Либрусек (книги fb2)
Your Room or Mine?
The last thing a sexy executive wants to do is to spend more time with the business consultant hired to work with his department, but during a team-building weekend at a resort, a case of mixed-up bags results in unexpected fireworks between the two.
Jacquie D'Alessandro Your Room or Mine?
“I have some great news, Jack.”
Jack Walker’s every muscle tensed. Uh-oh. The last time Gavin Laine, his boss and CEO of Java Heaven, had uttered those words, a month ago, they’d been followed by the decidedly ungreat news that Gavin had hired a consultant to make sure Jack and his accounting department employees all bonded with each other. Jack had been chief financial officer of the popular Southeast coffeehouse franchise for only a month at that point, and he’d thought the transition was going smoothly. Certainly as smoothly as one could expect for a department that had imploded just weeks before Jack was hired when the former CFO and controller had been arrested for fraud and embezzlement.
Good thing Jack loved nothing more than a challenge, because the department was in shambles, morale was low, and personalities were clashing. But after a rocky first few weeks, he’d hired a new controller and things were looking much improved.
Patience, however, wasn’t Gavin’s strong suit. He wanted everything done yesterday and had hired Madeline Price, consultant, to move things along and insure that the department bonded and resolved their issues. That was the day Jack’s Java Heaven job turned hellish.
Like so many consultants Jack had been forced to deal with over the years, all Madeline Price did while racking up billable hours was talk, talk, talk, blah, blah, blah, and take endless notes. No doubt an X-ray would reveal a pie chart where her heart should be. It wasn’t his style to sit around and blah, blah, blah. He much preferred to roll up his sleeves and take action.
Jack knew Madeline (or Mad Dog as he mentally referred to her) was also there to make certain good internal controls were being put into place, thus insuring that the sort of illegal activities that caused the last accounting debacle didn’t happen again-something Jack frankly resented. He didn’t like having someone from outside the company constantly looking over his shoulder, second-guessing and questioning all his decisions. Sure there were going to be some bumps along the way while everyone settled into their positions and became acclimated to the new CFO and controller, but nothing he couldn’t handle.
As far as he was concerned, consultants could be summed up with the old joke: If you ask a consultant what time it is, he’ll steal your watch then charge you fifty thousand bucks to tell you it’s ten past eight. He supposed consultants could be useful in some instances, but in this case, it was nothing but interference he didn’t want and a financial expenditure the company didn’t need.
He’d pointed that out to Gavin, but his boss was adamant. So adamant, Jack suspected part of the reason Gavin had hired Mad Dog was that he planned to downsize the accounting department, something Jack was absolutely opposed to as he’d then be understaffed. And understaffed meant overworked employees, which meant cranky, disheartened employees, and after what they’d all just suffered, they were cranky and disheartened enough. He didn’t doubt that Mad Dog was making a list and checking it twice, all to determine who the weakest links in the department might be. Who wasn’t going to be a team player.
Which just pissed off Jack. They all just needed time to adjust and regroup. What they didn’t need was a consultant, aka Spy Who Could Cost Any One of Them Their Job, peeking at them over the rim of her glasses.
Unfortunately, Gavin had steamrolled over all his objections, so Jack had sucked it up. But damn, it was a hard sell. Especially with a dragon lady like Madeline Price to deal with. Jack could only guess that Gavin had found the woman because he’d Googled uptight, frigid, unsmiling, humorless, pain in the ass consultants for hire and her name had popped up as the number one choice.
Bad enough that he had to put up with her interference, but Madeline Price was just the sort of person he didn’t like. Someone who saw everything in black or white. Everything was either totally right or totally wrong. Her way or the highway. Organized to within an inch of her life. No chances, no surprises. He’d actually possessed a few of those qualities himself not much more than a year ago, but he’d learned that life-changing events changed… your life. And your outlook.
“So what’s this great news, Gavin?” he asked, because based on the silence that had followed Gavin’s announcement, Jack knew the question was expected from him.
Gavin smiled at him across the wide expanse of glass desk separating them. A smile that was more of a showing of teeth that did nothing to allay Jack’s dread. “You’re signed up for a weekend away at Casa di Lago. This weekend.”
Jack forced his expression to remain blank but his suspicions doubled at the mention of the well-known resort situated on the shores of Lake Lanier, about an hour and a half north of Atlanta. He knew damn well Gavin wasn’t sending him to the resort for a tasting at their winery, or a massage at the spa, or a round of golf, or a meal at one of the resort’s gourmet restaurants. Wait for it… wait for it…
Gavin didn’t make him wait long. “Of course the weekend isn’t just for you.”
Uh-huh. He’d figured as much. Here it comes-
“The entire accounting department is going. For a fun-filled weekend of team building. By the time you all return to work on Monday, you’ll be rested, relaxed, and fully bonded with each other.”
Jack’s brows rose in surprise. Pleasant surprise. God knows he’d expected much worse. Even though he’d have to do some rearranging of his personal schedule to get away for the weekend, this wasn’t nearly as bad as he’d anticipated.
“Sounds good,” he said, relaxing for the first time since Gavin had made his “great news” announcement. “Although I’m wondering about the expense.”
“It’ll pay off in the long run. Remember, Jack, people who have bonded work better together. And people who work better together are more efficient.”
That little pronouncement sent Jack’s radar whirring and knotted his stomach. He knew those words. All too well. God knows he’d heard them enough since Mad Dog was hired. They were her personal mantra.
“Madeline arranged the whole team building weekend,” Gavin said.
Figures. More consultant-related money going down the tubes. But based on Gavin’s determined expression and tone, his mind was set. Well, at least Mad Dog wouldn’t be coming along. Thank God.
“She’ll be joining the group for the weekend,” Gavin added.
Jack barely suppressed a groan. And there it was. For about three seconds he’d been lulled into a false sense of security, stupidly thinking that the great news might actually not be bad. Reality had just smacked him upside the head with the force of hammer to his skull.
“Why is she tagging along?”
Gavin’s expression turned inscrutable, which gave Jack’s radar another jolt. He considered himself pretty adept at reading people, and in the past two months he’d picked up on a lot of the nuances of Gavin’s expressions. This carefully blank look practically shouted that there was more going on than he was willing to say, which only furthered Jack’s suspicions of a downsizing.
Gavin shrugged. “I want an outsider’s unbiased opinion on how the group interacts. An objective rundown of the personalities. That sort of thing.”
Seeing as how Mad Dog didn’t even have a personality, Jack seriously doubted her ability to objectively judge anyone else’s.
“Yeah, she’s a frosty one,” Gavin said with a chuckle, as if reading his mind.
Definitely frosty. No doubt if she were cut, little ice cubes would fall from her veins instead of blood.
“But that’s what makes her good at her job,” Gavin continued.
“She doesn’t get personally involved. It’s all strictly business.” He rose and walked to the door, indicating their meeting was over. “Carla will have the memo and itinerary ready shortly,” he said, nodding toward his secretary’s desk. “Plan to meet with me Monday to give me your impression of the weekend.”
“Great. Can’t wait.”
Jack headed back toward his office, smiling on the outside at his staff whose desks he passed, grumbling on the inside. Damn it, he had nothing against team building, in fact he’d participated in it before and had been impressed with the results. But while it was one thing to have to reschedule his plans, having to do so in order to spend the weekend with her, after suffering her company all week long… he could sum that up in one word: blech.
Damn blech since he’d had big plans this weekend. Seriously big plans. He just hoped Claire would understand. He heaved a regretful sigh. And Sophie, too.
“I’m having trouble drudging up any sympathy for a woman who’s spending the weekend at the fabulous Casa di Lago,” said Emma Haygood, stabbing at her Caesar salad with a plastic fork.
Madeline Price looked across the small marble-topped table at her best friend. They’d managed to meet for lunch-something they tried to do once a week, but between Madeline’s rotating job assignments and Emma’s crazy schedule at the local television station where she worked as a producer, it wasn’t always possible. But since Java Heaven’s offices were close to both the TV station and the huge food court where they now sat, they’d been able to meet more regularly.
“It would be fabulous if I were going for a round of golf, a tennis match, and a facial,” Madeline grumbled, using her wooden chopsicks to pick up a stir-fried shrimp. “Unfortunately, it’s going to be all work and no play.”
“Surely you’ll have some downtime.”
“I guess. But not much. Maybe I can squeeze in a massage.” Yes, a massage would be great. God knows she’d been tense lately.
Emma leaned closer and said in a low voice, “I think you should squeeze in some S-E-X.”
Madeline laughed. “Oh, sure. Like that’s going to happen at a corporate team building. I know it’s been a long time since I’ve actually had sex, so my memory’s a little fuzzy, but if I recall correctly, one requires a partner. A living, breathing partner, as opposed to a battery-operated one.” Still chuckling, she popped her shrimp into her mouth.
“And that’s what I’m suggesting you find.” Emma waggled her brows. “Just like I did.”
Madeline paused midchew, then swallowed. “What did you find?”
“A living, breathing partner.” Emma heaved out a gushy sigh.
“And I can sum him up in one word: yummy. He was all action, no talk, and just what the doctor ordered. I highly recommend a good old-fashioned one-night stand.”
“When did this happen? Where? How? I thought we were on a man sabbatical.” After suffering through one too many disastrous dates with men who were either boring or arrogant or commitment-phobes interested only in sex, she and Emma had decided to take a break from the singles scene and concentrate on themselves. They’d taken up jogging and signed up for a cooking class, and for a while things had gone well. She’d lost three pounds-which she gained back during the cooking class-but it was such a relief not to have to deal with dating.
Lately, however, relief had morphed into loneliness and she’d been rethinking her decision. Unfortunately, with work so busy, she didn’t have the time right now to devote to a social life.
“We were on a sabbatical,” Emma agreed. “But after six months of celibacy, I was feeling kinda stressed, not to mention horny. I met a man who lit my fire, and whew!” She waved her hand in front of her face. “Let me tell you, he was hot. As for when and where-last night, at the Ritz-Carlton. And as for how”-her lips curved in a slow smile-“Good lord, how didn’t that man please me?”
A fissure of what could only be described as envy rippled through Madeline. “Okay, I’m officially jealous. But I meant how did you meet him?”
Emma waved her fork around. “Right here. In this very food court. Yesterday. The place was packed-not an empty table in sight. Tons of schoolkids. Must have been some mega class trip downtown. There was an empty chair at my table, he asked if could join me, and… there you have it.”
“If he was so fantastic, why was it just a one-nighter? Why not see him again?”
“He lives in New York and was here just for a few days for a conference. He flew home this morning.” Emma forked up another bite of salad. “Which made it perfect-a night of great sex with no expectations, no messy relationship stuff, no awkward date. I feel sooooo much better. You should try it. This weekend. At the resort.”
“Right. Except you’re forgetting I’ve never been good at the one-night stand situation. The few times I’ve made the attempt, it just didn’t work out.”
“You mean you chickened out.”
“I did not. I was just struck with shyness.”
“Uh-huh. Which is secret code for ‘I chickened out.’ ” Emma helpfully demonstrated her point by flapping her arms and making clucking sounds.
Maddie sighed. “Okay, fine. I chickened out.”
“So this time don’t. Be brave. Be bold. Be daring.”
Could she do it? History said no, but she was so tired of being alone. “Well, if I was going to give it a go, who do you propose I have this steaming one-nighter with? Certainly not one of the Java Heaven people. You know I never swim in the company pool.” An image flashed in her mind-of deep blue eyes, dark hair, and a sexy smile-an image she instantly banished. Why in God’s name did that annoying pest Jack Walker always pop into her mind at the most inappropriate moments?
“I know, although I think it’s a gray area since your tenure at any company is finite. But in this case, it’s not necessary to even consider anyone from Java Heaven.” Emma reached into her soft-sided leather briefcase and pulled out the newspaper. She shuffled through several sections, then handed the sports section to Maddie. “Check out the little blurb on the bottom left.”
Maddie quickly scanned the brief article. “There’s a charity golf tournament taking place this weekend at Casa di Lago.” She glanced up. “What does that have to do with me?”
Emma rolled her eyes. “Did you not notice who’s taking part in this golf tournament? Firemen. Lots of firemen. Hot, sexy, muscular, sexy, delicious-did I mention sexy?-firemen. At least one of whom I’m sure would be very willing and able to end your sexual drought. You’d have a great weekend, let off some steam, then never have to see him again. Take it from me-it’s a perfect opportunity.”
The thought of a no-holds-barred, no-commitment-required, liberating night of wild sex rushed heat through Maddie’s entire body. “That sounds good,” she admitted.
“Of course it does. Just a little something to take the edge off.”
“Right. ’Til the real thing comes along.”
“Exactly. Good grief, Maddie, you’re twenty-eight years old. It’s time you indulged in a one-nighter. Don’t be so serious all the time.”
“I’m not serious all the time.” Yet even as she said the words, she realized that over the last few months she had been. She’d forgotten how to have fun. She’d moved into her dateless cave where aggravating men didn’t exist, but neither did any potentially good men-and they had to be out there somewhere. Didn’t they? Just because she didn’t currently know any didn’t mean they were merely urban myths.
Although one-night stands had never been her style, she clearly needed a change. Something to jolt her out of her cave. A night of hot sex would certainly do that.
“So-what are you going to do?”
Maddie grabbed a pea pod with her chopsticks. “Pack my sexiest lingerie and find a fireman to put out this damn inferno inside me.”
Emma grinned. “ ’Atta girl. And don’t you dare chicken out. I’ll expect a full report Monday. Let’s meet here for lunch.”
“Fine. Hopefully I’ll have something interesting to tell you…” Her words trailed off into a low groan and she scooted low in her seat. “Damn. What’s he doing here?”
“Who?” Emma whispered, leaning close and looking around furtively.
Emma’s blue eyes widened. “The Demon CFO of Java Heaven? Mr. Misery?”
“And Olympic gold medalist for Pain in the Ass. The very same. What are the chances he’d be here?”
“Actually, since the office is only three blocks away, pretty good.” Emma leaned a bit closer. “Which one is he?”
Maddie’s gaze flicked over Emma’s shoulder. “Tall, dark hair, charcoal gray suit, standing in line at the pizza place.”
Emma gave a surreptitious glance over her shoulder, one that turned into a double take. When she looked back at Maddie her mouth was hanging open. “That’s the guy you’ve been calling repulsive?” Emma took another peek, and even though Maddie didn’t want to look at him again, she found herself doing so. Jack was paying for his lunch, smiling at the cashier, then he laughed at something she said. He picked up his tray and found a table on the other side of the food court.
Jack Walker. Java Heaven CFO.
And currently the bane of her existence.
It was clear from her first day on the Java Heaven job a month ago that the new CFO wasn’t happy she was there. Not that she cared-she was accustomed to employees giving her the stink eye. Coming on board at Java Heaven certainly wasn’t the first time she’d been viewed as an interloper, a sentiment she could actually sympathize with. It was simply human nature that most people were initially resistant to change and to outsiders. She took pride in her role of helping companies run more efficiently, and early on in her career had developed a thick skin. She wasn’t at Java Heaven to win any popularity contests. And besides, she certainly didn’t care what Jack Walker thought of her.
“Honey, if you think that man is repulsive, you need new glasses. Stat.”
Emma’s voice yanked Maddie’s attention back to her friend. “I didn’t mean he’s physically repulsive.” Although she wished he was. It simply wasn’t fair that such a pain in the butt was so extremely attractive. “But we both know the type-good-looking guy who clearly knows it.”
Emma nodded. “The better looking they are, the worse they are.” “Exactly.”
“Which means he must be really, really bad. ’Cause looks-wise, he’s really, really good. How old is he?”
“Office scuttlebutt is that he’s thirty-two.”
“Perfect. Not too young, not too old, although on the young side for a CFO. He must be very smart.”
“Yes. And in his case, with great intelligence comes great annoyance.”
Emma laughed. “You sure he’s not taken?”
“He’s not married, or engaged,” Maddie said, “but he’s definitely a player.” She’d observed a number of female employees giving Jack Walker the once-over-more than once. Although she had to grudgingly admit she couldn’t blame them, nor had she seen him catch any of the ogling passes tossed his way. Still, she knew a player when she saw one. “He takes long lunches every Wednesday, often returning to the office with his tie askew. Yeah, like it isn’t obvious what he’d been up to. Yesterday he came back from his Wednesday lunch with red on his collar. As if I don’t know lipstick when I see it. He probably has more notches on his bedpost than an entire college fraternity. No doubt the sidewalk outside his house is littered with broken hearts.”
“Well, based on looks alone, he’d be an easy man to say yes to.” A gleam entered Emma’s eyes and she leaned forward. “Hey-if you can’t find a fireman to warm you up, why not give Mr. Gorgeous a chance?”
A wave of heat that had nothing to do with her spicy shrimp stir-fry suffused Maddie. Get naked with Jack Walker? That sounded…
Absolutely terrible, screamed her common sense.
Absolutely freakin’ fantastic, shouted her suddenly awake libido.
She stared across the table at Emma. “Clearly his good looks have addled your brain. Are you nuts? There are so many things wrong with that suggestion I don’t even know where to begin.”
“We work together.”
Emma waved her lettuce-laden fork in a dismissive gesture. “But that’s the gray area. You’ll only be working together for another month.”
“Yes. A month that is going to be difficult enough without adding sex into the mix. Jack already sees me as an interloper, a troublemaker, and a spy for the CEO. It does not make for a pleasant work environment.”
Emma shot her a wink. “A few orgasms might change that.”
Maddie’s gaze involuntarily drifted to Jack, who was taking a huge bite of what looked like pepperoni pizza. He didn’t carry an ounce of fat on what was obviously a very fit physique-just one more thing to dislike about him. He could eat fattening, cheesy pizza without it adhering to his ass for eight months. Damn, he even looked good when he chewed.
Just then his gaze connected with hers. And like it did every time he looked at her, for several seconds she seemed to freeze and heat at the same time-like a deer caught in the headlights while surrounded by a ring of fire. For the space of a heartbeat he seemed to still as well. The image of them, together, sharing a few orgasms, seared through her mind, stunning her. He gave her a curt nod then looked down at the book resting open on his table.
Emma’s voice jerked her back. “Huh?”
“You look flushed. Are you hot?”
