If somebody were to ask him while he was drunk enough to forget his PR bullet points what the secret to his success was, Adrian Blackstone would say he was a chameleon. He had the ability to be whatever the person across the desk wanted him to be.
Blackstone Historical Renovations, specializing in modernizing historic properties without sacrificing their charm and authenticity, was built on that ability. Having worked his way up from a post and beam carpenterâ€™s helper as a teenager, he had a natural rapport with contractors and woodworkers. Thanks to devouring magazines, financial news programs, and earning a college degree, he could put on a custom suit and talk business with billionaires and bankers. He was a man who felt the heart and soul of a building while watching the financial bottom line.
And, as he watched the woman walking across the lobby of his greatest achievement to date, he looked like nothing more than a CEO awaiting an update from his executive assistant. She would never know he wanted her more than heâ€™d ever wanted a woman in his life.
Rachel Carterâ€™s sensible heels clicked on the marble floor and, as much as he wanted to watch her hips swing in the gray suit she wore, he kept his eyes on her face. She wore her blond hair in a sleek ponytail that was professional without being severe, and she wore just enough makeup to accentuate her blue eyes and full mouth without looking made up.
Sheâ€™d been with the company almost five years and sheâ€™d worked directly for him as his executive assistant for sixteen months. Sixteen months of reminding himself every damn day of all the very good reasons he couldnâ€™t touch her.
Sheâ€™d come to the company with a degree in business and a passion for architecture and history. She was his professional soul mate. But on a personal level, it would be a lot easier to find a woman to share his bed with than to replace Rachel in the office. She was one hundred percent off limits.
â€śI hope you havenâ€™t been waiting long, Mr. Blackstone.â€ť
And she never called him Adrian. â€śI just came down.â€ť
â€śIâ€™d ask if your room is adequate, but since they were designed to your specs, it would be awkward if you said no.â€ť
He loved when her smile slipped that little bit past a professional politeness. It happened sometimes, of course. They worked together every day and they traveled together quite a bit, so they were fairly comfortable around each other. Just not too comfortable.
It wasnâ€™t the curve of her mouth when she really smiled that turned him on. It was the way her eyes crinkled and the laugh lines at the corners. He suspected that, away from work, she had a great sense of humor and laughed a lot, which he liked in a woman.
When she moved slightly, shifting the computer case slung on her shoulder, the sun caught her hair, reflecting off wet crystals. He reached up to brush them away but caught himself, turning it into a pointing gesture. â€śYour hairâ€™s wet. Were you outside?â€ť
â€śI didnâ€™t feel like sitting in my room, so I went out for a walk in the snow.â€ť
â€śIn high heels, with no coat?â€ť
â€śI didnâ€™t go far.â€ť The genuine smile lit up her face. â€śIt was white, fluffy snow when we got here, but itâ€™s an icy mix now. Not as much fun to play in.â€ť
â€śOr to drive in.â€ť
Adrian and Rachel were at the Mount Lafayette Grand Resort Hotel to meet with Rick Bouchard, a billionaire real estate developer who had a lot of billionaire real estate-developing colleagues. It was an exclusive circle and Adrian wanted in. Bouchard was flying into the United States with his family for the holidays and this meeting was Adrianâ€™s shot to convince him Blackstone Historical Renovations was the company to renovate the villa in Tuscany Bouchard had recently purchased.
The Bouchards had three kids, so Rachel had arranged for the car service to pick them up at the airport in a large SUV. The driver would have four-wheel drive at his disposal, so hopefully the weather wouldnâ€™t impact their arrival. Whoever forecast a few flurries of the white fluffy stuff should be relegated to the stationâ€™s mail room, though.
He looked at the Rolex he only wore when meeting with property owners and bankers to check the time. The Bouchards should already be on the road, so it was out of his hands. He and Rachel must have driven ahead of the storm the entire way, having left Boston in his SUV while it was still dark so theyâ€™d have time to double-check the accommodations and set up the presentation before Rick Bouchard and his family arrived.
After checking in, theyâ€™d gone their separate ways to rest and freshen up after the long road trip. Heâ€™d been surprised to find out her room was only two doors down from his. Usually he was in a suite and she was in one of the less expensive rooms, often not even on the same floor. But only one suite had been available and theyâ€™d reserved that for the Bouchards. Since the resort didnâ€™t offer those less expensive rooms, he and Rachel were practically neighbors.
