Hunter was here.
Six weeks later, Sinclair’s stomach clenched around nothing as he strode into the Lush Beauty Products boardroom like he owned the place.
“-in a friendly takeover bid,” Sinclair’s boss, company president Roger Rawlings, was saying. “Osland International has purchased fifty-one percent of the Lush Beauty Products voting shares.”
Sinclair reflexively straightened in her chair. Good grief, he
Could this be a joke?
She glanced from side to side.
Would cameramen jump out any second and shove a microphone in her face? Were they filming even now to record her reaction?
She waited. But Hunter didn’t even look her way, and nobody started laughing.
“As many of you are aware,” said Roger, “among their other business interests, Osland International owns the Sierra Sanchez line of women’s clothing stores across North America, with several outlets in Europe and Australia.”
While Roger spoke, and the Lush Beauty managers absorbed the surprising news, Hunter’s gaze moved methodically around the big, oval table. His gaze paused on Ethan from product development, then Colleen from marketing. He nodded at Sandra from accounting, and looked to Mary-Anne from distribution.
As her turn grew near, Sinclair composed her expression. In her role as public relations manager, she was used to behaving professionally under trying circumstances. And she’d do that now. If he could handle this, so could she. They were both adults, obviously. And she could behave as professionally as he could. Still, she had to wonder why he hadn’t given her a heads-up.
The Hunter she’d met in Manchester had struck her as honorable. She would have thought he’d at least drop her an e-mail. Or had she totally misjudged him? Was he nothing more than a slick, polished player who forgot women the second they were out of his sight?
Maybe he didn’t e-mail because he didn’t care. Or, worse yet, maybe he didn’t even remember.
In the wash of her uncertainty, Roger’s voice droned on. “Sierra Sanchez will offer Lush Beauty Products a built-in, high-end retail outlet from which to launch the new Luscious Lavender line. We’ll continue seeking other sales outlets, of course. But that is only one of the many ways this partnership will be productive for both parties.”
Hunter’s gaze hit Sinclair.
He froze for a split second. Then his nostrils flared, and his eyebrows shot up. She could swear a current cracked audibly between them. It blanketed her skin, shimmied down her nervous system, then pooled to a steady hum in the pit of her stomach.
Hunter’s jaw tightened around his own obvious shock.
Okay. So maybe there was a reason he hadn’t given her a heads-up.
There were days when Hunter Osland hated his grandfather’s warped sense of humor. And today ranked right up there.
In the instant he saw Sinclair, the last six weeks suddenly made sense-Cleveland’s insistence they buy Lush Beauty Products, his demand that Hunter take over as CEO, and his rush to get Hunter in front of the company managers. Cleveland had known she worked here, and he’d somehow figured out Hunter had slept with her.
Hunter’s grandfather was, quite literally, forcing him to face the consequences of his actions.
“So please join me in welcoming Mr. Osland to Lush Beauty Products,” Roger finished to a polite round of applause. The managers seemed wary, as anyone would be when the corporate leadership suddenly shifted above them.
It was Hunter’s job to reassure them. And he now had the additional duty of explaining himself to Sinclair. God only knew what she was thinking. But, talking to her would have to wait. He refocused his gaze on the room in general and moved to the head of the table.
“Thank you very much,” he began, smoothly taking control of the meeting, like he’d done at a thousand meetings before. “First, you should all feel free to call me Hunter. Second, I’d like to assure you up front that Osland International has no plans to make staffing changes, nor to change the current direction of Lush Beauty Products.”
He’d mentally rehearsed this next part, although he now knew it was a lie. “My grandfather made the decision to invest in this company because he was excited about your product redevelopment-such as the Luscious Lavender line-and about your plans to expand the company’s target demographic.”
Hunter now doubted Cleveland had even heard of Lush Beauty Products before meeting Sinclair. And Cleveland would be a lot less excited about the product redevelopment than he was about yanking Hunter’s chain.
