CRIMSON HOUSE BOOKS
BY SUSANNA SHORE
PARANORMAL AND CONTEMPORARY ROMANCES, COSY MYSTERIES
At Her Boss’s Command
The storm rose so fast it was above London before Emily realised it was approaching, immersed in her work as she was. She had brushed off the first distant rumbles of thunder as background noise normal to this part of Canary Wharf, and it wasn’t until a lightning flashed so brightly it cast her office briefly in a sharp relief that she looked up, startled. Her muscles protested against their new position, making her wince in pain.
Massaging her neck, she turned to watch the amazing display of force Mother Nature was building outside. Her office was on the twentieth floor of a high-rise in Heron Quays, and the window offered her a great view over the Thames in two directions as the river wound around the Isle of Dogs. The storm was rolling in fast from the east, the lightning striking more and more frequently, the thunder rumbling ever closer, the noise almost ceaseless now.
Thank heavens she hadn’t gone with Michael that afternoon when he’d asked her to join him and his friends. She wasn’t afraid of storms, but the afternoon’s schedule had included outdoor activities that would be ruined now. Not that storm was the reason she’d declined; she hadn’t even known it was coming. She was too busy working—at least for now.
The reason she was working on Sunday instead of meeting Michael’s friends for the first time was because she needed to prepare for the next day when the new owner of Arthur Douglas Ltd would be arriving to take over the business. Or what was left of it.
Emily sighed, her mind as heavy as the sky. She couldn’t understand what had gone wrong with the firm. Arthur Douglas Ltd had been offering financial management services for almost fifty years, and while it had never been one of the big players, it had been a trusted operator. But suddenly their clients had started losing money and, within months, most of them had left the firm. Paying them off had eaten into the company funds, undermining the basis of their operations.
The board had panicked and had forced Arthur Douglas, the dear old man who had owned the firm for decades, to sell the company to Peters Holdings for a fraction of its former value. The experience had left Arthur a broken man. He had told Emily he wouldn’t be present to see the new owner, Cooper Peters, come to claim his prize. There was no point. Peters Holdings wouldn’t be holding its acquisition for very long. They only wanted to get their hands on some of Arthur’s remaining clients and would then merge the operations with theirs. Then Arthur Douglas Ltd would be no more.
Sharp tears of anger prickled Emily’s eyes. She liked Arthur and she loved her job as his personal assistant, the position she had held for over two years. He had been more than a boss. He had been a friend too, or like a favourite uncle.
Arthur had given her the job as his second secretary when she was only nineteen, seeing potential in her she hadn’t known she possessed. Her parents had just died, and she’d had to quit university so that they could pay her older sister Sandra’s studies, so her self-confidence had been low. The old man had liked her enough to see to it that she rose to become his personal assistant by twenty-five. Meanwhile, at only twenty-nine, Sandra was one of the best divorce lawyers in London. Emily was proud of her and didn’t feel like she’d sacrificed anything for her.
But now she would have no education to fall back on if she lost her job.
Sandra had said time and again that she would support Emily in turn. “You could finally go to university if you wanted,” she had suggested, only the week before. “I can easily get a loan to pay for the tuition.”
Sandra would be good for her word, but Emily couldn’t just take the offer. Sandra already paid most of the household bills and some of Emily’s expenses too. She should be able to use her money for something she liked for a change. More importantly, it aggravated Emily that she was being forced to make such a choice. She loved her job and her life as a CEO’s assistant. She didn’t want to change her life so drastically for no fault of her own.
And she wasn’t about to, not without a fight. She had a plan. She would make Cooper Peters see that Arthur Douglas Ltd was worth saving, and her job along with it.
Hence her toiling on Sunday.
“That’s not going to happen,” Sandra had predicted when Emily had told her about the plan. “I’ve met Cooper Peters. He’s like a machine. You can’t sway him with emotional arguments.”
Emily had been curious. “When did you meet him?”
“During his brother’s divorce hearing last year. Though I represented Conor Peters’ wife, so it’s not like we socialised with each other.” Then she frowned. “I count that divorce among my biggest failures. I barely got my client a penny. And it was Cooper Peters’ fault.”
