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Paula Devine sipped her macchiato at the coffee shop, trying to ignore the intense sable eyes bearing down on her from the next table. The well-dressed, good-looking man had an enviable almond complexion and sideburns that merged with a thin mustache before meeting up nicely on his chin. He was obviously alone and perhaps hoping to hook up with whomever he set his sights on.
That would be her, given his apparent sole preoccupation. In another time and place, Paula might have entertained the thought of seeing what the man was made of. After all, she was naturally curious, like any single woman who was the object of a man's attention. Today, she merely wanted to finish her flavored latte and head to an appointment she had as an interior decorator.
"Don't you know it's not polite to stare?" Paula narrowed her tawny eyes at him, disregarding the fact that she was equally guilty. She couldn't help herself, all things considered.
His head snapped back as if he'd been in a trance. "My apologies," he said, his voice deep and distinguished. "Guess I was totally entranced by your beauty."
Paula nearly laughed out loud, though she honestly felt flattered to some degree. Who wouldn't be? She'd gotten her fair share of compliments over the years. Most she had taken with a grain of salt, primarily because the smooth talker usually expected something in return. Often much more than was warranted. And since she wasn't offering anything—not this day or to this man—the words mostly came across as hollow.
"I'd say originality is not your strong suit," she told him candidly. "My advice to you is to find some new lines, then try them out on awoman who might actually be naive or desperate enough to fall for it."
He chuckled and ran his large hand through closely cropped, curly, raven hair. "You're probably right about the originality, but wrong on my intent. I wasn't trying to hit on you."
"Oh, really?" Her curly lashes fluttered with skepticism. "Why don't I believe you?"
His eyes widened. "Maybe because you're a little too full of yourself."
Paula arched a thin brow. "Excuse me?"
"I'm pretty sure you heard me loud and clear."
"I did," Paula acknowledged, wishing she hadn't. Now she had to tell him what she really thought. "Actually, it's more that I don't have the time or interest for silly games."
"Got it." He rose to his feet and buttoned the jacket of a three-piece gray windowpane suit that fit nicely on his tall, trim frame before lifting his still-steaming coffee. "Again, I'm sorry if I stepped on your toes."
Paula blinked and instinctively moved her toes inside her leather pumps. She imagined if he had stepped on them, she would surely have felt it. "Whatever," she said tartly, dismissing him with a look.
"Have a nice day," he told her politely. "And I mean that."
She watched him walk away with a confident strut and jutted chin, half expecting that he might come back and plead his case. But he didn't, obviously deciding he couldn't be bothered.
Maybe I did have him pegged wrong. Or maybe not. Either way, the encounter had left Paula frustrated, and she had a pretty good idea why. She'd just gotten out of a relationship with a real charmer who was nearly as handsome as the one who had just vacated the premises. She wasn't quite ready to dive in headfirst again, only to find that the man was much more of a frog than a prince when all was said and done.
Besides, Paula had a feeling that man was already spoken for. She couldn't imagine someone so smooth and appealing to the eye not being taken. But that never seemed to stop men from checking out women and often playing on the attraction to see what they could get out of it. Perhaps he wasn't trying to hit on her, though she still had her doubts about that.
Glancing at her watch, Paula realized she'd let the time get away from her. I can't be late. That would be too unprofessional. She grabbed her bag and was out the door in a flash.
Chase McCord spilled some of his cappuccino on the sidewalk as he left the coffee shop on this cool, crisp October afternoon. He wanted to kick himself for that, much like when the lady caught him gazing at her perhaps a bit too long and had no problem telling him what she thought of it. The last thing he'd wanted was to have the woman think he was trying to get her naked and into bed before he even knew her name. Or knew if there was more to her than undeniably attractive physical qualities to go along with an attitude.
As it was, romance was not at the top of his agenda these days. Far from it. Not when the love of his life was no longer there to share his bedroom or anything else that mattered. It had been two years since Chase's wife, Rochelle, died. Though gone, she would never be forgotten. Not for one minute. He missed her so much and found it incredibly hard to engage in his professional pursuits without her subtle encouragement and unwavering companionship. But their time had come and gone, leaving him alone to make a life for himself.
