Read an Excerpt
"Boiled or fried?" Maxine McBain glanced at her friend Glory Bishop.
"The shrimp?" Glory paused in the process of biting into an appetizer from the gala's buffet line.
Glory frowned. "Max, what are you talking about?"
"I'm trying to decide what to do with my illustrious project manager when he gets here. If he gets here."
Glory shook her head. "And people tell me I'm nuts."
"You're right. Boiling or frying is way too much trouble."
"Good, because I—"
"I'll just throw him on the barbecue instead."
Glory opened her mouth and closed it again. "Not worried about the life in prison part, I take it?"
"There's not a jury in the country who would convict me," Max said serenely, taking a sip of her club soda. "The fundraiser's been going on for over an hour. No Jeremy, no phone call, no text, no nothing. Unless he's hospitalized or stranded in Tierra del Fuego, he's going to have to do some fast talking."
"Tierra del Fuego?"
"Possibly Outer Mongolia. Somewhere far from here."
They stood at one of the tables of the silent auction near a trio of Glory's metal sculptures. Around them rose the buzz of conversation from several hundred people, punctuated by bursts of laughter. White-jacketed servers circulated beneath the light of glittering chandeliers, offering canapés and champagne. Over in the corner, the singer for the cover band did his best to sound like John Fogerty as he sang about big wheels turning.
Well, they knew their audience, all right, Max thought. Dressed in silks and satins and tuxedos were gathered the biggest wheels of Maine, including the wealthy summer people from Kennebunkport to Castine. If all went well, those deep-pocket donors would fund the construction of Portland General Medical Center's new oncology wing. And if all really went well, Portland General would hire Becker, Reynolds and Stein, Max's employer, to design it.
Max set her empty glass on the tray of a passing waiter, giving him a smile brilliant enough to have him looking back over his shoulder as he walked away. Max didn't pay much attention—she had other things on her mind. "All right, that's it, we go to plan B," she said to Glory briskly. "Come on."
"Come on where?"
"To schmooze the medical center brass."
"Weren't you the one telling me your boss expressly forbid you to talk to the Portland General people without him?"
Max adjusted one of her gold bracelets. "Jeremy only thinks he's my boss. I report to Hal Reynolds. Jeremy's just the head of the proposal team."
"So why isn't Reynolds here to schmooze the brass if this project's so important? Or one of the other partners?"
"Hal's in Munich at a conference. Leo Stein's at his daughter's wedding in L.A. John Becker retired last year…to Boca Raton, I think. That makes us the only ones here. And the only ones available to bond."
"I've got a better idea. You bond, and I'll eat. There are these little chocolate-covered thingies that look— Hey," Glory complained as Max neatly plucked the martini glass from her hand and set it aside. "I needed that."
"We bond," Max said firmly. "You're supposed to be starving for your art, remember?"
They'd met three years before at the gallery where Glory was holding her first show. In the time since, Glory's professional star had risen, due in no small part to the exposure she'd gotten from placing sculptures at several BRS projects. She and Max had become fast friends, the dark, compact, unconventional Glory providing the perfect foil for Max's warm blond looks. They shared a love of fiery hot ethnic food, cool jazz and bad horror films, the dumber the better.
"But I'm tired of being a starving artist," Glory protested, eyeing the dessert table. "I want to be a reasonably well-fed yet still enviably thin artist. Besides, I'm just supposed to do the art for the medical center's sculpture garden. You're the genius who's on the hook to design the place."
"We have to get the project first. And who was the one going on about the price of acetylene last week?" Max shook her shoulder-length hair back and smoothed down her dress. "You need the job as much as I do, Bishop, so come on."
"But I'm not dressed to win projects," Glory tried, tugging at the marigold-colored broomstick skirt she'd paired with a purple camisole.
"You're not in your overalls and a welding helmet, are you?" Max asked, glancing at Glory's outfit. "You'll wake them up. Besides, you're the temperamental artist, you can wear whatever you want and they'll just think you're being colorful."
Max had spent far more time than she cared to admit picking out her dress for the evening. There was always a fine line to tread at these sorts of events: too glitzy and they didn't take you seriously, too dowdy and you stuck out more than if you'd overdressed. She'd settled on a sleeveless sheath, beautifully cut but utterly simple. Her sole concession to vanity was the fabric, a deep bronze silk that whispered against her skin.
"Now you're getting bossy," Glory muttered. "Deep down, you just want the project so you can push everybody around."
"I don't push people around. I just help them realize what's best for them."
"Funny how what's best for them tends to be what you want."
Max grinned. "I'm naturally intuitive that way. And besides, I—" She broke off as her cell phone vibrated. "About time," she muttered as she fished it out of her evening bag.
"Give Jeremy my love," Glory said and strode purposefully toward the array of desserts.
Max glanced at the display and blinked, her brow creasing, before she flipped it open. "Hal? What… Where are you?" And what was he doing calling her when he was supposed to be flying home?
"I'm in D.C., making my connection. We just landed."
"Oh." To get some privacy, she moved away from the tables toward the entrance. "How was Munich?"
"Fine. At least what I saw of it. Arianne liked it. Listen, I got a call from Jeremy Simmons before I took off."
Her uneasiness crystallized. "What's going on? He's not here."
