Authors: Trish Morey
Everything was under control.
And that’s when he heard the scream.
earth-shattering sound rang through the basement, followed by a torrent of language Andreas had no hope of discerning. He was down the hallway and at the open door in just a few strides. ‘What the hell is going on?’
One of his team was busy backing out of the small room, closely followed by a slipper that flew past his head and smacked into the wall behind. ‘I had no idea there was anyone here,’ he said defensively. ‘It was marked on the plans as a closet. And it’s barely six o’clock. What’s anyone doing in bed at this time of night, least of all here?’
‘Get out!’ screeched the voice. ‘Or I’ll call the manager. I’ll call the police!’
So much for everything being under control. Andreas ushered his red-faced assistant out of the way. ‘I’ll handle this.’
He stepped into the tiny room that smelt and looked more like a broom closet, ducking his head where the stairs cut through the headspace and avoiding the single globe dangling on a wire from the ceiling, under whose yellow light he found the source of the commotion. She was sitting up in bed, or on a camp stretcher more like it, with her back rammed tight against the wall, the bedding pulled up tight around her with
one hand despite the fact her fleecy pyjamas covered every last square centimetre below her neck. In her other hand she wielded a second furry slipper.
Her eyes were wide and wild-looking under a pink satin eye mask reading ‘Princess’ that she’d obviously shoved up to her brow when she’d been disturbed. Some kind of joke, he decided. In her dishevelled state, with her mousy-coloured hair curling haphazardly around her face, she looked anything but princess material.
Then his eyes made sense of the smell. In the yellow light he saw the vacuum cleaner tucked at the end of the bed and the drab uniform draped unceremoniously over the radiator, and one question at least was answered. The cleaner, he surmised, the one he’d spotted earlier in the corridor who’d stunk of beer. No doubt she’d been trying to sleep it off when she’d been disturbed.
He tried to keep the sneer from his lips as he addressed her. ‘I must apologise for my people startling you,’ he began. ‘I assure you, nobody means you any harm. We simply didn’t realise you were here.’
‘Well, I am
here and your
have a bloody nerve going about bursting into other people’s rooms. What the hell are you playing at? Who are you? Where’s Demetrius?’
He held up his hands to calm her. She was Australian, he guessed from her accent, or maybe a New Zealander, but her words were spilling out too fast to be sure.
‘I think perhaps you should calm down and then we can discuss this rationally.’
Her hand lifted the slipper. ‘Calm down? Discuss rationally? You and your henchman have no right barging into my room. Now get out before I scream again.’
, the way she clung to those bedcovers as if her virtue were at stake! Did she really think he was going to
attack her? It would take a braver man than him to tackle those industrial-strength pyjamas she was buried beneath.
‘I’ll leave,’ he conceded, ‘but only so you can get dressed. Come out when you’re ready to talk. It is impossible to reason with a woman sitting in bed dressed up like a clown.’
Her jaw fell open, snapping shut again on a huff. ‘How dare you? You have no right to be here. No right at all.’
‘I have every right! I’ve wasted enough time here as it is. Now get dressed and meet me in the office. I’ll speak to you then.’
He spun away, pulling the door closed behind him, but not before the other pink slipper went hurtling over his shoulder like a furry missile.
He’d barely started pacing the office floor, damning Darius for the spitting, snarling legacy he’d left behind, when he heard someone behind him. He turned to find a young woman in jeans and a top standing there, her expression sullen, her feet bare.
What the hell else
, he thought,
has Darius left me to clean up?
‘Can I help you?’
‘You tell me. You’re the one who demanded my presence.’
His eyes did a double take. This was the cleaner? The banshee ready to scream the house down in the broom closet? He didn’t know what to be more impressed by, her speed in complying with his orders—the women he associated with couldn’t effect a quick change if their life depended on it—or the radical change in her appearance.
