Here are my release dates for 2018!
July 2018 – TRUE TEMPTATION (Tentative Title)
September 2018 – REVEL IN YOU (Tentative Title)
November 2018 – WINNING HER HEART
Here are my release dates for 2018!
July 2018 – TRUE TEMPTATION (Tentative Title)
September 2018 – REVEL IN YOU (Tentative Title)
November 2018 – WINNING HER HEART
My current publisher, Harlequin Kimani, is officially closing in December 2018. This came as a shock to me and many of my readers. I have three more books that will be published next year by Harlequin Kimani. I will post the pub dates on my website as soon as they are available. In the meantime, I have some critical decisions to make. Not whether or not I will continue writing. NOBODY can stop me from doing what I love. My main concern right now is if I will continue to seek out traditional publishers or will I step out on my own and self-publish.
For me, the choice to self-publish isn’t an easy or simple one to make, but it’s one that I am going to consider very carefully.
I’ve never seen anything so ridiculous, thought Laney Broward as she watched her friends openly fawn over Austin Johns. For almost the entire evening, Mara and Robyn had been taking turns narrating a play-by-play of his every move.
She glanced around the enormous room crowded with men and women kicking up their heels and tossing back drinks as they danced the night away to a live band.
Hundreds of glittering snowflakes were suspended from the ceiling supported by huge Greek-style columns wrapped in shimmery silver brocade. Round tables draped in white tulle with gray organza bows surrounded the perimeter, each topped with miniature candelabra where ivory candles provided a romantic glow in the dimly-lit room.
It was the perfect setting for a New Year’s Eve gala. The effect was magical, mystical, and filled with the promise of something special. Then why did Lacey feel so out of place?
“What’s he doing now?” Robyn asked, craning her neck like an ostrich.
“Oh, he’s just being gorgeous,” Mara reported with a giggle.
Laney rolled her eyes. “I think that’s the worst line I’ve ever heard. I hope you weren’t going to use that one.”
Mara’s face fell momentarily and then immediately lit up. “I think he’s headed this way!” she exclaimed.
Laney planted herself in front of them, blocking their view.
“Both of you have been around horses too long,” she admonished. “Austin is just a man. He walks and talks and eats just like we do.”
Her friends, who were also her favorite teammates on the U.S. Olympic Equestrian Team, stared at her like she was crazy. Both had consumed a fair amount of champagne, while Laney had been nursing the same glass of bubbly for over an hour.
“Well, at least we recognize perfection when we see it,” Robyn scolded.
Mara raised her glass. “I’ll drink to that!” she slurred.
Laney turned away slightly, refusing to concede to their good-humored jab. She eyed an oversized clock that hung just above the ballroom doors. It was thirty minutes to the “Big Kiss Moment” and she was dateless.
Worst, she had to be on her best behavior. On New Year’s Eve, no less! Not that she would have done anything really crazy. Her reputation was sound and she wanted it to stay that way.
Ever since Laney had won the Gold Medal at the Summer Olympics in London, the media frenzy had been glowing—and rabid. For a while she basked in the attention, as any sane person would, but she also knew how quickly the media could turn from being your best friend to your worst enemy. She just didn’t want it to happen at a gala event sponsored by Austin, or anyone else for that matter.
Laney’s stomach knotted as she quickly scanned the perimeter of the room. There was no telling if or where the paparazzi was hiding. She was on high alert and not taking any chances. There was no way she was going bring in the new year as the subject of one of those tacky celebrity viral videos.
Laney took a sip of her lukewarm drink and almost gagged. “No man is perfect,” she scoffed, turning back to face her friends.
“Really?” Robyn accused, placing one hand on her hip. “You’d have to be a horse’s you-know-what not to see that Austin is the epitome of every woman’s dream.”
“Not me,” she insisted. “I barely know the man.”
A true statement, although it wasn’t like she’d never met Austin. On several occasions, he’d been out to the BWB, the Broward family ranch located in Granger, Montana, to conduct business with Laney’s mother, Gwendolyn. They’d also run into each other in London during the Olympics.
Mara peered down her nose at Laney. “You don’t have to know the man to appreciate, and take advantage of, everything he has to offer.”
Laney stifled a mocking laugh. Both times she’d seen Austin, he hadn’t given her anything more than a polite handshake and some friendly conversation. And she was supposed to take advantage of him? She may be dateless, but she wasn’t desperate.
One thing Laney did know about Austin, and did not appreciate, was his reputation as a ladies man. He ran through women like a wild stallion galloping through endless prairie grass. Tongues wagged that his conquests were as global as his appetite for travel: Paris, Barcelona, Rome.
But as far as she knew, no one in the little town of Granger had been able to saddle him — even for one night.
Laney pursed her lips to stifle a fierce retort. Defending herself to her friends would only lead to an argument, which was no way to end what had been a very successful year for the trio.
“Just look, Laney,” Robyn implored with a nudge of her elbow. “Start with his body, and go from there.”
“As if you’d want to go anywhere else,” Mara added with a wicked smile.
Laney tensed when Mara put her hands on her shoulders, forcing her to turn around and admit to herself what every other woman in the room already knew: Austin Johns was the most handsome man at the ball.
Her heart did a little skip as she watched Austin weave his way through the crowded dance floor. When he paused, the women gravitated towards him and the men just wanted to shake his hand, perhaps hoping some of the “Austin mojo” would rub off on them.
The millionaire horse breeder took all the attention in stride, as if he were just out for a stroll, rather than combing through a sea of gyrating bodies. At about 6 feet, 3 inches tall, he towered over all the women and many of the men. Laney cast her head over her shoulder toward her friends. They were both wearing I-told-you-so grins, but she wasn’t about to give them the satisfaction that they were right all along.
A waiter swung past with an empty tray and she handed him her champagne flute.
“I’m going to get some fresh air. Why don’t you two go out on the dance floor and mingle before we all turn back into pumpkins?”
“As long as Prince Charming is there to whisk me away into his carriage, I’m there,” Mara announced, kicking off her shoes. “C’mon, Robyn.”
Laney watched her friends get swallowed up into a line dance. They stumbled frequently, like two colts trying to get a sense of the ground. It was a comical sight and she found herself smiling, in spite of her cautious mood.
Prince Charming. There’s no such thing.
“Especially in Montana,” she muttered as she walked through the estate’s massive foyer. Being single definitely had its challenges in Big Sky Country, where there were more cattle per square foot of land than eligible men. Laney was thankful she had her horses to keep her mind off the lack of suitable dating options and she looked forward to returning home to Granger tomorrow.
Right now though, she had to get through tonight.
After a quick visit to the ladies room, Laney hurried outside to the place where she felt most comfortable—no matter what city, state or country she happened to be visiting at the moment—the stables.
Earlier in the evening, Austin, the primary sponsor of the evening’s gala, had used the stable to unveil his plans for a new therapeutic riding center in Dallas. Laney and her friends had arrived late to the event and had missed his presentation, so she was eager to learn more. Now was as good a time as any to get a sneak peek.
She rubbed her bare arms as she followed the paved driveway around the estate. While it rarely snowed in Dallas, the evening’s low temperature was a chilly reminder to its inhabitants that it very well could.
Laney arrived at the stable moments later. It wasn’t far from the main house and the evening’s festivities were amplified through strategically placed outdoor speakers. She heard the lead singer from the band loudly informing the crowd that there were only ten more minutes to midnight. When she looked back, she saw that the ballroom doors were open and guests mingled outside on the stone terrace, chattering and laughing.
Eager for peace and quiet, Laney tugged on the service door of the stable and slipped inside. As she eased it closed, she breathed in deeply and smiled.
They were all here. The odors of pungent earth, of crisp hay and alfalfa, of sawdust and pine, of leather and oil. Real. Tangible. A part of the air, a part of her.
As a child, the gentle eyes of the horses had wooed her. She fell in love and never looked back. In the stables, she didn’t have to hide. Not even from herself.
“It’s about time you showed up.”
The voice had the slow, easy drawl of a cowboy. None too hurried, and always sexy.
Laney heard her shocked breath whistle through her teeth. She blinked in the low light, but couldn’t see anyone. She took a step back and placed her hand on the door, ready to book at any moment.
Seconds later, she heard a teasing chuckle and a neigh of disapproval.
“Don’t pout, Sadie, I’ll be back to check on you in the morning,” Austin soothed. He emerged from a large stall at the far end of the stable. “But right now, I must see why this beautiful young lady has been ignoring me all night.”
She let go of the doorknob. “How did you know I was here?”
Austin shrugged. “I didn’t exactly, but I figured if you were going anywhere on the grounds, it would be to the stables. I knew you couldn’t ignore me here.”
Ignoring him? Lord knows I’ve tried, she thought.
But Austin certainly had Laney’s attention now as he sauntered towards her. Tux unbuttoned and flaps secured behind hands stuck in his pockets. The black bowtie gone and the black Stetson on. He stopped only a few feet away and in the dim halo of yellowish-light cast by the fixtures above their heads, his expression was unreadable, yet tantalizing.
“You scared me!” she managed to whisper, not wanting to disturb the horses. “I thought you were some crazy journalist sneaking around wanting to take my picture.”
Austin squared his hands like a makeshift camera against his eyes and peered through them. “Say cheese.”
Laney’s heart raced against her will under his pretend lens. To be the subject of Austin’s “admiration” was the dream of most of the women in Granger, and likely all of the females at the party, but not her.
“How about I say goodbye?” she fumed under his intense gaze. She wasn’t mad at him, but her reaction to him confused her. His eyes seemed to burn a hole through her long-held image of him as a business associate of her mother’s.
He dropped his hands to his massive chest. “Whoa, girl. I’ve been wanting to talk to you all night. You can’t leave yet.”
As his rich tenor swirled over her, Laney knew she would never tire of hearing his voice.
She touched her hair, styled into an elegant updo for the party. “Talk to me? About what?” she asked, trying not to sound flattered.
His eyes swaggered over her from head to toe, lingering here and there in places that caused her skin to warm.
“Your choice of attire for the gala,” he stated matter-of-factly.
She froze and her mouth dropped open. First, Austin unwittingly scared her and now he was openly judging her.
“Two minutes to midnight, folks!”
She ignored the singer’s gleeful warning and smoothed her hands along the side of her royal blue full-length gown. This wasn’t some department store knock-off, but rather it was custom designed for her. Not because she was a Broward and could afford it, but because she wanted to remain true to herself: One-of-a-kind. Unique. And right now, steaming mad.
Not sure if Austin was teasing or not, Laney met his gaze head on. “What’s wrong with it?” she blurted.
Austin shook his head. “It’s far too different than your usual t-shirt and jeans,” he stated, without a hint of a smile.
How dare he insult me, Laney thought. As a child, her brothers Wes and Jameson had teased her relentlessly about her tomboyish wardrobe and the memories came flooding back. Now that she was older, she knew they hadn’t meant to hurt her, but the pain was still there.
Just as she was about to tell Austin where he could stuff his unwanted opinions, he tilted his Stetson back slightly with the tip of his thumb.
“And on you, that gown is far too stunning to ignore.”
Was it the music or her heart that suddenly stopped as Austin stepped closer and draped his hands on her bare shoulders?
Austin seemed not to hear the drum roll or the guests chanting the countdown. He tilted her chin up and she stared at his lips, slightly bewildered.
She’d never been this close to Austin, never smelled his rough, masculine scent, never dreamed she’d want to be even closer.
Laney closed her eyes, suddenly aware that she wanted to grasp onto something she wasn’t even sure was going to happen, but a part of her hoped that it would. The part that foretold regret.
Austin cradled her face in his hands and lowered his mouth to hers.
“Happy New Year, Laney.”
