Winning the Boss’s Heart
Mason Christian has twelve weeks to flip something old into something new for his Japanese client, and then he’s getting the hell out of Footsteps Bay, New Zealand. Not even his temporary cook and secretary—the feisty, luscious Billie McLeod—will deter him. There’s no denying she makes him feel alive. More alive than he’s felt in three years…
Billie has one dream: save enough money to go to college. That’s why she’s agreed to work for hard ass, all-business-no-pleasure Mason Christian—a man who has every intention of destroying through “modernization” the town’s most cherished historical home. But before she can say see ya, she realizes she’s signed the dotted line and is contractually bound for eighty-four days. Working with male perfection every day is awesome with a capital A—as long as they can stick to a hands-off policy that gets harder every day…
© 2013 Hayson Manning
This isn’t going swimmingly.
Billie McCloud hit the doorbell for the third time. All this way for an interview for nothing. Her prospective boss had barked out during their brief phone call that she should be here at ten o’clock sharp or not show at all. Well, she’d gotten here five minutes early, and it was now ten minutes past.
Her blood went on a low simmer.
When she turned and started walking toward her car, the scent of pine and wild mint that surrounded the Bay of Islands property, nestled in the top of New Zealand’s North Island taunted her.
Billie turned at the questioning voice that sounded like it had partied with the Marlboro Man then soaked itself overnight in bourbon. If she could have reached out and grabbed onto something, she would have.
Man Magic stood in front of her. He had to be at least six-four to her five-eight in ballet flats. His black, finger-combed hair looked like it did what it wanted. His high cheek bones and strong chin were covered in a healthy dose of dark stubble. But those eyes. Daniel Craig-blue framed in thick, black lashes locked on hers, and she fought to catch a breath. A slightly off-center nose spared him the pretty label.
Dear God. Working across from and looking at male perfection every day? Awesome with a capital A. He stood in a dark blue business suit that looked like it had been sewn around him. A crisp white shirt expanded across a wide chest, and shoes polished to within an inch of their lives completed the package.
Yep, Man Magic in all its glory.
Shivers and tingles danced across her skin, and the moment felt one step removed from reality. She’d never shivered or tingled in a way a girl was supposed to shiver and tingle, ever.
She walked back to Man Magic on legs that felt liked she’d just exited a spin class.
“Billie. I prefer Billie. Wilhelmina is such a mouthful.” She pressed a professional smile onto her face and hoped it didn’t hang there like a badly constructed Lego grin. “I’m here for the job interview.” She glanced at her watch. “Ten sharp.”
He stared at her, and nothing moving on his face.
She adjusted her handbag on her shoulder. Right, this wasn’t going swimmingly.
“Mason Christian.” He thrust out his hand and strong, firm fingers wrapped around hers. As his hand pulled away, the parting brush of his skin sent a lingering shiver in her fingertips. Again with the shivers. Her body heated uncomfortably.
His eyes widened slightly, and his dark brows lifted. “Follow me.” Without waiting for her to speak, he turned and walked into the gorgeous old homestead whose floorboards creaked out a weary greeting.
She narrowed her eyes when he didn’t even bother with a backward glance. He might as well have commanded her to sit and stay.
Really. She hurried to follow him into a huge lounge room that had been converted into a temporary office with two desks, two uncomfortable chairs, and more computer equipment than she’d seen outside of an electronics store. Tiny particles of dust hung in the speckled light.
He indicated a chair for her to sit in and slid into another across from her. “I need a cook and a secretary. If you get the job, I’ll be calling you Forty-Two, as none of my assistants stay. I work long hours and expect the same.”
“Forty-Two?” she blurted out. She did some quick math. He didn’t look to be older than thirty. She’d put him at twenty-eight tops unless he was dipping his face into cell rejuvenation fluid each night. “You’ve had forty-one assistants?” A quiver of doubt covered her skin like a blanket of cobwebs. Of course, if he called them all by number, like they were nothing more than prison convicts, was it any doubt he’d gone through them so quickly?
She should get up and leave and never look back. And she might if not for the huge paycheck he was offering.
He watched her with those unblinking blue eyes. Didn’t look like the man smiled a whole lot. She resisted the urge to shift in her chair. She doubted his middle name was jocularity or could even form the word “fun” in an anagram. In fact, she’d bet her ThighMaster and Zingo knife that he’d never heard a funny joke. He shrugged. “As I said, none of my assistants stay long, so I number them. It’s easier to remember.”
