NATALIE SHOOK HER UMBRELLA, sprinkling cool water droplets everywhere, as she entered Damon Defense Engineering headquarters in Tysons. She hurried across the lobby toward the elevator, her high heels ringing against the sparkling marble floor. It was only Monday morning, but if this was how her week was going to go, she didn’t want to see Tuesday.
She jabbed the elevator button and waited, impatience mounting. There had been three accidents on I-66, turning the Virginia/DC interstate into a parking lot. When a family van driver using a cell phone had rear-ended her on the Beltway with less than one exit left to her office, she’d almost screamed. Almost. Some people might recognize her, and she had to maintain her dignity at all times, especially this year.
Louise wouldn’t have it any other way. Think of your father’s career.
How many times had she heard that over the years?
The elevator doors opened with a soft chime, and Natalie walked inside, glancing at her watch. 10:30 a.m. Fantastic—half an hour late to a meeting she’d called last week. She would’ve let her colleagues know, but her cell phone was lying on the breakfast table where she’d forgotten it that morning.
She checked her appearance in the mirrored walls and smoothed her hands down her black skirt suit, then closed her eyes and took a deep breath. Calm down. Getting frustrated wouldn’t salvage the situation.
When the elevator stopped at the fifteenth floor, she stepped out onto the muted beige carpet. Normally the sunlight gave the office a hazy radiance through frosted glass walls. But not today. Everything looked drab and gray.
Her assistant, Danielle Hartman, charged toward her. She was young, only twenty-two, but totally out of shape. Her dirty dishwater-colored pantsuit did nothing for her eyes, hidden behind a pair of thick glasses, or her limp brown hair. Most high school outcasts grew out of their social awkwardness and improved their sense of fashion by the time they finished college. Danielle hadn’t. Which was unfortunate, because she had great skin and a nice smile.
“Thank God you’re here.” Danielle panted.
“Ralph and Vivien just got fired.”
It took all of Natalie’s self-control to keep her voice down. “What?” Ralph was—had been—the director of DDE. Vivien had been Ralph’s right hand and Natalie’s direct boss.
“This morning…Alex Damon himself walked in. Half an hour later, Ralph and Vivien left with a couple of security guards. And their stuff. In boxes.” The corners of Danielle’s mouth turned downward. “Mr. Damon said he wanted to see you as soon as you got in. He’s in Ralph’s office. His former office, I mean.”
So much for the meeting.
It wasn’t difficult to figure out what everyone was thinking as she walked through the maze of cubicles. People looked at her over the partitions with pity and apprehension—pity she was getting canned and apprehension they might be next.
The door to Ralph’s old corner office was open, but his name plaque was gone. Years of wear and tear had left the ivory walls slightly dingy, except for a couple of pristine squares where he’d hung framed Picasso prints. The office looked barren without Ralph’s clutter—mostly family pictures and souvenirs he’d collected over the years.
Someone with cropped black hair sat in an executive leather chair, facing the windows. Torrents of rain blurred the view of gray roads and red brake lights. A large, tanned hand held a cell phone to an ear, but the voice was too low for her to eavesdrop. Natalie took a long breath and counted to ten, welcoming the respite before she had to face Alex Damon, the chairman and CEO of DDE’s holding company, Global Strategies Corporation. She’d never seen him in real life, although there were plenty of pictures in glossy gossip magazines. Being one of the planet’s most eligible bachelors and a self-made billionaire tended to make one’s face well-known.
Finally he snapped the phone shut and swiveled around to face her.
“Yes?” His voice was a steely baritone that demanded an immediate answer with just that one syllable.
His entire body emanated authority and raw sexuality. The dark, tailored suit he was wearing tried to throw a veneer of civilization over him but failed. He would’ve been frightening if it weren’t for the iron control in the winter gray eyes that said he ruled, not his primal instinct. She shivered as his gaze brushed over her, head to toe and then back up to her face. She had the most absurd feeling that he was undressing her with his eyes.
Nonsense. He was probably trying to decide if she would cry at bad news and whether he should delegate the distasteful task to someone else.
“I’m Natalie Hall. My assistant said you wanted to see me.” She noted with relief that her voice didn’t betray her nervousness.
He frowned slightly, his gaze darting to her barren ring finger, then back to her face. Most people didn’t expect an Asian when they heard the name Hall. For some reason, it pleased her that she’d managed to surprise him.
He rose from his seat to his full height, which was impressive. He walked around the desk and extended a hand. “Alex Damon. Nice to meet you.” This time the baritone was more modulated. It slithered over her like strands of supple leather.
“Nice to meet you too.” Natalie shook his hand. It was slightly calloused and infused her cool skin with warmth.
He shut the door and gestured at a chair. “Please have a seat.”
She sat, putting her laptop bag and purse discreetly beside the chair and crossing her legs. She had the odd feeling that Alex was staring at them, but when she glanced up, he was busy pulling another chair from the other side of the office. God, she was ridiculous. Of course he wasn’t looking at her legs. They were her best asset, but he’d dated models with legs up to their armpits.
When he sat across from her, barely enough personal space remained to be polite. She could feel a delicious heat coming off his body, smell a whiff of spicy cologne. Something stirred in her, sexual and dangerous. She stomped on it. This wasn’t the time, this wasn’t the place, and he definitely wasn’t the right man to be attracted to. Business and pleasure never mixed well.
“Your assistant told me you had a doctor’s appointment,” Alex said, breaking her train of thought. “I hope you aren’t coming down with something. You look a little flushed.”