‘Two weeks, a month, that’s it. Money’s no object. Come now, say yes.’ He smiled, a beautiful, charming, practised smile.
Why did it seem that his smile was offering her the entire world and its pleasures? Clearly, a lunatic thought.
‘Very well,’ he softly said into the lengthening silence, his blue gaze grave. ‘Give me two weeks of your time. I won’t ask for more.’
A pause, a last small grimace, a barely discernible nod.
His instant smile could have melted the entire polar ice cap in under a minute. ‘Welcome aboard, Miss Hart. I look forward to working with you.’ He grinned. ‘At a distance, of course.’
He was way too smooth and way too beautiful and way too familiar with getting his way. But, deep down, irrationally, she wanted the job more than anything. And she knew better than to fall under his spell. Screwing the CEO was never wise.
As if, anyway.
Besides, the word bondage had come up on one of the murkier blogs in Europe. Whether it was true or not, a man that rich and powerful?
Anything was possible.
Dominic walked her out to the foyer where Max was waiting. He introduced them, made a few gracious remarks about Miss Hart joining the firm as a contractor, said, ‘Thank you, Max, thank you, Miss Hart, good journey,’ and walked away. The fact that Max was there waiting for her would have pissed her off if she’d been given the time to properly register her resentment before being whisked off in a limo by Dominic Knight’s vice president, ADC and all around chargé d’affaires.
That Max was ex-MI6 was immediately apparent from the top of his blond brush-cut to the tips of his desert-booted toes. His British upper class accent was both calming and intimidating. ‘May I say how pleased we are to have you with Knight Enterprises,’ he said as he settled into the seat beside her. ‘Nick was intent on hiring you.’
‘I got that impression,’ she said, drily.
He laughed. ‘You’ll get used to it. Everyone does or they’re gone.’
‘That was pretty clear too.’
Max merely shrugged. ‘I don’t think he even notices. He sees it as efficiency.’
She stared him down for a second. ‘Don’t say, “Get used to it”, or I’ll strangle you.’
He laughed. ‘I wouldn’t dare.’
She sniffed. ‘I don’t need this job, you know.’
‘I do know. We do have a serious issue in Amsterdam, Miss Hart, so take it from me personally, we’re grateful for your help. Your reputation precedes you. No one quite matches your skill set in cyber forensics.’ He gave her an avuncular smile. ‘We’ve taken the liberty of collecting your luggage from your hotel. It’s already at the airfield. I have some papers for you to sign on the plane. Nothing out of the ordinary,’ he said at the sudden scepticism in her gaze. ‘Just the usual forms for our contractors. Pam, my personal assistant, will run you through the process. Then I’ll give you an idea of what you’re up against. We’ve been trying to sort out this mess for a while, without luck. You’re the talent we need.
‘As for Dominic, rest easy, Miss Hart, you’ll find it simple enough to work for him. He’s interested in results and I’m sure you won’t have any problem delivering. You’ll have carte blanche on this project. We’re trying to avoid a PR disaster. This plant is supposed to be state-of-the-art in terms of employee health and safety. It’s a pilot project for green technology and community involvement in an area of the Balkans that has high unemployment. And now morale is low, production is down, the parts aren’t up to standard, workers are beginning to complain. It’s only a matter of time until stories about the working conditions hit the news media. So’ – he flipped his hand in her direction – ‘you’re going to make Dominic happy and solve the mess.’
Making Dominic happy was probably every woman’s dream. ‘Someone’s skimming off the top, I presume,’ she said instead.
‘A considerable amount. At the expense of not just the employees’ working conditions, but the reputation of our firm.’
He smiled. ‘Sound like fun?’
She nodded. ‘I like to solve puzzles. Especially complicated ones like this.’
‘Good. You’ll have security. I don’t know if Dominic told you. There’s a level of criminal involvement whenever large sums of money are at stake.’
Wide-eyed, she whispered, ‘Security?’
