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Emmy Jones loved lists. You could, in fact, say that lists were her life. In her estimation nothing was quite as satisfying as knowing exactly what needed to be done and checking the tasks off one by one until the list was complete, then filing it away in the neat folder in the drawer where she kept her completed lists.
Organization was big with Emmy, too.
Lists and a good filing system couldn't fix her wild blond haira tub of gel and a professional to apply it couldn't get her curls to lie flat and sleekor tone down her freckles or shrink her to a more moderate height than her lanky five-foot-nine. But lists could keep her life in order, and order was something that had been in short supply in Emmy's formative years.
She believed in lists.
Lists had never failed her, and she'd never failed them. Until today.
Today, her fiancé had dumped her, making it practically impossible for her to finish her wedding list, which ended, obviously, with the actual wedding. The easiest way to solve the problem would have been to get Roger back, but she refused to do that. There were some things more important than listsnot caving in to a man who called her names, for instance. That was more important.
Rigid, he'd called her. Inflexible. She'd refrained from pointing out that those two words meant the same thing and the least he could do if he was dumping her was not waste her time by repeating himself. But then, it didn't take long to fling out a couple of accusations and walk out the door. Or much courage.
"I'm better off without him," she said to her best friend in the whole world, Melinda Masterson, who'd dropped whatever legal-eagle busy work she was doing tohurry into downtown Boston and keep Emmy from drinking herself into a stuporwhich would have taken exactly two drinks. "He's a boring, insensitive, egotistical, boring"
"You said boring twice."
"He's twice as boring as most people."
"I thought that was what you liked about him."
"I liked that he was dependable."
"Well, he was so dependable you could count on him to carry every conversation. Talking about himself."
"Don't remind me."
"Personally, I'm looking forward to forgetting him." Lindy took a healthy swig of her martini to kick off the process, at least in the short run. "You should be, too, Emmy. You didn't really love him."
"I kept the ring." Emmy turned the white gold engagement band with its single conservative diamond around and around on her finger, feeling her first sense of loss at the idea of taking it off. Maybe she hadn't loved Roger, but she'd liked him. He was a nice, steady, unassuming man who never demanded more of her than she was willing to give. Until this morning. Suddenly he'd wanted to know why they never held hands or spent Sunday afternoon cuddled together on the sofa. He'd wanted longing looks and secret smiles. He'd wanted sex to last more than ten minutes. She wasn't exactly the one ringing the bell on that particular alarm clock, and he thought she could do something to keep him on the job longer? Well, maybe he was right.
"He met someone else," she concluded wondering why she hadn't seen it right off the bat. He'd found a woman who'd made him realize he wanted more than the pleasant, comfortable rut they'd dug together.
"I could sue him for breach of contract. I am your lawyer."
"It's not worth the aggravation."
"And you don't really have any damages to claim, because if you ask me, he did you a favor."
"Then I guess I should give him the ring back."
"I say we hock it and fly to Vegas."
"I can't," Emmy said, actually wishing, if only for a moment, that she could.
Lindy was everything she wasn't. Petite, beautiful, wonderfully spontaneous. Emmy might have occasionally yearned to borrow Lindy's spur-of-the-moment, completely worry-free philosophy toward life, but the truth was if she hadn't been motivated to change for the man she'd intended to marry then she must be hopelessly set in her ways. "I have a new client," she said, feeling her world shift back into place again. "And it's a long way from Boston to Vegas. Hocking this ring will only get us halfway."
"True." Lindy gave the ring a look that couldn't have been more disdainful if she'd had a degree in gemology and a loupe up to her eye. "When you were describing Roger you should have substituted cheap for boring." Both times, the tone of her voice said. "So what are you going to do? Besides work, I mean."
"I don't know. There's the hall, and the photographer"
"And your list says you're getting married in three weeks, so What? You're going to find some other guy? And if he's the same size as Roger, the tuxedo will fit him so that's one less detail that'll need to be dealt with?"
"Don't be ridiculous," Emmy said, "the tuxedo can be changed right up to the last minute."
Lindy laughed, which was what Emmy had intended. She'd been joking, of course. But there really should be something besides losing a deposit on the hall driving her to hang on to a fiancé who didn't want her. Love was the obvious reason, but she wasn't sure she believed in loveanother saddlebag she was carrying around from her childhood. Not a lot of love floating around in the foster-care system. Mostly the people did it for the money. For herself, Emmy would settle for compatibility and affection. "How hard can it be to find another fiancé?"
"The guy at the end of the bar is kind of cute. You could slip something in his drink, or hide in an alley and coldcock the first likely man that comes along."
"I could hit you over the head and then I wouldn't have to finish this conversation."
