Winds of Heaven
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by Karen Toller Whittenburg
Description: Kylie Richards was starting a new business and traveled to Santa Fe to offer her management seminars. Abandoned at the airport, she found herself whisked into town by a fellow traveler. Nick Braden worked for Southwest Textile as a troubleshooter, and he'd intended to fire Kylie before she could be too disruptive. But there was a real current between these two that neither could ignore. Contemporary Romance by Karen Toller Whittenburg; originally published by Dell Candlelight Ecstasy Romance
eBook Publisher: Belgrave House, 1984
eBookwise Release Date: June 2012
1 Reader Ratings:
Available eBook Formats: OEBFF Format (IMP) [231 KB]
Reading time: 145-203 min.
The touch on her arm was firm and definitely masculine. Kylie Richards turned and glanced at the well-shaped hand, noting the suggestion of strength in the long fingers. Her brows lifted in polite question as her gaze followed the length of tanned, muscled forearm to a short-sleeved yellow shirt that covered but didn't conceal a powerful chest and shoulders.
"Excuse me." His voice was deep with a pleasant resonance, easily heard even in the noisy surroundings of the small Santa Fe airport, "Do you need some help with your luggage?"
Kylie looked past a strong chin, a pair of lips just beginning to tip upward at the corners, a slightly arrogant nose, and found herself staring into gray eyes, glinting with silvery humor.
She had a fleeting sense of recognition and then realized he had sat a few seats in front of her on the plane. Memory quickly provided sketchy details: the way he'd greeted one of the flight crew and been greeted in return as a frequent and valued passenger; the way he'd walked with such authority to the one remaining vacant seat and snapped open a leather briefcase; the way short tendrils of dark hair curled over the collar of his shirt as he bent his head in concentration. He hadn't once looked in her direction, Kylie remembered, at least not to her knowledge. And now that she faced the full attention of his dusky eyes, she knew for certain that he hadn't noticed her presence on the flight. She would have known, would have felt the touch of his gaze.
"I beg your pardon?" she asked, trying to disguise a flicker of uncertainty with a composed expression.
"Do you need some help with your luggage?" The chivalrous inflection threading his voice was oddly appealing.
"I've been hoping to catch the attention of a skycap, but there seems to be a noticeable lack of them." Looking at him with amusement, she said playfully, "I don't suppose you're--?"
His mouth completed the upward slant into a smile. "Just a former boy scout, I'm afraid. But I did earn a merit badge in luggage handling."
"Oh." A pleasurable ripple of discovery hesitantly dimpled her cheek. "And do you also assist little old ladies across the street?"
"But of course." Friendly amusement danced deep in his eyes. "I try never to discriminate on the basis of age, though, and you do look as if you could use some assistance."
She dropped a rueful glance at the awkward tangle of suitcases at her feet, knowing she probably appeared helpless, but unable to recover her usual aplomb. She met his eyes with a conceding grimace. "Yes, thank you. I'd appreciate your help. If you're sure you don't mind ..."
He lifted a hand to still her doubts. "Say no more. My pleasure." A wayward strand of sable hair edged onto his forehead as he bent to look at her luggage.
An indefinable impulse to brush the dark hair into place tickled her fingertips and brought a stern mental reprimand. She wondered if it was possible to get jet lag on a ninety-minute flight from Denver.
His eyes skimmed from the luggage tags to her face with a cursory but inquiring glance at the ring finger of her left hand. "My pleasure," he repeated, "Miss Kylie Richards of San Diego."
There was a thin whisper of question in the words, and she found herself intrigued by his interest and the quiet charm of his husky voice. "You have the advantage, I'm afraid," she said with a questioning lift of her brows.
The charcoal-gray eyes frowned, then softened with understanding. "Nick Braden of San Francisco," he provided with a courtly nod.
"Mister Nick Braden?" Kylie couldn't resist stressing the unequal amount of information on marital status conveyed by their respective titles.
His lips formed a curve of droll appreciation. "Mister Braden, as in Miss Richards," he clarified. "But you can call me Nick. I sometimes forget to answer to Mister."
"All right, Nick. It's nice to meet you."
Her hand was suddenly tucked within his. A warm clasp, a brief touch that somehow made her feel utterly and completely feminine.