On fire. And it was all that annoying man’s fault. If she was having sexual fantasies about a man she didn’t even like, it was definitely time to end her sexual drought.
“It’s warm in here,” Maddie said. “What were we talking about?”
“Jack Gorgeous Walker.”
“Right. But you’re forgetting he’s also Jack Pain in the Ass Walker. Besides, the fact that he’s gorgeous is half the problem. Thanks to Danny I know all too well that handsome on the outside doesn’t always equal handsome on the inside.” She shoved aside all thoughts of her last steady boyfriend and heaved a sigh. “Why is it that where men are concerned, there seems to be an inverse proportion of good looks to integrity: The better looking he is, the greater the chance he’s an asshole?”
“Don’t know,” Emma said, “but it should probably be some scientific law. Like relativity or gravity.”
“I suppose I have to admit-grudgingly-that Jack’s intelligent and doing a good job in a difficult situation, but that doesn’t mean he couldn’t use some outside help. Of course, he’s too arrogant to see that. Oh, sure, he’ll sit across from me at a conference table and hear out my suggestions, but it’s clear from his excruciatingly polite expression and the way he seems to look through me rather than at me that he’s merely humoring me.”
“I hate it when men do that,” Emma agreed, stabbing a crouton with her fork.
“Outright hostility I can deal with, but Jack’s method of hearing me but not listening to me, of looking at me but not seeing me, is so annoying.”
“He’s scum.” Emma blew out a regretful-sounding sigh. “But damn, he is hot scum.”
Much as she wanted to, Maddie couldn’t deny it. “But in my book, annoying trumps hot every time. Plus, not only is he annoying, I simply don’t understand him. Most of the executive types I’ve met are driven, to the point of working seventy or eighty hours a week. Jack doesn’t put in a minute of overtime on Fridays.”
“Probably wants to get an early start on the weekend,” Emma said, crunching on her crouton.
“Oh, yeah. I pegged him as the boff-a-babe-at-lunchtime, love-and-leave-’em sort I can’t stand the day I met him. Not that it matters. I only need to deal with him for another month and then I’ll be gone from Java Heaven and on to my next assignment. And I’ll never have to see Jack Walker again.”
Emma stole another peek over her shoulder. “It is so unfair that all that lovely male pulchritude is wasted on someone so undeserving.”
“Agreed.” Because if he were a nice guy, she’d jump him in a heartbeat.
Yeah, her and every other woman in Atlanta. Yet clearly his annoying traits weren’t hindering his success with women. Not that she was envious of his obviously active social life. Heck no. She had no desire to sleep with a bunch of different men-a preference that had led to her current sexual drought. Of course, sleeping with one man-a man who mattered-would be nice. But finding a man who mattered-one with integrity, and intelligence, a sense of humor, and a liking for monogamy-had proven as difficult as locating a single pearl on a fifty-mile stretch of beach.
Dating in Atlanta was brutal. While in theory a one-night stand might be good for what ailed her-and she’d definitely been tense lately-finding a man she wanted to get naked with was proving a challenge. Although the city was littered with attractive men, it unfortunately took more than looks to interest her. Still, for the purposes of a one-night stand with a sexy, golfing fireman, handsome was enough. Emma was right. She’d chickened out in the past but she wouldn’t this time. After all, this weekend she was just looking for one night-not for forever.
As soon as she arrived back at her office after lunch, Maddie checked her e-mail. The weekend’s itinerary had arrived from Carla and she opened the attachment. Pushing up her glasses, she perused the schedule, and was surprised to see she was expected to arrive Friday evening. Her gaze skimmed lower, then fastened on the activity listed for Saturday morning. What on earth…? She blinked, but the words remained, and her brows collapsed in a scowl.
“Oh, no,” she murmured through clenched teeth. “Not just no… hell no.”
Was this insanity Jack’s idea-or Gavin’s? Obviously one of them was responsible, but her money was on Jack. Anything to piss her off and make her suffer. Well, she wasn’t having any of it.
With the schedule gripped in her hand, she marched out of her office and headed down the long corridor that separated the executive offices from the cubicles, wondering if steam actually spewed from her ears.
She understood the need for this team building weekend. In fact, she’d suggested it to Gavin and set up the entire thing, using Atlanta’s most respected motivational team-building company. It was just what the doctor ordered to get the accounting department back on track, plus it would provide her with an excellent opportunity to make the sort of observations she needed to present her report to Gavin. He wanted the accounting staff downsized from twenty to fifteen by the end of the month and he was counting on her report to advise him as to which employees should be let go in that reduction.
But there was a huge difference between attending the weekend and this. She shook the itinerary and shot it another baleful look as she strode along. This other thing was simply out of the question.
She looked up. Jack’s office was only a few doors away. Filled with grim determination, she advanced toward the door marked Jack Walker, Chief Financial Officer.
As she approached, she heard his deep voice. Pausing outside his ajar door, she heard him say, “I’m sorry, too, sweetheart… I know, I was looking forward to it, too.” He heaved a sigh. “No, it’s one of those business things I can’t get out of. But I’ll make it up to you.” He fell silent for several seconds then gave a low chuckle. “Deal. I’m looking forward to that… okay, sweetheart. Talk to you soon.”
Several seconds of silence followed and Madeline realized he’d ended his call. Drawing a bracing breath, she stepped into the half-open doorway. He stood with his back to her, looking out the window, his cell phone pressed to his ear. He’d removed his charcoal gray suit jacket and rolled up his sleeves. She refused to acknowledge that the rear view he was treating her to was in any way… a treat.
She was about to knock when he said into the phone, “Hey babe, it’s Jack. Sorry I’ve missed you. Just calling to let you know I’ve gotta bail on our plans this weekend.”
Madeline shook her head. Jeez, how many “sweethearts” and “babes” did he have to break dates with this weekend?
“Really sorry ’cause I was looking forward to us-”
His words cut off when he turned around and saw her standing in the doorway, hand raised and poised to knock. She froze, and for several seconds silence swelled as they stared across the expanse of his office at each other. While the rear view had been exceptionally nice, the full frontal packed a serious wallop. Six-one, broad shoulders, deep blue eyes, firm, square jaw-complete with an intriguing indent in his chin-and a mouth that somehow managed to look hard and soft at the same time. His thick dark hair looked slightly rumpled, as if he’d dragged his hands through it, an imperfection that did nothing to detract from his physical appeal. Damn it, it simply wasn’t fair that he was so attractive. And such a pest.
His eyes narrowed and he said into the phone, “I’ll call you later.” With his gaze still boring into hers, he snapped his phone shut then set it on his desk. “Eavesdropping, Ms. Price?”
Heat flooded Madeline’s face and she raised her chin. “Certainly not.”
Um, actually you were eavesdropping, her annoyingly honest inner voice pointed out.
Okay, fine, she’d been eavesdropping. But not on purpose. It was an accidental eavesdropping. Because his door was partially open. So actually the entire thing was his fault. Based on his scowl, he wouldn’t appreciate her pointing that out.
“I was just about to knock when you turned around,” she said. “Do you have a minute?”
He muttered something that sounded suspiciously like Do I have a choice? then said, “Sure. But not much more than a minute. I have a meeting. What can I do for you?”
Drop the arrogant attitude. Then ugly yourself up. A paunch and a few hairy warts on your nose should do the trick. “Have you seen the itinerary for this weekend’s team building?”
She crossed the mocha-colored carpet and handed him the memo. “Read it and weep.”
He gave it a brief scan. “Looks pretty standard…” His words trailed off and his brows jerked downward. “What’s this?” He looked up at her and she knew what he’d seen.
“You’re not responsible for that?” she asked.
He made an incredulous sound. “For scheduling me and you for a six a.m. orienteering session Saturday morning? Hardly. Is this your idea of a joke?”
“I know what orienteering is. Believe me, there is nothing funny about the thought of you and me stuck in the woods together with nothing but a compass and a map to guide us.”
“Then clearly it’s a typo.”
“Heck of a typo. Who do you think they meant to send you out into the woods with? Carmen Electra?”
“I meant the entire idea of you and me doing anything together. Especially at six a.m.”
In spite of the fact that she was equally opposed to doing anything with him, especially at six a.m., she took umbrage at his insulting tone. Humph. There were lots of men who would be damn glad to be stuck in the woods with her at six a.m. Probably. Just because she didn’t know any of those men didn’t mean they didn’t exist. Somewhere.
“Being stuck in the woods with you isn’t exactly my idea of a good time, either.” She narrowed her eyes. “So this isn’t your doing?”
“Hardly. Which means it must be-”
“Gavin,” they said simultaneously.
“I’ll take care of this.” Jack reached for his desk phone and punched a few numbers. “Carla, this is Jack,” he said into the receiver. “Is Gavin available?” A few seconds later, he said, “Gavin, I just saw the itinerary for this weekend’s retreat. About this orienteering outing with Madeline-”
Jack’s words cut off and he frowned. “But… is it really neces-” A long pause. “But the expense-Oh. Everyone else isn’t arriving until Saturday morning.” Another long pause, interspersed with a few muttered “I sees,” and more scowling followed. “Yes… uh-huh… right… okay. I understand.” He replaced the receiver and faced her.
“Well, you really told him,” she deadpanned. “Way to take care of it. I don’t know word for word what Gavin said, but based on your end of the conversation and your expression, I’m guessing it was Gavin’s idea and that we’re going orienteering Saturday morning.”
“At six a.m.,” Jack confirmed, looking as displeased as she felt.
“Did he say why?” Maddie asked.
“Yes. He ‘senses some tension’ between us and ‘wants us to bond.’” His gaze practically skewered her. “What a load of garbage.”
“Biggest load of garbage I’ve ever heard,” she said, not to be outdone. “Based on your accusatory tone and expression, you clearly think this tension is my fault.”
“If the shoe fits…”
“Did it ever occur to you that your my-way-or-the-highway attitude might be the problem?”
“Frankly, no,” he said. “Because I’m not that way at all, which if you knew me even slightly you would know. And I find it very amusing that you of all people would accuse me of being so.” He mimicked picking up the phone. “Hello, Kettle? Black Pot calling.”
She forced herself to draw a deep, calming breath and bury her annoyance at him for being, well, so damn annoying, and at herself, for allowing him to get to her. “I’m only here to help, Jack. I’m not the enemy.”
He favored her with that looking-right-through-her expression that spiked her blood pressure. Although he didn’t utter a word, she could see his resentment and it really rankled. Enough for her to say, “I think I must be clairvoyant, because I can easily read your thoughts.”
“Oh? What am I thinking?”
Adopting a masculine, deep voice, she said, “ ‘She’s getting paid big bucks to give answers I already know to questions I never even asked. She knows squat about my business-for cryin’ out loud, she doesn’t even like coffee-and I don’t want her here.’ ”
He considered for several seconds, then nodded. “That sums it up very well. Except you left out ‘and I sure as hell don’t want to be stuck in the woods with her.’ ”
“Sorry.” She shot him a fake smile. “My psychic abilities become depleted when surrounded by too much hot air and testosterone.”
He matched her fake smile with one of his own. “As a consultant, you would be the expert on hot air.”
“Ha ha. And don’t worry about being stuck in the woods with me. I know how to use a map and a compass. Plus, unlike the male of the species, I’m not afraid to ask for directions.”
“Ha ha to you, too. As for this orienteering bonding thing-it doesn’t matter that we don’t like the idea. Gavin wants it and that’s the way it is.” His gaze wandered down to her high-heeled patent leather pumps. “Are you going to be able to handle being in the woods?”
“Are you going to be able to handle having to ask me for help to get out of the woods?”
“I won’t need to ask for help. Or directions.”
“Typical. Do you know how many lost men have uttered that same statement?”
“No. But I don’t get lost. I have an excellent sense of direction.”
“Uh-huh. Ten bucks says you get us lost at least once.”
He raised his brows, then smiled. Damn, he had a great smile. No fair. “Deal. You realize you’ll never see that ten bucks.”
“If I don’t, it’s only because you’ve refused to admit that we’re lost.”
“Noooo,” he said as if she were in kindergarten. “It’s because of my superior directional abilities.”
“Right. Please, don’t mind me. I’m just looking at the ceiling. Really. Not rolling my eyes at all.”
“I promise that if I’m lost I’ll admit it.”
“Do you know how many lost men have uttered that same statement?”
He raised his hand, like a boy taking a scout’s pledge. “I am a man of my word.”
“Excellent. Then let’s make it twenty bucks. I need a new lipstick.”
His gaze dropped to her mouth, and something flickered in his eyes. Something that looked hot and raw and heated her from the inside out. Good grief, her sexual drought now had her imagining things, like a thirst-crazed person in a desert who sees a mirage of an oasis. But damn, that look affected her as if he’d actually caressed her, and she found herself moistening her lips.
And that time there was absolutely no mistaking the heat that flared in his eyes. Whoa. For the space of two erratic heartbeats he stared at her mouth as if she were a warm fudge brownie and he were craving sugar.
Then he blinked and shook his head, as if coming out of some sort of trance. Probably the same one that had clubbed her over the head. He obviously said something to her, because she saw his lips moving, but damned if she knew what it was. So she said the only word she could cough up.
“Twenty bucks for a lipstick seems pretty steep.”
“Oh? You shop for many lipsticks?”
“No, I’m just making an observation. As a fiscally responsible CFO type.”
“Are you implying I’m fiscally irresponsible?”
“No. I’m just saying I think twenty bucks is a lot for a lipstick.
But I’m not surprised, coming from someone who plans an expensive weekend bonding deal at a resort.”
“Well, as a fiscally responsible consultant type, I can assure you it depends on the lipstick. Some are definitely worth it. And the weekend won’t cost nearly as much as years of unproductive interactions in the workplace.”
Again his gaze dropped to her lips, and for several seconds she couldn’t breathe. Then he frowned and handed her back her itinerary. “If you say so. And now, if you’ll excuse me, I have a meeting.”
“Of course.” She left his office, relieved to be away from whatever momentary madness had gripped her. She walked with her usual brisk pace back to her own office, and was halfway down the hallway when she felt the weight of someone’s stare. She looked over her shoulder and nearly stumbled when she noticed Jack leaning against his doorjamb, watching her. His expression appeared to be a combination of confusion and irritation.
She resumed her pace, and realized that’s precisely how she felt-confused and irritated. Why the heck had he, of all people, made her dormant hormones jump like they’d been zapped with a Taser? That was irritating. He was irritating.
And unfortunately, given their forced proximity during this upcoming weekend, she knew more irritation awaited her on the horizon.
Good thing she couldn’t stand Jack Walker. Because if she did… well, that would be really irritating.
By the time Jack finally arrived at Casa di Lago Friday night, he was tired, annoyed, hungry, and thirsty. Thanks to computer problems his day at work had been stressful. He’d enjoyed a light, early dinner, but then courtesy of Atlanta’s notoriously heavy Friday night traffic, combined with the never ending road construction and a fender bender that blocked three lanes of the interstate, the hour-and-a-half drive to the resort had turned into a three-and-a-half-hour nightmare. All he wanted was a cold drink, some hot food, and some serious sleep.
After parking his car, he dragged his tired ass toward the resort’s curved archway entrance, pulling his black carry-on-sized suitcase behind him, and in spite of his exhaustion, decided things were looking up. The grounds were beautiful, with perfectly manicured lawns and flower-lined paths, all lit by hidden lights and bathed in moonlight. The resort itself had been fashioned after an Italian villa. The pale yellow stucco exterior, dotted with elegantly curved arch-ways and black wrought iron balcony railings, made Jack feel as if he were visiting the shores of Lake Como rather than those of Lake Lanier. He’d visited the resort once, several years ago, and had been impressed with the service, food, amenities, and accommodations. He couldn’t wait to experience them all again. Like right now.
He entered the lobby, and the soaring ceiling, golden cream marble floor, woven rugs, carved columns, tasteful artwork, and the gentle scent of fresh flowers went by in a blur. All his attention was focused on four things: register, drink, eat, sleep. In that order. Right now he was much more interested in smelling a cheeseburger than anything that sat in a vase.
He spied the registration desk ahead and quickened his steps. Another guest was registering and it looked like only one person was behind the counter. Damn. Hopefully the woman registering was almost done, but somehow he always ended up stuck in line behind someone experiencing a major problem of some sort that required much help and much time.
As he drew closer, he idly noted that in spite of the prim cut of the registering woman’s brown suit, she had great legs. Just then she turned slightly, and his footsteps faltered as recognition hit him. He barely stifled the groan that rose in his throat. Of all people, why did it have to be her? Mad Dog Price was the last person he wanted to deal with now. Bad enough he’d be forced to see her in… he glanced at his watch. Eight hours.
He kept walking, frowning as his eyeballs again zeroed in on her legs. They were pretty spectacular. Where the hell had they come from, and how the hell had he missed them? And how unfair that they were wasted on a dragon lady. Just then she rose up on her toes and leaned forward to say something around the vase of flowers to the man behind the counter who’d stepped to the side. Jack blinked. Wow. Even that mud-colored suit couldn’t quite hide what was clearly a very nice butt.
So intent was he on reaching his goal of the registration desk-and staring at her unexpectedly fine ass-that he didn’t realize she’d turned her head. And was staring at him. Staring at her ass.
When he looked up and made that discovery, his jaw tightened with self-directed annoyance. Bad enough he’d looked at her in a way that could only be described as an ogle. Really bad that he’d been caught in the act.
Damn. This day was going from bad to worse.
Making sure he kept his gaze steady on hers, he offered her a nod in greeting, one she returned, then he walked between the velvet ropes that marked the line for registration.
“I can take you here, sir,” said a young man with a bright smile who positioned himself before a computer next to the man helping Mad Dog. Jack moved up to the desk, parked his bag next to Madeline’s, then gave the clerk his name.
“You’re checking in late,” Madeline said.
“I could say the same to you.”
“I worked late.”
He detected the emphasis on the I and gritted his teeth. So he’d left work at five o’clock. He was allowed. His reasons were none of her business. Even though his better judgment told him to shut up, he found himself saying, “Some of us have a life outside the job.”
As soon as the words left his mouth, he was surprised to find himself wondering what sort of life she led outside work. He realized that although he’d known her for a month, he didn’t know anything about her. Except that she was a thorn in his side and a pain in his ass. And really, that was all he needed to know.
“Ready for our big adventure tomorrow?” she asked.
