Man of the House, page 1
Man of the House
Also by Abigail Graham
"You will not screw this up."
My phone rests on the tray table. My father is too loud and insistent to hold to my ear, so I use the speakerphone. I'm not worried about my privacy. Anyone in the next compartment or the hall would be able to hear him without the speaker anyway. His voice cracks like a whip.
"I'm not going to screw this up," I reassure him.
"Have you studied the folder I gave you?"
"Yes." I groan.
"What did I tell you about that mopey tone you always use?"
I yawn. "I'm just tired. I need sleep."
"Sleep is for the weak."
I give the phone the finger. Thank the Lord for stingy parents. He may be fabulously wealthy, but he won’t spring for a good data plan. No face-time without wifi.
"I’ll let you go, now. Make sure you're ready for your interview."
The line goes dead, and I shove the phone angrily into my purse and prop my elbows on the table. I sweep it aside and lie back in the seat, yawning again as I open the folder. The train is a rolling lullaby, and I haven't slept since sometime yesterday—I wasn't home for twenty minutes before I was being packed off. I had to pack—supervised, of course—before I was shipped off to the train station to embark for Philadelphia.
Prepare for the interview. I snort, flipping through the portfolio of documents he provided for me to study. This is ridiculous. It's not some random job posting. My boss-to-be is my father's closest business associate. I expect it to be about as challenging as one of the mock interviews at the college career services office.
I know those all too well. My father makes me take them once a week. I once raised the issue to him that, technically, he has no right to see my grades or talk to my professors or put a minder on me to keep me out of trouble.
My fellow freshmen didn't have shadows. She's in the next sleeper cabin over—Mrs. Heemeyer, the wizened woman who was the nanny when I was young, the tutor when I was a teen, and followed me to college. He sent someone to follow and monitor me. Walking to class with a minder trailing after me was mortifying. Look up the definition of "sheltered" in the dictionary and you'll see my picture.
At least I’m a little free of her now. She’s not sharing my cabin. A few hours of blessed privacy.
The circular motion of my toes is more interesting than the information packet. I end up looking over the top of the folder until my chin drops against my chest. I snap up, catch the folder before the contents dump all over my lap, stuff it aside, kick back, and squeeze my eyes shut.
Few things do I hate more than being disturbed from a deep slumber. I can't remember the last time I woke naturally, on my own, from a full night’s rest. There's always an alarm or a bell or the claw-like hand of my minder digging into my shoulder.
She stands over me in professional attire, hair drawn back in a painful bun, dark eyes sharp and judging. Fighting off a yawn, I drag myself out of the seat and pull down my roller bag.
The air is different here. It has a peculiar scent. I'm no stranger to cities; Dad is one of the most powerful and prolific land developers in the country, and he's not developing hotels in Altoona. Every city has its own flavor. This is a new one. I can only briefly savor it before Mrs. Heemeyer motions me into the car that will take me to my destination.
The urge to just walk away and roll my bag down the street a ways is intense, but I push it down and climb from one bubble into another. The door slaps shut behind me, and the sounds of city hustle and bustle die down to a subtle thrum. Dark town-car windows dull everything. Mrs. Heemeyer's faint, wheezy breathing is as familiar as my own heartbeat. My spectacle-bedecked minder never says a word, but gives me a judging eye over horn-rimmed glasses.
The ride is long. I review the documents in my folder, fighting off the first stabs of a headache every time the car lurches in traffic. I glance at my watch. We had to arrive at rush hour. Dad will probably blame me for being late to the appointment he set, via travel he arranged. It's always my fault somehow.
The car wheels off the street and down a ramp, diving under a building so big I can't see all of it, like a submersible taking off for a deep ocean trench. The weight of the structure above hovers just over my shoulders as I step out into cool, oily air.
I take a final moment to adjust myself, to set every bit of my hair and outfit in place and push my glasses up my nose. Some childish impulse led me to think it'd make me look more professional to wear subtle rimless spectacles instead of contacts for this. I glance at my distorted mirror image in the car window and wonder if I'm pulling it off or look like a little girl that got into Mommy's clothes.
I shake that off and stride to the elevator, wobbling on my heels for the first few steps until I get used to it. I hate heels.
Another woman meets us. She looks past me to Mrs. Heemeyer. "I’ll take it from here."
She makes a dismissive motion with her hand, and I study her. Tall, overtopping me by six inches, she has a high-fashion model's severe beauty, sharp features, hard blue eyes, and flowing platinum blonde hair worn over one shoulder.
"Maria Pierce. I'm Aiden's executive assistant. I'll take you upstairs."
She motions into the elevator, and I step inside. I cough and fiddle with my hair. Maria leans over, offering a conspiratorial whisper as the doors close. "You look fine."