He asked her to shut the door behind her and he leaned back and perched himself on the edge of the desk, watching her as she complied. She’d discarded the fleecy pyjamas and ridiculous eye mask and pulled on faded jeans and a long-sleeved T-shirt, and that brought the second surprise. She wasn’t tall, but what she missed out on in height she made up for in curves. He’d never have guessed there was shape under that drab
uniform or hidden away under a mound of bed clothes, but her fitted T-shirt and hipster jeans accentuated the swell of breasts and the feminine curve of waist to hip that had been completely disguised before.
Nor would he have guessed she would scrub up so well. Sure, there were still grey shadows under her eyes, but she looked years younger than the haggard wreck he’d seen struggling with the vacuum cleaner in the hallway, and much less frightening than the banshee he’d encountered so recently in the closet-cum-bedroom. With not a hint of make-up and with her damp hair tamed into some kind of loose arrangement behind her head, a few loose tendrils coiled around her face served to soften features that weren’t classical in the least.
She would never pass for pretty, he determined, but if she bothered to make an effort she could probably do something with herself.
Although right now it looked as if she’d much prefer to do something with him, preferably involving knives.
He caught the glower as she folded her arms underneath her breasts and wondered if she had any idea that motion just accentuated their fullness.
Or that it drew attention to their peaking nipples.
So she hadn’t bothered to put on a bra? No wonder she’d been so quick to appear. He was surprised to feel his body stir, but then he’d never had a problem with such time-saving measures, or with breasts that looked like an invitation. Despite the inconvenience, he could only be intrigued by the closet-dweller. He was sure he’d seen no mention of her in the reports that had crossed his desk.
Cleo bristled under the relentless gaze. What was his problem? She’d done what he’d demanded—abandoned any hope of sleep to get herself up and dressed and met him in the office and for what? So his eyes could rake over her as if she were some choice cut of meat in a butcher-shop window?
So maybe the look was marginally better than the one he’d given her in the hallway earlier when he’d regarded her as some kind of scum before sweeping imperiously by, but it certainly didn’t make her feel any more comfortable.
Quite the reverse. She rubbed her upper arms, not from the chill, but to ward off the prickling sensation his gaze generated under her skin. And if she was lucky the action might just break whatever magnet hold his eyes had on her breasts.
He only had to look at them for her nipples to harden to rocks.
Damn the man! Arrogance shone out of him like a beacon, but the only thing it was lighting up was her temper.
‘Are you going to tell me what this is all about or would you prefer to keep ogling me?’ She looked around the office. ‘Where’s Demetrius?’
‘The man you know as Demetrius is gone.’
Of course he would speak in riddles. The man was insufferable. ‘What are you talking about? Gone where? When will he be back?’ She’d never much liked her boss, who’d seemed more concerned with his form guide than with how his hotel was falling down around his ears, but as far as she was concerned, the sooner he was back, the better.
‘He won’t be back. This hotel now belongs to me.’
His revelation slammed through her like a thunderbolt. Where did that leave her? Her rapidly chilling toes curled into the cracked linoleum while a shudder of apprehension wormed its way into her mind. Whatever had happened must have been sudden. She’d heard Demetrius on the phone to his turf accountant when she’d finished the last room, just before this man had appeared, larger than life. A bloodless coup. And the man in front of her, with his cold eyes and strong jaw, looked just the kind of ruthless man for the job. Ruthless—but also her new boss. She swallowed, horrified at the impression she’d made
so far. Hadn’t she flung a slipper past his ear? ‘What is this, then, some kind of interview? Okay, my name is Cleo Taylor and I’ve been cleaning here for three weeks, and doing the breakfasts. Demetrius probably told you—’
‘Demetrius told me nothing. There was no mention of you in the list of employees we had.’
‘Oh? But then, Demetrius paid me in cash. He said it was better for the both of us.’
‘He would no doubt think that.’ Andreas understood why. So Darius could pay her peanuts and most likely deduct the majority of it in return for the cot she occupied.
She shrugged, looking confused. ‘So…You’ll still be needing a cleaner, right?’
‘Okay, I do more than clean. I get up at five for the breakfasts…’
‘I’m not looking for a cleaner. Or a kitchen hand.’
‘But the hotel—’
The fear that had begun as a shred of concern exploded inside her in a frenzy of panic. It might be the worst job with the worst pay in the world—but it was a job, and it came with a roof over her head. And now she’d have no job.
