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The man had the bluest eyes Paige Adams had ever seen.
Not to mention killer biceps, wide shoulders and the kind of all-American rugged good looks that left women swooning. Herself included. And though she didn't usually go for men with facial hair, the neatly trimmed mustache and goatee just seemed to work. In fact, she could swear the temperature of her office rose ten degrees the minute her assistant, Cheryl, ushered him inside.
"Paige, this Brandon Dilson," Cheryl said. "Ana Rodriguez sent him by."
Paige shut her laptop, smoothed the front of her Kay Unger blazer and darted a glance at her reflection in the chrome pencil holder on her desk to confirm that the chignon she wore her hair in was still neatly in place. And of course, it was. She prided herself on her appearance. As an image consultant, always looking her best was a requirement of the job.
She rose from her chair, pasted on a professional yet warm smile and stuck her hand out. "A pleasure to meet you, Mr. Dilson."
He enfolded it in his much larger one, gripping firmly, possessively, and when his ocean-blue eyes locked on hers, and his sexy mouth tilted up into a dimpled smileGod, she loved dimplesshe nearly forgot her own name.
His dishwater-blond hair was naturally wavy and a touch shaggy. Long enough to graze his shirt collar. The kind of hair a girl fantasized about running her fingers through. He wore faded jeans, a cobalt blue T-shirt and cowboy boots. And he looked damned good that way.
"The pleasure is all mine, ma'am." His smile said he meant it.
When Ana, the director of Hannah's Hope, the local literacy foundation, called to say she was sending over their star pupil for a consultation, a hunky cowboy was the last thing Paige had expected.
Behind him, Cheryl bit her lip and discreetly fanned her chubby face, and Paige knew exactly what she was thinking.
Who is this guy and where can I get one?
"Can I offer you a refreshment, Mr. Dilson?" Cheryl asked. "Coffee, tea, bottled water?"
He turned the smile her way. "No, thank you, ma'am."
Manners, too. That was nice.
Paige gestured to the chair opposite her desk. "Please, sit down."
He settled in, folding one long, muscular leg over the other, looking completely at ease. If his literacy issues or lack of education embarrassed or made him feel uncomfortable, he certainly didn't let it show. The man oozed confidence.
She smoothed her skirt and sat primly on the edge of her chair.
"I think that might be the cleanest desk I've ever seen," Mr. Dilson said, resting his elbows on the chair arms and threading his fingers together over his impressive chest.
"I like to keep things tidy," she said. Almost to the point of being compulsive about it. If she had a therapist he would probably tell her it was a direct result of her chaotic adolescence. But her past was what it was, and rehashing it to a mental health professional wouldn't change it.
"I see that," he said, and something about the way he studied her made her want to squirm in her seat.
"I understand you'll be honored with an outstanding achievement award at the Hannah's Hope gala later this month. Congratulations."
"Seeing as how every grade school student can do what I just learned, I don't see the big deal, but they insisted."
Gorgeous, polite and humble. Three traits that went well together. There was nothing she detested more than an arrogant man. And she had known her share.
"Did Ana explain to you what it is I do for the foundation?" she asked him.
"I'm an event planner and image consultant." One brow rose slightly. "Image consultant?"
"I help people look and feel good about themselves."
"Well, no offense, but I'm pretty happy with myself just the way I am."
And he had every reason to be. But in her experience everyone had room for improvement.
"Have you ever been in the spotlight before, Mr. Dilson? Given a speech on stage?"
He shook his head. "No, ma'am."
"Then my job is to give you an idea of what you should expect when you accept your award. To prepare you for the formal atmosphere of the gala. Which, as an event planner, I am also organizing."
"So in other words, you're going to see that I don't make a fool out of myself. Or the foundation."
She didn't think that was going to be an issue. With looks like his, he would have a tremendous stage presence. She could see why Ana chose to use him as the organization's poster child. "So you feel comfortable," she said.
"Well, I'm not big on crowds. I usually prefer to keep things one-on-one. If you know what I mean," he said with a wink.
If he was trying to fluster her, it was working.
