On paper, Vivienne Neal had a lifestyle most people would envy. Only she knows what a sham her marriage really was. So when her politician husband is killed in a hit-and-run accident, she moves to Florida and takes a job as a personal assistant to Diego Cole-Thomas, a powerful CEO with an intimidating reputation.
Vivienne's intelligence and social grace prove invaluable to Diego, and on a business trip to South Carolina's lush Low Country, their business relationship takes a sensual detour. But when threatening letters arrive at Diego's office, he realizes that Vivienne's husband's death was no accident--and that she will meet a similar fate unless they can uncover the scandalous truth together....
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April 30, 2009
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Excerpt from Secret Agenda by Rochelle Alers
"You'd be perfect for the position as Diego Cole-Thomas's personal assistant, Viv."
Vivienne Neal stared intently at her old college roommate, her expression impassive. Alicia Cooney was the only person she let call her Viv. To everyone else she was Vivienne. Suddenly a smile began to curl around Vivienne's mouth, her lips parting and displaying a set of perfectly aligned white teeth. "That's what you said about my last interview, which I'm embarrassed to say was a miserable failure."
Alicia's eyebrows lifted in surprise. She could count on one hand the number of times she'd seen her friend smile in the two months since Vivienne had moved to Florida. Vivienne's expression softened, revealing her delicate features, cinnamon-brown complexion, a round face with high cheekbones, a delicate chin, sensual mouth and tawny-colored eyes that had a slightly startled look.
"It wasn't because you weren't qualified. The wife of your potential employer saw you as a threat. The difference here is Diego Cole-Thomas doesn't have a wife."
Vivienne's smiled vanished quickly. "I am not a home wrecker. And if that had been my intent, I certainly wouldn't have been with a man who's more than twice my age."
"Charles Willingham isn't your average run-of-the-mill, thrice-married, sixty-nine-year-old letch. I heard somewhere that he likes to pinch his female employees' behinds. He gets away with it because if they complain, he either pays them off or he marries them. It helps that he's one of the wealthiest men on Florida's Gold Coast."
Vivienne waved a hand. "I didn't let him get close enough to touch me and I could care less about his money."
Alicia rolled her vivid emerald-green eyes upward. "That's because you never had to concern yourself with money, unlike me who grew up dirt-poor. If I hadn't been blessed with brains and this face and body," she drawled while waving her hand in front of her chest, "I'd still be slinging hash in a diner like my sisters, mother and grandmother. Luckily, I learned early on how to capitalize on my assets," Alicia continued, so matter-of-factly that Vivienne knew it wasn't a boast.
She smiled again. Alicia had used her brains and her physical assets to her advantage when she attended college on full scholarship and succeeded in marrying a first-round NBA draft pick. Petite, blond, green-eyed Alicia Cooney had caught the eye of Rhames Tyson during freshman orientation, and dated him exclusively throughout college much to the consternation of many of the African-American coeds.
A week before graduation, Rhames signed a multimillion-dollar contract with a California pro basketball team, when Alicia informed him that she was pregnant with his child.
Vivienne was Alicia's maid of honor in a wedding that became a media spectacle. But Alicia's Cinderella marriage ended when her husband insisted on driving--although his blood alcohol level exceeded the legal limit--totaling his six-figure import. He also shattered both knees, which ended his pro ball career. Alicia lost the baby and Vivienne invited her friend to stay with her and recuperate from the physical and emotional injuries. Less than a year after exchanging vows, Alicia filed for divorce, moved to Florida and set up an executive staffing agency.
Now, their situations were reversed. After losing Sean, Vivienne decided to list their mausoleum of a house in an exclusive, upscale gated community in Stamford, Connecticut with a real estate agent. She put the contents of the house in storage and moved to West Palm Beach, Florida, to stay with Alicia until she figured out what she wanted to do with her life. Her parents had wanted her to move in with them, but at thirty-one she didn't want to be treated like a child again. She'd fought too hard for her independence to now relinquish it to her overbearing mother.
She ran a hand over her straightened dark-brown hair with reddish highlights. It was longer than it had been in years. Sean had been dead six months and she had to pull herself out of her funk.
"Tell me about Diego Cole-Thomas before I agree to an interview."
Alicia crossed her bare feet at the ankles as she lay back on the cushioned chaise on the lanai. "I happen to know him better than most of my clients," she began.
"You've dated him?" Vivienne asked.
"I wish," Alicia countered. "Unfortunately our interaction has always been professional. His company's HR will usually contact me whenever they're looking to fill a position. I'm surprised they contacted me again, because you'll be the third applicant I've referred to ColeDiz International over the past four months."
