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By NOELLE MACK
KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP.Copyright © 2007 Noelle Mack
All right reserved.
Chapter OneBliss Johnson checked her things-to-be happy-about calendar. Today's page listed beach roses and sailboats and velvety black skies filled with stars. Lovely. But not part of summer in New York. Almost everyone found a way to escape the hot sidewalks and gritty air sooner or later and her office building seemed oddly empty. Except for a few newcomers, recent college grads whose evil parents were forcing them to seek gainful employment.
Like her assistant-oh, make that her former assistant. Bliss ripped the page off the pad and crumpled it into a ball, attempting a tough diagonal throw into her wastebasket. She missed.
Okay, she would pick it up later, when her energy returned. When she finished flipping through the calendar to see if it said anywhere that going to Pittsburgh was something to be happy about.
Kayla wouldn't think so. The baby-faced intern, three credits away from a BA in media studies, had been Bliss's assistant at Lentone Fitch & Garibaldi for only a week. Viola Lentone had hired her. Kayla was so enthusiastic at first, eager to learn all there was to know about advertising. She was so young, so fresh, so new ... and she seemed to think the office was an extension of her dorm. Kayla kept her laptop open on her desk to check her Facebook site, posting despairing messages. Sav me!! Ths jobb sux!!!
Unfortunately, Vi'd been looking over Kayla's shoulderwhen the intern wrote that one. Bliss saw Vi flick the laptop closed with one red-lacquered fingernail and stare at Kayla without speaking.
"Well, the job does suck," the intern said at last.
"And why is that, sweetie?" Vi asked calmly.
"I thought I was going to have more to do."
Fatal words. Kayla, the underachieving daughter of Violet's best friend, was assigned to filing contracts and disappeared into a room filled with high metal cabinets. The occasional sound of clanging drawers was all that was left of her.
Which was why Bliss had to do all her own prep work for the Hot Treats account presentation. She was booked on a flight tomorrow to do a search-and-recon mission on the company, which was smack in the middle of nowhere in Pennsylvania. Bliss reviewed her game plan: Visit the factory. Flatter the execs. Come up with brilliant ideas for selling their new line of fruit pies to skittish, carb-conscious consumers. The flight was short, but she would have to travel in a rattletrap taxi all the way from Pittsburgh to tiny Leonardville, where the factory was. One hour on the plane, another hour in the taxi ... there was no cure for the summertime blues.
Crowded into a coach seat, Bliss looked through the HT press kit, making notes in the margins and wondering who wrote their copy.
The friendly folks at HT are called food scientists-and millions of busy moms sing their praises for inventing the toaster pastry and other delicious extruded snacks!
She winced and drew a line through the word extruded. Bliss wasn't sure what that meant, but it sounded awful.
A photo of a group of nerdy people in white lab coats caught her eye. They were brandishing long wooden spoons and wearing checked chef's hats. Cute. Too cute for words, in fact. The HT marketing campaign was in need of a major overhaul.
She reviewed the photos of the board members and execs, amused by the way their kind smiles didn't match their cold stares. They looked more like hired killers than friendly pie people. They needed Lentone Fitch & Garibaldi, fast, and she needed to land this account even faster. Bliss would have to come up with an innovative concept to do it. Traditional media approaches didn't cut it these days.
Maybe it was time to explore a new career path, she thought glumly, and look for work that was less venal and soul-destroying than advertising. Like designing stuffed animals or something like that. But stuffed-animal designers were probably no less miserable than anyone else. Maybe more so. All those button noses and beady eyes would get her down sooner or later.
Bliss turned to the back of the press kit, reserved for a message from Alf Sargent, the retiring CEO and son of the company's founder. In a few brief paragraphs, Alf shared the highlights of his years at HT and introduced his replacement, Jasper Claybourn, whose photo-a lot smaller-was off to one side, along with a brief bio. He didn't look like a corporate stuffed shirt and he didn't look like a killer. He looked hot. Bliss studied the photo and sat up straight. That smile was real.
Easy as pie. In its industrial application, the phrase took on a whole new meaning. Bliss Johnson was on the official tour of the HT factory, observing the process from start to finish. She peered down from a walkway into huge vats that held hot fillings, noting the bubbles rising sluggishly from the depths. Ploop. Plurp. Ploop.
Bliss tried to think of something to say, feeling a little queasy. The fruity smell was overwhelming. But she managed a faint wow. The head pie guy, a giant in white coveralls and an incongruous hairnet, beamed at her. Bliss adjusted her own hairnet, tucking an escaped strand of dark brown hair back under its elastic edge and smiled back, even though she knew she probably looked like a cafeteria server in the damn thing.
