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Authors: Maureen Smith

A Risky Affair

BOOK: A Risky Affair
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A
RISKY A
FFAIR
Maureen Smith

For Maravia and Jared,
because children are precious gifts from God

Chapter 1

“P
lease don't die on me, please don't die on me,” Solange Washington muttered under her breath as the ancient Plymouth she was driving lumbered up a steep hill blanketed in the deep green of pine trees.

“If you get me to the interview in one piece,” she continued her plea bargain, “I
promise
to put you out of your misery once and for all. You have my word.” Her fingers were crossed because junking the Plymouth and buying a new car weren't in her plans—nor in her budget.

Unless, of course, she landed the job with Crandall Thorne.

She felt a surge of excitement at the thought. Three weeks after being contacted by Thorne's secretary, Solange still couldn't believe the incredible opportunity she'd been given. Crandall Thorne, a wealthy criminal defense attorney, was one of the most powerful men in Texas. Solange knew many people—not just aspiring lawyers like herself—would give their eyeteeth for the chance to work for him. He'd probably been inundated with hundreds of résumés from people vying to become his new personal assistant. And out of those many applicants, Solange was the only one who'd been invited for an interview.

She couldn't believe it. What were the odds?

Don't question your good fortune,
she told herself, as her mother had been fond of saying.
Just focus on convincing Crandall Thorne that you're the best candidate for the job!

Solange grimaced as the old Plymouth lurched and groaned in protest. Too bad Thorne had insisted on conducting the interview at his remote ranch tucked deep in Texas Hill Country. She'd expected to be interviewed at his downtown law firm, and was surprised to be informed that she would meet Thorne at his home instead.

She glanced at the directions his secretary had faxed to her and wished for a landmark—a Whataburger, a bank, a gas station—
anything
to reassure her that she was going the right way. But all she could see for miles was an endless stretch of road that wound through the lush foothills of a mountain range.

And then, suddenly, a hacienda-style ranch house perched high on a bluff came into view. As Solange gazed upon the house, she realized the glossy photographs she'd seen in an old issue of
Architectural Digest
had not done the property justice. No photograph, professional or not, could capture the way the sprawling house sat proud and erect on a hilltop, framed against a vivid blue sky and reigning above a lush green valley that stretched against the backdrop of vast, rugged mountains.

With a mixture of excitement and nervousness, Solange steered the car uphill and through a heavy iron gate bearing the name C&C Ranch. She drove past several barns and outbuildings and a large roping arena before reaching the main house. She parked in one of the three detached garages as she'd been instructed and turned off the ignition. The Plymouth shuddered and groaned loudly, as if heaving its last breath.

“God, I hope not,” Solange muttered, reaching over and grabbing a battered leather briefcase from the passenger seat.

She didn't have time to dwell on the fate of the old car. In five minutes she'd be late for the interview, and based on everything she'd read about Crandall Thorne, he wouldn't tolerate tardiness from a prospective employee—or anyone else, for that matter.

Clutching her attaché case, Solange hurried across the manicured ranch yard toward the rambling two-story house that boasted a red-tiled Spanish roof and a wide, curving porch that beckoned visitors.

The tall, handsome woman who answered the door beamed a smile at Solange that was equally welcoming. “Why, hello,” she said in warm, lilting tones that whispered of a Southern accent. “You must be Crandall's three o'clock appointment.”

Solange smiled. “Yes, that's right. My name's Solange Washington.”

The woman, who appeared to be in her midsixties, arched a finely sculpted brow. “Solange? What an unusual name. I imagine you must hear that all the time, though.”

Solange chuckled softly. “Yes, ma'am, I do. I think my mother wanted to name me something different, something unique. Either that, or she just ran out of ideas and thought she was making up something.”

The woman's smile widened with pleasure. “A sense of humor. Good. You'll need it if you want to work for Crandall Thorne.” At Solange's mildly alarmed look, the woman laughed and swung the door wide to usher her inside the house.

“Goodness, where are my manners?” she exclaimed as Solange paused to glance around the wide, spacious foyer. “Been working for Crandall too long. Thirty-three years, to be exact. My name is Rita Owens.”

“Nice to meet you, Ms. Owens,” Solange said, shaking the woman's warm, slightly calloused hand. Work hands, like her mother's had been.

“May I offer you something to drink, Miss Washington?” Rita Owens asked. “Some coffee, tea or hot chocolate? It
is
December, though it doesn't quite feel like it. Are you from Texas?”

“Yes, ma'am. Born and raised.”

“Then you're already used to our unseasonably warm winters. Let me take you on back to Crandall before he thinks you're running late. He doesn't like to be kept waiting.”

Solange nodded. She'd already figured as much.

The entryway spilled into a large living area that boasted the finest in contemporary furnishings, a far cry from the worn, shabby furniture that had filled the tiny farmhouse Solange had grown up in. Tall glass windows soared to cathedral ceilings, and custom ceramic tile floors gleamed beneath her feet as she followed Rita Owens down a wide hallway with archways on both sides that opened into several spacious rooms, each showcasing the work of a very talented—and no doubt expensive—interior designer.

“Did you find the ranch with no problem?” Rita asked over her shoulder.

“Yes, thank you,” Solange said, silently wishing she'd remembered to buy self-adhesive pads for the new black pumps she'd gotten on sale at JCPenney. The smooth, slippery soles were no match for the polished floors of Crandall Thorne's home.

As they reached the end of the hallway, Rita stopped and rapped her knuckles lightly on a closed door. “Your three o'clock appointment is here,” she announced.

After another moment, a deep, gravelly voice called, “Show her in.”

