Chapter One  

Stephanie tied the wide black ribbons on her stiletto heels with a snug bow on the back of her ankles. She put her foot down on the floor, smoothed her silk hose making sure the seam was straight in the back. Adjusting her fitted skirt, she slipped into the matching ox-blood red suit jacket. She checked her make-up and touched up her lip color. It was time for a corporate battle with Daniel Maxwell, now C.E.O of her company.

Her father’s illness followed by his death left the company in terrible financial shape, and in the current declining economy that spelled disaster. Her stockholders sold their shares unwilling to support her inexperienced, though sound leadership in the unstable market.

She shouldn’t blame them, but did. Her board members were like relatives, most she’d known since childhood, and they’d betrayed her. Each had been offered overly generous buyout packages by Daniel Maxwell and folded. Maxwell also offered her an equally liberal buyout for her shares, but she refused to sell. The company was a family built and owned company. Stephanie wanted to keep it that way. She struggled to retain her interest in the business and managed to hold on to forty-eight percent of the company. Before Daniel Maxwell bought out all the other stockholders, she’d controlled the largest single margin, the rest divided up among the others. Afterward, he became the majority stockholder with forty-nine percent. Following Maxwell’s buy out, she learned of one small stockholder she had been unaware of who refused to sell his three shares.  Maxwell now  retained a voting majority in the company. Stephanie could sway the company but the person who controlled the three shares could control the direction of the company. Depending on which way he cast his three votes, with her or with Maxwell.

After the discovery of the small stockholder’s existence, she’d made a great effort to locate who they were but to no avail. Those three votes, owned by one person, now held tremendous power and, as a recluse, proved more frustrating voting anonymously and by proxy.

Stephanie’s instincts whispered to her, Maxwell and the nameless voter were in some way connected. However, after doing some inter- company digging, she found the mysterious stockholder had been on the roster since the beginning.

Stephanie’s luck at finding information on people, usually productive, seemed to have gone the other way. Her security people attempted to find out what they could about their new C.E.O., as had the best security agencies in the private sector, and neither could uncover any more information than what Maxwell’s public relations department released in his promotional portfolio. His company bought out struggling companies, like hers. Either his background was as clean as his promo department projected or his skeletons were well hidden.

Despite his rich, playboy ways, one picture of Daniel Maxwell came with his marketing folder, taken several years before and from a  distance. Except that one picture, the others were formal shots from his school days and one taken years ago for his company’s press package.

In a few moments, Stephanie would meet Daniel Maxwell for the first time, face to face. Already angry with the man, it further irritated her to lose controlling interest in a company her parents had slaved to build, to a playboy. One who played the stock market as if he were gaming in Las Vegas.

She came close to losing every penny she worked for and inherited to retain the next largest chunk of stock in her company. Stephanie’s  only solace was retaining the second largest interest. If she only knew who owned those three votes. Had the person acquired them after the take-over, she’d be sure they were Maxwell’s pawn but the company’s records… Stephanie stopped. She was worrying over a pointless issue.

She drew a deep breath to calm her nerves, held it for a moment and exhaled. One more time she checked her make-up before she exited her private bath in her office. In a serene manner, exuding confidence she didn’t feel, she entered the boardroom. Her staff was present as well as his, all talking in hushed tones.

Stephanie placed a couple of folders on the table at the far end of the boardroom table, not at the head of the table, her recently vacated position. Instead, she took the seat at the opposite end as second in command.

Intent on not showing Maxwell any of her nervousness, or acknowledging his superiority, when the door of his office opened Stephanie continued scanning the file lying open before her on the table. Long ago, she developed the ability to peek through her eyelashes, thick enough, she a rarely needed to wear mascara leaving her view clear.

Daniel Maxwell wasn’t what she expected. A woman with less self- control would have abandoned her stealthy perusal and looked up, but not Stephanie.

Such masculinity rarely transmitted through even the best-tailored Christian Dior suit but his ruggedly toned muscles mixed with aristocratic features were disarming. His bearing commanded attention in the manner he moved. Her breath quickened without her notice. Still, she maintained her composure and ignored him. She shifted her gaze back to the folder and drew a deep breath to still the rush of heat that flushed through her body. Stephanie discounted the stares he drew from the others around the table, especially the women.

