Expecting the Boss’s Baby
“Can I lay it right out for you?” Dax Girard asked.
Sitting across his wide black desk from him, Zoe Bravo answered earnestly. “Yes, of course. Please do.” She did want this job. She wanted it bad. She had things to prove—to herself and to her family.
He arched a straight dark eyebrow. “You’re really pretty.”
Oh, puh-lease. Was he going to hit on her? Right here, during the interview? Euuu.
He wasn’t finished. “And if I were to meet you under other circumstances, I would be only too happy to have sex with you. But I need good staff, above all. So I have a house rule. You work for me, that’s all you do with me.”
Zoe stifled a burst of inappropriate laugher and sat up straighter in the chair. Somehow, she managed to reply with a straight face. “Seriously, it’s not a problem. I’ve know you for what, two minutes?”
Had that sounded sarcastic? Maybe a little.
But he had just told her he wouldn’t sleep with her—when she hadn’t even asked him to. He deserved a dose of attitude.
If he noticed the edge to her tone, he let it pass. “I think your mother is a wonderful woman.”
“She certainly is.” Zoe’s mom, Aleta Randall Bravo, was from an old San Antonio family. Aleta knew everyone. Including the great adventurer and magazine publisher, Dax Girard. It was her mom who had recommended her to Dax for this job, which meant Dax would most likely want to give Zoe a chance. People generally tried to please her mom. And not only because of the social connection thing, either. There was something about Aleta that made you like her—and want her to like you.
He said, “And you seem…bright. I have a good feeling about you. I want to make this work.”
“Great,” Zoe answered, trying to sound positive and upbeat. “I do, too.”
“But I just need to have this clear with you, straight from the gate. Sex is absolutely off the table.”
She didn’t groan—but she really, really wanted to. Enough about sex, already. How many times did she have to promise not to put a move on him?
Okay, yeah. He was hot—in that rich-guy, lean, preppy way. He looked like he played a lot of tennis. He probably jogged with his shirt off and gave all the women he wasn’t going to have sex with a thrill.
And she’d heard the stories about him, about how women found him irresistible. But not Zoe. She wanted a job, not a hot date. “I promise you, Dax. I’ll manage to control myself. Somehow.”
A long pause ensued. Zoe tried to look calm and competent and unconcerned while he stared at her steadily, his sexy, deep brown eyes narrowed. Probing. Apparently, he found it impossible to believe that she wouldn’t try and jump his bones at the earliest opportunity.
But then, at last, he dipped his handsome head of thick, wavy sable hair to study her résumé again. “Let’s see here. You were on the campus papers at two colleges. You type ninety words a minute, you know Microsoft Office.”
“Backwards and forwards, yes.”
“You’ve been to UT, Stanford and Brandeis, I see, majoring in Journalism and English.”
“So I know how magazine publishing works. Also, my spelling and punctuation skills are solid. I know my grammar.” What else could she say? Not too much about college. Yes, she’d attended the best schools. Too bad she’d never actually graduated from any of them. She was bright and she learned fast. But she’d always been…easily distracted, eager for the next life experience. And impatient with mundane activities like attending classes regularly and plodding through her assignments. She threw in, “I thrive in a fast-paced environment and I’m very much at home with multi-tasking.”
“All good.” He glanced up at her. “I understand you’re also an excellent amateur photographer, right?” His gaze was probing again. Was this a trick question?
She met his eyes levelly. “I enjoy photography, yes. It’s a hobby of mine.”
“I believe I saw some of your work at the Texas State Endowment Ball and Auction last month, didn’t I?”
“I suppose you did. I shot the pictures and the short film presentation for the chopper you won.” He’d bid six figures on the custom motorcycle, which had made the Texas State Endowment people, including Zoe’s mother, who chaired the event, very happy.
Dax smiled, then. It was a stunningly gorgeous smile that created manly crinkles at the corners of his fine, dark eyes. “I love that bike. Your brother is a genius.”
“Yes. He is.” Jericho, sixth-born in her family of nine, designed and built custom motorcycles. He’d donated the chopper for the auction.
Dax was looking severe again. “Great Escapes is a travel magazine. And we do hire photographers. It’s even possible that eventually some of your work might be used in a story....” He let the sentence trail off.
She gave him a cool smile. “I thought we were discussing a job as your assistant.”
“You’re right. We are. And that’s why it’s important that we understand each other.”
