M contemporary romance novel Carnal Secrets is on sale at:
Unless a retailer applies DRM without my knowledge — and I don’t believe any of them does — Carnal Secrets is a DRM-free, non-geo-restricted ebook. If you live outside the US and UK, you may want to visit All Romance eBooks or Smashwords to get your copy. Though I always mark my stories for international distribution, I’ve heard that Nook does not sell to non-US residents.
After a rapid change in management, Natalie Hall is surprised to find that she’s being promoted so quickly. But when it becomes obvious that the new CEO is interested in her on a more personal level, she pushes him away — she doesn’t want to repeat her past mistake of giving her heart to the wrong man.
A self-made billionaire, Alex Damon has his own reasons for pursuing Natalie. Her adoptive father, a powerful U.S. senator, is using his political clout to protect his friends the Rodales, who Alex intends to destroy for ripping his own family apart when he was a child. Furthermore, he suspects that Natalie is spying for the Rodales.
What he hasn’t planned on is her unflinching sense of loyalty and integrity, the sizzling attraction between them that threatens to turn into something much more, and the dark secrets that can destroy them both.
Natalie shook her umbrella, sprinkling cool water droplets everywhere, as she entered Damon Defense Engineering headquarters in Tysons. She hurried across the lobby toward the elevator, her high heels ringing against the sparkling marble floor. It was only Monday morning, but if this was how her week was going to go, she didn’t want to see Tuesday.
She jabbed the elevator button and waited, impatience mounting. There had been three accidents on I-66, turning the Virginia/DC interstate into a parking lot. When a family van driver using a cell phone had rear-ended her on the Beltway with less than one exit left to her office, she’d almost screamed. Almost. Some people might recognize her, and she had to maintain her dignity at all times, especially this year.
Louise wouldn’t have it any other way. Think of your father’s career.
How many times had she heard that over the years?
The elevator doors opened with a soft chime, and Natalie walked inside, glancing at her watch. 10:30 a.m. Fantastic — half an hour late to a meeting she’d called last week. She would’ve let her colleagues know, but her cell phone was lying on the breakfast table where she’d forgotten it that morning.
She checked her appearance in the mirrored walls and smoothed her hands down her black skirt suit, then closed her eyes and took a deep breath. Calm down. Getting frustrated wouldn’t salvage the situation.
When the elevator stopped at the fifteenth floor, she stepped out onto the muted beige carpet. Normally the sunlight gave the office a hazy radiance through frosted glass walls. But not today. Everything looked drab and gray.
Her assistant, Danielle Hartman, charged toward her. She was young, only twenty-two, but totally out of shape. Her dirty dishwater-colored pantsuit did nothing for her eyes, hidden behind a pair of thick glasses, or her limp brown hair. Most high school outcasts grew out of their social awkwardness and improved their sense of fashion by the time they finished college. Danielle hadn’t. Which was unfortunate, because she had great skin and a nice smile.
“Thank God you’re here.” Danielle panted.
“Ralph and Vivien just got fired.”
It took all of Natalie’s self-control to keep her voice down. “What?” Ralph was — had been — the director of DDE. Vivien had been Ralph’s right hand and Natalie’s direct boss.
“This morning…Alex Damon himself walked in. Half an hour later, Ralph and Vivien left with a couple of security guards. And their stuff. In boxes.” The corners of Danielle’s mouth turned downward. “Mr. Damon said he wanted to see you as soon as you got in. He’s in Ralph’s office. His former office, I mean.”
So much for the meeting.
It wasn’t difficult to figure out what everyone was thinking as she walked through the maze of cubicles. People looked at her over the partitions with pity and apprehension — pity she was getting canned and apprehension they might be next.
The door to Ralph’s old corner office was open, but his name plaque was gone. Years of wear and tear had left the ivory walls slightly dingy, except for a couple of pristine squares where he’d hung framed Picasso prints. The office looked barren without Ralph’s clutter — mostly family pictures and souvenirs he’d collected over the years.