“Osland International has analyzed your success within the North American midprice market,” Hunter told the group. “And we believe there are a number of opportunities to go upscale and international. We’re open to your ideas. And, although Roger will continue to manage day-to-day operations, I’ll be hands-on with strategic direction. So I want to invite each of you to stop by and see me. I expect to be on site several days a month, and I believe I’ll have an office on the twentieth floor?”
He looked to Roger for confirmation.
“Yes,” said Roger. “But if any of you have questions or concerns, you should feel free to use me as a sounding board.”
The words surprised Hunter. Was Roger telling them not to go directly to Hunter?
“We’ll try to make this transition as smooth as possible,” Roger continued in a silky voice that set Hunter’s teeth on edge. “But we understand some of you may feel challenged and unsettled.”
Oh, great little pep talk. Thanks for that, Roger.
“There’s no need for anyone to feel unsettled,” Hunter cut in. “As far as I’m concerned, it’s business as usual. And my door is always open.” Then he looked directly at Sinclair. “Come and see me.”
An hour later, Sinclair took Hunter up on his invitation. On the twentieth floor, she propped herself against the doorjamb of his airy corner office. “This,” she said, taking in the big desk, the credenza piled with books and the meeting table that sat eight, “I have
He straightened in his high-backed chair and glanced up from his laptop, a flash of guilt in his eyes.
Ignoring the way her heart lifted at his reaction, she took two steps inside and closed the door behind her. He cared that he’d blindsided her. At least that was something.
Not that she cared about him in any fundamental way. She couldn’t. They were a brief flash of history, and nothing more.
“It was Gramps,” answered Hunter. “He bought the company and sent me here to run it.”
“And you didn’t know about me?” she guessed.
“I didn’t know,” he confirmed.
“So, you’re not stalking me?”
He hit a key on his computer. “Right. Like any reasonable stalker, I bought your company to get close to you.”
She shrugged. “Could happen.”
“Well, it didn’t. This is Gramps’ idea of a joke. I think he knows I slept with you,” said Hunter.
“Then there’s something wrong with that man.” And there was something frightening about a person with enough economic power to buy a four-hundred-person company as a joke. There was something even more frightening about a person who took the trouble to actually do it.
“I think he’s losing it in his old age.” Then Hunter paused for a moment to consider. “On the other hand, he was always crotchety and controlling.”
“Kristy likes him,” said Sinclair. Not that she was coming down on Cleveland Osland’s side. If Hunter was right, the man was seriously nuts.
“That’s because he’s batty over your sister.”
Sinclair supposed that was probably true. It was Cleveland Osland who had helped Kristy get started in the fashion business last month. And now her career was soaring.
A soaring career was what Sinclair wanted for herself. And what she really wanted was for Hunter not to be a complication in that. She had a huge opportunity here with the planned company expansion and with the development of the new Luscious Lavender line.
She advanced on his wide desk to make her point, forcing herself to ignore the persistent sexual tug that had settled in her abdomen. Whatever they’d had for that brief moment had ended. He was her past, now her boss.
Even if he might be willing to rekindle. And she had no reason to assume he was willing. She was not.
She dropped into one of his guest chairs, keeping her tone light and unconcerned. “So what do we do now?”
A wolfish grin grew on his face.
All right, so maybe there was a reason to assume he was willing.
“No,” she said, in a stern voice.
“I didn’t say a word.”
“You thought it. And the answer is no.”
“You’re a cold woman.”
“I’m an intelligent woman. I’m not about to sleep my way to the top.”
“There’s a lot to be said for being at the top.”
“I guess you would know.”
He leaned back in his chair, expression turning mischievous. “Yeah. I guess I would.”
She ignored the little-boy charm and leaned forward to prop her elbows on his desk. “Okay, let’s talk about how this works.”
“I thought we’d pretty much demonstrated how it worked last month.”
She wished he’d stop flirting. It was ridiculously tempting to engage. Their verbal foreplay that night had been almost as exciting as the physical stuff.
“Nobody here knows about us,” she began, keeping her tone even.
“I know about us,” he pointed out.
“But you’re going to forget it.”