So then they had a problem. A big one. She didn’t understand this guy at all.
He was still talking. “You would have your hands full fielding my calls, dealing with catering for meetings, handling my correspondence and any other of a thousand and one tasks I’ll be assigning to you. It’s doubtful you’d be getting your big break as a photographer.”
Zoe had to be honest with herself. This was not looking very promising. In spite of how much he admired her mother, he’d decided not to hire her. And by now, she was less than sure she wanted this job, anyway. She crossed her legs, smoothed her slim skirt over her knees and said dryly, “No sex, no pictures. Got it.”
He slanted her a look of purely male appreciation—and wasn’t there a hint of humor in that dark glance, as well? “Sorry.” All at once he looked kind of boyish and awkward. That surprised her. Until then, she’d never thought of Dax Girard as anything but all grown up, a little too sophisticated—and way too concerned about not having sex with her. “I’m trying to cover all the bases here,” he said. “The truth is I haven’t had such great luck choosing my assistants in the past.”
Judging by the way he’d managed this interview, she wasn’t surprised.
He added, “Twice, I tried just letting HR handle it.” His mouth formed a grim line. “That didn’t work out, either.”
It was none of her business, but she asked anyway. “Why not?”
He looked slightly pained. “I want someone efficient and professional. But not scary. Not…intimidating. I like a little personality in my assistant. Someone easy on the eyes. And a sense of humor is a must. HR couldn’t seem to strike the right balance on that.”
She realized that all his talk of sex and photography had not only annoyed her and made her wonder if she really wanted this job after all, it had also somehow served to ease her nervousness. She spoke frankly. “I don’t know what else to tell you, Dax. I do have a personality. A pretty strong one, to be honest. I want an interesting job that doesn’t require the college degree I don’t have. Working for you just might be perfect. I subscribe to your magazine. I like the layout. The articles are fun and informative and make me want to visit the places I’m reading about. And I enjoy your editorials. And being your assistant would probably offer me a lot of variety, of varying kinds of responsibilities, which means I wouldn’t be bored.”
He stared out toward the big windows that provided a prime view of San Antonio real estate. “Well, yes. Variety, you’ll get. Beyond the usual, you’ll have some minor editorial responsibilities, probably assist on things like the calendar shoot.” The Great Escapes calendar featured gorgeous women wearing skimpy clothing in a wide range of beautiful settings. “You would have to expect to travel—not in the first few months, but certainly after I have time to learn to count on you.”
She brightened at the thought. “The monthly Spotlight?” Seven or eight months a year, when he didn’t use a contributing editor for the Spotlight, Dax personally traveled to some exotic locale for his feature story.
“Yes,” he said. “The Spotlight.”
She told him candidly, “I’m not looking for an office romance or a chance to break out my Nikon and start shooting. Just a job, Dax. Just this job.”
He frowned some more. And then he stood up. “All right. Let’s give it a try.”
She couldn’t believe it. He was hiring her, after all. She bounced to her feet and took his offered hand.
He said, “There’s a two-week trial period, starting Monday. At the end of the two weeks, we talk again. We evaluate and make a decision on whether or not you stay on. Welcome to Great Escapes.”
She smiled then, a wide smile. If she liked working here, she would definitely be staying on—because she intended to make herself irreplaceable. “Thank you, Dax.”
“Monday. Check in with HR at eight-thirty.”
“I will. See you then.”
Dax sank back into his chair and watched Zoe Bravo go. She had a great walk, smooth, with just a hint of a sway to her softly curving hips. He liked her smile and those beautiful blue eyes.
But would she make a good assistant?
He had no clue. As he’d openly confessed to her, hiring editorial assistants was not his strong suit. In fact, he was lousy at it.
But he had liked her instantly, had wished he could ask her out instead of giving her a job. However, he’d felt a certain obligation to carry through with the offer he had made to her mother. Aleta Bravo was a charming woman. And he was pleased to be able to help her daughter get a start in publishing.
At the very least, he had a feeling Aleta’s daughter would be amusing. She would keep things lively around the office. He liked things lively.
And miracles did happen, didn’t they, now and then? Zoe just might turn out to be efficient, organized and hardworking, to have a talent for the magazine business.
Then he would get over his attraction to her and be grateful to have found her.
If not, well, it wasn’t as though he’d made a lifetime commitment to her. For once, he’d had the good sense to give himself an easy out. After fourteen days, he could simply let her go.
