escape steadied her nerves and she even managed to force a smile to her face. ‘Off and on. I had a lot of friends in Sydney. The Australians are a very friendly lot.’ She risked a sideways glance at him. ‘So I’ve been told. My brother certainly thought so.’ ‘You had a brother out there?’ A slow crawl of treacherous colour stole across her face and she could feel a fine perspiration begin to film above her lip. ‘Shaun Forbes.’ He allowed the name to register. ‘My twin.’ He had never told her. She’d known Shaun for nearly a year and a half and he’d never once mentioned that the brother whose name he reviled was his identical twin. She imagined now that it must have been deeply galling to have so spectacularly failed to live up to a brother who had emerged from the womb at the same time as he had and had been given exactly the same upbringing and privileges, yet had succeeded. Seeing Max Forbes had been a heart-stopping shock. There was enough in their physical make-up to send her spinning sickeningly back into the past and every memory she had spent so long trying to crush had reared their ugly heads with gleeful malice. ‘He was quite prominent on the social scene, I gather.’ His mouth twisted and he turned away and strode towards the desk. ‘No. The name doesn’t ring a bell.’ The words almost got stuck in her throat. This was what it felt like to be toyed with by the devil, she thought. Life had not been easy since she’d returned to England. The last batch of tenants to occupy her mother’s house had been cavalier in their treatment of it and, frustratingly, the estate agents who handled the rental had had nothing to say on the subject. So, on top of the uphill task of finding work and getting her finances straight, there was the little problem of the house, which needed a complete overhaul. Even the walls seemed to smell. And then there was Chloe. Vicky half closed her eyes and a wave of nausea rushed through her. ‘I’m surprised. James spent a lot of time in his company. I might have expected that you would have seen him at some point in the offices.’ Vicky, whose vocal cords were failing to co-operate with her brain, shook her head and looked blankly at the man staring at her. ‘No?’ he prodded, glancing back down at her CV, and she made an inarticulate, choking sound by way of reply. ‘Well, perhaps not. Shaun probably wouldn’t have noticed you, anyway.’ That succeeded in clearing her head admirably. He surely couldn’t have meant to insult her, but insult her he had. If only he knew that seek her out was precisely what his hideous brother had done. Charmed her with his smooth conversation and his offerings of flowers and empty flattery. Told her that she was destined to rescue him from himself, thanked her with tears in his eyes for making him want to be a better human being. And she’d fallen for all the claptrap—hook, line and sinker. It hadn’t taken long before the mask had begun to disintegrate and she’d begun to see the ugliness behind the charming fa?ade. ‘Thank you very much,’ she said coldly. ‘Why did you decide to leave Australia if you had such a brilliant job and hectic social life?’ The question was irrelevant, considering she had no intention of working for the man, but fear of arousing yet more of his curiosity restrained her from telling him to mind his own business. ‘I never intended to build my life out there. I felt that it was time to come back to England.’ Chloe. Everything had centred around Chloe. ‘And you’ve had temp jobs since returning? The pay’s pretty poor, wouldn’t you agree?’ ‘I get by.’ Lousy was the word for it. ‘And you’re living—?’ For a minute, the piercing grey eyes left her face and perused the paper in front of him. ‘—just outside Warwick…rented place?’ ‘My mother left her house to me when she…died. It’s been rented out for the past few years.’ He shoved the paper away from him, leaned back in his chair with his hands folded behind his head and looked at her without bothering to disguise his curiosity. ‘Young woman, who’s just returned from abroad, and doubtless wants to refurnish house, rejects job that is vastly superior to the one for which she originally applied. Help me out there with a logical explanation? If there’s one thing I can’t stand, it’s a mystery. I always feel that mysteries are there to be solved, and, by hook or by crook, guess what…?’ ‘What?’ Vicky asked, mesmerised by his eyes. When she’d first met Shaun, the first thing she’d noticed had been his eyes. Those pale eyes and black hair and the chiselled, beautiful lines of his face. He was like an Adonis. If she’d had any sense, she would have seen past the outside to the man within and it wouldn’t have taken her long to notice the weakness behind the good looks, the restless feverish energy of a man who needed to find his fixes outside himself, the mouth that could thin to a cruel line in a matter of seconds. With that in mind, it sickened her that she could feel something inside her tighten alarmingly at the sight of his twin. ‘I always get to the bottom of them.’ He gave her a slow, dangerous smile and she shivered. Max Forbes was so like his brother, and yet so dissimilar in ways that she couldn’t quite put her finger on. If Shaun’s looks had captivated because of their prettiness, his brother’s hypnotised because of their power, and if Shaun had always known what to say to get the girls into bed, Vicky imagined that his brother achieved what he wanted by the very fact that he disregarded the normal little social conventions and said precisely what he wanted, despite the consequences. He had the sort of rugged, I’ll-do-as-I-damn-well-want charisma that women, she suspected, would find difficult to resist. Even Geraldine Hogg had become coy in his presence. Max Forbes looked at the small figure on the chair. She looked more like a child than a woman, with that pointed elfin face and pale, freckled skin. The picture of innocence. But his instincts were telling a different story. Something was not quite above board and his desire to find out what surprised him. He hadn’t felt so damned curious about anyone for a long time. He stared at her and felt a rush of satisfied pleasure when she blushed and looked away quickly. Oh, yes. Life had ceased to be merely an affair of making money and making love, both with a great deal of flair and, lately, not much pleasure or satisfaction. Vicky Lockhart had something to hide and