Rita smiled at Solange before opening the door and guiding her into a room that smelled of leather, ink and freshly polished wood. It was a large, richly appointed suite that boasted a twenty-foot ceiling and mahogany-paneled walls lined with rows and rows of books, more than Solange had ever seen outside an actual library. The upper rows of bookshelves were accessible by a pair of ladders on wheels.

A tall, broad-shouldered man stood beside one of these ladders, thumbing through a thick leather-bound book. He wore a crisp white shirt over impeccably tailored coffee-brown trousers and dark Gucci loafers that had probably cost more than everything in Solange's closet.

As she stepped into the room, the man lifted his head from the book he'd been perusing and slowly turned. Behind a pair of rimless glasses perched on the bridge of a strong, aristocratic nose, eyes the color of bittersweet chocolate landed on Solange—and widened in surprise.

“This is Miss Solange Washington,” Rita announced.

Crandall Thorne didn't move or utter a word. Instead he continued staring at Solange in a way that knotted her stomach. Did he hate her gray pinstriped skirt suit? Or did he hate her patent-leather shoes? Could he tell she'd bought them on sale at a department store? Was he already dismissing her as an unsuitable candidate simply because of the way she looked?

Mustering a polite smile, Solange crossed to him with an outstretched hand. “It's an honor to meet you, Mr. Thorne,” she said briskly, just as she'd rehearsed on the way over. “Thank you for giving me this wonderful opportunity to discuss my skills and qualifications in person.”

When Crandall's mouth twitched, she inwardly cringed. Had she overdone it? Had she come across sounding too eager, too brown-nosey?

Crandall's large, elegant hand swallowed hers in a firm handshake. “A pleasure, Miss Washington,” he drawled in a voice that resonated with authority. At sixty-six years old, Crandall Thorne was even handsomer than he'd appeared in the newspapers, with salt-and-pepper hair, deep brown skin, dark, piercing eyes and a neatly trimmed mustache that framed firm, no-nonsense lips. According to the articles Solange had read, Thorne's deteriorating health over the past three years had forced him to take a backseat role in the multimillion-dollar legal empire he'd built with his own two hands. He'd retreated to his secluded estate in the Hill Country and was seldom seen at the power luncheons and lavish galas he'd once headlined.

But as Solange stood in his library that warm winter afternoon, she realized there was nothing frail or feeble about the man before her. With little or no effort, Crandall Thorne exuded the confidence and power of a man who knew he was—and always would be—a force to be reckoned with. She doubted he ever took a backseat role in anything, much less the running of his own company.

“Please have a seat, Miss Washington,” Crandall said, gesturing toward a pair of oxblood leather chairs opposite a mahogany island of a desk.

As Solange moved to claim one of the chairs, Rita Owens asked, “Would either of you care for something to drink?” When both declined, she slipped out of the room and closed the door behind her.

Solange folded her hands neatly in her lap and watched as Crandall returned his book to the shelf and walked toward her with a relaxed, unhurried pace that told her he rushed for no one.

“Now then,” Crandall began once he was seated behind the large, gleaming desk. “Why are you here?”

Solange sat up straighter in her chair, confused by the question. “I was referred to you by—”

Crandall shook his head. “I didn't ask
how
you got here, Miss Washington. I'm well aware of those details. I asked
why
you're here. Why do you think you're the best person for this job?”

“I have the skills and qualifications you're looking for,” Solange replied. “I have eight years of combined experience as a secretary and paralegal at the oldest family law firm in Haskell, Texas. I'm very familiar with the legal system, possess excellent research and investigative skills, and I've prepared written reports, legal arguments, draft pleadings, motions and a number of other important documents that were used in court. I'm smart, conscientious, trustworthy and a hard worker, whether I'm preparing a contract or running errands for you.”

Crandall nodded slowly, those shrewd, dark eyes narrowed on hers. “It would seem to me, Miss Washington, that your next move should be applying to law school.” When Solange said nothing, he continued flatly, “When I first advertised for this position, I received hundreds of résumés, from established attorneys to third-year law students wanting to secure a job before graduation. I dismissed them all. Do you know why?”

Solange shook her head, though she already had an inkling.

“I dismissed them because I'm not looking for a lawyer to fill this position, and quite frankly, I'm skeptical of anyone who would put themselves through the rigors of law school only to settle for a job as a personal assistant. If you have any aspirations of becoming a lawyer, Miss Washington, and you're hoping to use this position as an opportunity to ‘learn from the best,' then I'm afraid you're wasting your time—and mine. It's been years since I took it upon myself to mentor anyone, and I don't intend to start now.”

Solange swallowed, keeping her expression carefully neutral. “With all due respect, Mr. Thorne, I'm not looking for a mentor, although I'd be lying if I said the opportunity to learn from you
wasn't
one of the main things that attracted me to this position.”

Crandall regarded her in thoughtful silence for a moment. “Contrary to what you may have read in the papers or heard about me, Miss Washington, I'm still very active in the daily operations of my corporation. I'm looking for an energetic, highly capable professional to handle my scheduling, correspondence and travel needs—at any and all hours of the day. That means when I say ‘Jump,' you not only ask ‘How high?' but you demand perfection of yourself in carrying out the task. I'm looking for someone who can represent me well at any business, political or social function I deem important. Discretion and integrity are not optional character traits in the individual I'm seeking—they're
mandatory.
I don't want to spend time worrying about my personal assistant leaking sensitive information about me, my company
or
my family to the media or to competitors.”

“I understand that, sir,” Solange said. “I can assure you that this wouldn't be an issue with me.”

He appeared vaguely amused. “Talk to me after you've been approached by someone offering you thousands of dollars for confidential information about my financial or medical status. You'd be surprised how often it happens,” he added grimly at Solange's disconcerted look. He studied her another moment, then said, “Ted Crumley spoke very highly of you. He said you were one of the best paralegals he'd ever hired.”

BOOK: A Risky Affair
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