Emmy waited, but there was no smart-aleck retort from Lindy. She'd frozen with her martini glass to her mouth, staring over the rim.
"Are you going to help me or not?"
"I found him." The glass thunked onto the tabletop, sloshing vermouth and gin over the rim.
Lindy tended to be a drama queen, but it had to be something earth-shattering for her to waste good alcohol, so Emmy turned around, peering through the midafternoon gloom of the hotel barroom. "The guy by the door? Tall, dark and disheveled?"
"He's messy." His hair looked like it had been attacked with a hacksaw, he sported a pair of worn-out jeans and a long-sleeved Henley shirt that had seen better days, and he needed a shave. "It's the middle of the afternoon on a work-day and he's dressed like a bum."
"He could change his clothes, or better yet take them off entirely."
"He'd probably leave them on the floor."
"You're no fun."
Roger had accused her of that, too, Emmy recalled. It was harder to ignore the comment coming from her best friend, even though she knew Lindy wasn't serious.
Emmy had never pictured a man with his clothes off, but once she tried it she discovered some definite advantagesand not the ones she might have suspected. She hadn't considered herself a judgmental person either, but she realized she had a tendency to jump to conclusions about people based on what she saw on the outside. Once she ignored the packaging, all she saw was a tall man with dark hair, a five o'clock shadow, and a smile that lit up his entire face and threatened to spill over into the room. She knew that because he'd turned that smile on her, full wattage, and she definitely felt brighter. And warmer.
She mentally slapped the worn jeans and ratty shirt back on him before her temperature increased to a point where she risked setting off the overhead sprinklers. "Okay, maybe you have a point."
"And you didn't even have to make a list. Go talk to him."
"I have a client meeting me here fifteen minutes ago."
"He's probably not coming. And since you have the next forty-five minutes dedicated to speaking with a man, why don't you see if this guy is willing to fill in?"
"My client is late, that's all." Not everyone had her sense of punctualityhence the need for an efficiency expert.
"He'll show up."
"Not before that guy does."
Sure enough, the man at the door was threading his way between the tables aiming, unmistakably, for theirs. And now that he was closer, Emmy could see his eyes. If his smile was trouble, his eyes were pure catastrophe, brown and warm and interested. In her.
She grabbed Lindy's martini and downed what was left of it in one long gulp.
"Uh-oh. What was that for?"
"That was in case I do something stupid. Then when I wake up tomorrow morning I'll have something to blame it on."
"Sounds promising. Are you planning to wake up alone?"
"Yes."Absolutely. Not having anything to do with this man. When he got to the table she'd let Lindy do all the talking. But if he kept looking at her like that, there was no telling what would happen. Because when he looked at her like that she couldn't think of a single reason why she shouldn't ditch Lindy and her client and spend the rest of the day figuring out why this complete stranger knocked the lists right out of her head.
SHE WAS the wrong woman. Nick Porter knew that, even if he couldn't seem to keep his feet from carrying him in her direction. Sure, she had blond hair and blue eyes, which was the description he'd been given, but the blond hair was a head full of flyaway curls and the eyes were as blue as something really, really blue.
There was more than one blond woman in the hotel bar, but this was the one Nick wanted to meet, which was convenient since he found himself standing beside her table. Unfortunately, his brain wasn't routing anything to his mouth so all he could do was stare at her, while she looked back at him with a quizzical, slightly amused expression on her face. "Mr. Right?"
"What?" Nick glanced toward the sound of that voice, realizing for the first time there was another woman sitting at the table. The only response that came to mind was "you're in my seat," so he turned his attention back to the blonde and let the sight of her chase that rude comment out of his brain.
"That's my cue to leave," the second woman said. "I stand corrected, Emmy. It may be as easy to replace Roger as you think. And you get to trade up, too. Why did I ever doubt you?"
"The lists never fail," Emmy said.
"I don't think it's the list. I think it's testosterone."
Nick filtered their exchange through the impact the blonde's smile had on him, only picking up necessary information, such as her name. Emmy.
"Here, Mr "
"Porter," he said absently, taking the chair the other woman vacated. "Nick Porter."
"Oh," Emmy said.
"You don't like my name?"
"Your name is fine. It just means you're my client." She watched her friend make her way to the door, and when she turned to him again, she'd traded in her resigned expression for one that was pleasantly blank. Businesslike. "I'm Emily Jones. Jones Consulting."
"Emmy," he corrected before the rest of her introduction battered its way through the brick wall of attraction he felt toward her. "You're the efficiency expert?"