Jack handed the clerk his credit card then turned toward Madeline. She was peering at him over the rims of her rectangular black-rimmed glasses. With her severely pulled back hair, she looked like a prim schoolmarm.
“Sure thing,” he answered. “Can’t wait. Really. I mean that. I’m not at all envious of the rest of the department who don’t need to check in until ten a.m. tomorrow.”
“I can’t wait, either.” She smiled and batted her eyes. “Mama needs a new lipstick.”
His gaze flicked down to her mouth and his jaw tightened at the sight of her full lips. Just as he had with her legs, he had to wonder where that plump, perfectly shaped mouth had come from and why he hadn’t noticed it until they’d placed their foolish bet yesterday. Right now her lips looked ripe and shiny-like a juicy peach. Peach… damn, he loved peaches. And damn, he was hungry.
A bellhop pushing a wheeled cart took charge of Jack’s bag and Madeline’s as well, jerking Jack’s attention from Mad Dog’s peachy lips. He was tempted to tell the bellhop he could handle his suitcase himself, but decided not to expend the effort. The bellhop headed toward the elevator, and Jack leaned against the counter, dreaming of a tall glass of something cold, a juicy cheeseburger, and a comfortable bed.
“You look beat up,” came Mad Dog’s voice. “Rough day?”
He swiveled his eyes toward her. “Gee, thanks. I might go all to pieces, what with so many compliments.”
She raised one eyebrow. “Just making an honest observation. Besides, I’m sure you already get plenty of compliments.”
Jack was certain that comment meant something snarky-as opposed to complimentary-but before his tired brain could figure it out, she accepted her key card from the man behind the counter. After thanking him, she said to Jack, “See you in the morning.”
Morning. Right. For their fun-filled orienteering extravaganza. Yippee. After taking his key card, he headed toward the elevator, and was not pleased to see that Mad Dog stood before the shiny brass door. He’d hoped she’d be gone already. As he approached, the green Up arrow glowed and the door slid open. He followed her into the paneled elevator.
“What floor?” she asked as she pushed the round button with a three on it.
“Three.” Great. Not only were they in the same hotel, they were staying on the same floor.
The door closed with a quiet whoosh, ensconcing them in the enclosed space. Soft music played. Jack noted her reflection in the shiny brass door, saw that her eyes slid closed. Clearly she was as tired as he.
“I heard a joke today,” she said, her eyes still closed. “What’s the definition of an accountant?”
“Just what I want-an accountant joke. Like I haven’t been hearing them since the day I declared my major in college. Any chance you won’t bother to tell me?”
A smile pulled up one corner of her mouth. “Nope. An accountant is someone who solves a problem you didn’t know you had in a way you don’t understand.”
“Oh, yeah. That’s a side-buster. Do you know the definition of a consultant?” Before she could answer, he said, “It’s a person who you will never hear say, ‘Everything looks okay to me.’ ”
To his surprise, she chuckled. “Guess I asked for that. What’s the difference between an accountant and a vampire?”
“A vampire only sucks blood at night. Believe me, I’ve heard them all. Here’s something else you’ll never hear a consultant say-”
“ ‘You’re right, we’re billing way too much for this.’ ” She opened her eyes and their gazes met in the brass reflection. “I’ve heard them all, too.”
The elevator stopped and the doors slid open. He extended his arm, indicating she should precede him, and she raised her brows. “So polite,” she murmured as she exited.
He followed her, noting that she left a subtle hint of something that smelled really good in her wake. Something that smelled like… cookies? Damn. He loved cookies. His stomach rumbled.
“Just because I’m a bloodsucking vampire doesn’t mean I don’t have any manners.”
“At least you admit it.”
“That I have manners?”
“That you’re a bloodsucking vampire.”
His gaze settled on her neck and he was suddenly seized with the unwanted and inappropriate urge to nibble on that soft-looking skin to find out if she tasted as good as she smelled. “Says the consultant who admitted she’d never say ‘You’re right, we’re billing way too much for this.’ ”
He checked the sign on the wall that indicated the room directions and headed to the right, noting she fell into step beside him. Great. Same hotel, same floor, and now rooms apparently near each other. He stopped outside room 314. “Well, good night. See you in the lobby at six.”
She stopped directly across the hall, outside room 315, and looked at him over her shoulder. A tendril had escaped her severely pulled back hair and rested on her cheek, a slash of brown against pale skin that somehow made her look almost human.
“ ’Night.” She entered her room and the door closed with a quiet click.
The instant Jack’s door closed behind him, he let out a sigh of relief. First stop was the minibar, where he helped himself to a bottle of water and a bag of peanut M &M’s. After popping several candied nuts into his mouth and washing them down with a long, cool drink, he picked up the phone and ordered room service. He could almost taste that cheeseburger, fries, cole slaw, and chocolate brownie already. The turkey sandwich he’d eaten for dinner hours ago was but a memory.
The bellhop had already delivered his suitcase-talk about fast service-and he simultaneously toed off his shoes and shrugged his suit jacket from his shoulders. After tossing the jacket on the nearest chair, he slipped off his already loosened tie and flicked open the buttons on his dress shirt, all while looking over the room. Muted earth tones, brightened by attractive framed prints depicting nautical scenes, tasteful cherrywood furnishings. The best part was the king-sized bed that beckoned him like a siren with promises of a comfortable night’s sleep.
Still working on his shirt, he clicked on the financial news channel, noting that the stock market had enjoyed an upswing. At least something good had happened today. Keeping one eye on the TV, and still popping M &M’s, he zipped open his suitcase. Might as well unpack while he waited for his meal.
With his attention on the TV, he reached into the suitcase to pull out his favorite Braves T-shirt, which he’d packed right on top. When he looked down, he halted midchew and blinked. Instead of his T-shirt, he held a bit of black lace that looked like a… thong?
What the hell? He held up the wisp of material that definitely wasn’t his T-shirt and frowned. Definitely a thong. Definitely sexy. Definitely not his.
He looked at the suitcase and reached for the next item. Instead of his sweatpants, he pulled out a lacy black bra that matched the thong. As if in a trance, he replaced the bra and checked out a few more items on the top. Some sort of sexy corset-looking thing. A slinky see-through number in fire-engine red. A bottle of massage oil. And a box of thirty-six condoms. A book entitled Fifty Ways to Please Your Lover. On top of the book was a note. Without even meaning to, his gaze scanned the brief message. Don’t you dare lose your nerve! Be brave! Be daring! Have your one-night stand with a sexy fireman and ENJOY yourself. You’ll feel soooo much better. I’ll want all the details at lunch on Monday. Go get ’em, girl! XOX Emma
Wow. Somebody was expecting a sex-filled weekend. He looked closer at the bag and realized that it was identical to his, right down to the same brand name. Realization struck and he froze. The bellhop had only had two bags on his cart. His and…
Holy crap. No freakin’ way did this assortment of sexy goodies belong to that frosty dragon. No way.
He stared at the thong dangling from his fingertips. His suddenly active imagination shifted into overdrive, filling his mind with a picture of those curves hinted at beneath her prim, mud-brown skirt filling out the wispy bit of black lace. Which snapped everything male in him to attention.
This is what the icy consultant pest wore underneath those prim, boring suits? Whoa. And people thought Victoria had secrets. His gaze shifted back to the open suitcase, and before he could stop himself, he reached out and ran a single fingertip over the cup of the black lace bra.
His conscience coughed to life. Okay, dude, hands off. Touching her underwear is just… wrong. What are you, some kind of perv?
He snatched his hand away as if her lingerie had suddenly spurt flames. Of course he wasn’t a perv. At least he hadn’t been until he’d opened her suitcase. He was just… curious. And surprised. He sure as hell wouldn’t have equated someone so prim with a one-night stand seeker. He’d read about the fireman charity golf tournament taking place at the resort this weekend. Clearly she had, too. Still, he would have bet his entire 401K that Mad Dog wore sensible, white cotton granny panties beneath her schoolmarm clothes. Not that he’d ever pondered her underwear or thought of her in that way. Hell no.
Oh, c’mon, admit it. You’ve thought about her in that way more than once since you made your stupid bet. You were thinking of her in that way not twenty minutes ago when you ogled her legs.
Okay, fine. But he hadn’t known they were her legs when he’d ogled them. Or her ass.
You knew they were her lips when you ogled them, his inner voice whispered slyly.
Damn pesky inner voice. Why couldn’t it lie? Just once in a while? He went to rake his hands through his hair and realized her thong still dangled from his fingers. He stared at the sexy bit of lace and groaned. He did not want to know this about her. Did not want to think about her wearing this under her prim and proper clothes. Think of her wearing it to entice some fireman into a one-nighter. Hell, he didn’t want to think about her at all. Time to replace the panties, zip up the bag, and give her back her incredibly sexy lingerie. Yup, that was absolutely the only thing to do. Certainly better than standing here staring. And fantasizing.
Annoyed with himself, he replaced the thong and slapped down the suitcase’s lid. Clearly the only reason he would, for even one nanosecond, fantasize about Mad Dog Price was because his brain was fried. He pulled the zipper closed then stepped back. There. Done.
Of course, this meant that she had his suitcase. He ran a quick mental inventory of what he’d packed and groaned. If she opened his suitcase, she’d surely have questions-questions he wasn’t inclined to answer. But… since she hadn’t knocked on his door yet, maybe that meant she hadn’t discovered the Case of the Double Suitcase. Maybe, just maybe, he could get to her in time.
He grabbed her suitcase and headed toward his door.
Fresh from a much needed hot shower that went a long way toward loosening the tense kinks in her neck, Maddie ran a quick brush through her damp hair then wrapped herself in the thick, luxuriously soft terry cloth robe provided by the hotel. Although she’d arrived at the resort later than she’d planned, it was still early enough to change into her Catch a Fireman Dress and scope out the bar. While she dressed, she’d peruse Emma’s pep talk note and the copy of Fifty Ways to Please Your Lover her best friend had given her for encouragement. And hope her nerve didn’t desert her.
When she exited the bathroom her gaze fell on the minibar and she realized she was hungry. Really hungry. The meager salad she’d eaten for dinner at her desk was long gone. Drat. Anything she ate now would permanently adhere itself to her hips. Oh, well. That’s what treadmills were for.
She selected the bag of peanut M &M’s and popped one in her mouth while unzipping her suitcase. If she found her one-night stand tonight she wouldn’t get much sleep before her orienteering outing. Ugh. At six a.m. Double ugh. With Jack Walker. Triple ugh.
His words echoed in her ears. Some of us have a life outside the job. Arrogant ass. No wonder he’d checked in so late-probably had an entire roster of women he’d had to appease. Well, she had a life outside her job, too. One that was going to get much more exciting this weekend courtesy of some as of yet unknown fireman.
In anticipation of seeing her newly purchased lingerie, she flipped open the suitcase lid. And stared. At what had to be the rattiest looking T-shirt she’d ever seen. She could tell by the tomahawk it was a Braves shirt, but the lettering was so faded, it read 3 aves. What the heck? She moved aside the T-shirt. Okay, who had taken Fifty Ways to Please Your Lover and exchanged it for How to Find Your Soul Mate? Gone was her slinky lingerie and condoms. In their place was a huge pair of sneakers and a slim hardback entitled Dealing with Your Four-Year-Old.
Clearly this was the wrong suitca-
She closed her eyes and clapped a hand against her head.
The bellhop must have mixed up her bag with Jack’s. She slapped the lid closed and looked at the brand label. Yup. Same exact bag. Which meant that he had her bag. Her bag filled with condoms. And lingerie. And sexy reading material.
And Emma’s note revealing her one-night stand plans.
Heat crept up her neck, instantly annoying her. So what if he saw all that? It was none of his damn business. She reached for the tab to pull the zipper closed, but hesitated as she recalled the titles of the two books she’d seen. Surely she must be mistaken. Compelled by a curiosity she didn’t quite understand, she opened the lid again.
Clearly the man was a Braves fan, but that was hardly surprising. No, it was his reading material that had her doing a double take. She would have expected dog-eared copies of men’s magazines featuring scantily clad women. Jack Walker, aka the Lunchtime Boffing Machine, certainly didn’t strike her as the sort of man to read How to Find Your Soul Mate. Even more surprising was the guide on raising a four-year-old. Jack had a child? Based on office gossip she knew he wasn’t married. She hadn’t considered he’d be a father.
“It’s none of my business, and who cares anyway?” she muttered, closing the lid and taking firm hold of the zipper tab. Although even as the words passed her lips, she couldn’t squelch her curiosity. Those books definitely didn’t fit her image of Jack Walker. Not that it mattered. She was just… surprised. And the sooner she rid herself of his suitcase and reclaimed her own, the better off she’d be.
She looked down at herself and grimaced. She had no desire to knock on Jack’s door wearing nothing other than the fluffy robe, but neither did she want to change back into her suit. Besides, the fact that he hadn’t already knocked on her door meant he probably hadn’t opened her suitcase yet. Which would certainly save her some embarrassment. Not that she had anything to be ashamed of, but still. The thought of Jack Walker seeing her sexy lingerie filled her with an unsettling warmth she didn’t care to examine too closely. Besides, the robe was hardly sexy-it was as see-through as cement and covered her from chin to shin.
After slipping her key card into her pocket, she headed toward the door, dragging the evil twin to her suitcase behind her. She crossed the hall and firmly knocked on the door to room 314. The door opened so quickly, she wondered if he’d been standing right there.
“The bellhop mixed up our…” Her words trailed off as her gaze zeroed in on the slice of bare male chest visible courtesy of his untucked, unbuttoned dress shirt. She blinked. Wow. Nice view. One that made her fingers itch to reach out and pull the sides of his shirt wider apart for a better look. Whatever else might be on his busy social calendar, Jack Walker’s pecs and abs proved he carved out enough time to keep in shape. Really good shape.
A dusting of dark chest hair narrowed to an ebony ribbon that bisected his muscle-ridged abdomen then disappeared beneath the waistband of his charcoal gray pants-a deliciously masculine, yet silky looking trail she had the sudden urge to follow. With her tongue.
Yikes! Where had that thought come from? Obviously from the murky depths of her sexual drought, which was causing hallucinations. She tried to raise her gaze back to his, really she did, but her eyeballs seemed to have developed a mind of their own, one that wanted to continue meandering downward. Over his charcoal gray dress pants that were… dear God, unbuttoned. She tried to swallow, but her throat had gone totally dry. Her gaze continued downward, over his long legs, down to his black dress socks that covered his large feet. You know what they say about men with large feet, Maddie.
Heat whooshed through her and she managed, through sheer force of will, to yank her errant eyeballs upward. But that didn’t help. Between the five o’clock shadow shading his square jaw, the way his hair was rumpled as if by a woman’s impatient fingers, and his casually unfastened clothing, he looked more deliciously decadent than a triple fudge brownie. Just going by the law of averages, at some point in her life she’d most likely seen a sexier man, but darned if she could remember who that man might have been. If the CFO gig didn’t work out for him, he could step in and do People magazine’s Sexiest Man Alive issue.
Then annoyance kicked in. What the heck was wrong with her? There were tons of sexy men around. Right here in this very hotel. This very weekend.
This one standing right in front of us will do very nicely, her suddenly vocal and wide awake hormones chimed in.
Right. This one standing in front of her who was looking at her as if he’d never seen her before. Irritation rippled through her-thank God, because it managed to tamp down the lust that had grabbed her by the throat. So she didn’t look all put together. So her hair was still damp and no doubt looked as if she’d stuck her finger in a light socket. So while he looked sexy and delicious, she looked like she’d been dragged behind a bus. So what? Didn’t mean he had to look at her like she’d sprouted devil horns and a third eye.
His gaze, which looked oddly dazed-as if he’d just been smacked upside his head-wandered over her with a thoroughness that heated her from the inside out and made her want to squirm. He looked her over, all the way down to her bare toes, then back up. When their gazes finally met again, he said in a voice that sounded both annoyed and confused, “You’re not dressed.”
She wasn’t sure what she’d expected him to say, but it wasn’t that. In spite of her own annoyance, a whisper of amusement worked its way through. “I’m hardly naked.”
Something that looked exactly like fire but surely couldn’t have been flared in his eyes. His eyes, which were a really, really nice dark blue. Like a cloudless sky at twilight.
“Besides,” she added, “it’s not as if I had a whole bunch of wardrobe choices, seeing as how you have my suitcase.” She wheeled his forward. “And I have yours.”
He looked down and she followed his gaze, and realized for the first time that he held her suitcase-something she surely would have noticed sooner if she hadn’t been sidetracked by the brain-cell-numbing, libido-wakening sight of his bare chest.
“I was just on my way to your room to return it,” he said.
She barely suppressed a wince. Great. That meant he’d opened it. And now probably thought she was sex-crazed and desperate.
You are sex-crazed and desperate, her brutally honest libido informed her.
Fine. At least desperate enough to contemplate a one-night stand with a fireman to be named later. But she certainly hadn’t wanted Jack Walker to know that.
Don’t sweat it, her libido continued slyly. Men view sex-starved as a good quality in a woman.
Before she could kick her tongue into gear to reply, her attention was diverted by the sound of dishes clinking together. She turned and saw a young man dressed in the resort’s dark green uniform approaching, wheeling a room service cart. His gaze flicked over Maddie in her robe, Jack in his unbuttoned shirt, and a knowing look gleamed in his eyes.
Great. Yet another male in the hotel who believed she was having sex. Quite annoying, especially since she wasn’t. Yet.
“Would you like me to set this up on the desk, Mr. Walker?” the young man asked. “Or perhaps on the balcony? It’s a nice, clear night.”
Both Maddie and Jack stepped aside so he could wheel the cart into Jack’s room. Something that smelled delicious and fresh off the grill wafted behind him and Maddie’s knees almost buckled from the incredible aroma. She glanced at the cart and her brows shot up at the sight of the four silver-covered dishes on the table. Either Jack was extremely hungry or he was expecting company. She knew which one she’d guess. Seemed he hadn’t cancelled his Friday night plans at all-he’d just relocated them. Why was she not surprised? Definitely time for her to scram before his date arrived.
Jack followed the room service guy into the room, and Maddie stepped inside, dragging Jack’s suitcase behind her, telling herself it was only to get out of the hallway-not an attempt to catch another sniff of those mouthwatering smells emanating from the cart. Jack reached into his back pocket and extracted his wallet, a move that shifted his shirt open.
