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By KATHY LOVE
BRAVA BOOKSCopyright © 2011 Kathy Love
All right reserved.
Chapter OneThree years later ...
Annie started at Finola's voice bellowing over the intercom on her desk phone. How it still managed to startle her after all these years was a mystery. Maybe it was more of a Pavlov's dog thing. Whenever Annie heard that demanding voice disguised in a lilting, melodious tone, she knew she was in trouble.
But just like the obedient dog she'd become, Annie jumped up from her huge desk in the reception area outside Finola's office and hurried through a glass maze to her boss's office.
She stepped into the office, greeted by Finola's fluffy white maltipoo, Dippy, who was considerably less obedient than Annie. The dog jumped up and down, and the beast's surprisingly sharp nails threatened to snag the material of her skirt and make runs in her stockings, but Annie tried not to react. Finola didn't like anyone to reprimand her pet.
Finola stood in the center of her office, debating between two items in her assistant editor Tristan's hands. As Annie got closer, she saw her boss was trying to choose between two diamond-encrusted necklaces.
"This one," she said, pointing to the one that dripped with dozens of perfect, glittering diamonds. Tristan nodded, then turned to return both of the pieces to their blue velvet boxes.
Finola still didn't acknowledge Annie as she walked behind her ultramodern white desk. Actually, everything in Finola's office was white, including the woman herself with her alabaster skin and pale, pale blond hair.
And Annie, with her mousy brown hair, simple brown cashmere sweater and tweed pencil skirt, was fully aware that she was like a glaring mole on the façade of Finola's perfection.
Finola leaned forward to scoop up Dippy, setting the little creature on her lap before she finally looked up at Annie. Immediately a grimace pulled at her ruby-red lips, the only vivid color on her face. Her gray eyes, as light as bleached marble, narrowed as she inspected Annie's clothes.
"How many times do I have to tell you I do not like brown?"
Annie smoothed her hands down her skirt, not because the expensive garment had any wrinkles but because her palms were sweaty. After three years, this woman still had that effect on her.
"It's part of the newest Chloé collection," Annie said softly, even though she knew Finola wouldn't be impressed. She was rarely impressed with anyone but herself.
"I don't want to see brown again," Finola repeated and Annie nodded. You did not cross Finola White. Annie knew that very well.
"I need you to go to the design house and pick up the new spring pieces that will be highlighted in the April issue of the magazine. And as you will see, there is no brown in the collection."
Annie nodded, not inclined to point out that it was a spring collection, which would be unlikely to feature brown anyway.
"I need those items delivered to the photoshoot on Staten Island. By one."
Annie glanced at her watch. It was already 11:30. By the time Annie made it to the design warehouse, got the clothing loaded into a cab, then drove to the ferry and made it to Staten Island, even with taxis and traffic on her side and a prompt ferryman, she'd be pushing it. But she didn't even bother to be amazed. Finola always made impossible demands. Annie suspected the woman sat up at night thinking of tasks that Annie couldn't help but fail—or at the very least, would send Annie's blood pressure and stress to dangerously high levels.
Annie didn't bother to point out the logistics, either. She didn't have the time. She simply nodded and rushed for the door. Dippy leapt down from Finola's lap, bouncing and yipping like Satan's very own purse dog.
Finola's cultured, beautifully accented and utterly irritating voice called after her. "And bring us back lunch from Raimondi's."
Because you don't have enough stress, Annie muttered silently to herself, not slowing her frantic pace. Fortunately, she didn't need to waste precious time asking Finola what they wanted from the restaurant or who "us" was. It certainly wasn't Annie, that was for sure. Finola referred to herself, Tristan ... and Dippy. Finola and Tristan always got the ahi tuna tartare with the Asian salad ... and Dippy liked the goose paté.
But now Annie also knew, even if she got the clothes to the photoshoot on time, the lunch would definitely be late.
There was no pleasing Finola. Annie lived for the woman, and the woman was never happy. At least not with her.
But Annie didn't let that slow her down. She would do her best, just as she did every day. She stopped at her desk to grab her purse and coat, tugging it on as she zigzagged her way through the busy hallways like a Navy SEAL racing through an obstacle course.
She was relieved to see that the elevator doors were open as she approached, her only thought to make it inside before they slid shut, forcing her to wait, shaving off precious minutes from her nearly impossible time limit.
So she wasn't even aware of the man still on the elevator, just stepping out as she was rushing in, until she plowed into him, both of them nearly toppling over upon her impact.