Since Sandra hated losing, Emily suspected that that had coloured Sandra’s perception of him, so she didn’t let Sandra’s opinion deter her. She might only be a PA, but she had prepared her case carefully and would present it to Mr Peters with the utmost professionalism. Surely he would at least consider saving the company. And if that didn’t work, she planned to be the most effective PA he had ever met, hoping he would offer her another post in his firm. It wasn’t as good as saving the firm for Arthur, but it would be something.
Another bolt of lightning struck, making the lights in her office flicker. Fearing that the power would cut entirely, she saved her work and switched off her computer. She needed to head home anyway. It was so dark outside it must be late. She searched for her wristwatch underneath a pile of papers on her desk, where it had gotten lost—again. She often took it off if she needed to concentrate, so that she wouldn’t become distracted with constantly checking the time.
She found the watch and frowned at the face. Then she shook the timepiece a couple of times to make sure that it was still going. Only five o’clock. The sky was so overcast that it was like night had fallen. Well, as long as it wasn’t raining, she thought philosophically, but as if triggered by her thought, the skies opened with a loud roar. Within moments the buildings across the canal disappeared inside a wall of rain as if they didn’t exist.
Bugger and blast.
It was entirely possible that she had an umbrella, but not very probable. The July weather had been so fine for days that she hadn’t thought to bring one with her. She looked around her small office, as if a brolly would miraculously appear from thin air, but—most surprisingly—it didn’t.
Groaning in aggravation, Emily considered her options. A rain this heavy couldn’t last long. Maybe she could wait it out. As the thunderstorm roared around her, shaking the high-rise with its force, that option grew more and more appealing. And if the storm didn’t ease, she could spend the night in the office. She had a sofa there that was long enough for her to sleep on and she had a wool throw for warmth. It would beat braving the storm.
She was considering her change of clothing hanging in the wardrobe and whether it would be good enough for the next morning, when she became aware of noises coming from the adjoining room. Light was shining underneath the door separating the rooms too.
Someone was in her boss’s office.
Emily’s heart skipped a beat in fright. She was supposed to be the only person there. Her co-workers seldom came to work on the weekends, and Arthur was out of town. His grand-daughter, Fiona, had fetched him to Edinburg to stay with her family for fear that the emotional strain would be too much for him.
So who was in Arthur’s office? An intruder or someone with a legitimate reason to be there? The maintenance, for example.
The dose of common sense calmed Emily and she marched to the door between the offices to check out who it was. There she hesitated. She should take some precautions, just in case.
An umbrella would have made a nice weapon, but the heavy granite paperweight sitting on her desk was even better. She fetched it and, armed, returned to the door. Unable to hear anything over the raging storm, she pressed her ear against the door. No sounds came through it and she was ready to retreat when she saw a shadow pass across the chink of light coming from underneath the door. Someone was definitely in there. Her heart beating frantically in fear and excitement, she took a better hold of her makeshift weapon and yanked the door open.
A strange man was standing by Arthur’s large desk, studying something on it. A flash of lightning cast him in sharp relief, making him seem ominous, and her heart jumped into her throat. He wasn’t from maintenance.
“Hold, you fiend!” Emily had no idea where the words came from, but they had the desired effect. The intruder froze. His back was turned to her so she couldn’t see his face, but the backside was … fine.
Emily shook her head. This was not the time to get distracted by long legs and shapely buttocks sheeted in distressed, low-riding jeans. Or strong shoulders clad in a white T-shirt, or dark brown hair that was a slightly overgrown mess.
Emily cleared her throat that had suddenly gone dry. “Turn around, slowly,” she commanded in her most assertive voice.
“Why? Are you armed?” To Emily’s annoyance, the question was more amused than frightened, and asked with a nicely cultured rich tenor unlike any criminal should have.
“Yes, I am.”
The man turned around slowly enough to suit Emily’s frightened state, but he clearly wasn’t at all shaken by her sudden burst into the room. He assessed her calmly, as if he was the one in charge, his gaze sweeping up and down her body at a proprietary pace. Annoyed by his boldness, she drew herself upright and tried to stare him down through her nose—a difficult task. He was a good deal taller than her for one, and she was finding his slow study of her body flustering. He didn’t miss a curve.
Then his eyes alighted on the paperweight she was holding like a truncheon and a smile tugged one side of his mouth up and lit his eyes. “That’s a paperweight.”
“So? It can still do some damage,” Emily said defiantly.
“Can it now?”
His derisive drawl made Emily lose all common sense. “Yes. Like this.” And she threw the paperweight at him.