â€śI have the key to the conference room,â€ť she said. â€śWe can go up anytime youâ€™re ready.â€ť
â€śNo time like the present.â€ť He followed her to the elevator, tucked discreetly around a corner. â€śIs there a coffee machine?â€ť
â€śThereâ€™s a single-cup brewer with an assortment of flavored coffees and teas available.â€ť
â€śPerfect. I meant to make a cup in my room to bring with me, but I started checking my email, lost track of time, and didnâ€™t want to keep you waiting.â€ť
Once sheâ€™d led the way to the conference room, designed by him to be warm and comfortable even for all-day meetings, he brewed them each a mug of coffee while she opened her laptop and got to work.
After adding cream and sugar to hers, he set it next to her computer and took his to the other end of the table. Pulling up the note file on his phone, Adrian skimmed through the important points he wanted to make. He usually let Rachel handle visual aspects of the presentation, including the polished portfolio theyâ€™d give to the client, while Adrian did the talking. He preferred not to refer to notes, whether on paper or his phone, instead simply talking in a relaxed and confident manner.
Rachelâ€™s cellphone made a sound he recognized as signaling a call from the office and, even though it was only the two of them, she excused herself and walked away from the table to respond. Her back was to him, offering a tempting opportunity to let his gaze linger on the curve of her ass, but he was afraid sheâ€™d catch him staring in the windowâ€™s reflection.
Instead, he turned his focus on the slideshow of photos sheâ€™d sent to his phone, in which architectural renderings showed what the dilapidated villa in Tuscany that Rick Bouchard had bought cheap would look like when Blackstone Historical Renovations was through with it. Inside and out, the villa would look as though somebody had painstakingly restored it to its original state. But it would have every technological amenity the new chrome and glass hotels offered, without ruining the old country charm.
The display calmed his nerves. Whenever a major deal was in the works, heâ€™d start to feel inadequate at best or an outright fraud at worst. He was just a poor kid from the backwoods of Vermont and had no business asking a real estate developer to hand over millions of dollars based on some sketches.
But those sketches reminded him he was one of the best in the business, with a reputation that brought the guys with money to his door, rather than him having to beat the pavement looking for work. Maybe thatâ€™s why meeting at the Mount Lafayette Grand Resort Hotel had meant so much to him. It was his most successful project to date and he hoped the hotel, along with his vision for the villa, would convince Bouchard to sign the contract hiring BHR to do the renovations. The guyâ€™s interest would be hooked when the wall panel, which practically screamed nineteenth century, slid into its pocket to reveal the architectural renderings streaming to a massive LED screen, and then Adrian would reel him in.
That thought quieted the last of the butterflies in his stomach. He may have started out a poor kid from Vermont, but his fatherâ€™s love of woodworking and his motherâ€™s devotion to his education built the foundation for his success. Scholarships had paid his way into college for a business degree and working for a company that restored old post and beam construction kept him in the technology he discovered at school.
Five years after getting his degree, he talked the parents of a friend of his into letting him rehab their home, which was in their townâ€™s historical district, for the cost of supplies and a quarter of the going labor rate. Three properties later, he filed the papers to make Blackstone Historical Renovations official and now, at the age of thirty-eight, he had four hand-picked crews to handle houses and offices, while he and his personal crew handled the big projects like hotels in New Hampshire and, hopefully, villas in Tuscany.
Rachel turned to face him, the hand holding her cellphone dropping to her side. Her lips were pressed together, as they often were when she was concentrating or about to tell him something she didnâ€™t think heâ€™d want to hear. On some women that tightened look might have been unattractive, but he loved everything about her mouth.
â€śIâ€™m afraid I have bad news, Mr. Blackstone,â€ť she said, killing his hope sheâ€™d merely been lost in thought. â€śThe Bouchards arenâ€™t coming.â€ť
It took a few seconds for her words to sink in, but when they did, he forgot all about how pretty her mouth looked.