Someone with cropped black hair sat in an executive leather chair, facing the windows. Torrents of rain blurred the view of gray roads and red brake lights. A large, tanned hand held a cell phone to an ear, but the voice was too low for her to eavesdrop. Natalie took a long breath and counted to ten, welcoming the respite before she had to face Alex Damon, the chairman and CEO of DDE’s holding company, Global Strategies Corporation. She’d never seen him in real life, although there were plenty of pictures in glossy gossip magazines. Being one of the planet’s most eligible bachelors and a self-made billionaire tended to make one’s face well-known.
Finally he snapped the phone shut and swiveled around to face her.
“Yes?” His voice was a steely baritone that demanded an immediate answer with just that one syllable.
His entire body emanated authority and raw sexuality. The dark, tailored suit he was wearing tried to throw a veneer of civilization over him but failed. He would’ve been frightening if it weren’t for the iron control in the winter gray eyes that said he ruled, not his primal instinct. She shivered as his gaze brushed over her, head to toe and then back up to her face. She had the most absurd feeling that he was undressing her with his eyes.
Nonsense. He was probably trying to decide if she would cry at bad news and whether he should delegate the distasteful task to someone else.
“I’m Natalie Hall. My assistant said you wanted to see me.” She noted with relief that her voice didn’t betray her nervousness.
He frowned slightly, his gaze darting to her barren ring finger, then back to her face. Most people didn’t expect an Asian when they heard the name Hall. For some reason, it pleased her that she’d managed to surprise him.
He rose from his seat to his full height, which was impressive. He walked around the desk and extended a hand. “Alex Damon. Nice to meet you.” This time the baritone was more modulated. It slithered over her like strands of supple leather.
“Nice to meet you too.” Natalie shook his hand. It was slightly calloused and infused her cool skin with warmth.
He shut the door and gestured at a chair. “Please have a seat.”
She sat, putting her laptop bag and purse discreetly beside the chair and crossing her legs. She had the odd feeling that Alex was staring at them, but when she glanced up, he was busy pulling another chair from the other side of the office. God, she was ridiculous. Of course he wasn’t looking at her legs. They were her best asset, but he’d dated models with legs up to their armpits.
When he sat across from her, barely enough personal space remained to be polite. She could feel a delicious heat coming off his body, smell a whiff of spicy cologne. Something stirred in her, sexual and dangerous. She stomped on it. This wasn’t the time, this wasn’t the place, and he definitely wasn’t the right man to be attracted to. Business and pleasure never mixed well.
“Your assistant told me you had a doctor’s appointment,” Alex said, breaking her train of thought. “I hope you aren’t coming down with something. You look a little flushed.”
She suppressed a surge of mortification. She was usually better at maintaining a professional façade.
“I’m fine,” she said, flashing him a quick smile. Danielle must have tried to cover for her, but Natalie could see that lying to this man would be a mistake. “There’s been some miscommunication, and I apologize. I was in a fender bender this morning.” She quickly added, “Nothing major, but you know how it is on the Beltway.”
He nodded, and she relaxed a little until he stretched his legs out. The fabric of his pants spread tautly over lean muscles, and his calves almost touched hers. The heat coming off him was like a furnace. She wanted to sink into it.
“Well, down to business. As I’m sure you’ve heard, there have been some changes here since I arrived this morning.”
It was her turn to nod. What was he trying to say?
“Ralph is no longer in charge of the operation. His replacement will come from Caissa Enterprises, one of Global Strategies’ European subsidiaries.”
An executive from Europe. She didn’t know what to make of that. There were undoubtedly people at DDE who were qualified to take over. But then, this wasn’t her company, and her opinion probably mattered very little to Alex.
“Since Vivien left with him, I have no choice but to rely on you. I believe you were her second-in-command?”
“Good.” Alex smiled. “Ralph’s replacement is expected later this week. Once he’s here, I hope you can help him with the transition.”
“Sure. No problem.” She suppressed a sigh of relief. So she wasn’t going to be let go.