"And it's very nice to meet you--Kylie." He spoke her name as if savoring a newly discovered taste, and she liked the sound of it.
She liked the way he smiled, too, and the curious hint of a cleft in his chin. She liked the quiescent laughter hiding in his eyes. As he moved to lift her suitcases she noted the smooth play of muscles beneath his shirt and the understated power of his lean, sinewy legs. A tinge of color warmed her cheeks as she realized the direction of her appreciation. With a blink of surprise she looked away. Jet lag or no, there was no excuse for such a response to a man's simple courtesy.
When he straightened, a suitcase under his arm and one in each hand, she'd toned her bemused smile to a casually interested curve.
"Where to?" Nick asked.
Realizing that she didn't have the faintest idea what to tell him, Kylie caught herself from a betraying stammer and abruptly made a decision. "A taxi."
Slowly Nick returned the suitcases to the floor. "Is this your first trip to Santa Fe?"
"Well, yes, but--"
He nodded as if that explained everything, pursed his lips, and eyed her with a thoughtful frown. "I might warn you that it's a toss-up as to whether morning or a taxi will appear first."
Frustration welled and slid from her throat on a sigh. It had been a long day, and the end wasn't anywhere in sight. There wasn't much she could do now, except wait and hope that Alex would eventually either show up to get her or answer his telephone, which she had already rung several times. With a shrug Kylie smiled halfheartedly at Nick. "In that case I guess I'll just have to wait. Thanks for your offer of assistance, anyway."
"There's no need for that, Kylie." His voice took on a tone of command. "I phoned ahead for a rental car, which, with any luck, will be waiting out front. I'll take you to your hotel or wherever you're staying. Are you visiting friends in the area?" he added almost as an afterthought.
She nodded absently, considering his offer, discarding it, then considering it again. She couldn't just accept-- could she?
Apparently Nick thought she not only could but already had. "I'll just check about the car and put your luggage in the trunk, and we'll be ready to go. Would you like to stop somewhere for dinner?"
The question sounded almost rhetorical, and Kylie had the impression that she was being swept along by his casual assumption of authority. She started to correct him, to tell him that she didn't accept invitations on such short acquaintance, but an unexpected impulse stayed her tongue. She was not really sure what she was searching for, as her gaze moved over his tall, lithe body and paused to examine more closely the ruggedly attractive face. An assortment of fine lines at the corners of his eyes and mouth expressed his character with pride, confidence, and good humor. Determination lay only partially hidden in the firm set of his chin, and Kylie sensed that Nick Braden would make a formidable adversary and an equally devastating ally. It was evident he was a man unused to opposition, either real or imagined.
"Kylie?" He broke through her hesitation with a hint of impatience.
She suppressed a sudden tickle of amusement. Apparently Nick Braden wasn't used to waiting for an answer either. "Did you just invite me to dinner?" she asked and wondered what Miss Manners would do in this situation.
"Dinner and a safe delivery to your destination," he confirmed in a voice both persuasive and self-assured. "I'd be happy to show you my driver's license and my diner's club card if you'd like." As if aware of her lingering hesitation, he lifted a hand in mock solemnity. "And, scout's honor, there will be no mention of a trip to see my etchings."
Despite her best intentions Kylie felt herself responding to his teasing and the odd, almost off-center smile that slanted his lips. Like the affectionate clasp of a handshake, she felt his gaze reassuring her, erasing her doubts with an ease born of experience.
"Thank you," she heard herself saying. "Dinner would be very nice."
"Great." He turned before she had a chance to reconsider and began to gather her luggage into his arms again. Kylie watched him with a procrastinating trace of uncertainty. Her usually cautious nature had obviously gotten lost in his you-can-trust-me gray eyes. His offer of dinner hadn't done any harm, either, she thought as her stomach growled in silent agreement.
He straightened and took a step toward the exit. Then he stopped and glanced back at her. "I'm going to see about that car. Wait here. I'll be right back."
"Nick?" Kylie called before he could leave. "I think I'll make a phone call while you're doing that."
"Fine. Actually I should check in with my cousin too. Why don't you make your call. I'll take care of finding the car, phone my cousin, then meet you back here in fifteen minutes."
"I'll do that, Nick." She tried to hide the humor that laced her words. She badly wanted to challenge his take-charge manner just for the fun of seeing his amazement. She would have wagered all the money in her purse that few people, if any, even thought to question Nick Braden's authority.
