Lockwood International Offices, New York City
“What are you doing here?” a rich, deep voice called out from the shadows of the executive suite.
Holly Abrams froze. The breath caught in her throat. The pounding of her heart echoed in her ears. She searched the darkness for the mysterious man.
And then he stepped into the light. She immediately recognized him. It was the CEO of Lockwood International, Finn Lockwood. The air whooshed from her lungs.
This wasn’t the first time their paths had crossed, but they weren’t by any stretch of the imagination what you would consider friends. And he didn’t sound the least bit happy to see her, but then again, why should he?
When her gaze met his, her palms grew damp. “Hi.” Why did her voice have to be so soft—so seductive? She swallowed hard.
“Isn’t it a bit late for you to be working?”
Overtime was nothing new to Holly. After a failed engagement, she’d sworn off men and instead focused all of her energy on her career. When she was working, she felt confident and driven.
“I…uh, have these papers for you.” She held out the large manila envelope to him. “I was told you wanted this contract right away.” When he went to retrieve the envelope, their fingers brushed. A jolt of awareness arched between them. The sensation zinged up her arm and settled in her chest.
“Thank you.” As the seconds ticked by, he asked, “Is there something else you need?”
Need? Her gaze dipped to his lips—his very kissable lips. She remembered their last meeting in the elevator. They’d been alone when she’d dropped a slip of paper. They’d simultaneously bent over to retrieve it, bringing their faces so close. When they’d straightened, he’d stared at her as though seeing her as a woman instead of as a paralegal in Lockwood’s legal department. She knew when a man was interested in her, but when the elevator dinged and the doors slid open, the moment had passed. It had left her wondering if it’d been a product of wishful thinking on her part.
And now, before she made a further fool of herself, she needed to make a speedy exit. “I’ll just let you deal with that.” She turned to retrace her footsteps back to the elevator when she remembered her manners. She glanced over her shoulder. “Good night.”
With her back to him, she inwardly groaned. Her gaze moved to the elevator at the end of the hallway. Her escape was so close and yet so far away. Suppressing a resigned sigh, she turned.
“Come with me.” Without waiting for her response, he strode into his office.
What in the world did he want with her? Her black peep-toe platform pumps echoed as she crossed the marble floor. She couldn’t tell which was louder, the click-click of her heels or the thump-thump of her heart. Most people didn’t make her nervous, but Mr. Lockwood was the exception.
When Holly entered the spacious office, she had to admit she was awed. While he read over the document, she took in her surroundings. Behind Mr. Lockwood’s desk stood a wall of windows. Being so high up, it provided the most amazing view of Manhattan. She longed to rush over and stare out at the bustling city, but she didn’t dare.
The sound of a desk drawer opening distracted her. Mr. Lockwood appeared to be searching for something. While he was preoccupied, she continued her visual tour of his office. It reminded her of a museum with its impressive sculptures as well as a baseball collection ensconced in glass cases. But the bookcases spanning an entire wall were what drew her in.
She struggled not to gape at the large collection of books. He liked to read. They had that in common. She wanted to slip across the room and examine the titles, but when she glanced over at Mr. Lockwood, he pointed to one of the two chairs in front of his desk. Without a word, she complied.
“What do you think of the office?”
“It’s very nice.” She indicated the floor-to-ceiling bookcases. “Have you read them all?”
“I have. And what about you? Do you like to read?”
“Oh, yes.” She laced her fingers together to keep from fidgeting with the hem of her skirt. “I read every chance I get.”
“Is that why you’re not downstairs at the company’s fiftieth anniversary celebration? Would you prefer to be at home reading?”
Was this some sort of test? She hesitated. Was there a right and a wrong answer? Her clasped hands tightened as his gaze probed her. Could he tell how nervous his presence made her?
“I missed the party because I needed to finish the contract.” She indicated the document on his desk. “I was just going to leave it for you before I headed home.” She wasn’t the only one not attending the party. What was his excuse for skipping his own celebration? “I figured you’d be at the party.”
“I already made a brief appearance. No one will let their guard down around the boss so I made a quick exit, letting everyone get back to having a good time.”
She could totally understand people being nervous around him. He was an intense man, who insisted on only the best from his employees. “That can’t be much fun for you.”
He shrugged. “I’m fine with it.”