Ignoring all sense and logic, amid the fireworks and distant gun shots, she slipped her hands around his waist and caved into the spell of his kiss. He was gentle at first, exploring the edges, feathering the center, his movements tugging at long-buried desire. The nerve points of her mouth jolted awake, as if from a deep sleep, reminding her of how much she’d missed the touch of a man’s lips. Now the feel of Austin’s lips were branded upon her senses forever.
Their embrace was like a blanket they huddled underneath against the clamor of noisemakers and strains of Auld Lang Syne. They owned the dark, the passion and the promise.
The old was made new. And when Austin lifted his mouth from hers, she felt more than sudden, unexpected desire. There was also the innate fear that she might never be kissed that way by Austin again, and the excitement that maybe she would.
She bit her lip, plumper now from his kisses.
He tipped his hat, bowing slightly and her heart fell when he started to walk away.
Her independent spirit willed her not to run to him, while at the same time her caring nature compelled her not to disturb the horses she loved so much.
She dropped her voice to a whisper. “Where are you going?” she called out.
He turned around and seemed unperturbed by what had just occurred between them. His world was unshaken, while hers tilted crazily on its axis.
Laney arched a brow. She knew Austin had a large estate that included two huge stables just outside of Dallas. But she couldn’t just let him leave, at least not until she found out why he had kissed her.
“Now? But what about the party? Aren’t you a sponsor?”
Austin nodded, and then chuckled. “I think the festivities will go on without me.”
He was moving away from her again, easing towards the door, away from something he had started.
She took a few hurried steps and managed to tap his shoulder, before quickly drawing back. It was hard and muscular under the black cloth of his tux.
“You probably shouldn’t be driving,” she advised. “It’s New Year’s Eve and it could be dangerous on the roads.”
Austin folded his arms and smiled. “Don’t worry about me, I’m staying close tonight.”
“Really? Where?” she asked, for once, not caring if she sounded overly curious.
Austin pushed open the service door and leaned against it. “A couple of years ago, I sold the owners of this estate two of my best thoroughbreds, both of which have made them a ton of money recently on the circuit. In exchange, there’s a little cottage on the grounds and they let me stay in it.”
“Wow. That’s really nice. Much better than a hotel.”
He nodded and there was a sudden gleam in his eye. “Yeah, it comes in handy those times when I’ve partied a little too hard. But I’ve been good tonight.”
Laney thought back to the lukewarm champagne and smiled. “Me too.”
He raised an eyebrow. “Well, in that case, would you like to see it?”
Although she didn’t know Austin very well, he wasn’t a total stranger. He was a friend of the Browards and highly-regarded by her mother, Gwen. Still she knew it was crazy to go with him. But something inside her wanted to go against the grain of her own personal conventions. It was, after all, New Year’s Eve.
She let her eyes travel across Austin’s broad shoulders. If she couldn’t be in his bed, she had the odd wish to be positioned under it, hidden from view. She wanted to listen to him breathe and feel the weight of his body dangerously close to hers.
She looked into Austin’s eyes and nodded her answer.
What would Mara and Robyn think? she thought.
They’d be jealous as all get out.
Laney hid a brief smile as they emerged into the chilly air. She hitched up her dress slightly and followed him down a wide dirt path.
The sky was clear and brilliant with stars and the temperature seemed to drop even more as they walked. By the time they arrived at the little home, which was located adjacent to a large pasture, she was shivering.
Laney rubbed her bare shoulders and read the hand-carved sign on the door. “Shepherd’s Cottage. Cute name. What does it mean?”
She stepped inside and Austin closed and locked the door behind them.
“This place was built a long time ago for people hired to mind the cattle. If they didn’t want to go home, they could sleep here. Since this ranch is now primarily used for breeding and raising horses, the owners use it as a guest house.”
She rubbed her bare shoulders again and shivered when Austin ran his hands down her arms. Her skin immediately goose-pimpled under his gentle touch while his reassuring smile warmed her in places his eyes couldn’t see.
“I’m sorry it’s so cold in here. It will only take me a minute to get the fireplace going.”
He shrugged out of his tuxedo jacket and helped her into it. “In the meantime, you can wear this.”
His jacket was way too big, but it was warm. She wrapped it around her body and inhaled the hint of spicy cologne that came with it.
“Make yourself comfortable.”
She nodded and took a few steps forward. As she looked around, she realized that the cottage had only one room.
On her left, fairly close to the door, there was a sitting area facing the fireplace, a galley kitchen with a breakfast nook, and a door she assumed led to the bathroom. The white-washed walls held various pen and ink drawings of landscapes, horses and mountains.
She pivoted to the right and spotted a small alcove with two steps leading up to an old-fashioned iron bed, covered in a thick, ivory, satin duvet.
Cozy was one word that came to mind.
The other caused her to bite her lip. She quickly turned back towards the living area. Austin was down on one knee, tending to the fire. The muscles beneath his shirt rippled under the white fabric as he arranged the kindling and the logs. Her breath caught in her throat as he struck a match and set the wood aflame.
But it wasn’t until Austin stood up, grasped his Stetson with one hand, and placed it on a peg by the front door in one fell swoop, that she lost it. To her, that simple gesture meant that he was home, and just for tonight, she was right here with him.
“Why did you kiss me?” she blurted.
“I don’t know,” he admitted, rubbing the back of his neck. “Why did you kiss me back?”
Laney opened her mouth, as if an explanation would simply form without any thought. Kissing Austin back wasn’t that simple. Neither was the reason.
She shrugged, a little too hard, and his tux jacket fell to the floor.
“I think we both need to find out,” he said, approaching her. “Don’t you?”
His low voice, a rich undercurrent to the pop and hiss of the kindling, made her knees shake.
A moment later, Laney felt herself nod, so intrigued by him that she found herself holding her breath as he unbuttoned his shirt.
He shed it quickly, not saying a word, not inviting her to look away. Somehow he knew that her eyes had been opened to something that needed to be explored.
The white t-shirt he wore cloaked those muscles that she knew were always there, but could never touch. When he stood in front of her, so tantalizing close, she couldn’t help herself. She reached out and ran a finger down the middle of his abdomen. The ridges there were tight and hard, yet pulsed with barely contained energy.
He groaned and his hands grasped her waist as he pulled her against him. At once, she pressed her lips firmly against his neck and froze, plying his salty skin with her tongue, while his fingers deftly manipulated the zipper of her evening gown. It slid to the floor and Austin stepped back, yet not so far that she couldn’t see the well of desire in his dark eyes as they swept over her lace bra and panties.
The answers they sought lay in the crackle of wood and the gentle hush of their breathing, yet for a moment, neither moved.
Austin took a step back, hesitating now, but Laney pulled him back, not willing to let him go.
For reasons she didn’t fully comprehend, she needed to know him. She needed to feel this. His hard length, still clothed, rolling against her bare stomach. She weaved her body against him until he grunted and threaded his fingers in her long hair. He kissed her deeply. His tongue on a mission with no map. She was his guide, opening herself to him, allowing him to drink of her, knowing innately that he would never be satisfied, wanting him to keep on needing.
His mouth worked down her neck, his fingers twisting in her bra straps, kneading her shoulders, unhooking her bra. That male energy pulsed tight against her, making her yearn to take him in her mouth, to feel that energy spread through her body.
He lifted his lips and his hands spanned her bare back, drawing her even closer to him, and her nipples rubbed against his bare chest.
Laney moaned and Austin lifted her up in his arms. She allowed herself to be carried by him, not fighting the primal urge to be dominated by this man.
She wanted this.
Although they couldn’t voice it to each other, deep down they had a common goal: to discover and to forget.
Austin laid her gently on the bed and she watched with wide eyes as he unzipped his trousers. Eased off his briefs. At the sight of him, she gasped. The length, wide as river; smooth as glass on top, hard as a rock underneath, power coursing through unbidden. Her mouth began to water and she reached for him. Austin lay upon her, his smile almost imperceptible, his body elongated and seemed to never end. In the firelight, his skin was dark bronze, moist with sweat, firm with muscle. She trailed her fingers down his back and over his round buttocks and spread her legs in anticipation.
Their lips ground together again, tongues darting and playing, as they both sought to prolong their desire and their time together.
Austin’s fingers tweaked her one of her nipples and she writhed beneath him, wanting more of his touch and more of him.
Sensing her need, he ended the kiss, cupped her breasts and lapped at her large nipples until they were hard. She looked down at the wet, swollen peaks and bit her bottom lip, as Austin pursed his lips and gently blew them dry.
Moving downward, Austin tongued her belly button, making her laugh. Her giggles quickly turned into gasps as he kissed her inner thighs, causing her muscles to quiver uncontrollably.
Laney moaned as his tongue hungrily darted across her skin, swirled briefly into her wet core, and out again, landing firmly on her ultra-sensitive pearl. Like a marionette on an invisible string, his gentle lips controlled her, beckoning her to buck. It only took a few moments and when she did, the satin sheets rolled underneath them. She cried out, fisting and clutching at the duvet, now a stage, barely able to contain her ecstatic agony.
After protecting them, Austin laid upon her once more, grunting low, murmuring softly in her ear. As he slowly, so slowly, inserted his length into her, she squeezed her eyes shut, her mouth going slack.
Laney opened her eyes and Austin stilled above her, breathing heavily, his arms stock-straight, palms flat against the mattress. The firewood shifted with a loud hiss, but neither of them flinched. His dark eyes gazed into hers and she bit her lip again at what she saw in them. No more a calm river, but a whirlpool of lust.
He began to move inside her so rapidly that she brought her hands to his massive shoulders, afraid she would fall off the bed. She tried to palm them, but gave up and settled on his shoulder blades. When she found a spot, she held on, like a mountain climber grasping sheer, slick rock, never letting go, never looking down, for fear of dying.
Her hair fell down around her face and she thrashed her head from side to side, moaning. She opened her legs wider, so Austin could climb higher, bore deeper.
He impaled her as his own, over one erotic threshold and then another, scaling and moving together, until she cried out again, desperate for more.
The freedom Austin was giving her, those undulating waves that were no match against fear, taking her outside of herself as their mutual pleasure rose to almost unbearable heights.
“Don’t hold back, Laney,” he urged, breathing hard. He found her lips and groaned. “Because I can’t.”
His neck corded as he slammed into her one last time and lifted his face to the sky. His chin jutting forth, eyes squeezed shut, as he froze in place.
Laney opened and closed her legs around his waist, and then finally locked them around his slick body. She moved her hips greedily to claim every drop that poured forth.
So forbidden, so wanton, so unbelievably good.
The fire continued to crackle, and the beads of sweat that rolled from their bodies did not dampen their desire. No longer uncertain and not wanting to waste another moment, Laney and Austin began to eagerly explore each other again. Neither one considered, nor cared, what the new year would bring.
© 2012-2016 Harmony Evans – All Rights Reserved.
Liza Sinclair bit the edge of her tongue in shock and stared at the attractive doctor hovering in the doorway. He crossed his sizable arms and planted his feet as if he were blocking the entrance to an exclusive club.
If she had met him in a club, she would have confided to her friends that he was just the right kind of tall, not overpowering, nor underwhelming. His white, neatly pressed lab coat could not hide his athletic build, but in fact seemed to enhance it in the most distracting way.
Although the tiny cleft in his strong chin lent his face a slice of playfulness, his grim expression was anything but welcoming. His tough-guy stance was a bit off-putting but not insurmountable. Liza inhaled a quiet breath. She wasn’t going to allow him to turn her world upside-down at 7 a.m. on a Monday morning.
Who did he think he was?
“But we had an appointment.”
Though it was difficult, Liza managed to keep her voice pleasant. She’d come too far to give up now.