Her loaner coveralls were rolled up at the wrists and ankles, and the seat drooped unglamorously. So much for her short skirt and sleeveless red sweater. Bliss looked down at the toes of her high heels and sighed inwardly. Underneath it all, she looked fine. Her body was firm and her breasts were bouncy and her legs were toned and she looked better at thirty than she had at twenty. Underneath it all.
Her escort didn't seem to care what she looked like, because he was too busy talking. He made a joke about genetically modified fruit that could hop from vine to pie, and explained the software code that produced the perfect squiggles on cupcake icing, and couldn't be stopped on the top-secret subject of Nutty Balls, a product name from hell if anyone was interested in her opinion.
Apparently Alf Sargent was convinced that Nutty Balls were going to be bigger than cupcakes, bigger than pies, bigger than anything in the history of extruded snacks, and no one argued with Alf. The retiring CEO wanted to honor the memory of his recently deceased mother, who'd invented the recipe.
He'd shown Bliss all the framed news clippings about his mom, a legend in her home state of Iowa. Back in the 1950s, Mrs. Sargent, a young widow, won first prize in a nationwide bake-off, her Nutty Balls beating out Miss Mimi Abarbanel's heavily favored Camel Humps and Mrs. Elwood Clip's Secret Spice Snaps in a thrilling upset victory for the rookie from Des Moines. With tears in his eyes, Alf had pointed out the black-and-white photo of his mom in cat-eye glasses and a teeny flowered hat, clutching a check for $25,000 and being hugged around the shoulders by the emcee.
Just looking at the photo inspired him to give Bliss a hug too. Around the shoulders ... but even so. She eased out of his grip as soon as she could.
The prize money had been the beginning of Hot Treats, which Mrs. Sargent built into a food-industry powerhouse over the next four decades, amassing a multi-million-dollar personal fortune while she was at it. Bliss, who had a weakness for supermarket tabloids, vaguely remembered a few articles about her. Mrs. Sargent had handed the company over to her son and moved to Paris to collect gigolos, which didn't keep Alf from referring to her as "my sainted mother."
But hey, the old lady had worked hard all her life and it had been her money. There was plenty left over to build this gleaming new HT factory, which provided jobs for a whole lot of people. Bliss wasn't going to judge the late Mrs. Sargent, not for one minute.
She took a last look down into the immense vats and stepped gingerly on the walkway to where the giant in coveralls was waiting for her. He waved her through a door that opened into a cavernous hall. The noise was deafening, and the giant offered her a tiny, airline-style package of earplugs from a receptacle mounted on the wall. Following his example, she hastily unwrapped them and stuck them in her ears. They skipped the extrusion unit at her request and came out on a high, grated walkway near the ceiling. She looked down at a wide conveyor belt carrying filled, baked fruit pies that chugged past in endless rows, moving under nozzles spraying a sugar glaze as uniform and thick as car paint.
Bliss could feel her eyelashes sticking together, even though they were thirty feet above the belt. She nodded to the giant and they walked on, coming to another door and entering a corridor that led to the executive office suites.
A man was walking toward them. Make that six-foot-four of gorgeous man, Bliss thought. With a cocky, confident walk. She liked a man who swaggered a little.
Whoever he was, he wasn't going to pay much attention to her, not dressed like this. He was wearing Armani himself, unless she missed her guess. She edged back behind the giant and got the earplugs out, sticking them into a pocket.
The man reached them in a few swift strides, glancing at the giant but making eye contact with Bliss. His voice was deep and warm. "You must be Bliss Johnson. I'm Jaz Claybourn."
She forced her lashes to unstick. No wonder she hadn't recognized this godlike being as the new CEO of Hot Treats right away. Jaz thrust out his hand and she took it, enjoying the feel of his strong fingers clasping hers despite her embarrassment.
What a smile. It was even more effective in person. Bliss squirmed and sweated inside her coveralls, wishing she could rip them open and kick them aside, whipping off her hairnet while she was at it and letting her hair tumble free.
"Aren't you hot?" he asked, looking straight into Bliss's eyes.
"Melting." She met his gaze. His eyes were an intelligent shade of green, and fringed with lashes as black and straight as the hair that fell in a shock across his forehead. His features weren't perfect but they sure as hell were bold and sexy, something she'd noticed in the press kit photo. Bonus points for reality: he was at least a head taller than she was in heels.
"Well, take that thing off and come into my office," he said genially. "I'd like to talk to you about the new campaign."
Bliss got to work on the Velcro tabs immediately. The ripping sound was definitely unsexy, like little-kid sneakers or nursing home restraints. But Jaz wasn't looking her way, so it didn't matter. He clapped the giant on the shoulder. "Thanks for showing her around, Earl."
"No problem, boss," the giant said, too loudly. He still had his earplugs in. Earl nodded to Bliss and ambled away down the corridor. She clutched the bunched-up coveralls around her waist, not sure if she should just let them fall down and step out or what. She would probably trip if she did.