And he would. If she wasn’t a good fit, he would fire her two weeks from Monday, with no hesitation.
And then he would ask her to have dinner with him.
Zoe’s cell started ringing when she got off the elevator on the ground floor: her mother. She smiled at the cute guy behind the security desk and tucked the Blackberry back in her purse without answering it.
But then it rang again as she got in her car. Her mom must be wondering—and getting impatient about it.
“He hired me.”
“Oh, I knew it. I think you’ll love this job, sweetheart.”
“I think so, too.” Or at least, she would if her new boss would only realize that the job was all she was after. “But I’m not locked in yet. It’s a two-week trial and then we’ll discuss a permanent position.”
“A trial? Is that usual?”
Zoe almost let herself get defensive. But not quite. It was a reasonable question, after all. “I gather he hasn’t had good luck with his assistants. He’s a little trigger-shy. But that’s okay. I am going to be terrific.”
“I know you are.” Her mom was smiling. Zoe could hear it in her voice.
“Thanks for the heads up on this, Mom.”
“I want to help. You know that.”
“I do know.” She stuck her key in the ignition. “Okay, then. I’m on my way to the salon next.” She blew a long strand of chestnut hair out of her eyes. “I seriously need a cut. Gotta look good for my first day on the job. Love you and see you soon.”
“We haven’t seen you for Sunday dinner at the ranch in a while…”
Zoe made a grim face at herself as she adjusted the rear view mirror. Bravo Ridge, the family ranch, was a short drive from San Antonio. Zoe’s mom and dad lived in SA, but most weekends they went to the ranch. Sunday dinner was kind of a family tradition. Not all the Bravo siblings made it every time, but they each made an effort to show up at least every month or two.
Zoe hadn’t gone in a while, not since early spring. She knew she was past due to put in an appearance.
“Zoe honey, you still there?”
“Right here, Mom.”
“Say you’ll come.”
Zoe imagined her dad, Davis, getting all up in her face, calling her his little free spirit, teasing her in that totally annoying way he had, wondering aloud how long this job would last. “I don’t know, Mom. I have so much I need to do this weekend.”
“Please, honey. It really has been way too long.” Like most mothers, Aleta knew when to whip out the guilt card.
Zoe turned the key. Her cute little BMW’s precision engine purred to life. “All right. I’ll be there.”
“Great.” The pleasure in her mom’s voice was almost worth the potential headache of dealing with her dad. “Dinner’s at three or so, but come any time.”
Sunday, she got to the ranch at quarter of three just as everyone was sitting down in the dining room.
Her dad was aggravatingly hearty. “Zoe. How’s my little girl?”
“Great, Dad. Doing well. ” She put on a big smile and reminded herself that when he said “little girl,” he meant it with love. And she was his youngest child—well, if you didn’t count Elena, her half-sister, who was a year younger. She went to him and he grabbed her in a hug.
When she tried to slip free, he put his big hands on her shoulders and held her in place. “What in the hell did you do to your hair?”
I am not going to let him get to me. She eased free of his grip and smoothed the thick curls that fell below her shoulders. “I always wanted to be a redhead. Now I am.” Like most of her decisions, she’d made it on the fly Thursday, after her interview with Dax Girard, when she went in for a cut. She’d stared at her reflection in her hairdresser’s mirror and decided she was beyond tired of having brown hair. It had to go.
And no matter what her father said, she knew the vibrant red looked good on her. It set off her fair skin and blue eyes.
“Ahem, well,” said her dad. “It’s very—”
“You look so hot.” Marnie, her brother Jericho’s bride of a little over a month now, came to her rescue.
Zoe turned gratefully into new sister-in-law’s embrace. “Hey. How’s married life?”
Marnie released her and slanted a happy glance toward her groom. Jericho slowly smiled. It was hard to believe he’d always been the family’s troubled loner. He didn’t seem the least troubled now. For the first time, he was really happy. With his life. And his new wife.
“It’s good,” said Marnie. “It’s very, very good.”
“You look beautiful, honey,” Aleta declared, already in her chair. Zone went over and kissed her mom’s cheek and then sat down.
They began passing the platter of juicy T-bones, the corn on the cob and baked potatoes.
It was a big turnout for a family Sunday. Everyone had shown up this time except for Travis, youngest of the boys. Travis was always off on some oil rig somewhere.
