Read an Excerpt
Island of Desire
By LORIE O'CLARE
APHRODISIA BOOKSCopyright © 2012 Lorie O'Clare
All right reserved.
Chapter One"The Mr. Desire Pageant is the fastest growing in the history of pageants." Windsor Montgomery spoke as if he were solely responsible for its success.
Andrea Denton stared at her red closed-toe heels that matched her Betsey Johnson dress, a bright red thing that was off-the-shoulders sharp. She crossed her legs and pushed the cool material down an inch, almost to her knees. "I'm impressed," she offered, knowing Windy, as he liked to be called, was waiting for her praise.
"In its six years, it's grown in popularity so that today each of the fifty contestants is loaded with sponsors." Windy paused, looking at his file.
Andrea had already looked over the figures, or she wouldn't be here. She also wouldn't be here if it hadn't been for her success working with the Miss Florida Beauty Pageant for the past six years. She knew why Mr. Tripp Sr., who'd recently bought the pageant, wanted her here.
"Miss Denton knows the facts about the Mr. Desire Pageant." Julie Ward, Andrea's lawyer and the closest person Andrea had to a friend, leaned forward in her high-backed chair and slid the contract across the oblong table.
Her target was Mark Tripp Jr., but Frank Benison, his lawyer, snatched the stapled papers with his thick hand. Windy's eyes followed the contract from one end of the smooth, highly glossed table to the other. He shifted in his seat, looking rather proud of himself, as if his speech had secured this contract. Andrea had worked with Windy before and absolutely loved him. Although straight, Windy presented himself to the world as if he were gay, then acted baffled when more men came on to him than women. He was one hell of a good PR man and Tripp had been smart to pull him on board. She wasn't sure yet how she would like working with Tripp, but Andrea already knew she would have no problem having Windy around.
Andrea caught herself before she started fidgeting and remained perfectly still. Body language could be so misleading. It was one of many lessons this line of work had taught her. If she shifted, it would look like she were fidgeting, which indicated impatience. That would inevitably lead to Tripp and his lawyer taking more time with the contract. She'd already approved the changes Julie had made and now simply waited for Tripp to sign it. Unfortunately, Mr. Tripp Sr. wasn't here. Mr. Tripp Jr. had better hold power of attorney. They wanted her. They knew, and Andrea knew, she was the only one who could get them out of the pending disaster the pageant was about to face.
"I believe we made it clear Miss Denton's salary was nonnegotiable." Frank Benison spoke with what almost sounded like a fake British accent. His white starched, button-down collar was cutting into his neck, and his skin was too red.
Andrea imagined it was due to high blood pressure. Mr. Benison had no idea how many lawyers tried intimidating her on a daily basis. All part of the job. She ignored his pointed glare and instead focused on Mark Tripp. She'd learned about Junior only after arriving at this meeting at the Tripp Mansion. In spite of her impeccable track record of always showing up for a meeting prepared and knowing what she would gain from her time, Andrea was surprised to meet Mark Tripp Jr., who looked somewhere around thirty.
Apparently, although Mark Tripp Sr. had recently purchased the Mr. Desire Pageant and changed the venue at the last minute, he didn't see it as necessary that he attend the meeting where he would hire his new pageant director. A pageant director who would save his ass, she might add. Not many in her line of work would enter into a contract to direct such a high-profile pageant when the previous director had just walked off the job after the new owner changed the location for the pageant. Andrea was up for the challenge.
"I believe Mr. Tripp is well aware that this pageant will be the largest public humiliation he's ever endured without Miss Denton on board. Feel free to contact your boss," Julie said, leaning back in her chair as she poised her pen on the notepad in front of her. "I'm sure he'll agree the numbers I adjusted are incredibly reasonable."
"Miss Denton isn't being asked to do anything that any pageant director wouldn't do. The salary offered is on the high end for her profession."
Julie laughed. "You're asking her to do a year's worth of work in a month. According to your reasoning, she should get twelve times the amount you're offering."
"Miss Denton will hardly be launching this pageant from scratch." Tripp's lawyer scoffed.
"Mr. Tripp bought this pageant, then immediately changed the location where it will be held. The new location"—Julie glanced at her notepad, which was blank shy of her doodling—"hasn't been prepared for the pageant. Normally during the last month before the night of the pageant, the contestants are rehearsing on the stage, doing final photo shoots."
Andrea managed not to slouch in the comfortable, high-backed chair. At the same time, she didn't want to look stiff as a board. And as Julie and Mr. Benison continued arguing her worth and value, Andrea wished she was anywhere but there. She felt like a slab of meat on a chopping board being fought over by the butcher and a customer. Each one had their own opinion of its worth.