I suppress a smirk. "This is already a little tiresome."
She quirks an eyebrow. "How so?"
"It's pantomime. Everyone knows I'll be working here. Mr. Byrne and my father are as thick as thieves. I wish we could just get to the point."
Her expression sours. “I see. Well, at least you sound like a go-getter.”
Before I can answer she turns a key at the bottom of the elevator panel and it rises, so smooth I barely feel a push.
The express elevator ascends through the forty floors in less than two minutes, but it feels like an eternity. Maria has me off-kilter, worried now. I haven't seen Aiden Byrne in quite a while, since I was fifteen or so. I wonder if he'll recognize me.
When the doors open, I bump into Maria trying to step out. She gives me an annoyed look and takes the lead, offering me a look around. "These floors are only accessible to—"
"I'll take care of the tour."
I almost jump out of my skin at the powerful voice of Aiden Byrne.
He overtops me by a foot, but is graceful and fluid in his muscular movements. His dark suit is so well tailored that it conceals the firm, hard lines of his body, as men's clothing does—except he's wearing a vest and no jacket, and the material of his white shirt does a poor job of hiding the bunching muscles beneath as his arms move.
Suppressing a smile, I nod. "Doctor Byrne."
"Aiden," he corrects.
He offers me his hand. I shook hands with him once before, but I can't remember when, and the faded memory is swallowed
"Aiden," I repeat. "My father always insisted I call you by your title and last name."
"Your father isn't here," he says. His voice carries a rich tone of perpetual amusement, like this is all some diversion to him, and yet he’s concentrating all his attention directly on me. "So you're here for your interview."
I nod, and yelp as my glasses, already perched on the tip of my nose, slide right off.
His hand moves so fast it blurs, and he catches them neatly by the bridge, takes the earpieces in both hands, and settles them back into place. His fingers brush the sides of my head as he tucks the hair behind my ear.
"There you are. No need to be so intense. I won't bite you."
I'm grinning like a fool until I stop myself. "Yes. Right. Shall we get to it, then?"
"Patience," he says, a hint of scolding schoolteacher in his voice.
Scolding from a man always raises my hackles, but the impression of command in his tone is like a spectral hand brushing the back of my neck, more a caress than a lash. I shift on my feet and end up struggling to fight off a wobble from my forgotten stiletto heels.
He notices, his eyes trailing down my legs to my toes. "Who put you in those ludicrous shoes?"
I feel the blood drain from my face and look for something to say—whatever inane reply ripples up from my subconscious. He stops me with an apologetic look.
"Forgive me. I forget how sensitive young women can be about their clothing." He cocks his head to the side. "They won't do, though. Not at all. Maria, I think she wears a size six. Go fetch a new pair of sneakers for her."
“Anything further, sir?” she purrs, eyeing him as intensely as I am. She looks different when she sets her eyes on him, her normally sharp expression melting. From stern-faced career woman to smoky, seductive, blonde femme fatale.
“Thank you, that will be all,” he says with a smile.
"Take them off," he says, turning back to me.
I glance down, and surrender four inches of height as I step out of my heels. I crouch and scoop them up.
Aiden takes my shoes, his hand brushing against mine. He takes two steps and throws them in a wastebasket.
"High heels are against the dress code here."
I have to almost crane up to look at him.
“Those were expensive.”
"You'd know such things if you read up on my company."
A prickle of alarm tickles through my body. This almost feels like a real job interview. He has a way of making this farce seem like it counts.
"I'm sorry. I haven't slept since I found out you were interviewing me. Yesterday, to be exact."
He nods. "Short vacation, then."
"Vacation isn't a word in my vocabulary."
He laughs. "That's a wonderful magic trick."
"You talk, and your father's voice comes out."
I frown, stung.
That’s the last image I wanted in my head. His words conjure a vision of my father, mummy-like, slipping into my skin. I shudder.
Aiden cocks his head to the side. “Did I offend you?”
“No, I’m fine.”
He nods with a smile. "We're delaying the tour. Come on, let's look around."
He turns, expecting me to follow. I take long strides to catch up and walk beside him, feeling awkward as my stockings slip and slide with the carpet on every step. I half wonder if he made up the shoe thing to take me off guard.
The top floors of the building are an open rectangle around an atrium. Until he leads me to the inner window, I can’t grasp how big a space it is. Half the building is hollow, reaching down a good twenty floors to an artificial park, complete with trees and a running stream, far below. It’s all lit by blazing morning sunlight. Vertigo makes me sway as I look down, my nose almost touching the glass.
Aiden must be used to it. He's too busy watching me.
"I'm leading a green space initiative in the city," he says. "We're adding plantings like this to the rooftops of all the apartment buildings and high rises we own. It's wonderful for the air."
