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He was the last man she wanted to see. The last man she expected to see in her reception room. Matthew Whittaker was heir to one of Boston's great fortunes and witness to the most humiliating day of her life.
Lauren came to a halt inside the discreet office doors of Ideal Match. She was unaccustomedly late, thanks to a luncheon appointment that had run overtime and the snow flurries of the uncooperative January weather. Hurried and breathless, she fought to slow her breath as her eyes connected with his.
He was already unfurling himself from his position on the couch, and she steeled herself against his looming presence. "Your two o'clock appointment is here." Her gaze cut across the reception room to Candace, who raised her eyebrows and opened her eyes wide, then back to the man who stood facing her.
Stalling for time to regain her composure, she slowly walked toward him. "Matt," she acknowledged, relieved that her voice sounded close to normal. "This is a surprise."
"Hello, Lauren," he said. "It's been a while." When she'd last seen him, he'd been wearing a black tuxedo with a boutonniere of stephanotis. The stephanotis had had fake pearls threaded through their centers, just as she'd requested. It had been her wedding, after all.
The look in his blue-velvet eyes on that day five years ago had been unsettling, but then she'd always found him disconcerting.
Her high-heeled pumps sounded on the wood floor before they hit the faux Oriental rug covering the center of the reception area. She kept a professional smile on her face as she reached him. "It's lovely to see you again."
As her outstretched handwas engulfed in his, she quelled the little flutter of sensation in her midriff.
"I thought it might be," he said with a wry smile. After a beat, he added, "A surprise, that is."
Looking up at him, she had a ringing reminder of her small stature. Even in heels, she qualified as petite--a fact she'd been ruing for all of her thirty years.
Young, short and female. A winning combination for being taken seriously by any yardstick.
He, on the other hand, had everything going for him. At least six feet, he was also wealthy, male and imposing. Hadn't she read somewhere that the height of a candidate was a better predictor of who would win a Presidential election than almost any other factor?
She swept him a look from beneath her lashes. He had the dark good looks of a GQ model, but he was also--what was the word she was searching for?--enigmatic.
She recalled the recent Fortune magazine cover story about him. He'd been called the financial engineer of Whittaker Enterprises because of his cool, unflappable style as CFO of the aggressively competitive family conglomerate.
Ironically, the Boston Sentinel had also named him Boston's Most Eligible Bachelor for two years running. After his younger brother, Noah, had gotten married, Matt had succeeded to the title almost by default.
Still, surely he wasn't here for her matchmaking services. Yet, what other explanation was there? He was her two o'clock.
As if on cue, he said, "I've got to be the last person you expected to see as a client."
Please God, no. No, no, no. Not him. Not the man who'd remained perplexingly impassive in the face of her abject humiliation five years ago. Not the man who perversely made her acutely aware of her femininity.
Collecting herself, she nodded to Candace, then said smoothly, "Won't you come in? We'll be able to talk at length in my office about what you're looking for and how we can help you find it." She mentally winced--it wasn't as if he was looking to be matched to a computer or some other emotionless object, much as she might think it appropriate. "I mean her."
His eyes showed a flicker of an emotion suspiciously like amusement.
When he'd followed her into her office, she shut the door behind them, shooting a frown at her receptionist, who wore an openly curious expression.
Taking off her coat, she waved him to a seat. As she walked over to a cabinet set along one wall, she asked, "Tea? Coffee?"
She felt like a fortifying gulp of something strong and caffeinated herself. Instead, she reluctantly retraced her steps and sat down in an armchair at a right angle to his seat on the couch.
She watched as he glanced around her office, looking about as comfortable as a caged panther. She waited for him to get to the point.
Finally, his gaze came back to hers. "My sister and sisters-in-law think the world would be a better place if I were as happily married as they all are."
She waited. "My sister suggested hiring you."
She moved forward in her seat. "I'm afraid I only take on clients who are sure--"
"I've decided she may be right."
Oh. She inched back in her chair, then tried again.