"Fifteen minutes, then." His gaze held hers, and Kylie felt as if he were searching past the soft coffee-brown color of her eyes, looking for the spark of mischievous rebellion he must have heard in her voice. "Don't forget, Kylie."
"No." For the life of her she couldn't say another word, and with an effort she freed herself from his probing look. Decisively she turned and made her way toward the nearest phone, but halfway across the room she glanced over her shoulder. Nick was striding confidently through the doorway, her luggage firmly in hand.
Well, she was committed now, Kylie thought. Nick had taken command of her evening, as well as her possessions, with unbelievable efficiency. And she wasn't even sure that she minded. It wasn't often she met a man who attracted and intrigued her as Nick Braden did.
Refusing to pursue that line of thought, Kylie walked to the telephone. She dug through the contents of her purse and again located the business card imprinted with the name Southwest Textiles, Inc., Santa Fe, New Mexico. Dialing the number penciled on the back of the card, she reminded herself that she was here to conduct a training seminar. If she wanted to prove the value of her ideas in a company as large and well respected as Southwest Textiles, then she'd have to concentrate on the business at hand, not on the appealing charm of dusky-gray eyes and a lopsided smile.
The ringing of the phone echoed hollowly in her ear, and she was just about to replace the receiver when she heard an answering click. "Yes?" The brusque, no-nonsense male voice replaced the mental image of Nick's dark good looks with a picture of Alex Jamison's sun-bleached hair, near-perfect profile, and deceptively innocent blue eyes.
"Alex? This is Kylie Richards."
"Kylie! What a surprise!" His tone changed almost magically to one of suave pleasure. "I didn't expect to hear from you until tomorrow. You haven't had a change in plans, have you?"
Kylie frowned, wondering if Alex typically forgot important commitments. "I haven't changed my plans, Alex, but I was beginning to wonder if you had. You did send the airline tickets, and I followed your instructions to the letter, but--"
"Lord, I didn't get the days mixed up, did I?" Alex interrupted with a groan. "Was I supposed to meet you at the airport today?"
"I assumed that someone would."
"I'm sorry, Kylie," he pleaded. "I've been gone all day. Just walked in the door, in fact, and I didn't think about...." There was a pause, and Kylie thought she heard a distinctively feminine voice in the background. "Uh, Kylie?" Alex continued. "It's going to be a while before I can get there to pick you up. But now that I think about it, you might be able to catch a lift...."
"I don't need a ride now, Alex." She stopped herself from explaining the circumstances of her meeting with Nick and began again. "There won't be any problem getting into town. If you'd just give me the address of where I'm to stay, you won't have to worry about me at all." Not much chance of that either way, she thought wryly, since Alex didn't appear at all concerned about her welfare.
"Oh, that's great," he said with obvious relief. "I am sort of busy at the moment."
Kylie smothered an exasperated sigh, knowing it was useless to be upset with him. If she remembered correctly, Alex liked petite blondes with adoring eyes, simple tastes, and an intellect to match. "I'm sure your job keeps you very busy," she said with mock sympathy.
He had the grace to give an embarrassed laugh. "Well, you know how it is, Kylie."
"Yes, I do." She had no difficulty in remembering how busy he'd been when she'd met him at a business convention last spring; she'd competed with a succession of curvaceous blondes for his attention. Before she'd finally secured the contract, Kylie had begun to wonder if it was true that blondes did have more fun. "Why don't you tell me the address?" she prodded.
As Alex gave directions to the company housing where she was to stay, Kylie jotted the information in tiny print beneath his phone number on the business card. "The key will be under the planter of the big potted palm on the porch. You can't miss it. If you have any problems, call me. But you should find everything you need in the house. We keep it ready for visitors because the head office is always sending someone to check on things and stir up trouble for me." He released an aggrieved sigh into the phone. "You'd think that since the company is a family-run business, they'd trust me, but...."
Again Kylie heard the feminine voice in the background.
"Well, I'll be in touch with you later." Alex now sounded pressured and in a hurry to conclude the conversation. "Remember to call if there's anything you need."
"All right," Kylie began, then stopped when she heard the buzzing in her ear and realized she was talking to empty air. Shaking her head, she slipped the card into her purse and walked toward the airport entrance, where she was to meet Nick.