Oh. My. Maddie outwardly stilled at the glimpse of all that lovely muscled flesh, but inside… inside her heart rate sped up and her blood whooshed through her veins like bullets shooting from a gun barrel.
Jack tipped the young man, who thanked him then murmured good night to her as he exited the room. The door clicked closed behind him, leaving her alone with Jack. And their matching suitcases. And his fabulous-smelling room service. That had her mouth watering. It wasn’t him and his beautiful eyes or his gorgeous body. Nope. Not at all. Or the intense, smoldering, and unsettling way he was looking at her. As if he were a wolf and she had a pork chop hanging around her neck.
Jack stood rooted to the spot, staring at Maddie, at a complete loss for words-at least appropriate words. Certainly Who the hell are you and what did you do with Mad Dog? didn’t seem the right thing to say. Neither did Wow, you’re hot.
And hot she was. So hot that when he’d opened his door and found her standing there he hadn’t even recognized her at first. And who could blame him for not equating the prim, severely coiffed, modestly suited, bespectacled Mad Dog with this tousled haired, dark-eyed siren who’d clearly just stepped out of the shower and smelled good enough to nibble on?
He’d opened his door, thinking it was room service, and his first thought had been Wow. Whoever you are, you’re much better than a cheeseburger. Then she’d mentioned the suitcase and recognition had whacked him with the impact of a brick to the head. He’d been reeling ever since. How was it possible that just letting down her hair, removing her glasses, and getting her out of those prim suits could make such a difference? She was like a female Clark Kent-get rid of the nerdy spectacles, hair, and clothes and poof! Superwoman was born.
And what a super woman she was. Who would have guessed she had all that silky-looking curly hair? And that her eyes were so round and large? How had he never noticed that they were the color of smooth chocolate? Wrapped up in that fluffy robe, she looked like a present, just waiting to be opened. And since she’d clearly taken a shower and he had all her clothes… his gaze slipped to the sash tied around her waist. That meant she probably wasn’t wearing anything beneath that robe.
Damn. It was hot in here.
Her voice yanked him from his daydream and he looked away from her bathrobe to her face. She’d clearly said something to him but damned if he knew what.
He cleared his throat and said the only thing he could manage around his stupefaction. “Huh?”
“I said ‘Here’s your suitcase, may I please have mine?’ ” She parked his case next to the TV.
“Oh. Yeah. Sure.” Jeez, he even sounded like he’d been clocked upside the head with a brick. He wheeled her suitcase toward her. When she took the handle, their fingers brushed, and if he’d been capable of it, he would have laughed at the sizzle that zoomed up his arm.
“Thanks,” she said. Her gaze flicked toward the room service table. “Big plans tonight, I see. Well, me, too. Enjoy your evening. See you tomorrow.”
Before he could say a word, she opened the door and practically ran across the hall, dragging her lingerie- and condom-filled, one-night-stand-ready suitcase behind her. He applied his eye to the peephole and watched her enter her room.
He turned and headed toward his very belated dinner. Big plans? A cheeseburger and the financial news update? He shrugged and snagged a French fry. Then frowned. She was the one who had big plans. Her and her glossy, curly hair and big eyes and lingerie. She was looking for a one-nighter and he didn’t doubt she’d find someone willing. A sensation that felt suspiciously like jealousy but couldn’t have been pricked him. He didn’t care what her plans were. For all he knew she had a guy in her room right now.
That’s one damn lucky guy, his inner voice informed him.
Good God, clearly he was suffering from hunger-induced insanity. Nothing his cheeseburger wouldn’t cure. Sitting on the edge of the bed, he uncovered his burger and took a huge bite. It was really good, but he found himself eating mechanically, staring at the TV without seeing what was flashing on the screen. All because he couldn’t stop wondering what Ms. I’m Too Sexy for My Bathrobe was doing across the hall.
Annoyed at himself, he clicked off the TV and finished his meal in silence. He’d just polished off the last of his brownie when he heard what sounded like a door opening across the hall. He strode to his own door and applied his eye to the peephole. The sex siren he’d previously referred to as Mad Dog stood in the hallway, slipping her key card into a tiny fire-engine red purse. That perfectly matched the five alarm dress clinging to a figure that needed to come with a warning sign: Dangerous Curves Ahead.
And one who had “big plans” tonight.
After tucking away the card, she headed in the direction of the elevator.
Where was she going? Most likely to the bar. Where there were most likely lots of firemen. Who would know something hot when they saw it.
Suddenly he didn’t feel the least bit tired. No, in fact, he was suddenly in the mood for a beer. How lucky that the resort had a first-class bar.
Maddie sat on a bar stool and took a sip of her wine and tried not to feel conspicuous. Engaging in a one-night stand with a hot, handsome fireman sounded great in theory, but now that the moment had arrived to actually set her plan in motion, she wasn’t so sure. She could almost hear Emma making chicken noises, but she’d never actually ventured into a bar alone. Evenings at clubs were either a date or an outing with girlfriends.
The Casa di Lago’s bar was crowded with both men and women, but a quick glance made it clear that the women outnumbered the men by about two to one. Clearly, she wasn’t the only female who knew the resort was crawling with firemen this weekend. The air buzzed with laughter, conversation, clinking glasses, and muted jazz.
A more leisurely perusal of the crowd confirmed that there were indeed some very attractive men in the room. All she had to do now was pick out one she liked and hope the feeling was mutual. No problem. She could do this.
“Hi,” said a male voice next to her. “May I buy you a drink?”
She turned. A tall, muscular, good-looking man with light brown hair and an attractive crooked smile regarded her through eyes that expressed unmistakable interest.
“I already have one,” she said, so quickly the words ran together. She grabbed for her wine. “But thanks anyway.” She buried her nose in her wineglass.
“Uh, sure. Have a nice evening.”
He faded away into the crowd, and Maddie blew out a long breath. Okay, that didn’t go particularly well, but hey, she was nervous. Next time she’d do better.
Next time arrived several minutes later in the form of another handsome, muscular man. Jeez. What did they feed these firemen that they were all so attractive? No wonder so many of them posed for calendars.
“Hi,” he said, flashing her a flirtatious smile. “I’m Dave.”
Something akin to panic fluttered in Maddie’s chest. “Hi, Dave. Nice to meet you, but I’m waiting for someone.”
He flashed her another smile. “Oh, well. Take care.” He melted away and Maddie mentally thunked herself on the forehead. What was wrong with her? Both of those men were handsome and personable. Why hadn’t she given either of them a chance?
Because even though you’re lonely and horny, one-night stands are not your style, her inner voice informed her.
Well, hell. Much as she wished it were otherwise, she simply didn’t have Emma’s daring or extroverted personality. And rather than turning her on, the thought of sex with a stranger turned her into a nervous basket case. As good-looking as Dave and the other man had been, neither of them had inspired the slightest sexual tingle.
“Time to abandon this sinking ship,” she muttered to herself, reaching for her wine. One last sip and she was outta here. Just then her gaze locked with that of a tall, good-looking blond guy. He stood across the room, at a small round table with a quartet of equally attractive men, all of whom held beer bottles. The blond man smiled at her, showing off perfect teeth. He really was ridiculously handsome, but for reasons she couldn’t fathom, just like the others before him, he didn’t light a spark in her.
Not wanting to appear rude, she offered him a return smile, yet immediately regretted it when he picked up his beer and looked as if he were about to leave his group to make his way toward her. But then his gaze shifted to a point over her shoulder. He hesitated, then shot her what seemed like an apologetic look and returned his attention to his friends.
What the heck? Before Maddie could figure out what had just happened, someone squeezed in next to her. Then a familiar voice said, “Bet your date isn’t going to appreciate you smiling at that blond dude.”
Maddie turned and stared at Jack. Jack, who’d buttoned up his shirt and pants-darn it-and whose presence annoyingly made her heart perform some weird swooping maneuver. No longer nervous and now concentrating on her annoyance, she treated him to a glare meant to reduce him to ashes. Instead of taking the hint, he calmly ordered a beer from the bartender then turned to her and asked, “So where is your date?”
Maddie narrowed her eyes. Was it possible he hadn’t read Emma’s note? She highly doubted it. “Not that it’s any of your business, but that ‘blond dude’ might have been my date if you hadn’t happened along. But since you opened my suitcase, I’m sure you already knew that.”
For several seconds his gaze seemed to burn into hers. Then he said, “Okay, I know. I didn’t mean to read the note, but in my own defense, it was just there. Right on top.”
Well, at least he’d admitted it. So now she was officially mortified, which heartily irked her. She had no reason to be embarrassed.
He took a quick glance around. “Based on the number of men in this bar you won’t have any trouble.” His gaze flicked over her dress. “Especially in that dress.”
She narrowed her eyes. “What’s wrong with my dress?”
“Not a thing. You look… um, swell.”
Maddie nearly choked on the laugh that bubbled into her throat. “Gee, thanks. Your shocked tone that I might look um, swell lends that compliment just an extra bit of flash. Now, if you don’t mind moving along, your hulking presence is kinda cramping my style.”
Clearly the man was either deaf or immune to being asked to scram, because he leaned against the bar and continued to study her, as if she were a puzzle he was trying to solve. “Now at least I understand the lingerie.”
Heat suffused Maddie’s face, which only served to irritate her further. “My lingerie is none of your business.” She made a great show of looking around. “So where is your date? Surely she’s missing you.”
“What makes you think I have a date?”
“The room service cart with two glasses and enough covered dishes to feed an army was a good clue.”
“Sorry, Sherlock, but all the food was for me. Cheeseburger, chili fries, cole slaw, and a frosted brownie.” He rubbed his hand over his flat stomach. “Delicious.”
“Sounds bad for the arteries.” Not to mention the hips.
“Yeah.” He flashed a smile. “But good for the soul.”
Okay, why did this man’s smile make her pulse misbehave in a way the handsome blond guy’s hadn’t? From a purely technical standpoint, the blond guy was actually more handsome than Jack. But for some inexplicable reason, Jack was the one who had her hormones in an uproar. Probably because of that accidental chest peek she’d gotten. No doubt the blond guy’s chest and abs were just as nice.
We don’t care, yelled her hormones. We like Jack.
Oh, boy. This was not good.
Plus, we already know Jack, her hormones urged. Better to take on the devil you know.
“Shut up,” she muttered.
Jack raised his brows. “I didn’t say anything.”
“Sorry. I wasn’t talking to you.”
“Oh? Who were you talking to?”
Might as well tell him. If he thought she was crazy maybe he’d get lost. “The annoying little voice in my head.”
Instead of backing away as if she were nuts, he nodded. “I’ve got that same little voice.” Something she couldn’t decipher flashed in his eyes. “I’ve been telling mine to shut up a lot recently, too.”
Curiosity pricked her, but before she could question him, the bartender handed Jack his beer. He raised his drink and said, “To our bet. May the best man win.”
She tapped her wineglass against his long-necked bottle. “Especially if he’s a she.”
After he took a swallow, he leaned back against the bar and again studied her. “May I be perfectly honest with you?”
“I’d prefer if you’d be perfectly absent.”
Instead of looking annoyed, he smiled. “And here I thought women just wanted honesty. Except for that ‘Does this make my butt look fat?’ question. So… may I be honest?”
“Why not? Honesty from a man would be a refreshing change.”
His gaze wandered down her body then back up again. “You’ve surprised me. Or rather, the contents of your suitcase surprised me.”
“I could say the same about the contents of yours.”
“Oh? What’s surprising about sneakers and sweats?”
She recalled the size of those sneakers and felt her cheeks flush. “I meant your reading material.”
“Says a woman with Fifty Ways to Please Your Lover tucked into her bag. That’s much more interesting than anything in my suitcase.” He nodded toward the blond guy. “You were planning to try out one of those fifty ways on him?”
“Again, none of your business.”
“I know. But I’m curious, and not averse to tossing out the brutal truth. So here it is: From day one you struck me as a prim, proper, uptight, rigid schoolmarm type. What I saw in your suitcase, coupled with your obvious intent to meet someone in this bar tonight, blows all my theories about you out of the water.”
“I see. Well, in light of your brutal truth, I’ll return the favor. From day one you struck me as the fast-and-loose, girl-in-every-port playboy type I loathe. What I saw in your suitcase makes me wonder if you might not be quite as loathsome as I thought.”
“Thanks. I think.” His gaze searched hers for several seconds, then he said, “Gavin sent us here to bond, so rather than waiting for tomorrow morning, how about we start now? Since at least some of our preconceived notions about each other seem to be wrong, I vote we start all over. Not as feuding CFO and consultant, but just as… you and me. At work we’re at odds with each other, but we’re not at work now.” He held out his hand and smiled. “Hi. I’m Jack Walker.”
Suspicion instantly filled her. She knew damn well Jack didn’t like her, yet here he was, pouring on the charm. Why? He had an ulterior motive, of that she was sure. But what?
Yet along with her suspicions came a heated awareness. Of him. Of the way he was looking at her. As if he were seeing her for the first time. As if he were really interested. And curious. Just as you’re curious about him. He was undoubtedly playing some sort of game. He had to be. So why not play along? At least her curiosity would be satisfied. And if he could temporarily set aside their work-related enmity, then so could she.
She extended her hand and gave his a firm, businesslike shake. But there was nothing businesslike about the tingle that shot up her arm as his big, warm hand engulfed hers. She had to swallow to locate her voice. “Hi, Jack. I’m Madeline… Maddie Price.”
He continued holding her hand, again looking at her with that I’ve-never-seen-you-before expression. She slipped her hand from his, then quickly picked up her wineglass so she didn’t give in to the unnerving, overwhelming urge to touch him again. To see if another tingle would zing through her.
Deciding her best defense was a strong offense, she said, “So tell me about your reading material regarding raising a four-year-old. I didn’t know you had a child.”
He shook his head. “I don’t. But I have a four-year-old niece. We spend a lot of time together and, well, kids don’t come with instruction manuals, so I figured I’d buy one.” He hesitated then asked, “Would you like to see her picture?”
Surprised, by both his answer and his offer, she said, “Sure.”
He withdrew his wallet from his back pocket and slipped a photo from the black billfold. “Her name is Sophie,” he said, handing her the picture.
Maddie looked down at the image of an adorable blue-eyed sprite whose grinning, dimpled face was surrounded by a halo of bright copper curls. “What a cutie,” Maddie said, smiling at the photo. “She looks like a red-haired angel.”
“Thanks. But don’t let that angelic face fool you. She’s a sweetheart, but she also has the temperament to go along with that red hair, believe me. Totally takes after my sister.”
“She’s a fiery redhead?”
“No, just fiery tempered. Sophie got the red hair from her dad.”
She handed him back the photo. “They live in Atlanta?”
“Sophie and Claire do-Claire’s my sister.” A shadow fell across his features. “Claire’s husband, Rob, died last year. Killed by a drunk driver.”
Sympathy filled Maddie, and without thinking she reached out and touched his arm. “A close friend in college was the victim of a drunk driver. I know how painful it is. How helpless and angry you feel. I’m so sorry.”
He stilled and looked down at where her fingers rested against the sleeve of his white dress shirt. It felt to Maddie as if electricity ran between them. Did he feel it, too? Several long seconds passed, then he reached for his beer and her hand slipped from his arm. After swallowing, he said, “Thanks. It’s been tough on all of us, but especially on Claire. She and Rob were a perfect couple-really in love-and she’s still floundering. Our dad is career army and currently based in California, so our folks are far away, and Rob’s family all live in Texas. I’m the only family Claire and Sophie have here.”
“So you spend a lot of time with them,” Maddie said, her heart hurting for his sister who’d lost her beloved husband, and that adorable, fatherless little girl.
“As much as I can. Claire’s gone back to teaching at the private school where she worked before Sophie was born. Sophie and I have a lunch date every Wednesday at her preschool daycare, and Friday nights the three of us share a family dinner. I think having a constant male figure in her life has helped Sophie a lot. At least I hope so.”
Understanding struck and Maddie’s hand froze with her wineglass halfway to her mouth. Long lunches on Wednesdays… leaving at five every Friday…
A sensation she couldn’t name filled her. She lowered her glass, then murmured, “That’s why you don’t work late Friday nights.”
He nodded. “I explained the situation to Gavin before agreeing to take the position with Java Heaven.”
The realization that she’d made a mistake-a big mistake-slapped Maddie square in the face. One she felt it only fair to admit to. “May I be honest with you?” she asked, repeating his earlier question to her.
“Sure. Hit me with your best shot.”
“Between you coming come back to the office with your tie askew after your long Wednesday lunches and leaving at the stroke of five every Friday… well, that’s why I pegged you as a player. Which, for all I know, you may be,” she added quickly. “But at least in those two cases, I misjudged you. Sorry.”
“Accepted. As for the askew tie, those preschool playgrounds can get rough.” He grinned, and she thanked God she was sitting down because her knees seemed to melt at the sight of that devilish smile. “Between that and the finger painting, I’m lucky to get out alive sometimes.”
Finger paint… she recalled the red smear on his collar this past Wednesday. Finger paint. And she thought she’d known lipstick when she saw it. Clearly she didn’t know much. Especially about Jack Walker, whose character she’d obviously grossly misjudged.
“I haven’t heard any gossip about this at the office,” she said.
“I haven’t told anyone, except Gavin. All my energy has been spent basically in accounting triage-stopping hemorrhaging, getting the department stabilized, hiring a new controller. I haven’t had the time or opportunity yet to forge any real personal relationships with the employees.” He looked at her over the edge of his bottle. “Guess that’s going to change during this bonding weekend.”
“Yes. That was the point.” She felt all her opinions about him shifting rapidly, like sand during a windstorm, and she wasn’t sure she was happy about it. Disliking Jack had been uncomfortable, but she was accustomed to uncomfortable work situations. No, she greatly feared that liking him would prove even more problematic. “It was good that you and Gavin came to an agreement. I know from experience that not all bosses are so accommodating to a personal schedule.”
“It was a deal breaker for me.”
She raised her brows. “You would have turned down a CFO position?”
“Yes. I turned one down before I accepted Gavin’s offer. Having my thirty-year-old brother-in-law-who also happened to be one of my best friends-die made me reexamine, reevaluate my life. My goals. What was important to me. For a long time my career came first. Looking back, I see I was driven to the point of letting everything else slide. After Rob died, well, everything changed. Including me.”
