he conference was
in full swing, though Kirsty doubted very much she was much of an asset to Stuart, as he talked to other participants, seemingly knowing everyone. She watched from her seat at the conference table how he easily mixed and mingled with delegates from other telecommunications companies.
The telecom business had matured over the last couple of years to the point that only a handful of companies now dominated the European market. Knight was one of the major powerhouses in the UK, and judging from the way Stuart worked the room he was highly respected in his capacity as its representative.
It was hard to imagine that only six months ago he’d been in the Middle East, fighting for his country, and now he was back at being the consummate businessman. The man was a force to be reckoned with, she thought as she watched with bated breath as he strode across the room in her direction.
Leaning over her, he whispered, “We’ve got a problem.” He gestured with his head to a large, swarthy man seated with two associates on the other side of the room. “See that man over there?”
She nodded, Stuart’s closeness sending shivers of anticipation darting through her. She tamped them down. She was here as his PA, not his private cheer squad, she admonished herself.
“He just told me that a major takeover attempt is being prepared.”
“A takeover… You mean for Knight Enterprises?”
He nodded, grabbing a seat next to her, his head still close to hers as his voice lowered to a hushed whisper. “It’s the Saudis. They’re thinking about moving into the UK market and deem Knight a prime target for takeover. That way they don’t have to build operations up from scratch in a crowded market.”
“But… they can’t take over Knight,” she said, appalled.
Fascinated, she watched his eyes darken to molten ochre, flecks of gold dangerously flashing across the iris. “They can and they will,” he told her. “At least if we don’t put a stop to them. They’ve already been buying up Knight stock in absolute secrecy and unless the major shareholders hold off on the offer they just might succeed in their attempt.”
Knight’s major shareholders were all members of the family, or at least that’s the way it used to be. Until Stuart’s father had gotten involved with Caroline Popping. The former reality star now possessed her late husband’s portion of shares. And therein, Kirsty instantly saw, lay the rub.
“Do you think Popping would sell?” she asked.
It was obvious she’d hit the bullseye, for Stuart grimaced. “She might. Her cash situation isn’t looking too good, if the rumors are to be believed, and offloading stock would give her room to breathe—and spend,” he added bitterly.
Kirsty knew that there was no love lost between the three siblings and their stepmother, as they considered her responsible for their father’s ignoble death.
“According to my friend over there negotiations are already underway.”
“But that’s terrible!” she gasped.
“Our only option now is to buy her out—outbid the Saudis.”
“Can you? Buy her out?”
She was biting her lower lip, Stuart noticed, and the sight of the slightly swollen cupid’s bow did as much to his heightened arousal as her kisses had done. He wanted to replace her teeth with his own and subsequently fold her in his arms and start the slow burn that her proximity was igniting in his heart and soul. No, not his heart or soul, he quickly corrected himself. Merely his body.
buy her out, if we can raise the money. Problem is, most of it is tied up in the company’s assets.”
“You could mortgage out the real estate,” she suggested.
“That would put us in a very precarious situation financially,” he countered, liking how astute she was. “I need to talk to my brothers about this. Too bad Gramps isn’t around anymore. He would have sorted this out in a heartbeat.”
Grandfather had so many contacts in the business and financial world that he could always count on his friends to bail him out when times were tough. He and his brothers lacked this kind of clout, especially after their father’s antics, which had alienated a lot of their friends and former associates.
“We’ll figure something out,” he grunted, offering her a lopsided grin.
The sight of that smile tugging at the corners of his mouth shouldn’t have excited her so, she knew. But it was as if the sun broke through the clouds and lit a fire in her heart, igniting a chain reaction that shook her to the core. To distract herself, she flicked her gaze to the Saudi representative, who sat with his advisors in the far corner of the conference room, holding court to a host of his colleagues. She couldn’t imagine anyone taking Knight away from the family. If these people succeeded, they would become mere employees in their own firm.
She placed her hand on Stuart’s arm. “We’ll stop them, won’t we, Stuart?”
He placed his own hand on top of hers, and laced his fingers through hers, the warmth spreading along her arm and adding fuel to the flame now burning ever more powerful in her soul. “Of course we will.”