Kylie decided that under the circumstances it was lucky she'd accepted his offer of a ride. Otherwise she would have had to wait indefinitely at the airport. And even if a taxi hadn't proved so elusive, the cost would have put an extra strain on her already tight budget.
She drew in her breath sharply at the thought. Was she becoming so mercenary that she had to look at everything in terms of cost or savings? Kylie reprimanded herself for the negative attitude. A struggling new business was expensive, to be sure, but she wasn't destitute, not yet, anyway. And with the opportunity at Southwest Textiles there was no reason to think she wouldn't be successful.
Think positive, act positive, be positive. The words from the training manual came readily to mind, and she wondered if Nick Braden had ever taken an assertiveness course. Her lips formed a wry curve at the ridiculous idea. The confidence inherent in his every action was evidence that he'd been born with the quality. He'd never had to learn to be self-assured as she had.
Kylie sank into a chair in the lobby where she could see the entrance. In less than a minute she caught sight of Nick's tall, lean form across the room. A faint whisper of excitement stole through her as she saw him surveying the room. He was looking for her, and the knowledge made her heartbeat quicken with anticipation. It had been a long time since she'd felt such an instant attraction to a man, and she was suddenly very glad she'd agreed to have dinner with him. Even had she been able to afford a chauffeured limousine for the trip into town, Kylie knew she'd still be right where she was--waiting for Nick to see her and come to her side. She stood and lifted her hand to catch his attention.
Nick saw Kylie just as she rose and waved to him. He slid an appreciative glance over the graceful line of her throat and shoulders to the tantalizing silhouette revealed by the clinging fabric of her dress. Then with lingering enjoyment he observed the way the rich, chestnut hair framed her face with soft curls and her brows arched in a natural line above dark eyes screened by gold-tipped lashes. He watched her smile and liked the elusive dimple that flirted with the creamy perfection of her cheek. Again his eyes returned to the sensual curve of her breasts, and he felt his body tighten in response.
She looked different now from the forlorn slip of femininity that had first caught his attention. There was an air of distinction, of confidence, about her that intrigued him, a poised tilt to her head that belied his initial impression of uncertainty. She appeared at ease and in control now. A woman capable of handling herself--and any unwary man, Nick cautioned himself as he moved toward her.
"Hi." Kylie smiled a welcome.
"Ready?" he asked, reciprocating her smile as they turned together and walked to the exit. "Were you able to get in touch with your friends?"
She considered explaining that Alex was merely a business associate, then decided against it. "Yes," she answered simply. "Did you phone your cousin?"
Nick pushed open the door and let her precede him outside. "The line was busy, but it doesn't matter. I'll see him tomorrow."
Kylie tried to match her steps to his lengthy strides. She was breathless when he stopped beside a late-model car and held the door for her. "Thank you," she murmured as she slid onto the front seat. As he closed the door and walked around the front of the car, Kylie decided she'd never before met a man who evoked such an immediate physical response within her. She had a sudden feeling that her breathiness wasn't caused by the brisk walk to the car.
"We're all set." Nick slid behind the steering wheel and started the engine.
"Thanks for taking care of my luggage." She hoped her voice sounded stronger to him than it did to her. The closeness of his muscular body and the faint scent of his cologne weren't helping her to recover her breath. "And thanks for the ride into town too," she continued, determined to act as if that whispery vibration were her usual tone of voice.
His smile was easy, understanding, sincere. "My pleasure."
What might have been a trite rejoinder from someone else was a simple, believable statement from Nick. My pleasure. How had he made such a meaningless phrase convey so much?
My God, Kylie! She snapped her gaze to the front of the car. Next you'll be hearing music when he speaks, she scolded herself. Forcing the ridiculous tilt of her lips to a more sober angle, she resolutely stared out the window and managed to control the impulse to laugh when Nick clicked on the radio.
A soft symphonic melody drifted around her and brought her attention back to him. How wonderful that they had the same taste in music. "You must be a native," she said. "Or a frequent visitor."
Curiosity hovered on the arch of one dark brow. "Both, actually. I was born and raised here, and I'm often here on business." His smile was teasing. "But how did you know?"
"Elementary deduction, Dr. Watson." She made a grand gesture toward the dash. "Rental car, classical music. Not too many people could find that radio station on the dial unless they were familiar with the area."
