HE big boss wants to see you.'
Jessica looked at the petite, blonde secretary she shared with her boss, Robert Grange, and grinned.
âHas anyone told you that you're wasted as a secretary, Millie? You have a special talent for making the most innocuous statements sound dramatic. Really, you need to be in a TV soap.' She rested her briefcase on the ground next to her and began riffling through the post, sifting out bits, leaving some for her secretary to open. âThat tax information I need still hasn't come through,' she said distractedly, ripping open an envelope and glancing through the contents. âWhy can't people get their act together? I asked for that information two days ago.'
âJess,' her secretary said, âyou're not hearing me. You've been summoned! You need to get your skates on and not stand there flicking through the mail!'
Jessica looked up from what she was doing and frowned. âI'm due to see Robert in fifteen minutes' time,' she said. âWhat's the problem?'
âThe problem is,' Millie told her in a long-suffering voice, âyou're thinking of the wrong big boss. Bruno Carr is in your office waiting for you.'
âBruno Carr?' She glanced along the corridor. âWhat does Bruno Carr want with
?' She had been working at BC Holdings for nine months, and during that time she had not once laid eyes on the legendary Bruno Carr. BC Holdings was just one of a multitude of companies he owned. His headquarters were in the City somewhere, and he rarely deigned to visit some of his smaller companies. Once a month, Robert would journey to the City with a case bulging with documents, proof that profits were where they should be, finances were running smoothly and employees were doing what they should be doing.
âI have no idea,' Millie said now, throwing a cursory glance at her perfectly shaped nails, today painted jade-green to match the colours of her suit, âbut he doesn't look like the kind of man who appreciates being kept waiting.'
Well, what kind of man
he look like? Jessica wanted to ask. She felt a thread of nervous tension snake through her body and she did a quick mental calculation of what she might possibly have done to warrant Bruno Carr descending on her.
âYou should have
him what he wanted,' she hissed, her brown eyes flicking between the corridor and her secretary. âThat's what secretaries are
' She was very rarely thrown off balance by anything, but the sudden unexpectedness of this was enough to disconcert her.
âPeople don't ask Bruno Carr questions like that!' Millie exclaimed in a horrified voice. âHe comes in, says what he wants, and you just nod a lot and do it.'
âWell, he sounds a particularly pleasant kind of individual.'
A great, big, overweight, pompous man who went around stamping on the little people and issuing orders by royal decree. This was all she needed on a freezing January Monday morning.
âWhere's Robert?' she asked, postponing the inevitable for as long as she could. Her lawyer's instinct told her to get as much information about what was going on as she possibly could, even if Millie was being particularly unforthcoming.
âMeeting. He was told to go ahead without you.'
âGuess that means that the great Bruno Carr wants to see you all on your lonesome,' she whispered confidentially. âSounds ominous, if you ask me.'
âI don't recall asking you,' Jessica said automatically. âWell, I'd better go along in.' Whatever it was she had done, it had clearly been a grave crime against Bruno Carr's enterprises, for which she was to be punished by immediate dismissal. Perhaps she had inadvertently taken home one of the company's red marker pens with her, and he had somehow discovered it. From the sound of it, he was just the sort of man who would see that as reason for instant sacking. And why else would he have sought her out, making sure that he gave no warning in advance, if not to confront her with some misdemeanour?
She retrieved her briefcase from the ground and mentally braced herself for the worst
âCould you bring us in some coffee in about ten minutes' time, Mills?' she asked, running her hands along her neatly pinned back blonde hair, just to make sure that there were no loose strands waiting to ambush her composure.
âYou mean if Mr Carr allows it...'
âYou're being ridiculous now.'
She pulled herself erect and headed down the corridor, pausing briefly outside her door and wondering whether she should knock or not There was no remote reason why she should knock to enter her own office, but, then again, barging in might be another nail in her coffin.
It was frustrating. She could admit, without any false modesty, that although she had been at the company for under a year she was doing a brilliant job. She had a sharp, alert mind and a willingness to work any number of hours to get a job done. What could he possibly have found to criticise in her performance?
She found herself knocking angrily on the door, then she pushed it open and walked in.
He was sitting in
chair, which was turned away from the door so that only the top of his head was visible, because he was talking on
phone, his voice low and staccato. She stood for a few seconds, glaring at the back of the leather swivel chair, knowing how those bears had felt when Goldilocks had swanned in in their absence and usurped their property.
âExcuse me. Mr Carr?' she said, folding her arms and injecting as much crispness into her tone as was possible, just in case some of her annoyance oozed out.
He turned around very slowly and she stared at him, mouth open, as he slowly finished his telephone conversation and leant forward to replace the phone. Then he sat back, folded his arms, and looked at her without saying anything.
She had been expecting thinning grey hair. She had been expecting middle-aged spread caused by too many rich lunches and not enough exercise. She had been expecting bushy eyebrows, wobbling jowls and a tightly pursed mouth.
Why had the wretched Millicent given her no warning of what the man looked like?
True, there was arrogance stamped on those hard features, but any arrogance was well contained in a face that was the most powerfully sensual she had ever seen in her life before.
His hair was almost black, his eyes shrewd, cool, and wintry blue and the lines of his face were perfectly chiselled, yet somehow escaping from the category of routinely handsome.