"Since you've been dubbed Boston's Most Eligible Bachelor, I don't see why you'd need to hire a matchmaker. The title alone--"
"Heard about it, have you?" he asked sardonically.
"Yes," she admitted. "I read the Sentinel, and anyway, it's my business to know who the eligible singles are in this town."
"That's just it." He raked his hand through his hair.
"That ridiculous title makes me the target of every gold digger and social climber around. Being named Boston's Most Eligible Bachelor once was bad enough, but now that I've had the title two years running, it's getting to be more than merely irritating. I've seen my brothers targeted by unscrupulous women, and I've got no desire to be part of a repeat performance." He paused. "That's where you come in."
"It's one thing to want to avoid unscrupulous women, it's another to want to find a meaningful relationship."
"I'm thirty-six. It's time."
He gave a curt nod. "I've spent the past decade putting in long hours in the boardroom, but I don't want to be sixty by the time my kids hit Little League."
He made it sound so methodical. So logical, she thought.
"Besides," he went on, "I don't have the time to take a scattershot approach. I'm counting on finding the right woman by the time the Sentinel gets around to naming its Most Eligible Bachelor again three months from now."
He was seeking her out, Lauren thought, for the same reason a lot of her high-powered clients did. Neither he nor they had the time to take a casual approach to finding Mr. or Ms. Right. And with their type A personalities, they thought finding the right mate could be approached in the same way as they did everything else in their lives--throw some money at the problem and hire someone to do the legwork.
She supposed she shouldn't be surprised a corporate mogul like Matt would think he could tackle finding a wife in the same way.
"Hiring a matchmaker isn't a quick-fix solution," she warned. "My clients sometimes forget they still need to commit time, effort and emotional energy to nourish a relationship."
He nodded. "Understood. I'll make the time, but I'll rely on you to make it worth it." After a pause, he added, "There'll be excellent publicity for Ideal Match if you pair off Boston's Most Eligible Bachelor."
He had a point there. Naturally, astute businessman that he was, he couldn't resist pointing out the bottom-line benefits of taking him on as a client.
Parker, her ex-fiancé, had been the same way. Of course, since Matt and Parker had been buddies at Harvard Business School, it wasn't surprising there were other similarities between them.
She, on the other hand, was a walking billboard for making business decisions with her heart and not her head. Fortunately, she'd chosen a field where that kind of thinking was rewarded. Still, she was probably the only matchmaker in the city of Boston who took on charity cases, thanks to her volunteer work at a senior citizens' retirement community.
Yet, if she succeeded in pairing Matt off with Ms. Right, Ideal Match would be vaulted to a whole new level of visibility. It would be a major coup, in fact. So what if Matthew Whittaker was an ever-present reminder she was a phony whose fiancé had jilted her and whose personal experience of passion and love everlasting was nil?
She thought again about how much taking on Matt would help her business. Surely she could handle him. She'd held her own against difficult CEOs who were too busy to follow up on dates, pompous perfectionists who thought they were God's gift to women, and even teary-eyed prima donnas who'd been planning their weddings in the womb.
She watched now as Matt looked around her office. Ideal Match was located in one of downtown Boston's sleek new office towers. Most of her clients were busy professionals who not only expected a certain image from her business, but ease of accessibility, as well.
But while the building was sleek and new, she'd tried hard to make Ideal Match's offices comfy and inviting. The decorating scheme was dark woods dressed in maroons and browns and highlighted with creams and some gold.
"You've been doing well for yourself," he said finally, his eyes coming back to hers. "When did you start Ideal Match?"
"Over four years ago. You'd be surprised at how much a flawless diamond engagement ring can fetch at a pawnshop."
The words were out of her mouth before she could stop them. Had he expected her to crawl into a hole five years ago and refuse to emerge? She had been tempted to run back to California and her family's comforting embrace, but she'd resisted the urge.
He cocked his head and regarded her steadily. "No, I'm not surprised," he murmured, before adding more distinctly, "I'm glad the past few years have been good for you."
She limited herself to thanking him politely, because the last thing she wanted was to revisit that fateful day with him.