She pulled a notepad and pen from the top drawer of her desk. "Why don't you tell me a little bit about yourself."
He shrugged. "Not much to tell. I was born in California and raised all over the country. I've spent the last fourteen years working as a ranch hand."
She had the distinct feeling there was a lot more to his life than that. Like how he managed to make it into adulthood without learning to read. But she wasn't quite sure how to word the question. Hannah's Hope was a dream client. It could thrust her company, Premier Image and Planning LLC, into the big time. The last thing she wanted to do was offend their star pupil.
She chose her next words carefully. "How is it you came to work with the foundation, Mr. Dilson?"
"It's Brandon," he said, flashing her that easy smile. "And I think what you really want to know is how a man can make it to thirty without learning to read."
He might have had literacy challenges, but he was a smart man. "How did you?"
"My mom died when I was young and my dad worked the rodeo so we moved around a lot when I was a kid. When he did manage to enroll me in school, I didn't stay in one place long enough to learn anything. I guess you could say I fell through the cracks."
It was sad to think how far he could have gone had he been given the proper education. "What motivated you to seek help?"
"My boss said he would make me a foreman of the ranch, but I had to improve my reading skills first, so here I am."
"Are you married?"
"Not to my knowledge."
She shot him a look, and that sizzling smile tipped up the corners of his mouth again. She wondered if he had any clue how gorgeous he was.
"Just kidding," he said.
Oh, yeah, he knew. "So that's a no?"
One brow rose up. "Why? You interested in the position?"
Oh, he had no idea. But she'd sworn a long time ago when, thanks to her mom's latest bum boyfriend, they were kicked out of their dumpy trailer and forced to live in an even dumpier women's shelter, she would only date educated, financially successful men. The kind who wouldn't steal next month's rent from her purse and use it to buy drugs or cheap whiskey, or gamble it away on a sure-thing horse.
Not that she had reason to believe Brandon was anything like her mom's loser boyfriends. She was sure he was a perfectly nice man. And he was incredibly easy on the eyes. Like tangy eye candy. The kind that fizzed in her mouth and made it water. He just wasn't the kind of man she would ever date. His financial situation aside, he was too something. Too sexy and charming. She wasn't looking to be swept off her feet. What she wanted was a responsible, dependable, safe man. A man as driven and dedicated to his career as she was to hers. An equal. One who could take care of her if the need arose. Not that anyone ever had to before. She'd always taken care of herself. But it never hurt to have a backup plan.
"I only wondered if you'll need an extra ticket for the gala," she said.
"No, ma'am, I don't need an extra ticket."
It didn't escape her attention that he'd managed to answer, yet still avoid the subject of a significant other. Not that it was important she know. In fact, it was probably better that she didn't.
"I don't suppose you own a tuxedo," she said. He laughed. "No, ma'am, I don't."
The ma'am thing was going to get old fast. She set her pen down. "You can call me Paige."
Something about the way he said her name made her face feel hot. In fact, she was beginning to sweat under her designer suit. She seriously needed to check the thermostat. Maybe the air-conditioning was on the fritz.
Or maybe her internal thermostat had gone haywire.
She resisted the urge to fan her face. "With the gala less than a month way, the first item on our agenda is to get you fitted for a rental tux."
"With all due respect, that's not exactly in my budget."
She waved away his concerns. "I'm sure the foundation can cover the expense."
His brow pulled low. "I'm not looking for a handout."
"We're a charitable foundation. Helping people is what we do. And the benefit is a black-tie function."
His expression darkened. "Is that legal?"
His sudden change of demeanor, from playfully flirtatious to darkly suspicious intrigued her. "I'm not sure what you mean."
"A literacy foundation renting tuxedos for people? Sounds unethical."
She hadn't really thought of it that way. But she doubted it would be a problem. "I'll talk to Ana about it. I'm sure we can work something out."
He seemed to acknowledge that as an acceptable answer. And though his behavior was the slightest bit odd, she assumed it was just male pride.
