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"I'm offering the contract to both of you."
Panic surged through Tamera Stevens as she jerked upright in her plush, leather seat at the same time Cole Marcum exclaimed, "You're serious?"
"I settle for nothing less than the best." Victor Lawson, world-renowned hotelier, spread his hands wide and tilted back in his leather chair. "Having my first hotel in the U.S. designed by the top architects in the country is what I want. If this is a problem, I need to know before anything is signed. I hope we can all work together to make this the biggest, grandest hotel not only to come to Miami, but to the entire country." Problem? Oh, no. No problem at all, Tamera thought as she fought the urge to cry, scream or just race from the boardroom. Could they hear the rapid thump, thump, thump of her heart beating against her chest? Had perspiration already broken out along her top lip or forehead? God, if she didn't breathe she was going to pass out.
So, aside from the fact that Cole Marcum, her once fiancé, had broken her heart back in college and this was the first time she'd seen him in over a decade, no, there was no problem.
Oh, and now they were going to be forced to work together because no one, absolutely no one would turn down the chance to work with Victor Lawson.
Dandy, just dandy. Yup, this would be a problem-free work zone.
She wanted to throw up on her trendy silver pumps. If she and Cole agreed to this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, they would be spending every waking moment together for months.
A lifetime had passed since they'd spent every waking, and several sleeping, moments together. Being together in such a tight-knit environment would certainly test her strength in taking over The Stevens Group and proving she was just as powerful and capable as her father of running the family's multimillion-dollar company.
But, did she really have to spend so much time with Cole? Couldn't she work with someone else in his firm? She was having a hard enough time being in this meeting that had only lasted ten minutes.
"I've never worked with another agency on a design," Cole spoke up, causing every nerve ending in Tamera's body to shiver. "A Marcum design is priceless and unique."
So, he still had a high opinion of himself? Obviously his ego had grown through the years since his abrupt departure.
Tamera couldn't deny the fact Cole had gotten even sexier as he'd aged, but his curl-your-toes, exotic good looks were merely a facade covering up the ugly persona beneath a billion-dollar smile and expensive, Italian suits.
She wished she could go into this amazing, once-in-a-lifetime opportunity with the excitement that came along with new projects, but how could she when the devil himself sat next to her?
Victor nodded, leaning forward to rest his elbows on the gleaming mahogany table. The billionaire was only in his late thirties, but he'd done more in his young years with his European businesses than many people do in a lifetime. With his blond hair, tanned skin, and blue eyes, he looked like the all-American playboy. And from the rumors and tabloids, he was known worldwide for breaking women's hearts.
"I understand your concern and confusion, Mr. Marcum, but I assure you, both of you, that this will be beneficial for all of us."
Beneficial? Business-wise, sure. On a personal level, this could be detrimental to her health and her heart. She'd had to put it back together piece by shattered piece. Was fate offering up the ultimate test to see how she would measure up?
Dammit. Why did he have to look even better than what she'd remembered? Those broad shoulders beneath his charcoal suit, coal black hair and chiseled facial features were only more of a distraction.
Yes, he looked every bit the professional, but he also looked a bit rugged with those hard, dark-as-night eyes that held you in your place.
Did he smile anymore? Was his demeanor just as cool as his stare? As a businessman, Cole and his twin brother Zach were sharks, but on a personal level, what was Cole like now?
No. She would not be swept into his world again. She would not sit and wonder what he did in his spare time. She would not think about the women who'd come through his life since he'd left her hurt and confused. She was a professional and she would remain as one, especially during the duration of this development.
Cole was extremely sexy, but sexy men were everywhere, especially in Miami. This man was no big deal. Really. Just because he'd taken her virginity, offered her the world and promised to love her forever, she wasn't about to sit around and pine over a dream that died long ago.
She was stronger now and had much more pressing matters to worry about than being slapped in the face with her past.
Like the fact that her father was nearing the end of his life.
Which was just one more reason why she had to get this project. Now that the CEO position had been turned over to her, she couldn't disappoint anyone in the company, especially her father. She wanted to prove to him, before he passed, that she would take care of the company that had been in their family for three generations.
Other than the caregivers she'd hired, no one knew of his illness. No one could. Stocks would fall and clients would pull projects if word spread about her father's sudden diagnosis with stage four lung cancer.
Walter Stevens was The Stevens Group. He'd worked at that firm before he went to college. He'd started at the lowest level and worked his way up and there wasn't a contractor in the business who didn't know him on a first-name basis. Which meant she had to be on her game with Victor Lawson. Errors, even of the smallest proportions, were unacceptable.
And Cole could never find out why her father was not in charge. He would use the untimely hardship to his advantage and she refused to allow him the upper hand in her life ever again. Or any man for that matter.
She supposed she should thank Cole. Because of his heartless act, she was stronger, more independent.
"I want this to be extravagant," Victor went on to say. "I want Miami and the entire world to see the passion behind this structure, the sexiness behind the elegance. People come to Miami to get away. I want them to be swept away to another time. I want lovers to feel like they are fulfilling a fantasy."
With any other project, the word "lover" wouldn't set her nerve endings on edge. This wasn't like any other project, though.
Tamera summoned all her will to fight and all of the B.S. she could handle to the surface. "Mr. Lawson, I can't speak for my associate, but I can speak on behalf of The Stevens Group when I say we would be delighted to work on this design with any firm of your choosing. We are anxious to get started."
Take that, Cole, Mr. I'm-Calling-Off-the-Engagement-and-I-Don't-Need-to-Provide-a-Reason.
Great, now she was turning juvenile. Poking jabs at her colleagues this early in the game would only cause problems something she definitely didn't need right now. Especially with Victor's talk of "passion" and "sexiness."
Victor offered a triumphant smile and she nearly applauded her performance.
