Authors: Carol Rose
Since the upright George didn’t believe in nepotism, when she was younger it had only made sense for Eden to shift her drive to succeed in the business to Michele Cosmetics. She loved the cosmetics world, loved it so much that she’d dedicated the last twelve years to it.
Working her ass off had gotten her to the executive level, gotten Eden close enough to her goals that losing out at this point would kill her hopes for the company. Hell, it would mean the end of her hopes in general.
She knew without a doubt there was no where else for her to go. Michele Cosmetics was her life.
Two weeks later, sitting next to Eden in a booth at Emiliano’s, Alex Holt watched her unwrap the gift box.
She sent him a quick smile. “Do one month anniversaries usually call for gifts? I didn’t know if I should get something for you.”
“Don’t worry about it,” he recommended, smiling across the booth’s small table at her. “Just open mine.”
“Oh,” she said, chuckling as she pulled the handcuffs out of the box, holding the linked chrome bracelets up in the gleaming candlelight. “Is this a not-so-subtle hint that we should take our relationship to the next level? And are you trying to tell me something about your…preferences?”
“Absolutely not,” Alex said, grinning.
“I don’t know whether to be relieved or disappointed,” she said, her voice husky as her gaze lingered on his face.
Needing no further invitation, Alex leaned toward her, his mouth coasting over hers in a kiss that left him hungry. The sweet warmth of her breath, the softness of her pliant lips, drew him back for a second, lingering kiss.
Smiling across the table at her as he straightened, Alex said, “I prefer to let my…preferences speak for themselves, when called for. The cuffs are a memento of the man who brought us together. I feel sure he’s wearing something similar at this very moment.”
“Oh! That’s right. Our mugger,” she said. “Do you know? I can’t help but have semi-tolerant thoughts of him since he didn’t get my purse, after all. Being mugged in the parking lot that night seemed about right with how things have gone lately, but meeting you was an unexpected bonus to nearly being robbed.”
Alex touched his lip, assuming a pained expression. “Despite his role in our first meeting, I have to admit my thoughts of ‘our mugger’ aren’t all loving.”
She laughed, as he’d meant her to, the sound a warm ripple that made him want to lean over again and cover her mouth with his own.
His original interest in Eden had been motivated by a specific purpose, but he’d inserted himself into her life on a personal level for no other reason than the gut-punch he’d felt when he first looked at her photo. As he sat here across the table looking at her sparkling green eyes and lush mouth, he had to acknowledge he might have gotten in over his head this time.
The deft management of people and money in the business world required a fair amount of finesse and the willingness to take risks. Also, some “stones,” according to his lawyer and right-hand, Bryan. Alex assumed his anatomy measured up fine since he’d achieved a reasonable level of success so far.
But Eden Merritt was no push-over, by any definition. A beautiful and intelligent woman, she’d occupied his thoughts for many a waking midnight hour this past month.
From what he’d learned about her, she’d attained her position at Michelle Cosmetics through savvy and hard-driving determination. She was also the sexiest woman he’d encountered in the last ten years. A few simple kisses and his body had gone into overdrive.
Not only sexy as hell, she’d turned out to be a good person, in his estimate. A rarity in business, Eden appeared to be a straight-shooter, with a minimum of bull.
He liked her almost as much as he hungered for her.
With an inward smile, Alex acknowledged the irony of the situation. It would serve him right if he fell for a woman originally intended to be his quarry. For all Eden’s competence and her urban gloss, she possessed a honesty and directness he found compellingly sexy.
He very much hoped she wouldn’t fight him in his takeover bid with Michele Cosmetics. For the first time, he found himself thinking and re-thinking his plans—obsessing almost—to make especially sure the other person didn’t get hurt.
It was his usual preference for business to be as painless as possible, but he’d never been this careful before. He wanted to come out of this takeover with all the goodies, Eden included.
If the two of them could jump the hurdle of his acquiring Michele Cosmetics, who knew what might happen between them? He knew as he sat here with her that he didn’t want to be anywhere else.
“Oh, this is a good way to end the day, having dinner with you,” she said as she leaned back in the booth, the sleek cap of her short, dark hair brushing against the seat. “I was needing to laugh.”
“Another rough day at work?” he asked sympathetically.
Eden shrugged. “Wendi is impossible. It’s crazy to think of making her CEO of Michele Cosmetics. Michele’s new boyfriend has completely stolen her common sense. I’d really thought better of her. Before him, she was a sane woman. Now I think I could get a judge to agree she’s suffering from some kind of insanity in the last three months. The damned woman never works!”
“Wendi or Michele?” Alex asked as he leaned forward to fill her glass. Eden’s boss was an old woman well beyond her productive years, but he knew Eden still felt a tie with Michele.
“Both! Michele gave the Pretty Me make-up line to Wendi, but she refuses to take care of it. She hands everything off to me. I’m directing the development of new products for the line, overseeing the marketing campaign, making the production decisions. Everything.”
“If its her responsibility, why do you handle it?”
Eden looked surprised. “Because the line will suffer if I don’t take care of it. Someone has to make marketing and product decisions.”
“But if you didn’t step in, Michele would soon see that Wendi’s not doing her job.”
“I’m not so sure. Michele’s rarely in the office these days. She spends most of her time vacationing with Carl,” Eden said, shaking her head. “And by the time, she did notice a problem, the ‘Pretty Me’ line would be significantly damaged. We’d suffer a loss of revenue.”
Alex heard the possessiveness in her voice, watching her as she took a sip of her water. It troubled him that she was still so tied to the company he planned to dismantle, but he brushed the thought away, concentrating on all the opportunities she’d have once free of Michele Cosmetics. In truth, she was getting a raw deal at the company. She deserved better.