"How do you know it wasn't already tuned to that station, Sherlock?"
Kylie met his eyes. "Was it?" she asked.
"That's what I thought. To be honest, though, I already had an idea you were a regular traveler to Santa Fe. On the plane this evening I thought--"
"Were you on the commuter flight from Denver? With me?" His incredulity was unmistakable. "That's impossible."
She couldn't help laughing then. "Impossible maybe, but true."
Nick shook his head disbelievingly as he braked the car, then made a smooth left turn. "I've definitely been working too hard. And to think if I had arrived earlier for that flight, I could have sat with you, and I would have had more time to get to know you."
It would take a strong woman to resist that line, Kylie thought, excusing the rapid flutter of her pulse. A much stronger woman than the marshmallow his persuasive charm was turning her into.
Groping for a safe topic of conversation, she focused her gaze on the last colorful rays of the sunset sky. "Beautiful sunset," she commented, trying not to be too obvious. "I've heard there's nothing lovelier than a New Mexico sky at sunset." It was all she could do to keep from making a face. Couldn't she have thought of something more original to say? "Really, lovely colors." Worse, she thought in disgust. Especially since the lovely colors were almost a memory in the already darkening twilight.
"Personally I prefer sunrise. But most of the artists I know disagree with me." Nick guided the topic of conversation from maudlin to interesting with enviable skill. "Of course, I've found that artistic temperaments thrive on disagreement anyway, so I try not to take their opinion to heart. Especially at this time of year, when the summer arts festival is in full swing." He shot her a cautious look. "You're not an artist, are you?"
He nodded in seeming satisfaction. "I knew we were kindred spirits. My only excursion into the realm of painting hangs in awful splendor in my mother's bedroom."
"Appropriately titled Santa Fe Sunrise, no doubt."
He lifted his shoulders in a disarming shrug. "Well, there's no accounting for taste, you know. Which brings us to the restaurant and dinner. Do you like Mexican food?"
"Of course," Kylie answered, giving in to the delighted smile that tugged at her lips.
"Good." Nick maneuvered the car into a parking space and turned off the ignition. "Usually I'd phone ahead for reservations, but there wasn't time tonight. We'll just hope there's a vacant table."
His voice was full of confidence, and Kylie thought again that he wasn't used to any sort of opposition. Something about Nick Braden fairly shouted "success" to the world, and somehow Kylie knew that once they were inside the restaurant, there would be a vacant table.
Her intuition was right on target, she observed some twenty minutes later as she followed the beaming maitre d' from the bar. She'd barely had time to sip the margarita Nick had ordered for her before they were being seated at a table in the dining area of the restaurant. Bright splashes of color along with the traditional Spanish decor of the Southwest lent an air of festivity to the room. Spicy scents mingled with the soft strum of a guitar.
"This is what I call atmosphere with a capital A." Kylie studied her surroundings with interest before she met the friendly warmth of Nick's gray eyes. "It reminds me of Old Town in San Diego. Have you ever been there?"
"My trips to southern California have always ended in Los Angeles." Nick leaned forward. "But if I'd had any idea that you were only a few miles away, every trip would have taken me to San Diego."
"Business trips?" Kylie asked, bypassing any verbal response to the compliment. "You must do a lot of traveling in your job."
"Not that much. Most of the time I stay close to the home office, though when there's any problem at the plants themselves, I'm always chosen as the troubleshooter."
Kylie widened her eyes in mock dismay at the term, and Nick laughed. "It isn't quite as ominous a title as it sounds. The problems usually are solved by reassuring the employees that they're adequately paid, insured, and safety-checked. Occasionally I have to investigate a new idea that the plant manager feels would increase production."
Her business sense jumped to eager attention at the words. "Is that why you're here?"
"Mmm-hmm." Nick lifted his glass and sipped his drink. His gaze rested lightly yet intimately on her lips, and Kylie felt her breath rise from her lungs to drift uncertainly in her throat. Willing herself to concentrate on what he'd said, she touched her finger to the salty rim of her glass.