A group of nurses walked past her, laughing and carrying on, almost bumping into her in the narrow hallway of Bay Point Community Hospital’s General Surgery unit. She twisted her head to the side in mild annoyance, accidentally exposing her scar. It began near her right earlobe and slid to the edge of her jawbone, where it mercifully ended.
Though it was narrow, about the width of a piece of yarn and only an inch long, she was self-conscious about it, especially when meeting new people.
Even though she’d worn her long hair down, Liza resisted the urge to place her hand on her neck, having learned over the years that no matter how much she tried, her scar was eventually revealed. She drew in a breath before turning her head back to face Dr. Marbet, and consciously lowered her chin just a bit, hoping he hadn’t noticed.
It was too late. Something had changed in his deep brown eyes. Her cheeks suddenly warmed, kindling the thought that his interest in her was more than scientific, more visceral. But she knew that couldn’t possibly be the case.
He thinks I’m a patient.
“You know who I am, don’t you?”
His lips melted into a faint smile. “Of course I do, Ms. Sinclair, but that doesn’t change the fact that I’ve changed my mind.”
She stared at the man who had seemed so interested to meet her during their phone conversation a few days earlier. His call had been a complete surprise. When he told her his plans to open a boutique cosmetic surgery clinic and offered her the opportunity to interview, she’d jumped at the chance to design the structure from the ground up.
Though he was only in his early thirties, Dr. Anthony Marbet was a much sought-after cosmetic surgeon in California and throughout the United States. His skills at making beautiful people even more gorgeous were well known in the entertainment business. His fees were exorbitant. Among his clients were the rich, the famous, people who attempted to break the Internet, as well as those that valued their privacy more than a headline.
She hadn’t asked how he’d gotten her name. At the time, it didn’t matter because she was so excited about the project.
Now, she wondered if the man was playing games. Her stomach clenched as a flurry of negative thoughts raced across her mind. How was it possible that he’d changed his mind as soon as he opened the door and saw her?
She lifted her chin, her inner resolve like steel. “May I ask why?”
His brown eyes locked with hers. “I’ve decided to go with a professional firm, rather than hire an independent architect.”
He can’t be serious, Liza thought as she gripped the handle of her leather portfolio case, hoping the action would throw focus on another part of her body, and her pounding heart could slow down.
After extensive research, she’d moved from Denver, Colorado, to Bay Point, California, a little more than two months ago, choosing sun and surf over her beloved snow-capped mountains. Located halfway between San Francisco and the border of Oregon, Bay Point was in the midst of a major revitalization. After years of structural and population decline, people were starting to flock to the little town on the Pacific coast to build new homes and start new businesses.
Making the trek to Bay Point was an opportunity for her to nurture and grow her burgeoning one-woman architectural firm. She hoped the move, though fraught with risk, would pay off professionally and financially.
“But you haven’t even given me the chance to show you my work.”
She tightened her grip on her portfolio case. There was no way she was leaving the hospital without at least getting the opportunity to share her sketches with Dr. Marbet in person.
He drew in a breath and paused, seeming to consider something for a moment. A few uncomfortable moments passed, and his eyes never left her face. She felt like she would melt under his gaze, but she still held on to her portfolio as tightly as she held onto her dreams.
Finally, his eyes looked at the gold watch that slid from the edge of his pristine lab coat. He stepped aside and swept his hand toward the interior of the room.
“Ms. Sinclair, you have fifteen minutes.”
Liza held back a frown and nodded. When they’d spoken on the phone, she hadn’t asked how long the appointment was going to be, but she’d assumed it would be longer than it took her to take a shower.
She slipped by him, eager to get inside before he changed his mind again.
She’d chosen a navy silk dress, instead of a suit, to wear to the interview. The classic, sleeveless design made her feel like she was born into money, not someone who’d worked her butt off to acquire it. She resisted the urge to sashay into the room.
Her bare arm whispered against his lab coat as she passed, sending sharp tingles up and down her skin. She could feel his eyes on her back.
Bypassing the leather sofa along one wall, she tried to relax and headed straight for the oval conference table. The half-closed blinds tamped down the morning sunlight and cast a husky glow into the room.
Liza set her portfolio down and turned around just as Dr. Marbet shut his office door.
He ran a hand over his close-shaved black hair. “I’m sorry if I seemed a little rude just now, but I have a heavy surgery schedule today. Still, that’s no excuse.”
When they’d spoken on the phone, she’d instantly loved his voice, smooth and professional at the surface, pure silk lingering just below. His words weren’t exactly an apology, but his tone had changed dramatically and that was good enough for her.
Liza folded her arms, more from habit than annoyance. “I can come back another time if that’s more convenient for you.”
He raised a brow, as if weighing her offer, and then shook his head. “No. Now is fine. Besides, my schedule is booked for the rest of the week.”
Her heart quickened as he approached her and extended his arm. “Let’s start over, shall we?”
He wasn’t smiling, but his handshake was firm and friendly. She nodded, feeling her shoulders relax just a bit. “I’d love to, and I promise that I won’t take much of your time.”
He gently let go of her hand, leaving an invisible nest of warmth on her palm.
“Thanks for changing your mind,” she added, watching him walk away, his steps purposeful, yet relaxed.
Dr. Marbet closed his laptop and three flat-screen monitors on the wall directly behind him turned off in tandem. Liza assumed they were used for viewing X-rays and other diagnostic tests.
“I trust you’ll make my decision the right one, Ms. Sinclair,” he replied, as he checked his watch again, instantly re-igniting her nerves.
His athletic frame skirted around the desk and as he leaned against it, he seemed both nonchalant and alert.
“I have my first patient at eight-thirty, so let’s get started.”
He unbuttoned his lab coat, revealing a crisp, blue formal shirt topped off with a bright yellow silk tie that would be outlandish on other men, but on him looked elegant and dignified.
“As I stated on the phone, opening up a private cosmetic surgery practice has long been a dream of mine, so this project is very important to me. Tell me what you remember about my vision for the clinic.”
Liza boldly took a few steps toward him. “I recall that you want your patients to feel welcome and at home, so the architectural design will be a cornerstone of the clinic’s success.”
He shoved his hands into the pockets of his lab coat. “Right. They already know that when they come to my clinic, they are receiving the best medical care that money can buy, so I’ve got that covered. But I want the building to be designed in such a way that their experience can be uniquely personal.”
She nodded in agreement. “Your facility would be the first of its kind in Bay Point. Why do you see a need for it now?”
Dr. Marbet crossed his arms again and stroked his chin thoughtfully. “In this immediate area, the only place for women and men to have a cosmetic surgery or even a non-surgical procedure, something simple like fillers to correct wrinkling, is here at BPC. Even though this is a fine facility, it’s still a hospital.”
Liza smiled. “Intimidating and impersonal. A hospital isn’t the most private place in town.” She sighed and chose her next words carefully. “I can appreciate your concern for the locals, but I know that many of your patients are famous.”
“Now, where did you hear that?”
She shrugged, not willing to admit that perusing Internet gossip sites on a regular basis was one of her favorite guilty pleasures.
“Word around town.”
He started to roll his eyes but stopped and grinned. “There are a lot of things you will hear in Bay Point. Some true, some not. But yes, some of my patients are extremely well-known in the media.”
“And you want more of them,” she prodded.
Dr. Marbet nodded as if the answer were obvious. “Most plastic and cosmetic surgery, that is not the result of certain injuries, is not covered by traditional insurance. Wealthier clients have the funds to pay out-of-pocket for their care. In private practice, I’ll have costs, too.”
“The lack of privacy here at the hospital is a big problem and keeps many potential clients away,” he added.
Liza took a few more steps closer, careful to maintain a respectable distance. She had to know if there was another reason why he was building the clinic, something deeper. Something other than just making more money.
“Are you happy?”
He narrowed his eyes, and she worried that her question may have been too personal for a job interview. Still, she had to know if there was another reason why he was building the clinic.
“You mean here at the hospital?”
She nodded. Even though she was curious to know more about Dr. Marbet than just his opinion on his workplace, it was a good place to start building a connection.
“I’ve been at Bay Point Community for over six years. The medical benefits, regular hours, a normal schedule, most of the time are definite pluses,” he said with a wry smirk. “But there are enough minuses that I feel it’s time to strike out on my own,” he added, sighing deeply, as if his shoulders were laden with a heavy burden.
Liza clasped her hands together and smiled, happy that they shared something in common.
“I understand. Being my own boss was one reason why I started my own design firm. No one to answer to on a daily basis but my own perfectionist nature.”
No one to answer to, no one to blame when she failed, and no one to celebrate the successes with either, she noted mildly to herself.
She’d been single and on her own for so long that she’d practically convinced herself she didn’t need anyone. All she needed right now was to secure this design gig, and since she didn’t know how much time she had left in the interview, it was time to start talking business.
“Dr. Marbet. I can assure you that with me at your side, you’ll be able to bring your vision to life.”
He gave her a questioning look. “You and your perfectionist nature?”
The teasing lilt in his voice emboldened her, and for the first time, she felt she had his complete attention.
“So what makes you think you’re qualified to design my clinic other than the fact that, per your website, you’ve been featured in Architectural Digest and House Beautiful?”
“Why don’t I show you instead?”
Dr. Marbet arched a brow and they walked to the conference table. When they reached it, he stood close enough for her to appreciate that he didn’t reek of cologne, which she hated, or of antiseptic, which she’d expected from a physician.
Instead, he had a nice, clean, soapy smell.
Simple, pleasant and very sexy.
So sexy that it made her want to inhale deeply, but she was the model of restraint, of self-denial. The situation was awkward enough without her acting like she’d never been close to a clean-smelling, handsome man who looked good enough to savor, for one night. Or maybe even a lifetime.
Liza opened up her portfolio case and laid her best work on the table.
“Here are three designs I created, as part of a team of architects, when I was working for a large firm in Denver. One is private school, one is an office building and the other is a restaurant.”
Dr. Marbet’s arm brushed against hers, a gesture she was sure was completely innocent, yet her skin pulsed an invisible beat, as he pointed at the first one.
“Ah. Very interesting. I love the open-air feel of the school, and those courtyards scattered about are different. Random, and yet organized at the same time.”
His eyes danced, and she could tell by the look on his face that he was impressed.
“Yes, I designed those in order to encourage more small groups, rather than the large crowds one would see in a typical schoolyard.”
Liza’s heart raced, and even though she knew it would be tough to rein in her growing excitement, she realized she had to remain calm.
“I could see a courtyard area working well for your clinic.”
He nodded. “Perhaps as an extension of the waiting room. It would be more peaceful, during what is obviously a very stressful time.”
“We could create a separate, private courtyard, specifically for your high-profile clientele.”
He braced his palms against the table as he bent to take a closer look at the renderings, and she had the sudden urge to rest her hand against the curve of his back.
“I like that idea, Liza.”
She hitched in a quiet breath at the sound of her name on his tongue.
“This design was actually for a client in South Carolina,” she continued, as if her world hadn’t just stopped. After all, when she got the gig, she’d hear him say her name all the time. Might as well practice subduing her reaction to it, she thought. “They loved it and the climate was obviously perfect for it, but they decided to go for something a little more traditional.”
Dr. Marbet looked back and shot her a quirky smile. “You mean, boring, right?”
She smiled back, pleased again at his response. It was a good sign. It meant that he was a risk-taker, and that, if hired, she would be able to take some artistic chances.
“People pay good money for architects to stretch the boundaries of their own creativity. It’s truly a shame when they revert back to traditional design ideas out of fear.”
He straightened, and his expression turned serious, turning her momentary joy into concern.
