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December 27, 2005

Prodigal Son

Samantha wasn’t about to jeopardize the best job she’d ever had by breaking the cardinal rule of business—falling for the boss.

Jack Hanson knew what he wanted, and it wasn’t a media empire. After his father died suddenly, Jack was forced to leave his law practice and take over his father’s company. And, oh, yeah, pull it back from the brink of catastrophe. The one bright spot in the whole mess was his new hire—an old business-school friend, Samantha Edwards. Samantha was just as smart, fun and vibrant as she’d been in school, but now…she was a hell of a lot sexier.

Samantha Edwards knew what she wanted, and it wasn’t love. She’d already made a mess out of her life once. She wasn’t about to jeopardize the best job she’d ever had by breaking the cardinal rule of business—falling for the boss. And yet, Jack needed her. And she needed him…because if he could put the company back together, perhaps he could heal her, too.

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Chapter One

Samantha Edwards had never minded the interview process, even when she was the one looking for a job. But having seen her prospective boss naked made things just a little tricky.

The good news was Jack Hanson was unlikely to bring up that single night they'd shared. Not only wasn't it relevant to her employment application, it had been nearly ten years ago. She doubted he remembered anything about the event.

Well, not just the one event. Her recollection was completely clear. There had been three "events" that night, each of them more spectacular than the one before.

"Ms. Edwards? Mr. Hanson will see you now."

Samantha looked up at the sixty-something secretary behind the modern metal-and-glass desk in the foyer in front of Jack's office.

"Thank you," Samantha said as she rose and moved toward the closed door.

She paused to tug on her cropped jacket. Her clothing choices had been deliberately conservative—for her, at least. Flowing black slacks, a cream-and-black checked jacket over a cream silk shirt. It killed her to avoid color, but ten years ago Jack Hanson had been the poster boy for straitlaced conservative types. She was willing to guess that hadn't changed.

Except he hadn't been the least big conservative in bed.

The wayward thought popped into her head just as she pushed open the door to his office. She did her best to ignore it as she drew in a deep breath, reminded herself how much she wanted this job and walked confidently toward the man standing behind his desk.

"Hello, Jack," she said, shaking hands with him. "It's been a long time."

"Samantha. Good to see you."

He studied her with a thoroughness that made her breath catch. How much of his steady perusal was about sizing up the candidate and how much was about their past?

She decided two could play at that game and did a little looking of her own.

He was taller than she'd remembered and he still seemed to exude power and confidence. She wanted to say that was a natural attribute for someone born to money, but she had a feeling Jack would have been a winner regardless of his upbringing. He was simply that kind of man.

Time had been kind, but then time had always preferred men to women, she thought humorously. Jack's face showed character in addition to chiseled features. She wondered if life ever got boring for the physically perfect. While he had to deal with things like broad shoulders and a smile that would have most of the female population lining up to be seduced, she had unruly red hair that defied taming, a stick-straight body, small breasts and a butt that could only be described as bony. Was that fair?

"Please," he said, motioning to one of the chairs. "Have a seat."

"Thanks."

He did the same, claiming his side of the desk. He looked good there—in charge and powerful. But she happened to know he was new to the job.

"I read about your father's death a couple of months ago," she said. "I'm sorry."

"Thanks." He motioned to the office. "That's why I'm working here. The board asked me to step in and take care of the company for a while."

"I'd wondered," she admitted. "Last I'd heard, you were practicing law."

"It would be my preference," he told her.

"But you did so well at business school." She would know—they'd been competing for the top spot, often by working together. He'd been the detail-intensive, organized half and she'd been the creative member of the team.

"Hated every minute of it," he said. "I realized I preferred the law."

Jack thought about the day he'd told his father he wasn't entering the family business. George Hanson hadn't been able to comprehend that his oldest son wasn't interested in learning how to run a multimillion-dollar company. The older man had been disappointed and furious. It had been the only time Jack hadn't done what was expected of him.

Ironically, today he was exactly where his father had wanted him to be.

But not for long, he reminded himself.

"I guess your father's death changed your plans," Samantha said.

He nodded. "I'm on a three-month leave of absence from my law firm. Until then Hanson Media Group gets my full attention."

"Are you sure you want the Donald Trump act to be temporary?"

"I'm not the tycoon type."

She smiled. "I would say you have potential. Word on the street is you're bringing in a lot of new people."

"That's true. My father hated to hand over control of anything. He was still the head of at least three departments. With a company this big, no one has the time or energy to run them and the rest of the business. I'm looking for the best people possible to join the team."

"I'm flattered."

"It's the truth. You're only here because you're good. I need creative types. It's not my strong suit."

She smiled. "A man who can admit his weaknesses. How unusual."

"Samantha, the only reason I passed marketing was because I was on your team. You carried me through the whole class."

"You tutored me through cost accounting. We're even."