"I like to see corporations that aren't afraid of innovative ideas. Too often high-level executives are paranoid about any new method that might upset the status quo and force some much-needed change." Noting his interested expression, Kylie warmed to her subject with enthusiasm. "In fact, I hope that in the near future companies will replace those aging, autocratic idiots who take up office space and oppose every fresh, new theory in favor of musty, outdated procedures. It's about time that the average employee can suggest--" She broke off her impassioned speech as she caught a glimpse of laughter in his eyes.
"Would you like me to order a soapbox for you?" he asked with a teasing grin.
"No, thanks." She couldn't suppress a reluctant smile. "I seem to have managed all right without one. Sorry, Nick. I'm usually not quite so vocal about my opinions."
"Don't apologize. Everyone should have a cause they feel strongly about."
"It's not that, exactly. I've been doing some promotional work for my business, and I keep running into brick walls when it comes to getting someone to listen. It's very frustrating when you don't even get the chance to present your ideas. But that's all about to change." She stopped as the waiter arrived beside their table.
After an inquiring glance at her Nick took charge of ordering, and Kylie regarded him in thoughtful silence. It would be challenging to work with a man as assertive as Nick. Challenging, demanding, instructive, and satisfying.
Satisfying. Her mind lingered on the thought as she envisioned the two of them sitting side by side before a cozy fire discussing her ideas for a seminar. Nick would listen, would be interested in and accepting of new ideas. She would be able to talk to him, tell him....
Common sense interrupted her daydream with indisputable logic. If she was sitting beside Nick after a draining day of training sessions, she wouldn't want to discuss business. She'd want to relax in his arms, feel the combined beating of their hearts.
With a start of surprise she realized he was speaking to her. "What?"
"I just asked if you wanted another drink." Amusement sparkled in his eyes.
"No, thank you. This is fine." Kylie wrapped her fingers around the slender stem of her glass and raised it to her lips. She touched the crystals of salt with her tongue before she sipped the drink. She was tempted to ask Nick if his company might be interested in hiring hers, but she didn't want to seem pushy. Again she ran her tongue along the frosted edge of her glass, then looked up, only to get lost in his eyes. Her breathing fluttered in that unexpected odd-even pattern that so exactly matched the sudden rapid beat of her heart. As if he couldn't help himself, Nick lowered his gaze to her mouth and traced the contours that badly wanted to tremble. Slowly she set her glass on the table and gave in to the purely visual touch that swept through her like a streak of lightning in a stormy sky. Sensuous, probing, and oddly unsettling, it left her feeling dissatisfied and somehow restlessly expectant. Kylie came to the belated realization that she should at least stammer a protest. But what could you say to a man who'd just, so tenderly, kissed you with his eyes?
"How long are you planning to stay in town, Kylie?"
From somewhere she managed to recover her voice. "I--uh--I'll be here about six weeks. What about you?"
"I think that might depend on you." The words caressed her with their huskiness. "And whether or not your friends will share your time with me."
"Oh." For a minute she couldn't seem to manage more than the breathless whisper. "Well, actually I'm not visiting friends."
His eyes were gray clouds of seduction as he reached across the table to cover her hand with his. "Good. Then I won't have to share you with anyone."
The pulse at the base of her throat skipped in confusion, and Kylie swallowed. It was definitely time she took command of the situation. Attractive as he might be, she'd only just met him. Summoning her poise, she smiled. "I'm on a business trip too."
He seemed to take the hint concealed in her crisp tones and withdrew his hand from hers. "I'd like to see you again, Kylie. Will you have dinner with me tomorrow night?"
She laughed softly. "We haven't even had dinner tonight."
"All right, then. Make it lunch tomorrow."
Pleasurable excitement bubbled inside her, but she tried to look suitably casual. "I think I'd better accept before you begin offering breakfast in...." Bed. The thought hovered in the air as if she'd spoken it aloud, and Kylie wanted to slide under the table.
With a gentlemanly arch of his brows Nick acted as if he didn't know what she had so obviously almost said. "If you'd like, we can meet for breakfast," he suggested.
"No." Kylie refused with an emphatic shake of her head. "Dinner tomorrow night will be fine." Mercifully the waiter arrived with their food, and she breathed a shaky sigh of relief. With studied calm she dipped a tortilla chip in the hot sauce and bit into it, hoping she would burn her tongue and thus prevent any further indiscretions.
By the time she'd dulled the edge of her hunger with the spicy burrito, her poise had returned.
"This is very good," she commented.