* * * * *
â€śWhat do you mean, theyâ€™re not coming?â€ť
Rachel made sure her bland, perfectly professional expression didnâ€™t waver in the face of her bossâ€™s displeasure. It never did. â€śMr. Bouchard called the office and spoke to Alex. The snow turned to mixed precipitation earlier down there, with a lot of sleet and freezing rain. They made it to Boston before the airport closed, but thereâ€™s no way they can make it up here.â€ť
He ran his fingers through his dark hair in a familiar gesture of frustration that never failed to momentarily distract her. â€śHow the hell did this happen?â€ť
This happened because Adrian Blackstone wanted to impress the pants off Rick Bouchard so, instead of meeting in the office, the meeting was set for the Mount Lafayette Grand Resort Hotel, high in the White Mountains.
Where Mother Nature was notorious for wrecking the best-laid plans with a fickle flick of her wrist.
â€śDammit,â€ť Adrian growled.
When he stood and stalked to the window, she allowed herself to watch him move. He was already in his suit coat, with his tie snug against his throat, even though the meeting hadnâ€™t been scheduled to take place for several more hours. While he occasionally hung up his coat in the office and rolled up his shirtsleeves, whenever he was meeting a client, he was fully dressed by the time she met up with him. Part of him psyching himself up, she assumed.
Just once, sheâ€™d like to see him in jeans and a T-shirtâ€”something faded, soft and body-hugging. She wanted to know his favorite movie and whether he liked vanilla, chocolate or twist soft-serve.
When he turned back to her, she gave him a small half-smile, knowing he saw nothing but his assistant waiting patiently for his instructions.
â€śWe may as well hit the road since this is a bust,â€ť he said. â€śMaybe I can make the presentation to him tomorrow at his hotel.â€ť
And the good news kept on coming. â€śActually, the governor just declared a state of emergency and the highwayâ€™s closed.â€ť
His dark eyes widened. â€śWhat does that mean?â€ť
â€śIt means weâ€™re snowed in.â€ť Which meant she was spending the night down the hall from her favorite fantasy without any business associates or clients around to act as unwitting chaperones.
â€śAre you serious?â€ť
â€śYes, Mr. Blackstone.â€ť She closed her laptop and slid it into her bag, along with the portfolio folder and her legal pad. â€śVery serious. Apparently the weather took a bizarre turn after we got our last update. We donâ€™t have to worry about power or services here at the hotel. The resort makes its own powerâ€”steam generators or something like that.â€ť
â€śIâ€™m aware of that.â€ť
Of course he was. This project was wrapped up while she was still just a paperwork-filing, coffee-brewing rookie at the company, but it was a renovation he was particularly proud of. Not only because of the size, but because of the results. Stepping into the Mount Lafayette was like stepping back in time at least a century, except for the cleverly disguised modern amenities. Guests didnâ€™t suffer a lack of wireless internet, screens, outlets or jacks.
He rubbed his temples. â€śSo, thatâ€™s it? Weâ€™re stuck here?â€ť
â€śYes, sir.â€ť Even Adrian Blackstone couldnâ€™t buy himself a ticket back to Boston tonight.
He accepted it with a sigh and a shrug of his strong shoulders, which were emphasized by the cut of his charcoal suit. â€śSince I havenâ€™t been here since we finished the renovations, what is there to do in this place?â€ť
Get naked, have wild sex with the boss and wake up blissfully satisfied, if imminently unemployed? â€śThere are several amenities which might interest you. Youâ€™ll find the brochure in the inside pocket of your coat, where you put it when I handed it to you.â€ť
He pulled it out and smiled at her before opening it. God, he had an amazing smile. â€śI see you circled the shop. Since I got you stuck here, feel free to charge anything you need to your room.â€ť
She nodded, even though she wouldnâ€™t. Even though Blackstone Historical Renovations paid for her travel, lodging and food, she didnâ€™t purchase incidentals or personal items on their account. Even if it was the CEOâ€™s fault their plans had changed.