She shifted slightly as she spoke, causing her slacks to briefly hug her slender thighs. The other candidates had been highly skilled with incredible resumes, but unlike Samantha, they'd come in dressed in business suits, looking equally comfortable in a board room or law office.

Not Samantha. Despite the conservative colors, she was anything but ordinary. Maybe it was the bright green parrot pin on her lapel or the dangling earrings that hung nearly to her shoulders. Or maybe it was that her long, fiery red hair seemed to have a will and a life of its own.

She was not a conservative businessperson. She was avant-garde and wildly creative. There was an independence about her that he admired.

"You left New York," he said. "Why?"

"I wanted to make a change. I'd been working there since graduation."

He studied her as she spoke, looking for nuances. There were plenty, but none of them worried him. Per his research, she was coming off a divorce. Her previous employer had done his best to keep her from leaving.

"You have to know this is a dream job," she said. "You're offering complete creative control of Internet development, with more than a million-dollar budget. How could anyone resist that? It's my idea of heaven."

"Good. It's my idea of hell."

She smiled. Her full mouth curved and he felt himself responding. Subtle tension filled his body.

"You always did hate a blank page," she said, her smile widening to a grin.

"You always did hate rules," he told her.

"Me?" She raised her eyebrows. "You were happy enough to break them when it suited your purpose."

He shrugged. "Whatever it takes to get what I want. What I want now is a great staff and the company running smoothly. Let's get down to specifics."

He passed her information on several current Internet campaigns. After she'd flipped through the material, they discussed possible directions for growth.

Samantha became more animated as the conversation progressed. "Children," she told him. "There's so much we could do for kids. After-school programs on the Web. Not just the usual help with homework, but interactive programs linking kids all over the country."

As she spoke, she leaned toward him, gesturing with her hands to make her point. "We can also cosponsor events with popular movies or TV shows."

"Cross-advertising," he said.

"Yes. The potential is huge. And that's just younger kids. I have even more ideas for teens."

"They're the ones with the disposable income and the time to spend it," he said. When she raised her eyebrows in surprise, he added, "I've been doing my research."

"Apparently. It's true. With more single-parent families and more families with both parents working, teens are often a real source of information on what items to purchase. They actually influence adults' decisions on everything from breakfast cereals to cars. Plus they're computer savvy, which means they're comfortable downloading information. To them, the Internet is as much a part of their lives as phones are for us."

"So you're interested in the job," he said.

"I distinctly recall the word heaven coming up in the conversation. I wasn't kidding. I'd love the chance to grow this part of the company."

Her excitement was tangible energy in the office. He liked that. She'd always thrown herself into whatever it was she was doing and he doubted that had changed.

He'd been surprised to see her name on the short list of candidates, but pleasantly so. He and Samantha had worked well together at grad school. They'd been a good team. Just as important, she was someone he could trust.

"The job is yours if you want it," he told her. "The formal offer would come from my human resources person in the morning."

Her green eyes widened. "Seriously?"

"Why are you shocked? You're talented, qualified and someone I'm comfortable working with."

"You make me sound like a rescue dog."

He grinned. "If I could find one that could work a computer..."

She laughed. "Okay, yes. I'm interested. But I have to warn you, I'm very much the creative type. I'll want control of my staff."

"Agreed."

"We're not going to be wearing three-piece suits."

"I don't care if you wear frog costumes, as long as you do the job."

She didn't look convinced. "This isn't like the law, Jack. You can't always find an answer in a book."

"Can I get disapproving and difficult before you give me the lecture?" he asked, mildly amused by her concern. "I get it—creative people are different. Not a problem."

"Okay. Point taken."

She rose. He stood as well. In heels she was only a couple of inches shorter than him. He walked around the table and held out his hand.

"Leave your number with Mrs. Wycliff. You'll be hearing from my HR office first thing in the morning."

She placed her palm against his. As he had when they'd touched a few minutes ago, he felt a slight sizzle, followed by a definite sensation of warmth somewhere south of his belt.

Ten years after the fact and Samantha Edwards still had the ability to drop him to his knees. Sexually speaking. Not that he would act on the information or let her know how she got to him. They were going to work together, nothing more.

He released her hand and walked her to the door. "How soon can you start?" he asked.

"The first part of next week," she said.

"Good. I hold a staff meeting every Tuesday morning. I look forward to seeing you there."

She hesitated before opening the door. "I'm excited about this opportunity, Jack. I want to make a difference."

"I'm sure you will."

She looked into his eyes. "I wasn't sure you'd consider me. Because of our past."

He pretended not to know what she was talking about. He wanted to make her say it. "Why would knowing you in business school make a difference?"

"Not that."

He waited.

Color flared on her cheeks, but she continued to hold his gaze. "Because of what happened that night. When we..." She cleared her throat. "You know. Were intimate."

"Water under the bridge," he said easily, mostly because it was true. He'd never been one to dwell on the past. Not even on a night that had made him believe in miracles. Probably because in the bright light of day, he'd learned that dreams were for fools and miracles didn't really happen.

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