Matt and Corrine’s six-year-old, Kira, told them all about her new puppy, Rosie. “Rosie loves Kathleen,” she announced. Kathleen was Matt and Corrine’s second child, born the previous September. “Rosie wants to lick Kathleen all over. That’s what a dog does when she wants to give you a kiss. She licks you. It’s kind of icky and they slobber, you know? But Mommy says it’s only from love, so it’s all right.”
It was nice, Zoe thought, to have a few little kids around now for family gatherings. Her brother Luke and his wife, Mercy, had a boy, Lucas. Gabe’s wife, Mary, had a girl from her first marriage; Ginny was two now. Gabe doted on her. And Tessa, Ash’s wife and Marnie’s older sister, was four and a half months’ pregnant, so another niece or nephew was on the way.
After the meal, Zoe played pool in the game room, doubles, Marnie and Jericho versus Zoe and Abilene, who was Zoe’s older sister by a year. As she bent over the table to set up a bank shot, Zoe realized she was having a great time. Really, she had to remember how much she enjoyed her family. She needed to show up at these things more often, not let her dad’s careless remarks keep her away.
Around seven, she thanked Luke, who lived at the ranch fulltime. She hugged Jericho and Marnie and headed for the door.
Her dad caught her as she was making her escape. “Zoe. Hold on.” She felt the knot of tension gather at the back of her neck as he strode toward her. He was sixty now, but he still carried himself as if he owned the world—and everyone in it.
She braced herself for more criticism. But he only grabbed her in a last hug and told her not to be a stranger.
She looked at up at him and smiled. “I won’t, Dad. I love you.”
Gruffly, he gave the words back to her. “And I love you too. Very much.”
Her car waited in the circular drive at the foot of the wide front steps. She slid in behind the wheel, turned the engine on, and rolled down the windows. The hot June wind blew in and ruffled her newly-red hair. For a moment, she just sat there, staring at the ranch house, which was big and white and modeled after the Governor’s mansion, complete with giant Doric columns marching impressively along the wide front verandah.
Then she laughed and gunned the engine and took off around the circle and down the long front driveway, headed back to SA and her own cute, cozy condo. Life, right then, seemed very good indeed. She was young and strong and ready, at last, to be more focused, more mature, less…easily distracted.
Her new job at Great Escapes magazine began tomorrow. She couldn’t wait to get started.
“What in the hell did you do to your hair?”
Those were Dax’s first words to her Monday morning, when he got off the elevator and saw her sitting at her new desk where the HR person had left her.
Zoe pressed her lips together to stifle a cutting reply. She really didn’t want to start right off trading insults with the boss.
But on the other hand, she needed to be herself or this job wouldn’t last any longer than any of the others had. Being herself would have to include fighting back when Dax pissed her off.
And anyway, hadn’t he said he wanted someone with personality?
She yanked open the pencil drawer, grabbed the dagger-shaped letter opener from the tray within, raised it high and stabbed the air with it. “Do you realize that is exactly what my father said to me yesterday at Sunday dinner?”
He moved back a step and eyed the letter opener sideways.
She pressed her point—both literally and figuratively. “You don’t need to know all the issues I’ve got with my dad. You just need to know there are issues and you would do well not to turn out to be too much like him.”
With gratifying caution, Dax inquired, “Are you really planning to stab me with that thing?”
“Oh, I guess not.” She dropped it back in the pencil tray and shoved the drawer shut again. “I have to face facts. If I kill you, who will sign my paychecks?”
He was still staring at her hair. “Okay. Now that I’m over the shock, I admit it suits you,” he grumbled.
She gave him her sweetest smile. “I’ll take that as a compliment. And we can move on.”
“Coffee first,” he commanded low.
She peered at him more closely. Killer handsome, of course. But tired, too. There were dark circles under those wonderful bedroom eyes. “Long night?”
“Aren’t they all?” He named a place around the corner where the lattes were excellent. “Petty cash in the bottom drawer.”
She pulled out the drawer in question. There was a little safe mounted inside, with a combination lock. He rattled off the combination. She grabbed a pencil and jotted the numbers on a sticky note.
He said, “Get me the strongest coffee they’ve got, black, extra-large. When you bring it in to me, come armed with a notebook or your laptop and we’ll get down to what I want from you today. After that, you get with Lin Dietrich.” He turned and gazed over the large open workspace of desks, tables, machines and semi-cubicles. “Lin!”
A slim, beautiful Asian woman with a streak of cobalt blue in her thick, straight black bangs popped up from behind a glass partition. “What now?”