the thought of discovering what sent a ripple of enjoyment through him. It was a sensation so alien that it took him a few seconds to recognise what it was. ‘Oh, how very interesting,’ she said politely, her brown eyes widening. The sun, streaming through the window, caught her hair and seemed to turn it to flames. It was, he thought, a most unusual shade of red, and, connoisseur that he was, he was almost certain that it hadn’t come out of a bottle. Of course, she wasn’t his type. Not at all. He’d always gone for tall, full-breasted women, but still, he felt his mind wander as he imagined what that hair would look like, were it not pulled back. How long was it? Long, he imagined. Long and unruly. Nothing at all like the sleek-haired women he dated. Did the hair, he wondered, match the personality? Underneath that sweet, childish fa?ade was there a hot, steamy, untamed woman bursting to get out? He smiled at the passing thought and was startled to find that his body had responded rather too vigorously to the image he’d mentally conjured up. Getting aroused like this made him feel like an adolescent, and he cleared his throat in a business-like fashion. ‘I don’t know if Geraldine mentioned the pay…’ He waited for her curiosity to take the bait, then he rattled off a sum that was roughly twice what he’d had in mind for the job in question. He could see the glimmer of interest illuminate the brown eyes and her small fists clenched at the sides of the chair as though she had to steady herself. ‘That’s a very generous salary. She did mention that the pay would be more than the job advertised in the newspaper…’ She wanted to accept. He could see it written on her face and he waited patiently for her to nod her head. ‘But, really, I’m afraid I must say no.’ It took a few seconds for that to sink in. ‘What?’ Not much floored him, but for a passing moment he could feel himself rendered speechless. ‘I can’t accept.’ He looked at the small, elfin face, the delicate mouth, the soft brown eyes fringed with impossibly long auburn lashes, and was assailed by a humiliating sensation of powerlessness. He couldn’t make her accept his offer—he wasn’t even that sure why he was so infuriated by her refusal; he just knew that he wanted to shake her until she agreed to work for him. The absurdity of his reaction was enough to make him shake his head and smile. He must be losing his mind. Wrapping up New York and then moving to the UK must have conspired to bring about some kind of subliminal breakdown, or else why would he now be staring at a perfect stranger and feeling this way? He glanced down at the desk and began drumming his pen on it. ‘Of course, if I can’t persuade you…’ ‘I’m flattered that you’ve been prepared to try…’ She stood up and gave him an awkward and, he was irritated to see, relieved smile. ‘Thousands of people would kill for the job offer I’ve just made you.’ He heard his over-hearty voice and bared his teeth in a smile of good-mannered regret. His eyes flicked to her face and he could feel himself stiffen once again at the thought of what she would look like with her hair down. Then, to his utter disgust, and completing his inexorable decline into pubescent irrationality, he glanced down at her breasts, two small bumps underneath the bulk of shirt and jacket, and wondered what they would be like. Tiny, he imagined. Small, pointed, freckled with rosy nipples. Red hair tumbling down a naked body and rose-peaked breasts just big enough to fit into his… He virtually gulped and was obliged, as he stood up, to conceal his treacherous body by leaning forward on the desk and supporting himself on his hands. ‘Are you quite sure you won’t reconsider…?’ ‘Quite sure.’ She looked at him uncertainly, then stretched out her hand, which he took and shook, paying lip service to good manners. He could tell that even that small gesture was not one she particularly wanted to make but courtesy had compelled her. What was her story? He made her nervous, but why? He didn’t threaten her…or did he? He wondered whether they’d met before, but he was sure that he would have remembered. There was something unforgettable about the ethereal delicacy of that face and the teasing disarray of that remarkable hair. She had been to Australia, however… ‘If I speak to James, I shall mention I’ve met you,’ he murmured, walking her to the door and he felt the momentary pause in her steps. ‘Of course. And do you…keep in regular touch with him?’ ‘I used to. He occasionally kept an eye on my wayward brother.’ ‘And he no longer does?’ He picked up the struggle in her voice with interest. ‘My brother died a while back in a car crash, Miss Lockhart.’ Vicky nodded, and instead of proffering the usual mutterings of sympathy rested her hand on the door knob and turned it, ready to flee. She knew that she should express some kind of courteous regret at that, but honesty stopped her from doing so. She had no regrets at Shaun’s fate. To forgive was divine, but it wasn’t human, and she had no aspirations to divinity. ‘Well, perhaps we’ll meet again.’ Perhaps, indeed. Much sooner than you think. ‘I doubt it.’ She smiled and pulled open the door. ‘But thanks for the job offer, anyway. And good luck in finding someone for the post.’ CHAPTER TWO THE GARDEN had been the most distressing sight to greet her upon her return to England and to the modest three-bedroom cottage that had been her mother’s. She’d more or less expected to find the house in something of a state. It had seen a variety of tenants, not all of them reliable family units, and even when her mother had been alive it had been in dire need of repair. But the garden had broken her heart. A combination of young children, cigarette-smoking teenagers and, from the looks of things, adults with hobnailed boots had rendered it virtually unrecognisable. One more thing, she thought wearily, to bring to the attention of the agency that had handled the letting, although what precisely the point of doing that would be, she had no idea. Marsha, the woman in whose hands Vicky had hurriedly but confidently left the house, had left the firm eighteen months back, and since then the house had been handled by a series of people, none of whom had done justice to it. Perhaps they’d thought that she would never return to England, or at least not quite as unexpectedly as she had in the end. It broke her heart to think of all the time and