â€śI guess you have some unscheduled vacation time,â€ť he continued with a sheepish grin. â€śUnlike you, Iâ€™ve barely made a dent in my coffee, so Iâ€™m going to stay and work on my notes for the Newport property.â€ť
She knew Adrian was considering buying a house heâ€™d seen listed in Newport, Rhode Island, doing a full renovation and then flipping it. It would be a first for Blackstone Historical Renovations. Since theyâ€™d only done rehabs on properties owned by other people, theyâ€™d talked a lot about the pros and cons. The risk was higher, since the property would have to sell in order for them to get paid, but so was the potential profit margin. â€śDo you want me to stay?â€ť
â€śIâ€™m mostly going to read through the notes weâ€™ve already made, so you donâ€™t need to stay. Iâ€™ll let the desk know when Iâ€™m done so they can restock the coffee.â€ť He took the key to the room when she held it out. â€śGo have fun. Make sure you enjoy everything the hotel has to offer, and Iâ€™m sure Iâ€™ll see you around.â€ť
â€śYes, sir. Iâ€™ll be getting regular updates on the travel conditions and will let you know as soon as the roads are safe. In the meantime, if you need anything at all, please let me know.â€ť
She left him to his work, wondering what she was supposed to do for the rest of the day. The original plan had called for all of them to enjoy a pleasant evening after the meeting, including dinner. Then Adrian and Rachel would depart for Boston early in the morning, leaving the Bouchard family to enjoy the rest of the day and another night on Adrianâ€™s dime before traveling on to Colorado for their Christmas holiday.
Now Rachel had no plans for the foreseeable future, except trying not to envision a hundred and one ways to seduce her boss.
She was up to seventeen before she reached the end of the hall.
* * * * *
By dinnertime, Adrian was bored. Heâ€™d pressed his team to wrap up everything before they scattered for the holidays, so the only thing on the table was the Bouchard deal. With the Bouchards stuck in Bostonâ€”where he should have stayed, dammitâ€”he had nothing to occupy his mind.
And with nothing else to think about, his thoughts kept circling around to Rachel and the fact they were alone in one of the most gorgeous and romantic hotels in the country.
Maybe not totally alone. There were other guests, of course, besides the staff. But nobody from their world. No office-mates. No clients. Essentially, they were alone enough that he kept thinking about things a boss had no business thinking.
For one thing, Blackstone Historical Renovations was extremely proactive when it came to sexual harassment education and the boss doing his secretary on his desk, up against the wall or any other place he could get her wouldnâ€™t set a good example. For another, she was the best damn assistant heâ€™d ever had and he didnâ€™t want to lose her.
But knowing she was two doors down the hall while everybody else was back around the water cooler played hell on his nerves.
Adrian thought about calling her and asking her to join him for dinner. They both needed to eat and there was no sense in eating alone. But they werenâ€™t in the habit of sharing meals when they traveled. They kept the schedule tight, so both of them usually made do with room service while they worked.
But he was tired of being cooped up and the dining room beckoned. Unfortunately, it was a dining room that reeked of romance all year and especially at Christmas. He had no desire to request a table for one. And he was afraid if he invited Rachel to join him, sheâ€™d accept simply because he was the boss and she felt obligated.
Screw it. Heâ€™d go down to the bar. If he remembered correctly, they served basic sandwiches along with drinks, and he needed both. He never allowed himself to get drunk, especially in public, but maybe a beer or two would take the edge off and help him sleep.
He didnâ€™t have any jeans with him, but he skipped the coat and tie. Leaving the top two buttons on his white dress shirt undone, he rolled the sleeves to just below the elbow and ran a cursory hand through his hair. Good enough.
Pausing in the entryway of the bar, he scanned the room, debating on a table versus a stool. Then he spotted a woman sitting alone at the bar, his gaze drawn to her for some reason, and considered a different way to take the edge off his sexual frustration. Neither bar pickups nor one-night stands were his usual style, but his secret desire for Rachel was reaching a critical point.
The woman at the bar had a cloud of blond hair, and a slim figure hugged by a shimmery red sweater and black pants. But she wasnâ€™t too slimâ€”the sweater rode up to reveal the curve of her hip. And when she reached for her glass he noted the lack of either a wedding ring or a revealing tan line.
He watched her another minute and she never looked around or looked to the door, so she probably wasnâ€™t waiting for anybody. While sheâ€™d definitely be playing second fiddle to his assistantâ€”unbeknownst to either womanâ€”maybe some company would help distract him.
He started walking toward her then stopped, transfixed, when she threw back her head and laughed at something the bartender said. It was a joyful, unabashed sound and Adrian found himself wanting to watch a comedy with the woman or tell her silly jokes just to hear her laugh again.
He slid onto the stool next to her. â€śItâ€™s too close to Christmas to be sitting alone in a bar.â€ť
She turned to face him and Adrian felt as though all the air had been sucked out of his lungs. Christ, she was beautiful. â€śRachel?â€ť