Junior didn't appear to be any more impressed. He stared out the windows that lined the west wall and offered a view of well-manicured gardens. Andrea studied his profile. He was distractingly good-looking but seemed rather distanced from the meeting. Maybe it was his father's money and not his that bought the pageant. Tripp Jr. might not care about Mr. Desire, or that it would be held on his family's privately owned island off of Key West. He hadn't spoken a word since their meeting began.
Which made him a mystery. And a damn sexy one at that.
Julie and Mr. Benison continued haggling over the details of Andrea's contract. Andrea knew every word of the contract and knew Julie wouldn't budge during the negotiation, unless it was for more money.
Julie was right. They wouldn't find a better pageant director than Andrea to pick up the pieces of the pageant and make sure the event went off without a hitch. It wasn't conceit but hard work that had earned her reputation and success. Modesty was a rare and unappreciated trait in her line of work. Realtors might continually use the mantra location, location, location. But in Andrea's world it was image, image, image. She let Julie continue singing her praises and remained quiet. They would eventually quit haggling, Andrea would sign the contract, then life as she knew it would be over. The Mr. Desire Pageant would take over her world.
Andrea knew everything about Mr. Desire. Six years ago, the Mercury Energy Drink company took the most eligible bachelor contest, as often reported in magazines, a step further, encouraging cities to hold their own pageants. No longer was the most eligible bachelor strictly a movie star or a celebrity. Now the guy in the next cubicle, or who taught kids in school, or who possibly delivered mail, might be the most eligible bachelor. With enough propaganda and the proper promoting—Andrea remembered the commercials being top-of-theline—the Most Eligible Bachelor Pageants sparked to life all over the country. Within the year, almost every state was holding the pageants with as much reverence as Miss America.
Mercury had one hell of a marketing team, although she wasn't sure sales spiked all that much for their energy drink. What did spike was the need to take these pageants to the final level. The Mr. Desire Pageant was created. Each state presented their Most Eligible Bachelor to compete in the nationwide Mr. Desire Pageant. It had passed up Miss America's television ratings two years running. Andrea had no problem joining the winning team, especially when they had sought her out.
And she'd also done her homework on the Tripp family, although her focus had been on Mark Tripp Sr. She was now kicking herself for not researching Junior, as well. As in, was he dating anyone right now? Was he the long-term kind of guy or more into one-night stands? There weren't any good pictures of any of the Tripp family online. They were definitely old pros at dodging the paparazzi. Had there been, Andrea would have searched hard and long to learn if he laid out in the nude, if he had any kinks, and what nightclubs he frequented. She would have gone to that nightclub, stumbled into him, and pushed hard to take him home that night. Then, during all of this negotiation, she would be entertained by the casual looks he would have sent her way. And she'd be contemplating when and where to do him next.
It sucked that none of that had happened.
"I'll sign the contract." Mark looked away from the windows, proving he'd been paying more attention to the meeting than Andrea had guessed. He looked directly at her, showing off green eyes brimming with power.
Andrea had done what she'd sworn she would never do, judge someone on their appearance. Granted, how a person dressed, what labels they leaned toward, spoke volumes in this business, but she had no proof Mark was in the pageant business. As far as she knew, he wasn't. His casual attire of jeans, a button-down shirt with no tie or jacket, and loafers with no socks, made him look anything but a businessman.
"Excellent," Windy breathed, clapping his hands together and grinning a toothy grin as he looked to her and nodded.
"Mark," his lawyer, Mr. Benison, said under his breath, barely moving his lips as he turned to his client. "I'm not through."
"I am. Miss Denton is the only person we're willing to consider to run this pageant. Her terms are fine." He didn't look away from Andrea when he pulled the contract out of Mr. Benison's hands, lifted a pen from the table, and poised it over the contract. "You'll agree to give notice to your current employer and work exclusively for us within two weeks."
He didn't make it a question. Andrea wasn't sure he knew she'd been studying him, but she made a show of taking him in now. Mark's soft brown hair was long enough to wave around his strong facial features. He was tan, and not from tanning booths. He looked like the kind of man who was outside a lot more than he was in an office, if he ever was in an office. In addition, the top button of his shirt was undone, revealing a glimpse of enticing chest hair.
"You'll spend all of your time on the island," Mark continued, his voice crisp with authority. In the blink of an eye, he'd taken over the meeting as if he ran the show on a daily basis. "Of course, you'll be provided with living quarters I think you'll find suitable." He finally looked away from her, focusing on the contract and pressing the pen to the paper. "Contact Mr. Benison to schedule a move-in date."