As she gazed into his golden eyes, she could see the hint of steel there, and she imagined he must make a formidable opponent, both in the world of business and on the battlefield. Her fingers were still curled up into his, and the sensation of being skin on skin like this elicited a sensation of such intimacy small pockets of heat blossomed inside her. She was trapped in his gaze, and had the impression his strength and power knew no bounds. Oh, how it would feel to be wrapped up in those powerful arms, to experience all that strength trapping her against his hard body while his tongue plundered her mouth…
And as she shifted slightly in her seat, her notebook dropped to the floor and caught Stuart’s eye. As it did, the heated gaze he’d been subjecting her to suddenly changed into an icy cold one, the lines of his lips tightening and his dark brows furrowing. “What’s this?” he growled, picking up the notebook and pointing to a picture of Geoffrey on one of the pages.
She quickly made to snatch the notebook from his grip but too late. He held onto it and subjected it to a terse scrutiny. Too late she remembered she’d packed a notebook she’d used years before, when she was still in the habit of collecting pictures of Geoffrey and idly doodling all around them as she sat in school listening to her teachers drone on and on about the most tedious subjects.
This particular photograph depicted Geoffrey with his most cheeky grin, just having won some soccer tournament. Around his face she’d drawn a cloud of hearts, the words ‘Kirsty loves Geoffrey’ scribbled everywhere in gold glitter.
To Kirsty’s surprise, Stuart subjected the proof of her adolescent crush to only a brief inspection before viciously ripping the page from the notebook and proceeding to tear it into a hundred pieces with his powerful fingers, his eyes capturing hers all the while. There was a darkness to them, she now saw, and she shivered where she sat. Finally, he purposely walked over to the trashcan behind them and dumped the pieces in the trash before rejoining her.
“That… that was a long time ago,” she offered as an excuse.
“Not long enough,” he countered. He’d rolled up his shirtsleeves, his corded forearms and massive biceps visibly on display. She couldn’t help but stare at them. Like his face, his arms were darkly tanned, the skin stretched taut over muscle and bone. “For God’s sakes, Kirsty,” he added in a low growl, “the man is getting married—having a baby. Don’t you think it’s time you got over him?”
She wanted to say she was over Geoffrey—in fact she now discovered to her surprise that she hadn’t thought about him for hours, whereas before Geoffrey had occupied every moment of every day. And even more astonishing was the fact that Stuart had taken his place in the innermost sanctity of her thoughts. The discovery made her feel extremely vulnerable all of a sudden, and she wasn’t ready for Stuart to find out about this so she cast down her eyes.
Stuart interpreted her silence as an admission that she was still very much infatuated with Geoffrey and his mood soured considerably. He watched as her eyelashes feathered down, concealing the sparkling blue of her eyes from him. The loss of eye contact felt like a physical assault on his senses, and before he could stop himself, he’d taken her chin in his hand and was tilting up her face.
“Geoffrey doesn’t love you, Kirsty,” he said, deliberately spacing out the words so each was designed to hit its target like a splinter bomb. “So stop acting like a child and grow up.” He watched the devastation his words wrought on her mobile face, her cheeks flushing, her eyes welling up with tears while her lips trembled. It was all he could do not to press his own lips to hers, and then to kiss those tears away, but mixed with the compassion he experienced a surge of raw anger scraping across his soul. Anger at her stubborn love for a man who didn’t deserve her.
Finally, he let go, wrenching his hand away from her face. No matter. Tonight he would make her his, whether she liked it or not. It was for the best.
As Kirsty sat absolutely still, trying to control the trembling of her limbs, she wondered why Stuart was having this effect on her. Far from sadness at his cruel words, his nearness had inspired in her a desire to be kissed by him so powerful and all-consuming that it had taken all her self-control not to succumb to it. Watching the molten gold of his eyes burn into her had taken her breath away, and along with it had obliterated her girlish dreams of Geoffrey. If only she’d known before what a passionate man Stuart was, she’d have discarded her silly infatuation long before, transferring her affections to her cousin instead.
Her affections? Was she affected by Stuart? Her senses were definitely under assault of his constant presence in her life, but was her heart as well? She had to admit that she was getting emotionally involved with the powerful alpha male seated next to her, his sheer masculinity all but blowing her away just now.