Sudden silence fell over the room. Mr. Maxwell gently closed the heavy wooden door to what had been her father’s office and in three strides stood at the head of the boardroom table. His demeanor filled the space dominating the room. He reminded her of a savage beast who overshadowed the plain on hunt. Stephanie dared one more glimpse through her lashes, knowing her perusal wouldn’t be noticed from this distance.

“Welcome everyone. I am pleased you were all available for our meeting.” His voice modulated to draw and hold the listener’s attention. Stephanie assumed he’d trained to gain his listener’s attention with that tone. She chose to dismiss it, and him. She’d taken the same courses and wouldn’t admit that his ability was natural. Stephanie knew too, he’d made eye contact with each person there—except her. Like heat from a fire, she felt his gaze settle on her. The heat began to build.

Appearing heavily engrossed in the file she was reading, Stephanie refused to look up. Silence reigned in the room and grew. She couldn’t see the barely suppressed grin on his full lips or the intensity in his steel- gray gaze fixed on her.

* * * *

From inside his office, Daniel Maxwell had watched the board members congregate in the meeting room as they took their places. Stephanie, as he expected, was last to take her seat. As he took his seat at the head of the table, he’d glimpsed into her expressive, hazel green eyes focused angrily on him. He didn’t expect it to be easy, nevertheless, Daniel decided it would be pleasant. Now he wondered if she would look at him again. He suppressed a grin and allowed his gaze to intensify.

Daniel’s security pictures of his latest acquisition’s second largest stockholder didn’t do her justice. Such a strikingly beautiful woman as Stephanie a camera rarely caught, unless a professional took the picture. He doubted a professional would catch her obvious anger. Her resentment, he knew from reports, was at the moment directed toward him. Daniel’s advisors had informed him she considered his buyout a hostile takeover, despite the generous sum of money he’d paid to keep the business from folding.

The takeover hadn’t gone as well as he anticipated. Stephanie could still influence a vote by a slim margin and affect the company’s  direction. Daniel preferred complete control. He’d bolstered the  company with a large influx of cash, keeping her employees working and their families secure. From his view, she should thank him.

The silence around Stephanie and the intensity of his stare prompted her to look up. Finally, their gazes met. Daniel’s severe stare rested on her face, his gaze one of extreme patience and assessment. She returned his appraisal with silence and a stare hot enough to melt glaciers, doing little more than amusing him. Daniel’s gaze held hers, as he wanted, and then moved to begin the meeting.

He didn’t fail to notice her attention returned to the file she had open before her. He smirked, guessing she wasn’t reading the file. Her interest was on him, though she made a point not to show it. This was Stephanie Waltrip’s way of letting him know she wasn’t pleased he was the new controlling partner in her family’s business. He read her signals well.

Daniel admired her bravado. In this case, he considered it misplaced and a bit rude. Though there was nothing misplaced about her perfect face and form. Already he was considering ways to get her into his bed. Complete control of not only her company but of Stephanie filled his thoughts. Daniel’s desires for her grew warm as he studied her body language, her breathing more rapid than normal for a board meeting. Her full breasts rose and fell beneath her business suit. Stephanie’s stare rose from the file to again clash with his from the length of the boardroom table without intimidation. He concluded his introduction to the group, a speech he’d made often enough he didn’t have to concentrate.

“Ms. Waltrip,” he addressed her, purposely taking on a smooth, charismatic voice, “I am especially pleased you chose to be present.” He smiled in a congenial manner, retaining a business like attitude.

“Mr. Maxwell, I may no longer be C.E.O. and have a majority interest. I do however have a major interest in what is still a family orientated company.” Her statement was made in a calm, aloof, yet even voice.

“Shall we hope, Ms. Waltrip, we can take a family business to the next, more professional level?” Daniel challenged amicably, providing a glimpse of his plans for her company.

He noted her temper flare by the golden flames that blazed brighter in her eyes. Daniel had unknowingly insulted her by insinuating the company hadn’t been run professionally. Distracted by the flash of passion he saw flicker, Daniel failed to see the heightened anger that rose in her stare.

Stephanie appeared to be a formidable woman. One who wouldn’t willingly take orders from anyone she didn’t respect. Certainly, not the man who she considered stole her company. However, Daniel detected a softer, more feminine side in hiding. A vision of Stephanie beneath him in bed, soft, willing and yes, submissive to his desires, brought an unconscious, feral grin to his lips and produced a glare of outrage from Stephanie. Silence and static briefly crackled in the air of the boardroom and down the length of the long meeting table. Daniel settled into the new, plush chair he’d ordered and continued the meeting.