“Yeah, because remembering the name Sue, Jane, or Henrietta would be a hardship.”
He blinked as if he’d just noticed her for the first time and did a full scan of her. A heartbreaking smile that would get him admitted to secret societies, exclusive men’s clubs, and women’s underwear transformed his face.
Holy moly, the man had some chops.
“Your references are impressive.” He looked down at a folder containing the resume she’d emailed earlier in the week. The smile slipped off his face so fast she wondered if she’d imagined it.
“Thank you.” She studied him as he read. Word around Footsteps Bay was that he was a ruthless developer who would stop at nothing to get what he wanted. Yeah, she could see that. The way he held himself. The aloofness that he wore like a comfortable coat. The way his body seemed to be a coiled rope of muscle. He didn’t take no for an answer, and everything about him advertised that fact.
He frowned. “There’s a time gap here. You haven’t worked for the past eighteen months?”
“I haven’t, no.” She held his gaze. “I had things to work through.”
The mask that held his face immobile shifted, and she caught a glimpse of heartbreaking sadness so strong her breath left her body. “Why do you want this job?”
Her breath returned and kick-started her heart.
She forced calmness across suddenly shaky nerves. “I love the area. This house, Wuthering Heights and all its history. It’s heaven. I’m a great personal assistant, and I think I’m a pretty good cook. Ultimately, I want to finish my culinary degree, and with the money I’ll make here, I’ll be able to afford it.” She smiled what she hoped was sunny and warm, pushing for the home plate. “I think I’m the only one you’ll need.” Heat fired into her cheeks. Crap. As usual, her mouth forgot to check with her brain.
Nothing moved on his face as he regarded her. Not a blink or a pull of his lips. Nothing.
Had she imagined that underwear-loosening smile from before?
Painful silence stretched between them. She squirmed in her seat, watching her three-month dream job drift away.
“What do you mean by Wuthering Heights?”
She leaned back in her chair and glanced out at the grounds. “My best friend Sarah and I used to come up here when we were kids. We were convinced it’s where Cathy and Heathcliff lived. We’d sit and listen for Cathy calling for her lost love.”
His expression was one of complete bewilderment.
She grinned. “Yeah, I know. Look at how that turned out, right?”
He twirled an expensive looking pen like a conductor. “I develop houses into retreats for wealthy clients. The renovation of this house has to be done in twelve weeks maximum, as I have a Japanese buyer lined up. Forty-One couldn’t commit to working long hours and I do work long hours. I need to know I can rely on you to keep up.”
“I have caffeine for blood.”
He stared at her so hard she struggled not to fidget. “Is it acceptable for you to live here for the duration of the assignment so we can fit in maximum hours?”
She pulled herself higher in the chair. “Yes I’m fine with living here. I understood it was a live-in when I agreed to the interview.”
With his index finger, he pushed a piece of paper across the desk. “You will need to sign this contract committing yourself to the entire refit of the house. It’s imperative that nothing go wrong.”
She concentrated on the contract and gave herself a mental high-five. She must have the job if he was offering a contract. Yay. Culinary school and fulfilling my dreams, here I come. Sarah and the rest of the town would be stoked, as there was a growing sense of unease in town that the new owner wanted to rip the heart and soul out of the community by destroying the grounds and everything they symbolized. Lately there’d been a lot of development, McMansions replacing landmarks that had stood in Footsteps Bay for generations. This job was her chance to learn the new owner’s intentions and help avoid the lynch mob if the orchards were razed too, since they were dying to know what the plans were for the grounds and house.
As she read further, though, an icy feeling slithered down her spine. The terms were clear enough, but if she left before the refit was complete, she’d basically owe him her house, her car, and possibly a kidney.
She looked up at him. “Why do I need to sign a contract? Usually my word is enough.”
He leaned forward in his chair. Without warning, she inhaled his spicy scent. The girls perked up and said hello.
What is wrong with me?
Vertebrae locked into place.
This was her potential boss, not Man Magic.
She closed her eyes and wished for a do-over moment. Here she was sitting in an interview for a job she wanted with damp underwear.
He raised one dark brow as if he could sense what was going on with her body, and that only sent more heat around her misfiring nerves.
