CRIMSON HOUSE BOOKS
BY SUSANNA SHORE / HANNAH KANE
PARANORMAL AND CONTEPORARY ROMANCES, COSY MYSTERIES
At Her Boss’s Command
The storm rose so fast it was above London before Emily realised it was approaching. Her office had grown steadily darker as heavy clouds had covered the summer sky, making it more difficult for her to see what she was doing, but, immersed in her work, switching on the lamp on her desk hadn’t really occurred to her. She’d simply leaned closer to the computer screen. She had brushed off the first distant rumbles of thunder as background noise normal to this part of Canary Wharf so it wasn’t until lightning flashed so brightly it cast her office briefly in sharp relief that, startled, she looked up. Her muscles protested against their new position, making her wince in pain as they slowly eased.
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, offering her a great view over the Thames in two directions as the river wound around the Isle of Dogs and through it via the many canals that crisscrossed the former marshland turned business centre. 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. She hadn’t declined the invitation because of an impending storm though; she hadn’t even known it was coming. She just wasn’t a very sociable person. She and Michael had been going out for only a couple of months and it would have been the first time she’d met his friends, but the thought of spending an afternoon with strangers hadn’t appealed to her. So, like a coward she had backed out.
Luckily, she had her work to use as an excuse to cry off, at least for now. The reason she was working on Sunday instead of enjoying the fine July weather—it had been brilliant that morning and, indeed, for days—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 and shook her head sadly, her mind as heavy as the sky. She couldn’t understand what had gone wrong with the firm, couldn't understand how it had happened so fast. Arthur Douglas Ltd had been offering financial management services for mid-level investors for almost fifty years. 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 economy was bad overall, but the company had been solid for decades. There should have been good buffers in place for weathering even a longer downturn, but the money had all but vanished.
The board had panicked and had forced Arthur Douglas, the dear old man who had been the managing director of the company for decades - ever since he’d inherited it from his father - to step down. They’d then sold 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, especially since, as Arthur and Emily well knew, 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 soon run the company down. Then Arthur Douglas Ltd would be no more.
Sharp tears of anger prickled Emily’s eyes when she thought of that. Blast it. She liked Arthur and she had liked 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 gave 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 Sandra, her two years older sister, had been a law student at the University College London. They hadn’t inherited much from their parents besides the house they still lived in, but it had been enough to see Sandra through her studies. Emily, however, had had to abandon thoughts of university and find herself a job. It would have been silly for both of them to quit their studies and, since Sandra could be counted on to find a well-paid position after graduation, the solution had been practical.
It had been worth it too. The old man had liked her enough to see to it that she rose to become his personal assistant. Meanwhile, at only twenty-nine years old, Sandra was one of the best divorce lawyers in London.
Emily sighed again. Sandra had said time and again that she would support Emily in turn if she lost her job. “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 worked hard for her money. She already paid most of the household bills and Emily’s work clothes too. She should be able to use her money for something she liked for a change. More importantly, however, it aggravated Emily that she was being forced to make such a choice. She loved her job and her life as an MD’s assistant. She didn’t want to change her life so drastically for no fault of her own. In fact, 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 gloomily 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—he said he was ready to retire anyway—but it would be something.
She was about to go through her papers one more time to make sure everything truly was in order for the morning when 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. Sandra was returning from a weekend trip to Paris that evening and Emily had promised to have supper ready by then.
Blast it! She might already be late though, she suddenly realised, jumping to action. It was completely dark outside.
Emily began to search 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 isn’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 somewhere near, but not very probable. The July weather had been so fine for days that she hadn’t thought to bring one with her. Some Englishwoman she was. 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. If she left now, she would be home in time to prepare supper for Sandra, but she would get soaked.
Or she could wait the rain out and pick something up on her way home. A rain this heavy couldn’t last long and Sandra wouldn’t mind if she got takeaway for supper.
But Emily had wanted to prepare something nice for her sister. She had worked almost around the clock the past few months, helping Arthur as he struggled to save the company. And when that had failed, making the firm presentable for the new owner. She had barely seen Sandra.
Then again ... if she lost her job, she would be home every evening to cook for her sister; she didn’t have to do it tonight. As the thunderstorm roared around her so that the high-rise seemed to shake with its force, the latter option grew more and more appealing.
The screen of her mobile phone flashed bright on her desk, signalling an incoming message. Sandra. I won’t be arriving tonight after all. All flights to London have been cancelled due to the weather.
Well, that solved that problem, but Emily couldn’t help feeling disappointed. Sandra had been away since Friday and Emily didn’t like being home alone, especially during weather this bad. The howling wind would make it sound like the house was coming apart at its seams; she would imagine all sorts of nefarious creatures invading the place under the cover of the storm.
Perhaps she should 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 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, and Emily agreed with her.
So who was in Arthur’s office? A door separated their rooms for easier access, but both offices had their own entrances too. She could easily flee if the intruder was someone bent on harming her. But what should she do? Should she try to find out who it was or should she lock the trespasser inside and call for help? But what if it was someone with a legitimate reason to be there? The maintenance crew, 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 it wasn’t maintenance after all.
An umbrella would have made a nice weapon, but the heavy granite paperweight sitting on her desk was even better. She went to fetch it, and thus armed returned to the door. Unable to hear anything over the raging storm, she pressed her ear against the door. Feeling a bit silly, 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.