"I'm happy to hear that. I expected no less. Even though your father has started his retirement on such short notice, I knew any child of his would come through for me."
"Mr. Marcum?" Victor turned his attention to Cole. "You have nothing to lose here. You will not be splitting the money. You will each get the agreed amount when you put in your bids. That is only fair. Keep in mind I've never done that before, but I budgeted in the extra amount and with the design you two come up with, I'm sure I will still turn a nice profit from my investment in your companies."
His high hopes in her abilities only made the quivering in her stomach that much more erratic. And, she couldn't correct Victor's assumption of her father's "retirement." To anyone other than herself and the doctors and nurses, her father was in retirement. If only that could be the simple truth.
She'd been in her father's company since graduating college, working from the ground up just like he had. And now she was the CEO, though she would give the prestigious position up in a heartbeat if that meant her father could be well and come back to work.
Tamera inwardly sighed and steeled herself against the bubbling of past feelings as she, too, turned her attention to wait for Cole's answer. Past or no past, Tamera found herself intrigued by his powerful, sexy presence. If she were meeting him for the first time, she'd be interested in seeing him on a personal level. And that was saying quite a bit considering she hadn't found herself wanting to ask any man out lately. Not in years, in fact.
Where had the time gone? Obviously by the wayside with her nonexistent sex life.
Had she really turned into that thirtysomething woman who had given up on happiness and relationships all because of one bad experience?
"If this is the only way we can work a deal, then I'm in, too."
Tamera breathed a sigh of relief, yet cringed at the thought of working with Cole. Yes, she wanted this job more than anything, but she really thought he'd put up more of a fight about working with her.
Could they actually pretend there was nothing between them? Their past was the proverbial elephant in the room and the darn thing had plopped down right between them, though Cole's cold stare and demeanor left her feeling foolish. Seems he wasn't as affected by her presence as she was by his.
Had Victor picked up on the tension or was he too caught up in his latest venture?
Working with Cole would be fine, she assured herself. Seriously, what choice did she really have here?
Professional. She would remain professional no matter what and the past would just have to stay where she'd left it eleven years ago along with her heart.
"Excellent." Victor came to his feet. Tamera and Cole followed. "I'll have the contracts drawn up and sent to your offices. I hope to have them to you by the end of the week so we can get started. I will also send over a more detailed list of all my requirements and some of my own ideas. Questions or concerns should be addressed directly to me. Also, please feel free to step outside the box, literally. Get out of your offices and work where your creativity can flow without the interruptions of faxes, phones or assistants. Let yourself get carried away with this fantasy as you design."
Get carried away with the fantasy? No thanks. Been there, done that, got the broken heart as a souvenir.
Tamera shook Victor's hand, grabbed her designer handbag and headed out the door. Meeting over, no need to stick around and torture herself one more second than necessary with the crisp scent of Cole's cologne. Though she may as well get used to the agony. Working on this project would take months and she had a feeling this was just a small portion of what was in store for her.
Tamping down on the hurt of past memories, Tamera took the glass elevator down to the lobby of Victor Lawson's newest office building.
She was a professional now, not the twenty-two-year-old-girl who was young and in love with the man who'd promised her the world and then left her for no good reason. Oh, he'd mumbled something about being too young and getting engaged too fast, but she didn't believe that. Something happened to make him change his mind.
Whatever it was, if he wasn't strong enough to fight for her and what they had, she didn't want him. She was just surprised that someone like Cole, who'd seemed so in charge of his life and had a good grasp of where he was going, would take the easy way out when it came to love.
And if Cole Marcum was expecting her to be that same innocent girl, he would be sorely disappointed. She didn't have time to stroll down the broken path that led to memory lane. She had a company to run and a father to care for.
No, she didn't have time to even give Cole a second thought.
So why, from the moment the meeting started, was he the only topic in the forefront of her mind?
"Get in my office."
Cole slid his iPhone back into his pocket and paced in what he liked to call the "pace space"the area between his oversized chrome and glass desk and the large windows overlooking Miami's harbor and the countless yachts lining the dock.
Could the tightness in his chest be more bothersome? Hadn't enough years gone by to erase that band of guilt squeezing his heart? How could he have time to feel guilty for hurting Tamera, though, when he was running a multimillion-dollar company? Yes, he'd moved on and hadn't looked back. That didn't mean he was happy with the way he'd treated someone he'd deeply cared for.
But Victor Lawson merely piled on more guilt when he dropped the bomb that the two architectural firms would be working together. And not just the firms, but he'd specifically asked for Tamera and Cole to design the resort themselves. No assistants needed. No structural engineers to step in. Just the heads of the companies.
Fate was a fickle woman.
Cole didn't stop pacing even when his twin, Zach, came to stand on the other side of the desk.
"We got the Lawson project," Cole told him as he stopped to look at the harbor, wishing he could be out on his own yacht.
"And your chipper tone is due to the fact that you hate signing multimillion-dollar deals with the biggest business mogul in the world?"
Cole threw a glance over his shoulder. "Sarcasm is not appreciated right now. We have to work with another firm on this."
That got Zach's attention. "Who?"
Turning back to the beauty of the water, Cole clenched his teeth. "The Stevens Group."
"Walter Stevens? You hate that bastard."
Wasn't that an understatement? Who wouldn't hate the man who'd threatened to ruin his future all because he fell in love with the man's daughter?
"It's a bit more complicated." Cole sighed, spun around and sat on the edge of the windowsill. "Walter isn't working on this for some reason."
Even though it wasn't a question, Cole nodded, prompting a low whistle from Zach.
"Want me to handle the design?" Zach asked. "I don't mind working with her. It actually may be best, considering."
The thought was tempting, but Cole refused to back down now. "No. I want to work with her."