"It's beautiful," I say, my voice drifting. "Doesn't this make you nervous? Looking down so far?"
"Afraid of heights?"
"A little," I admit.
"I'm not. Spiders."
"Hateful little things. Suffer not the arachnid to live, Delilah."
As absurd as that sentence sounds, the way he says my name sends a shiver down my back. De-lih-lah, like he's tasting the words as they pass his lips.
"Lilah," I correct. “Please.”
"Lilah," I repeat.
I never knew she preferred that over her full name. Looking at her, I forget myself. Or rather, I forget her. I forget that she's Roland's first-and-only, my friend's daughter. All of that is distant, muted by her radiance.
Beneath that prim outfit she has a body of a man’s dreams, lush curves and strong limbs both. The rich fullness of her backside keeps drawing my eye, and when I force my eyes back to her face it's a battle between losing myself in her liquid-blue eyes or following the creamy lines of her delicate throat to the subtle hint of cleavage in her button-down blouse. Her casual, sloppy updo and rimless glasses give her a distinct ingénue look that makes me feel guilty for how much I'd like to taste her soft lips and knot my fist in her dark river of inky black hair.
I thrust my hands in my pockets, and hope she doesn't realize I'm doing it to spread the fabric of my trousers and conceal the growing erection that's drawing all the blood from my brain. It's hard to think with her standing there, the awe of the atrium lighting up her lovely face. She could be a painting.
Pretty. Such a strange word. People say it like it's lesser than beautiful, purer than hot or sexy, purer than the one and more innocent than the other. She is pretty. It's the perfect word for her.
Her voice is like honey poured over warm bread. "I've spent my whole life around buildings like this, but this is the first time I've felt awe. When they’re always there you forget how strange it is that people can build something this big."
"Architecture was always a love of mine," I tell her. "More of a mistress. Medical school was my wife."
She glances at my hand—checking for a ring? A shiver grips my neck and drains the blood from my brain. Has she ever fantasized about me before, I wonder? On an intellectual level, I know that this is Roland's daughter I'm talking to, the offspring of a close business associate. I should be ashamed, but what's shameful about noticing a woman's beauty?
She’s off limits, I remind myself.
I motion for her to follow me.
"Let's head to my office, shall we?"
She nods and walks beside me. For some reason, I find the lack of deference appealing. I'm used to everyone automatically falling in a few steps behind, even Maria, who should know better.
I almost wish Delilah wasn’t so close. Every time I glance at her I forget how long it's been since I've had my hands around a slender waist, felt the warm softness of a woman's touch molded against my body. Her scent is like strawberries. Not perfume, something else. Perhaps a shampoo, or perhaps she smells as sweet as she is.
When I approach my office, a sensor in the doorframe reads a key fob in my pocket, and the doors swing open as smoothly as they would a cheesy haunted-house movie. For the barest moment, Lilah grins.
"Neat," she says.
Her breath catches in the next room.
When I said office, she no doubt conjured a prosaic image in her mind. I'm an executive, so I must have a large desk, some bookcases, and comfy chairs. The anteroom to my main workspace houses my collection of arms and armor.
"What is all this?"
She glances at me and says, almost sheepishly, "I'm a bit of a history buff."
"I didn't know that. Usually that's an interview question. Glad we knocked that one out."
She smiles and blushes prettily, probably unaware that it's happening. "Can I look around?"
I brush past her to the first display case and pull on a pair of linen gloves, then swing it open and lift out a four-hundred-year-old Toledo steel blade, letting it rest on my hands with the greatest care.
She almost touches it before pulling her hand back, holding her palm near the surface for a moment.
"It's so weird seeing you handle that. It feels sacriligious. If my dad knew I'd touched a museum piece he'd skin me alive." She nearly sounds aroused, the way her lips curve around the words.
I return the sword to its resting place and close the cabinet. Lilah is already walking the room, staring at the other items in my collection, her eyes alight with fascination.
"You're an undergrad. History major?" I ask.
She shakes her head. "Maybe in grad school," she says, absently. "If I'm allowed to go."
"You know, it's funny," I say, stepping up behind her. "The resume I received said you were majoring in business."
She turns pale and slips her arms around herself. “I am,” she admits. “Wasn’t my choice. I’d rather have majored in history or education, but…” She shrugs.
I quirk an eyebrow. "Is that so?"
She suddenly looks ashamed, and a little queasy.
"Is this the interview?" she blurts out with a challenging glare.
"Let me tell you something," I say in a soft, conspiratorial tone. "In life, everything is the interview. Should we step into the office proper?"
ABIGAIL GRAHAM SERIES:
Other author's books:
- His Princess (A Royal Romance)Man of the HousePlayer's Princess (A Royal Sports Romance)BENCHED
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