She looked at him in a new light, realizing for the first time that the privilege of working up here in this ivory tower was also a sentence of isolation. “It doesn’t seem right that you’re working instead of celebrating your family’s accomplishments.”
He shook his head. “This is the way it must be.”
Well, now, that was an odd comment. It was on the tip of her tongue to question him about it, but she thought better of it. She had a feeling his pleasantness had its limitations.
Quietness settled over the room as Mr. Lockwood scanned the twenty-one-page document. Holly struggled to sit still—waiting and wondering why he wanted her to remain there. Her index finger repeatedly smoothed over the chipped nail polish on her thumb.
There was something about this man that turned her into a mass of jittery nerves. But what? It wasn’t his billions or his power. It was something more intrinsic, but she couldn’t quite put her finger on it.
“This exhibit isn’t right.” He gestured to a page in the contract. “Do you have your source material?”
“Not on me. But I double-checked everything.” In actuality, she’d quadruple-checked the figures, but she didn’t want to sound like she’d been trying too hard to impress him.
His brows drew together into a formidable line. “You had to have made a mistake. This doesn’t make sense.”
“Prove it.” The words slipped past her lips before she could stop them.
Mr. Lockwood’s eyes widened as though unaccustomed to being challenged. She continued to hold his gaze. She wasn’t going to back down— not when the one thing she greatly valued was in question—her reputation.
“These exhibits are skewed. I’m positive of it.” His eyes darkened. “I’ll log in to the system and then you can show me where you pulled your numbers.”
For the next hour they worked side by side, going over the figures in the exhibits. In the end the contract was wrong, but to Holly’s relief, it hadn’t been her fault. The numbers on one of the source files had been transposed. After printing a revised copy, Finn signed it. Holly used his personal assistant’s scanner to email the contract to the designated party.
“Thanks for the assistance.” Finn slipped the hard copy back into the envelope. “Sorry to take up so much of your evening and for causing you to miss dinner.” He glanced at his Rolex. “We’ll have to remedy that.”
“That’s okay. It’s not a big deal.”
“I insist on dinner.” He stood and then moved around the desk. “You did me a big favor tonight by helping with the contract.” His gaze dipped to her lips before quickly returning to her face. The corners of his mouth lifted into a sexy smile. “And I’d like to show you how thankful I am for the help with meeting that deadline.”
Oh, he definitely had more than dinner on his mind. The thought sent a new wave of nervous tremors through her stomach. She glanced away. Her initial inclination was to turn him down. Her experience with men was less than impressive. But did that mean she had to live in solitude?
What was wrong with a little company? A little laughter and perhaps flirting? And maybe a little more. Her gaze met his once more. It’d all be fine as long as neither of them had any expectations. After all, it wasn’t like it would ever happen again.
“Dinner sounds good.”
“Great.” He made a brief phone call and then turned to her. “It’s all arranged. I’ll just drop this envelope on Clara’s desk and then we’ll be off.”
A little voice inside Holly said to be cautious. Finn Lockwood wasn’t just any man and she knew nothing of his world. But another part of her was drawn to him like a moth to a flame—and boy, was he hot.
The sizzling tension smoldered between them as they quietly rode down in the elevator. When they stepped into the parking garage beneath the building there was a sleek black town car waiting for them. A driver immediately alighted and opened the door for them.
Holly climbed in first, followed by Finn. When he joined her, his muscular leg brushed against hers. Her stomach shivered with excitement. When their hands came to rest side by side on the leather seat, neither pulled away. It felt as though the interior of the car was statically charged. Every nerve ending tingled with anticipation.
As the car eased into the Friday evening traffic, she glanced over at Finn. She was surprised to find him staring back at her. Her heart thump-thumped, loud and fast.
“Where to, sir?” the driver asked.
“The penthouse.” Finn’s darkened gaze returned to Holly. “I thought we would dine in. Unless, of course, you have something else in mind.”
She had something on her mind, but it wasn’t food. Perhaps she had been spending too much time working these days because there had to be a reasonable explanation for her lack of common sense. Because all she could think about was how much she longed to press her lips to his.
Seven weeks later…
Finn Lockwood didn’t care if the saying was cliché. It was how he felt. Even though this was the first week after Thanksgiving, the holiday festivities were in full swing. He wanted no part of having a holly jolly Christmas. Even though he’d turned off the speakers in his office, the music still crept down the hallway, taunting him with its joyous melody.
