Lucan St. Claire refuses to take the cursed title of fifteenth Duke of Stourbridge--he wants nothing to do with his heritage, including a magnificent stately home in the English countryside. So when he's forced to return to his family's seat, he takes beautiful new personal assistant Lexie Hamilton with him for some much-needed distraction....
Only Lucan has no idea that his temporary assistant isn't quite who she seems... And by the time he finds out it will be too late!
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May 01, 2011
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Excerpt from The Reluctant Duke by Carole Mortimer
'Happy New Year, Mr St Claire!'
Lucan--the Mr St Claire referred to--stood frowning in front of the huge picture window in his executive office on the tenth floor of the St Claire Corporation building.
It was still early on this cold and frosty January morning, only eight-thirty, but Lucan had been at his desk working since six o'clock, in order to deal with some of the work needing his attention following the long Christmas and New Year break.
At least he had told himself he needed to come in early in order to deal with the work needing his attention. The truth was he had been only too glad to get back to normality after he and his two younger brothers had spent a traditional Christmas at his mother's home in Edinburgh, before all of them had decamped briefly--but not briefly enough for Lucan!--to Mulberry Hall, the family estate in Gloucestershire, to attend his youngest brother's wedding there on New Year's Eve.
Lucan had understood Jordan and Stephanie's reasons for wanting the wedding to be held there--it was where the two of them had met, after all--but as soon as he'd been able to do so politely, Lucan had made his excuses and gone to Klosters, skiing for three days.
He turned now, that frown still creasing his brow as he looked at the young woman who had just stepped in from the office that adjoined his. The office belonging to his PA. Except the woman standing in the doorway wasn't his PA. Wasn't anyone Lucan had ever set eyes on before, in fact!
She was probably aged in her mid-twenties, very slender and a couple of inches over five feet tall. The black business suit and the snowy white blouse she wore beneath it took absolutely nothing away from the gypsy-wild effect of her long ebony hair as it cascaded riotously over her shoulders and down her back. Equally black brows were raised over eyes of a deep sparkling blue, surrounded by thick sooty lashes, and a small straight nose above sinfully and sensually full lips.
Lips that immediately--surprisingly!--stirred Lucan's body into arousal as his thoughts shifted smoothly to bedrooms, and hot and nakedly entwined bodies. Surprisingly because it was widely acknowledged that successful businessman Lucan St Claire was as ruthless emotionally in the brief relationships he had with women as he was in the boardroom.
Lucan didn't feel in the least ruthless as he stared at this dark and untamed beauty!
He scowled darkly. 'Who the hell are you?'
Lexie might almost have felt sorry for Lucan St Claire's expression of scowling bewilderment if it hadn't been for the fact that he had so obviously brought this present situation completely upon himself.
If he weren't so coldly self-absorbed, so arrogantly unable to relate to the people who worked for and with him, then perhaps his PA wouldn't have decided to walk out on him on Christmas Eve, without even bothering to tell him she was going.
Lexie had a suspicion that Jessica Brown's interest in Lucan St Claire hadn't all been business-related, and that his lack of interest in return--or inability to feel any--had been the reason the other woman had finally left so abruptly...
Lexie walked over to stand in front of the imposing oak desk, aware of the ease of power that surrounded Lucan St Claire as he towered on the other side of that desk. Aware of how comfortably he wore the charcoal-grey tailored suit, and the pale grey silk shirt with a darker grey tie knotted meticulously at his throat.
This man wasn't only tall and impeccably dressed, but aristocratically handsome, too, Lexie allowed grudgingly. Although, in her opinion the dark, almost black, hair could have been worn a little longer than it was, and those powerful good looks--enigmatic black eyes, haughtily long nose, chiselled lips above a square-cut and determined chin--were stamped with a haughty arrogance she didn't find in the least appealing.
Not that there had ever been any likelihood of Lexie finding anything appealing about a single member of the St Claire family! Her mouth twisted derisively.
'My name is Lexie Hamilton, Mr St Claire. I'm your temporary temporary PA,' she said as he still scowled.
Those dark eyes narrowed chillingly. 'It's news to me that I'm in need of a temporary PA, let alone a temporary temporary one...'
Lexie's derision deepened. 'Your ex-PA called my agency on Christmas Eve to arrange for a temporary replacement until you are in a position to arrange for a permanent one. Unfortunately, the lady most qualified for the position isn't available for another three days.'
Lucan St Claire looked totally baffled by this explana-tion--as well he might.