He conducted a typical board meeting to set up committees and handle the day-to-day business of running a company switching to new management. Daniel wanted to avoid the loss of employees and hoped to add new ones. At that revelation, he was gratified at the look of surprise, quickly hidden in Stephanie’s stare.

Stephanie’s leadership was faultless and Daniel didn’t want to lessen the board’s respect for her. He valued her company and saw its potential. As a businessman, he knew it would eventually fail unless bought by someone with the capital to support it until it rebounded since the decline in the market. Daniel had found himself in the perfect position to take over. In a short meeting with the former owner, the ideal take-over changed into tedious maneuvering due to the unexpected strong physical attraction to the former C.E.O. If Stephanie discovered the decline of the market came after a little maneuvering to make a take-over easier for his interests, she would never forgive him. When he arranged the take-over, it had been just another company.

After all, he didn’t need the money. Daniel played the game for sport. A rich man’s sport, a card-deal he would have played much differently if he’d  met  Stephanie first and if he’d known the company’s C.E.O. was a woman. That wasn’t uncommon in today’s business world. However, to find one as beautiful as Stephanie and to be highly attracted to her, Daniel mentally shrugged. He was trying to think of a way to get her into his bed. A sport he preferred above all others.

With the meeting at an end, Daniel made sure he was at the door, again thanking the members for coming. He enlisted help from a couple of sympathetic members of the board to delay Stephanie’s exit until last.

“Ms. Waltrip.” He took her hand in a firm, respectful grip, instead of gently as some men would a woman’s. “I hope to enjoy a close working relationship with you.” He looked into her eyes easily. “I would prefer to set aside any difficulties in this merger. I do have the best interests of our company in mind.”

She leveled a cool gaze on him and he saw flecks of gold leaping like small flames in those green depths. Either anger or passion, possibly both, but he sensed she wasn’t a cold woman, rather a snow capped, smoldering volcano.

Stephanie pulled her hand from his as if his touch burned her. He allowed some of his feelings to seep into his expression, watching carefully for her reaction. Despite her continued cool demeanor, the gold flecks in her eyes jumped higher and her breath quickened. His gaze remained locked with hers, accustomed to this game. He was an expert at it.

* * * *

“Mr. Maxwell…” Stephanie addressed her company’s new C.E.O. while working hard to contain her temper. Is this man flirting with me, or just attempting to placate me? I’m not that easy, Mr. Maxwell! Complete predatory animal fueled the heat that flowed through his handshake, heating her blood. Already working hard to squelch the affect he was having on her hormones, she forced her voice to stay cold. “Make no mistake, I’m not happy about you taking over my company. It doesn’t make me feel amiable toward the stockholders I’ve known since childhood and thought of as—family, either. They sold their shares to you, giving you majority interest. Their betray… ah, sellout,” she caught the word betrayal, “forced me to make some hard sacrifices to retain my shares and the second largest block of stock, thereby some control.” Her look grew hard. “I feel this situation was in some method maneuvered, leaving my company in a less than solvent posture. Put in this position, I could do nothing else. You now own a major part of my company.”

Stephanie found it difficult to keep the pain the situation caused her out of her voice. Revealing this was difficult enough, many of those she spoke of, she had considered as uncles and aunts, calling them such as a child.

“Ms. Waltrip, let’s discuss this further, I don’t want hard feelings between us. Have dinner with me this evening and perhaps we can find a more agreeable resolution.” Sincerity rang in his voice. Stephanie doubted it was genuine.

She eyed him with complete distrust. This was a dangerous man. One who took what he wanted, one way or another. Maxwell was wealthy enough and had the political pull to get away with anything. Stephanie’s intuition told her Maxwell had engineered her company’s near failure in order to purchase it. Proving it was another matter.

Now, he apparently thought he could romance and charm her into his bed as well. She hadn’t forgotten his playboy reputation. Other men looked at her in such a way. It didn’t work with them. It wouldn’t work with Daniel Maxwell. She knew what was on his mind. He’d take her to dinner and expect her for desert.

What does he consider an agreeable resolution, me between his sheets? Maybe I should go… just to turn you down later.

She suppressed a nasty smile, considering her options. “Very well, Mr. Maxwell, I’ll have dinner with you.”  She maintained a cool but smooth voice.

“Excellent, Stephanie. Where would you like to dine?” Daniel’s tone sounded like she’d done him a great favor. She squelched laughing in his face.

