The Bravo Family Way
Fletcher Bravo rose from his sleek leather swivel chair. He braced his lean hands on his black slate desktop and canted toward Cleo Bliss. "I want you," he said. "Name your price."
A thoroughly unwelcome thrill shivered through Cleo. She had to remind herself not to shift nervously in the glove-soft guest chair.
Calm, she thought. Serene. Under no circumstances can he be allowed to sense weakness. She met those eerily compelling pale gray eyes of his with a level, no-nonsense stare.
I want you….
It was, Cleo told herself, only a figure of speech. He didn’t refer to Cleo specifically, but to the top-quality service that Cleo and the people who worked for her could provide. If there was another, very sexual meaning in his words, Cleo chose not to acknowledge it—just as she chose not to recognize the hot little flares of excitement and attraction that had sizzled beneath her skin since she’d entered the CEO’s corner office several minutes before.
Cleo already had a man in her life and he was nothing like the one across from her. Driven, powerful, dynamic men in gorgeous hand-tailored suits just weren’t her style. She’d spent a good portion of her childhood watching what such men could do to the women they wanted.
Lesson learned. In spades.
She shouldn’t even be here. She certainly didn’t want to be here. But the man across from her had insisted. He’d started by having his associates approach her. Repeatedly. Each time, she’d turned them down.
Fat lot of good declining had done. He’d called and said he wanted to meet with her personally. What could she do? In the past couple of years, Fletcher Bravo and his half-brother, Aaron, had become major players in the gaming and mega-resort world of Las Vegas. No smart businesswoman would offend either of them if she could help it.
So here she was. Meeting with him. Trying to get him to understand the word no.
So far, she wasn’t having a whole lot of success. She cleared her throat and told him, for what seemed like the hundredth time, "I’m sorry, but I’m just not prepared right now to take on a project of this magnitude."
Those wolfish eyes narrowed slightly. "Get prepared."
Cleo let a long beat of silence elapse before carefully suggesting, "Maybe I’m not making myself clear…"
"You are. As glass. But I’m not listening—and the day will come when you’ll thank me for not listening. Because this is an opportunity you can’t afford to pass up. This is growth, pure and simple. Growth that the Bravo Group will bankroll. Your facility here at Impresario will be double the size of what you’ve got at your current location. Inside and out, you’ll get all the space you require. State-of-the-art equipment. Whatever you need. Say the word and it’s yours."
"It’s just not that simple."
"Oh, but it is."
"At KinderWay," she said patiently, "we’re much more than a daycare service. We base our work on proven child development techniques. For the program to be effective, it has to be consistent and ongoing. We’re not set up for drop-ins."
"I realize that." He lowered his head and looked at her from under the dark shelf of his brow. "And you won’t be a drop-in service. We plan to keep the regular daycare for our guests. Employees with infants, or workers who need daycare only for after school can continue with our original program. I want KinderWay for the preschool kids only—to start. And I want it exclusively for children of Bravo Group employees, both here at Impresario, and at High Sierra."
High Sierra and Impresario were sister resort/casinos. They claimed a big chunk of prime real estate on opposite sides of the Strip and were connected by a glittering glass breezeway that crossed Las Vegas Boulevard five stories up. Both were owned and run by the Bravos. Fletcher was CEO of the newer Moulin Rouge-themed Impresario. Aaron Bravo, Fletcher’s half-brother, ran High Sierra.
Though Fletcher had yet to say so, Cleo knew the real reason he had decided he wanted the best preschool in Las Vegas on-site at Impresario. She could Google with the best of them and in preparation for this meeting, she’d done her homework. The photograph mounted in a brushed-chrome frame on Fletcher’s polished stone slab of a desk told the real story here and confirmed what Cleo already knew. The little girl in the picture had brown hair and big, solemn dark eyes.
Fletcher must have caught the direction of her gaze. "My daughter, Ashlyn. She’ll be five in two weeks."
"Almost old enough for Kindergarten," Cleo said gently. "She’ll outgrow her need for a preschool in no time at all."
He shrugged. "I know that at KinderWay you take children up to first grade. So if you opened a facility here, Ashlyn would be at KinderWay for eighteen months—at least. And even longer if we can get you to extend your program through the third grade." He waited, as if for a comment from her. She gave none. He folded his tall frame back into his chair. "Ashlyn’s nanny, Olivia, has been with her ever since Ashlyn’s mother died and Ashlyn came to live with me. Unfortunately, Olivia is leaving us, going back home to London."
None of which affected the decision Cleo had already made. "We have a two-year waiting list at KinderWay, but I’ll see what I can do about—"
"Two years." He was shaking his dark head. "More proof that you need a plan for expansion. You’re losing business, turning people away."
