Bittersweet Love

By: Cathy Williams

CHAPTER ONE


NATALIE could feel the spring in her step become heavier and heavier the closer she got to the awesome glass edifice that housed the Marshall Corporation.

Why not admit it? she told herself. I don’t want to see Kane Marshall. I don’t want to see his face, I don’t want to hear his voice, I don’t want to feel that awful, sickening rollercoaster of emotions every time he glances in my direction.

Not that he had the slightest idea what went on underneath that bright, efficient smile of hers. If he had, she would have left his employment immediately.

She stuck her hands into her jacket pocket and stood still for a moment outside the building, letting the cool summer breeze whip her hair across her face, glaring at the squares of glass, already hating him for what he did to her.

She was twenty-seven years old, and she had spent the last five of those years hopelessly in love with a man who wouldn’t have noticed her if she had stood naked on top of his desk with a rose between her teeth.

He was the boss, and she was his personal assistant. He discussed work with her, trusted her completely in that respect. In fact, he had jokingly told her once before that the office would seize up should she ever decide to take her talents elsewhere. She had smiled politely at the compliment, wondering how it was that some compliments could sound very much like insults.

But she knew how he saw her. Plain, slightly overweight, owlish behind her spectacles, brimming over with crisp efficiency. Neat navy suits and sensible shoes. Reliable little Natalie Robins.

Even when, six month ago, he had taken her out to dinner, and announced that he would be leaving the country to set up a new and important subsidiary in the Far East, he had had no qualms in handing her the reins of responsibility. He would be accessible by telephone and on the fax machine. The rest he was quite confident that she could handle.

Six months without being subjected to the force of his aggressive, dominant personality, was a long time. Long enough to think very carefully indeed about where her life was going. Long enough to lose quite a bit of weight, to get rid of those awful spectacles that did nothing for her eyes, to style her hair into something more resembling a tousled mane than the lank bun which she had been wont to wear to work every day.

Long enough to make up her mind once and for all that loving Kane Marshall was a disease which she would overcome if she died in the process.

Even so, standing here in front of the building and knowing that she would be seeing him for the first time in six months made her skin prickle with alarm. She was realistic enough to realise that her idiotic love for him was responsible for that clutching knot in the pit of her stomach, but that didn’t mean that she had to like it.

She took a deep breath and quickly covered the ground towards the building, her feet automatically taking her to the private lift which would carry her straight up to his office. The knot in her stomach seemed to have grown, making it difficult for her to breathe, and her hands were balled into nervous fists in her pockets. Thank heavens her cool, slightly aloof face betrayed none of this inner turmoil. The outward package might have undergone a few renovations here and there, but basically she was the same collected person as she always had been. She had spent years perfecting the ability to express on her face only what she wanted the world to see, and as she stepped into the office now, quietly hanging her jacket on the coat-stand next to her large L-shaped desk, she thanked God for that.

She knocked perfunctorily and pushed open the connecting door between her outer office and Kane’s main one, unable to prevent her quick intake of breath as her eyes rested on his tall, powerful frame. He was standing half turned from her, staring out of the window, his thoughts miles away. He couldn’t have heard her soft knock.

She had thought her memory to be quite vivid, but now, seeing him for the first time in months, he seemed so much more overpowering than she had remembered. The black, springy hair was slightly shorter than when he had left, his frame a little leaner, as though he had spent a great deal of time working out. Or maybe it was simply that his tan created that illusion, because he was certainly more bronzed now than she could ever remember him being.

‘It’s good to have you back, Mr Marshall,’ Natalie forced herself to speak into the silence, afraid that she would be unable to tear her eyes away from him until he turned around and caught her in the act of watching him.

He turned to face her, and whatever he had been about to say remained unspoken as his eyes swept over her. She could see the surprise written there, and she met his gaze blankly, steeling herself for the inevitable sarcasm.

