Liss snapped her head up at the unexpected undertone of sarcasm in his voice, stared up at him. His expression was so different from earlier this morning. That glow of good humour had gone; his eyes held no gleam of gold. They were dark, cold and hard. She knew exactly what it meant—disapproval, distance.
Time and time again she’d had similar looks, similar lectures from her overprotective, over-conservative brothers. But she hadn’t asked James for any kind of special treatment—in truth that was exactly what she didn’t want. She just wanted to get good at her job and get on with it. Hurt because she was genuinely trying, and surprised by his sudden change, she lost the professionalism she was desperately trying to cultivate. The failures of the morning and the fear of not being able to manage burst out of her in a rebellious moment.
‘Do you really think I haven’t heard that line before?’ she asked sharply. ‘Why not be honest? You’re actually going to raise the bar, aren’t you? Expect even more from me than you would from others. Have impossibly high expectations that I haven’t a hope of meeting.’ She pulled the papers towards her and, seeing the mess she’d made up close, she totally lost it. ‘The whole “just because you’re a princess doesn’t mean you can blah, blah” is so passé. Why don’t you try something original?’
Her outburst was met with silence. One that stretched on and on and on.
Liss burned all over, badly wanted to claw out her tongue. She stared at the edge of her desk, not wanting to look at him, not wanting to be sacked the very morning the boss got back.
‘I’m sorry,’ she muttered. ‘That was really inappropriate.’ She couldn’t lose this job. She had nowhere else to go.
Still more silence. It was going on for ever and her discomfort increased with every dragging second. She knew she’d sounded like some smart, sullen teenager, not a professional woman aiming to do a good job.
He moved nearer, coming to lean on the edge of her desk, right where she was looking. No way could she not pay attention.
When he finally spoke, it was quietly, with a level of controlled coolness that made her toes curl even more with embarrassment. ‘Why shouldn’t I expect quality from you? The fact is you’re not like just anyone else, are you? You’re a highly educated young woman with a degree from Paris, you’re fluent in several languages, and you’re obviously bright. So, yeah, maybe I do expect more.’
She lifted her head, surprised at his evaluation of her—pleasantly surprised.
‘The princess bit is irrelevant. What’s relevant is your attitude. My expectation isn’t the problem. The problem is your reluctance to get down and get on with it.’
Any nice feeling was instantly snuffed. She clamped her mouth shut so she wouldn’t blurt out the denial that sprang to her lips, not wanting to repeat the spoilt-child act of moments before. She had been trying.
She’d been working hard all morning. It was just that her efforts didn’t seem to produce any noticeable improvement.
Their eyes met and his were all cynic.
‘You’d better lift your game, princess, because next time I might just try something “original”.’
Low-voiced but clear, it was almost a threat. His gaze speared hers. The hairs on her arms, the back of her neck, lifted to stand on end. She watched, helpless to do otherwise, as the darkness in his eyes was slowly broken by the growth of that golden gleam. She wanted to say something—to slice through the tension threading between them. But she couldn’t think, couldn’t move. He too was silent, staring right through her.
Despite the goose bumps she felt the heat unfurl—the tantalising yearning to get closer to the flame burning deep in him. Was he thinking the same sort of ‘original’ as she was? Was he seeing the shadows in her eyes move the way his were? A longing for pleasure washed through her lonely bones and in that very second the gleam in his gaze flared.
The shrill ring of the phone broke the heavy silence, shattering the moment, enabling her to tear free from the invisible bonds. As she reached across the desk he rose and walked through to his office. Breathless, brainless, she totally muffed the call.
THE next day Liss sat at the computer and tried to work her way through the spreadsheet software’s tutorial on graphs and charts—only while it talked her through the basics, it didn’t get to what she needed and she seemed to be going in circles, always ending up at the same useless info page. She didn’t want to waste any more of the other secretaries’ time by asking them to show her and didn’t want to admit to any more people how inept she was.