He was right. It had been four years since Cleo opened her preschool. Demand had grown much faster than she’d anticipated. She couldn’t keep up with it. She regretted that. But she had no intention of overextending herself, or her staff.
She told him, "Opening a KinderWay here at Impresario for your employees will do nothing to reduce the waiting list we already have."
"No. But it will provide a model for growth, get you moving in the right direction."
She thought, How dare you presume to know the right direction for KinderWay? She said, with great care, "You don’t understand."
"I think I do."
"The quality of the care we provide is what matters. The last thing I want is growth for its own sake—and you have to have thousands of employees here. Which means we’re talking about a lot of children. I can’t see how we can possibly accommodate—"
"You’re right. Here and at High Sierra combined, we employ over five thousand people. And those thousands have hundreds of children of preschool age. Many of those children are already in satisfactory care situations. And in any case, not all of them could be included—at least, not at first. So this would be a flagship program. We’ll see how it goes, then build on it."
"A bold experiment. And expensive."
He nodded, a regal dip of his dark head. "Employees who use the service will pay for it—below cost, which should make it affordable for them. I’m projecting that the expense to the Bravo Group will be recouped in increased worker productivity."
And she projected that his interest in the program would fade as soon as his daughter grew old enough to move on. "Fletcher, I don’t know any other way to say it. I already have my hands full with—"
"Wait." He spoke softly, but it was clearly a command.
And how many times had he interrupted her so far? She’d lost count. Tension gathered between her shoulder blades. She ordered it away. Folding her hands in her lap, she waited. Calmly.
Fletcher, meanwhile, had turned his attention to his state-of-the-art flat panel computer screen. He began click-clicking with his cordless mouse.
As instructed, Cleo waited, watching him, her gaze taking in his wide, powerful shoulders, his strong, tanned throat, the handsome cleft in his square chin, the tempting, full shape of his sensual mouth, the…
Cleo caught herself.
Staring at Fletcher Bravo: Bad idea.
She looked past him, out the wall of windows behind him, at the bold, smog-layered sprawl of Las Vegas and the bare humps of the mountains, hazy in the distance. Above the city, the January sky was overcast, an unbroken expanse of gunmetal gray. She ordered her mind to pleasant thoughts: a rainbow forming in a waterfall; the laughter of children; the bright, cheerful room at KinderWay where the youngest students learned and played…
"Come here," Fletcher said.
She refocused on him, meeting again the paler-than-gray eyes that were somehow sharper than any man’s eyes had a right to be—and hadn’t she read somewhere that his father, the notorious murderer and kidnapper, Blake Bravo, had had pale, wolf-like eyes? "Excuse me?"
A corner of Fletcher’s sexy mouth lifted in a hint of a smile. "I said, come on over her. I want you to see this."
Why? There was simply no point. Whatever he had on that big screen of his wouldn’t change a thing. Why did he refuse to understand that she’d made her decision on this matter? Why couldn’t he accept that she was only here as a courtesy, to let him know in person that she would not be accepting his offer?
As she tried to come up with a fresh, new—and inoffensive—way to tell him no, he said gently, "Please," making it impossible for her to refuse his request without coming off as rude and impatient.
Damn him, anyway. He was good. Too good. The man knew how to work a meeting to his own advantage—and yes, she’d known he would be good. Just not how good.
Suppressing a sigh, she rose and circled around to his side of the desk. When she got there, she was careful not to move in too close to him.
"All right," she said. "What is it?" And then she looked at the screen. Her breath caught. "Amazing." The word escaped her of its own volition.
"I was hoping you’d think so."
Captivated in spite of herself, she moved closer. The three-dimensional image could have been plucked right out of her wildest dreams. She was looking at the ideal KinderWay facility. Or nearly so, anyway…
"How did you do that?"
"I hired an architect. I gave him several sources on childhood development and early learning techniques. I suggested he explore the best facilities around the country—KinderWay included. In my far-from-expert opinion, he did his homework…"
She studied the open plan, the large, inviting learning areas: practical life, shapes and forms, mathematics, language… "It’s excellent."
"I was hoping you’d say that."
She forgot her intention to keep her distance and leaned toward the image on the big screen, resting a hand on the cool stone of the desktop. "I wonder…"
She could smell his aftershave. Subtle. Pricey. Not that it mattered. "The open area in the center?"
"Watch." He highlighted the area. Two clicks, and the central activity floor was half again as large.
"There should be a sink here." She pointed to the practical life section.
He chuckled low in his throat. "I’m not an expert on this program. But I can definitely make a note of that—and look." More clicking and an exterior view appeared. "Separate, sheltered entrance," he said, moving the cursor, using it as a pointer. "Note that we’d have it off the hotel area, nowhere near the casino. And…" The image shifted, the view widening to take in…"A protected, completely enclosed play yard."
