Some days it just did not pay to get out of bed. Today was one of those days. Cass Pendleton, recently unemployed schoolteacher, stood at the door the temp agency sent her to, biting her bottom lip in indecision.
On the one hand, she had bills to pay, and that ever-present need to eat something daily demanded she find a job. After six months of part-time, then substitute jobs, her savings had run out. On the other, boxed mac and cheese somehow didn't sound so bad, she decided as she stared at the name on the door. Why did it have to be him, of all people?
With any luck, the boy she went to school with would not be sitting behind that door. If there was ever a God in heaven, there would a nice older man sitting in that office, who just happened to have the same name as her childhood nemesis.
"Come in." The voice that came through the door at her knock was deep. Deeper than Jaime's had been the last time she'd seen him. Probably his dad. God, please let it be his dad. Jamison Senior. What exactly had Jaime's dad done for a living?
He was an accountant, check. Accounting office? Check. Things were looking up. Uncheck. Jaime's dad had died in a car accident their senior year. Oh, shit. She closed her eyes, and with one last prayer of hope going up to the heavens, pushed the door open.
He was a big man, tall with broad shoulders that looked as if he should be wrestling on cable television, with a face to match. Brutally handsome--but then he always had been, even as far back as kindergarten. His hair was the same as she remembered. Straight, not blond but not exactly brown either, with long unruly bangs that were always in his eyes. He was tan, as if he spent a great deal of time outdoors. Which considering his profession, he probably did.
"Who are you?" He didn't look at her; there was impatience in his voice as he riffled through papers on his desk. He'd always been impatient, nothing new there.
"Cassandra Pendleton. The nanny agency sent me to interview." Maybe he wouldn't remember her. She smoothed her skirt and shifted her weight from one low-heeled pump to the other, waiting for him to acknowledge her.
When he finally looked up at her, with eyes the color of smoldering bourbon, she lost her breath. Oh, effin' hell. Jaime had grown into an incredible specimen of manhood. Skinny, runty Jaime Dalton was, in a word, breathtaking.
"I grew up with a girl by that same name." He looked her up and down, as if trying to find the chubby girl she'd once been beneath her clothes. "She was a damned annoying girl who used to hide my backpack at the bus stop. She also caused me to miss the bus a couple of times."
"That wasn't me and you know it, Jaime Dalton." Damn, she'd walked into that one nose first.
"It could have been Ginger Beasley or Kelvin Hughes now that I think about it." He placed his elbows on the desk and steepled his fingers in front of his face while he studied her. Those damned gold eyes sizing her up for the kill. "How have you been, Cass?"
"Pretty good. How about yourself?" Damn, but that sounded clumsy. But, he'd always made her feel like that. Stupid and fat and clumsy.
"Can't complain." He smiled a tight-lipped smile, more like a smirk, but she was being generous in her assessment. "You've come about the job? What are your qualifications?"
"Well, I graduated summa cum laude with a bachelor's degree in English and a minor in history. I earned my master's degree in early childhood education, and I am about halfway to my doctorate in child psychology. I taught for three years at a small private school in Tennessee before moving back here, where I took a teaching job in the public school system. My job, along with dozens more, went away last year due to budget cuts. I love children and can't envision myself ever working in a field without them." Cass quoted automatically. She knew every word by heart, but there was just no real way to make "laid off through no fault of my own" sound appealing. "I didn't know you had children. Sorry, I don't know why I just said that."
Waiting for the red to infuse his face, she gulped. She knew from experience how quick tempered he could be, but it never came; instead, he smiled. "I don't."
"So you decided to call up the local nanny agency for what, then? Kicks?"
His smile widened, becoming almost menacing, and Cass found herself taking a step back toward the door. Something was definitely off here.
"Well, Cass, I guess I'm busted." He leaned back in his chair, his hands caressing the armrests as he watched her. "The owner of the temp agency you are with is a friend of mine from college. She has helped me with staffing problems in the past. I thought I'd call her up and see if she had any semi-intelligent applicants who could actually read and write, not to mention type, with a pleasant speaking voice. Someone who isn't looking for a sugar daddy to put a rock on her finger."
"In other words, you need a secretary."
"A personal assistant."
"And my name came up?"
"I thought I'd died and gone to heaven when April sent me over a photo of you." His gaze caressed Cass's body in a way that sent shivers down her spine. "Damn, Cass, but you grew up in all the right places."