Chase climbed inside his black Mercedes luxury car, started it and drove out of the crowded parking lot. He thought about the woman he'd locked eyes with a few minutes earlier, a lovely vision of her popping into his head. She was slender and gorgeous with smooth, honey-caramel skin that he'd almost wanted to reach over and touch. High cheekbones sat on a heart-shaped face, molding into a small nose and lips that were not too full and not too thin—just right. Her long, straight, blond hair was in a cool Sedu style.
The lady clearly had a poor opinion of men and was a bit too outspoken for his comfort. Not that any of it mattered at this point. He doubted they would ever cross paths again, which was certainly for the better as far as he was concerned.
His cell phone rang, and Chase turned his attention to it. "Hey," he said to Monica Rice, his best friend since college. She was an executive at McCord Diamonds, a chain of Pacific Northwest jewelry stores owned by Chase and his father that specialized in diamonds and other precious gemstones.
"Are you home right now?" she asked.
"No, but I'm on my way there. Why?"
"Don't forget to bring those insurance appraisals you took home yesterday when you come to the office."
"Oh, right," Chase said, glad she'd brought that up. "I've looked them over, and everything seems in order."
"Good." Monica paused as if distracted.
"Anything else?" he asked, suspecting she had more on her mind.
"Since you mentioned it, there are several new diamond consignments that need your approval pronto."
"I'll get right on it." He turned onto Orchard Lane. "Is that all?"
"For now." She laughed. "Just don't be too surprised if I have a lot more stuff that requires your attention before the day is through."
Chase chuckled. "Oh, I won't be. Comes with the territory." He didn't always like it, but overall felt he was in command of the situation and wouldn't complain. "See you soon."
"That's what they all say," she kidded. "Then I never hear from them again."
Chase reflected on Monica's merry-go-round of love interests, including three divorces and at least one engagement broken off. He couldn't imagine such in his life, as he took marriage commitment seriously.
"You'll get it right one of these days," he tried to assure her.
"Uh-huh. I'll believe it when I see it, or maybe I should say him."
Chase smiled faintly. "Wish I could offer you some advice, but since my love life isn't exactly flourishing these days, I can only wish you the best of luck."
"You, too," Monica offered poignantly. "I know you haven't found a good match since Rochelle's death, but don't stop trying to find one. She's out there somewhere."
"I know," he muttered, imagining Rochelle scolding him for setting the bar too high in meeting a new woman to become the center of his life. The truth was, Rochelle was a hard act to follow, and, though Chase wasn't about to let the few women he had gone out with unsuccessfully dissuade him, he wouldn't settle for anyone less than he deserved.
Chase neared his house. Glancing at his dashboard clock, he noted it was a quarter to three, giving him a little time to work with before his meeting.
Paula got into her white Subaru Legacy sedan. She listened to her favorite Alicia Keys CD as she drove through Silver Moon, Washington, which was located nearly one hundred miles east of Seattle. She'd lived in Silver Moon since she was a child. The city was noted for its hospitality, laid-back lifestyle, clean parks and marvelous views of Mount Rainier.
Self-employed as an interior decorator, Paula had reached a comfortable point at this stage of her career. Due to the clientele she'd established, all of her appointments now came strictly by referral and word of mouth.
Such was the latest instance, in which a man had expressed an interest in having his great room modernized. She was always ready and willing to put her talents to work in beautifying any space, big or small. Satisfying her clients was not always easy, since individual tastes and needs varied. As long as she did her best every time, Paula was confident her clients would be happy and more than satisfied with the result, including the newest person to pursue her services.
She pulled up to the gated entry of the house. After identifying herself via the speaker, the gates opened. Paula drove around a circular driveway and parked behind a luxury vehicle. She got out and stood on a cobblestone pathway. Her burgundy pumps matched her designer business suit with a vented-cuff jacket and pants. One look at the house, and Paula was instantly impressed before even setting foot inside.