He did his utmost to block out the mocking words. Instead, he focused on the stack of papers awaiting his signature. He was so close to being out of here—out of the office—out of New York City.
“I just love this.” His longtime assistant, Clara, strode into his office with a hefty stack of papers.
“Love what? The endless phone calls and this mess of paperwork?”
“Um, no.” Color filled her cheeks as she placed the papers on his desk. “I meant this song, ‘Home for the Holidays.’ It puts me in a warm fuzzy mood.”
His pen hovered over the document as he paused to listen. The sentimental words about home and family stabbed at his scarred heart. “To each his own.”
She swept her dark bobbed hair behind her ear. “Although it never feels like the holiday season until that first snowflake falls. Don’t you think so?”
He frowned at her. “How long have you known me?”
“Almost eight years.”
“And by now I’d have thought you’d realize I don’t do holidays.”
“I…I just keep hoping—”
“Don’t. It’s not going to happen.” An awkward silence ensued as he glanced over a disbursement and then signed it.
“Oh. I almost forgot. These came for you.” She handed over two tickets for the Mistletoe Ball.
He accepted the tickets. Without bothering to look at them, he slipped them in a side desk drawer with other tickets from years gone by. When he glanced back at his assistant, unspoken questions reflected in her eyes. “What?”
Clara hesitated, fidgeting with the pen in her hand. “Why do you order tickets every year but then never use them?”
“Don’t you think it’s a worthy cause?” When Clara nodded, he continued. “I want to do my part.” His voice grew husky with emotion. “If everyone does their part, maybe they’ll find a cure for leukemia. The damn disease steals lives far too soon.” His hand tightened around the pen. “It leaves nothing but devastation in its wake.”
Clara’s eyes widened. “I…I agree. I, um, just can’t afford the tickets.”
Finn realized he’d said too much. No one knew he was the sole sponsor of the ball and that was the way he intended for it to remain. But he just couldn’t attend—couldn’t face the guilt. If it wasn’t for him and his actions, his mother and father would still be alive. They’d be attending the ball each year just like they’d always done in years past.
Finn pulled open the desk drawer and removed the tickets. “Here. Take them. It’d be better if they were used rather than sitting around gathering dust.”
Her gaze moved from the tickets to him. “But I couldn’t. You should give them to someone else.”
When she rattled off the names of people who headed up his various divisions and departments, he said, “I want you to have them.”
“Thank you.” She accepted the tickets with a hesitant smile.
“Now back to business. I hope this is the last of what I need to sign because we have a trip to prepare for.”
“A trip? When?”
“Tomorrow morning.” This wasn’t the first time he’d sprung a spur-of-the-moment trip on her. “And I’ll need you there—”
“But…” Clara worried her bottom lip.
“But what? Surely you can reschedule anything on my calendar for some time after the first of the year.”
“It’s not that.”
Color stained her cheeks as she glanced down at the tickets. She remained quiet, which was so unlike her. Something was definitely amiss and he didn’t like it, not one little bit. They were set to leave in the morning for his private island in the Caribbean for a secret business meeting. When it concluded, Clara would return to New York while he remained in the sun and sand until after the New Year—when life returned to normal and people were no longer gushing with the holiday spirit.
Clara’s continued silence worried him. He leaned back in his chair, taking in the worry lines bracketing her eyes. “What’s the problem?”
“I got engaged last night.” She held up her hand. A sparkly diamond now resided on her ring finger.
“I’m sure you’ll have lots of planning to do after our trip—”
“Well, um…that’s the thing.” Her gaze dipped again. “We’re eloping this weekend.”
“What?” She couldn’t be serious. He had everything worked out. His business associates were meeting them on his private island in two days. “You can’t back out on me now.”
“I’m really sorry. But Steve, my fiancé, he, um… surprised me with tickets to fly to Vegas.”
Finn resisted rolling his eyes. Could things get any worse? His plans had already hit a major snag, prompting this emergency meeting, and now his trusted employee was running off to Vegas to get hitched by some Elvis impersonator. This is just great!
“You can’t bail on me.” He raked his fingers through his hair. “I need your assistance for this meeting. It’s important.”
“Oh. Um…” She wrung her hands together.
