Crazy About the Boss
"I SUPPOSE millionaires have problems, too."
Maddie Ford waited for a reaction from the bachelor millionaire in the town car beside her and Jack Valentine didn't disappoint.
He glared at her. "What's that supposed to mean?"
"I'm sorry. Did I say that out loud?" she asked, making her eyes as wide and innocent as she could manage.
"You know good and well you did. Was that a blonde moment? Don't go blonde on me now, Maddie," he said, irritation in his voice. Or was it tension?
Definitely tension and that wasn't like Jack. Whatever business had made him insist she come along on this trip must be really important because the strain was showing.
And that was starting to concern her. Jack Valentine was rich, handsome, charismatic and often touted as NewYork's most eligible bachelor. He did the charming British thing with overtones of brash American and it worked way too well. From his short, black, carefully mussed hair to his dark blue eyes with the bad-boy gleam that promised trouble in a most appealing way, he exuded the same exciting vibes that had brought down her heart not once, but twice.
In the beginning, she'd had a crush on him but quickly learned he wasn't a one-woman man. So the fact that he'd never tried anything had convinced her she wasn't his type. He wasn't likely to turn his charm in her direction, which was just fine with her. She liked her job.
For the last two plus years she and Jack had worked well together. Her sensible side balanced Jack's tendency toward rashness. They had been a team. Until he'd messed with her Christmas plans. Although he hadn't smiled or teased her since leaving New York. The way he was acting made her feel guilty for giving him a hard time. Maybe a little teasing of her own could lighten him up because he normally didn't do tension.
"If by 'going blonde' you're referring to my current state of irritation, let me assure you I have a very good reason. It's Christmas. And I'm on the wrong continent. Is there a reason this trip couldn't have waited?"
"It's one day and I did promise to make it up to you." That was a non-answer. "How do you make up for missing Christmas? I had plans."
"I know. You've made that quite clear." He didn't need to know that her plans hadn't been with family. Her married siblings alternated holidays with their spouses' families and this year her parents had taken a cruise. They'd invited her because they felt sorry for their twenty-eight-year-old unmarried-and-not-dating daughter. She'd declined because it seemed too pathetic for words, but she hadn't shared any of that with Jack. He'd have teased her unmercifully and teasing from Mr Bachelor-about-town regarding her non-existent love life would be too humiliating.
"It's good of you—"
"No, it's not. I'm not good."
"Okay. You're bad. I can live with that." For a split second, he flashed his carefree, charming Jack Valentine grin.
Was his grin always that potent? Or did his uncharacteristic tension just make it seem more thrilling than usual? Not going there, she thought. "I can't believe you played the because-you're-the-boss card to get me here."
"Our difference of opinion showed no signs of letting up. In the interest of time, it seemed the expedient thing to do."
She'd disagreed because she hadn't liked his attitude and now it was time for his reminder that he couldn't walk all over her. "My being here makes no more sense now than it did before. Since when do you want me to come along? And what business couldn't wait a day? More important, who does business on Christmas? It's un-American."
"Then it's a good thing we're in Britain."
Did he just snap at her? That was out of character, too. But before she could demand to know what was going on with him, the car smoothly pulled to the curb in front of a restaurant. It was then she realized that by continuing their disagreement on a different continent, she'd missed seeing anything of London. It didn't matter that it was too dark to see all that much, she really wanted to see London. At least he'd promised her a couple days there. That had finally broken down her resistance.
"Why are we stopping here?" she asked.
"It's something I have to do." There was an edge to his voice that said whatever he had to do was tantamount to a firing squad at dawn.
There was an angry, dark look on his face that frightened her, mostly because she'd never seen it before. "What's going on, Jack?"
"I have to see my sister."
"Your sister?" If Maddie hadn't been so shocked, she'd have come back with a brilliantly clever retort. But she was shocked and said exactly what she was thinking. "I didn't know you had a sister."
"Well, now you do."
"What else don't I know?" she asked as the driver opened the door for them to get out.
A lot, Jack thought, and he ignored the question, as he didn't plan to enlighten her. He would see Emma and meet her husband. Duty fulfilled and he'd leave.
Cold London air filled his lungs as he slid out of the car before her. He walked slowly toward the Bella Lucia restaurant he hadn't been able to get out of fast enough twelve years ago. The gate he pushed open was familiar, as was the courtyard in front of the building. Small white lights twinkled in the shrubs and a subdued glow coming through the frosted windows pooled gold at his feet. There were people inside.
His family. And he was on the outside looking in, a thought that opened up an empty feeling deep inside him.
He looked at Maddie, grateful for her presence and determined not to let her know. It was just this once, because he wouldn't let himself need anyone.
"Let's get this over with," he said.