"And you're still an asshole."
"I'm a rich asshole, and I need an assistant to handle my business without trying to ... er ... handle my business, if you catch my meaning." The smoldering gaze he continued to sweep her with belied that statement. "And I want you."
"I'm sorry. I can think of about a thousand less potentially fatal things I'd rather do with my time, Mr. Dalton."
"I take that as a no, then." There should have been anger or disappointment in his eyes. She remembered all the times she'd thwarted his plans as children. The time she refused to play doctor with him at a neighbor's birthday party. The time he'd lost class president to her. The time--well, the times--his temper had gotten the best of him growing up, were too numerous to count. However, this time was different; this time the look that came into his eyes was more a look of triumph rather than a defeat.
"That would be correct." She pivoted on the ball of her foot and reached for the brass doorknob. "Good day."
"I'm prepared to double your teacher salary." She heard the confidence in his voice and imagined the triumph in his eyes reaching a burning point when she paused.
"Good day, Mr. Dalton."
"Okay, you've got me over a barrel. Ninety grand a year, Cass, and all you have to do is answer my phone, schedule my appointments, and keep the groupies at bay. Oh yeah, and be at my beck and call around the clock. Hell, I'll even throw in a car, major medical, and two weeks paid vacation anywhere you want to go."
Her breath caught in her throat, choking her. She squeezed the door handle, determined to walk out with her back straight and her head held high. She wanted to hear disappointment in his voice when he called out to her, she wanted to hear him beg and plead and throw a temper tantrum when she wouldn't play nice.
She hated mac and cheese.
Damn. "When do I start?"
She hated that laugh. Spoiled rotten bloated egotistical ... asshole.
"I leave for Miami in the morning. Be ready to go. No need to pack; you'll pick up something after we arrive."
"How long will we be in Miami?" She would have to find someone to water her plants and get the mail...
"Permanently. That's where I live. I hope that is not a problem."
Yes, it was a problem. Crap. "For the record, I still think you're an asshole."
"I wouldn't have it any other way, Cass." She could hear him grin. God damn him. Goddamn Jaime Dalton all to hell. "I'll send a driver to your mother's house at seven in the morning. Don't keep him waiting."
And just like that, he dismissed her. Jaime Dalton had just rearranged her very life and dismissed her as if he were some sort of god who had the right to do with her as he pleased.
And she'd let him. Shit. Crap. She needed to reevaluate her loathing of mac and cheese.
Cass pushed the door open and walked briskly through the empty hallway of the quiet office building. She smiled at the receptionist at the front desk on her way past, as if she had not just sold her soul to her childhood nemesis.
The Cass Pendleton he remembered was a little shorter and definitely rounder in the hip area, flatter in the chest area. She kept her hair short and wore loose clothing to hide the weight she'd carried back then. Of course, he remembered her mouth and her ego as well as she apparently remembered his. She never had a confidence problem, despite her weight problem, and in fact gave better than she got. In fact, as he let himself walk down memory lane, she'd been bound and determined to compete with him as much as he'd been determined to get her attention.
And that had always been a problem for him. Cass had been the only girl in his life who hadn't wanted his attention. Even as far back as kindergarten, when they'd first met, she, for some reason, just did not like him. Okay, so maybe it had something to do with pulling her hair that first day. She had such pretty hair, brown and silky. He remembered wanting to know what it felt like; it wasn't his fault she snatched her head away, causing him to yank it instead.
Birthday parties, school functions, debate team, it didn't matter; Cass was always there, always taunting him, always trying to one-up him. She'd made it her life's ambition in junior year to win class president just because he thought it might be fun.
Damn, but Cass had frustrated him. There was that one time at the Anderson twins' pool party, when a group of his teammates had thrown her into the pool fully dressed. She'd come up sputtering and mad as a wet cat, and somehow she'd thought he'd been the mastermind. He could only remember her breasts when she attacked him, her white T-shirt and bra now transparent, molded to her body like a second skin. The things running through his head had embarrassed him, his body's reaction was unbearable, and he spent the rest of the party hiding in the pool house.
She was a first-class thorn not a rose, so why exactly did he jump at the chance to add her to his employ? Ninety grand a year wasn't going to hurt him. He couldn't help wondering if being around her now that she'd shed the baby fat and become a beauty would somehow be his own undoing. Whatever happened, he knew one thing for sure. This was going to be one hell of a season.