Miraculously, the man not only managed to keep his own balance but maintained hers, too. Strong hands curled around her upper arms, steadying her. She got the impression of a broad, hard chest and the scent of something manly. Leather? A rich woodsy scent? Something more subtle underneath that? A distinct, wonderful scent, but one Annie couldn't put her finger on.
"Whoa there, are you okay?"
Annie's body further jumped to awareness at the husky, rough tone of the man's voice. She looked up at him.
Good Lord, this man was beautiful. Not the model type of beautiful Annie had grown oblivious to over the past couple of years. This man's beauty was tough, masculine, a little gritty. This guy got his hands dirty for a living; he wouldn't pose pretty in front of a camera.
Not that she was jaded or anything.
The corner of his mouth lifted in mild amusement, and Annie realized she was staring.
"Um, yeah. Yeah, I'm fine. Just not paying attention to what I'm doing. Sorry."
"Well, you are clearly in a hurry."
"Then I will let you get to it." But his hands lingered on her upper arms, and she could feel his heat all the way through her layers of clothes. Then the elevator bell dinged, snapping them both out of the moment. He bowed his head by way of good-bye and stepped out of the elevator. The door closed, blocking him from her sight.
Annie sagged against the elevator wall, breathing in deeply. For the first time in a long time, her body felt heavy with something aside from stress or exhaustion or worry. She actually felt ...
She frowned, disconcerted. She felt attraction. Maybe even lust.
"Who knew?" she mumbled to herself, then chuckled. She certainly didn't know she still had the interest for that kind of emotion, much less the energy.
The elevator bobbled to a halt and the doors slid open. Annie forced the rather nice sensation aside. She didn't have time for arousal. Not unless it was written into her schedule or Finola gave her the okay. And Finola would never concern herself with someone else's enjoyment.
At the thought of Finola, she got back to her plan of attack for today's impossible task. First, flagging down a taxi.
She hurried out to the street, praying the taxi gods would be on her side. She stepped off the curb and waved at the first one heading in her direction. It slowed and pulled up beside her.
"Good start," she mumbled to herself. "Good start."
She scrambled into the back as quickly as her pencil skirt would allow, giving the driver the address of the design house.
She fell back against the vinyl seat, the scent of stale smoke wafting around her from the tatty material. Sighing, she ignored the unpleasant smell and tried to formulate the best strategy for getting the clothes loaded into the taxi, then the best route to take back through the city. But untypically, her mind wouldn't stay on task.
Instead, visions of the man from the elevator kept creeping in to distract her. Even the memory of his scent somehow blocked out the smell of the stinky cab. Who was he? Working so closely with Finola and Tristan, Annie met—or at least saw—just about everyone affiliated with the magazine. But she supposed he could be someone new.
God knows, if she had met him, she would remember. Even now, her skin tingled in the places where his hands had grabbed her arms to catch her. And she was in a wool coat and it was January.
He'd definitely made an impression.
But there's not one single point to thinking about him. Even if you did find him again and he was interested in you, you don't have a life. Finola White owns you.
And there was still the little matter of Bobby. Their relationship wasn't exactly a dream, but he was still her boyfriend.
So, stop fantasizing about the rugged, very, very attractive man from the elevator and start concentrating on how you are not going to incur Finola's wrath.
Like the good little servant she'd become, she pulled out her smartphone and checked the time. No messages. That was a relief, but she could see time was ticking by. Quickly.
She leaned forward. "Could you drive a little faster, please?"
"Ms. White will be right with you, if you'd like to have a seat."
Nick Rossi stopped surveying the lobby to look at the blond receptionist. Her smile widened invitingly, and though she gestured toward the sitting area, he didn't think a seat was all her smile was offering.
But he only accepted that, wandering over to the waiting area, taking a seat in one of the red velvet chairs that looked like something straight off the set of a Tim Burton movie. He sank into the overstuffed cushion, feeling a bit childish, like he was at a mad hatter's tea party or something.
He glanced back over at the receptionist. She smiled again, and apparently she didn't think he looked quite so ridiculous. He smiled back, but reached for one of the magazines on the glass table in front of him.
HOT! magazine, of course.
He only glanced at the pages as he surreptitiously watched and listened to the receptionist. She answered several calls, directing them to the appropriate people. Several other HOT! employees came and went through the large double doors at the end of the lobby. All of it seemed like the typical comings and goings of any business.
Not that he expected anything different. It was hardly as if anyone would be doing something illicit right out in the open in the middle of the workday. But Nick felt very certain nefarious things were happening at HOT! magazine.
