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This Valentine's Day, Cupid will take no prisoners…
CAROL Snow picked up the cartoonish card sitting on her assistant's desk that featured the celebrated cherub wearing fatigues, with bow and arrow at the ready. She idly opened the card to glance at the message inside.
So your best strategy is to surrender. A white flag waved feebly in the background. The name "Stan" was scrawled across the bottom.
Carol frowned and turned over the valentine, not wholly surprised to discover it was a product of the company she worked for, Mystic Touch Greeting Cards. Stan must also be an employee. She set the card back on the cluttered desk, rankled by the cheerful sentimentality. Thank goodness she didn't have to work on the creative side of the business and be surrounded by that inane fluff all day.
Carol leveled an irritated glance in the direction of her assistant Tracy who had her back turned, whispering low into the phone, where, as far as Carol could tell, was how the young woman had spent most of her day. Carol rolled her eyes—a new boyfriend, no doubt. Probably Stan, the guy who'd sent the valentine. Tamping down her growing frustration, Carol glanced at her watch—at this rate, she'd be late for the monthly meeting of the Red Tote Book Club.
She cleared her throat meaningfully. Tracy cupped her hand over the mouthpiece of the phone and turned in her chair, her face lined with trepidation. "Yes, Ms. Snow?"
"I need to talk to you about this project before I leave."
Carol pursed her mouth at the woman's pause. "And I need to leave now."
Tracy glanced at the clock. "But it's only six… you usually stay until eight or nine."
Carol stiffened at the woman's tone that smacked of an indictment on her personal life. "Not tonight."
"Are you sick?"
Carol frowned. "No. Would you please hang up so we can talk?"
Tracy uncovered the mouthpiece and murmured something low before returning the handset to the receiver. "What's up?"
Carol bit down on the inside of her cheek. "What's up is this memo for the quarterly report. It's riddled with typos." She handed over the piece of paper where she'd circled the errors with a red marker.
Tracy bit her lip. "Oh. I'll redo it."
"I want a clean version on my desk when I arrive tomorrow morning," Carol chided.
"And Tracy? You've been spending a lot of time on the phone—that puts both of us behind."
The young woman nodded. "Yes, ma'am. I'm sorry."
Carol made a rueful noise, then retreated into her office. Appointed with dark furniture, it was spacious and fitting for the director of Finance. A box window provided a nice view of the Atlanta skyline while leaving enough wall space for the banks of extra wide file cabinets that lined the room.
She straightened her already tidy desk, then retrieved her purse, briefcase and the red tote of books for her book club meeting. When she strode past Tracy's desk, Carol gasped in dismay to see the woman was on the phone again. Shaking her head, Carol walked up to the elevator and stabbed the button. Tracy was going to be sorely disappointed if she continued to put her love life before her job.
Men. Could. Not. Be. Trusted.
Somebody in the creative department ought to put that sentiment on a Mystic Touch card.
The elevator dinged and the doors opened, revealing a sole occupant: Luke Chancellor, Director of Sales and resident playboy. A grin spread over his handsome face. "Going home early, Snow? You must have a hot date for a cold Tuesday night."
Carol stuck her tongue in her cheek—she was not in the mood to be teased. "Actually, Chancellor, I've decided to take the stairs."
She turned and stalked to the stairwell, ignoring the man's booming laughter. Luke Chancellor was an outrageous flirt who seemed to have made her his pet project. In an effort to avoid him, Carol jogged down the stairs as fast as her high heels would allow. When she reached the lobby, she was relieved to see the elevator hadn't yet arrived. Juggling the items in her arms, she scooted out the front door of the office building and in the direction of her car. If every traffic light between Buckhead and downtown Atlanta was green, she might make it to the book club meeting on time.
At the sound of Luke's voice behind her, Carol winced and kept moving. But in her haste, her red stiletto heel caught a raised edge on the sidewalk and she stumbled. Her briefcase, book tote and purse went flying, and she flailed, mentally bracing herself to hit the pavement hard. At the last possible second, though, a pair of strong arms kept her from falling flat on her face.
"I got you," Luke whispered in her ear like a warm breeze in the February chill.
The scent of his earthy cologne curled into her lungs, compromising her breathing. Her body distantly registered the fact that his big hands were touching her, his fingers burning into the skin of her shoulders and brushing her breasts through the layers of her prim suit. Unbidden lust shot through her midsection, reminding Carol how long it had been since she'd been so close to a man. The alien sensation jolted her into action.
"Let go of me," she said through gritted teeth, pulling free of his grasp. She straightened and patted at her clothing.
Luke's legendary mouth quirked into a half-smile. "You're welcome," he said drily, then crouched to gather her things from the ground.
He wore a mocha-colored suit that set off his dark hair and brown eyes. A handful of red silk tie poked out of his pocket, a stab at the formal corporate culture of the company. The man was known for his casual management style and practical jokes. Luke had come to Mystic Touch Greeting Cards two years ago and had leapfrogged through the ranks until he was now a peer of Carol's, a fellow director. The feminist in her had wanted to cry foul on a couple of his promotions, but admittedly, since his arrival, Luke had been instrumental in turning around the flagging sales force.
With only a few days to go until their biggest card-selling day of the year—Valentine's Day—the company was enjoying record-breaking profits. As a numbers woman, she grudgingly respected his accomplishments.
Feeling contrite, Carol stooped to help him with her things. "Sorry," she murmured. "You startled me. Thank you for… catching me."