Lexie had decided before coming here that even the curiosity she had always felt concerning the St Claire family should have its time limit. Three days would be quite long enough for her to confirm every bad thing she had ever thought or heard of them.
As it turned out, she had overestimated--three minutes in this cold and haughty man's company was quite long enough for her to know he believed himself to be arrogantly superior!
His scowl deepened. 'Exactly why and when did Jennifer make these arrangements?'
Now it was Lexie's turn to frown. 'I thought your PA's name was Jessica.?'
'Jennifer--Jessica,' Lucan St Claire dismissed irritably. 'Her name is of little relevance if, as you say, she has now left my employment.'
Lexie gave a rueful smile. 'Perhaps if you had taken the trouble to remember her name she wouldn't have felt the need to leave so abruptly.?'
Lucan's eyes narrowed to steely slits. 'When I want your opinion, Miss Hamilton, then you can be assured I will ask for it!'
'I was merely pointing out--'
'Something that I believe, as a temporary temporary employee, is absolutely none of your business?' Lucan rasped harshly.
'Probably not,' she conceded with a rueful grimace.
An attitude completely lacking in genuine apology, Lucan recognised with a dark frown. 'Why would Jen--Jessica,' he corrected irritably, 'leave in that unprofessional way?'
Lexie Hamilton gave a shrug. 'I believe she mentioned to someone at the agency that the final insult came when you didn't even bother to send her so much as a Christmas card--let alone buy her a present.'
'She received a Christmas bonus in her pay cheque last month--the same as all my other employees.'
'A personal Christmas present,' Lexie Hamilton drawled pointedly.
'Why on earth would I do that?' Lucan was genuinely astounded by the accusation.
'I believe it's customary for one's immediate boss to--never mind,' the raven-haired beauty dismissed, as she obviously saw his impatience. 'I had no idea you were already in your office--I took a call just now that I believe is in need of your immediate attention. I wrote the details down for you.' She handed him a slip of paper.
Lucan glanced down at the neatly written message before crushing it in his hand.
John Barton, the caretaker of Mulberry Hall, was reporting some damage to the west gallery of the house, following the rapid thaw over the last two days. Damage that John believed was in need of Lucan's personal attention.
As the eldest of the three St Claire brothers, Lucan had inherited the Mulberry Hall estate on the death of their father eight years ago. But it was an estate he had rarely visited following his parents' separation and acrimonious divorce twenty-five years ago, and a place he certainly had no inclination to return to again so soon after his last visit.
The first eleven of Lucan's thirty-six years had been spent happily living at Mulberry Hall with both his parents. The three brothers had been in complete ignorance of their father's affair with a widow who lived in one of the cottages on the estate with her grown-up daughter. Or of the unhappiness that affair had caused their mother. An unhappiness that had imploded twenty-five years ago and resulted in Molly moving back to Scotland and taking her three sons with her.
Lucan had forced himself to return to Mulberry Hall for Jordan and Stephanie's wedding, almost a week ago, as no doubt had his brother Gideon, and their mother; to be asked to go back there again so soon was unacceptable.
Barton had said the damage was in the west gallery.
That was the long picture gallery, where the portrait of Lucan's father, Alexander St Claire, the previous Duke of Stourbridge, now hung in majestic state.
A portrait which revealed that Lucan, of all the three St Claire brothers, most resembled their dark-haired, dark-eyed and adulterous father!
'Mr Barton sounded as if he considered the matter urgent,' Lexie Hamilton told him now, and she looked pointedly at the message she had written out so neatly, which Lucan had crushed in his hand.
'I believe that is for me to decide, don't you?' His voice was silky soft.
'It's probably too late for me to do anything about your ten o'clock appointment.' She completely ignored his set-down. 'But I could probably cancel the rest of your appointments for the next couple of days if you were thinking of--'
'Believe me, Miss Hamilton, you really don't want to know what I'm thinking right now,' Lucan assured her harshly. 'My priority at the moment is to speak to the person in charge at your agency.'
Lucan raised his brows. 'I'm not accustomed to having my actions questioned.'
Lexie easily picked up on the unspoken words--least of all by a temporary, temporary employee. But the person in charge at the agency at the moment happened to be Lexie herself, since her parents, the owners of Premier Personnel, had embarked on a three-week cruise the day after Christmas, in celebration of their twenty-fifth wedding anniversary.
Her parents weren't even aware of the call that had come into the agency from Lucan St Claire's PA on Christmas Eve.
Lexie had told herself at the time that she hadn't told them because she didn't want to put any sort of cloud over her parents' excitement by so much as mentioning the St Claire family.
She had told herself that was the reason...