He nodded. "Would you like to meet me here tomorrow, or shall I come for you?"
Kylie almost gave him the address but then remembered that she had no idea of the next day's agenda. "I'll have to let you know, Nick. I'm not sure of my schedule yet. Is there some way I can get in touch with you in the morning?"
Nick curled his index finger through the handle of his coffee mug and lifted it halfway to his lips. "I'll be at the plant all morning. You can reach me there. The number's in the book, or you can dial information and ask for Southwest Textiles."
"Southwest Textiles?" Kylie repeated. "But that's where I'll be working."
The coffee cup clattered against the saucer, and alarm tingled the back of her neck as she registered the look of stunned surprise on his face.
"You're Management Movers?" he asked in a hoarse voice.
"Motivation Management," she corrected automatically. "That's the name of my company. We conduct management development seminars for businesses. Well, really, there's only me at the moment, but I'm planning to hire an assistant soon. Southwest Textiles is the first large firm to see the benefit of this type of training, and there's--" Self-consciously she stopped herself. "But you already know all about that, don't you? You probably were instrumental in authorizing the contract."
Nick avoided meeting her eyes as he took a long swallow of his drink. "No, Alex Jamison gets full credit for that."
"Oh, Alex." Kylie kept her tone bright and innocent, hoping against hope that she was misreading Nick's reaction. "I guess, then, he's the cousin you were calling at the airport."
"Yes, he gets full credit for that too."
Her spirits plunged at the portentous tone of his voice, but still she managed a careless smile. "It's a small world, isn't it?" At his skeptical expression her smile faltered, but she made herself continue. "Who would have thought we'd meet in such an unusual way? I'm here to direct a conference for your company, and you're here to--"
"Kylie," Nick interrupted, pinning her with a regretful but steady gaze, "I'm here to fire you."
Her heart plummeted and her mind raced in several directions at once. Shock and anger pushed a defensive response to her tongue, but Kylie made herself stop and think. She mustn't let him intimidate her. "You can't do that," she said finally and prided herself that she sounded as cool and authoritative as he had.
"I believe I just did." The sympathy in his eyes faded noticeably. "I'm sorry it turned out to be you, but that's the way it is."
That's the way it is. His words fell into the whirling chaos of her mind and restored order. Just like that. No questions. No explanations. Just, That's the way it is. Outrage inflamed her cheeks with hot color, but Kylie calmly lifted her napkin to her lips and returned it to her lap before she slanted a strained but composed smile toward Nick. The need to challenge his assumption of unimpeachable authority was no longer a mischievous impulse. This time she had too much at stake.
"I don't believe you understand the terms of the contract, Mr. Braden. My attorney was very thorough. A cancellation requires advance notice--a month's notice." She paused as his mouth firmed into a disapproving line. Masking her inner trepidation, she matched his hard stare. "In the long run, you know, a six-week seminar will be much less expensive than a two- or three-year lawsuit."
His gaze didn't waver in the deliberate one-on-one confrontation, and as the tense, silent seconds crept past, Kylie found it increasingly hard not to look away. Hidden from his view, her fingers pleated the linen napkin in folds of doubt.
"Is that the type of training you propose to give my employees, Kylie?" His voice, low and intense, rippled over her. "Do you teach them to assert themselves by threatening legal action against the management? Tell me, after the seminar do you stick around to oversee the mutiny, or do you scurry home to safety?"
The unjustness of his accusation refueled her temper. "I've never led a mutiny. Of course, I've never before worked with such an overbearing...."
"...autocratic idiot?" Nick supplied smoothly. "I believe that was your term for anyone who disagrees with your line of reasoning."
"No. That's my term for anyone who doesn't take the time to find out what he's talking about before he passes judgment."
"And that's the way you see my decision to nullify your contract?"
"How astute," she said through tight lips. "But I should have known you would be. After all, there must be some quality that got you into a plush office where you can make arbitrary decisions instead of working for a living." Kylie knew she was burning bridges she couldn't afford to rebuild, but she couldn't sit passively and allow him to deprive her of this chance to prove herself. She believed in the principles she taught, and if Nick would only give her a fair hearing she could convince him of the value of the training sessions too.
The flash of anger in his eyes was quickly brought under control. "Look, Kylie, I'm sorry. I know you must be disappointed, but I'm sure you can understand my position."