He caught the shimmer of unshed tears in Clara’s eyes. This was not good—not good at all. He was so used to having Clara at his beck and call that he hadn’t anticipated this scenario. He hated being put in this position—choosing between his work and his associate’s happiness. There had to be a compromise.
After a bit of thought, he conceded. “If you can find a suitable replacement, you can have the time off. But it’ll have to be done pronto. My meeting can’t be delayed.”
Clara’s eyes widened. “I’ll get right on it. I’ll have someone by this afternoon.”
She turned and rushed out the door, leaving him alone to scowl about his plans being upended. Normally he’d have insisted on being involved in the selection of a temporary PA, but these weren’t normal circumstances. His private jet was already being fueled up for tomorrow’s flight.
He tapped his pen repeatedly on the desk. Why did Clara have to pick now to elope? Not that he wasn’t happy for her. He was. He just wasn’t happy about the surprise. Okay, so he didn’t like surprises and certainly not when they caused his plans to go awry.
Just like his evening with Holly. Talk about everything going sideways—in a mind-blowing way. It’d been weeks since they’d been together and he still couldn’t get her out of his system. Though they’d agreed there would be no repeat of the amazing evening, he regretted letting her go more than he thought possible.
What had she been thinking?
Holly Abrams stood alone in the elevator at Lockwood International. She pressed the button for the top floor—Finn’s floor. The last time she’d visited the executive suite things had spiraled totally out of control. One moment they were talking work and the next she’d been in Finn’s luxury penthouse. The memory made her stomach dip.
There’d been candles, delicious food, sparkling wine and honeyed compliments. It’d been quite a heady combination. And when at last he’d pressed his lips to hers, she’d have sworn she’d fallen head over heels in love with him. It was though this thing had been building between them since they first met. Love at first sight?
She didn’t believe in it. This thing, it had to be infatuation—a great big case of it. And even though they’d mutually agreed to go their separate ways, her oasis at the office had turned stressful with reminders of Finn at every turn.
The elevator dinged and the door slid open. She stepped out. Taking a deep, steadying breath, she started down the hallway toward Clara’s desk—toward Finn’s office. However, Clara wasn’t at her desk. Holly’s gaze moved to Finn’s closed door. She had a moment of déjà vu and her heart raced.
The door swung open. Who was it? Finn?
And then Clara stepped into the hallway. Holly sighed. She dismissed the disappointment that assailed her as Clara headed toward her.
The young woman’s eyes reflected an inner turmoil. “There you are. Thank goodness you came.”
“What’s the matter?”
“Whoa. It can’t be that bad.”
“You’re right.” The frown on Clara’s face said otherwise. “I…I need to ask you for a huge favor. And I’ll totally understand if you can’t do it. I just don’t know anyone else who can help. And this just has to work out—”
“Slow down. Tell me what it is.” Holly thought of Clara as a friend ever since they met on the charity committee. The woman was always generous in word and deed.
“My boyfriend proposed last night.” A smile lifted her lips as she held up her left hand.
“Wow! Congratulations! I’m so happy for you.” She gave Clara a brief hug.
Clara pulled back. “Thank you. It really was a surprise. We’ve been together for over five years now. I’d pretty much given up on him ever proposing. Anyway the plan is we catch a plane tomorrow and elope in Vegas followed by a honeymoon in Napa Valley. I can’t postpone it. I don’t want him changing his mind.”
“Don’t worry. Everything will work out.” She was happy that Clara was finally getting her happily-ever-after. Holly didn’t see such a rosy future for herself, but it didn’t mean she didn’t believe it could happen for others. “What can I do to help?”
“I know this is a lot to ask, but I need you to fill in for me while I’m off on my honeymoon.”
“What?” Clara wanted her to be Finn’s assistant? No. Impossible. Finn would never agree. She must have misunderstood. “You want me to be Mr. Lockwood’s assistant?”
Clara nodded. “It won’t be for long.”
Her friend had absolutely no idea what she was asking of her. None whatsoever. She’d given Finn her word that she’d stay clear of him just as he’d agreed to do the same for her.
Now it appeared she had to make a very difficult choice—keep her word to Finn or keep her friendship with Clara. Holly’s stomach plummeted into her Louis Vuittons. She desperately wanted to do both.
But that wasn’t possible.