"Way to make me even more joyful about missing out on the biggest holiday of the year."
Her sarcasm made him smile. Brutal honesty was what he counted on from Maddie. She'd never been more indispensable to him than she was at this moment.
He pushed open the door, walked inside the restaurant and looked around. It was all different. Gone was the original Italian style and in its place was a trendy, smart, fashionable restaurant. A restaurant that went dead quiet as everyone turned and silently stared at him.
He recognized his uncle John, in the center of the room with glass in hand for the traditional holiday toast. Robert Valentine stood beside him and Jack met his father's gaze across the room. The rest of the family clustered on either side of the two men and looked from him to Robert. Jack would swear every last one of them were holding their breath. He could almost reach out and grab the friction out of the air.
Maddie leaned over. "They're all staring at us, Jack."
"Do you realize everyone is looking at us as if I'm Scrooge and you're the Ghost of Christmas Past? Are we crashing a private party?"
"We are, yes."
Jack didn't take his eyes off his father. Every muscle in his body tensed as he waited for the man who'd sent him packing to make the first move. The young woman beside Robert looked anxiously between them and the seconds ticked off like the timer on an explosive device.
Finally she rushed over to him. "Jack, you came. I didn't think you would."
"Emma?" He recognized the voice, but the petite, curvy young woman in front of him had been a gawky sixteen-year-old when he'd left. Now she was glamorous and sophisticated, her hair no longer light brown, but blonde shot with honey-colored highlights. "You're all grown up."
"As are you. You're just in time for the family toast." She handed first him then Maddie a flute of champagne.
"Merry Christmas, everyone." His uncle John continued as if nothing out of the ordinary had happened.
"Here's to a holiday season filled with health, happiness and success." He held up his glass. "To family."
Murmurs of agreement filled the room as everyone sipped from their crystal flutes. Without drinking, Jack set his glass on the white linen cloth covering the table beside him.
"Welcome home, Jack," Emma said, even as she frowned at the champagne he'd abandoned.
"This isn't my home." And as soon as he met his sister's new husband, he and Maddie could get the hell out of here. He looked at her bright blonde hair and big blue eyes, letting himself feel the familiar tug for a beautiful woman. In her case he'd never given in to it because he respected her too much. She was different from the women he dated and his relationship with her was as sacred as the separation between church and state.
Emma ignored his sharp words as she looked at Maddie. "Who's this, then?"
"Madison Ford. I'm Jack's assistant." Maddie held out her hand. "Call me Maddie. Or better yet, Scrooge," she finished.
"No Christmas spirit?" Emma asked.
"I left it back in New York. I had plans."
"After you called," Jack said to his sister, "I decided to move up a scheduled business trip and convinced Maddie to come along. Where's your husband?"
Emma turned to look, then smiled at the man just joining them. He stood military straight, even as he slid his arm around her waist. Not quite as tall as Jack, he had wavy dark hair and brown eyes.
Adoration shone on Emma's face as she leaned into the man. "His Highness Sebastian Marchand-Dumon-tier of Meridia meet Jack Valentine, my brother."
They shook hands and Jack noted the prince's firm grip. Always squeeze a man's hand as if you mean it. No one respects you if your hand feels like a limp codfish.
When his father's words flashed through his mind, Jack knew it had been a mistake to come. Then he looked at Maddie as the prince kissed her hand.
"It's a pleasure to meet you, Your Highness," Maddie said.
"Please, Sebastian is fine," he said graciously. Maddie looked at Emma. "That would make you what? Queen? Princess Consort? I can never keep that straight."
"Emma will do," she said with a twinkle.
"Quite nicely," her husband added, smiling down at her. Maddie was studying his sister. "I think there must be something in the royal rulebook about fabulous jewels. If you show me your tiara, it might almost make up for the fact that I'm missing Christmas in the States."
Laughing, Emma leaned into her chuckling prince. "I'm afraid the tiara's at home in Meridia's royal vault. But do come for a visit, Maddie. I've a feeling you and I would get on very well together."
"I'm not sure I could spare her," Jack cut in.
"I'd love to visit Meridia," Maddie countered, shooting him a look. "His Lordship will just have to get along without me."
He turned and recognized his older brother, Max, and pleasure shot through him. He put out his hand and Max took it, then the two of them grinned at each other.
Emma cleared her throat. "I'll let you and Max catch up, Jack."
"How long will you be in London?" Maddie asked her.
"We're on holiday for several weeks." She looked at Jack. "And you? How long will you be here? Are you planning to see Mum?"
"I hadn't thought about it," he said.
"You should." Emma stood on tiptoe and hesitated a moment before kissing his cheek. "You look well but not happy, Jack."
192 pages; ISBN 9781426867804
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Title: Crazy About the Boss
Author: Teresa Southwick