"And he won't be. He's jumped ship to a London firm that's working on one of the Olympic venues."
"You're kidding." Max stared. "Jeremy gave you notice over the phone?"
"He didn't give me notice. He told me he was on his way out the door. Apparently they want him in London on Monday."
Max glanced at the medical center board members across the room. "He always said living here was turning him into a savage. So where does that leave the firm?" And where did it leave her?
"Long term we'll be fine. I've got to talk to Leo, though. Jeremy left a lot of balls in the air—like the one you're hanging on to right now. I know the deadline on the Portland General project is coming up. We'll get you some help right away."
"Hal, don't worry about it. I can take care of things—in all honesty, I've been doing all the leg-work and preliminary design already, anyway." And after six years of school and seven years at the firm, she was tired of getting the job done by coming up with a good idea and then convincing whoever she was reporting to that they'd thought of it themselves. After seven years of paying her dues, she was ready to be the boss.
"Look, Max, both Leo and I are aware of how much you've been doing, but this project is our ticket into the health care design market. We need someone with a track record."
"Give me a chance, Hal." Her words were low and intense. "I can do this."
He hesitated and she could hear her heart beat in the silence. "Look, we don't have to solve this now," he said finally. "For tonight, wave the flag with the medical center folks and keep the news about Jeremy to yourself. We'll talk about the proposal Monday."
"Does that mean you'll think about it?"
"I— What?" She heard him talk to somebody in the background. "Yeah. Listen, Max, I've got to go. We'll work it out Monday."
She ended the call, a flutter of excitement in her gut. Okay, so it wasn't precisely a yes but it wasn't a no. He was open to discussion. She just needed a little time to convince him.
Snapping her cell phone shut, Max headed back toward the auction tables.
Glory stood there, licking her fingers. "What's up?"
"Jeremy's jumped ship."
"Today." Max felt the corners of her mouth tug
into a smile. "Which leaves yours truly as the only person at BRS who knows the project."
Glory's eyes brightened. "Are they going to give it to you?"
No guarantees, Max reminded herself. "Well, it's not a done deal, but I'm not sure what else they can do. The proposal's due in three weeks. Hal and the other partners are already doing three and four projects apiece. I don't want to jinx myself but I think they almost have to hand it to me." And it would be so sweet, so sweet.
"I'd say a toast is in order," Glory said.
"Schmoozing first, then cocktails," Max ordered.
"I knew it," Glory grumbled. "The power's going to your head already."
He stood by the windows looking out across the ballroom, still not entirely sure what time zone he was in. He'd come to the gala because he needed something to do, because if he hadn't, he would have been in bed by six-thirty, asleep by seven—and wide awake at two in the morning. He might have been standing in a ballroom in Portland, Maine, but his body still thought he was baking in the Dubai desert. Shaking his head at himself, he took a swallow of his whiskey and watched couples sway to a Percy Sledge tune on the dance floor. Perhaps it was the jet lag that gave him the faint sense of unreality, the feeling that in this place, anything could happen.
And then he saw her. And all he could think was that it was too bad they weren't building a cardiology unit instead of an oncology center. A man needed to have a place to go when he felt his heart stop.
She moved through the reception, her honey-colored hair gleaming under the lights, but it wasn't that that aroused in his mind the image of a lioness. It was the way that she walked, lithe and feline. It was in the way she glanced around the ballroom with eyes that looked as gold as her hair, as gold as the dress she wore, a long, slim column that hinted at an elegant body and afforded a glimpse of what looked like a spectacular pair of legs. There was a confidence in her stride, a subtle challenge that evoked a bone-deep response from him. Less than a week before, he'd been on the other side of the world in the desert, with its drumbeat rhythms and fierce desires. Now he stood in this glossy ballroom and felt the punch of a need as primitive as any hunger he'd ever felt.
And suddenly, he found himself wide-awake—and moving.
"Very interesting," said Paul Fischer, Portland General's CEO. He stood with Max and Glory before a mobile formed of arcs of metal with geometric shapes at the ends, each balanced so perfectly that they shifted with the swish of air from every person who walked by.
"Isn't it a little small to put into a sculpture garden?" asked Avery Sherwin, chairman of the board.
"It won't be this exact piece, of course," Max put in.
"I hope not." Pamela, Sherwin's wife, picked up the pen that sat below the silent auction sheet. "I'm planning to buy this one."
Glory beamed. "I hope you win. I usually do much larger pieces," she added to Sherwin and Fischer. "I just brought the smaller pieces because they were easy to move."
"If you've ever been to the plaza outside the Casco Bay Credit Union building, the piece before the fountain is one of Glory's," Max told them.
"And whatever I do for the medical center sculpture garden will be designed especially for the site, of course."
"Excellent. We're looking forward to seeing your proposal." Fischer reached out to shake their hands even as he glanced over the room with a practiced eye. "Well, it was a pleasure to see you both. Enjoy the rest of your evening."
It had gone well, Max thought, watching him walk away with the Sherwins. She'd had to spend time first cultivating his assistant, but Fischer and Sherwin had ultimately given Max and Glory far more time than Max had expected. And they hadn't even asked about Jeremy. "A success, I think," she murmured to Glory.
"Is it time for that cocktail?" Glory asked.