The elevator chimed, and Nick straightened in his huge chair, the magazine forgotten completely.
An elderly man pushing a mail cart ambled out. Nick frowned as a feeling akin to disappointment caused a slight drop in his stomach.
Who was he expecting? Of course he knew he wasn't expecting anyone. He was hoping. He was hoping it would be the woman with big, stormy gray eyes and brown hair pulled back into a tight little bun.
He frowned, letting his attention drift away from his surroundings and back to her. What had it been about that woman? She'd been pretty enough, but really there hadn't been anything particularly unusual about her. Of course, his dick had had a totally different opinion about that. As soon as he'd touched her, his body had reacted. He couldn't recall that happening in years. That kind of instant attraction.
It's because you never get laid, dumb ass.
He worked most of the time. Maybe his libido was finally realizing the lack of attention.
Hardly rocket science, Rossi.
He glanced back to the receptionist, who still wasn't attempting to hide the fact she was watching him. She smiled, definitely giving him another silent invitation.
Maybe he should take the offer that was clear in her gray-blue eyes. She was beautiful, in that tanned, manicured, my-boobs-are-so-damned-perky-they-could-stand-up-and-do-a-cheer sort of way.
She could be amusing. But something about her caused a prickle across the back of his neck. And not a good prickle. It was a sensation he'd come to think of as his "cop sense." And this woman tripped it. He couldn't imagine why. She hardly seemed like the type who could be the mastermind behind what seemed to be going on here. But still, he got the feeling something wasn't quite right about her.
He shifted, the prickling sensation actually making him uncomfortable, and just when he would have stood up to shake off the strange feeling, a movement beyond the blonde pulled his attention away from her. Nick realized that the older mailroom clerk was staring at him. But when the man saw that Nick had noticed, he immediately turned his attention toward organizing his mail cart.
Nick narrowed his eyes, considering the man. Something was odd about him too, although he didn't get that same strange vibe from the man as he had from the receptionist. In fact, that prickly feeling abated as soon as Nick turned his attention to the mail clerk.
Then after a few seconds, Nick recognized what he found out of place about the man. He was old.
So far Nick hadn't seen anyone in the office who was older than their early thirties. This man was much older, stooped a little, his face weathered, his hands slightly gnarled.
Nick certainly hadn't seen all the employees of the magazine, but he got the distinct feeling this guy was an anomaly. Finola White was a woman who venerated youth and beauty. The older man didn't exactly fit that image, but then again he was just a lowly mailroom clerk.
The old man's gaze met his again, just for a second, but though his eyes were hazed with old age, Nick got the feeling the old guy didn't miss much.
The old man intrigued him, even though Nick wasn't exactly sure why.
Nick watched him until he finished messing with his cart and disappeared through the double doors into the magazine's main offices.
Nick rose, deciding to ask the receptionist a few questions about the old guy, when the double door opened again. A tall man dressed in an expensive black suit with a bright bluish-green shirt underneath. What was the color called? Teal maybe.
Nick supposed if he was going to describe a man as elegant, it would be this guy. As he walked toward Nick, the red recessed lighting that highlighted the walls glinted off his polished, alligator-skin oxfords.
Nick glanced down at his scuffed leather boots. Yeah, this was a different world.
The man stopped in front of him. And the first word that came to Nick's mind was vampire. He was reminded of Dracula from the old movies—of course, this guy was an updated version, with a trendy haircut and designer clothing—but the pale skin and eerie, unreadable eyes were just the same as the classic movie monster's.
His neck prickled, and Nick disliked the other man instantly.
But when the man offered his pale, long-fingered hand to him, Nick didn't hesitate to accept it. His palm was cool and his grip surprisingly strong. Again the thought of vampires popped into Nick's mind. Nick scoffed silently at himself. He never liked those silly monster movies. He saw plenty of real-life horror, inflicted by real people, so he didn't find much appeal in imaginary monsters.
But for just a moment, a memory flashed in his mind. A snippet of memory he'd told himself couldn't be real and one that he'd forcibly learned to repress.
Because it's not real, Rossi. It's just some figment of your imagination.
"My name is Tristan McIntyre," the man said, his deep, cultured voice driving out the rest of the memory. "I'll bring you back to speak to Ms. White."
Excerpted from Devilishly Hot by KATHY LOVE Copyright © 2011 by Kathy Love. Excerpted by permission of BRAVA BOOKS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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