Trying to quieten her pounding heart, she knew that she was treading dangerous ground. Very dangerous ground indeed. For this was no girlish crush she was experiencing but something very new and different. Something primal and irrevocable. Something that had the power to destroy her, especially since Stuart didn’t love her. All he wanted was to prove to her that her infatuation with Geoffrey was unfounded and potentially harmful for the family. He wanted to protect the family, that was his only concern. And he would go to any means necessary to accomplish that mission, even if it destroyed her in the process.
nce returned to their room
, Kirsty immediately barricaded herself into the bathroom so as not to have to suffer the ignoble ordeal of being subjected to Stuart’s furious temper. He’d been eyeing her closely ever since the incident in the conference room but as she shakily checked her face in the mirror, she heard him talking in the other room and as she pricked up her ears she knew that he was already remedying the business emergency that had come up.
She shouldn’t be bitter, she chided herself as a wave of resentment swept through her. Why should she be upset that Stuart paid attention to his business empire first and foremost? She was, after all, merely a lowly PA to him, a minor cousin he’d snatched from the obscurity of the secretarial pool to keep an eye on. To make sure she didn’t mess up his friend’s wedding and the family reputation.
She felt hot tears sting behind her eyes. What a mess! How she had managed to land herself in this particular position she didn’t know. She took in the devastation in the mirror. Her customary pale features were even paler now, her hair in disarray and her makeup smeared. She sighed as she splashed water on her face. For some reason she still wanted to look her best, even though she knew Stuart didn’t care one hoot about her. And yet when she finally left the bathroom, her head held high as she valiantly held onto what shred of pride she had left, her heart was beating a steady pattern against her ribcage the moment she stepped into the same room as Stuart. Somehow his mere presence occupied every inch and made her feel so self-aware she even had trouble breathing. It was a quality he possessed she’d never before been aware of.
He was standing with his back to her, his hand loosely in his pocket, his head slightly bowed as he stood gazing out the window, still talking into his mobile. He cut a powerful figure, she had to admit, but then she already knew that about him. His torso was wide and powerfully muscular, stretching his shirt, then tapering down to narrow hips, his buttocks clearly delineated against the slacks he was wearing. She averted her eyes—things were bad enough as they were without her imagination adding fuel to the fire. When had she fallen in such lust with her cousin? And why now? When business was at the forefront of his mind and should be at the forefront of hers as well?
She whipped up her head when he turned and fixed her with a stern gaze. “I’ve scheduled a meeting with my stepmother on Monday. You will join me.”
It wasn’t a question but a statement, her agreement implied.
Turning away from her, he resumed his conversation.
So her work as PA wouldn’t be over after this weekend? Of course not. Not until Geoffrey was safely married would Stuart be prepared to let her out of his sight and the reach of his vigilance.
She strode to the wardrobe and let her fingers idly pick the bikini she’d brought from the shelf. It was a pink-and-turquoise sparkly number that fit snugly around her body but wasn’t too revealing. She’d packed it just in case they would have the opportunity to go for a swim, but Stuart hadn’t given any indication he would give her time off from work, so she sighed, doubting very much she would be using it. She placed it back on the shelf but then found that silence had returned to the room, and when she looked up she found that her cousin was standing next to her. His hand stole out as he slipped the swimwear from the shelf and lifted it up for his closer scrutiny.
He quirked an eyebrow. “Wanna go for a swim?”
Her lips involuntarily curled up into a smile. “I thought you’d never ask.”
He checked his watch, and she stared, mesmerized at the dark body hair that covered his tanned muscular arm. For an instant she wondered what it would feel like to reach out and place her own fingers on his arm, to touch and caress, and a flutter of unwanted desire licked at the base of her self-restraint, then he said, “We have a couple of hours before dinner. Let’s make the most of them.”
She nodded wordlessly, not trusting her voice, and then he handed her the bathing suit and she took it gratefully. As she did so, their fingers touched, and slow tingles of passion swept through her, taking her completely by surprise.
Stuart had felt it too, and found that his fingers lingered on the delicate skin of her wrist, feeling the pulse that was beating its steady rhythm there. For a brief moment he felt encouraged to follow the current that swept beneath her skin along her arm and then further still until he reached its source, right where her heart was beating frantically beneath her breast. Their eyes met as their hands lingered, and the flashes of heat he saw therein reflected his own. But then he was reminded of the fact that the heart he was so eager to find wasn’t his to take, and he jerked his fingers away. She was, after all, in love with another man, and even though he’d rationally selected her to be his bride, that didn’t make her his by a long shot.
“I’ll meet you downstairs,” he announced gruffly as he walked away.
Ten minutes later, Kirsty was riding the elevator down, wearing her bikini beneath jeans shorts and a crop top, her sunglasses firmly perched on her nose, sun lotion and other paraphernalia for spending a few leisurely hours at the beach in the canvas bag slung loosely on her arm.