“Would it seem like tattling to tell Michele that Wendi’s not doing her job?” he asked with sympathy, letting his gaze linger pleasurably on her face.
“I have told her,” Eden said with frustration. “But despite all our years of working together, Michele won’t hear a word I have to say now. She is truly behind Wendi. Or behind Carl who is, of course, Wendi’s uncle! And Carl is all that matters to Michele now so she supports Wendi’s every suggestion, applauds her so-called ‘innovations’ and generally makes an ass of herself when it comes to anyone questioning Wendi.”
Watching her, Alex recognized and regretted Eden’s frustration level. She was getting crap all the way around, mostly due to choices that were not her own.
He wanted to make it better for her. Whether she knew it or not, what was good for him would be good for her, too. Her situation now was intolerable.
Was she ready to hear his proposition? His team had originally targeted Eden in the hope that he could form an alliance and win her assistance in his takeover bid. But he was reluctant to speak now that the moment of truth seemed close at hand. This was dicey business, even more than the other business deals, he’d worked. It was complicated for the very reason that not only business was at stake here. He’d let things get very personal. It would have been so much simpler if he hadn’t liked her so much.
Regret wasn’t high on his list of worthwhile experiences, but as he sat across from her trying to find a good way to broach the subject of his take-over bid, he knew regret. There had to have been a less calculating way to get into her life.
At least, he hadn’t had sex with her…yet.
Depending on how he handled this, he’d either be her hero or her enemy and he much preferred the former role.
“It must be hard to come to this point after all the years you’ve worked with Michele,” he commented finally. “She’s been like your family and then she turned on you. You’ve handled the whole mess very professionally. Michele doesn’t deserve all the slack you’ve cut her.”
“No,” Eden agreed, her beautiful mouth in a wry smile, “she doesn’t. She deserves my letter of resignation on her desk two weeks ago, at the very least. I’d like to see her and her bimbo run the business now! And I’d have taken another position if my other avenues had panned out. But like I said, I’m trapped. If I leave Michele Cosmetics, I have to give up a career I love. Some people say business is business, but they’re wrong. The beauty industry is what I’m good at.”
After a short pause, Alex said, “Didn’t you say something about an uncle you might be able to work with in some capacity? What does he do?”
Would she confide in him about her compromised position regarding her family relationship to George Thompson? If Thompson had pulled his head out of his ass and offered Eden a position, Alex’s plans for Michele Cosmetics would have to be redeveloped. He could think of worse things. At least, Eden would get what she truly deserved.
From the expression on her face, however, he had to conclude that George Thompson’s head was still firmly lodged in its usual position.
“He runs his own business,” she said noncommittally, her face losing some of its lively sparkle.
“What kind of business?” Alex pressed. “Would he have any use for your expertise?”
Waiting while she formed her response, he considered how he could best tell her he knew of her disastrous family tie. He would never actually reveal the compromising information to anyone at Michele Cosmetics. He might, however, need to remind Eden just how vulnerable she was. If he could find out that she was closely related to Michele Cosmetics’ biggest regional competitor, others could. People who were gunning for her, unlike him.
Nothing good would come of Eden staying where she was now. She needed to take his offer, needed to move on. He’d spent the last ten years building up a multi-million dollar business. Knowing how to make an offer sound good was a deeply ingrained habit.
In the early morning hours, awake as usual to greet the dawn, he’d gone over and over his pitch. Deals always went better when everyone felt like they were winning. Could he make this one seem that way for Eden? Everything would work out so much better for them all if she could see that her own best interests lie with him.
Alex was hopeful. She was a smart, savvy woman.
Aware of an unusual tension as he prepared to make his pitch, he tried to believe she’d see how his proposition benefited her.
“So your uncle is in what business?” he asked again.
This could be the beginning of a terrific relationship, he thought as he waited for her response. Eden’s business skills commanded his respect, but he was most won over by the straight-arrow truth in her. Unlike a lot of people, she held to an ethical standard. Even as he acknowledged the thought, Alex recognized the irony. He liked her ethics…and he was here to get her to do something he knew would be contrary to her ethics. At least, that’s how she might see it.
Hopefully, she’d take a bigger view. If she could see that business was business and his taking over Michele Cosmetics was simply a good money decision, she might not go postal on him.
Alex very much wanted to stay connected to her. He enjoyed her company more than any woman he’d dated and he wanted her with a fierceness that left him aching. He normally didn’t sleep much, but with her there next to him, he wouldn’t mind the waking hours in the night.
Eden shook her head slowly, not answering Alex’s direct question. “I’m not going to work for my uncle. There are…conflicts. Problems there that are not be solvable.”
Swirling the liquid in his glass, Alex said, “This past month you’ve given Michele the time to realize her screw-up in appointing Wendi as her successor, even if she is sleeping with Wendi’s uncle. You’ve also tried to find other jobs in your line of work. What’s next?”
“I don’t know,” she admitted tiredly, her chin sinking into her cupped hand.
Alex waited, his brain almost unwillingly alert to every nuance of her expression. Normally at this moment, he felt his senses grow razor-sharp, sensing his opponents wavering. How long had he been in this business of making a profit on other people’s failure? It had grown to be a familiar role.
Eden looked up then, smiling at him. “Let’s not talk about my shitty boss or my revenge fantasies anymore. Tell me about your niece’s basketball game last night. Did she win?”
“They lost six to eight,” he told her, resisting the impulse to haul her over the table and make hot, hungry love to her. Distraction was a good thing, he’d found. But instead of making a scene for Emiliano’s customers, he said, “Tell me about your revenge fantasies.”
Her smile grew lopsided. “You must be tired of hearing about the crap at my work.”