Handsome, Jessica thought, was a combination of features that blended well together. Perhaps it was his expression and a certain mantle of accepted self-assurance, or maybe it was the overall impression of brains and power, but there was some intangible element to the man sitting in front of her that catapulted him into a category all of his own.
âWhat are you doing in my chair?' she asked stupidly, forcing down the immediate physical impact he had made on her and trying to retrieve some of her composure back from where it had been flung to the four winds.
chair?' His voice was low, velvety and coldly ironic.
She instantly felt her hackles rise. It was easy to work out what his type was: the wealthy, clever, powerful, good-looking bachelor who assumed that the world lay somewhere in the region of his feet.
âSorry. I meant
chair in my office.' She smiled sweetly and continued to look at him with a steady, unfaltering gaze.
Her momentary lapse at being confronted with such intense masculinity had now been put away in a box at the back of her mind, and her self-control was once again reasserting itself.
It never let her down. It had been her companion for such a long time, seemingly all twenty-eight years of her life, that she could avail herself of it effortlessly.
He didn't bother to answer that. Instead, he nodded briefly in the direction of the chair facing him, and told her to sit down.
âI've been waiting to see you for the past...' he flicked back the cuff of his shirt and consulted the gold watch â...twenty-five minutes. Do you normally get into work this late?'
Jessica sat down, crossed her legs and swallowed down the lump of anger in her throat.
âMy hours are nine to fiveâ' she began.
âClock watching isn't a trait I encourage in my employees.'
âBut I left work at a little after ten last night. If I got in at a little after nine, then I do apologise. I'm normally up and running here by eight-thirty in the morning.' She bared her teeth in a semblance of politeness and linked her fingers together on one knee.
âRobert sings your praises...' he looked at the piece of paper lying in front of him, which she recognised, upside down, as her CV â...Jessica. I take it, by the way, that you know who I am?'
âBruno Carr,' she said, tempted to add
Leader of the Universe.
âYou're younger than I imagined from what Robert has told me,' he said flatly. He looked at her speculatively through narrowed eyes, as if weighing her up, and she wondered what her age had to do with the price of sliced bread. Instead, she thought, of making disparaging comments on her age, why didn't he just cut to the nub of the matter and tell her why he was here? In her office, sitting in her chair, having used her telephone.
âWould you mind very much if I had a cup of coffee? Before I launch into defending my age?' That one she couldn't resist, and he raised his eyebrows, unamused.
âMillie,' he buzzed, âtwo coffees, please.' He leaned back into the chair, which dwarfed her even though she was tall, but appeared made for him. Even though he was camouflaged by his suit, she could see that he had a muscular, athletic physique and was tall. He would be, she reckoned, one of those rarities: a man she would have to look up to, even when she was in heels.
In record time there was a knock at the door and Millie fluttered in with a tray, on which were two cups, with saucers, instead of the usual mugs, a plate of biscuits and cream and sugar.
âWill there be anything else?' she asked, smiling coyly and hovering.
Oh, please, Jessica thought wryly. Was this the same delicate, porcelain girl who could make mincemeat of men? Bruno's presence had obviously reduced her to the archetypal eyelash-batting, empty-headed bimbo she most certainly was not. No wonder the man wore that aura of invincibility about him, if women dropped like ninepins every time he was around.
âFor the moment.' He looked appreciatively at a blushing Millie and gave a smile of such profound sensual charm that Jessica's breath caught in her throat for the merest fleeting of seconds. Then she steadied herself and reached forward for the cup on the tray.
Yes, men like Bruno Carr were a dangerous species. The sort who should carry health warnings stamped on their foreheads so that women knew to steer clear of them.
Jessica's mouth tightened as her mind flicked through the pages of her past, like a calendar blown back by a strong wind.
She remembered her father, tall, elegant, charming, always talking to her mother's friends, making them feel special. It was only later, as she had grown up, that she had realised that his activities had extended well beyond merely talking and that his charm, never applied to his wife, had been only skin-deep.
âNow,' he said, once Millie had disappeared out of the door, âyou're doubtless wondering why I'm here.'
âIt's crossed my mind.' After all, she thought acidly, it's hardly been your policy in the past to fraternise. At least not with the members of
particular offshoot company, however hugely profitable it was.
âHas Robert said anything to you about his health?' Bruno asked, leaning forward with his elbows on the desk.
Jessica looked at him, confused. âNo. Why? Is there something wrong?' She knew that over the past three months he had been leaving work earlier than usual, but he had told her that a man of his age needed to wind down eventually, and she had believed him.
âHave you noticed
about his hours recently?' There was cool sarcasm in his voice and she stiffened.
âHe hasn't been working very much overtime...'
âAnd he's been delegating quite a substantial amount of his workload onto you. Am I right?'
âA bit,' she admitted, wondering why she had never questioned that.
âAnd yet you didn't put two and two together? Hardly a very positive trait in a lawyer. Shouldn't lawyers be adept at ferrying out information and making assumptions?'
âI apologise if I didn't see anything sinister in his behaviour,' she said with equal coldness in her voice. âBelieve it or not, cross-examining my boss wasn't part of my job specification.' She could feel her anger going up a notch and was alarmed more by the fact that he had managed to arouse such a reaction in her than by what he had said.