"Are you sure?" he asked again, because he couldn't quite believe it. No self-respecting efficiency expert would go around looking so adorable. Efficiency experts carried clipboards and stopwatches and dressed in neat suits, not skirts and sweaters that tried for conservative without any real hope of pulling it off. They didn't slam back martinis, they nursed gin and tonics to make sure they didn't consume more than one ounce of alcohol per hour.And they were supposed to be all about work, not about driving every thought of it from a man's mind.
"I'm the efficiency expert," she insisted.
She was dishonesty in advertising is what she was, Nick decided. All that soft-looking blond hair and those big blue eyes, and she expected him to focus on business? But he took the hand she held out and immediately he was fine with that.
"So you're the efficiency expert," he said. "Good." Now he didn't have to feel guilty for almost blowing off his meeting. Okay, so there wouldn't have been a whole lot of guilt, since one of his best friends from collegealso known as his bankerhad strong-armed him into this thing to begin with. It was that or no loan, and he really needed a loan.
The company he'd taken over from his father had been showing a little red ink lately, but it was just a temporary downturn in business. A loan would do the trick, Nick had decided, help Porter and Son last until the slow economy got back on its feet. Unfortunately, it wasn't as easy as that. He'd been turned down by nearly every bank in Boston. Except the bank where his friend worked, and even that approval came with a condition. Hire a consultant, get a turnaround plan and use the loan to put it into practice. Nick had no choice but to follow those instructions, at least until he got the damn loan. Then he'd put his own turnaround plan into place. He wasn't sure exactly what that plan might entail, but he knew that he was going to get his father's company back on track. And it wasn't going to take any efficiency expert to do it. All he needed was a great group of employees who'd been with the business for years, and some good old-fashioned hard work and determination.
He looked into Emmy Jones's sparkling eyes and forgot all about his plans and his objections and his need to dig deep and find some determination inside himself before it was too late. He forgot about his banker/friend and his employees and the weight of his father's legacy. When he looked at Emmy Jones his mind went on vacation and the rest of him was left to run the show. Not good. He'd come here to get rid of the efficiency expert; kissing her wouldn't exactly accomplish that goal. And he wanted, badly, to kiss her. At least for starters.
"Why don't we go over the contract?" she suggested. Nope, Nick didn't want to do that, but they had to talk about something or he was going to do something they'd both regretall right, he wouldn't regret it, but he'd probably get slapped. "Who's Roger and why do you have to replace him?" he asked, seizing on the first thing that popped into his head that didn't have anything to do with his job. Or hers.
"Roger was my fiancé."
"He backed out of our wedding."
"So you came here to replace him?" Nick asked, not wasting his time on sympathy since she didn't sound too upset.
"Maybe you should play the field a little before you jump into another serious relationship. I could help you with that."
"Lindy was only joking," she said. "And even if she wasn't, you're a client and I never mix business and personal. And you were late."
"Late would have been after the wedding."
She frowned at him and even that was cute. Odd, Nick thought, that he should have this strong a reaction to a woman he'd only just met, but the more she tried to set a professional tone for their conversation the more determined he was to get some sort of personal response from her. "I'm sorry I was late," he said, realizing belatedly that he should probably apologize. "Time kind of got away from me."
She reached across the table, and took his handnot to mention his breath. She pushed his sleeve up and brushed her fingers across the back of his wrist. Little black spots danced in front of his eyes.
"Buy a watch," she said.
"Huh?" he croaked.
"You're not wearing a watch. It's hard to be on time if you don't actually know what time it is."
Nick pulled his arm back. "How do you know it's not on my other wrist?" And how was she not affected by touching him?
"You're right-handed, which means you wear your watch on your left wrist."
She sounded calm and efficient. But she wasn't meeting his eyes anymore. Further investigation revealed the pulse pounding wildly in the hollow of her throat. His ego did a few cartwheels. Until he reminded himself that she was clearly a woman who made a decision and stuck to it. And she'd decided not to be interested in him that way.
So he'd have to change her mind. "About your business, Mr. Porter "
"We're not going to have any fun at all if you don't call me Nick."
There she went, frowning again, as though she didn't know what fun was or how to have it. Maybe she didn't resemble an efficiency expert on the outside, but she definitely had the inner workings of one. "Look, Emmy, I'm a pretty laid-back guy most of the time. But my dad left me that business, and I promised him I'd keep it going. It was suggested that I hire an efficiency expert, and you came highly recommended." By a guy who held Nick's fate in the palm of his hand. In truth, she'd been foisted on him, Nick decided, because foisting was what happened to you when you had no choice. Nick decided to keep that to himself, though, verbally and, he hoped, expression-wise. It wasn't much of a challenge, since having Emmy foisted upon him didn't feel like such a hardship.