Enchanted, she leaned even closer. "It looks like a private park…"
"That’s the idea. And it’s even environment-friendly. Most of the greenery is drought-resistant." He clicked the mouse some more. "The pool…"
"The facility would have its own pool?" She couldn’t keep the eagerness from her voice. She’d so wanted a pool at KinderWay. But the cost had been prohibitive when she began. And at her current location, she didn’t have the space to add one.
He made a low sound in his throat. "I thought there could be group swimming lessons, perhaps family get-togethers. You could teach water safety…."
"A pool would be a huge addition to the program." She couldn’t keep the excitement out of her voice. "It’s a whole other section in terms of life skills…"
He chuckled. "Not to mention that in the summer, all Las Vegas kids ought to have a pool."
"Great point." She heard her own laugh, rising up, throaty. Warm. She slid him a glance. His silver eyes were waiting…
There was moment. Time hung suspended, spinning on a shimmering thread. She looked at him and he looked at her….
Somewhere back in her mind, alarm bells jangled. She heard them only faintly.
He said, softly, "Your eyes are amber—no. Brandy. The color of brandy…"
Straighten up. Step back, her wiser self commanded. She stayed where she was—much, much too close to him. "You’re flattering me."
"No. Just stating a fact." He shifted his big body slightly. The movement brought him a fraction closer to her. She saw that there was a distinct ring of icy blue at the outer edge of his irises, making the gray look paler, giving his eyes that otherworldly glow. He said, "Have dinner with me."
She felt…slower, somehow. Lazy. Her heart was beating thickly, as if her blood had turned to honey. Danny, she thought. Remember Danny. She said, "No. I’m with someone. Someone very special."
"It’s only dinner."
"I’m sorry. I can’t."
"Brandy-colored eyes. And auburn hair…" He touched her cheek. She didn’t stop him. He brushed a finger along the line of her jaw. It was a shocking and inappropriate intimacy and she felt it through every singing nerve in her body.
She made herself speak. "Take your hand away, please."
He did. Then he said, "Dinner," again, as if she hadn’t just told him no. "Strictly business."
"For some reason, I don’t believe you." Straighten up, you fool, she thought. Step away from him. Slowly, her body obeyed. One step. Two…
He swiveled his chair around until he faced her and then he leaned back—so cool. So casual. "Business," he said again. "We’ll enjoy a fine meal and we’ll discuss the new KinderWay facility you’ll be opening right here at Impresario."
"But that would be a complete waste of your time and mine." He arched a brow, but before he could speak, she informed him—again, "I’m not opening a new KinderWay facility here at Impresario." She stuck out her hand. "Fletcher. It’s been a pleasure meeting you."
His lean fingers engulfed hers. "The pleasure was all mine." He gave her hand one firm shake and then released it.
His letting go didn’t help. She could still feel the tempting press of his skin to hers. "Goodbye, then." She circled back around the massive desk. At her chair, she scooped up her bag and made for the door.
Fletcher watched her go, admiring the rear view of her tall, curvy dancer’s body, appreciating the shine and bounce to that silky-looking cinnamon hair. Once the door had closed—quietly but firmly—behind her, he picked up the phone and buzzed his assistant.
"Marla, get me Brian Klimas." Brian Klimas was a PI, a damn good one, both thorough and discreet. "And call Tiffany’s. Something pretty. A necklace. A bracelet. Either. Have it sent to Ms. Cleopatra Bliss. Her home address. It should be in the database."
"I have it," Marla said. "Is there a message?"
He considered. "Yeah. ‘Lunch, then?’ With a comma and a question mark."
"No. She’ll know I sent it. Put Klimas through as soon as you get him."
He disconnected and waited. It didn’t take Marla long to reach the PI. Her line blinked.
Fletcher punched the speaker button. "Put him on."
There was a click. Marla said, "You’re connected."
Fletcher instructed, "Brian, I want more on Cleo Bliss." He waited, giving Klimas a chance to access his records.
"Got her," said the PI. "Cleopatra Bliss. Twenty-nine. Owner and Director, KinderWay Preschool. Graduate in Child Development, UNLV. Put herself through college working nights as a showgirl."
"That’s the one. I want everything you can find for me. There’s a boyfriend. Check him out—who he is, what he does. How long he and Cleo have been together and how serious the relationship is."
"How soon can I get a report?"
"I’ll put a rush on it and give you a call tomorrow to let you know where we are with it."
"Good." Fletcher ended the call. As he sat back again, his gaze settled on his computer and the KinderWay design it still displayed.
She’d liked the design. A lot. It had, in fact, provided the moment or two in their meeting where he’d been certain she would say yes to his offer.
All right, then. The design.
Once again, Fletcher reached for the phone.
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