“All she had to do was fake it.
All she had to do was act as if her insides matched the calm, competent, loyal, efficient and discreet surface she worked hard to maintain. Emma Weatherfield had been faking it since she was six years old. This should be no different.
At 6:45 a.m., the door to the corner office suite at Megalos-De Luca Enterprises opened and in walked a tall man with black hair and black eyes that seemed to sear her with appraisal.
Emma's stomach clenched. She hadn't expected him until later. She felt goose bumps rise to the surface of the skin on her arms as she stood to greet the man. She'd been told he looked like a handsome version of Satan and she couldn't disagree. She didn't see a millimeter of pity or softness in his hard face or hard body. The scar on his cheek only punctuated his ruthless reputation.
Her pulse raced, but she ignored her reaction. "Mr. Medici," she said.
"Emma Weatherfield," he said and extended his hand to hers.
She hesitated a beat before taking it. After all, he was here to take the company that had provided the only stability she'd experienced in her life and rip it to shreds. Despite protests from Megalos-De Luca's top management, the current chairman of the board, James Oldham, had insisted on hiring an outside firm to conduct a reorganization. Damien Medici had made his fortune eliminating jobs.
She had a job to do, she reminded herself, and slid her hand inside his warm, strong palm. He squeezed her hand with just the right pressure and held her gaze as she noticed the texture of his skin. The calluses on his palm surprised her. He was president of his own company; there was no need for him to perform any sort of manual labor.
She would learn the answer to that question. She would learn the answers to all her questions and those of her previous bosses. It was her job to learn everything she could about Damien Medici and report back to the people of Megalos-De Luca, to whom she owed her new life.
"Call me Damien when it's just the two of us. Mr. Medici can be reserved for other times. I was told you were efficient, but I didn't expect you to arrive at the office so early on a Monday," he said with a hint of admiration.
"Habit," she said, removing her hand from his. "Since this was a new position, I wanted to be prepared."
"And are you?" he asked, glancing around the office suite.
No, she thought, and wished she weren't so viscerally aware of his power. "I'll let you be the judge of that."
He nodded and pushed open the door to the corner executive office that gave a sweeping view of the craggy, snowcapped mountains outside of Las Vegas. "Come in," he said. "I understand you've been with the company for six years."
"Yes, I have," Emma said. She followed him inside the large inner office, watching as he wandered around the room, checking out the equipment and the desk and giving a cursory glance to the view.
"According to your résumé, you climbed the ranks quickly, working for Alex Megalos for the last two years. MD," he said, shortening the company name by using the initials of the founders, "has been good to you. They've paid your tuition and given you flexible hours to complete your degree."
"All true," she said.
"I'm sure you're grateful," he continued, unbuttoning his jacket. "Perhaps so grateful that you don't want to see MD make any significant changes."
"I want MD to thrive. The current economy is difficult. I want only the best for MD's future," Emma said, giving her planned response. She sounded stilted to her own ears.
He studied her. She felt a shiver race through her, but refused to let it show.
"Even if it's necessary for MD to cut jobs?" he asked. "Even if I need to turn the regular way of business on its ear?"
"You're legendary in your field. I'm certain you will be looking out for the company's best interests. After all, that's what you're paid to do as an unbiased, professional contractor."
He paused a moment and a ghost of a smile crossed his face again. "Good," he said, as if he knew she was giving a performance. "In that case, I'd like to start with financial reports from all the company divisions."
She blinked. "I thought you might want to meet with some of the vice presidents first."
He shook his head and pulled a laptop computer from his bag, ignoring the first-class computer on his desk. "The VPs will try to clutter my analysis with emotion. I'll take the reports."
"Yes, sir. If you prefer a different desktop..." she began.
"I always use my own computer. I prefer the ease of taking it with me."
"We have memory sticks available for that if—"
He shook his head. "No problem. Give it to someone else and it will be one less expense for your company."
She nodded slowly. True, but it also meant she would have difficulty gaining access to his electronic files when the time came. She'd known this assignment was going to be difficult, but she hadn't realized just how difficult.
"Yes, sir," she said again, determined to learn something about him. "How do you take your coffee?"
"I prefer to have a coffeepot in my office. I pour my own."
Now that surprised her. He must have read her reaction on her face.
He gave a short laugh. "I'm not like your previous bosses. I wasn't raised in a home filled with servants. I can take care of myself."
She nodded, wondering if she'd heard just a drop of resentment in his voice about the affluent upbringing of Max De Luca and Alex Megalos. "Is there anything else I can get for you?"
He shook his head. "Thank you. Just the reports."
Poring over the initial reports, crunching numbers, Damien felt the quiet vibration of his BlackBerry and debated picking up. A call would break his focus and he despised that. Glancing at the caller ID, he recognized his brother Rafe's number and answered.
"What's up, Rafe?" he asked, stretching as he glanced outside the window and saw the sun begin to set.
"I'm chilling on a yacht in Key West. When are you going to pry yourself away from your job and come down and let me beat you at pool?"
Damien rose from his desk. "You're as much a workaholic with your yacht business as I am in my field."
"You must be afraid I'm gonna beat you bad," Rafe said.