“Not likely,” he scoffed.
She leaned farther forward, getting up into his face. “Listen carefully, Hunter. For the purposes of our professional relationship, you are going to forget that you’ve seen me naked.”
“You know, you’re very cute when you’re angry.”
“That’s the lamest line I’ve ever heard.”
“No, it’s not.”
“Can you be serious for a second?”
“What makes you think I’m not serious?”
“Lighten up, Sinclair.”
But she drew back to think about it. Could it be that simple? “Am I making too much of this?”
He shrugged. “I’m not about to announce anything in the company newsletter. So, unless you spread the word around the water cooler, I think we’re good.”
She eyed him up. “That’s it? Business as usual?”
“Gramps may have bought Lush Beauty Products for his own bizarre reasons. But I’m here to run it, nothing more, nothing less. And you have a job to do.”
She came to her feet and gave a sharp nod, telling herself she was relieved, not disappointed, that it would be easy for him to ignore their past.
“See you around the water cooler, I guess,” she said in parting.
“Sure,” Hunter responded. “Whatever.”
Despite the casual goodbye, Hunter knew it would be hell trying to dismiss what they’d shared. As the office door closed behind her, he squeezed his eyes shut and raked a hand through his hair. Their past might have been short, but it was about as memorable as a past could get.
For the thousandth time, he saw Sinclair in the Manchester mansion. She was curled in a leather armchair, beneath the Christmas tree, next to the crackling fireplace. He remembered thinking in that moment that she was about as beautiful as a woman could get. He’d always had a thing for redheads.
When he was sixteen years old, some insane old gypsy had predicted he’d marry a redhead. Hunter wasn’t sure if it was the power of suggestion or a lucky guess, but redheads were definitely his dates of choice.
The flames from the fire had reflected around Sinclair, highlighting her rosy cheeks and her bright blue eyes. Her shoulder-length hair flowed in soft waves, teasing and tantalizing him. He’d already discovered she was smart and classy, with a sharp wit that made him want to spar with her for hours on end.
So he’d bided his time. Waiting for the rest of the family to head for bed, hoping against hope that she’d stay up late.
And then they were alone. And he had been about to make a move. She was his cousin’s new sister-in-law, and he knew their paths might cross again at some point. But he couldn’t bring himself to worry about the future. There was something intense brewing, and he owed it to both of them to find out what it was.
He came to his feet, watching her closely as he crossed the great room. Her blue eyes went from laughing sapphires to an intense ocean storm and, before he even reached her chair, he knew she was with him.
He stopped in front of her, bracing a hand on either arm of the chair, leaning over to trap her in place. She didn’t flinch but watched him with open interest.
He liked that.
Hell, he loved that.
“Hey,” he rasped, a wealth of meaning in his tone and posture.
“Hey,” she responded, voice husky, pupils dilated.
He touched his index finger to her chin, tipping it up ever so slightly.
She didn’t pull away, so he bent his head, forcing himself to go slow, giving her plenty of time to shut him down. He could smell her skin, feel the heat of her breath, taste the sweet explosion of her lips under his.
His free hand curled to a fist as he steeled himself to keep the kiss gentle. He fought an almost overwhelming urge to open wide, to meet her tongue, to let the passion roar to life between them.
Instead, he drew back, though he was almost shaking with the effort.
“Stop?” he rasped, needing a definite answer, and needing it
“Go,” she replied, and his world pitched sideways.
With a groan of surrender, he dropped to one knee, clamping a hand behind her neck, firmly pulling her forward for a real kiss.
There was no hesitation this time. Their tongues met in a clash. She shifted in the chair to mold against him, her breasts plastered against his chest while desire raced like wildfire along his limbs.
Her hair was soft, her breath softer, and her body was pure heaven in his arms.
“I want you,” he’d muttered.
“No kidding,” she came back.
His chuckle rumbled against her lips. “Sassy.”
“You know it,” she whispered in the instant before he kissed her all over again.
The kiss went harder and deeper, until he finally had to gasp for air. “Can I take that as a yes?”