Mark signed the contract, and a strand of hair fell over his forehead. He had a long, narrow, straight nose and just a bit of shadow lining his strong jaw. When he pursed his lips, his expression grew more serious. She now saw indication of a man capable of running the family ventures the Tripps were known for. His lawyer huffed, puffed out his chest, and grew even redder as he watched Mark sign the contract. Mr. Benison didn't challenge Mark, which showed he knew Mark was a man who could not be pushed.
"Andrea," Julie whispered, leaning closer.
Andrea blinked and quit looking at Mark. Julie's natural, golden light brown hair, a color to die for, reflected the sunlight streaming in from the windows. She had pretty blue eyes but downplayed them with the brown eye shadow she always wore. Andrea ached to do Julie's makeup but didn't want to offend her by suggesting she could do Julie's face better.
"What do you think about living on the island?" she whispered. "There's nothing in the contract about living arrangements. You don't have to if you don't want to."
Andrea liked the loft she rented, which was only a few miles from her office. She knew she would be giving notice as director of Florida Pageants, Inc., where she'd worked since moving to Key West from Miami. She hadn't considered moving out of her home.
"Your job requirements will require you be on the island full-time," Mr. Benison interjected, watching her and Julie pointedly. "We'll type up an amendment if necessary."
Mark was watching her, his eyes not moving from hers. Not once did she catch him checking her out. He was all business, something Andrea knew how to be as well. She worked in an industry that focused on beauty and sex appeal, and that was filled with manipulation, deception, and greed. She could always spot a player, a two-faced bitch, and a bad deal. Andrea knew how to think on her feet and go with the flow when plans changed.
"That's fine," she decided and forced herself to relax. Mr. Benison was right. She would need to live and breathe this job in order to have everything ready with so little time left. "Everything should be in writing."
The moment Mark finished signing the contract that sealed Andrea's future, a fifty-something woman wearing a straight-cut, gray wool dress entered the conference room from one of the closed wooden doors behind Mark and Mr. Benison. The woman moved silently, pausing when Mark slid the contract across the table to Andrea.
"Would you like a tour of the island?" he asked when Andrea accepted the pen Julie offered her.
"That would be a good idea." She realized it was the first time the two of them had spoken to each other directly, and she found herself being pulled into those commanding eyes of his.
"We can head out now. Your pageant headquarters need to get used to functioning without you," he added. "Give copies to Ms. Ward and Mr. Benison," he instructed the woman standing next to him and pushed his chair back. "Shall we?"
Andrea glanced at Julie when she pushed her chair back, as well. "Thank you," she said quietly.
"Give me a call." Julie gave Mark an appraising once-over when he appeared behind Andrea. "We'll get together this evening so I can go over your letter of resignation. You need to get that turned in before the press gets wind of this meeting."
Julie was right. Timing was everything, even when it came to resigning from a position. She would also interrogate Andrea about her time with Mark Tripp. Julie worked at least as hard as Andrea did, often putting in twelve- to sixteen-hour days. Very few people had a clue as to how much work went into a pageant. Unlike Andrea, though, Julie maintained a healthy social life, always having dates and often boyfriends, who at times hung around for months on end. Andrea was good at her job, damn good. She started working often within minutes of getting out of bed, and finished shortly before putting her head on her pillow at night. There wasn't time for dating. She wasn't sure how Julie pulled it off.
Mark's loafers didn't make a sound as he walked ahead of her out of the conference room and through his family's mansion to the front door. When they'd arrived, she'd been taken by the beautiful rooms they'd passed through to get to their meeting. Now, Andrea stared at Mark's broad muscular shoulders, the way they tapered down to a trim waistline, and how his blue jeans hugged his hard-looking ass.
"In spite of the popular opinion that all beautiful men are gay, it isn't true."
"What?" She stopped as they reached the front door and stared at him.
Mark's expression was blank, his eyes pinning her gaze so she couldn't look away. He was definitely a man used to controlling his surroundings. She was forced to tilt her head back in order to maintain eye contact. "What's that supposed to mean?" Andrea saw no reason to hide her confusion. His statement came out of nowhere and made no sense. If he was making a comment about Windy, he was being too forward.
Mark opened the front door, not explaining himself. The butler, who had been so attentive when she and Julie had arrived, was now nowhere in sight. She stepped out into the early spring sunshine, welcoming the warmth of the day. Mark moved ahead of her but faced her when the driver came around a sleek black limo and opened the back door for them. Was every servant in this household able to foretell their employer's actions?
"You're an incredibly beautiful woman," he said, lowering his voice although the driver was easily in earshot. "Your mother was Miss Florida and your sister was a runner-up. You won three pageants by the time you were twelve. I look forward to hearing why you're a director of pageants, yet chose not to continue being in them yourself."
Excerpted from Island of Desire by LORIE O'CLARE Copyright © 2012 by Lorie O'Clare. Excerpted by permission of APHRODISIA BOOKS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.