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Мортимер Кэрол

On the Secretary's Christmas List

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CHAPTER TWO

‘WHAT the hell is that?’

Bree glanced up at an astounded Jackson, standing in the doorway of the main sitting room at Beaumont House. He was staring across at her in horrified disbelief.

‘Well, correct me if I’m wrong,’ she quipped, ‘but it looks like a puppy to me.’

‘Very funny.’ The scowl on Jackson’s brow deepened as he stepped into the room, where Bree sat in front of the log fire, playing with a small dark grey and white bundle of fur and a ball of wool. ‘What I want to know is what it’s doing here? I’m sure I told you I didn’t allow pets when you first came to work for me!’

‘You did, yes,’ she confirmed nonchalantly.

‘Well?’ Jackson prompted impatiently.

Bree smiled, raising a rueful eyebrow. ‘You obviously forgot to mention that particular house rule to your mother.’

‘My mother? What the hell does she—’ Jackson stared down in horror at the mischievous puppy. ‘No … She wouldn’t. She didn’t!’

‘Oh, I think you’ll find she would and she did,’ Bree retorted, picking up the puppy as she rose to her feet. ‘Come and meet Danny’s Christmas present.’

Jackson made no effort to go anywhere near the puppy Bree held in her arms.

‘Has my mother gone completely insane? I can’t have a puppy here, chewing up the furniture and causing mayhem amongst my photographic equipment!’

‘I think your protest may be a little too late, given that he’s here already,’ Bree teased.

‘No! No way am I having a dog.’ Jackson gave a determined shake of his head. ‘It will have to go back to wherever it came from,’ he announced firmly. ‘And before I collect Danny from school,’ he added with grim finality.

‘I have no idea which breeder your mother purchased the puppy from, and as she’s currently on her way to the Caribbean to join her cruise ship I don’t see how we’re going to find out, either.’

Bree held the puppy protectively against her chest. She had already grown fond of the fluffy little thing in the hour since Clarissa Beaumont had breezed in, deposited it into Bree’s arms and breezed out again with a casual ‘Merry Christmas’ once informed that her son wasn’t at home. The latest ‘pretty-boy hanger-on’ had deposited all the paraphernalia a young puppy would need in the entrance hall before quickly following her.

‘Of all the irresponsible—! I’ll call her on her mobile,’ Jackson reasoned evenly as he formulated the plan in his head. ‘Then while I’m collecting Danny from school you can drive the puppy back to the breeder—’

‘Oh, I couldn’t do that!’ Bree interrupted in protest, gazing down adoringly at the puppy. ‘Why don’t you just hold him for a moment, Jackson?’

‘No!’ He backed away, hands raised defensively as she held the puppy out to him.

‘But he’s so cute!’

‘All puppies are cute, Bree,’ Jackson said briskly. ‘It’s what they grow up into that’s the worrying part. And from the look of those paws he’s going to be big!’

‘Your mother said he’s a Bearded Collie,’ Bree mentioned absently as she stroked the puppy’s ears.

‘Big,’ Jackson announced disgustedly as he pictured the fully grown dog. ‘And not only big, but I believe the breed is slightly insane too. Nope, he’s going back. And the sooner the better!’

Bree gave him an aggrieved look. ‘Danny would love to have a puppy to play with.’ She used the ‘D’ word unashamedly, knowing that although Jackson could be impossibly arrogant and selfish he had absolutely no defences against anything that might bring pleasure to his motherless son.

As expected, the statement made him pause for thought—if only briefly.

‘No,’ Jackson stated finally. ‘I draw the line at a puppy.’

‘But—’

‘Bree, it’s going to need taking out to the garden to pee.’ He glared at her exasperatedly. ‘Constantly, if I don’t want little puddles all over the house! And feeding. And numerous trips to the vet for its vaccination shots. And—’

‘Your mother said he’s completely housetrained and up-to-date on his vaccinations,’ she put in quickly. ‘And I’ll do all those other things if you don’t want to do them.’

‘I don’t want a puppy!’ he repeated emphatically. ‘Besides which, who’s going to be answering the phone and all those other numerous jobs you do for me every day while you’re outside in the garden or at the vet’s? Who’s going to look after it all day while Danny is at school?’

‘He breaks up for the Christmas holidays tomorrow—’

‘I’m talking about after the holidays.’

‘We can put the puppy’s basket in here with me during the day. It’ll make it easier for taking him outside anyway.’

‘Bree, I really don’t think you’re hearing a word I’m saying! I do not want a puppy!

Her eyes widened. ‘There’s no need to shout.’

‘There’s every need to shout when you clearly aren’t listening to me,’ he snapped impatiently, running an exasperated hand through his long hair.

Hair that, annoyingly, sprang back into the same tousled style that even Bree could see would make a woman ache to run her own fingers through it. Other women. Not Bree.

At this precise moment Bree was too annoyed with Jackson to feel even remotely appreciative of his wickedly handsome good looks. In fact right now Bree could cheerfully have punched him on his perfectly straight nose!

She had been feeling slightly out of sorts all day, since realising that it was the anniversary of her wedding that never was—although cuddles with the puppy had certainly gone a long way towards healing the breach that the memory had made in her defences.