“Aesthetics aside, the surgical units and patient rooms are also extremely important. I plan on having the latest technology, equipment and treatments available at my clinic. The design must be able to support a state-of-the-art facility. Will it?”
“Not to worry, I’m well aware of and have experience in the complexities of health-care facilities planning,” Liza assured him, with a wave of her hand. “The innovative care and the excellent patient experience will be the focus of the design, not the other way around.”
Dr. Marbet’s brown eyes met hers. “We’ll need to work together to ensure that the dimensions of each room and unit are appropriate to the equipment it will contain.”
There was a sudden, invisible spark between them. Working closely on a regular basis with Dr. Marbet would present its own challenges, namely to her heart. With his good looks, he probably had a lot of women throwing themselves at his feet, and she resolved that she would never be one of them.
She squeezed her thumb and index finger together. “I’m available almost twenty-four seven.”
He let out a mock groan. “Aw. No three a.m. blueprint reviews? I’m not on my own yet. You do realize that I still sometimes work odd hours?”
Liza laughed. “If that’s what it takes to get the project done, I’ll brew a thermos of coffee and adjust my schedule.”
“I know we’re probably running out of time, so let me show you a few more.” She pointed to the second design. “This one was for a technology startup in Austin. They loved it, but sadly they lost all their funding the day before we were going to sign the contract.”
Dr. Marbet shook his head and whistled through his teeth. “Better before you put pen to paper than if you’d already started.”
“Tell me about it. We were very wary of working with start-ups after that fiasco.”
He folded his arms. “Don’t worry. Money won’t be an issue with this project. This is a private clinic, funded by myself and a few key and very wealthy investors.” He gestured toward the table. “Tell me about this one.”
Liza felt a burst of pride. “This is one of my favorites. The design was for a high-concept restaurant by a famous farm-to-table chef.”
He leaned one hip against the table. “What happened to this project?”
“Food poisoning in the chef’s other restaurant. A lot of people got very ill, and one almost died. My former firm actually pulled out of that deal first.”
Liza shook her head, remembering the stern warnings from their corporate counsel. “We didn’t want to be associated with the bad publicity.”
Dr. Marbet made a face. “Smart move. I don’t blame them.”
“Yes, and that experience was so awful that it cemented my dream to break away from corporate and start my own business.”
His grin was slow, easy and smoldered all the way to her heart.
Dr. Marbet turned back to the table and examined each rendering again. When he was finished, he turned around. Moments passed. Though his expression didn’t reveal anything, she remained inwardly confident.
And this is the part where you tell me I’ve got the project.
He crossed his arms, his tough-guy stance reappearing, and her confidence began to waver.
“Ms. Sinclair. Although these designs are very good and I appreciate you showing them to me, since none of them have actually been built, it appears that you have no real track record in commercial design.”
Though his tone wasn’t harsh, Liza felt the snap of his words in her heart. But she wouldn’t take things personally—this was too important. She calmly took a big breath, thankful that she’d already prepared for this moment, the not-so-subtle accusation.
“Since I started my own firm a few years ago, my focus has been on residential design. As you’ve seen in the renderings today, when I worked at Begley, Stuart and Harris in Denver, I assisted on many commercial projects. But as time went on, I quickly realized that both my residential and commercial designs were, and still are, for clients who are more open-minded to an aesthetic that is typically unconventional.”
He stared at her, and she felt as though he was testing her in some way.
“It sounds like you and I may have a similar vision,” he began, sounding strangely hesitant. “However, you should know, I still have a few more architectural firms who will also be pitching this project over the next several weeks.”
Liza’s heart sank, and she felt her willpower start to lag.
Competition. Something she loathed and welcomed at the same time. Although she was dying to know the names of the other firms he was considering, she wouldn’t dare ask.
“I understand. Thank you for your time,” she uttered.
Her voice felt muffled to her ears, as if her throat were lined with cotton. Rejection always hurt, whether personally or professionally, and she didn’t think she would ever get used to it.
Liza turned her back on him, put her renderings in her portfolio case and zipped it up. When she turned around, his eyes were curious, leaving her to wonder what he truly thought about her.
Dr. Marbet walked her to the door but stopped short of opening it.
“You know you can try to hide it, but I can tell you’re disappointed.”
She parted her lips in shock at his words, and at his gentle tone, but he was completely right. There was no use in denying it: she’d wanted to walk out of his office with the project, not empty-handed.
“You can?” she asked, raising a brow. “How can you tell?”
Dr. Marbet chuckled. “I’m not a mind reader, but I can read faces pretty well. When you’re disappointed, your lips turn down at the corners just slightly.”
She felt her face get hot with embarrassment, and she covered her mouth with her hands. “They do not.”
He chuckled a little. “Defend your lips all you want, but I know you thought you’d be the only one I’m considering for this project.”
Though his words hit hard, his voice was light and teasing, causing her to wonder if he was playing with her feelings.
Liza smiled and shrugged, trying to appear nonchalant. “That’s because I know I’m the best. I’d like to prove it to you. One can always hope, right?”
“Don’t worry,” he smiled, opening the door. “I’ll be in touch. You’re not out of the running yet.”
That lovely three-letter word that left her future hanging by a string, but instead of making her quake with fear, this time she felt empowered because it meant she still had a chance to succeed.
She started to walk out, and then turned around to catch him watching her again.
“I probably shouldn’t be asking this, but what made you change your mind about interviewing me in the first place?”
“Let’s just say it was a promise I made to an old friend.”
© 2012-2016 Harmony Evans – All Rights Reserved.
Gregory Langston jutted his fists knuckles-down against the windowsill and stared outside. The sun was at the halfway point in the sky, hanging around the corner of dusk. It would be dark soon. If he was going to see Vanessa, he’d better go quickly, before she closed the shop for the evening.
He squinted involuntarily at the orange-red orb blazing away in the distance. The California sun was gloriously dangerous yet absolutely necessary to his survival, just like the risk he was about to take.
“I have to win,” he muttered fiercely under his breath.
Although he was only thirty years old, Gregory had achieved more than many men had in a lifetime. At age twenty-six, he became the youngest and the first African-American mayor in Bay Point, California. He’d won the esteemed position in a landslide victory four years earlier, an accomplishment of which he was extremely proud.
Now he was up for reelection. But this time victory would not come easily. His only rival in the mayoral race was making his campaign a living hell.
Jacob Billingsly “the Third and only,” as the man liked to put it, had lived in Bay Point for only a few years, yet acted as if he’d resided there his entire life. When Jacob had announced his plan to run for mayor, no one had been more shocked than Gregory, who had taken the young upstart under his wing and given him a paid internship as a mayoral clerk for two summers. When Jacob had graduated with an MBA from Stanford University, Gregory had given him a glowing reference for a potential employer in New York City. He’d even driven Jacob to the airport on what was supposed to be his last day in Bay Point.
As it turned out, Jacob never left, and now it seemed he spent most of his time spreading rumors and lies about Gregory and his plans for Bay Point.
The knot in his stomach tightened and Gregory closed his eyes, bracing for the pain, which was happening all too often lately.
Although Gregory would never admit it to anyone, he was scared he was going to lose his reelection bid. The thought that he might have made a mistake by choosing a career in politics kept him up night after night. Maybe he should have continued working in his father’s law firm instead of trying to fix the town that he loved more than anything.
His eyes drifted from the horizon to the storefronts and streets beneath his fourth-floor office. The traditional grid-like pattern appealed to his strong sense of order.
In its heyday, Bay Point was a hideaway for California’s rich and famous, particularly actors and actresses from Los Angeles who sought a temporary escape from a lifestyle that often demanded too much. The whimsical shops and cheery restaurants amid the sultry ocean breeze were a balm to their weary souls. The stars still journeyed to the town from time to time, but not enough to stir headlines or the attention of entertainment bloggers.
But now Bay Point, whose population was about ten thousand individuals of all races and ethnicities, was in serious trouble. Located on the beautiful Pacific coast between San Francisco and the Oregon border, the once-vibrant beach town had fallen on hard times in recent years. Many longtime residents had moved due to the recession and high unemployment rate. Newcomers were few and far between.
Gregory knew he needed to bring additional revenue into the area to attract new residents or, at the very least, tourists. And he needed to give the people already there a reason to stay. Redeveloping Bay Point’s quaint but aging downtown was the only way to begin to breathe new life into a town that was in danger of dying.
Gregory grimaced and stuck two fingers of his left hand inside his blue oxford shirt, attempting to massage away the painful knot beneath his rock-hard abdomen. The residents of Bay Point trusted Gregory to bring the town back to the prosperity it had once known. They had elected him into office, believing that he could enact lasting change. He couldn’t let them down, but the truth was, he was afraid he already had.
This morning he’d unveiled his plans to redevelop downtown Bay Point in the Bay Point Courier. The three-year project, which took about that much time to actually scope and plan, would bring much-needed jobs, new retail and new housing to the area.
He’d tried to keep many of the details under wraps as the plan was being solidified so that residents wouldn’t be alarmed. But Bay Point was a small town, and some folks just couldn’t keep their mouths shut. Now that all the details were in print, many weren’t happy.
To make way for the construction of a brand-new municipal complex, the project also included the demolition of the Bay Point Carousel. To Gregory’s surprise, this seemed to elicit the most unfavorable responses among his constituents. The phone had rung off the hook all day, and his inbox was flooded with angry emails.
“Not good,” he muttered.
He peered at the hundred-year-old carousel, located in the center of downtown, and wondered why it held such an appeal to everyone. He understood the structure’s historical significance. But it was a drain on the city’s budget, and it was almost always broken-down. It had to go.
Gregory withdrew his fingers from his shirt and cranked open the casement window. He needed the favor of Bay Point residents, but more important, he needed their votes in order to be elected to a second term as mayor. Somehow he had to get them back on his side. He had to make them see the beauty of his vision for the city. Tearing down the carousel would be a good thing. A new beginning.
He ran his hand down his face. Two knocks and a tap on the door jolted him from his thoughts.
“Come in,” he grunted.
The door opened. “Mayor Langston, is it all right if I leave for the day? My son has his first soccer practice tonight and—”
Mariella Vency, his executive assistant, was a single mother whose teenage son had a tendency to get into trouble. He knew that she was trying to encourage better behavior through participation in organized sports. They’d recently moved to Bay Point from Los Angeles, and the boy had few friends.
She paused and moved nearer. “Mayor Langston, are you okay?”
Gregory reluctantly turned around. “I’m fine.”
Her brows knitted together in concern. “Are you sure?”
He forced a smile, nodding. “We’ve had a couple of late nights lately. You deserve the night off.”
Mariella grinned and looked relieved. She was a pretty woman and, as far as he knew, unattached. But she wasn’t his type, and besides, he valued her too much as an employee—and valued his own reputation too much—to get involved romantically.
“Thanks, Mayor. I’ll just leave these phone messages on your desk.”
“A parting gift, Mariella? Thanks a lot,” he replied in a mock hurt tone, even though he knew it wasn’t her fault that all of a sudden he was the most hated man in Bay Point.
She gave him an apologetic smile and cast a worried glance outside. “You’d better leave soon, too. It’s clouding up out there.”
Gregory glanced over his shoulder and saw fat gray clouds stretching and rolling like rumpled sheets across the late-afternoon sky, just above the horizon.
“You’re right,” he said, turning back. “A storm is brewing.”
“I just hope the rain holds off for practice.”
He nodded again. “Have fun, and see you tomorrow.”
As soon as Mariella closed the door, Gregory cranked the window shut.
Still, he couldn’t take his eyes away from the sky. It could have been his imagination, but it seemed as though the sun gleamed brighter now, ever valiant against the dark clouds. He pressed his palm against the warm glass. The low heat of April was just a kiss of what was to come in a few months, but the light ocean breezes always evened out the hot summer days.