"Need a shoulder to lean on?" Jaz asked in a friendly way.
Of course she did. One to lean on and one to cry on would do it for her. "No, thanks," she said, reaching out a hand and bracing herself against the wall. She let go of the coveralls and they collapsed around her ankles. Bliss struggled to get a foot free, and lost her shoe. She stepped out of the coveralls on that foot and kicked the other foot free, but the folds of fabric swallowed the second shoe too.
Jaz reached down and plucked them out with his left hand as she steadied herself, as if he had a lot of practice returning high heels to women who'd kicked them off.
Bliss gulped. An instant vision of his bedroom came to mind, strewn with satin-doll dresses and fuck-me shoes. Smiling down at her the way he was, it was easy to imagine him-big, built, and buck naked-sprawled out on a king-size bed with his head resting on his crossed arms, a lazy grin on his face as he watched his date get dressed to go home.
Date. Not a girlfriend. Not a wife. Taken wasn't the word that popped into her mind when it came to Jaz Claybourn. But maybe that was just wishful thinking. She looked at the hand that still held her high heels-he wasn't wearing a wedding ring, for what that was worth. Bliss blushed and accepted the shoes, still bracing herself against the wall as she slipped them on. She straightened her skirt and pulled down her red sweater.
"Thanks," she said breathlessly.
Jaz nodded again, then reached out one finger and gently pulled off the hairnet she'd forgotten about. "That's much better," he said with a smile. He tucked the net in his jacket pocket.
"Oh, geez. I must be a mess." Bliss quickly finger-combed her thick, tousled hair.
"You look fine. In fact, you look great. Ready for the second part of the tour? My assistant picked up your things from the changing area after you left with Earl. She put them in my office."
"Oh. I don't think I met her but-sure. Lead on."
He turned and headed back down the corridor the way he'd come. "Fair warning. My office is a train wreck." He held the door open for her, and Bliss entered a spacious, mahogany-paneled executive suite with an immense, gleaming desk in its center. A leather chair with studded trim was behind that, and a long sofa in the same studded leather took up the space beneath a billboard-size plate glass window. There wasn't a piece of paper in sight, or a computer, for that matter.
"This isn't where I work," he said. "Right this way." He pushed on a section of panel that swung open into a much smaller space with four flat-screen monitors displaying different things: spreadsheets, commodities trading reports, agricultural weather reports, and international news. The floor-to-ceiling shelves held reams of printed-out reports, organized and labeled by factory department.
Bliss silently noted his framed MBA from Dartmouth. It hung next to a Young Executive of the Year award from some other company, near a shelved tennis trophy topped by a silver guy executing an overhead smash.
There were personal photos, too, placed here and there. Several of Jaz-broad-shouldered and bare-chested and gloriously buff, wearing frayed chino shorts far enough down on his hips to reveal the muscle in his groin-on the beach somewhere with a pack of happy-looking people around his age. Friends? Siblings? Hard to tell from where she was standing. One great big guy did resemble him, but his hair was blond and long.
She noted Jaz and his mom, who looked very much alike, in a formal studio shot that nonetheless glowed with feeling. Bliss looked around discreetly for a matching photo of him with his dad, but didn't see one. Mama's boy? Child of a broken home? Orphan wolf boy raised by random grandma, resemblance coincidental? Could be issues there. She wanted to stop but she couldn't.
Jaz waved at the cluttered room with obvious pride. "This is it. Operation Strawberry Pie. Our latest and greatest hot treat."
Bliss looked around. "Alf seemed to think that, uh, Nutty Balls were going to be your next big thing."
Jaz shook his head and pulled out a small swivel chair for her. "They might catch on in limited distribution. Sometimes you can get away with a product name like that in Southern markets. But not nationwide."
She smiled. "I agree."
"Can't change the name," Jaz said resignedly. "That was his sainted mother's recipe. I guess he showed you the picture. Alf shows everybody that picture."
"He sure did."
He spun the swivel chair around with a laugh. "Sit down. I'll explain the business side and then we can do creative brainstorming on the product launch. Want coffee?"
Jaz sat down right next to her in a much bigger chair, and pressed a button on a small intercom console. "Dora. We need some coffee in here. How do you take yours, Bliss?"
"You got it. Two black coffees, Dora. Thanks."
For no particular reason, Bliss imagined Dora as a motherly, efficient type in sensible shoes. Two minutes later, she was not thrilled to find out that Jaz's assistant was a leggy blonde with ice-blue eyes. Perfectly poised, Dora brought in an ebony tray that matched her close-fitting suit, and positioned it low enough for Bliss and Jaz to help themselves to the two china cups on it.
Excerpted from JUICY by NOELLE MACK Copyright © 2007 by Noelle Mack . Excerpted by permission.
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