She hoped he would accept the foundation's help, as it would be a damned shame to miss the opportunity to see Brandon in a tux. He was going to look fantastic. Although she didn't doubt that he would look even better wearing nothing at all. And the things he could probably do with that body. "So, let's do it," he said.
Do it? She sucked in a quiet breath. She hadn't said that out loud, had she? No, of course she hadn't. Was he some sort of mind reader? "E-excuse me?"
"You said we had to fit me for a tux, didn't you? Let's go."
Oh, the tux. "Yes, right. Of course."
"What did you think I meant?"
She refused to answer on the grounds that it would mortify her. "Nothing. I just I didn't necessarily mean right this minute."
He leaned forward in his seat. "No time like the present, right?"
"Well, yes, but " She frowned, opening her laptop to check her calendar for appointments. "I have to check my schedule. I had several calls I planned to make this afternoon."
He narrowed his eyes at her. "Let me guess, you're the kind of woman who plans her workday down to the last minute."
He said that like she was some freak of nature. Living such a spontaneous and uninhibited lifestyle, he couldn't possibly understand the pressures of the corporate sector. But she wasn't totally incapable of compromise. She typically required several days' notice for this sort of appointment, but if she moved a few things around, and stayed an extra hour at the office, she could make it work.
It's not as if she had anything pressing waiting for her at home. Not even a pet. She was allergic to cats and considering the hours she worked, a dog was a responsibility she simply didn't have time for.
"I suppose I could squeeze you in," she told him. "But I'll need to have a word with Cheryl first."
"How 'bout I meet you outside?"
"Sure. I'll just be a minute."
They stood at the same time. Even in her three-inch Manolo Blahnik pumps, he was a good five or six inches taller. She wasn't normally intimidated by tall men. She wasn't intimidated by anyone, but something about him put her on edge. The fact that she had to walk past him to get to the door made her nervous.
What did she think he was going to do? Pull her in his arms and kiss her stockings off? If only.
Being around a man so blatantly sexy was a stark reminder of how long it had been since she'd had any male attention. Of any kind. She'd been so busy the last few months, she hadn't had time to even think about dating. And sex? Hell, she could barely recall how long it had been since she'd had any. Any worth remembering, that is.
How sad was that?
She was willing to bet that Mr. Dilson could put a very pleasurable end to her dry spell. But he wasn't relationship material and she wasn't a one-night-stand kind of woman. Besides, she never mixed business with pleasure.
All things considered, it would be in her best interest to do her job, and stay as far the hell away from Brandon Dilson as possible.
Anyone who claimed that posing as an uneducated ranch hand to decimate the reputation of a bitter rival didn't have its perks, had obviously never met Paige Adams.
Brandon Worthor Brandon Dilson as the people at Hannah's Hope had come to know himleaned against the passenger's side door of his pickup, soaking up the Southern California sun, considering this new development. When he'd made the decision to infiltrate Hannah's Hope and expose the foundation as a fraud, seducing one of their contractors hadn't been part of the plan, but a man had to do what a man had to do.
Maybe by getting closer to Ms. Adams he would uncover the nefarious practices he suspected were driving the success of Hannah's Hope. And in the process he could finally bury its founder, Rafe Cameron.
If Brandon hadn't chosen to stay on the family ranch despite his father's failing health, Rafe may have never pulled off the very hostile takeover of Worth Industries, the manufacturing company that had been in his family for generations. Rumors were flying that Rafe planned to shut down the factory and sell it off in pieces, which would put more than half the city of Vista del Mar out of work and devastate the community. Brandon couldn't help feeling personally responsible. He let his bitterness toward his father overshadow his obligation to his hometown, to his legacy. Now he was determined to make amends.
Through Hannah's Hope, he planned to expose Rafe for the swindler that he was. Unfortunately, the volunteer he'd been working with the past couple of months knew virtually nothing about the inner workings of the charity. And he'd been careful to keep his distance from the Hannah's Hope office, for fear that his sister, Emma, who was on the board, might make a surprise appearance. He hadn't changed so much in fifteen years that his own sibling wouldn't recognize him.