“I don’t have a preference, Mr. Maxwell.” She stressed his sir name, avoiding using his first name. “McDonald’s™ would be fine since this is strictly a business dinner and, Ms. Waltrip will suffice. I don’t use my given name in the office.”

“As you prefer, Ms. Waltrip, I have your address and will pick you up in an hour, or do you need more time?”

“An hour is adequate.” Stephanie turned, walking away. Half way to the bank of elevators, his voice halted her. “Ms. Waltrip, you may want to dress for a restaurant of a higher scale than suggested. I’ve not eaten  in a while and require a more filling meal than fast food offers.”

Stephanie turned slowly to stare into his amusement filled gray stare, a smirk on his tempting, sensuous lips.

Darn, why did the man who took over her company have to be so— appealing?

Regardless, she wouldn’t  let him get the best of her. She arched a perfectly curved eyebrow but suppressed a snarl.

“Fine, Mr. Maxwell, where do you suggest we go for dinner?”

“I have a favorite place in mind. An elegant establishment with impeccable service and serves food the gods themselves would fancy over ambrosia.”

“I will endeavor to not embarrass you.”

“Ms.  Waltrip,  I doubt  that  would  be  possible.”  She was amazed when he slightly bowed but refused to let him see. He turned and close the boardroom door before she could reply. She slipped into the elevator that arrived as if on cue.

Stephanie leaned against the polished back wall of the lift, took a deep breath and held it. She released it slowly, trying to calm her nerves from the confrontation, disgusted at the affect he had on her. She didn’t expect such a virile, charismatic, and appealing man.

Her reports on the wealthy billionaire had been scanty, including a picture several years old. Photographers found Mr. Maxwell a difficult subject to capture, and he kept a low profile on how wealthy he truly was. Her reports, she now concluded, were terribly inaccurate.

All through the meeting, she knew the instant his gaze was on her, which seemed continuously. Two of his new employees had kept a conversation going with her until she was the last to leave. It was obvious he contrived the situation to speak with her alone.

Her knees went weak like a schoolgirl when his hand closed over hers. His firm handshake met hers in like form. She wasn’t prepared for the surge of adrenaline his touch sent racing through her body, leaving her panties suddenly sodden and all her defensive shields on full alert. In his attempts to impress her, Mr. Maxwell only succeeded in pissing her off and heating her body chemistry in ways not previously experienced. She pushed those sensations from her mind.

As the song went; Forget about the boy—except, he was no boy, but a man.

She remembered his stare burning into hers like hot steel, his passion evident; she shook her head to try to clear it.

Exiting the elevator in the lobby, her body hummed at an annoying pitch.

Summoned before she left the boardroom, her car waited at the entrance, the door held open by the doorman. Unable to dismiss Mr. Maxwell from her thoughts, her actions had become mechanical. She thanked the attendant and as usual didn’t buckle her seat belt.

Stephanie drove toward her townhouse in the city. Along the way, her memory drifted back to her childhood spent on the family estate. She missed the freedom of riding her horse over the twenty-five acres of mainly uncultivated land, part of her family’s heritage since before the Civil War. In comparison, her townhouse, with its landscaped garden patio she found confining and depressing.

In a last attempt to keep her family business, she’d sold the estate to an unknown buyer and attempted to buy the other stockholder’s interest with the funds. Daniel Maxwell outbid her. Sorry she sold the estate since it failed to save her company, she tried to re-buy her family’s property. The new owner wasn’t in the mood to sell. She retained the funds, which left her in a comfortable financial position.

Maybe I’ll sell all my interests and live a comfortable life traveling. Or I could get a second degree in any field I like and still enjoy a carefree life doing what I wish.

She turned into her security-gated community and parked in her small drive. Stephanie realized her time was short so she hurried inside to shower and change for her business dinner.

* * * *

“Corry.” Daniel summoned his aide. “How visible is it we engineered the market’s decline making the acquisition of this company possible?”

Corry looked up at his boss. “I saw the way you looked at Stephanie Waltrip during the meeting.” He smiled, amused. “It is very well buried, Daniel. I doubt Ms. Waltrip could uncover it short of you telling her. Really, you and I are the only ones who actually know, and we did nothing illegal. I’m not going to tell her and I know you won’t.”

Daniel laughed, a little embarrassed. “Had I known Ms. Waltrip was so attractive I might have gone after her company a little differently, it would have made going after her much easier.”