The weather was one of the things he loved most about living in California; the other was being mayor of Bay Point.
He couldn’t let anything, or anyone, screw up his plans for the city or for the carousel. People were entitled to their opinions, but the bottom line was that everyone knew things had to change in Bay Point, and he was the only one with the power to do it.
Gregory turned away from the window, slid his trademark black fedora on his head and quickly checked his appearance in the full-length mirror behind his office door.
The entire town was counting on him. He had no choice but to push aside his fears and trust Vanessa…a woman he barely knew.
© 2012-2016 Harmony Evans – All Rights Reserved.
Sterling Paxton, the firm’s owner and CEO, stood at the boardroom window with his back to Autumn, his pale white hands clasped loosely behind him. His stance was relaxed, yet every terse word sounded as if it were uttered through gritted teeth.
A chill threaded through Autumn’s spine, warning her to keep her guard up even as she sat frozen in place.
So this was what a bug must feel like, she thought, right before it’s about to get squashed.
Sterling turned abruptly on his heel and smacked his hands together.
“I said, is that clear, Ms. Hilliard?”
Autumn winced and drew in a sharp breath before smiling sweetly. “Of course, Mr. Paxton. I’ll do everything in my power to prevent that from happening. If Isaac Mason is committing securities fraud, rest assured, I will find out.”
Sterling’s lips thinned. “How long do you think that will take?”
Autumn resisted the urge to shrug, knowing he would be offended. Every client expected immediate results and it was her job to manage expectations. She was a damn good investigator, but she wasn’t a miracle worker.
“A few weeks. Maybe a month. Undercover work is never an exact science,” she cautioned.
Sterling slid his hands into his pockets, and she heard the tinny jingle of coins.
“Isaac must never know he’s under surveillance.”
“And he won’t,” Autumn affirmed with a nod. “Having Isaac mentor me as a new employee will enable me to build trust without arising suspicion.”
Sterling’s gaze narrowed. “For your sake, he better not.”
Autumn bristled at his veiled threat, but she said nothing. It was obvious Sterling didn’t trust Isaac. What she didn’t know was why, but she’d surely find out, on her own terms and in her own way.
“You have full access to all his files, reports and records,” Sterling continued. “I sent you the log-in information to our internal file system via email last night.”
He crossed the room and sat at the head of the table. The leather chair squeaked under the weight of his large frame.
“You and I are the only ones with knowledge of why I hired you,” he said, folding his hands slowly. “Not even my daughter, whom you’ll be meeting shortly, knows about this.”
Autumn sensed extreme urgency in his tone. “I understand the need for confidentiality,” she reassured him. “As soon as I have something of interest, I’ll report back.”
The conference room door opened and a tall, slender blonde entered into the room with a thick sheaf of papers in her hand. She closed the door behind her and glared at Sterling. But when she saw he wasn’t alone, she took a step back and Autumn watched as her face quickly morphed into a smile that was as fake as the handbags sold on a New York City street corner.
The woman moved toward her and extended her hand. “I’m Felicia Paxton, director of human resources. You must be Autumn Hilliard.”
Autumn stood. “It’s a pleasure to meet you.”
She shook Felicia’s clammy hand and silently wished for a tissue. She was five feet eight, and Felicia towered over her in an oppressive way that was probably intimidating to a lot of people. But not to Autumn. She wasn’t afraid of anything, except failing to solve a case.
“Please have a seat,” Felicia instructed. She turned to Sterling and glanced at her watch. “It’s 8:55 a.m. now. The meeting was supposed to start at 9 a.m., correct?”
“Yes,” Sterling answered in a bored tone, not bothering to look up. He seemed engrossed in scrolling through his smartphone. “We were just chatting while we were waiting for you.”
A blush washed over Felicia’s taut cheekbones. She walked around the table, pulled out a chair and settled down directly across from Autumn.
“In addition to being CEO, my father seems to love to do my job.”
Autumn took Felicia’s contentious tone as a subtle warning that anyone who dared trifle with her had just better think twice.
Sterling eyed the stack of papers Felicia had on the table. “Not that part,” he barked. “With the level of technology that’s available today, why is it that our employees still have to fill out all these forms?”
Felicia uncapped a pen and held it out to Autumn. “Two words, Father. Paper trail.”
Autumn produced one from her notepad, not from her ear, where it normally hid in a mass of natural curls.
She held it up. “I have one, thanks.”
Felicia frowned, as if she took it personally that Autumn had her own ink. “The government still loves killing trees,” she continued. “And I for one have to agree with them. Paper is more permanent. Electronic records can be hacked or deleted.”
Sterling’s eyes narrowed and caught Autumn’s. “My daughter seems to have forgotten that paper can be shredded,” he said dryly.
Felicia ignored him, but Autumn could almost feel how much she wanted to roll her baby blues at her father.
With one finger, she pushed the stack of papers toward Autumn. “I prefer you complete these now, but if you must, you can bring them back tomorrow. I’m here by 7 a.m. sharp every day.”
Autumn nodded and dutifully began to fill out the ream of paperwork, starting with her social security number. It was as fake as the new identity the government had bestowed upon her a few years ago. Just one of the so-called perks of settling out of court in one of the most high profile cases of corporate fraud in the United States.
She was just starting to fill out her name when the door suddenly opened. Her head snapped up, curls brushing against the side of her jaw, as Isaac Mason walked into the room, his stride purposeful.
It only took one look and Autumn knew this was one man she wouldn’t mind sticking close to all night long.
Isaac wore a tailored gray suit cut to perfection, a crisp white shirt, maroon silk tie and black leather shoes shined to a gloss. It was standard corporate attire and likely designer, based upon his wealth and prominent position in the company, but she couldn’t tell and didn’t care. It wasn’t his clothes that attracted her.
It was his face. Isaac was boyishly handsome with clean-shaven, mocha skin, a long straight nose that flared out just enough to be interesting, and full lips that invited lust.
Autumn found it especially difficult not to openly stare at his lean, muscular body. There was something irreverent about the way it seemed almost caged beneath the fabric of his suit.
So as discreetly as possible, she sized him up. From the top of his close-cropped black hair to the tips of his Brooks Brothers shoes. Because that’s what private investigators were supposed to do. No one could blame her for trying to do her job even in the midst of extreme male temptation.
And in her professional opinion, one fact was clear: Isaac Mason was her hottest suspect yet.
Isaac shut the door and held up his smartphone. “Sterling, sorry I’m late. I just got your meeting request.”
He stopped midstride, his eyes zeroing in on hers. From a distance, she couldn’t see what color they were, but they mesmerized her just the same. Luckily, she was able to maintain a mildly curious look on her face, although on the inside she felt her professional resolve begin to disintegrate.
“Am I interrupting something?”
Only the normal rhythm of my heartbeat, Autumn thought.
“Not at all.” Sterling waved him over. “I have someone I’d like you to meet. This is Autumn Hilliard, our newest analyst on the Paxton team.”
Autumn swiveled in her chair and stuck out her hand. Before she could stand up, Isaac’s skin warmed her palm and his smile instantly carved its way into her heart. It seemed that he held her hand a beat longer than necessary, but that could have only been her imagination. She was pretty but not gorgeous, and Autumn had a feeling that Isaac was used to the latter in his ladies.
He gave a little bow. “Welcome to the madness.”
Isaac’s voice had just enough depth to rumble in her ears, his tone pleasant and slightly mocking. He seemed distracted by something, and she wasn’t vain enough to think it was her.
Sterling openly scowled. “Isaac, I realize the market is slightly down this morning, but you’re going to be spending a lot of time with Autumn, so let’s keep things positive, okay?”
Autumn’s face tingled. The negative vibe in the room was getting more uncomfortable by the moment.
Isaac slipped his phone into his pants pocket. “You know me, Sterling.” He shrugged calmly. “I was just playing.”
He dropped into a chair next to Autumn and leaned back, his eyes casually grazing hers once more. She smiled and held his gaze, a tactic she used to build rapport with a client, a potential suspect, or a man who was really, really cute.
An unbidden spark pulsed between them, like the feeling one gets when suddenly remembering a long-forgotten dream, and Autumn knew that she’d have to be careful not to succumb to temptation.
Suddenly Isaac shot up in his chair. “What do you mean we’re going to be spending a lot time together?” It was as if he’d just now grasped the full extent of what his boss had said moments earlier.
Felicia’s eyes narrowed at Autumn and Isaac before turning her attention to Sterling. “Yes, Father. Explain.”
“That’s why I called the meeting,” Sterling bellowed, ignoring Felicia’s glare. “For the next few weeks, Isaac, you’re going to be Autumn’s mentor. Getting her acclimated to the way we do things around here.”
Out of the corner of her eye, Autumn saw Felicia’s hands tense.
“M-Mentoring!” Felicia sputtered. “What are you talking about, Daddy? My new employee onboarding process doesn’t begin until next month.”
Sterling pressed his index finger on the table and shook his head. “It starts now, Felicia.”
“But the process hasn’t been fully vetted,” she protested.
Sterling shrugged and leaned back in his chair, as if the matter was settled. “What better use case than a real scenario?”
Felicia smoothed her blond-in-a-bottle hair. She was probably very pretty when she smiled, but that wasn’t the case now.
“Legal won’t like it,” she warned.
He gave a disgusted sigh. “Have you forgotten that our in-house attorneys report to me?”
Felicia threw up her hands in exasperation. “I haven’t even completed all the required documentation.”
Sterling looked up from his cell phone and rolled his eyes. “Great, just what we need. More paperwork.”
Autumn cast a glance at Felicia and stifled a laugh. If she had a pencil, paper and an artistic bone in her body, she would sketch two plumes of steam erupting from each of her ears and fire blazing in her eyes. The woman looked that angry.
Sterling’s phone beeped loudly and he stood. “You’ll have to excuse me. I’m due at another meeting in a few minutes.”
He handed Isaac a manila folder. “I’ll leave you two alone to get acquainted.”
Autumn smiled at Felicia and she could almost see the wheels turning in her head. Her gaze lingered on Isaac for a moment, as if that would lure him away. She seemed to sense something that neither Autumn nor Isaac could have imagined.
Sterling opened the door and exhaled impatiently. “Felicia, are you coming?”
Autumn tapped the stack of papers with her pen, breaking the tense moment.
“I’ll have these back to you this afternoon.”
Felicia rewarded her with a nod and a thin-lipped smile.
“Right behind you, Father.”
She waited until Sterling was gone, and then rose from her chair slowly, as if she were still reluctant to leave.
Autumn felt Isaac’s gaze upon her cheek. She dug the toes of her shoes into the carpet in a vain attempt to hold on to the twinge of pleasure that zoomed through her body.
“Isaac,” Felicia said sharply. “Be sure to show her my office, won’t you?” Her voice suddenly dropped to almost a whisper, like dark silk hiding a double-edged sword.“You know the way.”
Without saying another word, Felicia quickly walked out of the room, closing the door behind her, leaving an empty vacuum of silence and longing.
The statement was an invitation for Isaac, backed up by veiled warning meant for any woman who might interfere.
But what Felicia didn’t know was that Autumn wasn’t a threat to whatever hold—real or imagined—she had on Isaac.
Sterling hadn’t hired her to bed the man, although at first glance the thought did cross her mind. No, she was here to conduct an investigation into a possible case of corporate securities fraud.
Autumn didn’t know what, if anything, was going on between the two of them, but if it affected the outcome of this case, she would damn sure find out.
© 2012-2016 Harmony Evans – All Rights Reserved.
Whether it was doing her own taxes or carefully screening any man who wanted to date her, Natalie left nothing to chance, especially where her heart was concerned.
