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A Professional Engagement
By Darcy Maguire
Harlequin Enterprises, Ltd.Copyright © 2004 Harlequin Enterprises, Ltd.
All right reserved.
Chapter OneRICK couldn't place her.
She stood in the foyer by the front desk, almost as stiff as the black business suit she wore. A red folder was pressed close to her white shirt, her attention on scanning the busy room.
She looked all business, except for her hair ... Rick tilted his head and furrowed his brow. It was short, dark and tousled, sticking out at wild angles, looking like a style that belonged on an artist or a model, not on such a serious looking woman.
He rubbed his jaw. Odd.
He knew all of his own staff intimately, the research subsidiary by name and the support team on sight. Was she a new employee or just a passer-by?
Rick shook himself. She wasn't going to be a mystery. Two minutes and he'd have the young woman sorted, classified and pigeon-holed, like everything else in his life. He turned, focusing on the task at hand.
Rick straightened his tie and stepped up on to a chair, putting a smile on his face. "I'd like to congratulate everyone here on a job well done - the Hinney & Smith project has been a great success for us. We can now ship our products all over the continent ourselves, cutting costs and increasing our profit margins."
"We're now a bigger and better company and I'm proud of all of you." He lifted his champagne glass. "To a great team with a bright and prosperous future."
He took a gulp of the champagne amidst the cheers and whistles. He meant it too. They were a great bunch to work with. Their dedication and loyalty to research, finance and ultimately acquisition had ensured his company another success.
His gaze wandered back to the cool but pretty stranger. The woman stood in the doorway, casually surveying his employees.
She didn't have a glass. He could remedy that.
Rick stepped down, smiling and shaking the hands of his team. He loved giving praise where praise was due - and hell, they all deserved heaps.
Rick rubbed his jaw. His next challenge was to merge the company with SportyCo, making his sports equipment twice the force in the marketplace. It was a risk to go for it so soon, but he couldn't wait. He wanted it. He hadn't worked so hard for the last ten years to baulk now.
It would probably be safer to wait, ensuring his playboy image was well behind him before he embarked on the ambitious move. It was unlikely that they'd agree to him as president of the combined company if he didn't have the right sort of credibility.
The last six months with Kasey Steel should have done the trick in convincing the world that he'd left his wild days behind him. His friends were believing that he'd settled down. The business world couldn't be far behind ...?
No matter what he'd done he hadn't been able to free himself from his past. His passion for extreme sports was seen as reckless, his nights out with the boys as drunken rages and his dating as womanising. He couldn't win. Until now.
Rick hadn't expected the effect a steady relationship could have on his reputation. Though nothing could have got in the way of him doing the right thing by his friend. But now, here was a bonus, his chance to finally shake his infamous exploits of years ago and be taken seriously.
He had it made. He just had to stay on track. Rick's gaze darted back to the doorway. Right after he sorted out this woman.
He straightened his burgundy shirt and tightened his purple tie, smoothing down the silk. He buttoned his suit jacket, looking down at his matching black trousers. He'd pass.
He plucked another champagne glass from the table and weaved his way to the front desk, his eyes not leaving the newcomer.
She was taller than he'd first thought, almost as tall as himself in her black high heels. Her hair wasn't as wild or riotous on closer inspection. The 'do' looked as engineered as the rest of her. It was orderly and precise - only a pretext of rebellion.
What was she? An accountant from the finance department? A wayward librarian? Or some starched schoolteacher with aspirations of becoming a cold fish? She certainly was working the image.
He hesitated. He was half tempted to turn on his heel and melt into the crowd, allowing himself the luxury of speculation about the woman a little longer, entertaining himself with the possibilities.
She turned towards him, her dark eyes stabbing him.
She was striking!
Rick strode forward and thrust the glass of champagne towards the stranger. "You look lost," he blurted like an idiot.
She smiled at him, putting up her hand and shaking her head at the glass. "No thanks. And no, not at all." She looked past him. "I'm exactly where I should be."
Rick took a quick sharp breath, unable to tear his eyes off the woman. He hadn't expected the vibrancy of her voice, the sweet lilt in her tone, or the brilliance in her dark eyes. There was no way she was as cool and controlled as she appeared to be.
His gaze slid over her, the chatter in the room fading, his breathing becoming louder, and his body becoming extremely aware of hers.
Rick cleared his throat, deftly discarded the drinks on a desk and moved into her line of sight.
She raised her dark eyes slightly to meet his, with an intensity that was discomfiting, as though she knew things that he wasn't privy to. "I'm here for an appointment," she said smoothly, glancing at the empty receptionist's desk. "But I think that's the last thing on every-one's mind."
"I could help," he offered.
"Ye - es ... " She pursed her lips and tried to look past him. "Only if you can tell me where I can find Mr Keene."
Warmth filled his body. He couldn't help but smile. "You've found him."
She looked taken aback for a moment as though he'd surprised her. She ran her dark gaze over him in a lazy perusal, from his black shoes, up his tailored suit, over his shirt and tie to his face.
Her eyes narrowed, searching his face as though trying to find the answer to a puzzle of her own.
Rick caught and held her gaze. "Do I measure up?"
"Oh ... sorry ... of course." Her cheeks flushed.
He stood taller. "You were expecting someone else?"
"I didn't expect you to be so old."
"Old?" What the -? "I don't think thirty-four is old." Had his face dried and cracked up since this morning's shave? Had a decade or three been stolen from his life? Admittedly, he no longer had the round, smooth features he'd had as a teenager. He rubbed his jaw. But he looked after himself.
She shrugged. "I'm sorry. I didn't mean ... " She pressed her lips together and looked away. "I'm sorry to interrupt your celebrations. I could come back later?"
He put up a hand to stall her. "No. It's not a problem." But what about him being old? A person couldn't just blurt out a thing like that and not explain, especially not a young, pretty woman like this one, even if she was hiding being a cool facade.
Excerpted from A Professional Engagement by Darcy Maguire Copyright © 2004 by Harlequin Enterprises, Ltd.. Excerpted by permission.
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