"Certainly." Her voice shook with cool hauteur. "Just as, I'm sure, you can understand mine." With shaking fingers Kylie folded her napkin and placed it beside her plate. She pulled the strap of her purse over her shoulder. "Thank you for dinner."
Nick's hand closed around her wrist before she could get more than halfway out of her chair. "Sit," he commanded gruffly. "We may as well get this thing straightened out now." When she tilted her chin defiantly, his grip tightened. "I'm not going to let you walk out of here alone. The town is bulging at the seams with tourists and participants in the arts festival. It's no place to be on your own. Now sit down, and let's discuss this like two rational business people."
"Which one of us is not," Kylie said grimly. "Are you, Mr. Braden?"
"Sit," he repeated with the barest hint of a threat.
She sank to the edge of the chair and glared at him, wishing she could freeze the overconfident expression on his face. And to think she'd really liked him. She'd almost fallen all over herself liking him! "Let go of my arm," she snapped.
"And if I do?"
She leaned forward, her lips feigning a smile. "Now, what do you think?"
"I think you take this assertiveness training too seriously." His fingers loosened their hold, but his hand remained over hers.
"And you don't take it seriously enough. Offering your employees the opportunity to feel better about themselves and the job they do can be extremely beneficial to your company. The concept is new, but it works. Within two months you'll see a significant increase in production."
"Oh, really?" His gray eyes proclaimed a cynical disbelief. "Would you sign that in blood?"
Kylie held back a useless retort and suppressed the flood of disappointment she felt at his words. "Still afraid of a mutiny?"
His hand moved to the stem of his glass, and he watched her appraisingly before answering. "At the moment it seems a distinct possibility."
"You know," she said, her voice deliberately provocative, "if you're that insecure in your job, perhaps you should take the assertiveness course." She rose and faced him squarely. "Excuse me. I think I should phone Alex and let him know there's a slight problem."
"Why don't you do that." Nick stood, too, an impatient challenge mirrored in his eyes. "And while you're at it, ask him if there's a 'slight problem' with your accommodations."
Kylie's knees threatened to melt beneath her, but she kept her expression under strict control. "That's already been taken care of," she announced, quelling a rising uneasiness, "I'm staying in company housing." Her words ended in a horrified silence. "You mean you're staying there, too?"
Kylie drew a deep breath. "Well, then, all the more reason to call Alex now. He'll be able to straighten everything out."
Before Nick could command her to stay, she turned and walked toward the restaurant lobby. Alex had better be able to straighten out the tangle, she thought, her anger finding a new target. Although it didn't seem likely, he might not be aware of Nick's presence in town and the problem with the housing. But Alex must have known when he signed the contract that Cousin Nick wouldn't approve. Well, innocent or not, Alex was about to find out just how assertive she could be.
Kylie felt Nick's gaze follow her across the room, and inadvertently she remembered the gentle laughter in his eyes when he'd first touched her arm in the airport. She muttered an oath under her breath. A low, heartfelt "Damn."
Damn, Nick thought as he watched Kylie walk from the dining area. As he settled back in his chair and sipped at his now-watery margarita, he wished Alex were close enough to bear the brunt of his frustration. It was apparent that another test of executive power was in the offing. One of those battles that cast Alex in the innocent, just-trying-to-do-my-best-for-the-company role and Nick as the villain. If only Aunt Rosemary wasn't so insistent that her "little Alex" be president of Southwest Textiles. And if only his grandfather hadn't laid the responsibility for seeing that nothing went wrong squarely on Nick's shoulders.
Frowning into his glass, Nick wondered if Alex had scheduled Kylie's flight to coincide with his own. It was exactly the sort of thing that delighted Alex. Setting up some sort of confrontation and then letting it take place while he, Alex, was safely away from any possible repercussions. It might be unfair, but Nick felt Alex could take full credit for this disastrous evening too.
Disastrous, he repeated silently as he visualized the furious sparkle in Kylie's dark eyes. For an evening that had begun with such promise, it had certainly deteriorated rapidly, and Nick wasn't even sure how it had happened. He could only remember that stubborn look on her face as she'd defied him.
It was almost funny. Would be funny, if only she weren't so lovely. He drained the contents of his glass and muttered a low, heartfelt "Damn."