“Can I take that as an offer?” she countered.
“You can take it as a promise,” he said, and scooped her into his arms.
She placed her hands on his shoulders and burrowed into the crook at his neck. Then her teeth came down gently on his earlobe. Lust shot through him, and he cursed the fact that his bedroom was in a far corner on the third floor.
A knock on his office door snapped him back to reality.
“Yeah?” he barked.
The door cracked open.
It was Sinclair again.
She slipped inside, still stunningly beautiful in that sleek ivory skirt and the matching blazer. Her pale-pink tank top molded to her breasts, and her shapely legs made him long to trail his fingertips up past her hemline.
“Since it’s business as usual,” she began, perkily, crossing the room, oblivious to his state of discomfort.
“Right,” he agreed from between clenched teeth.
“I have something I’d like to discuss with you.”
At the moment, he had something he wished he could discuss with her, too.
“Fire way,” he said instead.
She took up the guest chair again and crossed her legs. Her makeup was minimal, but she didn’t need it. She had a healthy peaches-and-cream glow, accented by the brightest blue eyes he’d ever seen. Sunlight from the floor-to-ceiling bay window sparkled on her hair. It reminded him of the firelight, and he curled his hands into new fists.
“I have this idea.”
He ordered himself to leave that opening alone.
“Roger’s been reluctant to support it,” she continued.
She wanted Hunter to intervene?
Sure. Easy. No problem.
“Let’s hear it,” he said.
“It’s about the ball.”
Hunter had just read about the Lush Beauty Products’ Valentine’s Ball. They were going to use it to launch the Luscious Lavender line. It was a decent idea as publicity went. Women loved Valentine’s Day, and the Luscious Lavender line was all about glamming up and looking your best.
“Shoot,” he told her.
“I’ve taken the lead in planning the ball,” she explained, wriggling forward, drawing his attention to the pale tank top. “And I’ve been thinking we should go with something bigger.”
“A bigger ball?” He dragged his attention back to her face. They’d rented the ballroom at the Roosevelt Hotel. It didn’t get much bigger than that.
Sinclair shook her head. “Not a bigger ball. A bigger product launch. Something more than a ball. The ball is fine. It’s great. But it’s not…” Her lips compressed and her eyes squinted down. “Enough.”
“Tell me what you had in mind,” he prompted, curious about how she conducted business. He’d been struck by her intelligence in Manchester. It would be interesting to deal with her in a new forum.
“What I was thinking…” She paused as if gathering her thoughts. “Is to launch Luscious Lavender at a luxury spa. In addition to the ball.” Her voice sped up with her enthusiasm. “We’re going after the high-end market. And where do rich women get their hair done? Where do they get their facials? Their body wraps? Their waxing?”
“At the spa?” asked Hunter, trying very, very hard not to think about Sinclair and waxing.
She sat back, pointed a finger in his direction, a flush of excitement on her face. “Exactly.”
“That’s not bad,” he admitted. It was a very good idea. He liked that it was unique, and it would probably prove effective. “What’s Roger’s objection?”
“He didn’t tell me his objection. He just said no.”
“Really?” Hunter didn’t care for autocracy and secrecy as managerial styles. “What would you like me to do?”
Whatever it was, he’d do it in a heartbeat. And not because of their history. He’d do it because it was a good idea, and he appreciated her intelligence and creativity. Roger better have a damn good reason for turning her down.
“If you can clear it with Roger-”
“Oh, I can clear it with Roger.”
Her teeth came down on her bottom lip, and a hesitation flashed through her eyes. “You agreed awfully fast.”
“I’m agile and decisive. Got a problem with that?”
“As long as…” Guilt flashed in her eyes.
“I’m reacting to your idea, Sinclair. Not to your body.”
“Of course, I’m sure.” He was. Definitely.
“I was going to approach New York Millennium.” She named a popular spa in the heart of Manhattan.
“That sounds like a good bet. You need anything else?”
She shook her head, rising to her feet. “Roger was my only roadblock.”