The multistory Georgian Colonial sat on a hill and was surrounded by western hemlocks. With a brick facade and white columns, it had paired chimneys, nine small windowpanes in each sash window and a beveled-glass front door.
Very nice. I can't wait to see the great room.
Paula stepped onto the porch and rang the bell. A moment later, the doors were opened by a fortysomething woman wearing a housekeeping dress.
"Hi, I'm Paula Devine," she said, trying to maintainher cool.
"Mr. McCord is expecting you. Come in."
Paula entered a ceramic-tiled entranceway, noting a hand-painted console table. Above it was a beautiful oil painting of yellow roses. She was led into a grand great room with a vaulted, wood-beamed ceiling and French-vanilla plaster walls. Two octagon olefin area rugs offset each other on the bamboo floor. There was a freestanding stone fireplace and custom-built walnut cabinetry. The window treatments were elegant swags and jabots.
As any interior decorator would do, Paula took it all in. For the most part, she liked what she saw.
"Mr. McCord will be right with you," the woman said. "Feel free to have a seat if you like."
"Thanks." Paula watched her walk away and then studied the furnishings. They were a combination of contemporary and traditional with floral fabrics and handcrafted accent pieces. In many respects it was as if she had stepped into a museum where everything was perfect, maybe too perfect for a room that should be open and fun.
I almost hate to sit down for fear of tarnishing the sofa.
She wandered over to the gourmet kitchen and found it just as impressive, with slate flooring, state-of-the-art appliances, including a Wolf range and glass-front Sub-Zero refrigerator, marble counters, a center island and a breakfast nook. If Paula had any complaint, it would have to be the orange walls, which seemed a bit outdated, and window treatments that failed to bring in enough light.
The voice had a vaguely familiar ring to it. Paula turned around and saw the handsome man she'd encountered at the coffee shop. Her mouth dropped.
"I'm afraid so." He looked equally surprised. Or perhaps somewhat amused. "Chase McCord."
"I didn't realize at the coffee shop you were the person I had an appointment with—" Paula's soft voice broke, and she looked as if she wanted to run and hide.
"Would that have mattered?" Chase gazed down at the woman who had unjustly given him the cold shoulder. Again he was taken by her good looks, glowing oaklike complexion and the silky, flowing blond hair. He liked how her clothing fit snugly on her taut body. He caught a whiff of her perfume, a mixture of lavender and vanilla that was pleasing. "Or do you act differently toward potential clients than you do when meeting other men?"
She pursed her lips. "I try to treat all people the same way."
"Oh, really?" Chase raised a brow. "If that's how you treat all people, then—"
"Now wait just a minute," Paula said, coloring.
"Seems to me that once you make up your mind about someone, it's set in stone," Chase suggested.
She sucked in a deep breath. "I obviously misinterpreted things. If I offended you, I'm sorry."
"Are you?" Chase found himself uncharacteristically enjoying watching her grovel now that a job was clearly on the line. He supposed it was time to cut the lady some slack.
Her mouth opened slightly. "Look, why don't we just start over?"
"You think we should?"
Paula frowned. "Do you always respond to a question with a question?"
Chase chuckled. "No, not always. Only where it concerns business. I happen to judge people who work for me by how they present themselves."
She tensed. "I can assure you that you will find me the consummate professional."
Chase studied her and definitely liked what he saw. Apart from her obvious physical beauty, she was sexy as hell, though he suspected the lady was trying hard not to present that side of her while she was in business mode. As a man who had by and large put his profession first since he became a widower, Chase respected that much in the interior decorator. Nothing said they had to see eye to eye on a personal level, not to mention on a romantic and intimate level.
"Then let's start over," he told her.
Paula's lips curved upward at the corners. "I'm sure you won't regret it."
Chase liked the way she smiled, displaying straight, tight white teeth and dimpled cheeks. This notwithstanding, her work still had to stand on its own merits. He was not one to spend his hard-earned money frivolously, even if the interior decorator was extremely easy on the eyes.