She was always on time and always in control.
The thump-thump of the basketball intensified, reminding Natalie that she was here for one reason: to change Derek Lansing’s life.
She was sure Derek would be like the rest of her clients: wildly successful, yet highly inefficient in their day-to-day lives. As a life coach she advised her A-list clientele on everything from time management and goal-setting to relationships and intimacy. She loved her job and she was good at it.
Then why was her stomach churning as it used to before a big competition? The former professional ice skater chastised herself for being nervous.
“Ridiculous,” Natalie muttered. “He’s just another client.”
Peering around a row of seats, she caught a glimpse of the popular basketball star and clamped her hand over her mouth in shock.
Derek was shooting baskets with such ferocity it was as though his whole life depended on making every shot. The man was an island. His eyes were totally focused on the net, on the goal.
Yet her eyes were all over him.
He was tall, perhaps six feet six inches, and lean-muscled with rich dark-brown skin that glistened with sweat. His shoulder-length jet-black dreadlocks swayed rhythmically with his every movement, teasing her imagination.
When he grabbed the last ball from the cart, he yelled something she couldn’t understand. His legs, powerfully built and tense with virile energy, sprung into the air, seeming to master space and time.
She held her breath, her eyes following the arc of the ball to its final destination. But at the last moment it missed the net, slammed the backboard and bounced to the floor, rolling in her direction.
Derek swung off the rim, landed on the floor, grabbed his knees and howled. The pain in that sound went straight to her heart. She recognized it.
It was the sound of desperation, of a soul cracked wide open and laid bare to an empty room that couldn’t judge, couldn’t laugh.
So this is Derek Lansing, Natalie thought. Number 17. Star forward for the New York Skylarks.
She adjusted her purse, checked her watch and smiled. She was right on schedule.
Time to turn his world upside down.
Natalie walked out onto the court and stopped the basketball with the heel of her black stiletto boot.
“Looking for this?” she asked, one hand on her hip to steady herself.
Derek uncurled his body, slow and easy, like a bear emerging from hibernation. He stood still, chest heaving, and her heart raced as his eyes slid down her legs and traveled back up her body.
Under the bright lights, her right eye twitched involuntarily and she realized with horror that he probably thought she was winking at him. She dropped the diva pose and almost lost her balance, but quickly regained it.
He strode over to her, his face like stone.
“This is a private practice. No fans allowed.”
He sounded irritated and she realized he was probably embarrassed that he’d missed the shot.
Yet his eyes, gray and thick-lashed, rounded her face with keen interest. “Not even beautiful ones.”
Warmth flooded her body at his compliment, although she knew he probably didn’t mean it to sound as intimate as it did.
“Where’s the guard?” he muttered, looking over her head toward the door.
She laughed, releasing some of her nervousness. “Do I look dangerous to you?”
His eyes seemed to take possession of her curves as they roamed her body again, leaving a trail of fire.
His lips tilted up. “Depends on which part you’re talking about.”
She crossed her arms over her chest, her stiletto boot barely teetering on the ball. “Excuse me?”
With no response, he pulled up his shirt and she almost fell off the ball again, but he only wiped the sweat from his face.
A rush of desire poured through her at the sight of his abdomen, cut deep with muscles, and she wondered what it would feel like if her tongue were to take a slow ride in the deep valleys of his rich brown skin.
Oh Lord, it had been so long since she’d touched a man.
She moistened her lips involuntarily just as he stepped forward, gathering his locks into a low ponytail, and her face heated again.
“Well?” he said, peering down at her.
He was so close, only an arm’s length away. The urge to reach out and touch his skin, glistening with sweat, was so strong she barely heard him.
He poked her on the shoulder. “Are you going to give it to me or am I going to have to play you for it?”
Caught off guard, her head snapped up. “What are you talking about?”
Her eyes darted up to his face where amusement danced in his gray eyes.
He pointed at her foot. “How about a little one-on-one?” he teased. “Fan against man.”
Her eyes widened and she looked away. The meeting was not going according to plan. It had been a while since a man had rendered her completely speechless, both in his looks and his manner. He’d thrown her for a loop, but now it was time to get things back under her control.
Trying to avoid looking at his muscular legs, she bent her knees as gracefully as her black pencil skirt would allow and picked up the ball. After adjusting her purse, she placed the ball snugly within the crook of her left arm.
“Mr. Lansing. We have a meeting that was supposed to start—” she checked her watch and frowned “—two minutes ago. I am not a fan and I am most certainly not here to play games. I’m here to discuss the rules of engagement and the clock is ticking.”
Derek placed his hand over his chest, his eyes absorbing hers like a secret told under the covers. “I didn’t know we were getting married,” he replied.
The intimacy in his tone stirred an intense yearning and a long-held dream, neither of which would likely be fulfilled.
Natalie was used to denying her needs to focus on the task at hand, but she was finding it very difficult to concentrate in front of this way-too-gorgeous man.
She lifted her chin. “Not married, Mr. Lansing. Organized. Your manager called me this morning and I came right over. He said you needed a little help.”
Derek burst out laughing. “Wow, when I told Tony I needed a personal assistant, I was just joking. I never thought he’d actually hook me up with one.”
Natalie clutched the ball tighter, bristling inside. “I am not your personal assistant,” she replied in a terse tone. “I am your life coach.”
He clasped his hands loosely on his hips. “What’s the difference?”
She smiled, happy to provide a definition. “Easy. A personal assistant is at your beck and call. She or he runs around doing everything you want. A life coach helps you set goals so you can manage your time and your life more efficiently.”
His doubtful look irked her to the core, so it was time to break it down to brass tacks.
“I’m not your go-for, Mr. Lansing. I’m your lifesaver.”
He raised a brow, and it was clear he was trying not to laugh again.
“Oh-h. Now you’re talking my language. My favorite flavor is orange. What flavor are you?”
She exhaled so hard the ball almost popped out of her grasp. Pushing aside her frustration, she looked into his eyes and nearly smiled at what she saw. One twinkled with mischief, the other with mayhem. Clearly the man enjoyed stirring up a fuss, making her crazy with something she’d rather not think about right now.
“Can you be serious, please?” she huffed, forcing the ball back into place.
He shrugged indifferently and then walked around her in a circle making imaginary free throws.
“How can I be serious when you haven’t even told me your name?”
Now it was her turn to be embarrassed. How could she have forgotten something as simple as an introduction? No wonder things were so out of her control.
“Sorry. I’m Natalie Kenyon,” she said, fishing a business card out of her purse. “I own a company called StarCoach, Inc. I help my clients with time management, organization and motivation.”
He stopped walking and his fingertips leaned against hers for the briefest of moments as he took the card from her grasp. After a quick glance, he stuck it into the waistband of his navy-blue basketball shorts and wrested the ball from her grasp.
“Thanks. But the only thing I need to keep track of is right here in my hands.”
He spun the basketball on his index finger, and kept it going with the other hand. “My whole world revolves around the game. It’s all that matters to me.”
She crossed her arms and, with a twinge of guilt, took aim.
“That’s not what the headlines say.”
Derek flinched and swung his head toward hers. The ball dropped to the floor with a loud twang and he grabbed it before it bounced a second time.
Natalie knew she’d hit a nerve, but sometimes she had to play hard, especially when a client was as stubborn as Derek seemed to be.
“Oh, yeah?” He smirked. “What’s the latest?”
She met his eyes, spoke softly. “That you’re on a three-game suspension for not showing up at morning practices for the past month. You’ve been irresponsible, unfocused and like a different person—both on and off the court.”
Derek bounced the ball a few times, a bored expression on his face.
“They fit all that in a headline?”
She tapped her foot rapidly. As attractive as he was, he was really testing her patience this morning.
“You don’t seem to be taking this situation very seriously,” she said in a calm voice.
He shrugged and bounced the ball again. “Would you?”
“Absolutely,” she said, nodding. In fact, she took everything seriously. It was one of her worst faults. Behind her calm and poised demeanor, she was a bundle of nervous energy that was never satisfied.
His face went hard, but there was pain in his eyes. “Then you must care what people think about you. Thankfully, I don’t have that problem.”
One massive hand palmed the ball and he pointed it at her. “So you can just take your Gucci purse, and all the little motivational brochures you probably got stuffed in there, on down to Wall Street. With this economy, those guys need it more than I do.”
Her heart sank, but she was intrigued rather than dismayed by his attitude. Derek wasn’t a typical A-lister. Instead of soaking up the adoration of his fans, Derek seemed almost resentful of the attention. The psychologist in her wanted to know why.
A memory slashed her brain, rocked her back into the past. She’d been in his place before. Esteemed and highly regarded one minute, forgotten and scorned the next. She could help him before it was too late. If he would only let her.
She took a chance, reached out and touched his arm. It was thick with tension. “I’m not here about me,” she said quietly. “I’m here for you.”
He took a couple of steps back, as if she was offering something that would hurt rather than help him.
The playfulness on his face was gone and his voice was like stone again.
“And I’m here to play ball. No more. No less. And as much I would love to stand here and stare at that pretty face of yours, I’ve got to get back to the court.”
And with a squeak of his sneaker, he turned and walked away, dribbling the ball and whistling as though he didn’t have a care in the world.
But he wasn’t fooling her. She knew how easy it was to pretend.
Derek was super-talented, handsome and wealthy. But even without a degree in psychology, Natalie could tell that beneath the bad-boy attitude was a man who was in pain. It was clear he would require a different, non-traditional approach to get him on board with her plan.
Checking her watch, she mentally ticked off the to-do items on her schedule for the rest of the day, and decided she could squeeze in some minor inconvenience.
As quietly as she could, she set her purse on the floor and slowly unzipped her boots. After a brief glance around to make sure she was alone, she pulled off her panty hose and unbuttoned the top button of her shirt.
With a quick toe flex, she sprinted like a gazelle toward Derek and stole the ball from him mid-dribble. She rounded him for the layup and, mercifully, the ball went up, over and through the basket.
She caught it and passed it to Derek so hard he nearly dropped the ball. She wanted to laugh out loud at the surprised look on his face.
“What’s the matter?” she teased, shifting her bare feet back and forth, ready to charge forth. “You said you wanted to play one-on-one, didn’t you?”
Derek dribbled the ball a few times and she could tell he was doing his best to appear unruffled by the sudden change in her appearance, and her attitude.
“I thought you were leaving.”
Her toes curled as she felt his eyes move over her bare legs and feet. The ball whizzed through the air and she caught it from him easily.
She crossover-dribbled the ball, keeping her feet planted on the cold wood floor, as she tried to anticipate his next move.
“I never back away from a challenge,” she said, dribbling the ball.
For a moment the only sound in the room was the twang-twang of the basketball bouncing against the floor.
Suddenly, Derek closed the gap between them. But she quickly pivoted out of his reach.
“And I don’t play ball with chicks in skirts. It’s too…” He shook his head and swallowed hard. “Distracting.”
She grinned. “You mean, it’s too easy to lose!”
“Me lose to a girl?” He put his hands on his hips and his sonorous laugh echoed throughout the court. “Are you kidding me?”
She kept a straight face and dribbled the ball until his laughter finally died away.
“You ever play before?” he asked. The wariness in his voice bolstered her false bravado.
She hesitated for a few seconds, feeling a strong urge to just hand over the ball and walk away from him, from the task she was hired to do. What was she thinking going head-to-head in anything, let along basketball, with one of the NBA’s top forwards?
She huffed out a breath. “I think you know the answer to that,” she chided.
He raised a brow, flexed his fingers. “You got one shot off me, you won’t get another.”
“We’ll see about that,” she countered, although by the look on his face, she knew he was telling the truth. He wasn’t going to go easy on her.