Bree softened her tone persuasively. ‘Look, Jackson, I realise this is a bit of a surprise for you …’

‘Make that a shock!’

Bree eyed him warily. ‘Okay, so it was a shock to return home and find your mother has given Danny a puppy for Christmas—something I decided probably shouldn’t go under the tree with the other presents as you suggested earlier, by the way!’ She tried to add a little lightness to the subject—only to receive a scowl for her trouble. ‘But try looking a little further than that, hmm?’ she cajoled. ‘Danny is an only child—’

‘And likely to remain so,’ Jackson assured her coldly.

Bree winced at his vehemence. ‘He’s an only child,’ she repeated firmly. ‘He has no other children close by to play with. It must get a little lonely for Danny here in the evenings and at weekends, what with only you, me and your housekeeper for company.’

‘Thanks!’ Jackson grimaced.

‘I did include myself in that number,’ she pointed out wryly.

‘So you did.’ Jackson gazed down at the puppy Bree still held in her arms. There was no doubt it was a cute little thing: grey-blue eyes, a black button nose, and that soft, curly grey, black and white fur …

‘No, it’s impossible.’ Jackson straightened determinedly away from the lure of all that cuteness. ‘I’ll go and call my mother—and if you won’t do it I’ll have to make other arrangements to take the puppy back to the breeder.’

‘How can you be so cruel?’ Bree glared up at him.

‘Sometimes you have to be cruel to be kind.’ He sighed as she continued to glare. ‘Dogs are a tie, Bree. A serious complication when it comes to going away on holiday—or even out for the day. And what about Danny’s reaction when it eventually dies? A breed like that will live—what?—ten, twelve years at most? By which time Danny will be—’

‘Sixteen or eighteen years old, and perfectly capable of understanding and accepting that death is merely a part of life,’ she assured him firmly. ‘Especially when he’s enjoyed ten or twelve years of companionship and unconditional love!’

Unconditional love, Jackson mused. Now, there was a concept not too many adults understood. Well, not the adults Jackson came into contact with anyway.

Over the years he had found that everyone had their own agenda. Wealth. Success. Stardom. Whatever they believed would give them the happiness they craved. Well, Jackson had all three of those things, and yet he hadn’t known even a glimmer of real happiness until Danny had come into his life five years ago. Because Danny gave him that unconditional love Bree was talking about? Probably. But, damn it, a puppy …? Did he really have to let Danny keep the damned puppy?

‘He really won’t be any trouble,’ Bree persevered eagerly, sensing a weakening in Jackson’s resolve. The ‘D’ word had once again worked its magic charm on him. ‘Your mother also brought a basket for the puppy to sleep in, and lots of food, and bowls, and brushes for grooming him—’

‘Okay, okay, okay!’ Jackson’s voice rose in volume with each successive ‘okay’. ‘But the first time he gets into my camera equipment he’s banished outside to the garden shed.’

‘Woo-hoo! You’re being allowed to stay, puppy!’ Bree held the furry bundle up in the air.

Jackson watched in total surprise as his usually calm and unruffled assistant did a little victory dance around the sitting room. He felt completely taken aback by Bree’s obvious happiness and the way it lit up her face, making her look almost beautiful: those smoky-grey eyes glowed, her cheeks were flushed, and her lips curved into a wide and happy smile. They were full and slightly pouty lips, he realised with a frown. The sort of lips that could drive a man crazy if applied to the right part of his anatomy …

‘Isn’t it time you got back to work?’ Jackson rasped harshly as he straightened abruptly to glare down at her.

Bree came to an abrupt halt, the light fading from her eyes, the colour fading from her cheeks, and those sensual lips no longer smiling but once again set in their usual line of disapproval.

Jackson could deal with Bree’s disapproval—hell, he was happy to deal with her disapproval! What he didn’t need, didn’t want to deal with, was that inexplicable, insidious physical awareness he had felt towards her just now …

‘I’m going to get Danny from school,’ he glowered.

‘Fine.’ She nodded dismissively, no longer looking at him but at the puppy held comfortably in her arms.

No, it wasn’t ‘fine’ at all, Jackson thought to himself, frowning as he walked slowly outside to his car.

Bree had worked for him for almost a year. Lived in his house. Spent time with his son. She wasn’t just good at her job, she blended perfectly into his life—organising his appointments, taking his clothes to be laundered, deciding on the menus for the week with the housekeeper, Mrs Holmes, looking after Danny when Jackson had to be elsewhere. It was like having a wife without any of the complications. Or the sex, of course—

Where the hell had that thought come from?

Wherever it had originated, it could go right back there again. It would ruin everything if he even started to think of Bree in a sexual way!

In fact over the past year Jackson had made a point of never seeing or treating Bree as anything more than his assistant and occasionally Danny’s babysitter.

To the extent, he now realised, that he had never even bothered to enquire about her private life before she came to work for him. He had likewise had no reason to enquire about it during the past year: to his certain knowledge Bree didn’t have a private life now. She never went out in the evenings. If she had family and friends she never invited them to her apartment.

Moments ago, when she had danced so spontaneously around the sitting room with the puppy in her arms—when she had looked so nearly beautiful—for the first time Jackson had found himself wondering exactly why that was …

.

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