‘Natalie?’ he finally asked, moving towards her, his hands in his pockets. He circled her, his green eyes amused as he inspected her with the thoroughness of a racehorse owner inspecting a horse. ‘You’ve changed.’ He continued to look at her, his brilliant eyes missing nothing, and she had the intensely uncomfortable feeling that she was being leisurely stripped by someone who was quite an expert at the procedure.

‘People tend to,’ Natalie said crisply, moving away from him and positioning herself closer to the door. ‘From time to time.’

‘Do they?’ He sounded as though this was a novel concept, but she could still see the amusement lurking there in the depths of his eyes and it irritated her. She had forgotten just how quickly he could get under her skin. ‘I haven’t,’ he pointed out, returning to his desk and gesturing for her to sit in the chair facing his.

‘You look much browner,’ Natalie said non-committally. ‘Was it very hot out there?’

‘Oh, very. And what was the weather like over here? Do tell.’ He leaned back and surveyed her from under his thick black lashes, his eyes flicking once again over her body, resting on the gentle swell of her breasts, which she had hitherto played down under muted, baggy clothes, as if he couldn’t quite get to grips with the transformation.

‘I’m merely trying to make small talk,’ Natalie said, frowning.

‘Don’t you think we’ve known each other too long for small talk?’

It was the sort of remark that, in different circum-stances, might well have sounded quite intimate, but here, in the clinical severity of his office, she knew what he meant. They had worked together for so long that they operated with the kind of familiarity that came to old, married couples.

‘Besides,’ he was saying, moving on from his offhand observation, ‘if we’re going to play that game, let’s at least talk about something slightly more interesting. Like what the hell has happened to you?’

‘Not a great deal,’ Natalie informed him, deliberately misunderstanding his question. ‘I’ve taken up squash and swimming. My sister has made me godmother to her little boy. And, of course, I’ve pretty much kept on top of the workload, you’ll be pleased to hear, although, as you suspected, that Grafton deal is proving trickier than was originally anticipated. But I discussed all that on the telephone with you a couple of days ago. The file is on my desk, if you’d care to see it.’

She rose to get it, too nervously conscious of his eyes on her to remain in the room any longer.

‘Sit down,’ he barked. ‘I haven’t laid eyes on you for six months, dammit, to find that you’ve gone and got yourself overhauled. You haven’t found yourself a man, by any chance, have you?’ There was a thread of suspicion in his voice.

Natalie gave him a look that would freeze water, and he laughed.

‘Good. I can’t afford to have you besotted with any man. There’s too much work on here at the moment for that little luxury. The Hong Kong operation is going to have a massive knock-on effect on our outlets over here.’

He began rooting through some paperwork on his desk and she glared at the downturned dark head. She had become quite accustomed to this trait of his. He would pick up a topic, explore it for a while, like a child with a plaything, and then when he was satisfied that there was nothing left to discover about it, or when it began to bore him, he would drop it without a backward glance.

It was how he treated the women in his life, and there were enough of them. Blonde, brunette, red-haired, all perfectly proportioned Barbie doll look-alikes who adorned his arm for just as long as he wanted them to, before boredom set in.

It never failed to amaze her that she had fallen in love with someone whose character she was quite capable of assassinating with a few easy strokes. How could anyone with a scrap of common sense actually love a man whose idea of involvement was a diamond necklace and a weekend in Rome, work permitting, and whose attitude to parting was a philosophical shrug of the shoulders?

Now, she thought acidly, he had sized up her transformation, made sure that it would not cause any ripples in her work life, and, that done, was quite content to get back to the business in hand.

For once, though, Natalie was not going to accept his change of direction with equanimity. Maybe six months of freedom from his engulfing, mesmeric personality had taken their toll in more ways than one after all.

She looked at him, her grey eyes level, and said coolly, ‘You can rest assured that the presence of a man in my life would not affect my work here in the slightest’

He glanced up from what he was doing, his black brows drawn together in a frown.

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