“Half court press,” she said, circling around him. “First one to hit five baskets wins.”
He clapped his hands together, as if he’d already won. “Game on! You might as well start packing up that Gucci bag and crying for your mama.”
My what? she thought, and before she knew what was happening, Derek smacked the ball out of her hand. A few seconds later he made a humongous, swinging-on-the-edge-of-the-net dunk and landed on both feet. Grabbing the ball, he passed it to her as she caught up to meet him.
Her bare feet pounded the floor as she rounded him and then faked him out for a not-so-easy layup.
“One-one. Nice job,” he commented.
The ball bounced once on the floor and Derek grabbed it. She edged toward him until they were practically toe-to-toe and attempted to steal the ball, but he held it high over his head.
“No traveling!” she shouted, reaching for it, knowing there was no way she could grab it. At five feet six inches, she was clearly outmatched. But she kept stretching for it anyway and felt her shirt pull out from the waistband of her skirt. But she didn’t care. Now was not the time for fashion.
She had to win.
If not for him, for herself. To prove that she could compete again and not run away or give up.
He faked her out and dribbled toward the three-point line, where he immediately shot the ball. Natalie watched it arc over her head and drop through the net without kicking up a breeze, which would have been welcome in the hot air.
Derek cupped his hands around his mouth. “He shoots! He scores!” he shouted.
“Don’t rub it in,” she complained as she trotted over to pick up the ball. “Didn’t your mother tell you that was bad sportsmanship?”
“She never had to,” he answered.
She dribbled the ball down court.
“Why is that?” she called back to him.
His sneakers screeched to a halt as he caught up to her.
“Because I never lost,” he replied with a toothy grin.
She shot him a hard pass. “You’re impossible!”
“And you’re losing,” he taunted, and then groaned when she immediately stole the ball again.
She pivoted just under the basket. “Not for long,” she said, and sprung for the layup. But it was nothing but rim, and the ball ended back in Derek’s palms.
“You were saying?” he teased. She scowled and stuck out her tongue at him.
Derek broke the tension with some fancy footwork and dribbling á la Harlem Globetrotters that left her doubled over with laughter. He was so charming and playful that she almost forgot she was supposed to be competing against him—a dangerous combination.
In the middle of his antics, she saw an opportunity to smack the ball out of his hands and she did.
Changing direction, she sprinted back toward the basket and grit out a mental prayer. “Please let this one go in, please let this one go in.” She was amazed when the ball sailed through, barely moving the net.
“I’m impressed,” said Derek, grabbing the ball after the first bounce. “Luck is definitely with the lady tonight. It’s all tied up now and it’s anyone’s game. You ready?
Beads of sweat tickled the base of her spine. “I’m always ready,” she huffed delicately, trying to catch her breath.
He circled around her, dribbling the ball, slow and easy. “Well. Just so you think you’re not just another pretty face who thinks she’s got game…”
He passed her the ball, moved behind her and put his arm around her waist.
“Let’s see how you play defense,” he challenged.
Derek’s powerful body moved with hers in a heated battle for possession of the ball. She bit her lip against the desire that stole her breath away.
Inhaling deeply, she bent her legs to gain more traction, but his iron-hard thighs swished against her backside, throwing her off balance and she struggled to maintain control of the ball and her senses. Finally she broke away and went east-west, weaving around him.
A second later his hands caught her around the waist and he vaulted her up toward the basket. She slammed the ball into the net, and the next thing she knew her feet were on the ground, and her heart was in her throat.
He spun her around to face him, but he didn’t let go of her.
His voice, low and sweet, tented a cloak of intimacy around them, as if she’d just conquered him in the bedroom rather than on the basketball court.
She gulped back a cry of indignation under his mesmerizing gaze. “B-but you helped me make the basket,” she protested.
His gray eyes lit up with an I-play-for-keeps kind of fire.
“We all need a lift now and then. Don’t you agree?”
Natalie nodded, still a little shocked at how comfortable she’d felt in Derek’s arms. He was her client, so officially he was off-limits. That was a good thing. She never let her heart get in the way of her profession, and she wouldn’t start now.
She met his eyes, hoping he couldn’t see the desire that remained in her own. “Um. The game is over. You can let me go now.”
He dropped his hands, reluctantly it seemed, and led her to a row of courtside seats.
“How’d you learn to play ball like that?” he said, tossing her a towel before grabbing one for himself.
She caught it with one hand. “Thanks. It’s a long story,” she murmured and sat, her heart racing.
He wiped the sweat from his face. “I’d like to hear it sometime.”
The smile on his full lips invited her fantasies, and she tried not to stare at his wet-glistened body, so deep and dark with angles and planes. He was all muscle and bone and length.
She knew she could spend a night, or better yet, a lifetime exploring and never satiate her need to discover him. With effort, she tore her eyes away and checked her watch.
“I don’t think that would be a good idea.”
Derek turned and spread his arms wide. “Why not? Look at me, I’m an open book.”
Her face warmed under his watchful eyes, beckoning her lips to smile in response. She longed to talk to someone about other things besides goal-setting and efficient and organized living.
She had a few close girlfriends, but she rarely confided in them. Since she was a life coach and a former psychologist, they naturally expected her to have all the answers to life’s toughest questions. They didn’t realize that she struggled to make sense of things, too.
While Derek seemed sincere, she couldn’t allow herself to get hurt. Although she’d taken a huge risk and played an innocent game of basketball with him, her heart and her bed were out of bounds.
“I doubt that,” Natalie said. She walked back over to the place where she’d left her stuff lying in a heap.
Derek followed her and she felt his eyes on her as she bent to zip up her stiletto boots, ignoring the outstretched arm he offered to help her balance. She slipped on her now-wrinkled suit coat and dropped her panty hose into her purse.
He touched her arm, leaving it pulsating with heat in the wake of his touch. “But what about the rules of engagement?”
Her heart raced anew and she was unnerved that he’d remembered, let alone repeated, something she’d said earlier.
She clutched at her belongings, glad to have something to hold on to. “I’ll meet you at your house at 8:00 a.m. sharp tomorrow.”
He nodded. “It’s a date.”
She didn’t respond. Unconsciously she just wanted to savor the sound of his voice, tantalizing her imagination, hinting at promise and pleasure. In his eyes, she saw unmitigated need and unyielding desire.
As she turned and walked off the practice court, only one thing was on her mind. Could he possibly feel those emotions for her? Or had she only seen herself reflected in his gray eyes?
© 2012-2016 Harmony Evans – All Rights Reserved.
Cara stepped out of the taxi on West 135th Street in Harlem clutching her briefcase like a life preserver, her eyes transfixed on the building before her. The growling sounds of a saxophone poured out through an open window belonging to Alex Dovington, a man she’d wanted to meet for nearly thirteen years.
And the same man she had to teach how to read…in three days.
A cramp gripped her stomach like a vise and she bit her lower lip against the hard ridge of pain. For the millionth time, she questioned herself. Could she do this? If Alex found out who she really was, there was no telling how he would react.
The truth was she had no choice.
Her heels crunched through rust-colored leaves as she walked up the stairs of his home, an ornate renovated brownstone. Inhaling the earthy fragrance of the air calmed her nerves.
How she loved Autumn! The season was especially beautiful in New York City. But lately, she’d been so busy trying to raise funds for Beacon House, the adult literacy center she founded and struggled to keep open, she barely noticed the warm days blending into cool nights.
She desperately needed the substantial donation she would receive if she succeeded in teaching Alex to read in three days. Failure was unthinkable and she would do whatever it took to avoid it.
She reached the landing, sucked in another deep breath, pressed the doorbell. Chimes amplified the fresh wave of panic that rippled through her. She spotted a jack-o-lantern perched on the stoop next door. The ghoulish sentry seemed to mock her with its crooked smile and she stuck her tongue out at it in defiance.
Just then, the door swung open. Startled, she jerked backwards and grabbed hold of the railing to avoid falling off the edge of the stair.
Her heart scampered into her throat and her eyes widened at the man towering before her.
Album covers and magazine pictures did not do the brother justice. Nearly six feet tall with dark honey-caramel skin and a body that looked like it was made for a woman’s most scandalous dreams, Alex was more than fine. He was “Now-That-I’ve-Seen-U-I-Can-Die-Now” gorgeous.
A tenor saxophone dangled like an upside-down question mark from a navy blue lariat around his neck. The large instrument looked like a child’s toy nestled against his bare chest and flat, ripped abdomen.
Stop staring! She was stargazing, yet she found she couldn’t help herself.
Although Cara sensed Alex speaking, her attention focused on a serpent tattoo curled like a vise around the taut muscles of his upper right bicep. The head and forked tongue licked his bent elbow, igniting her curiosity, and she wondered if he had more tattoos and if so, where they were located on his body.
Face flushed, she lifted her eyes to discover he was staring right back. A frown tugged at the corners of his full lips and his fingers gripped the edge of the door, as if to warn her he could slam it shut at any moment.
His voice, a rich baritone that could melt ice, finally reached into her ears, pulled her back to reality. But when she opened her mouth to answer him, nothing came out.
Before she try again, he shook his head and with an agitated sigh, began to close the door.
Cara leaped forward. “W-wait!” Her voice so loud it echoed in her ears.
He paused, one hand braced against the jamb, the other on the doorknob, brows lifted, waiting. Her heart stopped for a moment and she gulped back her surprise. Met his eyes and forced what she hoped was a confident smile.
“Yes. I’m Cara Williams.”
She put her briefcase down, wiped her palm on the side of her skirt and decided against shaking his hand. She didn’t want to risk getting the door slammed in her face.
“Sorry if I’m early. I guess I’m eager to get started, given our overall time constraints.”
He was silent, choosing instead to let his eyes speak for him. They trailed down and over her body, as if exploring the twists and turns of a melody on his horn, and she fought the urge to look away under his gaze.
Alex reached for her briefcase, his fingers grazing hers and she tried to ignore the sensations prickling a path from her knuckles to shoulder.
“Come on in,” he said, but there was no welcome in his voice.
She thanked him, stepped inside and her ears twitched as multiple locks clicked into place behind her. He strode past without a glance, leaving her confused and disappointed as Alex led them down a short hallway to the living room.
Cara’s eyes were drawn to a magnificent grand piano that held court in one corner. It seemed to lord over the sheets of manuscript paper scattered on the polished wood floor around it.
But that was nothing compared to the Grammy Award enclosed in glass and the cluster of gold records hanging in an alcove to the right of the piano.
The visual impact of who he was and what he’d accomplished in his career made her knees wobble. She was relieved when Alex placed her briefcase next to a black leather couch and motioned her to sit down.
A bead of sweat trickled down her spine as she watched him unhook the sax from the lariat around his neck, slide the reed off the mouthpiece, wipe the instrument with a cloth and place it in the case.
His gentleness made her feel like she was observing something more intimate than mere ritual, like a father who suddenly reaches out to ruffle his child’s hair as he tucks him into bed.
Without a word, he got up and walked over to the piano. Shifting in her seat, she clasped her hands together in her lap for courage she did not feel.
“You don’t seem too thrilled that I’m here.”
Alex’s hand wavered just before he pulled the cord on the music lamp, extinguishing the glow over the black and white keys.
He turned and looked at her. She held her breath, wishing she had insisted the sessions take place at Beacon House.
She felt out of her realm here, away from the familiar surroundings of her storefront office.
“You’re right.” His voice held a hard edge. “I’m not.”
He knows. Panic sliced through her and she exhaled in dismay. The knowledge that there were thousands of people with the last name ‘Williams’ in New York City did little to console her.