Corry smirked. “Don’t be so sure. Ms. Waltrip is known for her aloofness. She doesn’t date a great deal. It seems she had a bad experience in her senior year of college and has become man shy. She doesn’t follow orders from anyone easily, men least of all.”

“I can see that. Dinner tonight should be an interesting affair. I’ll shower and change here.”

“Good luck, boss, you’ll need it.” Corry laughed, leaving his employer and friend to prepare for the evening.

Daniel wanted more than a business relationship with Stephanie Waltrip and he was accustomed to getting what he wanted. Daniel didn’t take a ‘no’ answer from anyone unless it ultimately benefited him. His thoughts stopped. He wanted her, he admitted to himself, but with Stephanie, it went deeper. She appeared to be a strong woman but underneath her lovely but tough veneer of strength, he detected well- hidden vulnerability along with a dose of mystery. Her strength challenged him, was it real or bravado? He wanted to know and planned to find out. He hoped to this evening. His intuition told him getting to the softness of her womanhood would be difficult and he wasn’t only thinking on the physical level.

He dried his well-maintained body with a bath sheet and wrapped the soft terrycloth around his waist. Daniel downed a short shot of his favorite cognac and enjoyed the smooth heat of the liquor. His thoughts lingered on Stephanie.

Ms. Waltrip, a shot of this would do you some good.

He completed his bathroom ritual with a wolfish smirk and a mouthful of toothpaste. He caught sight of himself in the mirror and laughed, absently wondering what type of sense of humor Stephanie had. He looked forward to seeing it—hopefully soon. From several sets of attire he kept at the office, he chose his clothes for the evening.

Growing up with wealth, he dressed in expensive, masculine undergarments, the finest that fit his taste in comfort and practicality. He enjoyed the feel of silk boxers over his toned butt and thighs and worked to keep the rest of his body in condition. The sensuous fabric, coupled with his thoughts about Stephanie, threatened to produce a hard on. He splashed on a scant amount of his favorite cologne, the same scented bath gel he’d used, highlighting his natural manly pheromones. Into tailored gray pants, he tucked the shirttail of a deep blue dress shirt. Lastly, he slipped on the matching gray lined evening jacket with satin lapels accenting his deep gray eyes, making them appear more piercing.

By leaving the first button of his shirt open without a tie, he accomplished the effect he wanted to achieve, dressy but casual. Beneath the modern, civilized evening suit was the body of a naturally, highly fit individual, hinting at the Highlander on his father’s side.

For a moment, he’d contemplated wearing a kilt—he had the right. Unknown to Ms. Waltrip, he was knighted and held a hereditary lordship. On second thought, the kilt might amuse, more than impress. Daniel smirked as a vague plan took a more feasible shape in his mind.

The consequences of such a plan didn’t occur to him, an unusual factor in his scheming. Normally the end result was clear from the beginning of a strategy but Daniel usually didn’t plan where women were concerned.

His magnetism hadn’t failed to win a woman he wanted in his bed. Stephanie might prove to be the first and he found he wanted her— badly. He hadn’t examined the reasons for his strong and predatory feelings toward the beautiful, young executive but he seldom did with a conquest. Daniel’s normal patterns with women had escaped out the window with Stephanie. She was different. Stephanie didn’t fawn over him. Instead, she spurned him with cold demeanor, but the fire in her eyes told a different story. Whether it was passion concealed by anger, or pure anger at the loss of control of her company didn’t matter, it was— passion.

Scalding, hot passion! He wanted to taste it, possess it—love it.

Corry’s report on her told the story of a beautiful young woman, devoted to her family’s company. A family, which no longer existed after her father’s death. She was the last of his line, alone with no other family. Stephanie was an only child who lost her mother at fourteen. How, his investigators couldn’t determine due to a court-ordered seal. She was a model child and had stayed out of trouble. For her good behavior, her father allowed her great leeway in growing up. Perhaps her lack of family was why control of the company meant so much to her.

Taking his private elevator from his office down to the parking garage, he tipped the parking attendant who had his Porsche warmed up and waiting. The drive to Stephanie’s townhouse was short and he passed through the security gate with a wave. Daniel owned this development, a fact of which he was sure Stephanie was unaware. It was a shame she had sold her estate and still couldn’t raise enough money to buy-out the stockholders of the company. His resources were greater on both sales and he enjoyed owning historical real estate. Daniel wasn’t about to sell it back and chuckled as he pulled into her driveway, then sobered, another fact she didn’t need to know.