There was no doubting his sincerity, and she could actually feel the ropes that had anchored her aversion to him slipping from their moorings. “I… I think it’s great that you’re helping your sister and are so involved in your niece’s life.”
“Thanks. But not all women would agree with you.”
“What do you mean?”
“I have a couple of ex-girlfriends who weren’t very understanding of the fact that I would take a long lunch on a weekday for a four-year-old but not for them. Or that I was unavailable Friday evenings. And sometimes on weekends as well, if Sophie had something going on at her school, or if we’d scheduled a family outing. We’d all planned to visit the zoo this weekend then catch the latest Disney flick, but I had to bow out because of the team building.”
Maddie recalled the phone calls she’d overheard him making and she inwardly winced with shame for the conclusion she’d jumped to. He’d been canceling a zoo/movie outing with his sister and niece-not erotic dates with hot babes.
“And what do your current dates think?”
He gave a short laugh. “As soon as I find someone willing to take me on, I’ll let you know. I can understand the frustration of not being included, and I haven’t asked any women to join us on our family outings. But on the other hand, I haven’t wanted to introduce anyone into our little circle until I was sure she was going to be around for a while. The last thing Sophie needs is a revolving door of ‘aunts.’ ” He took a swallow of beer then continued, “I guess you’d be apt to take the women’s side on that issue.”
She shook her head. “Actually, I agree with you.”
He slapped his hand over his heart and staggered back a step. “Call the paramedics. I think I’m about to keel over from shock.”
She laughed. “Surely we’ve agreed on something before now.”
He screwed up his face in an exaggerated ponder then shook his head. “Sorry. Can’t think of a single time.”
Maddie thought about it for several seconds and realized she couldn’t think of an occasion either. They’d butted heads pretty much from moment one. “Well, clearly there’s a first time for everything. I think it’s very admirable that you’re putting your niece’s interests before your own.”
“Thank you. Although you sound very surprised that I’d do anything admirable.”
“I suppose I am surprised,” she said, feeling as if she owed him both honesty and an apology. “My mom died when I was in fifth grade. It took my dad several years before he even went on a date, but once he finally started dating, he kept that part of his life separate from me and him. He didn’t want me to meet someone who he might only end up dating a few times and have me wondering-or worrying-if she might become my stepmother. Now that I’m an adult, I can appreciate that he wanted what was best for me and didn’t introduce me to a bunch of transient dates.”
“Has he ever remarried?”
She smiled. “Yes. In fact, as we speak, Dad and Yvonne are on a two-week European cruise to celebrate their tenth anniversary.”
“So happy endings are possible.”
“In some cases, yes. Is that why you’re reading How to Find Your Soul Mate-to find a happy ending?”
She’d asked in a slightly teasing voice, but when he answered, his gaze remained serious. “After Rob’s death and my reevaluation of my own life, I realized I want to find what my sister had with Rob. What my parents have shared all these years. That special connection with one person. I’m tired of games and drama and the singles scene. After my last relationship ended, I sort of went into hibernation, and frankly, between the new job and helping out my sister, I haven’t had much free time. Nor have I met anyone who interested me enough to make the effort.” He drained the rest of his beer. “And I’m sure that’s more than you ever wanted to know.”
As recently as two hours ago, she would have sworn she knew all she wanted to know about him. But that was based on her own incorrect assumptions and wrong conclusions about him. Now she felt as if she didn’t know nearly enough. As if she could sit here and talk to him for hours.
She cleared her throat. “You said that I surprised you, but I have to say… you’ve surprised me.”
“Because you thought I was an arrogant, heartless prick.” He said the words without rancor. Indeed, he appeared amused.
“An arrogant pain in the ass,” she corrected. “Which, as far as work goes, I still think you are. But in keeping with our apparent détente, I also think you’re intelligent and an excellent and fair boss to your staff.”
“Thank you. As far as work goes, I think you’re a nit-picking, uptight micromanager. But in keeping with our apparent détente, I also think you’re intelligent and a good organizer. And that you look pretty damn amazing in that dress.”
His words surprised her, but then he utterly shocked her by reaching out and brushing his fingers over the back of her hand. It felt as if a lightning bolt zoomed up her arm and spread all the way down to her toes.
“I told you all about me and the mysterious contents of my suitcase,” he said, his gaze searching hers. “So now it’s your turn. What’s a nice girl like you doing looking for a one-night stand?”
She hiked up a brow. “Nice girls can’t have one-night stands?”
“Sure they can.” He studied her for several seconds, and she would have given a lot to know what he was thinking. “But I somehow don’t think it’s your usual style.”
“Obviously because of the ‘be brave, don’t chicken out’ note.”
“Only partly. Even without benefit of the note, it just doesn’t seem like you.”
“It’s not.” The words slipped out before she could even think, followed by a nervous laugh. “Would you believe me if I told you I’m actually sort of shy?”
He nodded slowly then said, “Yes, I would. Not in your job, in things that you’re sure of. There your confidence shows. But outside the business realm… yes, I can image you’re often shy.”
His answer surprised her. “No one believes me when I tell them I’m shy,” she found herself saying. “That social situations make me nervous. That I’ve had to train myself not to just stand in the corner and remain silent. Force myself to talk to people I don’t know. Ever since my mother’s funeral, with all those people crowding around me, talking to me…” A shudder ran through her, one she turned into a shrug. “I was painfully shy then. The out of control curly hair, thick glasses, and railroad-track braces didn’t help.
“But the year after my mom died, my dad gave me a camera for my birthday. It was the greatest present he could have given a shy girl because it gave me a way to communicate with people without having to make conversation. I could hide behind the lens, but still be sociable. It enabled me to fit in at school, where I joined the yearbook and newspaper staffs and photography club.”
“A camera… that’s a great idea. One I never would have thought of. Sophie isn’t shy with people she knows, but she doesn’t like crowds. It took her a long time to adjust to preschool. I’m going to look into a kid version of a camera for her. You didn’t want to make photography your career?”
She shook her head. “I’m too practical to contemplate being a starving artist. Photography’s a passion, but it’s just my hobby.”
His gaze skimmed over her with such unmistakable male appreciation it was all she could do not to fan herself with a cocktail napkin. “And your collection of sexy lingerie… is that a passion as well?”
“More of a weakness.”
He shifted closer and her knee brushed against his hard thigh. “Any other weaknesses?”
Yes. Apparently tall, dark-haired, blue-eyed men. “Rocky road ice cream. Lemon meringue pie. Spicy salsa.” Good lord, was that breathless sound her voice? “Not all at the same time.”
He chuckled. “That’s a relief. That combo wouldn’t be good for the arteries or the soul.”
“Or the stomach.”
He casually took her hand and lightly played with her fingers. Soft strokes of his fingers over hers that made her catch her breath. “You never answered my question,” he said softly.
“Question?” If he was going to keep touching her like that, he’d never get an answer. Especially since she couldn’t even recall what he’d asked her.
“Why are you looking for a one-nighter? No boyfriend to take the edge off?”
Pride made her ease her hand away, and she immediately missed the sensation of his fingers on hers. “If I had a boyfriend, I wouldn’t be here,” she said stiffly. “You might think me a nit-picking micromanager-an assessment I disagree with by the way-but I don’t cheat. I’ve had an unfaithful boyfriend and it’s not a pain or humiliation I would subject anyone else to.”
“Sorry. I didn’t mean to imply you were stepping out on someone.” He cleared his throat. “Your Honor, I’d like my last remark stricken from the record and I’d like to rephrase my poorly worded question.”
She relaxed and gave a solemn nod. “Permission granted.”
He nodded his thanks. “So why don’t you have a boyfriend?”
“My last few relationships were with men who proved to be lacking in either morals, integrity, honesty, or all three. My last few first dates proved to be awkward or boring. A few months ago, I got disgusted with the games and grind of dating and basically threw in the towel.”
Understanding and unmistakable interest flared in his eyes. “I see. After a few months alone, you’re feeling… lonely. Not enough to take on a relationship with another man who’ll probably just disappoint you, but enough to want a one-nighter to take the edge off the sexual frustration.”
She could try to deny it, but doubted if she’d be convincing, especially when he’d nailed it so exactly. “Do you read minds?”
“No. I just guessed that’s how you’d feel because it’s exactly how I feel. How many months has it been for you?”
She debated lying, but in the end told the truth. “Six months. Six months, seventeen days, fourteen hours, and”-she consulted her watch-“nine minutes. Not that I’m counting.”
“Well, it’s been eight months, five days, twelve hours, and…” He lightly clasped her wrist, sending her pulse into overdrive. After checking her watch, he added, “And four minutes for me. Not that I’m counting.”
Maddie opened her mouth to dispute his claim, but one look at his face, at the intensity in his eyes and the words died on her lips. Unless Jack was giving an Academy Award-caliber performance, he was telling the truth. His sexual drought was even longer than hers. Considering the fact that she felt as if her skin were too small, she had to wonder how he was faring. She moistened her suddenly dry lips. “That’s a long time.”
“A damn long time.” He clasped her hand and lifted it to his mouth. With his gaze steady on hers, he pressed his lips against her palm. She pulled in a quick breath. His mouth looked and felt positively sinful against her skin, and oh, God, was that his tongue that just brushed over the pad of her thumb?
“I think we should fix that, Maddie,” he said, his warm breath teasing the sensitive skin of her inner wrist.
The way he said her name, in that soft, deep, intimate tone, struck a chord deep inside her. One that hadn’t been played in a very long time. “What do you suggest?”
He lowered her hand to his chest. The heat of him seeped into her fingers and his heartbeat thumped hard and fast against her palm. His heart was beating nearly as fast as hers. He leaned in and nuzzled her neck with his warm lips. She actually felt her eyes glaze over.
“You’re looking for a one-night stand, and I’ve been out of commission even longer than you have,” he whispered against her ear. He straightened and looked into her eyes. The fire burning in the depths of his scorched her. “I suggest we be each other’s one-nighter.”
Jack watched the myriad of emotions that flitted across Maddie’s face. Surprise. Doubt. Confusion. Interest.
He nearly groaned with relief when he saw that unmistakable spark in her eyes. Thank God it wasn’t just him. He certainly couldn’t blame her for being surprised. He sure as hell was. If anyone had told him even a few hours ago that the mere sight of Mad Dog Price would render him hard as a rock and that he’d be all but panting to get naked with her, he would have laughed himself into a seizure.
But here she was-with her hair all loose and sexy, her chocolate brown eyes lined with something smoky, her curves encased in body-hugging fire-engine red, killer heels making her legs appear three miles long, her full lips looking incredibly kissable, and smelling so much like cookies he just wanted to take a big bite. And here he was-rock hard and all but panting.
No doubt the fact that he hadn’t had a woman in eight months, five days, twelve hours, and he didn’t know how the hell many minutes contributed to his current overwhelming desire for her. And his suggestion that they share a one-night stand.
There were reasons, lots of reasons, why it wasn’t a good idea, but damned if could remember any of them. Whatever they were, he just didn’t care. Right now all he cared about was her and him and putting out this damn fire she and her lingerie and her dress had lit inside him. She wanted a one-night stand? He was more than happy to oblige. The thought of that blond guy-or any other guy in the room for that matter-spending the night with her put his teeth on edge. And if she didn’t give him an answer in the next three seconds he was going to explode. He leaned forward, until only a paper-thin space separated their faces.
“Jack, I think-”
“Don’t think,” he whispered against her lips. Then he brushed his mouth over hers, once, twice. Her breath caught and she parted her lips. He settled his mouth on hers and in a heartbeat he was lost. She tasted so damn good. Like good wine and warm, soft woman. Their tongues tangled and he slid one hand into her silky hair, dragging her head closer. A growl of pure want vibrated in his throat and he deepened the kiss, sinking farther into the velvety heat of her mouth. He moved closer to her, pressing his erection against her thigh. She shifted her leg, and his rapidly diminishing control slipped another notch.
With an effort that cost him, he lifted his head. She looked as dazed as he felt. He prayed to God she felt as desperate as he did.
He ran the pad of his thumb over her full, moist bottom lip. “Yes or no?” he demanded in a low growl he barely recognized.
She licked her lips, a gesture that had him clenching his jaw.
“Yes,” she whispered.
Jack didn’t hesitate for an instant. Keeping his gaze on hers, he reached for his wallet. After tossing down more than enough to cover their drinks, he grabbed her hand and strode from the bar, heading directly for the elevators. He needed to get them back to the privacy of his room. Now. If he touched her before he did, he wasn’t sure he’d be able to stop.
He pressed the button and the door immediately slid open. Thank God. He led her into the elevator then pressed the button for the third floor. Damn, he could still taste her. He wanted, needed, to taste her again. But he could wait until they were in his room.
The instant the door closed behind them he quit lying to himself and pressed her against the wall. His mouth captured hers in a demanding kiss, one she answered without hesitation. Her arms went around his neck and she rose up on her toes, straining against him. Raw need raced through him and he plunged one hand into her mass of gorgeous curls. Fisting his fingers, he urged her head back to run his lips along the fragrant curve of her neck while his other hand slid down to cup her breast. She gasped and arched against him, then lifted one leg and wrapped it around his hips, urging him closer.
With a groan he couldn’t contain he flexed his hips in a long, slow thrust. Christ. He was going to lose his mind. The elevator pinged, indicating their arrival on the third floor. She moaned and slid her leg down, and with their arms wrapped around each other, still exchanging frantic kisses, they circled out of the elevator and started a halting progress down the long corridor.
“We need to lay some ground rules,” she whispered against his mouth in between stumbling steps and nipping kisses.
“Fine. Good.” He brought one hand forward to cup her breast. “Whatever you say.”
“Ooooh,” she breathed, arching against his hand. “This is only sex, Jack.” She ran her tongue over his bottom lip. “Just one night, to be enjoyed here, then never mentioned again.”
He skimmed one hand down her back and cupped the luscious curve of her bottom. Damn. She had more curves than a roller-coaster. Had he ever been this desperate for a woman? This hard and hot and aching? If so, he sure as hell couldn’t recall the circumstances. “Fine. Good. Whatever you say.”
“What happens at Casa di Lago stays at Casa di Lago.”
“Come Monday morning, this never happened and it’s back to work as usual,” he agreed. “Can we stop talking now?”
“Your room or mine?”
“I thought you wanted to stop talking,” she whispered, insinuating her hand between them to press her palm against his erection.
He sucked in a harsh breath and thrust into her hand. “Fine. Good. Whatever you say.”
Her throaty laugh raised his temperature another few degrees. “Since I have a box of thirty-six condoms handy, I vote for my room.”
“Right.” He ran his tongue down the side of her neck. “Plus there’s all that lingerie in your room.” They bumped into the wall, then kept circling down the hall. He took a quick look up. They’d almost arrived. Thank God. “Please tell me you have your key ready.”
“I do. No thanks to you. You’re very distracting. How many hands do you have?”
“You’re about to find out.” He snatched the key card from her, jabbed it into the slot, turned the metal handle, then backed her into the room.
The instant the door clicked shut behind them, Maddie found herself pinned against the wall from chest to knee by Jack’s very hard, very male body. His mouth came down on hers in a hard, hot, demanding kiss that left her positively woozy. Good God, the man knew how to kiss. She opened her mouth wider, wanting, needing, desperate for more.
Her impatient fingers worked on the buttons of his shirt, but before she got very far, he derailed her every thought by skimming a hand under her dress. His warm palm slid up her thigh, then lifted her leg, hooking it high over his hip.
“Black lace?” he murmured tracing his fingers over the wisp of material that comprised her thong.
“Yessss…” The word trailed off into a vaporous sigh of pleasure as his fingers slipped beneath the bit of lace and lightly traced her folds.
“You’re wet,” he murmured against her lips.
Her head lolled against the wall as he slowly caressed her with a knee-weakening circular motion. “I’m afraid you have, ahhhhh, only yourself to blame.”
“I accept full responsibility.”
“Good. Oh, God… really good. Now what do you intend to do about it?”
For an answer he slipped two fingers inside her and slowly pumped. Her eyes closed and a long, guttural moan rattled in her throat. She gripped his shoulders and undulated against his hand.
“Don’t hold back,” he urged, adding a third finger.
“I won’t be able to if you keep doing that.” She could barely manage the words.
“Good. Let’s see how fast you can come.”
She came fast. And hard. Clutching his shoulders, she arched her back and gave herself over completely to the hot pleasure thundering through her. When her spasms subsided, she leaned against the wall and fought for breath.
“Beautiful,” he murmured, trailing kisses over her neck. “I call that a do-over.”
“Fine. Good. Whatever you say.” She gasped out his earlier words and felt him smile against her neck. “Just don’t let go of me yet unless you want to peel my boneless body off the floor. My knees seem to have caught a flight to Tahiti.”
He gave a low laugh, then before she’d rallied her wits, he scooped her up and walked with her toward the bed. Wow. He didn’t even grunt when he picked her up. “Hey, don’t hurt yourself,” she murmured, wrapping a limp arm around his neck. “I’m not exactly a featherweight and I have plans for you that don’t include a trip to an orthopedic surgeon.”
“Glad to hear it.” He stopped at the edge of the bed. “How are your knees?”
She gave her leg an experimental wiggle. “Still missing in action, but I think I can stand up. Although you probably shouldn’t wander too far away. Just in case.”
He slowly lowered her to her feet, dragging her body against his. “I have no intention of being any farther away than this.”
“Well, okay. If you insist.”
He leaned forward and his warm lips nuzzled her neck while he slowly pulled down the long zipper at the back of her dress. “As nice as this dress is, I can’t wait to see what’s underneath it.”
“I could say the same about your shirt,” she said, applying herself once again to his buttons. “And your pants.”
“I’ve already been first, in case you didn’t notice.” She looked into his eyes and caught her breath at the fire burning there. “Thank you very much, by the way.”
“You’re welcome. And I did notice. And I want to see it again.” He slipped his fingers beneath the straps of her unzipped dress and slowly pushed the material over her shoulders.
“As much as I appreciate that, not before I take care of this,” she said, tracing the outline of his erection with her fingers. “As an accountant, you should want your debits to equal your credits.”