His face darkened. “I’ve invested a lot in this renovation, and I can’t risk jeopardizing it if you decide to leave before the assignment is complete. I wouldn’t have time to find Forty-Three, hence the contract.”
She tilted her chin and looked him straight in the eye. “You’ll find in a town like this that your word is your signature, but if you want me to sign, I will.” She leaned across, snagged the pen, and signed her name at the bottom of the page.
“I want to be in and out as soon as possible. I’ve never undertaken a renovation in a town this small before, but this house and these grounds have such potential as a minimalist retreat.”
She snapped up straight, the pen tight in her grasp. “A minimalist retreat? This house, with all its history? Are you serious?”
A quizzical look blurred his features. “Totally serious. The potential buyer is looking for an easy care house and grounds.”
She gazed at the hand-carved high wooden ceilings, then dropped her attention to one of the fireplaces in the room. Beautiful hand-painted ceramic tiles framed the wrought iron. One of the many French doors was open, and the view offered endless orchards and acres of fruit vines. Her muscles seized, and she rubbed the center of her chest. She couldn’t even imagine this home—these fields—stripped bare. The town would wither and die. Hell, the townspeople would stand up a lynch mob, and she’d be tarred and feathered along with them. She stood.
“I’m sorry, there’s been a mistake. I can’t do this.” She put her handbag on her shoulder. “This place means everything to the community. I can’t be a part of ripping out its heart.”
She’d made it to the door when his monotone voice turned her body to stone.
“I believe you’ve signed a contract.”
She turned, the blood leaving her head in a rush. “You’d make me work here even though it makes my skin want to peel?”
Nothing on his face moved except for a small flare in his mesmerizing eyes.
To think she’d thought this was Man Magic. Yeah, he may be one hot tamale on the outside, but she bet old Satan himself was sitting in his heart playing Solitaire.
“I am completely serious, and unless you can afford the penalties—which are quite substantial—I think we should start work. You’re the only qualified applicant, and I’m on a deadline.”
She glanced out the window and bit back the thickening in her throat. Distant waves whispered against the shore. Seagulls argued overhead. Sun streamed through an open window dappling the polished floorboards in splotches of orange. The click of a grandfather clock counted down the years in the hallway.
It was peaceful. It was perfect. It wasn’t a minimalist retreat.
She tried a different tack. “Has your potential buyer seen this place? I bet if he did, he’d have chickens roaming out back and a goat named Ethel as a lawnmower before you know it.”
He stared at her as if she’d just grown four heads and a penis and was giving him a let’s-get-it-on look. “I’m sure they’d rather spear themselves through the eye with a fork than have chickens running around. As for a goat named…”
Silence stretched between them like the neglected exercise band that hung off her bedroom door.
Mason Christian might seem relaxed but for the way he held his shoulders and the determination in his eyes. She knew he wasn’t going to budge. She closed her eyes for a second and, when she opened them, found his eyes locked on hers.
“Will you take the penalty payment in the form of plasma and internal organs?” she asked in a quiet voice.
Her stomach dropped. The magnitude of living here with him twenty-four/seven was inconceivable. She crossed her arms over her chest.
“You’d want me to work for you, knowing I hate what you’re going to do to this place? You’d want me to work for you for twelve weeks knowing I don’t like you?”
His eyes narrowed. “I don’t care if you like me or not, Forty-Two.” He said the numbers in a slow drawl, and her fists balled. He glanced down at her hands then slid his gaze back to hers. “We’re here to do a job. That’s it. We’ll interact over work matters. That’s all. Feelings are irrelevant.”
Well wasn’t Mason Christian just the king of charm? Think, Billie, think. Nothing came at her from left field, right field, or center field. Where was a time machine when she needed one? She licked very dry lips. “Do you have an apartment in Auckland? Will you be leaving for the weekend?” she asked. Please say yes. Please say yes. Please say yes.
“No. I don’t have a home. I stay in the houses I’m renovating before I move on.”
“Great,” she murmured. “So it will just be us?” she asked in a slightly breathy voice.
He glanced down at the notes in front of him and indicated with his pen for her to sit. She reluctantly crossed the valley between them. His phone rang, and without a glance in her direction, he was soon deep in conversation.