Conor hadn’t expected the woman to throw the paperweight, and so didn’t dodge in time. It hit him in the shoulder, a sharp corner first, and then dropped to the carpeted floor with a heavy thud.
“Bloody hell, woman, what are you about?”
He’d been amused when the small woman tried to order him about, but the pain swept it away. He straightened to his full height from his earlier lazy pose, towering over her. She’d frozen to her spot in stupor, as if unable to fathom she’d actually done it.
“Who are you and why are you here?” A thought occurred to him. “Did my brother send you as a pick-me-up?”
She looked at him, baffled. “What? Who? No, I’m Emily Parr, Arthur Douglas’ personal assistant.”
He snorted and checked her out again. “You are no one’s assistant. What are you, twenty? And with that body you’d be such a cliché. If you are my brother’s notion of a present, just say so and don’t tell me any lies.”
She shrieked, indignant. “Do you think I’m a call girl?” Then her temper flared, and despite his anger, he admired how it animated her face. “How dare you? I am not the one trespassing. You are. So unless you state your name and your business here, I’m calling the security.” She straightened to her full—albeit not very impressive—height, and faced him squarely. “And I happen to be twenty-seven.”
He lifted a brow in disbelief. “Right,” he drawled. “In that case, I’m Conor Peters. The new owner of this company.”
Thunder rolled, creating a timely soundtrack to his announcement. All the lights flickered once before dying completely, plunging the office into complete darkness.
It gave him a chance to reconsider. The tiny sex-bomb had shaken him off balance with her sudden appearance. He had thought he was alone here. So why wasn’t he? If the woman really was Douglas’ assistant, she probably belonged here—unlike him.
He frowned in the darkness. Blasted Cooper.
It was difficult to make Conor do anything he didn’t want to do, but his brother had a knack of persuading him. “It’ll do you good to take care of this matter. Besides, it’s exactly your cup of tea. I’m too busy with the deal in Paris as it is, so I’m counting on you to handle everything.”
Conor was the second largest shareholder in the company their father had started, and he had a business degree from the London School of Economics. He wasn’t exactly new to the business, but this was the first time since university that he would take active part in the family enterprise. The company was Cooper’s dominion. Conor was a cop.
Or he had been. He had been on a fast track to becoming a DI and then ... Annabel.
Gritting his teeth, he pushed the image of his ex-wife out of his mind. He was just on a leave of absence. He’d given a chance to bring his skills up to date with some studying, so that he would be ready for his promotion to a DI. He would be damned if he let the conniving woman stop him from doing what he loved.
In the meanwhile, investigating was his forte. And that was why he was spending his Sunday evening visiting the firm Cooper had purchased. Emily’s sudden appearance was simply another puzzle.
So what were the facts? Cooper was in Paris and shouldn’t know Conor was there, but that didn’t mean he couldn’t find out about it. Even though Conor was the cop of the family, Cooper always seemed uncannily well-informed about everything. Moreover, Cooper was genuinely concerned about him. Conor had been out of sorts ever since the scandal with Annabel forced him to take the leave of absence. Cooper wasn’t one for pulling pranks, but Conor wouldn’t put it past his brother to arrange a call girl to pull him out of his perpetually bad mood, legalities be damned.
The woman who’d appeared in the office definitely looked like she was made to please men. She wasn’t terribly tall, perhaps not as much as five foot four, closer to five seven in her high heels, but that height was packed with femininity; lush breasts and nicely curving hips—now unfortunately hidden in the darkness the power cut had created. And no self-respecting PA would let her hair flow freely in thick curls of gold, copper and honey that reached halfway down her back, unchecked by any pins or other devices.
She was a bit too feisty for a call girl though. He rubbed his shoulder where the paperweight had made a small dent. He doubted that Cooper would have had this in mind when he’d engaged her services. Then again, it had worked, hadn’t it? He hadn’t felt this energised in ages, all thanks to a tiny woman who couldn’t possibly be as old as she claimed. Her pretty face with its pert nose was intelligent, but it didn’t show many signs of maturity yet, and her large green eyes were full of innocence. Until she had got angry, that was. Then they had flashed in fury, her kissable mouth set in determined lines—definitely not an expression a call girl would favour.
So there was evidence supporting both stories, his and hers, but for the moment, the puzzle had to remain unsolved.