Initially Lexie had been so stunned by the identity of the caller that she had just taken down the details, before woodenly assuring Jessica Brown that she was not to worry, that Premier Personnel would take care of the problem.
It was only after the call had ended that Lexie had realised the possibilities that call had just opened up for her.
She was qualified for the job--just--and it was always quiet in the offices of Premier Personnel in January. Three days. Just three days, she had promised herself. Spent observing Lucan St Claire, the reputedly powerful and ruthless owner of the St Claire Corporation.
So far Lucan St Claire was proving to be everything Lexie had ever imagined he might be!
She straightened to her full height of five feet and three inches in her two-inch-high shoes. 'I assure you that I am qualified to stand in here for three days, Mr St Claire.'
Those dark eyes viewed her coldly. 'I don't believe I questioned your qualifications.'
Lexie felt irritated colour warm her cheeks. 'Nonetheless, the implication was there.'
'Really?' Lucan drawled as he moved to lean against the side of his desk, bringing himself down onto a level with Lexie Hamilton's indignant blue eyes, and enabling him to see the perfection of her creamy skin, and the small and determined chin beneath those highly sensual--sexual--lips.
Lips like that--so moist and full, so softly pouting--could drive a man wild when applied to a certain part of his anatomy--
Lucan abruptly moved away, dismayed at the inappropriate imaginings he was having about this less-than-polite young woman, and full of self-disgust at the hardening of that certain part of his own anatomy!
'What's the name of your agency?' he bit out harshly.
'Premier Personnel,' Lexie Hamilton supplied with a frown. 'But wouldn't you like me to put through a call to Mr Barton first? He implied the matter was of some urgency--'
'I believe I'm perfectly capable of prioritising my own workload, Lexie,' Lucan rasped dismissively.
'Of course.' She nodded abruptly, a frown still between those deep blue eyes as she turned and hurried across the room, giving Lucan an unobstructed view of that long and riotous ebony-coloured hair. He could also view the provocative sway of her shapely bottom underneath the short black skirt and above slender and shapely legs.
Telling Lucan that this young woman was just as qualified to share his bed as she was to be his temporary, temporary PA!
'Did Jemima change the colour of her hair?'
Lucan turned slowly to look at his brother Gideon, where he stood silhouetted in the doorway leading out to the hallway. The younger man was frowning across at the closed door between the two offices with the same perplexed expression Lucan was sure had been on his own face fifteen minutes ago, when Lexie Hamilton had first made her entrance.
It gave Lucan some satisfaction to realise that Gideon had also got his PA's name wrong. His ex-PA, Lucan corrected irritably.
It was unbelievable that Jen--Jessica should have just walked out on him without so much as giving notice. It was even more irritating that her temporary temporary replacement should be the beautiful and totally distracting Lexie Hamilton.
Lucan gave an impatient shake of his head as he moved back behind his desk and sat down. 'Her name was Jessica.' Apparently! 'And that wasn't her,' he added stonily.
'No?' Gideon murmured with a frown as he strolled farther into the room. At thirty-four, two years Lucan's junior, Gideon was tall and blond, with piercing dark eyes set in a strikingly handsome face. 'I didn't realise you were going to replace her.'
'I wasn't,' Lucan bit out tightly, as he recalled the reasons Lexie had given him for Jessica Brown having walked out on him in that totally unprofessional way.
He somehow doubted that Lexie would ever allow her own presence to be overlooked in the same way--even for the three days she had said she intended working for him.
'No?' Gideon raised surprised brows. 'Then who was that?'
'A temp,' Lucan dismissed impatiently. A temporary temp!
'Oh.' Gideon nodded. 'She looks vaguely familiar...'
Lucan's interest sharpened. 'In what way?'
'I have no idea.' His brother gave a self-derisive grimace. 'It's a sad state of affairs, Lucan, when all the beautiful women you meet start to look alike!'
As far as Lucan was concerned Lexie didn't look or behave like any other woman he had ever met! Something he found intriguing in spite of himself.
'What can I do for you, Gideon?' He deliberately changed the subject, having no intention of discussing Lexie any further with his brother. Or of allowing Gideon to realise his instant and totally unprecedented physical response to her unusual gypsy-wild beauty.
Lucan always dated models and actresses--although 'dated' was perhaps a slight exaggeration! What he usually did was take models and actresses out to dinner, or, in the case of the latter, escort them to film premieres, and then invariably to his bed. Beautiful women, perfectly groomed and sophisticated women--women who didn't expect any serious involvement with him and were just happy to be seen with the rich and powerful Lucan St Claire.