Her eyes traveled the length of the lobby and when they finally rested on Stuart’s relaxed form as he sat reading a business magazine in one of the plush lounge chairs her heart did a double backflip. While she was in the bathroom changing into her bikini he’d gone through quite the transformation himself. A khaki T-shirt was stretched taut over his bulging chest and brawny arms, his tanned legs emerging from a pair of ripped Bermudas. Without a doubt he was the most handsome male present in the lobby, a statement borne out by the dozens of women devouring him with their eyes as they strode past.
Impervious to all the female attention Stuart only looked up when Kirsty’s feet came to a full stop right in front of him. His eyes lazily traveled from her flip flops along her shapely legs to a belly button provocatively left bare and further up along her barely concealed breasts to her fresh-faced grin. He had to admit she was the most gorgeous woman he’d ever met, and he’d met quite a few.
He would have paid her a compliment but that seemed inappropriate, as he wasn’t the man whose attentions she craved. So he merely grunted, “About time you got here. Let’s go.”
She followed him through the revolving doors and out onto the street. The bright sunlight was even brighter than she’d imagined, especially after spending most of the day cooped up inside, and the heat from the sun on her skin was a pleasant change from the air-conditioned circumstances inside the posh hotel.
They quickly crossed the street to the boardwalk and she couldn’t help notice that Stuart moved with the lithe grace of a panther, and she imagined he must have been a formidable enemy to whomever he’d encountered in Iraq.
“Will you be going on a third tour of duty?” she now asked, and had to admit she hoped he wouldn’t, for she suddenly felt very concerned about his safety.
“Not a chance,” he replied as they descended the stone steps onto the beach. “The company being in as much trouble as it is my duty is to my family now.”
“Of course,” she said, though secretly she was relieved that he would be staying in London from now on. Visions of Stuart cradling a baby suddenly broke into her consciousness, quickly followed by an image of herself swelling with life, her belly growing with Stuart’s child, its father safe and sound and not lying dead on some battlefield in the Middle East. She gasped when the purport of those images came home to her. Stuart’s baby? But she didn’t even care for him. He’d always been the bane of her existence, the one who lived only to tease her without remorse.
“What’s wrong?” Stuart asked, and she realized her gasp had been audible.
She forced a smile onto her face. “Nothing. Just surprised that the sand is so hot.”
She’d kicked off her flip flops and relished in the feel of the sand under her feet, curling her toes as she walked. She was amazed at the softness of the white sand, quite different from the pebbled beaches of England’s seaside resorts.
All around them tourists were enjoying sun and surf, stretched out on colorful towels and set up in beach chairs, and she followed Stuart as he found them the perfect spot not too far from the water.
“Here, let me help you,” he told her as he grabbed the towel she’d taken from her bag and spread it out on the sand, smoothing it so she could lie down.
Stuart watched with a kindling eye as Kirsty shucked off her jeans and shirt and the bikini he’d admired upstairs popped into view, hugging her curvy features. Some men liked their women skinny but he’d always felt a woman should have curves and as he watched Kirsty smear a healthy helping of sunscreen on her alabaster skin, then tie up her red curls beneath a baseball cap, the fire burning in his gut became so overwhelming that he had to grit his teeth against the surge of life powering his erection. Good thing he hadn’t removed his own Bermudas, he thought ruefully, for he wouldn’t want to be arrested for indecent exposure.
“Could you do my back?” she asked softly, handing him the sunscreen.
He squirted a dollop of the creamy substance into the palm of his hand and started applying it to her shoulders. The feel of the silky skin under his fingers was giving him heart palpitations, and as his hands traced a path along the arch of her back to the dimples above her buttocks he had to fight the urge to throw her down on the towel and use his lips instead of his hands to explore the rest.
“I think you’re covered,” he finally said thickly after gently applying a final layer to her neck, carefully lifting a wispy tendril of hair as he did so. To kiss her there—to feel the satin smoothness of her skin under his lips while his hands circled to her front and covered her breasts, slipping beneath her flimsy top…
“Thanks,” she said softly, giving him a coy look over her shoulder. As if she knew what was going through his mind, she smiled shyly, but before he could respond, she was sprinting away from him, kicking up sand. He watched as she darted into the water and was soon splashing headlong into the clear waves of the Mediterranean, the sun sprinkling a trail of glitter along the lapping tide.