“You also need to brief me on some of the major projects. I plan to be more actively involved for a while, until I’m satisfied with the operational efficiency here.”
She blinked. Yesterday’s edition of the Wall Street Journal had reported that he was returning to Shanghai to oversee several sweeping projects in the burgeoning Chinese market that could be very lucrative for Global Strategies. Although DDE was a profitable subsidiary, it was still only one of many midsized ones, not something that should consume much of his attention.
He shifted slightly in his seat, looking at her intently, and his legs brushed hers. She held her breath.
“Do you have any plans tonight?” he said.
She shook her head automatically.
Since her latest breakup six months ago, she’d devoted all her attention to work. Work didn’t disillusion her like Marcus had. She still couldn’t believe he’d proposed to another woman less than a month after they’d split up.
“Excellent.” A charming smile appeared on Alex’s lips. “Would you like to have dinner with me?”
She shot him a sharp look. She didn’t indulge in interoffice dating, no matter how delicious the man in the question was. It was the stupidest CLM — career limiting move — she could think of.
“I’d like to talk more about DDE, but my calendar’s full at the moment. We can discuss it over dinner. I hate to make you extend your workday, but unfortunately that’s the only time I’m available.”
Despite his smooth tone, she couldn’t shake off the feeling that he was amused by her silent response. Was he laughing at her for thinking he might have romantic interests in her?
She straightened. “It won’t be a problem.” I hope you won’t be a problem.
“Eleanor — my assistant — will send you an email this afternoon. How’s seven for you?”
“Fine.” She rose and shook his hand briskly, purposefully maintaining eye contact even as she felt her hand almost completely engulfed by his much larger and stronger one. Then she gathered her things and left.
*** *** ***
Alex watched Natalie walk out. When the door had closed behind her, he inhaled deeply. A subtle floral scent lingered in the room. It was quite lovely. His investigators’ report on her hadn’t included any pictures, and a composed young Asian woman with a sleek chignon wasn’t what he’d been expecting. Not at all the type who usually graced Charlie Rodale’s arm.
The black skirt suit had flattered her lithe figure, although she’d done her best to appear serious and aggressive — a corporate Amazon look he found distasteful in general but singularly sexy on her. And those stilettos had done amazing things to her legs. Long, shapely, and deliciously erotic. A legman’s fantasy come to life.
A woman who wore shoes like those had a streak of sensuality in her. He pictured her briefly in the shoes and a pair of thigh-highs and felt himself stir.
Alex shook his head sharply and walked back behind his desk. Now was not the time to indulge in fantasy. He’d been upset when Ralph hadn’t been able to follow simple instructions… Did Natalie have something to do with Ralph’s incompetence? She was, after all, the adopted daughter of Brian Hall, a powerful senator with a lot of connections and one of the reasons why it was proving so difficult to take over Rodale International. Or ruin it outright.
And Natalie was Emily Rodale’s goddaughter.
His hands tightened at the thought of the woman he’d hated for so long, the one responsible for destroying his family and ultimately killing his father. Now Emily Rodale had family of her own — a son — and a company that allowed her an undeservedly wealthy lifestyle.
He wondered briefly if there was something going on between Brian and Emily. It would be just like that bitch to sell herself to a powerful protector.
But none of that mattered anymore. All the pieces were lined up. His position was fully developed, his strategy superior. After years of preparation and maneuvering, he was ready for the endgame.
He would take everything away from Emily Rodale. Everything.
And he would start with Natalie.
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FYI — to talk about how Carnal Secrets came about, I’ll be doing some guest blogging in early to mid-March.
The first two topics are going to be a little bit more business-oriented based on my experience with publishing Carnal Secrets. A fairly big epublisher offered for the story, but I ended up walking away after over two months of negotiation when we couldn’t agree on terms. Though it was very difficult, I felt that turning down the offer was the best thing for me on many levels.
However, the rest of the posts are a bit more fun and relevant to readers who aren’t interested in the business side of things. I hope you stop by and share your thoughts. I’ll also announce my guest blog appearances next month. 🙂