Vivienne's gaze narrowed. "What happened to the other two?"
"One lasted about a week before Diego sent her packing and the other lasted a month before he was terminated. Both were supposed to be on call, but whenever he needed them they either were unavailable or didn't know how to organize his social and business schedule."
"And, what makes you think I'll be more successful than the other two?"
"You were the wife of a congressman so you're familiar with the demands of a high-powered man. Plus you have a business background and you're also bilingual. The position is for six months and pays extremely well. You won't... " Alicia's words trailed off as she averted her gaze to stare at a tiny lizard crawling up the screen.
"I won't what?" Vivienne asked, leaning forward on her lounger.
"You'll have to make yourself available 24/7. Diego's an international businessman, so if he's up at two in the morning talking to someone on the other side of the world he may need his assistant to be available, too."
"So, I'd become a live-in personal assistant?"
"Yes," Alicia said after a long pause. "I'm certain he'll hire you because you're confident and assertive. He fired the first applicant because she locked herself in the ladies' room, and refused to come out after he'd reprimanded her."
Vivienne knew her friend made a living from the fees clients paid Alicia's placement agency. But lately, Vivienne found herself tired of sleeping late and hanging around the pool bemoaning the turn her life had taken. No one other than her attorney knew at the time of her husband's death that she'd planned to divorce Sean Gregory anyway. She'd told the reporter who'd managed to get around the police barricade that she'd come to Washington to attend a fundraiser with Sean. But, the truth was she'd come to tell her husband that her attorney had filed documents to end their four-year sham of a marriage.
She sat up. "Set up the interview, Alicia."
"Yes," Alicia whispered as she pumped her fist in the air. Her company had grown from placing nannies and au pairs with wealthy couples who were either too lazy or disinclined to care for their own children, to providing executive and support staff for several Florida-based companies, of which ColeDiz International Ltd. was one.
When she'd heard that her friend had lost her husband, she hadn't hesitated when she booked a flight to Connecticut to be with Vivienne. The public viewed Vivienne Gregory as the beautiful grieving widow of one of Washington's young rising stars. But it wasn't the loss of her husband Vivienne grieved most, but that of a marriage that'd ended before it had a chance to begin. She'd been a political widow four years before she legally became one.
Diego Cole-Thomas closed the shades to shut out the blinding rays of the summer sun before taking his seat at a round table in the anteroom of his office with his cousin and confidant. He'd asked Joseph Cole-Wilson Jr. to meet with him over breakfast because he wanted to discuss a venture that was certain to change the family-owned conglomerate forever.
Diego had celebrated his first year as CEO in April, and it'd taken twelve months to gain the complete confidence of his employees, managers and board of directors to move the company in another direction. Diego's great-grandfather, Samuel Claridge Cole, had set up the company in 1925, and more than eighty years later not much had changed. The board of directors was expanded to include nonfamily members, but every CEO was a direct descendant of Samuel Cole. Martin and David, sons of Samuel, held the position before Diego's father Timothy Cole-Thomas took over the helm. He was now the fourth generation and fifth chief executive officer of a company with holdings that included coffee plantations in Mexico, Jamaica, Puerto Rico and Brazil, vacation properties throughout the Caribbean and banana plantations in Belize.
His first action upon assuming control was to become a cotton broker. He paid cash on delivery to a Ugandan cotton grower, making ColeDiz the biggest family-owned agribusiness in the United States.
Ignoring the cup of coffee next to him, Diego stared at Joseph. He knew his cousin was still smarting because he'd requested the eight o'clock meeting the day the corporate attorney was scheduled to begin a two-week vacation with his longtime girlfriend.
"What I want to tell you will not take much of your time."
"Gracias, primo," Joseph whispered in Spanish under his breath.
A slight frown was the only indication of Diego's annoyance with his younger cousin for the unsolicited aside. He'd brought the twenty-eight-year-old into the company, but after five months Joseph still hadn't shown any initiative. If their grandmothers hadn't been sisters, Diego would've fired him his first week on the job.
Even though his last name was Wilson, Joseph's looks were undeniably Cole. He'd inherited Marguerite-Josefina Diaz-Cole, his Cuban-born great-grandmother's, olive coloring and refined features. His close-cropped curly black hair, large dark eyes and sensual mouth had many of the single female employees openly lusting after him. However, once word got out that he was dating a girl he'd met in law school, a collective groan could be heard from his admirers.
"I wanted to tell you before you leave that ColeDiz will establish its first American-based company before the end of the year."