Dax signaled her over. When she reached his side, he announced proudly, “Lin’s the best editorial assistant I ever had. Which means I had to promote her. My loss. Your gain. Lin is features editor now. But today, she’ll be with you, showing you everything you need to know.”
Lin gave Dax a narrow look, and then sent a wry smile in Zoe’s direction. “Because there’s nothing I need more than a little extra work to do.”
“I learn fast,” Zoe promised.
“Best news I’ve heard so far today.” Lin’s expression said she’d believe it when she saw it.
“Coffee,” Dax said one more time, in a pained voice. He turned and went into his office without waiting for a reply, swinging the door firmly shut behind him.
Lin laughed. “He’s always at his most charming on Monday mornings. Better get that coffee. I’m here when you’re ready for me.”
Dax finished telling Zoe what he wanted from her at a little after ten. She found Lin, who took a few minutes to introduce her around the office. More than one of her new colleagues teased her about falling for the boss. Wearily, Zoe reassured each one that it wasn’t going to be a problem.
Once the introductions were made, Lin then began guiding her through the mile-long list of high-priority duties Dax had given her.
At noon, she and Lin went to a coffee shop down the street for a quick lunch.
“I feel it’s only right that I say something,” Lin warned. “I can’t stress it strongly enough. If you fall for him, he will have to let you go.”
Zoe made the sign of the cross. “Lin. Please. Not you, too.”
“Did Dax warn you about the problem?”
“Repeatedly. And you heard the others back at the office. The subject is getting seriously old.”
“I’m sorry, but it’s an issue. You don’t have to take my word for it. Just wait. You’ll see. He loves women. Women love him. They can’t seem to help it. He can’t seem to say no.”
Zoe sipped her iced tea. “What about you? You were his assistant once. Did you fall in love with him?”
“Uh-uh. I had my secret weapon.” Lin held up her left hand. She wore a thick platinum wedding band.
Lin beamed. “Roger.” She sighed in a dreamy way. “He’s an aerospace engineer.” She pulled her wallet from her giant black tote and took out a picture. Roger had blond hair, an angular face and thick-rimmed black glasses. “Hot, huh?”
“He’s the only man for me.” Lin pressed the picture to her heart before tucking it away in her wallet again. “So I’m immune.”
“But what about every other woman in the office? I haven’t heard any predictions that they’re doomed to fall for Dax. What makes me so special?”
Lin shrugged. “It’s the constant proximity, I think. The daily close exposure to him when you work directly for him. I don’t know what it is about him. He must have some genetic anomaly. An excess of sex pheromones, maybe.”
“Oh, come on. You’re not serious.”
“Oh, but I am.” Lin tipped her head, studying Zoe. “And you’re exactly his type.” The blue streak in her hair caught the light, gleaming. “It’s sad, really. I tend to think of it as Dax’s fatal flaw. He hires the pretty ones with personality. And then they fall head-over-heels for him.”
“Not me. Can we be done talking about this?”
Lin picked up her fork and stuck it in her Cobb salad. “Too bad you’re not already in love with someone else.”
…in love with someone else….
The words bounced around in Zoe’s brain.
Lin was right. Zoe needed a man. Her man. A man she adored, who adored her in return. Such a man would be the perfect way to get everyone at Great Escapes to stop predicting her inevitable, job-destroying, hopeless passion for the boss.
Too bad her man didn’t exist—or if he did, Zoe had failed, so far, to meet him.
She pushed her cole slaw around on her plate, considering. Not that she was in any way ready for her own personal hero, not yet. She had things to prove, a success to make in the business world, before she found the man for her and settled down.
Besides, right now she didn’t need an actual guy. No way. She didn’t have the time for a flesh-and-blood Mr. Wonderful, who would drag along love and commitment and a shared mortgage. Uh-uh. It was the idea of the guy that mattered. It was that everyone believed she had a guy who was the only guy for her.
She slanted Lin a glance. “Maybe I am in love already.”
Sharp black eyes widening, Lin looked up from her plate. “There is someone special, then?”
“I…don’t want to say anything right now. It’s, um, well, it’s complicated.”
“Complicated is fine. Whatever. As long as there’s someone and you’re in love with him.”
“You really think so?”
“I know so. If you’re serious about getting a start at Great Escapes, a special guy would be the best thing for you. And for Dax. And for the poor, overworked ladies down in HR.”
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