He skimmed her dress down her body, his avid gaze taking in every bit of her as it was revealed. “Right now, I’m much more interested in your assets.” He helped her step out of the dress, leaving her wearing only her black lace thong, matching bra, and strappy heels.
His gaze roamed over her, and a thrill of feminine satisfaction filled her at his obvious appreciation. “Wow,” he said, running a single fingertip along the lacy edge of her bra cup. “You do a hell of a job hiding all this beneath those prim suits you wear.”
“That’s the point. I’m not looking to get noticed for anything other than my job performance.”
“I know a lot of women who go out of their way to use their looks, rather than downplay them.”
She shrugged. “Not my style. In the workplace, I’m strictly conservative.”
He reached around her and unhooked her bra with a quick flick of his clever fingers. “And in the bedroom?”
“In the bedroom… not so much.” She slid her bra straps down her arms and tossed the garment aside.
“Best news I’ve heard in a long time.”
He reached for her, but she slapped a hand against his chest and pushed him back a step. “Oh, no. Not until we get some of those clothes off you. I’m interested in your assets, too. Let’s get rid of the footwear first.”
“You always this bossy?” he asked while he toed off his shoes then pulled off his socks.
“Only when I’m impatient. And I’m very impatient at the moment.”
“Well, far be it from me to argue with an impatient, nearly naked woman.”
“Smart man.” She made fast work of the rest of his shirt buttons then helped him shrug the garment from his shoulders. “Very nice,” she murmured, trailing her fingers over his broad shoulders then molding her hands over his well-defined chest and rippled abs.
He retaliated by cupping her breasts and gently tugging on her taut nipples. “I could say the same about you.”
“I’m supposed to be undressing you, Jack.”
“I’m not stopping you.”
No, but he sure as heck was distracting her. The man had magic fingers, and his hands were everywhere, leaving trails of fire on her skin. It required all her concentration to undo his belt, unfasten his pants, then push them, along with his boxer briefs, down his hips. They fell to the floor, and without missing a beat or a caress, he kicked them aside.
She ran her fingers along the hard length of his erection and he sucked in a quick breath. Jack Walker was definitely proof positive of that “men with big feet” theory. She wrapped her fingers around him and gently squeezed.
“I’m not going to be able to take much more of that.”
For a reply she dipped her other hand between his legs and stroked while she gently squeezed him again. His eyes slid shut and he moaned. “I’m hanging on here by a thread,” he warned in a rough voice.
“Let’s see how much more you can take.”
She pressed her lips to the center of his chest then dragged her open mouth across his firm, warm skin to his nipple. While her hands continued to stroke and caress, she circled her tongue around his nipple then drew the tight bud into her mouth. His hands sifted through her hair and his breathing grew harsh and rapid.
“That feels incredible,” he said, the last word ending on a groan as her fingers circled the sensitive head of his erection where a pearly drop of fluid glistened. She dipped her finger into the warm wetness and slowly spread it around the tip while her other hand caressed between his thighs.
“That’s it,” he said, the words rough and his breathing ragged. Without another word he scooped her up in his arms. She kicked off her shoes and he set her on the bed with a gentle bounce then quickly peeled off her excuse for panties and tossed them aside. She’d left the box of condoms on the night table and she reached for one. The sight of him, so large and hard and aroused, filled her with a desperation she hadn’t felt in a very long time.
She was about to tear open the condom package, but again he distracted her, this time by kneeling between her splayed thighs. “You’re beautiful, Maddie,” he said, his intense gaze hot on hers as he pushed her legs wider apart. “Really beautiful.”
God knows the way he was looking at her, the way he was touching her, made her feel that way. “You’re not so bad yourself-”
Her words ended on a gasp of pleasure when those magical fingers caressed her sex, gliding, delving, circling, teasing. When she was no more than a stroke or two away from coming again, he grabbed the condom and tore open the package. He rolled on the protection, leaned over her, and entered her in a single heart-stopping thrust.
Their groans mingled. “You feel so damn good,” he muttered. Bracing his weight on his forearms, he withdrew nearly all the way then sank slowly into her, filling her completely. “Tight. Hot. Wet.” He groaned against her throat. “Perfect.”
Yes. Perfect was the ideal word to describe the feel of him inside her, on top of her. Maddie spread her legs wider and lifted her hips, craving more of the delicious friction of his body gliding in and out of hers. His thrusts grew harder, faster, each one seeming to touch her deeper, fill her more completely. She cried out as her orgasm exploded through her, and wrapped her arms and legs tightly around him, lost in the hot pulses of pleasure. She felt him tense, then with a harsh groan, he threw back his head and gave a final, deep thrust. After his shudders subsided, he rested his forehead against hers, their ragged breaths bouncing off each other.
Maddie lay beneath him, sated, limp, delicious aftershocks still rippling through her. His weight pressing her into the mattress felt decadent and so lovely she wouldn’t have moved even if she’d been capable of doing so, which she wasn’t. She wasn’t sure how much time passed before he raised his head. When she felt him brush aside a strand of hair from her cheek, she forced her heavy eyelids open. And found him studying her with an expression that looked as bemused as she felt.
An unexpected tenderness suffused her, one that she wouldn’t have thought to associate with casual sex. But then, she was pretty inexperienced as far as casual sex was concerned. She swallowed then reached up so her fingers could explore his features. “Okay, I want the unvarnished truth, Jack. Was that as good as I think it was?”
He turned his head and pressed a kiss against her palm. “Would you believe me if I told you I think it was even better?”
Relief filled her. “Glad to know it wasn’t just me.”
“Not just you,” he assured her.
“Probably it was just because it had been such a long time for both of us.” She studied his face in the dim light. “Right?”
She’d expected a lighthearted answer, but instead he gazed at her through serious eyes. “I don’t know.” He studied her for several more seconds, then one corner of his mouth quirked upward. “So I vote we do it again. Since it’s now been less than ten minutes for both of us, we’ll be better able to judge.” He dropped a quick kiss on her lips. “What do you say?”
She gave a feigned casual shrug. “Fine. Good. Whatever you say. But I vote for doing it two more times. You know, double the pleasure. Just to be sure.”
He heaved a put-upon sigh. “Oh, all right. If you insist. I’ll try not to complain too much.”
“Good. Because you know who likes a whiner?”
He chuckled. “Let’s take a shower, then you can model some of those other lingerie goodies you have in your suitcase.”
“Hmmm. I have quite a bit of lingerie in there.”
“And you won’t catch me whining. Nope. ’Cause you know, nobody likes a whiner.”
“That’s right. About this shower…” She tickled her fingers down his smooth back to his butt, liking the heat that flared in his eyes. “I plan to get you all in a lather. In more ways than one.”
“Good. Fine. Whatever you say.”
Jack stomped through the damn woods, trying to concentrate on what he was supposed to be concentrating on-which was finding the various colored flags he and Maddie needed to locate on their orienteering outing so they could then make their way out of the damn woods-but he was failing miserably. The only thing he could concentrate on was the woman walking beside him.
The woman who, thanks to hours spent in sensual exploration last night, he now knew a whole lot about. And damned if he didn’t like everything he’d learned.
After a leisurely shower-during which they’d both been worked into a lather in more ways than one-they’d raided the minibar. While sharing a can of peanuts and a soft drink, they’d talked about their lives and interests. Aside from the fact that she was a generous, uninhibited, and exciting lover, Maddie was smart, funny, savvy, and possessed an almost encyclopedic knowledge of movies and baseball stats. When they discovered they’d attended rival universities, a friendly debate had ensued regarding whose school was better.
He learned she was an only child and that she envied him his close-knit relationship with Claire and Sophie. That she loved animals, played a mean game of tennis, a horrible game of chess, loved shopping at flea markets, collected antique teapots, and considered her curly hair a curse-an opinion he thoroughly disagreed with. She loved to cook, hated doing laundry, adored the beach, had never been snow skiing, and hoped to vacation in Italy next year.
He’d felt completely at ease with her and more than once he mentally shook his head, unable to believe this intelligent, interesting, sexy-as-hell woman was the same person he’d dubbed “Mad Dog” and had been at odds with for the past month. With each new thing he discovered about her, he found himself wanting to know more. Wanting to know everything. It had been a damn long time since he’d felt such a connection with a woman. A connection that went beyond mere physical attraction.
Not that he could deny he found her very physically attractive. He did. Painfully so. How the hell had he missed those beautiful soulful brown eyes? That gorgeous smile? Those luscious feminine curves? He didn’t know. Clearly he’d had his head in the sand. But now he knew, and he wondered how he was going to be able to forget now that their one-night stand was over.
After their can of peanuts and soda picnic on the bed, they’d made love again then fallen asleep. When the phone rang at five a.m. for their orienteering outing, he’d awakened to her snuggled against his side, one shapely thigh draped over his, her hand resting on his chest. And he’d liked the feeling. A lot. It had been a long time since he’d woken up with someone, and it brought home the realization of how lonely he’d been. How much he missed having someone special in his life. Missed being in a relationship. Being part of a couple. Caring for someone and being cared for in return.
Those feelings grew in intensity when she’d opened her eyes and greeted him with a sleepy good morning smile. And then a bout of soft, slow, morning sex-the perfect ending to what had been, as far as he was concerned, a perfect night.
He’d returned to his room to shower and dress for their orienteering outing, then met her in the lobby, where he was smacked with the realization that their night was indeed over. Maddie was all business, greeting him with a cool, professional smile, severely pulled back hair, black-rimmed glasses, and her no-nonsense attitude firmly in place. As if less than an hour ago they hadn’t been naked with each other.
Which unreasonably annoyed him. During the van ride to the heavily wooded orienteering course, his common sense reminded him that that’s what they’d agreed to, yet some other part of him was pissed-and incredulous-and damn it, maybe even a little bit hurt that she could so easily set aside what they’d shared. Because as far as he was concerned, what they’d shared had been… amazing. And certainly uncommon, at least in his experience.
“According to my calculations, the blue flag should be about four hundred yards due east,” she said, pointing to the right. She paused and consulted her map. “What do you think?”
That I want to yank down your jeans to see what you’re wearing beneath them. Then find out if you taste like cookies everywhere.
He raked a hand through his hair. Damn. This wasn’t good. Why couldn’t he do what she’d obviously done-enjoyed their one night together then forgotten about it?
Maybe because he’d enjoyed it so much. Too much.
“Jack? You okay?”
Her voice jerked him from his thoughts and he realized she was looking at him with a quizzical expression. He much preferred seeing arousal in her eyes. What would it take to see it there again? He didn’t know, but he sure as hell wanted to find out.
He took a step closer to her and noted with grim satisfaction the desire-and wariness-that flared in her eyes. Ah ha. Not as indifferent as she’d like him to believe. Excellent. He took another step closer and had to force himself not to smile when she backed up. “Actually I’m not okay.”
She retreated another step. “Oh? The sun getting to you? I have some sunscreen in my backpack.”
He shook his head and kept advancing in pace with her backwards retreat. “It’s not the sun that’s getting to me, Maddie.”
Her back hit the thick trunk of an enormous tree, stopping her. He halted a foot in front of her and planted a hand on the rough bark on either side of her head, caging her in. “You’re what’s getting to me, Maddie.”
She moistened her lips, and his entire body tightened at that flick of pink tongue. “Our night is over, Jack.”
“True. But I was thinking…” He leaned in, nuzzled the velvety soft skin beneath her jaw. Even in the woods she smelled like cookies. He leaned back and looked into her eyes. “What if we turned our one-nighter into a two-nighter?”
There was no missing the flare of interest, and arousal, in her eyes. “Well… we are staying at the resort another night,” she said in a musing tone.
“Exactly. And last night was pretty damn good.”
She cocked a brow. “Only pretty damn good?”
“Pretty incredibly amazing,” he amended.
“You forgot spectacular.”
“My bad.” He stepped closer and lightly rubbed his erection against her belly. “So what do you say?”
Her eyes widened. “That you either have a water bottle in your pocket or you’re really happy to see me.”
He smiled and inhaled what felt like his first easy breath since he’d seen her in the lobby that morning. “I’m really happy to see you.” He lowered his head and brushed his mouth over hers. He would have laughed at the intensity of his body’s reaction to such a featherlight kiss, but he suddenly felt incapable of levity. Raw hunger sizzled through him and he settled his mouth on hers, his tongue exploring all the delicious, warm softness it had discovered last night.
She looped her arms around his neck, pressing herself against him. With a groan, he plunged his hands beneath her sweater, loving the feel of her soft, warm flesh. He filled his palms with her breasts, his fingers slipping inside her bra to tease her hard nipples.
“Jack.” She gasped his name and fisted her hands in his hair.
“Just how private are these woods?”
“One hundred and fifty acres of nothing but us,” he assured her.
“And the van won’t be coming back for us for another hour.”
She yanked his shirt from his jeans and skimmed her hands up his torso, shuddering pleasure through him. “Damn, I wish I’d brought a condom,” she said, nipping at his neck.
He shrugged off his backpack at the same time hers hit the dirt. Then he applied himself to her jeans. “I’ve got one.” The words came out in a rush, like his increasingly rapid breaths.
“Hope springs eternal.”
“Ah. Have I told you that I think you’re very smart?” she asked, sounding just as breathless as him, her fingers clearly as impatient as his as they attacked the button on his jeans.
“No. In fact, I think you’ve been more apt to call me a pain in the ass. Take off your sneakers.”
“What was I thinking?” She toed off her sneakers and kicked them aside. “I should have at least called you a smart pain in the ass.”
“Yes, you should have.” He yanked her zipper then jerked down her jeans and panties with one hard tug. He felt like he’d explode if he didn’t touch her. Now. He helped her step out of her jeans, then dropped to his knees in front of her, leaned in, and ran his tongue along the seam of her sex.
She gasped and spread her legs wider, then sifted her fingers through his hair, moaning his name as he pleasured her with his mouth and tongue and fingers. The musk of her arousal filled his head along with the subtle fragrance of…
“Cookies,” he murmured against her thigh. “You taste like cookies. Everywhere.”
“My body wash,” she said, between panting breaths. “It’s called Vanilla Sugar Cookie.”
Damn. No wonder she smelled, tasted so good. What chance did a mere mortal male have against a woman who bathed in something called Vanilla Sugar Cookie? As it was, he’d never be able to eat another cookie and not think of her. Which was bad, because he really liked cookies.
He slipped two fingers inside her, thrusting in unison with his flicking tongue. He felt her body tighten, then with a long, low groan she pulsed around his fingers. As soon as her tremors subsided he slipped his fingers from her body and reached for the condom in his back pocket. She’d already gotten his zipper halfway down and he quickly took care of the rest, then shoved his jeans and boxer briefs down past his hips. He tore open the condom, sheathed himself, and sat back on his heels.
He reached for her, but she was already straddling him. She lowered herself onto him, and took him in with a slow, deep engulfment that dragged a ragged groan from his throat. Needing more of her, he shoved up her sweater, growling his approval when she jerked the garment over her head and tossed it aside. He unhooked her bra and filled his hands with her warm, soft, cookie-scented flesh, then leaned forward to draw her tight nipple into his mouth.
Gripping his shoulders, she rode him, slowly at first, then quickening her pace. Jack gritted his teeth against the intense pleasure, holding off coming by sheer will. When he felt the first pulses of her orgasm, he gripped her hips and thrust upward. His climax roared through him and for an endless moment he throbbed inside her. When his shudders tapered off, he gathered her close. She nestled against him, resting her head on his shoulder.
“Reeeeeealy glad you brought that condom,” she said in a sleepy-sounding voice.
He brushed his lips against her disheveled hair. “Me, too. I didn’t need a map and a compass to see where two hours alone in the woods with you might lead.”
She lifted her head and smiled into his eyes. Such beautiful eyes. Such a gorgeous smile. Something inside him seemed to shift, like his chest had just fallen into quicksand. “Once again, the credits have exceeded the debits. I owe you one orgasm.”
He smiled back at her. “Fine. Good. Whatever you say.”
She laughed, and he wondered how he’d ever thought her anything other than lovely. “A very useful saying. But now that I’ve had my wicked way with you, I think we should find those flags.”
“What for? The purpose of this outing was for us to bond.” He leaned forward and circled her nipple with his tongue. “Mission accomplished.”
“True. But I’m determined to find those flags then the way out of here. There’s that twenty bucks I want to win from you so I can buy my lipstick.”
“Your lips don’t need lipstick, but okay. I’ll play.”
She shot him a wicked grin. “And may the best woman win.”
To Maddie, who couldn’t wait for the evening so she and Jack could continue their one-night stand-part two-the rest of the day seemed to drag on forever. She attended all the team building exercises as an observer, but twice joined in when they needed an extra person to even out the numbers. Through it all, she had to force herself to concentrate on the tasks at hand because her mind was filled to overflowing with thoughts of Jack.
Jack cheerfully paid his twenty-dollar debt after she led them out of the woods and to the van that transported them back to the Casa di Lago. He claimed it was all her fault he got lost, that he couldn’t focus on anything other than her, a claim that made her want to drag him right back into the woods and have her wicked way with him. Again.
Throughout the day, with each new exercise, she saw how Jack and his staff interacted with each other, strategized, planned, handled problem solving, communicated, reacted to stressful situations, supported-and sometimes didn’t support-each other. Things started off slow, and she sensed some initial reluctance on the part of several staff members, but as the day wore on, everyone, with the exception of a senior accounting manager named Peter Quinn, got into the spirit of the games to some degree, some more than others. The team building brought out the competitive nature of some, the sense of humor of others, the stubbornness of a few, and the thinking-outside-the-box abilities of yet others.
She jotted down her observations, trying her best not to allow her gaze to stray to Jack, but more often than not, that’s precisely where she found herself looking. Even when she wasn’t watching him, she was painfully aware of him. He had an easygoing, charismatic manner about him that she could see inspired respect in his staff. She’d noted as much during the previous month, but now that she was viewing him through different eyes, his leadership abilities, confidence, and commitment to his staff were crystal clear. He accomplished his tasks in the time allotted and made fair, intelligent decisions. It was easy to see he was an excellent boss, and she mentally scolded herself for allowing her preconceived notions about him to color her opinion of him so unfavorably. She normally didn’t jump to conclusions about people as she had with Jack, and she wondered why she had in his case.