“Hold still,” she commanded before he could take charge, and to his amazement he felt his body stir, the first such reaction he’d had to a woman in ages. He got an overwhelming urge to say no, just to hear her order him again. He smiled in darkness, suddenly energised.
“I should have a torch in my office.”
That made him freeze after all. Could it be that she was who she claimed to be? He heard her fumble in the darkness towards the room she had come from. A timely lightning offered her enough assistance to get through the door, after which she was in dark again.
Staying put as ordered—and wasn’t he a good boy—Conor listened as she rummaged energetically though a desk drawer. A moment later, she returned with the torch that didn’t offer much help. It was small and its batteries were low, but it was better than nothing.
More to the point, it did prove she was who she had claimed to be.
“Perhaps we should start over,” Conor suggested, offering her his hand. “I’m Conor Peters and I’ll be taking over here as of tomorrow.”
She hesitated briefly before switching the torch to her left hand and offering the right one to him. It felt small and fragile in his much larger hand and he found himself holding it carefully. “Emily Parr, PA to Mr Douglas. Hopefully to you, too, from now on.” Her tone was brisk and professional now. Then she shot him an accusing glance, as if he had ruined something for her. “But I was under the expression that Cooper Peters would be supervising this personally, not his brother.”
Of course she would want Cooper, the ruthless star of the business sky. Women always wanted a man like him, successful and wealthy beyond imagination. Annabel had, so why would this woman be any different. Then the latter part of her words registered, and he frowned. “You know who I am?” Not many people knew that they were brothers, and Conor preferred it that way. It was an asset in his job.
In the dim light the torch offered he saw her grimace. “Yes, well,” she began and then she looked awkward. “My sister, Alexandra Parr, represented your ex-wife in your divorce.”
Conor hoped the darkness hid his stunned reaction. “Ah.” There wasn’t much to add to that. He didn’t have a clear recollection of Annabel’s lawyer, but what he remembered was something similar to this woman before him—small, sexy, and ruthlessly competent. “So…” Not a call girl then. Should he apologise to her? “What are you doing here on Sunday?”
Apologies could wait. He was a cop and he needed to know. There was a reason Cooper had given this assignment to him and not to one of his more experienced underlings who usually handled management transitions for him.
His sharp question took her aback. “I was preparing for tomorrow, of course. But now it’s all for nothing, because it isn’t your brother but you I’ll be working for.” She looked annoyed.
“I’m not that different from him.” It wasn’t exactly true, but he was here as Cooper’s representative and he would try and see things to their conclusion like his brother would.
“But I know nothing about you, whereas I have a large dossier about your brother.”
Conor frowned, his suspicions returning. “Exactly what is in your dossier?”
This time his interrogating tone didn’t faze her and she just shrugged. “Things a PA should know, starting with how he likes his tea to how late he likes to work and everything in between.”
Conor felt a bit ashamed for being so suspicious. “I’m fairly sure Cooper would have brought his own people with him.”
Her shoulders slumped in disappointment. He hadn’t even come to think of things like PA’s and other employees now under his command when he agreed to take over, but clearly he would have to. “But if it’s any help, I prefer coffee and take it black, and I’m a bit of a workaholic.” It wasn’t like he had anything waiting for him at home. And definitely not anyone. Cooper didn’t count, workaholic as he too was.
“So you’ll let me stay as your assistant?”
She sounded hopeful. Was she just eager to keep her job, or did she need more time to cover up something? Like, say, embezzlement.
His upset that this woman could be his suspect surprised him, but he stifled the feeling. And it would be wise to keep her close, just in case. “For now. In the meantime, may I offer you a ride home?”
The rain was more like a vertical flood, yet she hesitated. “I had thought to stay here for the night, but now that the power is cut, I don’t know…. But the DLR can’t operate without power either, so I can’t take the train….” She was more musing to herself than stating the facts to him, but then she shrugged and spoke directly to him. “We’re stuck in here for now, unless we want to take the stairs.”
The prospect of taking the stairs twenty floors down wasn’t appealing, but neither was staying in the dark office with a woman who he found much too alluring for an underling. Although … the setup was too good to be a coincidence too. “Are you sure you’re not a call girl?”
A brief stunned silence was followed by an angry shriek, the only warning he had before the torch came flying towards him. It hit him in the chest without much of an impact and fell on the floor where it promptly spilled its batteries out and died. The office was cast in darkness again.
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