She let her gaze roam around the room, and her skin tightened. How on earth was she going to survive twelve weeks with the man? How on earth was she going to get him to change his mind? The townspeople would kill her if she were part of murdering the house and the land. She owed the town for giving her a home at a time when she and her mother were in a bad way. Unless… She sat upright in her chair. Unless she told them of his plans. Like spying, only without the firing squad. Hopefully.
He ended the call with a barked, “Tomorrow!”
She jolted in the chair.
Mason stared at her resume, then returned his full attention to her. “Your last employer has written that you’re a magnificent cook. What’s your favorite dish?”
She slipped into work mode. “Depends if it’s summer or winter and what’s seasonably available.”
“Everything you want is at your disposal. It’s a sultry summer night, and you’re cooking a meal for two.”
She leaned back into the chair and clasped her hands together. “Who am I cooking for?”
“Well, if it’s you and your grandmother, I’d do something like steamed snapper with a ginger and honey glaze, and a green salad.”
A dangerous, challenging glint sparkled in his eye.
She crossed her legs. Bring it on.
For a split second his eyes warmed, and his lips curved up into a hint of a smile. “A pinot noir sits on the table, and there’s a wild red-head on my arm.”
“Crayfish lightly steamed with a dash of lemon, grilled fig and fennel salad with goat’s cheese and roasted pecans,” she said, keeping her voice smooth.
“Sounds good. The redhead menu unless I notify you otherwise.” He leaned toward her and tossed his pen onto the desk.
The pressure in the room seemed to have dropped, as if a thunderstorm were brewing, air heavy, oxygen levels low. She’d do anything to throw open the windows, invite in a breeze. She sneaked a peek to see if he noticed the shift. Didn’t look like it. She’d guess he could win a Powerball jackpot, and the man would look the same. Mind you, it wasn’t as if she had any great experience in men, her ex being her one and only. She could be reading him totally wrong.
“What about dessert?”
She swallowed hard. No matter how many times she’d tried to make a never-fail cake, they failed. They were either as hard as concrete or forgot to rise and lay flat and unappealing as concrete.
A hollow sigh escaped her.
“Fresh fruit and ice cream maybe with a drizzle of hot chocolate sauce,” she replied, smoothing damp hands down her skirt. Gourmet ice cream was her savior, as was melting dark chocolate and cream for a quick but decadent dessert. Sprinkle on seasonal berries, and she was right up there with the Gordon Ramseys of the world, minus the forehead in dire need of a flat iron.
“Right. I think everything is in order.” He stood and placed himself directly in front of her.
“Are you sure you want me? There’s probably far better candidates—”
He cut her off. “You’re mine for the next twelve weeks.”
Their gazes locked over the table, and her whole body heated to combustion level.
She smoothed shaking hands down her skirt again. “Right. When would you like me to start?”
“Now.” He gestured to the desk in the corner and threw her a glance before he turned his back to her and immersed himself in a phone call. She let out a sigh, opened the laptop, and stared at the note stuck to the screen.
I’m going to haul uranium – it’s easier.
Good luck. You’ll need it.
At eight o’clock that night, Billie stretched burning shoulders. Dusk had come and gone. The moon was climbing the sky, and she couldn’t stop thinking of the note left by her predecessor. She was right. Uranium looked glamorous about now. In fact, she’d dig it up with her hands. To say the man was driven was an understatement. A diet cola she’d brought from home sat on her desk making sad popping sounds. Her stomach objected to her breakfast—a miracle diet pill guaranteed to keep hunger at bay—and she hadn’t brought lunch as she hadn’t anticipated starting today.
Twelve weeks, she told herself. Basically eighty-four days. She could tick them off like a castaway waiting for rescue.
She was tired, but in a good way. Her brain was humming along, but her body was having a hard time keeping up. It had been a long time since she’d worked, and she realized she’d missed it.
The hairs on the nape of her neck rose in awareness.
She looked up to find Mason’s eyes on her and a look she couldn’t work out on his face.
Her stomach sent out a protest so loud she was surprised it wasn’t heard in the next town. “Right. There’s zero in the way of food in the fridge. I’m not eating a wedge of cheese and throwing back a beer for dinner. I’m out of here.” She gathered her bag, threw on her jacket, walked to the door, and turned. Though her mind screamed for her to shut up and leave, she couldn’t help the words that came out of her mouth. “So are you coming?”