Joseph sat forward in his chair. "What about the coffee plantation in Lares, Puerto Rico?"
Diego inclined his head. "I should've said a company on the mainland."
"^D�nde sobre la tierra firme, Diego?"
Diego's expression didn't change. "Carolina del Sur." The only time he spoke Spanish at the office was when he and Joseph were alone. His mother didn't speak the language, but his abuela Nancy spoke only Spanish whenever he and his siblings visited with her. Nancy Cole-Wilson never wanted him to forget his African and Cuban roots.
"What the hell is in South Carolina?"
Planting an arm on the table, Diego cradled his chin on the heel of his hand. "Tea."
Joseph's eyes grew wide. "Tea?" he repeated.
"S�, primo. T�. ColeDiz is going to get into the business of growing and manufacturing tea, and I'm going to put you in charge of our first North American venture."
The light that fired the jet-black orbs dimmed. "I know nothing about tea. I'm a lawyer, not a farmer, Diego."
"I'm not a farmer, yet I know the entire process of growing and harvesting coffee and bananas."
Joseph wasn't about to argue with his cousin, because he knew he would come out on the losing end. So, he decided to try another approach. "Isn't tea only grown in Asia?"
Diego lifted his eyebrows. "That's what most people believe. But, there's only one tea garden or plantation in America, and it's on Wadmalaw Island in the South Carolina low country."
"Where do you plan on setting up this plantation?"
"I had someone buy a hundred acres between Kiawah and Edisto Islands. When you return from your vacation I want you to negotiate the transfer of the property to ColeDiz. We'll put in the tea shrubs late fall and hopefully we'll be able to get our first harvest next spring and the second harvest in the summer. And if the warm weather holds throughout the winter, then we can expect another harvest."
Joseph stared at the man who looked enough like their great-grandfather Samuel to have been his twin. And, the family joke was that Diego was as driven as the man who was known as the consummate twentieth-century deal maker.
"Should I assume that you don't want anyone to know about the venture until you begin planting?"
Diego nodded. "You assume correctly."
"Have you run this by the rest of the family?"
Silence shrouded the room, swelling in intensity as the two men continued their stare-down. Diego blinked once. "Enjoy your vacation, Joseph."
The younger man pushed to his feet. His cousin had just unceremoniously dismissed him. "I will." That said, he turned on his heels and walked out of the room, slamming the door behind him. Joseph liked that he'd become part of the family-owned company, but it wasn't easy with Diego as his boss. Diego worked nonstop and expected everyone else to do the same.
He walked down carpeted hallway to the elevator in the luxury office building. Joseph wanted to tell Diego that he didn't need to set up another company. What he needed was a woman to make him aware that there was a world and life beyond ColeDiz International Ltd.
Diego stared blankly, focusing on the space where his cousin had been, his mind working overtime in anticipation of setting up a new venture. Despite being a brilliant corporate attorney, Joseph was not a risk taker. He didn't want to get into farming when in fact it was farming that afforded him his opulent lifestyle, much to the delight of his social-climbing girlfriend. Now, if Joseph worked as hard as he played there would be no doubt he would become CEO if or when Diego decided to relinquish the title and the responsibilities that went along with running the company. Their great-grandfathers, Samuel Cole and Jos� Luis Diaz, for whom Joseph was named, were farmers. Farming had made the Coles one of the wealthiest, if not the wealthiest, black family in the States.
Reaching for his fork, he speared a chunk of fresh pineapple. He ate slowly, finishing his breakfast, which included freshly squeezed orange juice, sliced pineapple and black coffee. He'd just touched the napkin to his mouth when the intercom rang.
Recognizing the extension on the display, Diego pressed a button on the telephone console. "Yes, Caitlin."
"Good morning, Diego. I have someone in my office I want you to meet. Her name is Vivienne Neal and I believe she would be perfect for the position as your personal assistant. Are you available to meet with her now?"
He wanted to tell the head of human resources that she'd said the same thing about the other two candidates, but held his tongue because Caitlin had him on speaker. "Yes."
"I'm faxing you her r�sum� as we speak and I'll bring her around in about fifteen minutes."
Once he'd taken over control of ColeDiz, his respect for his father increased appreciably. He didn't know how Timothy Cole-Thomas had managed both business and social obligations without them overlapping until Timothy disclosed that his stay-at-home wife, Nichola, had become his social secretary and personal assistant. Nichola checked with his personal secretary every day to make certain dinner meetings, fund-raisers or family get-togethers did not conflict. Unlike his father, Diego didn't have a wife, so he'd decided to hire a personal assistant.