"No problem," he said easily. "I probably distracted you when I yelled."
"Yes," she agreed, scooping up her purse and briefcase. "What did you want, Luke? I'm late for my book club."
"Whoa." He held up the books that had fallen out of her tote bag and lay scattered on the sidewalk. "Lady Chatterley's Lover? Venus in Furs? Fanny Hill? The Slave?" A devilish grin split his face. "What kind of book club do you belong to?"
Heat climbed her face. "None of your business."
He leaned in close. "Do you accept male members?" His tone was innocent, but his eyes danced with mirth at the double entendre.
Instead of responding, Carol tried to snatch the classic erotic volumes, but he held them out of reach. Indignant anger whipped through her. "What are you, ten years old? Give me my books!"
He wagged his eyebrows as he perused the risqué covers. "I knew there was a wild side to you, Snow. You just keep it all bottled up."
Exasperated, Carol realized the best way to diffuse him was to deflect his attention. She crossed her arms. "What did you want, Chancellor?"
As if to answer her question, his dark gaze flitted over her appreciably, stirring up little flutters of awareness in its wake. With great resolve, she managed to maintain a cool expression of disdain.
Luke sighed and his shoulders sagged in defeat. "Okay, back to business. I thought it might be nice to have a company party for Valentine's Day."
She squinted. "Valentine's Day?"
"Why not? We could have it Friday."
"Friday the thirteenth?"
He shrugged. "Close enough. Valentine's is a significant sales day on our calendar. Plus a party would be a good occasion to pass out bonuses—what do you think?"
"I think this company has never issued bonuses," she chirped.
"Not in the past," he agreed. "But Mystic has had such a good year, I thought it'd be fair to spread the love, if you know what I mean. I'm sure the rest of the directors would agree with me."
Ire shot through Carol—doling out bonuses from money that Luke was being given credit for bringing in almost single-handedly would make him a bona fide hero in the eyes of the five hundred or so employees. The man would be Chief Executive Officer before the end of the year…dammit.
Squaring her shoulders, she drew upon her most authoritative voice. "In my opinion, the more prudent move for the long-term health of the company is to take the profits we make on good years and reinvest them in new technology."
His seemingly permanent grin never wavered. "In my opinion, you should skip your naughty book club and we should discuss this over drinks."
The pull of his body on hers was unmistakable. His decadent brown eyes were almost hypnotic, summoning her to follow him anywhere. Her breasts pinged in response and her thighs quickened. Her mouth opened and to her horror, she realized she was on the verge of saying yes.
Carol's head snapped back. "That's not going to happen." The words came out more forcefully than she'd planned— for her own benefit? "We can discuss the party and the bonuses at the directors' meeting in the morning—with an audience."
He frowned. "You're no fun."
She extended her hand, palm up, and wiggled her fingers. "My books, please?"
He relinquished his hold as if they were favorite toys. "I've never been second place to a book before."
"That you know of." Carol gave him a tight smile as she slipped the erotic books inside the red tote bag. "Goodbye, Chancellor." She turned and walked toward her car, certain now that she'd be late for the book club meeting because of the bothersome man.
"Instead of reading about life, you should try the real thing sometime!" Luke called behind her.
Carol was tempted to turn and shoot him the bird, but, mindful of their location and the curious stares they'd already garnered from employees loitering in the parking lot, she kept walking. She didn't want to keep the members of the Red Tote Book Club waiting.
And she didn't want to give Luke Chancellor the satisfaction of seeing the sudden tears his parting comment had brought to her eyes.
EVERY traffic light between Carol's office and downtown Atlanta was, not surprisingly, red. If it was the city's idea of commemorating Valentine's Day, Carol thought wryly, it was fitting that she was caught in the bottleneck. As expected, she arrived late for the meeting of the Red Tote Book Club.
So late, in fact, that she sat in the parking lot of the branch of the Atlanta Public Library where the group met and contemplated driving away. She glanced over at the box of almond cookies sitting in the passenger seat that she'd brought for the members to share and rationalized the goodies would make her a fair dinner—almonds were chock-full of fiber…weren't they? Considering what was waiting for her inside, she was suddenly gripped with the compulsion to drop out of the group altogether. The other women wouldn't miss her. They might even be glad if she left.
They were probably sitting in there now, talking about her, the rogue member who refused to go along with the experiment their coordinator had suggested: That each member apply the lessons they'd learned from the pages of the erotic novels they'd read to seduce the man of their dreams.
The other women had embraced the challenge wholeheartedly. She, on the other hand…not so much.
Her phone chimed and she looked down to see a text message had arrived.
Are you stuck in traffic? We didn't want to start without you. Gabrielle.
Gabrielle was the coordinator of the Red Tote Book Club. Carol couldn't stop the relieved smile that curved her mouth—they did care. She quickly texted back that she'd be there in a few minutes, then grabbed the box of cookies and the red tote holding the precious books that had filled her lonely evenings over the past few months. After exiting her car, she jogged toward the entrance of the library.
Inside, she stopped to inhale the pungent scent of books and absorb the pleasant hum of computers and lowered voices. She'd been an avid reader most of her young life, but had gotten away from pleasure reading as an adult. When she'd seen the ad for the book club for women looking to add a little spice to their reading life, she'd been intrigued, if a little suspicious. But the group of women who'd gathered on that first night were amazingly like her—in their thirties, educated and single.
Except, unlike her, they all seemed to be in the market for a boyfriend or a lover, neither of which appealed to her.