effort that her mother had spent in the small, immaculate garden. A decade ago, it had been her salvation after the death of her husband, Vicky’s father, and it had steadfastly seen her through her ups and downs, providing comfort and soothing her when her illness took hold and she no longer had the energy to go walking or attempt anything energetic. She’d laid borders and hedgerows and planted wild roses and shrubbery with the imagination of someone whose every other outlet had been prematurely barred. Vicky could remember the summer evenings spent out in it, listening to the sounds of nature and appreciating the tumult of colour. The cottage was set back at the end of a lane in a part of Warwickshire noted for its rural beauty. The small garden, now sporting an interesting array of weeds which formed a charming tangle around the occasional outcrop of lager bottles, ambled down to a white fence, beyond which stretched cultivated fields. A plot of reasonably well-maintained land bordered by trees separated the cottage from its neighbour, a rather more substantial family house to the right. To the left woodland kept the well-used roads at bay. Vicky, sweating in her layers of clothing and grimy with the exertions of her Saturday morning garden clear-out, peered through some bush at yet another aluminium can. Robert ‘call-me-Robbie’ at the agency had assured her that whatever she’d found in the garden had not been there when the house and grounds had been inspected, and she knew, anyway, that she was pretty late to be lodging complaints about the state of the garden. Only recently had she managed to find the time to do anything other than superficially maintain it, a thirty-minute job whenever she found the time to spare. This was the first time she’d really got stuck in, and that only because she’d managed to farm Chloe out to one of her playmates from school. The thought of her five-year-old daughter automatically brought a smile to her lips. At least she had no worries on that front. Chloe had taken to the school and her classmates like a duck to water and that had been an enormous source of relief. She stuck on her gardening glove, wriggled her hand into the undergrowth, half her mind still playing with the thought of her gorgeous raven-haired daughter, so different physically from her, and the other half preoccupied with the unwelcome thought that she might find one or two bugs in addition to the can, and was about to reach for the offending object when a voice said from behind her, ‘Thought I might find you here. Hope I’m not interrupting anything.’ The shock of the voice sent her falling face-first into the bush, and when she emerged, after a short struggle with greenery, earth and some unfortunate spiky things, she was decidedly the worse for wear. ‘What are you doing here?’ She hadn’t even rescued the can! Max Forbes, in the bracing winter sunshine, looked horribly, impossibly good. The brisk wind had ruffled his dark hair so that it sprang away from his face in an endearingly boyish way that was at odds with the powerful angularity of his features, and as his trench coat blew open she spotted a casual attire of dark trousers and a thick cream jumper with a pale-coloured shirt underneath. The shock of seeing him in her garden and the impact of his presence made her take a couple of steps back. ‘Be careful you don’t fall into the bush again.’ ‘What are you doing here?’ Now that her slow-witted brain had come to terms with his looming great masculine presence, her thought patterns suddenly shot into fifth gear, and the realisation that Chloe was out for the morning was enough to render her weak-kneed with relief. ‘Actually, I’ve just come from your neighbours down the road. Small world, wouldn’t you say? Thompsons. Live three houses away.’ ‘I don’t know the names of the people here, aside from the elderly couple opposite.’ ‘So I thought I’d drop in, see whether you’d managed to find yourself a job as yet.’ Standing opposite him, head tilted at an awkward angle because without heels she was a good ten inches shorter than him, Vicky felt small, grubby and disadvantaged. The long braid hanging down her back was an insult to anyone with a sense of style and there was mud and soil all over her face, clothes, hands—probably in her hair as well. Her sturdy wellingtons were covered in muck. When she removed the gardening gloves, she would doubtless find that they matched the state of her nails. ‘It’s only been three days and no luck yet. Thank you.’ She refused to budge even though the cold was seeping through her jumper and waxed jacket and making her shiver. She stuck her hands in the pockets of the jacket and glared at him. ‘Too bad.’ ‘I’m sure something will turn up.’ ‘Oh, I don’t know. Jobs in typing pools are thin on the ground. ’Course, you’ll have no trouble getting something much better paid with infinitely more prospects, but who needs that sort of work?’ There was a veiled amusement in his voice that only made her more addled and crosser than she already was. ‘Look, why don’t we go inside? I’ve got time for a cup of tea and you can tell me all about Australia.’ ‘There’s nothing to tell.’ A telltale pulse was beating rhythmically in the hollow of her neck and the little bud of panic that had begun to sprout the minute she’d heard his voice flowered into full bloom. They couldn’t possibly go inside. Chloe wasn’t around, but signs of her were everywhere. He didn’t know that she had a child and that was the way she intended it to remain. It had been the only piece of sheer luck since meeting him. She’d answered the advertisement and had sheepishly omitted to mention Chloe simply because she had gleaned from several sources that a child in the background prompted awkward questions about childcare and being a single parent; this was the road to certain rejection by any company. School and Betsy, the lady who helped her out in the evenings sometimes, meant that there were no problems on the childcare front, and she reckoned, naively, that if she ever got offered a job she would inform her employers at that point and hope that they would take her on the strength of her interview, even once they knew of Chloe’s existence. Max looked down at her and confusingly wanted to do a number of things at the same time. First, he wanted to clear out, because he had no idea what had possessed him to go there in the first place. Unfortunately, and much to his immense frustration, he also wanted to stay put, because seeing her again had somehow managed to render him even more intrigued than he’d been on their first encounter. He also wanted to brush some of that dirt off her face, if only to see what her reaction would be. In fact, the urge to do just that was so powerful that he clasped his hands behind his back and purposely looked away. ‘Actually, I haven’t just dropped by,’ he said eventually, resenting her for putting him in a position where he was about to embark on an out-and-out lie and resenting himself for his own pathetic weakness that had brought him here to start with. ‘Oh, no?’ she asked warily. ‘It’s to do with your house, as a matter of fact.’ ‘What? What’s to do with my house?’ ‘Why don’t we go inside and talk about it?’ He didn’t think that he had ever been so bloody underhanded in his life before, and all because he hadn’t been able to get this chit of a girl out of his head. She had fired up his interest, for reasons he couldn’t fathom, and now here he was, behaving like some shady character in a third-rate movie. He had never, but never, done anything remotely like this in his entire life because of a woman, and he could hardly believe that he was doing it now. Conniving like a two-bit criminal. She didn’t say anything. Instead, she headed towards the house, leaning forward into the wind, which looked as though it might just lift her off her feet and sweep her away if she wasn’t careful. Max followed behind by a few paces, his teeth clenched in exasperation as she told him to wait outside until she’d tidied herself up. He raised his eyebrows in amusement. ‘Why outside?’ ‘Because,’ Vicky said coldly, ‘it’s my house and that’s what I’m telling you to do.’ Upon which she promptly shut the door in his face before he could open his mouth to protest further. She had never moved with more speed. The house was thankfully clean, and in under three minutes she’d managed to stash away all evidence of her daughter. It took her a further five minutes to sling off the grubby clothes and replace them with a pair of faded jeans and a long-sleeved striped jumper that had seen better days. The hair would have to remain in its charming grass-ridden style. ‘So,’ she said, yanking open the door to surprise him leaning against it, ‘what about my house?’ ‘Has anyone ever mentioned to you that you are completely eccentric?’ ‘No.’ She led the way into the sitting room, which had been the first room in the house to undergo redecoration and was now in restful greens and creams and blessedly free of childish clutter. She glanced at her watch and saw that it was at least another two hours before Chloe was dropped back to the house. More than enough time to get rid of Max Forbes, whose presence was enough to bring her out in a cold sweat. ‘My house,’ she reminded him bluntly, once she had installed him in a chair. ‘I won’t sit,’ she said. ‘I feel filthy. Now, what about my house?’ ‘I can’t conduct a conversation like this.’ He shook his head and stood up. ‘Which is a shame because I think you’d be very interested in what I have to say, but if your ill manners override your self-interest, then—’ he shrugged eloquently ‘—at least I tried…’ Vicky looked at him doubtfully. He really shouldn’t be here at all, and she knew that she should just throw him out. In fact, she should never have let him in in the first place. Hadn’t this been the same old story with his brother? From the minute she’d set eyes on him, she’d known that he was bad news. He’d been too good-looking, too smooth-talking and too well connected to be interested in a girl like her, but he’d stopped at her desk where she’d been working with her head down and he’d leaned over just enough for her to feel overpowered by him. Everything she’d said, even Please go away, I really must get on with my work had seemed to amuse him, and he had had a way of laughing deep in his throat, a sexy laugh, while his eyes never left her face, that had made her feel uncomfortable and excited at the same time. So if Shaun had achieved that with her, then how much more dangerous was his brother, who had struck her as being leagues ahead of him? And if her own need to protect herself wasn’t sufficient to keep her away from Max Forbes, then what about her daughter? Dark-haired, grey-eyed, Chloe had been the spitting image of Shaun from the day of her birth. There was no way under the sun she could have been anything but a Forbes, and time had strengthened rather than lessened the resemblance. If only theirs had been the tried and tested failed romance. If only Shaun had done the decent thing and walked away from her and his baby so that they could live their lives in peace. But, like all weak men, Shaun had needed his punch bag, and she had been his. He had rarely raised his hand to her, and then only under the influence of drink or drugs, but he hadn’t needed to go down that road to gain her compliance. All he’d had to do was threaten to take Chloe away from her. It had suited him to pretend to the world that he had never fathered a child, but he’d always taken great satisfaction in reminding her in private that if his family ever discovered his progeny then they would move in to claim what they would feel was rightfully theirs. Especially, he’d been fond of saying, if they could see the uncanny resemblance she bore to the Forbes clan. So, however painful it was to her, she’d lived in the shadow of fear. Sometimes days would pass, weeks even, and there would be no sign of him. Then he would return and demand his sexual privileges—and she had slept with him and wept bitter tears afterwards. To have Max Forbes under her roof was to have Lucifer with the key to her front door. She’d heard enough about him to know that the existence of Chloe would be of great interest to him. Would he try and spirit her away, or take her through the courts for custody? Ninety-nine point nine per cent of her knew that her child was safe, but that nought point one per cent was enough to terrify. She’d spent years protecting her daughter from an abusive man. She’d watched in helpless fear as he’d wielded his power over them both, smilingly and ruthlessly intimidating. Vicky had lived on a knife’s edge, waiting in dreaded expectation of the worst. Now, Vicky knew she must keep Chloe’s existence a secret from Max. For all she knew, these brothers might have more in common than mere appearance. Much more. And she had not escaped from one destructive cycle only to find herself hooked into another. She would never give a man that power over her again. Never. Max was standing by the door, saying something, and Vicky’s attention snapped back to the present. The house. She couldn’t afford to run into problems with the house. She had barely begun to find her feet and Chloe could do without any more changes in her life. ‘Sit down. Please. I might as well hear what you have to say.’ She nodded to the chair which he had just vacated and he appeared to give her request some thought. ‘You seem to act as though I’m doing you a favour. I assure you, Miss Lockhart, you couldn’t be further from the truth.’ ‘I’m sorry. I have…things on my mind.’ ‘Why don’t you go and change? Clean clothes might improve your temper.’ She frowned and looked very much as though she would have liked to argue that particular point with him, but instead she informed him that she would bring him a cup of tea, or coffee. That, she thought, should keep him anchored in one place. The last thing she needed was Max Forbes prowling through her house. At least the sitting room—the one place that was kept neat at all times, even if the rest of the cottage was in a state of disarray—contained relatively few personal bits and pieces. She’d stuffed the pictures of Chloe in the weather-beaten pine trunk behind the sofa, and the books that lined the bookshelf on either side of the fireplace were the sort of everyday reading that gave nothing away. The ornaments had mostly belonged to her mother and had been retrieved from the attic where they had been stored while the house had been rented out. It was true what they said about there being safety in anonymity. When she returned to the sitting room with a mug of tea, it was to find him innocently perusing the newspaper which had been lying on the low, square battered pine table in front of the fireplace. She almost said Good, but managed to resist the temptation. ‘I won’t be a moment,’ she told him stiffly, and, just in case he got any ideas about exploring the place, she firmly shut the sitting room door behind her. Then she looked at her watch, to make sure that time was still on her side. Showering and changing took a matter of fifteen minutes. Self-beautification, even if the situation demanded it, was something she rarely did. Now, she just changed into a clean pair of jeans, a clean T-shirt and re-braided her hair without going to the bother of combing out all the knots, of which there would be thousands. Later, she would wash and shampoo her hair. ‘Now,’ she said, slipping into the room and seeing, with relief, that he was still absorbed in the newspaper, ‘you were going to tell me about my house.’ ‘Have you heard the rumours?’ ‘What rumours?’ ‘About the supermarket. Perhaps I should say hyper-market, because apparently there’ll be parking for hundreds of cars. If not thousands.’ Vicky, sitting cross-legged on the large comfy chair facing him, looked at him in horror. For a minute, she actually forgot that she was supposed to be on guard. She leaned forward, elbows on thighs, mouth open. ‘You’re joking.’ ‘Horrendous, isn’t it? I can’t bear those sprawling supermarkets myself. I much prefer smaller, more personal places to shop. Between Fortnum and Mason’s and Harrods, I’ve never had a problem finding what I want. Tell me, is there an equivalent here, by any chance?’ Now that he had launched into his lie, he couldn’t wait to distance himself from it. He glanced at her face and discovered that he couldn’t tear his eyes away. Her mouth was slightly parted and sitting like that, all folded into the chair in a way he had never seen a woman do before, she looked even more appealingly vulnerable. The T-shirt was small and close fitting and lovingly outlined her small, rounded breasts. He had to remind himself that he was only there because she had posed a mystery and he hated mysteries, and not because he was attracted to her, even though his mind kept churning up some embarrassingly graphic images of her body, unencumbered by clothing. Frustratingly, she seemed to have no interest in him whatsoever. As a man who was accustomed to women looking at him, uninterest was proving to be a powerful aphrodisiac. ‘Who told you this?’ she asked, after a few seconds of shocked silence. ‘No one and everyone. You know how it is with rumours. No one will admit to being the one who starts it. I mean, it may be entirely without foundation and certainly, in the business I’m in, I’m sure I would have seen something, something rather more substantial than gossip, but—’ he sighed, reluctantly focusing his attention on the bookshelf behind her ‘—I feel better about telling you.’ ‘My house won’t be worth a thing if a supermarket goes up opposite!’ Vicky burst out on the verge of tears. ‘Not that I want to sell up, but…’ ‘I’m sure it’s all a load of tosh,’ Max said hurriedly, guiltily seeing the sheen in her eyes. ‘What if it’s not?’ She couldn’t help herself. A supermarket! No, a hypermarket, with parking for ten thousand cars! It was the last straw. She blinked and, of its own accord, a tear trickled down her face. Her reaction appalled and dismayed her, but there seemed nothing she could do to stifle the ridiculous leakage. She was hardly aware of what was happening until she felt Max perch on the wide upholstered arm of the chair and he dabbed the handkerchief at her face. With a groan of despair, Vicky took it from him and did a better job of mopping herself up, then she leant her head back and closed her eyes with a deep sigh. ‘Look, I should never have said what I did.’ Little did she know, he thought, how sincerely he meant that. He reached out and stroked some hair away from her face, then carried on stroking her damp cheeks. Her skin was like satin and, up close, her freckles made a fascinating pattern across the bridge of her nose. His thumb slid a bit further down and, finding no deterrent, lightly brushed her mouth. ‘No, it’s just as well to be prepared.’ She opened her eyes and looked at him. There was a gentleness in his eyes that was unexpected enough to make the breath catch in her throat. ‘I could find out easily enough whether there’s truth behind the rumour,’ he told her softly, feeling himself harden as he carried on stroking her face. The woman was an enigma. He could hardly remember why he thought that she was hiding something. Right now, she was no more than a vulnerable girl and she was bringing out all sorts of ridiculously protective feelings he’d never known he possessed. ‘Could you?’ she asked urgently, her eyes flicking across his face. ‘Do you think you could? It would mean a great deal to me.’ In the brief silence, she became aware of his fingers on her face and she sprang away, pressing herself back into the chair and looking at him. ‘I could,’ he said. He strolled back to his chair and crossed his legs, then he slowly looked around him, as though taking in his surroundings for the first time. ‘You know, I can’t remember whether I mentioned this at the interview, but I could arrange to have building work done on this cottage at a nominal cost. The roof looks as though it could do with an overhaul and your fireplace is going.’ ‘But I don’t work for you.’ She paused and looked at him, while her hand idly rubbed her ankle tucked up on the chair. ‘I don’t understand why you’re so keen to hire me.’ There was genuine curiosity behind the question. She knew why she couldn’t accept his offer of a job, but she had no idea why he’d continued to try and persuade her, even when it was patently obvious that she wasn’t interested. Max sighed a long, resigned sigh and watched her from under his lashes. He could still feel the softness of her skin under his. ‘I’m desperate. That’s the bottom line. I’ve been here for seven months during which time I’ve had a series of temps, none of whom seemed capable of thinking on their feet, and none of the applicants for the job on a permanent basis were suitable.’ ‘None of them?’ ‘That’s right,’ he said a little irritably, because there was an element of incredulous accusation in her voice that implied some kind of fault on his part. ‘What was wrong with all of them?’ ‘Pretty much a combination of everything, actually.’ ‘Perhaps you’re a bit too demanding,’ Vicky volunteered helpfully, and her suggestion was met with a frown of instant and instinctive denial. ‘I’m the least demanding boss I know. All I ask is a certain amount of initiative and common sense, along with the ability to do the usual things.’ ‘And how do you know I would have possessed the right qualities?’ For the very briefest of moments, she put aside her fears of the man sitting opposite her and she could feel his personality working on her. In a minute, she told herself, she would put her defences back in place, but right now a rush of simple gratitude towards him had mellowed her. She found herself watching him intently, noticing, as she did so, how huge the differences were between him and Shaun, even though, at first glance, she’d been bowled over by their similarities. His face, she realised, was stronger, and stamped with lines of humour that had been missing from his brother’s. His mouth was fuller, or perhaps that was just an optical illusion born of the fact that he just seemed more in command and more quietly self-assured than his brother. He lacked the ready smile that spoke of self-obsession and the carefully groomed look of someone to whom appearances were everything. In fact, the harder she stared at him, the less he seemed to resemble Shaun. ‘Because you worked successfully for a man I have long respected,’ he said simply. ‘Aside from that, my first impression was favourable and I’m rarely wrong when it comes to first impressions.’ ‘Well, you should be,’ Vicky heard herself say, her voice laced with creeping bitterness. She looked away and began toying with the end of her braid, flicking it back and forth, aware that two spots of burning colour had appeared on her cheeks. Now, he thought, was not the time to probe deeper into that enigmatic little remark. She wasn’t looking at him, in itself significant, but he could tell by the sudden flare of colour into her pale face that her reply had been instinctive and spontaneous, and that it had been prompted by something, some past and probably dark experience. He felt another spurt of intense curiosity, all the more destabilising because it was unaccustomed, and he had to resist the urge to barge in and whittle an explanation out of her. Women had always been an open book for him. To suddenly find himself stumped by one whose pages appeared to be firmly glued together was more than a novelty. He was discovering, to his amazement, the power of a challenge. ‘Perhaps I should be,’ he agreed. ‘Maybe I’m more na?ve than I think.’ The thought of the man sitting opposite her ever being na?ve was almost enough to make her burst out laughing. ‘Look,’ he said quickly, ‘I’ll lay all my cards on the table. I have a gut feeling that you and I could work well together. I’ve suffered everything over the past few months, from misfiling to complete incomprehension when it comes to transcribing the gist of some of my more technical letters…’ Something of an exaggeration, he thought to himself, but what the heck? ‘Not to mention girls who can hardly think straight when they’re around me…’ He watched her surreptitiously to see what the impact of that comment would be, whether he might read some tacit agreement in her expression, and huffily saw that if anything her eyebrows had flickered upwards in contempt and incredulity. ‘I don’t think I could bear working for a man who considered himself God’s gift to the female sex,’ Vicky informed him coldly. ‘I don’t believe that’s quite what I—’ ‘Someone who assumes that every woman in the room is eager and panting to climb into bed with him, someone who can’t exist without a comb in his jacket pocket and a sporty car to prop up his self-image—’ ‘You seem to have totally misunders—’ ‘Swanning around, giving orders in between gazing at himself in the nearest mirror and then when all’s said and done assuming that it’s his right to do as he likes with whomever he wants, because he happened to be born with a passably good-looking face—’ ‘Hold on!’ Just at that very instant the telephone rang, and Vicky leapt up out of her chair and hurried into the hall to answer it. She was still trembling from her tirade because his passing remark had brought back a flood of memories, memories of Shaun and his serial infidelity, his addiction to proving his power over women, his swaggering, arrogant assumption that it was his right to break any female’s heart if he so wanted. Her brain was still whirring around in angry circles when she heard Pat Down’s voice down the line and it took her a few seconds to register that Chloe would be dropped back earlier than planned. ‘I’m ever so sorry, Vicky, but my mum’s been rushed to hospital with a heart attack so I shall drop her off in about ten minutes, if that’s all right with you.’ The voice down the line was just managing to bear up. ‘Ten minutes…’ Vicky repeated on a sharply indrawn breath. ‘Sorry.’ ‘No, no, that’s absolutely fine. Do you need me to hang on to Jess for you?’ But no, she would take Jess with her to see her mother and she’d be by in a little under ten minutes. Vicky hung up and flew into the sitting room like a whirlwind. ‘It’s time for you to go!’ she ordered him frantically. ‘I…I…I’ve suddenly remembered a very important appointment. In fact, that was the person in charge…calling to see whether I was still interested…in the job…’ ‘On a Saturday?’ Max asked, not moving. With a groan of desperation, Vicky grabbed his arm and began pulling him to his feet. Bad move. It appeared to make him even less inclined to vacate the sofa. ‘Get up!’ she finally shouted. ‘Can’t you see I’m in a rush?’ ‘And I’m trying to figure out why. No respectable company drags interviewees in on a weekend. Have you applied for something shady, perhaps? Some seedy stripping job in a nightclub somewhere?’ ‘Do I look like the sort of girl who’s willing to strip in a nightclub?’ she virtually screeched, hustling him to the sitting room door and attempting to shoo him out in the style of a chicken trying to get rid of a wolf from its parlour. ‘Give me a minute to think about that one,’ he said slowly, stopping in his tracks to her intense frustration. She glared at him and he grinned back at her. It was the first time he had really smiled and the effect was breathtaking. Literally, it made her gasp. It changed the hard contours of his face and gave him a boyish, sexy look that was as far removed from the plastic smiles of his brother as chalk was from cheese. ‘Not funny,’ she said sharply. ‘Take the job?’ In under five minutes there would be the sound of a car stopping outside the house, the ring of the doorbell and her daughter would come bouncing through the front door, bringing her infectious smile, her rosy cheeks and a seething nest of potential catastrophes. She had to get rid of him. ‘All right! Now will you please leave my house so that I can get on with…with…with my life?’ He straightened up and looked at her with a shadow of surprise. ‘Starting Monday?’ ‘Starting Monday,’ she agreed, hopping in frustration from one leg to another. She managed to propel him to the front door, which she swiftly pulled open, breathing a sigh of relief that a small blue car wasn’t hurtling down the lane in the direction of her cottage. ‘Report to Personnel,’ he told her, ‘then come to my office and we’ll take it from there.’ ‘Goodbye!’ ‘And perhaps you could do something about your eccentric line in conversation?’ ‘I shall see you on Monday!’ She urged him out of the door and watched as he headed down the short path to the road, making sure that his car was safely out of sight before she closed it back. When it was, she slammed shut the door and leaned heavily against it, wondering what the hell she had just done. It had been imperative that he left the premises before Chloe returned, she argued silently to herself, and what better method of shifting him than to agree to his proposals? Even though the logical, rational side of her brain freely accepted this as a worthwhile argument, the rest of her was appalled at the hole she had dug and into which she had recklessly jumped. She told herself that she would turn up on Monday and work for a few weeks, then apologetically make her excuses and leave. She mentally listed some of the plus points that could be gained from her manoeuvre. This required more thought, but in the end she decided that, aside from the financial windfall to be had, she would also be able to keep an eye on him and allay his suspicious interest in her which she had sensed from the very beginning. Wasn’t it a good idea for her to be in place so that she could make sure that he didn’t start telephoning Australia and asking his friend about her? For starters he would learn about the pregnancy. Her connection with his brother might take longer, because she had been adamant about keeping her work life distinct from her private life and had discouraged Shaun from ever showing up at her workplace once they had started dating. But he could find out if he persevered. At least she would be on the spot to laughingly fend off any questions and deter him from snooping. She’d seen the curiosity her odd behaviour had aroused in him and she suspected that he was the sort of man to whom any intrigue was simply something to be unravelled. He could probably do The Times crossword in a matter of seconds. Less palatable was the unpleasant suspicion that something about him had got under her skin. She’d learned so many lessons from Shaun, enough to put her off men for a lifetime. She would rather shoot herself than admit any kind of attraction to his brother. In the end, though, she now had a problematic situation which she would have to deal with in whatever manner was at her disposal. CHAPTER THREE VICKY spent the remainder of the weekend repenting for her reckless agreement to work for Max Forbes. The reason why she had rushed into her hasty decision was rapidly forgotten under the onslaught of serious drawbacks. By the time Monday morning rolled around, she found herself slipping on her customary secretarial garb with a leaden heart which was only partially alleviated when, once at the office, she was informed by the personnel officer that Max only worked part-time at this particular office. When the young girl mentioned his name, her eyelids fluttered and her cheeks turned bright red. Vicky wondered sceptically whether all the female employees of the company responded in the same way to the mere mention of their boss. If that was the case, then she would have more to contend with than the dangerous fragility of her situation—namely overriding nausea at being surrounded by mesmerised females from nine in the morning to five-thirty at night. No wonder he rated himself as such a potent sex symbol. She almost clicked her tongue in annoyance. ‘I don’t suppose he’s in London now, is he?’ she asked the personnel officer, whose name was Mandy and whose fashion statement included disconcertingly long and brightly painted blue fingernails. ‘Actually, I believe he’s set aside his morning to show you the ropes.’ ‘Oh, grand!’ Vicky exclaimed with dismay, which she hid under a scarily bright smile. The smile remained plastered to her face as she was shown the now familiar route up to his office, only slipping when Mandy deserted her and she found herself pushing back the door to his sanctuary. After a break of a day and a half, during which the image of him had not left her head for longer than five minutes at a stretch, the sight of him now, in the flesh, was even more alarming than she remembered. Had he been so big and muscular when she had seen him on Saturday or had he somehow grown in the interim? Even sitting behind the desk, reclining in his leather chair, his size seemed to spring out at her and reduce her to nervous, powerless pulp. He had discarded his jacket; his blue and white pin-striped shirt was cuffed to the elbows. ‘Ah,’ was his first word, which smacked of satisfaction, ‘I wasn’t too sure that you’d make it here. Good trip in? I gather you’ve already been through the nitty-gritty with Mandy. I’ve set aside a couple of hours to fill you in on some of the more straightforward bits of the job, then I’m afraid I’ve got to leave you to get on with it. So sit down and I’ll begin briefing you on your duties.’ He paused to recline comfortably in his chair. ‘First of all, the coffee machine—it’s in the corner of your office outside…’ Vicky, who had primly fished out a notepad and pen from her voluminous handbag, fixed him with a long, beady stare and he grinned at her. ‘Just a joke.’ ‘I do realise that tea-and coffee-making is included in my job specification, but I hope it only plays a minor role.’ She heard herself with a small, inner groan of disgust. The more addled he made her feel, the more unnatural her patterns of speech seemed to become, and right now she was feeling very, very addled. ‘Very minor,’ he agreed gravely. ‘In fact, I do frequently make myself a cup of coffee and it’s been known for me to make one for my secretary as well.’ He rested his elbows on his desk and brought the tips of his fingers together so that he could survey her over them. It made her feel like a specimen in a laboratory. ‘Have you maintained an office in London?’ she asked politely. ‘I ask because Mandy in Personnel mentioned that you split your time between here and London.’ ‘And New York, Madrid and Glasgow…I don’t suppose you’ve had a chance to read any of the company literature…’ He got up and strode towards a glass-fronted sleekly black bookcase that adorned one wall of the office and extracted a handful of glossy brochures, which he proceeded to hand over to her; then, instead of returning to his swivel chair, he perched on his desk, so that she had an uncomfortably close-up view of his muscular thighs, stretching taut against the fine wool fabric of his trousers. ‘No, I haven’t.’ She idly flicked through one and her hand stopped as she saw a picture of Shaun standing next to Max and between them a man who could only have been their father. The blood in her veins started to curdle. ‘My brother,’ Max said shortly, following her gaze. ‘The three of you founded the business?’ Her voice was devoid of expression, even though she discovered that she was surprisingly curious about what his version of past events would be, because there always were the two sides to every story, but a shutter had dropped over his eyes. ‘Not quite. You can look at that stuff later, perhaps take it home with you. For now, I’ll fill you in on some of the projects we’re working on.’ He nodded at the door, inviting her to precede him out of his office and into hers which lay just through the door and which housed the filing cabinets. Like all the rest of the furniture in both the offices, the cabinets were all in black wood with chrome handles. ‘Normally, my last secretary would have been responsible for taking you through this, but in this case, there’s been no last secretary and the last temp didn’t seem to grasp the meaning of the words “filing system”, so she would have been of no use whatsoever. Anyway—’ he gesticulated towards three cabinets ‘—the files are kept in there and should be in alphabetical order, although I’d advise you to go through the lot of them yourself. Louise found the alphabet a little exhausting. Those files over there are in the process of being looked at for whatever reason and those need updating. Your computer is over there and I’m afraid there’s a stack of work for you to get your teeth into.’ ‘What kind of work?’ Vicky idly went to the large U-shaped desk and flicked through the top file, which seemed comprised of lengthy technical documents and detailed price quotations. ‘You’ll naturally also be expected to handle all my business engagements and update my diary at least twice a day. Oh, yes, and meetings—I’ll expect you to come along to some of the more important ones to take notes. Occasionally, there may be a social function I’ll want you to attend.’ ‘That won’t be possible,’ Vicky said quickly, without thinking. ‘All things in life are possible,’ he told her softly, moving across to her. ‘How else can anyone ever achieve anything in life, if they automatically assume that some things are not possible? Why will the occasional social function be out of the question? Is there any particular reason?’ ‘No. I just thought…that…social functions might require a more glamorous escort than your secretary…’ ‘Mmm. I see.’ He left it there, neither pressing the point nor, she noticed, denying her claim to plainness. ‘Now, files.’ He moved smoothly round the desk so that he was facing the computer, switched it on and then beckoned her across to join him. Standing next to him was an exercise in nerve-tingling embarrassment. He dwarfed her. Shaun had somehow never seemed that tall. Maybe he’d just been a little shorter, just as he’d been a little thinner, his features a little more blurred. Perhaps the mould, having been used once, had not quite managed to replicate itself the second time around. Êîíåö îçíàêîìèòåëüíîãî ôðàãìåíòà. Òåêñò ïðåäîñòàâëåí ÎÎÎ «ËèòÐåñ». Ïðî÷èòàéòå ýòó êíèãó öåëèêîì, êóïèâ ïîëíóþ ëåãàëüíóþ âåðñèþ (https://www.litres.ru/pages/biblio_book/?art=39925514&lfrom=390579938) íà ËèòÐåñ. 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