When she didn’t answer, he reached for a stack of papers and started to crumple them with one hand, the sound like kindling popping in a fire. He tossed them into a metal trashcan already overflowing with their discarded brethren. There was no anger in the motions, only a touch of resentment.
She found her voice, forced it steady. “I don’t understand. I was hired to give you private reading lessons.”
“My manager hired you.” He stuffed a few survivors into a briefcase she hadn’t noticed before and thumbed down the latches. “Not me.”
Her secret was still safe.
Relief flooded Cara’s body, but she was more confused than ever.
She swallowed the lump in her throat, removed the contract from her purse. “There must be some mistake.” She held it out. “Your signature is right here.”
Alex waved away the document. “You don’t need to prove it to me, Miss Williams. The fact is Tommy signed the contract in my name. That’s what he does when I’m out of town or unavailable.”
She peered at the signature. It was barely legible and since it arrived via fax, she’d just assumed it belonged to Alex. The mistake could cost her.
“Usually he lets me know the nature of the contract before he signs.” He lowered the cover on the grand piano with ease. “This time, he did not.”
She clutched the contract like a lifeline and watched him walk to the window. He stared outside and Cara could hear the sounds of children playing outside.
”I got back into town late last night. Tommy called me this morning. Dropped the bomb that you’d be coming here. Then he told me why. I called your office right away but there was no answer.”
She was afraid to ask the question, but asked anyway. “Why were you trying to reach me?”
He turned, folded his arms and leveled his eyes at hers. “To tell you I have no intention of learning how to read. Not now, not ever.”
Her stomach plummeted and for a moment, she couldn’t breathe, couldn’t think. His tone was indignant, the words decisive and not to be challenged. But he didn’t know she never gave up on her students and she wasn’t going to start now. Especially when she had so much at stake.
Still, contract aside, he had to want to learn how to read or else there would be little chance for success. She had to convince him to continue with the lessons, to believe he could do this.
A sudden burst of energy rocked her body. She set aside the contract and smoothed her skirt.
“I’m sorry Tommy didn’t communicate with you.” She kept her voice calm, chose her words more carefully. “You have every right to be upset.”
Alex flopped down on the far end of the couch, leaned back and slung his arm over his eyes.
She swiveled her legs to face him. He turned his head and gave her a pointed stare.
“I can tell you this. I don’t need a tutor,” he retorted, his voice razor-sharp as he jabbed his thumb into his chest. “Even if I did, I should be the one doing the hiring.”
Her face burned with anger. Although she knew he was simply blowing off steam, completely understandable in this unusual situation, she had to look away to maintain her composure.
Alex tapped her arm and it pulsated with heat, sending her heart rate to the moon. She turned, hoping her reaction to his touch didn’t show in her eyes.
“Look, Miss Williams,” he said, his voice several notches softer. Her last name got lost in a yawn. “As you can see, I’m exhausted from my trip. I’m sorry about the inconvenience, but there’s no deal. I can’t do this.”
She unfolded her arms at her sides. “If it’s my qualifications you’re worried about, I can assure you th—”
“You don’t get it, do you?” He leapt from the couch, his voice thundering off the walls. “I should fire Tommy for pulling this stunt, but I can’t blame him. He was just trying to protect me.”
Her eyes paced with him as walked in front of the huge marble fireplace until he stopped and leaned his elbow on the mantle.
She got up and took a few tentative steps towards him. “Protect you? From what?”
“My record company! While I was in Europe, they set up a book tour of elementary schools in Harlem. But they…” his voice trailed off and something seemed to deflate within him.
“Don’t know you can’t read,” she finished.
Their eyes locked and now that Cara was standing closer to him, she saw his were hazel, the irises speckled with bits of green. She was momentarily mesmerized by their unusual hue, and the intense shame color couldn’t hide.
So that’s why he’s so angry. Although he would probably never admit it, she could see in his eyes he was afraid. She had to tread lightly, or she’d lose him to that fear.
Alex parted his lips like he was going to say something else, but instead he stalked away.
She trailed after him. “Well, it is kind of a cool way to introduce your music to a younger audience,” she offered. “I know if I was a kid, I’d be excited to see you in person.”
A few feet away, he swung around and stared at her like she had two heads. “It’s a waste of time! Kids are listening to hip-hop and rap, not jazz. Armstrong, Coltrane, Miles, and Ellington – they’ve never heard of them. If it ain’t sampled or doesn’t have enough bass to blow their eardrums out, they’re not into it.”
His eyes shifted to the overflowing wastebasket, then back to her.
“When does the tour start?”
“Week from today,” Alex grumbled. “Tommy’s trying to get it pushed back.”
Cara ran her hand through her curls before walking over to where he stood at the window. “Learning to read is very difficult for anyone, especially for adults. It’s not something you want to attempt on your own.”
He whirled around and pointed at her. “I told you I’m not interested. I’ve gotten along fine my whole life and nobody’s gonna change that. I’ll handle this book tour fiasco in my own way, in my own time, not anyone else’s.”
He turned and jabbed the windowsill with his knuckles, as if to emphasize that the matter was closed. Still, even his taut arms and the harsh finality of his words rang hollow.
Both of them knew there was no escape from what lay ahead.
He put his forehead against the windowpane. “Tommy is the only one besides my mom who knows about…that I can’t…” his voice ebbed away and he shook his head. “He’s been with me for years, through everything, almost since the beginning of my career.”
She gazed at the muscular expanse of his bare back and a sense of protectiveness winnowed through her. She wanted to wrap her arms around his trim waist and pull him away from his fears. She had to make him believe in himself, and in her.
She approached him, placed her hand on his arm, hating herself for what she was about to say. His skin felt warm and the muscle underneath tensed as he turned to look at her. “It sounds like he really cares about you, and helps you out a lot. But what if, God forbid, something happens to Tommy. What then?”
His shoulders slumped in reply and she knew she’d hit a nerve. Then his eyes, those beautiful hazel eyes filled with pain, bore into hers.
When he finally spoke, his voice was hoarse and splintered her heart. “This can’t get out. If it does, it’ll destroy my career.”
As a high-profile musician and one of the hottest bachelors in Harlem, she knew the media would have a field day if they learned he was illiterate.
“No one will know. I promise,” she assured him, keeping her voice light in spite of the emotions churning within her.
“I live a very quiet, boring life and I’d like it to stay that way.”
“I don’t think anything about you would qualify as boring.”
She bit her lower lip with pleasure, although she was unsure whether he meant it as a compliment.
“Tommy told me about the big money I’m going to give to you.”
She shook her head. “You mean, ‘donate’. None of it is going to me personally. It’s going to fund Beacon House.”
He gave her a curious stare, then shrugged. “It doesn’t matter because you’re both nuts. There’s no way I can learn how to read in one weekend,” he insisted.
She nodded. “You’re right. You won’t be able to read War and Peace, but I promise you’ll be able to read a simple children’s book by Monday.”
Alex shoved his hands into his jeans, revealing a thin line of hair at the base of his abdomen that Cara longed to trace to its final destination.
He sounded doubtful. “I guess I don’t have a choice.”
She looked him in the eye. “Of course you do,” she asserted. “You can quit, but look at your options. If you do the tour, your record company is happy and no one knows a thing. If you don’t do the tour, it’ll be a PR nightmare. I’m willing to bet they already sent out the press release, right?”
“Yes. My publicist was overjoyed. At least one of us is happy.”
“So, what reason could you possibly give for backing out now?”
He smoothed his hand over his perfectly round, bald head and gave a sigh of resignation. “I guess the dog ate my homework wouldn’t fly, would it?”
She grinned. “It’s going to be ok. I promise,” reassuring him. “If you don’t want to continue with the reading lessons after the tour, you don’t have to. But regardless, your secret will be safe.”
And so will mine.
Alex stared at her a moment, and Cara knew he was debating whether to trust her or not. She had to figure out a way to make him feel at ease with her…and soon.
Slipping his hands out of his pockets, he pushed away from the window with his shoulder. “I’m going to take a quick shower and finish packing before my limo arrives.”
Panic sluiced through her veins. Tommy had told her Alex’s schedule was clear for the weekend. They needed to spend as much time as possible on the lessons and not be disturbed. “Limo? What limo?”
“The one taking us to my home in the Catskill Mountains.”
A knot formed in the pit of her stomach. “But I thought I was going to be teaching you here, in Harlem.”
He shook his head. “I’d already planned to spend a long weekend in the mountains. I’m supposed to be relaxing, remember? I’m not changing those plans for anybody. Is that a problem?”
The reality of his words hit full force and a shudder of excitement went through her.
Alone with Alex in the Catskills. Where there were no taxis, no takeout, and no escape? She already a hot mess about being with him in his Harlem townhouse.
She wasn’t scared of him, just unused to being with alone with a man she was attracted to for an extended period of time. Her dates were few and far between, and most of them never made it as far as her bed. Devoted to her work, the words ‘sex’ and ‘social life’ were missing from her personal dictionary.
There’s really no need to worry, she told herself. Alex was her student. She was his teacher. The lines were clearly drawn. Remembering how he’d looked at her at the front door, she, like most women, knew when a man was attracted to her.
And Alex Dovington most certainly was not.
The same could not be said for her.
It was difficult not to stare at him as he stood there, maddeningly out of reach, body cut and chiseled to perfection like a Renaissance statue. The man was off the hook, and off-limits, yet her eyes yearned to do what her lips could not – devour him.
His shoulders moved forward, snapping her back to reality.
“Sorry. I lost my train of thought for a second. That’ll be fine. I just need to run home and pack. I should be back in a couple of hours.”
He nodded, and she kept her eyes on him as he walked out. After he left, she grabbed her purse and dug for cab fare.
He popped his head in the room and she dropped her bag in surprise. “Oh, I forgot to tell you. I was an absolute terror in school. My teachers hid behind their desks when I walked into the room. Fair warning.”
His voice was stern, but she detected a hint of a smile on his lips.
She arched an eyebrow. “I guess I’ll just have to get creative to keep you interested.”
Where did that come from?
Judging by the odd look on his face, he was just as surprised as she was.
“If you want to grab something to drink before you leave, the kitchen is at the end of the hallway. Help yourself.”
Cara waited until he went upstairs, and then drifted over to the little alcove where gold records ornamented the wall. Tucking a curl behind her ear, she gazed at the Grammy Award, but her thoughts were elsewhere.
Had she been flirting with him just now?
She almost laughed out loud. Absolutely not. When it came to devising enticing lines to attract the opposite sex, she got a big, fat ‘F’.
Passing the piano, her feet kicked something out of the way. Looking down, she saw a balled-up piece of manuscript paper that had somehow escaped burial. She glanced over her shoulder before picking it up.
Smoothing out the wrinkles with the palm of her hand, she hummed the melody. It was the tune he was playing when arrived. Smiling, she refolded the music and stuck it into her purse.
On her way to the kitchen, her smile faded when it suddenly struck her that there were no pictures of Alex’s friends or family around, not even of his brother Michael.
Every small room in her own apartment was filled with pictures, memories frozen in time. She cherished each one, especially the ones of her mother who died when she was nine years old.
Shouldering her purse and briefcase, Cara selected a bottle of juice from the fridge. Her mind wandered to Alex’s numerous records, the U.S. and European concert tours, the sold-out performances at jazz clubs across the country and the world. All were trophies to his artistic talent.
But where were the tributes to his personal life?
As she closed the front door, the last thing she heard was the faint sound of water spraying in the shower, reigniting her nerves. Soon the biggest challenge of her life would begin. She sank down on the stoop, leaned her head against the cold iron railing, and prayed.
© 2012-2016 Harmony Evans – All Rights Reserved.
April 17, 2014 — Check out my April blog post over at The Pink Heart Society: Spring Cleaning Your Writing Expectations.