And, more importantly, nowhere to live.
Her mouth was drier than a Kangaroo Crossing summer’s day. ‘You mean I lose my job.’
He gave the briefest of nods. It might as well have been the fall of the guillotine. Once more she’d failed. Once more she’d bombed. She almost wanted to laugh. Almost managed to, except the sound came out all wrong and this was no place or time for such reactions, not with him here, watching her every move like a hawk.
, she beseeched, closing her eyes with the
enormity of it all,
where’s the silver lining to losing the worst job in the world?
Unless that was it. She hated the job. Now she had no choice but to find something else. And hopefully, something better.
But it was so hard to think positive thoughts about losing her job when it also meant she’d be losing the roof over her head with it. She opened her eyes toward the window, the rain still pelting against the glass. A bright side. There had to be a bright side. But right now she was darned if she could see what it was.
‘When?’ Her voice was the barest of whispers. ‘How much time do I have?’ She would have to move fast to secure something. The little money she had wouldn’t last long and if she had to use it for any kind of rental bond…
‘Tonight. You need to pack your things and be gone in two hours. The guests are all being transferred to other premises. The builders and redecorators move in to gut the place tomorrow.’
‘Tonight? You’re closing the hotel so soon?’ And panic turned to outrage. ‘No. No way you can just walk in and do that!’
‘No? And why is that? Surely not some misplaced loyalty to your former employer? I see he showed you none.’
‘No, damn you. But it took me the best part of the day to clean this dump. Every single room from top to bottom and now you tell me you’re closing it and I could have knocked off at ten this morning? Thank you very much. You could have saved me the trouble!’ She flung out her arms to make the last point and then put a hand to her brow, pushing back the hair from her face. Although it was what the action did to her breasts that had his attention.
He didn’t know what he’d been expecting, but it wasn’t the impassioned response she’d given him. Or the swaying floor
show. No sag. Her breasts were full and round and pointed high. Would they look as good uncovered? Would they fill his hands as generously as he imagined they would? Would he like to find out? He needed a woman…
He dragged in a breath, trying to cool his rapidly heating groin, and forced his eyes away.
, she was a cleaner. A cleaner with a drinking problem if how she’d appeared earlier was any indication. Petra must really be getting to him if he was getting hot under the collar over a cleaner. ‘You’re mad at me,’ he said, reluctantly dragging his attention back to her face, ‘because you’ve spent all day cleaning? Isn’t that your job?’
She choked back a sob. Yes, she probably sounded irrational, hysterical, but what did he expect—that she would turn around and calmly thank him for his bombshell? ‘You try being a cleaner in a dump like this. I’ve just had the worst day of my life. How would you like it if you were a cleaner and someone booby-trapped their rubbish? How would you like it if you ended up smelling like a brewery and wearing someone else’s dried pizza crusts and then somebody else told you that you hadn’t had to clean it up at all, that you needn’t have bothered?’
His ears pricked up. Maybe not a cleaner with a drinking problem after all. Maybe he wasn’t quite so crazy…‘You don’t drink beer? I thought you were an Australian.’
‘So that makes me a drinker? No, for the record, I don’t drink beer. I can’t abide the taste of it. And,’ she continued, without missing a beat, ‘then I get hauled from my bed and told that my job is over and that I have to leave. And that you want to throw me out in that!’ She pointed to the window, where the rain distorted the light from the streetlamps and turned it into crazy zigzags. ‘What kind of man are you?’
He wanted to growl. This was supposed to be the most successful
day of his life, a day he’d dreamed about for what seemed like for ever. And here he was, being challenged by the likes of this scrap of a woman, a mere cleaner. He ground out his answer between his teeth. ‘A businessman.’
‘Well, bully for you. What kind of business is it that throws innocent women out onto the street in the middle of the storm from hell?’
He’d heard enough. He turned and flicked an imaginary piece of lint from his sleeve. ‘You must have somewhere else to go.’
‘Yes. And it’s twelve thousand miles away. Shall I start walking now, do you think?’