Carly wasn’t sure which was worse: brooding Jude, or quick-tempered Jude. He hadn’t been the same ever since they returned from the eventful London trip. She’d missed the main event, by his account. Apparently, Miranda Quinn’s brother had shown up and rescued his sister from the vicinity like it was a hostage situation. Now, they’d just had a gruelling meeting with his board, and he’d more or less bitten the heads off most of the top-ranking members, over little or nothing. He was getting really tough to work with, and she was concerned for him. Not just as a boss or someone running a business, but as a friend.
“How long are we going to go on like this?” she asked mildly, and saw him look up from his desk, cocking a quizzical brow at her.
“What are you talking about this time, Carly?” he asked on a sigh of exasperation.
She waved her hands expressively. “You’re just no fun to work with anymore. You drive everyone almost up the wall with your short fuse, and then when you’re not displaying monumental levels of fury and impatience, you tend to be unapproachable and difficult to get along with. I’m thinking maybe it’s time you called her.”
“Who?” he growled, then sighed at the look on her face. “Why would I do something as dumb as that?”
“It’s pretty simple, even for you, Jude,” she said, voice teasing. “You want her, go get her.”
He chuckled humourlessly, swivelling his chair to the side and staring out of the picture window. “She’s not going to want me, Carly. Not the way I want her. It’s not like I have a carrot to dangle in front of her anymore, do I?
Carly had to smile. “You’re Jude Stone. You don’t need carrots.” Her tone was teasing as she added, “What I mean is, she should be wise enough to sense that you have a lot more to offer her as a woman, not just your money, looks or everything else. And once she knows how you really feel...”
Jude huffed, pushing up on his feet as he shoved his hands in his pockets before he began pacing the expansive office. “You think I should go over there, tell her I’m crazy about her? I’m not sure I relish the prospect of being laughed at.”
“And who says she’s going to laugh?” Carly queried, throwing her hands in the air again.
“Carly, the documents were returned, in shreds, inside an envelope. Does that sound like my romantic declarations would then be welcomed?”
Carly paused thoughtfully, and then said with conviction, “Yes.” She saw him glance back at her with narrowed eyes, and she went on relentlessly, “Trust me, Jude; I’m a female and we sort of have some intuition when it comes to these things. I can almost guarantee you’ll get her.”
Jude’s face seemed to brighten, but then he grimaced. “Too risky, Carly. If she says no, or if I end up making a fool of myself, I’m not sure how I’ll take it.”
“Well, I can imagine your dilemma, since, let’s face it - no woman has ever said “no” to you before,” his PA said drily. “I’m afraid you’ve never had much practice at being refused, Mr Jude Stone. But now I think a little insecurity is actually going to do you good.”
He was staring at her and shaking his head in wonder. “Why do you like to see me suffer?”
“You’re my boss,” she said with a huge, spreading grin. “That’s my prerogative. So...are we doing this or not?”
Miranda was looking forward to this appointment. After all these months of sending out feelers, trying to make designated links with a financial consultancy ready to handle their stock portfolio, she’d hit pay dirt.
“The Bretton Group...these guys are the best there is,” Jeff told her approvingly. “Good work, Miranda; this is your baby, so you should handle the proposal. Think you’re up to it?”
She inhaled deeply, taking in a bracing breath. It was true that she was the one who’d got them the deal, but it was cool of her brother to consider letting her do the pitch, even though this would technically be the first time she’d be making one.
“I think so,” she said, shrugging. “I mean, I’ve done the research, worked out the ground plan. I’m definite I can make a commendable presentation.”
Jeff nodded approvingly. “That’s the spirit,” he said, with a playful chuck to her chin.
“So, what time do you need to be there?”
“They’re sending me a car,” she said, glancing at her watch. “At noon. And it’s a few minutes till then.”
“Well, let me leave to finish with preparations,” Jeff said, heading out the door of her office, glancing back with a small smile and a nod. “Once again, sis, great job.”
Miranda looked out of the car window, turning to the driver in surprise. “Excuse me; I don’t think this is the way to the Bretton offices...”
It was barely five minutes since she’d been picked up from her office, and she was only just realizing that they’d taken a wrong turn.
“Oh, I forgot to mention it, ma’am, but I’m supposed to take you to the Marquis instead; there’ll be a lunch meeting instead.”
“I see,” Miranda said, sitting back with a slight frown as she recognised the name of the high-end restaurant. But then she shrugged. One couldn’t really be surprised at these top-playing businessmen. It was best to just flow along with their whims. If she would have to give her presentation over the lunch table, then so be it.
In barely ten minutes, she was at the restaurant. She walked into the elegant interior, and was met by the headwaiter who proceeded to lead her to her table. She had a courteous smile on her face, her hand gripping tighter on her case as she mentally schooled herself for what lay ahead. She reached the table, and saw a devastatingly familiar figure rising as she appeared.
“Jude,” she gasped, standing stock still as her eyes locked with his calm gaze. “What’s going on?” And then realization dawned, making her jaw clench. “Don’t tell me...you’re the Bretton Group.”
“I am now," he murmured. "Please, sit down. I want you to at least hear me out."
"I don't think that's wise, do you?" She asked with dripping sarcasm. "Because the last time I did that, look what happened."
"Miranda, please." He held her gaze with compelling warmth. "I promise, this time, no games, no tricks. I just want to talk."
Reluctantly, she sank into a chair, and saw him signal for the waiter. Scowling, she told him, "Look, Jude, I'm five seconds from walking out of here, so..."
"Okay, I'll make it quick," he said drily, holding up his hands. "I found out the Bretton Group were interested in handling your interests?” he said with a calm tone, indicating the chair across from him.
“We both know what happened the last time I did that, now don’t we?” she said ironically, and felt his gaze hold hers compellingly.
“This time, no games, Miranda. No tricks up my sleeve. I just want to talk.”
She sighed angrily, sinking into the chair. “I just don’t understand. Why are you here? I was supposed to meet with the people from Bretton. Don’t tell me you own that too?”
“As of oh...last week, I did,” he said mildly. “I found out you’d been angling for a deal with them. It was a simple matter to take over their subsidiaries.”
She was staring at him in confusion. “You mean, you took over the company? Just to get to me?” She shook her head, amazed. “Will you stop at nothing? Do you think you can buy your way through everything? Even me?”
“I’m only interested in helping, Miranda. You sent back the papers in shreds. I felt like I still had a promise to fulfil –”
“Well, you’ve been officially freed from that promise,” she gritted out. “Damn you, Jude. Jeffrey was right; dignity is far more important. If you think I need your pity or charity...”
“Not pity, Miranda, and certainly not charity,” he said his tone as light as ever. “You came here to make a presentation; Bretton were already interested in taking up your portfolio. So in essence, you’ll be doing the same thing: getting financed, working to get back on track – just that you’ll be doing it with me.”
She stared at him with furious eyes. “Now why the hell would I want to do that?”
“Because I’m the best at what I do. And because in less than six months, I can guarantee you’ll be able to legitimately take back control of your company.”
“I feel like I’m having a bad case of déjà vu,” she said mockingly, her head on one side. “You offer to help me in some way, and then I have to ask what I need to do in return. Right?”
His eyes held no expression, though she dearly wished she could guess what he was thinking. She just never seemed to be able to tell. “I told you, Miranda – no tricks. I just...I’m thinking this may be my chance to make amends.”