Because you were attracted to him from moment one and didn’t want to be, her sly inner voice informed her. So you thought the worst of him to talk yourself out it.
Okay, that little voice was really annoying.
But totally right.
She had found him attractive. Too attractive. And hadn’t wanted to. A problem that wasn’t going to get any better, because she now not only found him attractive, she really liked him. A lot. Too much, she feared. He was not only an incredible lover, he made her laugh. And could converse on any subject. Heck, he was even willing to talk about chick flicks and shoes. No doubt due to his close relationship with his sister, but still-chick flicks and shoes!
Just then Jack looked up from the puzzle he and his four team-mates were trying to solve. Their gazes locked and for several seconds the air around Maddie felt too thick to breathe. Something seemed to pass between them, something warm and intimate that sped up her pulse and made everything inside her turn to the consistency of warm honey. She knew in that moment that if she weren’t careful, she stood in danger of falling into the emotional abyss she feared yawned before her: of caring for him, much more than she’d ever intended to.
By the time the afternoon break rolled around, Maddie could already see some new friendships forming. She purposely avoided Jack during the break, afraid that if they sat together everyone in the room would guess what was going on between them. Instead she ate her lunch at a table with Bob and Kathy Whitaker, who ran the team building program, and spent the time asking them questions, taking notes on their responses to add to her report that Gavin expected Monday morning.
Lunch was followed by more team building exercises. Maddie took copious notes on each team’s dynamics, each staff member’s personality, and how they responded to their tasks. Dinner was a casual outdoor cookout where the staff could volunteer to set up, cook, serve, or clean up. Maddie noted what each person volunteered for, hiding a grin at the fact that most of the men volunteered to grill the burgers and hot dogs, and none of them volunteered for cleanup duty.
Dinner was followed by a tour of the Caso di Lago winery and a wine-tasting party. Maddie mingled, making mental notes on how people reacted to each other, who interacted with whom, who kept to themselves. Jack, she noted, spoke to everyone, moving from group to group, listening and chatting with equal ease. Finally he stood before her. And smiled.
“Hi. I’m Jack Walker.”
Had it only been last night that he’d said those same words to her in the bar? She was instantly reminded of the words to an old song her grandmother used to sing… What a difference a day makes, twenty-four little hours.
She smiled in return. “Maddie Price. Nice party.”
He nodded, then said in a low voice, “Personally, I can’t wait ’til it’s over.”
She raised her brows. “Hot date?”
“Very.” His eyes seemed to breathe smoke. “I’m a lucky man.”
“Hmmm. Yes, something tells me you’re going to get lucky tonight.”
He sipped his wine then said, “You’ve been taking notes all day.”
“That’s what I’m here for.”
“To see how everyone is interacting with each other.”
“Among other things.” Anxious to change the subject, she said,
“The wine is excellent.”
“Yes. And you’re changing the subject.”
“Yes. The wine is excellent.”
He studied her for several seconds and she hoped he wasn’t going to question her. Per Gavin’s instructions, she couldn’t reveal the nature of her report. Besides, she didn’t want to talk about work. Didn’t want to risk having anything cast a pall on their last night together. Finally he said, “How about my room tonight?”
“Great.” He shot her a wink. “C’mon over, honey. And bring your lingerie and condoms.”
After the party finally broke up an hour later, Maddie remained downstairs long enough to note which Java Heaven employees returned to their rooms and who headed to the bar or lobby to continue chatting. “Don’t forget, breakfast’s at eight, followed by more team building,” Bob Whitaker called to the departing staff.
Right. Breakfast, two more team building sessions, then by noon the weekend would be over. As would her interlude with Jack.
She hurried back to her room and changed clothes. With the resort’s bathrobe wrapped firmly around her, she grabbed her supplies, checked to make certain the hallway was empty, then crossed the carpet to Jack’s door. Before she even had a chance to knock, the door opened and Jack pulled her into the room. Into his arms. And laid one of those toe-curling, breath-stealing, palpitation-inducing kisses on her. When he finally lifted his head, she said, “Wow. If kissing were an Olympic sport, you’d have a trophy case filled with gold medals.”
“Kissing takes two,” he said, lightly scraping his teeth over her sensitive earlobe. “It’s all in who your partner is. What took you so long?”
“I took a few minutes to consult my copy of Fifty Ways to Please Your Lover.” She leaned back in the circle of his arms and playfully waggled her brows. “I have a feeling you’re going to like number twelve. And number eighteen. And number forty-six.”
“Have I mentioned that twelve, eighteen, and forty-six are my lucky numbers?”
“No. But even if they weren’t, I promise you, they’re going to be.”
He smiled into her eyes. “I think that makes me the luckiest guy on the planet.”
She held up the bag she’d brought. “I come bearing lingerie and condoms.”
“Excellent.” He pulled her farther into the room and she noticed that like her, he wore the white terry cloth robe bearing the resort’s logo. “I come bearing champagne and chocolate.”
Maddie’s eyes widened at the champagne chilling in a silver wine bucket on the nightstand, the pair of crystal flutes, and the gold-foil box of Godiva. “I love champagne and chocolate.”
“I know. You mentioned it last night.”
And he’d remembered. Everything female in her heaved a gushy sigh at the thoughtful gesture. “Thank you. Although I have it on good authority you would have gotten lucky without it.”
He grinned and popped the bottle’s cork. “Yeah, but maybe now I’ll get really lucky.” After pouring two glasses, he handed her one, then raised his. “To… surprises.”
“Surprises,” she agreed, and touched the rim of her flute to his.
After taking a sip, he set aside his glass then slipped his fingers beneath her robe’s sash and tugged her closer, until their bodies bumped. “Whatcha wearin’ under this robe?”
She set her glass next to his then tugged on the sash to his robe. “I was about to ask you the same thing.”
“One way to find out.”
They untied each other’s sashes at the same time. He opened her robe and pushed it down her arms, where it pooled at her feet. His avid gaze took in the cream-colored lace-up corset, which she’d chosen because it made her waist look smaller than it was and her breasts larger than they were, and the matching barely there panties. When his gaze met hers, the heat in his eyes nearly singed her. “Wow.”
That single word, said in that appreciative tone, made the outfit worth every penny she’d spent. She then pushed his robe off his shoulders, where it joined hers on the floor. He wore nothing but skin. And a very impressive hard-on.
“Double wow,” she said. Reaching out, she ran a single fingertip down the length of his erection. “I seem to recall an imbalance between our debits and credits-something I’d like to even up. Starting with number twelve.” She lowered herself to her knees and without any preliminaries drew him deep into her mouth.
Jack’s eyes slammed shut as a shudder of pleasure shook him. A long groan rattled in his throat and he tipped his head back, fighting for control. Oh, yeah, twelve was definitely his new favorite number. When he’d caught his breath, he opened his eyes and looked down. The sight of Maddie’s full lips surrounding him, the feel of her tongue circling, the tight draw of her hot mouth damn near made him come on the spot. He combed his fingers through her hair, watching her pleasure him, gritting his teeth to hold back the release building at the base of his spine. When he couldn’t take anymore, he urged her to her feet, settled her on the bed, reached for a condom, then joined her.
“Let’s make this one hell of a night to remember,” he said against her lips, covering her body with his.
“Good. Fine. Whatever you say.”
When Maddie entered the dining room for breakfast the next morning, the first person she saw was Jack. Heat that had nothing to do with the bright sunshine streaming through the floor-to-ceiling windows rippled through her. Their gazes locked and a kaleidoscope of images of last night flashed through her mind. Jack buried deep inside her. Over her. Under her. Making love in the shower. His soapy hands relentless, everywhere. Her hands slapped against the tiles, bending over to take him deeper. The warm water rushing over them. His dark head buried between her thighs. Feeding each other chocolates. Laughing. Sharing stories. Touching. Falling asleep in each other’s arms. Her waking early. Watching him sleep while she donned her robe and gathered her belongings. Returning to her own room. Feeling its emptiness. Wishing her time with Jack wasn’t over. Knowing it was.
Right. Because today it was back to business and tomorrow back to work. She needed to review her pages of notes and write her report this evening so it was ready for Gavin tomorrow. A report that she knew Jack wouldn’t like, which surely shouldn’t matter-their two-nighter was now officially over. But to her consternation, she realized it did matter. A lot.
She yanked her attention from Jack then purposely set her purse and leather portfolio on a table at the opposite end of the dining room from him, in a corner where she could observe the Java Heaven staff’s interactions. After helping herself to fluffy scrambled eggs, a blueberry muffin still warm from the oven, and a glass of fresh-squeezed orange juice from the buffet, she sat and opened her portfolio. And studiously kept her gaze on her notes and off Jack.
She was working on her second cup of tea and had just jotted down an observation when a shadow fell across the table. Her heart jumped because even before she looked up, she knew it was Jack.
She raised her head and looked into his compelling blue eyes. He was dressed casually in tan khakis and a yellow polo shirt. His dark hair was slightly rumpled, as if he’d raked his hands through it. Her fingers itched with the sudden overwhelming desire to glide through those thick strands that she knew felt like raw silk.
“May I join you?” he asked.
No. Please go away. I’m terrified that I’m not a good enough actress to pretend nothing’s happened between us. That I feel nothing for you. “Of course,” she replied in her best businesslike, neutral tone. She closed her portfolio and picked up her teacup, more to give her hands something to do than because she wanted a sip.
“Your breakfast was good?” he asked after he’d settled himself in the chair opposite hers.
“Very good.” He set his hands on the table and linked his fingers. He had really nice hands. Large and strong. Capable and wickedly clever. There wasn’t a centimeter of her body they hadn’t explored.
“You were gone when I woke up,” he said quietly, his gaze steady on hers.
Oh, God. This was going to be so much harder than she’d ever imagined. Why did something that was supposed to be so uncomplicated-just a simple one-night stand-suddenly feel so complicated? How had it happened? When?
She cleared her throat. “I didn’t want to wake you. Besides, I thought it best since our two-nighter was officially over.”
“No awkward farewells.”
His gaze shifted to her portfolio then back to her. “Maddie… I’ve suspected from the moment Gavin hired you that he’s planning to downsize my department and that he wants your recommendations on whom and how many people to cut. I wouldn’t ask you to break a confidence by either confirming or denying it, but I’d like you to listen for just a moment.”
She nodded. “All right.”
“I don’t want my department cut, not by a single person. Gavin knows this and I’ve gone on record with him that I won’t fire or layoff anyone. I’ve seen the same things you have this weekend. I know there are some personality conflicts, but sometimes it just takes certain people longer than others to feel comfortable. Peter Quinn, for instance. I know he can be standoffish, but he’s brilliant. He may not be the most personable guy in the world, but what’s important to me is that he’s loyal. And honest.”
He drew a long breath, then continued, “I’ve resented you from minute one because I viewed you as Gavin’s spy. Please don’t take that personally-I would have resented any consultant Gavin hired. I didn’t like having someone looking over my shoulder, second-guessing me when I was doing my damnedest to pull together a department that was in shambles. I know you have a job to do, but the bottom line is this: At the risk of sounding arrogant, I know what’s best for my department and it’s not a smaller staff. Cutting the department won’t cut the work that needs to be done, it will only dump more responsibilities on the folks who remain. Employees who are forced to work overtime and on weekends just to keep up with their workload are not happy employees. We’ll end up slowly drowning. I’ve seen it happen in other companies and I don’t want it to happen here. I want this department to not only survive but to flourish, but I need time-and my entire staff-to make that happen. We’ve already made great strides and it’s only been two months.
“In the end, any money saved by downsizing won’t be worth it because I’ll have a miserable staff, which, as you know, leads to all sorts of problems. I’ve already told Gavin this and that any cost-cutting measures will need to come about through other channels or out of some other department. But not accounting.”
Maddie pulled in a careful breath, then released it slowly. “I understand your point, but you also need to take into account that cogs in the wheel need to be fixed, or in this case let go, so the entire group doesn’t suffer. And every company needs to minimize costs.”
“I agree, but there aren’t any cogs in this wheel. And the cost cuts won’t come at the expense of my department.”
“You make it sound as if it’s a deal breaker for you.”
She nodded slowly then offered him a small smile. “You make a very compelling case. And your reasoning is sound.”
He smiled in return. “Glad you agree.” He glanced at his watch. “We’re starting in just a few minutes. Thanks for listening.”
His expression softened. “And thanks for a great weekend.”
Her heart tripped over itself and she had to grip her teacup to keep from giving in to the powerful urge to touch him. “You, too.”
With his gaze locked onto hers, he said quietly, “I know we agreed our… time together wouldn’t go beyond last night, but just so you know, I wouldn’t mind if we changed that rule. Think about it and let me know.”
Without another word, he rose and walked toward the exit. She watched him leave, his last words echoing through her mind. Think about it and let me know.
There were lots of reasons why letting their two-nighter extend further had “bad idea” written all over it. Yup, lots of reasons. And she was going to write them down as soon as she remembered them. Then, thankfully, her brain kicked into gear.
It would make working together impossible.
There was only sexual attraction between them.
Nothing could come of continuing their affair.
Think about it and let me know.
God help her, she didn’t know how she’d be able to think about anything else.
At one o’clock Monday afternoon, Gavin entered Jack’s office. “Got a minute?” he asked.
“Sure. Have a seat,” Jack said, indicating the chair opposite his desk.
Jack set aside the report he’d been reading and pulled in a bracing breath. His gut was telling him this impromptu meeting was about downsizing his department.
Gavin sat then lifted a manila folder from the top of the pile he carried. “I’ve spent the morning going over this report from Madeline Price. It’s based on her observations of your department and includes detailed notes, most recently from the team building over the weekend.”
Gavin leaned back in his chair. “I’ll cut right to the chase, Jack. You need to downsize the department, from twenty to fifteen. You have two weeks to make the cuts. If you need suggestions as to who is to go”-he tapped the folder containing Maddie’s report-“I’m happy to name names.”
For several long seconds silence swelled between them. Jack’s gaze fell on the folder and a feeling such as he’d never experienced before surged through him. A combination of anger, disgust, frustration, and betrayal all swirled with an overwhelming sense of numbness. He’d thought she’d understood-that he’d made her see reason. That she’d value and respect his opinion. Obviously he’d been mistaken. Very mistaken.
“We’ve discussed this before, Gavin,” Jack said, his voice perfectly calm. “I feel very strongly that this is the wrong course of action. A course that’s going to make my job, and my department’s, extremely difficult. We simply can’t operate effectively with a twenty-five percent cut in manpower. You haven’t given me or my staff enough time to pull everything together. We’re getting there, we’ve made great strides in a short period of time, but time is what we need more of.”
Gavin shook his head. “Sorry, Jack. This needs to be done.”
“You brought me on board to revamp a decimated department, and just when things are starting to come together, you’re cutting me off at the knees.”
Gavin rose, indicating their meeting was finished. “Two weeks, Jack.”
Jack stood. Then nodded. “All right, two weeks. Consider this my official notice. You’ll have the letter on your desk by the end of the day.”
Gavin’s brows rose, then he gave a hearty laugh. “I know you don’t mean that.”
“I assure you I do.”
“I’m aware you don’t like this, Jack, none of us do, but it’s got to be done. I’m late for a meeting. I’ll see you tomorrow.”
Jack watched in silence as Gavin left the office. He wasn’t sure how long he stood there while his anger and resentment and, damn it, hurt grew. But it finally reached the point where he couldn’t stand still any longer. It needed an outlet, and he knew exactly who to let it loose on.
He stalked from his office and headed down the hallway, not slowing his pace until he stood outside the small office that had been assigned to Maddie. The door was open and he strode inside, not bothering to announce himself.
She stood with her back to him, crouching next to a cardboard box into which she was placing a stack of papers. It was the first time he’d seen her since they’d departed Casa di Lago yesterday afternoon. And about the thousandth time he’d thought of her. Up until his meeting with Gavin, all those thoughts had been of missing her. Wanting more of her. Hoping she’d tell him she wanted to continue the magic and something special they’d started at the resort. Now he couldn’t feel any of that for the knife protruding from his back.
“We need to talk,” he said, closing the door.
She stood and turned. Her hair was pulled tightly back, her glasses framed her eyes, and a prim royal blue suit conservatively downplayed her figure. In spite of his anger, he wanted nothing more than to yank her into his arms and kiss her until they were both breathless. Pretend nothing existed except him and her. Pretend she hadn’t written that damn report. Damn it, she’d gotten under his skin, and that only served to fuel his anger more. Her serious expression erased any doubt that she knew why he was there.
“Yes, I guess we do need to talk,” she said. “Would you like to sit down?”
“No.” His voice was steady but cold, which pretty much matched his mood since his insides felt frozen. “Are you pleased with yourself?”
Her brows pulled down. “Pleased?” She pushed up her glasses and peered at him. “Is something wrong?”
A bitter laugh escaped him. “An odd question coming from you. You knew very well what my hopes were for my position here, for my department, yet you stand there and ask me if something’s wrong.” The chill in his tone sliced through the room. “What did you think would be the outcome of the report you gave Gavin?”
She blinked, then her frown deepened. “Jack, I-”
“Gavin expects me to cut my department by twenty-five percent-although I’m sure you probably knew that already.”
Something that looked like regret flickered in her eyes. “Actually, no. I didn’t know.”
“Well, now you do. And we have your report to thank. Congratulations.”
Anger flared in her eyes. “If you think my report had anything to do with this, you’re mistaken.”
“Your report had everything to do with it, as you damn well know. Did you not hear a word I said to you at breakfast yesterday morning?”
“I heard everything you said at breakfast yesterday morning.”
“But clearly it didn’t make any difference to you. Which I guess means nothing that happened between us made any difference to you.”
A myriad of emotions flashed across her face, too fast for him to decipher, but there was no mistaking the twin red flags that colored her cheeks. “You’ve come into my office, unannounced and uninvited, and tossed some pretty harsh words at me. And based on what you’re saying, it’s just occurred to me… oh. Oh my God.” She pulled in a harsh breath and pressed her hand against her chest. The color that had just rushed into her cheeks drained, leaving her pale. “My God. Did you sleep with me in order to influence my report? To make it favorable to your point of view? So I wouldn’t recommend downsizing your department?”
Her question so surprised him that for several seconds he couldn’t even speak. Then a hurt and anger such as he hadn’t felt in a long time, if ever, walloped him. A muscle ticked in his jaw. “That’s what you think?”