Damien chuckled. He and Rafe had traded wins and losses playing pool since the two had reconnected as adults. "I won last time."
"Rematch," Rafe said crisply.
"Not anytime soon. My current contract will demand all my attention. James Oldham, Megalos-De Luca's new chairman of the board, has contacted me to reorganize Megalos-De Luca Enterprises."
Silence followed. "You always said you would find a way to pay back the De Lucas for what they did to our grandfather. I wondered how you'd pull that off."
"Funny how hard you have to work for some things, while others practically fall into your hands," Damien said. He'd dreamed of this day, this opportunity to bring down the De Luca name. The impact of the De Lucas' destruction of the Medici heritage had repercussions in future generations. Damien had always felt it was his job to make the De Luca family feel the same pain.
"Have you started yet?"
"Today," Damien said, feeling a surge of adrenaline at the realization. "I've been given an office at the Megalos-De Luca headquarters for my convenience."
Rafe laughed. "Talk about letting the fox in the henhouse."
"You could say that. I've also been supplied with a pretty little assistant," Damien said. "She's as loyal as the day is long."
"You have plans to change that," Rafe ventured.
"I'll do whatever is necessary," Damien said, intrigued by the thought of finding out what was underneath Miss Weatherfield's proper exterior. With forget-me-not-blue eyes, silky brown hair and a body he suspected held dangerous curves, she made him wonder what she was like in bed. Finding out could be a secondary bonus.
"Be careful," Rafe said.
Damien frowned at the odd remark. "Of what?"
"You've made your reputation and fortune by your ability to make unemotional decisions. You've got a lifetime of revenge riding on this contract. That's a helluva lot of emotion."
Damien considered his brother's advice, then firmed his resolve. "No need to worry about me, little brother. I've always led with my mind. This time will be no different."
"Okay. I've got your back if you need me," Rafe said. "Except when we're shooting pool."
Damien cracked a slight grin. "Thanks. Maybe I'll take you up on your offer after I'm done here. We'll have something to toast. Take care," he said, and turned off his phone.
By the following afternoon, Damien had slashed seventy-five positions on the organizational chart. He planned to pull two of his best employees off their current assignments so they could perform individual analyses on each work group. The board had offered to give him MD employees to do the reviews, but Damien knew objectivity was key.
At four o'clock, a knock on his door interrupted his evaluation. "Yes," he said.
Emma peeked through the door and shook a paper bag. "I'm sorry to bother you, but I noticed you hadn't eaten, so..."
Her thoughtful gesture took him by surprise. He'd been clear that he would take care of himself. He waved his hand. "Come on in. What do you have?"
"I didn't know what you liked," she said, walking through the door.
He noticed she wore a conservatively cut black jacket and skirt that hinted at curves underneath. No sign of cleavage, and the skirt hit just below her knee, exposing shapely calves. He couldn't help wondering how she would look in something more revealing. "Then how did you choose?"
She opened her pink mouth and stared at him for a beat as if he'd caught her off guard. "I guessed. Roast beef on rye with brown mustard, lettuce and tomato."
His lips twitched. "Red meat," he said. "You didn't think I was a vegetarian."
She bit her lip and smiled tentatively. "Wild guess. I passed up the quiche, too."
He chuckled, reaching for the bag. "Thank you. You did a good job. Plain chips," he noted.
"I played it safe," she said in a neutral tone.
"So you did. If you've always been so adept at reading your employers' appetites, I can see why you were promoted."
Her eyes widened. "It was just food. It isn't that difficult. Alex liked anything with olives. Max skipped pasta and carbs at lunch because he always wanted to be sharp for the afternoon."
"And what about you?"
"Whatever I pack," she said. "May I get anything else for you?"
"Whatever you pack," he repeated, ignoring her question. "There's a company cafeteria."
"Habit," she said with a shrug that drew his gaze to her slim shoulders. "I've been packing my lunch since elementary school."
"Same here," he said. "When there was food available."
She gave him a silent, questioning glance.
"Foster homes," he said.
"Oh," she said, a combination of sympathy and confusion flitting through her eyes. "My father died when I was young, so it was just my mother and me."
He met her gaze and felt a lightning-fast connection that took him by surprise. He saw the same surprise cross her face as she blinked and looked away.
"I hope you like the—"
"Emma," a male voice called from the outer office. "Emma, are you there?"
Damien watched her cringe. "Just a second," she whispered and walked to the doorway. "Brad, I'm assisting Mr. Medici—"
"You can go ahead and—" Damien broke off, surprised when she desperately waved her hand behind her back for him to stop speaking.
Surprise lashed through him at her silent order. Or, was it a plea?
"No, tonight's not good. I need to work on a paper for one of my classes. Please excuse me," she said and turned back to Damien, closing the door behind her.
She met his gaze for a moment, then bit her lip. "Sorry about that. I'll just—"
Curious despite himself, Damien lifted his hand. "Who's Brad?"
She gave a heavy sigh. "He's a very nice man in accounting. Very kind. I can't think of a bad thing to say about him."
He nodded silently. "Except he doesn't take a hint well."
She closed her eyes and nodded. "He's very nice—"
"You've said that twice," he said.
"I don't like hurting people's feelings," she admitted. "Especially nice people."