‘It’s just a precaution. Amsterdam is a long way from Bucharest. Don’t worry.’
Max grinned. ‘Charge him more.’
She gave him a sideways look. ‘Will that bulletproof me?’
‘I’ll bulletproof you. Promise.’
His quiet certainty reassured her. And Amsterdam was a long way from Bucharest. ‘Thanks. I’m a small-town girl. Bodyguards aren’t in my repertoire.’
‘You won’t even notice.’
Late that night, actually in the wee hours of the morning, when everyone was sleeping in their bedrooms on the company 747, a knock on the door woke Max.
‘Phone call, sir, in the lounge,’ one of the stewards announced.
Slipping into his robe, Max entered the lounge, took a seat in a leather easy chair and picked up the call.
‘Sorry to wake you,’ Dominic said.
‘What the hell time is it back there?’
‘I’m not sure. I can’t see a clock. The reason I called is to tell you that I’ll be in Amsterdam Saturday.’
‘What for?’ The Amsterdam office was small, just a satellite, of little consequence to the company’s bottom line.
‘I’m on my way to Hong Kong. Thought I’d stop by.’
It was triple the distance going through Europe. ‘She’ll do fine,’ Max said. ‘She’ll do better if you don’t fuck with her head.’
‘I’ve been telling myself that.’
‘And you’re coming anyway. She won’t like it.’
‘You surprise me, Max. After all these years, I’d hoped you’d understand me better.’
‘She’s not the starry-eyed type.’
‘You may not get what you want.’
‘Of course I will. I always do.’
‘She might quit. Then our problem here doesn’t get solved.’
‘I’ll see that she doesn’t quit. Now go back to sleep. I’ll see you in four days.’
Max swore as he set down the phone. Dominic could be a cold bastard. Or just reverting to type after his wife’s death. Dominic’s CFO, Roscoe Kern, had explained everything when Max had first come on board Knight Enterprises. While Dominic had become a friend in the five years they’d worked together, he was at base an emotionally detached person, largely indifferent to everything but his business. He might have tempered his obsessive need for control during his marriage, but it was back in full force now. In fact, it was even worse than before, according to Roscoe who’d been with Dominic from the beginning of his ascent to one of the wealthiest men in the world.
Heaving himself out of the chair, Max grimaced.
He’d be earning his bloody pay in Amsterdam.
It was cool with a light rain when the plane landed in Amsterdam, the wind off the ocean bracing. Not that January weather was an issue inside a luxurious Mercedes. Nor was it noticeable in the short walk between the car and the entrance to a palatial town house in the old city centre.
They were greeted by a discreetly dressed major domo: simple black suit, sleek hair, welcoming smile. Kate was to be installed in an apartment in the eighteenth-century structure that had been restored to its original magnificence by Knight Enterprises seven years ago.
After Max had conducted her on a swift tour of the richly decorated main floor reception rooms used for company functions, he escorted her to an apartment on the fourth floor and left her with a breezy, ‘I’ll send someone for you tomorrow. Take the rest of the day off.’
The door had no more than shut on him when a woman’s voice said in accented English, ‘Would you like something to eat?’
Kate spun around.
A large, heavy-set woman with short, fair hair, neatly dressed in a white blouse, blue skirt and sensible shoes, stood ten feet away. ‘I’m the housekeeper, Mrs Van Kessel. Lunch is ready, if you’d like.’
A housekeeper? Crap. Having a stranger around was going to be weird. But since she was always hungry, Kate smiled politely. ‘Thank you, lunch would be nice.’
She was shown into an exuberantly rococo room, with pink marble pilasters, gilded everything and floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking the canal. A small table, set for one, had been placed next to one of the windows. A vase of coral-coloured tulips provided a bright splash on the sparkling white linen cloth and no sooner had Kate seated herself on a rosewood chair, upholstered in pale yellow satin, than Mrs Van Kessel appeared with the first course.