Arthur’s large desk was across the floor from her door and standing by it was a strange man. A flash of lightning cast him in sharp relief just as she walked in, making him seem ominous, and her heart jumped into her throat in fright. 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 mentally. 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 slightly overgrown so that it curled a bit at the neck.
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 also 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 an amused smile tugged one side of his mouth up. “That’s a paperweight.”
“So? It can still do some damage,” Emily said defiantly.
“Can it now?”
His amused drawl made Emily lose all common sense. “Yes. Like this.” And she threw the paperweight at him.
Emily had never been good at sports where one had to throw something—besides which the rectangular missile was the wrong shape and size for a good cricket bowl. But she had walked over halfway across the room towards the man so the distance was short, and her aim was surprisingly true. He hadn’t expected her to throw the paperweight either, and so didn’t dodge in time. The projectile 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?” His amusement was gone, replaced by anger, but it didn’t lessen the impact his looks had on her. His face was manly with a strong jaw, a prominent nose, and nice mouth that made him look more impressive than classically handsome. Sharpened by anger like it now was, it was … magnificent. Emily had no other word for it. His blue eyes were blazing and his dark brown eyebrows were frowning. He practically radiated angry energy and her mouth went dry again. Perhaps she shouldn’t have provoked this particular beast? Intimidated by him, and shocked by what she had done, she was rendered speechless. She had never behaved so rashly or violently.
He straightened to his full height from his earlier lazy pose. He was at least six feet tall, but seemed taller to Emily who wanted nothing more than to sink through the floor and disappear. “Answer me, woman. Who are you and why are you here? Did my brother send you as a pick-me-up?”
The turnabout threw Emily. She should be the one asking questions here. “What? Who? No, I’m Emily Parr, Arthur Douglas’ personal assistant.”
He snorted derisively and checked her out again, this time with more contempt than admiration. “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.”
At first Emily couldn’t understand what he meant. “You think I’m a call girl?” She was so stunned she could only stare at him. Then her temper flared. “How dare you? I am not the one trespassing. You are. So unless you state your name and your business here, I’m calling security.” She straightened to her full —albeit not very impressive—height, and faced him squarely, her frightened stupor wiped away with indignant anger. “And I happen to be twenty-seven.”
He lifted a brow, disbelief evident on his face. “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.
The sudden darkness gave Conor a chance to cool down. He shouldn’t have gotten so angry in the first place. He didn’t usually react that strongly to anything, but 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? No, the more important question was why was he here at all?
He frowned in the darkness. Because Cooper, his older brother and the MD of Peters Holdings had asked him to be here.
It was difficult to make Conor do anything he didn’t want to do, but Cooper had made it clear that Conor had better get a grip of himself and stop wandering around the house like a tragic character in a Gothic novel. “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 so 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. And he would be again, a detective sergeant in the Metropolitan Police Service, in its economic and specialist crime branch, to be more precise. Fraud Squad might not be as high profile as Homicide, or as nerve-wracking as Specialist Firearms Command, offering weapons support to unarmed comrades, but he had liked his job and he had been good at it. 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. This was just a leave of absence, 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 that woman stop him from doing what he loved.
In the meanwhile, investigating was his forte, and also 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 wouldn’t find out about it. Even though Conor was the cop of the family, Cooper always seemed uncannily well-informed about everything. In addition, Cooper was genuinely concerned about him. He’d 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.
Emily 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. 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. He could feel himself stirring, the first such reaction to a woman he had had in ages.
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 dab of a 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 stubborn defiance, her kissable mouth set in determined lines—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. He lamented only that the power cut had thrown the office into darkness so that he couldn’t see her wonderful body anymore.
“Hold still,” she commanded. And damn if that didn’t arouse him more. He got an overwhelming urge to say no, just to hear her order him again. The mere notion of refusing her, making her know she couldn’t make him obey her, was energising him.
It surprised him too. He didn’t usually feel the need to oppose women.
“I should have a torch in my office.”
Her announcement had the effect of making 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 and smiled when she muttered a curse after bumping into something with a loud thud. 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 and a moment later returned with the torch. It didn’t offer much help, however. It was small and its batteries were low, but it was better than nothing.
More importantly, it proved 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.”
A brief annoyance shot through Conor. 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. But more importantly: “You know who I am?” Not many people knew that Cooper had a brother, 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 that the darkness hid his answering grimace. “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, but at least he knew the reason for it now. She only wanted Cooper because she had prepared for his arrival.
“I’m not that different from my brother, you know.” 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 coffee to how late he likes to work and everything in between.”
Conor gave her a mollified smile, a bit ashamed that he had been so suspicious. “Well, 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 take my coffee black and I’m a bit of a workaholic.” It wasn’t like he had anything waiting for him at home now that he had finished updating his education. And definitely not anyone. Cooper didn’t really count, workaholic as he was.
“So you’ll let me stay as your assistant?”
She sounded hopeful. Was she just eager to keep her job in general, or did she need more time to cover up something? Like, say, embezzlement.
To his surprise he felt upset that this woman could be his suspect, but he stifled the feeling. 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 won’t operate without power either.”
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 to street level wasn’t appealing to Conor, but neither was staying in the darkened office with a woman who was much too alluring to become his underling.
Then again, 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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