“That’s what I’m asking.”
“If that’s what you’re asking, then this conversation is over.”
“Fine by me. I’m not the one who initiated it.” She nodded toward the door. “If you’ll kindly leave, I’m busy.”
“Leaving. Not just your office, but Java Heaven. I gave Gavin my two weeks’ notice.” He opened the door and walked out without looking back. He didn’t want to see her reaction to the news. Didn’t want to hear anything else she had to say.
He strode to his office, feeling as if he were walking through a thick fog. Damn it, he felt… gutted. In a matter of mere minutes he’d resigned from his job-but he had no regrets there. He’d taken a stand for what he thought was right and had no intention of compromising his integrity. What truly had him reeling was his feeling of betrayal over Maddie’s report. And even worse, her belief that he’d slept with her to influence it.
Damn it, that really hurt. And the fact that it hurt really pissed him off. What the hell did he care what she thought? They’d shared a couple of hot nights and now it was over.
Yes, it was over. But he’d foolishly hoped it was just the beginning. She’d touched something inside him, eliciting feelings he hadn’t felt in a very long time. The fact that he’d been so wrong about her-that she’d write that report and question his intentions, well, obviously he’d misjudged her. The only thing left to do was put her out of his mind. And his heart-where she’d unfortunately managed to burrow.
After a sleepless night spent tossing and turning, reliving every moment he’d spent with Maddie, moments he wanted desperately to forget, Jack hauled his tired ass to work Tuesday morning and immediately headed to the break room for a much-needed cup of coffee. He’d just taken his first sip when a man he didn’t recognize entered the room. Jack judged him to be in his late thirties. He was well dressed and offered Jack a friendly good morning.
Since the good part was highly debatable, Jack replied, “ ’Morning. I don’t think we’ve met.” He extended his hand. “Jack Walker.”
The man gave his hand two firm pumps. “The CFO. Good to meet you. Walter Langdon. I’m with Lazer Consultants.”
Jack barely managed to hide his grimace at the name of the firm Maggie worked for. “Here to assist Ms. Price?”
“Actually I’m her replacement. I’ll be taking over her office.”
Jack’s hand halted so abruptly midsip that some of his coffee sloshed over the rim of his cup onto the floor. Feeling as if he’d just walked into a theater in the middle of the movie, he lowered his mug to the counter and stared at Walter Langdon. “You’re replacing Maddie? When did this happen?”
“Yesterday. But don’t worry, Gavin’s brought me up to speed on everything. The transition will be seamless.”
“Why the change? Was it her idea or Gavin’s?”
Walter shrugged and poured himself a cup of coffee. “I believe it was mutual.” He took a sip and gave a satisfied ahhh. “Great coffee, but I wouldn’t expect anything less from Java Heaven. Good to meet you, Jack. We’ll be seeing a lot of each other over the next month.” Cup in hand, Walter left the break room.
Jack stared at the empty doorway, feeling poleaxed. Which was ridiculous. He should be celebrating. No more Mad Dog Price. He’d never have to lay eyes on her again. And out of sight meant out of mind, which was great. Yeah, great. He was happy. Really happy. Happy, damn it.
Okay, maybe happy was too strong a word. Maybe miserable was better. And even though he shouldn’t care, even though it didn’t matter, he found himself striding toward Gavin’s office. To find out what happened with Maddie. And why the new consultant thought they’d be working together for the next month when Jack would be gone in two weeks. Which Gavin damn well knew since Jack had left his letter of resignation on Gavin’s desk before leaving late last night.
“Got a minute?” he asked, knocking on Gavin’s open door when he arrived.
“C’mon in, Jack,” Gavin said, waving him in. “Feeling better today?”
The question irked him-as if his resignation was some sort of tantrum-but he swallowed his irritation. “I feel fine. I felt fine yesterday. I just met Walter Langdon in the break room.”
Gavin nodded. “The new consultant. Nice guy.”
“What happened to Maddie?”
Gavin blew out a long breath and shook his head. “I’m afraid she just didn’t work out.”
“So her leaving was your idea?”
“Yes. After that report she gave me, I didn’t really have a choice. She and I just weren’t on the same page.”
Jack’s brows pulled into a frown. “What do you mean? What was wrong with the report?”
“She didn’t do what I asked. She knew her objective at the team building was to recommend which employees should be cut from your department. Instead she gave me a bunch of reasons and recommendation as to why no cuts should be made. That’s not what I hired her to do-so I asked that she be replaced with someone who could get the job done.”
Everything inside Jack went still. “You led me to believe her report recommended the cuts. Named names.”
“I never said that.”
Jack tried to replay yesterday’s conversation with Gavin, but his thoughts were in too much turmoil with the sickening realization that he’d made a mistake. A very big mistake.
“As far as naming names,” Gavin continued, “I’m giving you first crack at it, but if you don’t pick the five to go, I will.”
Jack cleared his throat to loosen the tightness there. “You seem to forget that I’ve formally resigned. In writing.”
Gavin waved his hand. “You were angry. I understand.” His gaze hardened. “Just don’t do it again, Jack. I don’t care for ultimatums.”
“I didn’t give you one. I gave you my two weeks’ notice. But you’re right. I’d like to rescind it.”
A smug grin curved Gavin’s lips. “I knew you would.”
“Instead, I’m resigning effective immediately.” He planted his hands on Gavin’s desk and leaned forward. “I’m not going to be a party to watching that department die a slow death. Good luck. You’re going to need it.” He turned on his heel and headed toward the door.
“You can’t just walk out like this.”
Jack paused long enough to say, “Yes, I can. And I have.” Without another word, he strode to his office, where he quickly packed his meager personal belongings in a box then headed for the elevator. He made a mental note to contact the staff and explain, but that would have to wait until tomorrow.
Right now there was something far more urgent he needed to take care of.
On Tuesday evening, Maddie walked the short distance from the MARTA train station to her midtown condo, relieved that the long day was over. She couldn’t wait to peel off her suit, slip on her comfy pj’s, plop herself in front of the TV, and drown her sorrows in the half gallon of rocky road ice cream waiting in her freezer. Her common sense knew there wasn’t enough rocky road on the planet to make her forget Jack, but the misery eating at her insisted she at least try.
Jack. He hadn’t been out of her thoughts for a moment. Partly because she was completely furious with him. She still seethed at the way he’d wrongly assumed the contents of her report to Gavin. But he’d also haunted her thoughts, because as galling as it was to admit, she cared for him. A lot. Too much. She didn’t want to, had tried to talk herself out of it, but it was no use. In a shockingly short period of time he’d tattooed himself on her heart.
Last night, during a rocky-road marathon, she’d calmed down, and when she’d thought things through, realized that Jack clearly hadn’t read the report she’d written. Since Gavin had insisted he cut the department, she grudgingly had to admit that it wasn’t totally offbase for Jack to conclude that her report had recommended downsizing. Of course, she was pissed that he hadn’t asked her or given her the benefit of the doubt before letting the accusations fly. He definitely owed her an apology.
Yet, after a sleepless night and difficult day, she’d concluded that she also owed him one. She’d been enraged, deeply hurt, and mortified at the possibility that he’d slept with her to influence her report. But when she recalled his face when she’d asked him, he’d looked positively stunned, then unmistakably hurt. Looking back, she could clearly see that her question had shocked him and she knew, in her heart, without a doubt, that she’d been wrong to doubt him.
Which left her with an aching sense of loss eating at her and a need to apologize. Which was why she’d spent her lunch hour at the Hallmark store, searching for the perfect card to send him. She’d finally found it and had written him a short note and included her phone number. When she arrived home she’d look up his address, slap a stamp on the envelope, and hope for the best. Maybe he would call. She prayed he would. Because if he didn’t she’d have to check herself into rocky road rehab.
She turned the corner and her footsteps faltered-at the sight of Jack, sitting on the cement steps leading to her condo.
She halted and blinked, certain he was merely a figment of her Jack-saturated mind. But no, there he was. He caught sight of her and immediately stood.
She hesitated, then raised her chin and resumed walking, assuming an outward calm she was far from feeling. Part of her-the half that missed him-wanted to run to him and throw her arms around him. The other part-the half that was still pissed off-wanted to smack him upside his head with her purse.
As she approached the steps, she noticed he held a bouquet of lavender roses. Obviously a peace offering. Her missing-him half heaved a gushy sigh. Her pissed-off half stuck its nose in the air. He didn’t speak until she’d climbed the steps and stood next to him on the small porch. Then he cleared his throat and offered a tentative smile. “Hi. I’m Jack Walker.”
Her heart performed a rolling maneuver, one her pissed-off half steeled itself against. “Yes, I know. What do you want, Jack?”
“I was hoping we could talk. And I wanted to give you these.” He held out the flowers. “The florist told me flowers mean different things. I asked him if he had any that meant ‘I was an ass and I’m really sorry, can you forgive me?’ and he said no. Which I think is too bad and some horticulturist somewhere really should invent a flower that says exactly that.”
“No doubt it would be a big seller,” Maddie said dryly.
“No doubt. I for one would have bought out his stock. But the closest he had were these lavender roses, which he said stood for sorrow. Which I have plenty of. And why they’re for you.”
Her heart tossed a great big bucket of cold water on her pissed-off half, which melted like the Wicked Witch of the West. Before she could say anything, he moved the flowers closer to her. “Please take them. If for no other reason than they’ll have a much better life with you than they will with me. I don’t know how to take care of them. Hell, I don’t even have a container to put them in.”
“You mean a vase.”
“Right. So take pity on the poor flowers.”
Unable to resist the gorgeous blooms, she accepted the bouquet. Their fingers brushed, shooting a tingle up her arm. “Thank you.”
“You’re welcome. Maddie, can we go somewhere and talk?”
She buried her nose in the gorgeous flowers. She’d wanted an apology and she’d gotten one. A really nice and sweet one, and an obviously sincere one. Her heart heaved out another gushy sigh.
“You can come in,” she said, pulling out her key. As they walked down the hallway she asked, “How did you know where I lived?”
“A very useful device called the phone book. You should try it. Look me up. I’m listed under Doofus Who Jumps to Conclusions.”
She bit the insides of her cheeks to hide the smile tugging at her lips. After they entered her condo, she led him into the kitchen. While she filled a crystal vase with water then arranged the flowers, she noted him looking around with interest.
“Nice place. Very homey.”
“Thanks. I bought it last year.” She dried her hands then leaned against the counter. “So what do you want to talk about?”
“Yesterday. In case you haven’t gotten it yet, I’m really sorry. I hadn’t seen your report, but my conversation with Gavin led me to believe you’d recommended not only that the department be downsized by twenty-five percent, but that you’d suggested who should be cut. I didn’t find out until this morning that you’d actually recommended no cuts be made.”
“I tried to tell you yesterday, but-”
“But I wasn’t listening. I was angry and hurt and I spoke without thinking.” He studied her for several seconds, then said quietly, “Thank you for taking my side.”
“You need to know that I wouldn’t have if I didn’t believe you were right. My report was in no way swayed by us sleeping together.”
“Speaking of which…” His gaze searched hers. “Do you honestly believe I slept with you to influence that report?”
She shook her head. “No, I don’t, and I owe you an apology.” She reached into her purse and pulled out the card she’d bought. “I was going to mail this to you, but since you’re here…”
Without a word he took the card from her. On the front was a picture of a map and a compass. He opened it and she watched him read the short note she’d penned on the blank inside. I don’t need a map and a compass to figure out I was wrong. I’m sorry-I know you didn’t sleep with me to influence the report. She’d added her phone number and signed it. There was much more she’d wanted to say, but in the end had decided to keep it short and sweet. However, based on the silence swelling between them, that might not have been the wisest choice.
She cleared her throat. “I’m, ah, a woman of few words.”
He finally looked up from the note. “That’s okay. they’re the right words.”
Relief filled her and she pulled one of the lavender roses from the vase and held out the bloom to him. “Just to be totally clear-this means ‘I was an ass and I’m really sorry, can you forgive me?’ ”
He smiled and took the flower. “Forgiven.”
And with that single word, the fog of hurt and angst engulfing her lifted.
“Did Gavin asking for a replacement cause any problems for you at Lazer Consulting?” he asked.
“No. It’s not unusual for consultants and executives to clash. I’ve already started on a new project. What about you-did you really give your two weeks’ notice?”
“Yes. But then after discovering you’d left and that Gavin had led me down the garden path about your report I changed my mind and resigned effective immediately.”
Maddie blinked. “Immediately?”
“I am no longer Java Heaven’s CFO.”
“So downsizing your department really was a deal breaker for you. You stood by your convictions, and it cost you your job.”
“Well, I don’t intend to remain unemployed for long. I’ve been thinking since I walked out Java Heaven’s door and I’ve come up with a plan. Maybe you’d like to hear about it?” He set his rose on the counter then reached for her hands. “Maybe over dinner?”
Her heart sped up, both by the invitation and the warmth of his hands engulfing hers. “Are you asking me for a date?”
“Yes. Are you accepting?”
To her mortification, her throat slammed shut and hot tears pushed behind her eyes. Unable to speak, she nodded.
There was no missing the profound relief that filled his gaze. He cupped her face between his hands and lowered his head. Their kiss felt like a homecoming after a long, long trip. When he raised his head, she said, “I’ve been absolutely miserable since you walked out of my office yesterday.”
“Me, too.” He brushed his thumbs over her cheeks and looked at her through very serious eyes. “I think we have something special here, Maddie. I’d like to see where it goes. What do you think?”
She wrapped her arms around his neck and smiled. “Nice to meet you, Jack Walker. I’m Maddie Price. And I’d very much like to see where it goes.”
Two months later
Jack applied the corkscrew to the bottle of merlot and flicked a glance at his kitchen clock. Maddie was due right about-
He heard the lock turning then the door opening and he grinned. The woman was almost comically punctual. She walked into the kitchen pulling her bright red carry-on suitcase behind her. He’d given her the bag after their first dinner date, telling her he didn’t want to risk anyone else getting her lingerie-packed black bag by mistake.
She greeted him with a saucy smile. “Hiya, handsome. Lookin’ for a good time?”
With a laugh he pulled her into his arms and gave her the kiss he’d been dying to give her since seeing her off at the airport three days ago. She’d flown to Tampa for a consulting job and damn it, he’d felt empty and lonely the entire time she was gone. He lifted her up and sat her on the counter. Stepping between her legs, he curved his hands around her bottom and pulled her closer. Until his erection pressed against the juncture of her thighs.
“Wow, seems like somebody missed me,” she said, as he ran his tongue down the side of her cookie-scented neck.
“Maybe just a little.”
“And maybe I missed you, too. Just a little.” She sniffed the air. “Hey, it smells good in here. Like Italian food.” She leaned back and looked at him in surprise. “Did you… cook?”
“Cook might be too strong a word. I ordered a pizza and calzone from Mario’s. They’re on Warm in the oven.”
She wrapped her legs around his waist. “Hmmm. Wine and food from my favorite restaurant. Is this a special occasion?”
“I have some good news,” he said, nipping kisses along her jaw.
“I signed on a new client today.”
She pulled his head back and kissed him on the mouth. “Jack, that’s wonderful! I’m so proud of you.” Then she shook her head and laughed. “I never doubted you’d be a success, but the irony of you being a consultant will never cease to amuse me.”
He smiled and pulled her tighter against him, quickly calculating how long it would take to get her out of her prim suit, deciding it would have to wait until he told her everything he needed to first. “It’s all your fault. You gave me a whole new appreciation for consultants, and I sure as hell like being my own boss.” He lifted his hands to free her mass of curls from their restraints. “Of course, I consider myself an atypical consultant.”
She cocked a single brow. “Are you implying that I’m typical?”
“Not in any way.” Her hair cascaded around her shoulders and he sifted his fingers through the shiny strands. “Which is why I love you. Or at least one of the reasons I love you.”
She went perfectly still. With his heart pounding, he looked into her eyes, trying to gauge her reaction to his admission. She looked… stunned. Damn. He’d been hoping for deliriously happy. These past two months had gone by in a blur, one filled with striking out to start his own company and spending every free minute with Maddie. And each minute spent with her had pushed him further into love. He’d kept his emotions in check as much as possible, not wanting to rush anything, but he couldn’t hold back any longer. He knew she was The One. And it was time she knew it, too.
“You love me?” she whispered.
“I love you,” he confirmed.
To his consternation, her chin quivered and a pair of fat tears rolled down her cheeks. “Oh, hell,” he muttered. He reached behind her and ripped off a half-dozen paper towels. “Damn. I didn’t mean to make you cry.” Feeling helpless, he dabbed at her eyes with the huge wad of crumpled paper towels.
“I love you, too,” she said, then promptly buried her face against his neck and sobbed.
Even as elation rushed through him he felt compelled to ask, “Are you sure? Because you don’t seem very happy about it.”
She leaned back and laughed-at least he thought she was laughing. It was kinda hard to tell with all the tears running down her face. “I’m happy,” she said, kissing him. “I love you. I’ve wanted to say it for weeks, but was afraid I’d scare you off if I did. So I decided I’d give you one more week to tell me.”
“And if I hadn’t?”
“Then I was going to tie you to the bed so you couldn’t escape, then tell you.”
“You mean if I’d kept my mouth shut for just one more week, you’d have tied me to the bed?”
“I take it back.” He nuzzled her neck. “Now will you tie me to the bed?”
She pushed at his shoulders. “You can’t take it back.” Suddenly she sobered. “Unless you want to.”
“I don’t want to.”
“Positive.” He cupped her face in his hands. “I think it’s time you met Claire and Sophie. I told them all about you and they can’t wait to meet you. Would you join us for dinner Friday night?”
Her smile could have lit a dark room. “I’d be delighted.”
“And the Friday after that? And the Friday after that? And the Friday after that?”
The joy and love glowing in her eyes filled him with a happiness he’d never before known. “Sounds perfect.”
“Good. What also sounds perfect is this tying me to the bed you mentioned. Would this by chance include your copy of Fifty Ways to Please Your Lover and some slinky lingerie?”
She leaned forward and kissed him. “Why don’t you bring me to the bedroom and find out?”
He didn’t hesitate. Hoisting her into his arms, he headed down the hall. “Good. Fine. Whatever you say.”