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Grace Stephens found it hard to think when Adam Bowen turned that intense blue-green stare on her. Her pulse beat loudly in the back of her head. Even though she'd rehearsed what she'd say at this meeting a hundred times, in the presence of her secret crush, she couldn't talk. "Ms. Stephens, I asked you what action you think this board should take," he said.
His voice was deep and slightly gravelly. But it fit him. He was a big man, almost six-foot-two, muscular and totally ripped. She'd never seen him without a healthy tan. However, usually he just glanced over her and moved on. She hadn't anticipated what effect being the center of his attention would have on her.
"Mr. Bowen," she said, sorting through her notes on the table. As soon as she looked away from Adam her concentration returned. She was the headmistress of Tremmel-Bowen Preparatory, a very prestigious school in Plano, Texas, she reminded herself. It was an institution that had long been the breeding ground of powerful world politicians and future captains of industry.
Though lately they'd been in the news more for their scandals.
Get it together, girl.
She cleared her throat and pushed to her feet, wishing her five-foot-two frame was just a little bit taller. She walked to the front of the boardroom where her assistant, Bruce, had set up her laptop and a projector. The vice principal, Jose Martinez, rubbed the back of his neck as she fumbled with her presentation. It wasn't just her job on the line, but the jobs of all her staff. Bruce, Jose and seventy-five teachers and support staff.
"I'm sorry for the delay. I was gathering my thoughts to talk to you and the rest of the board ofregents."
She was incredibly nervous about this meeting. The thought of disgrace and unemployment were enough to make her sweat. She refused to go back to the life she'd struggled so hard to escape. The idea was enough to draw her attention back to the matter at hand.
"Tremmel-Bowen has long been the place where diplomats and world leaders send their children for polishing and training to become future world leaders."
"In recent years, that reputation has suffered," Sue-Ellen Hanshaw said. The head of the PTA was a former beauty pageant queen and always made Grace feel like a country mouse. Sue-Ellen's makeup was flawless, shape money could buy.
"I'm aware of that. We've made a lot of changes this year to get the school back on track. But of course, we've had this one minor setback."
"I wouldn't call it minor," Malcolm O'Shea said. As the most active regent on the board, Malcolm had the power to influence the others, to keep the school open.
Of course he wouldn't. It had been his wifeDawnwhose photo, in a torrid embrace with another teacher, had been splashed across the Internet. Scuttlebutt said that Malcolm and Dawn were currently in mediation preparing for their divorce.
But Adam was still staring at her and his eyes held more than their usual hint of boredom. They held anger, too. She couldn't blame him. After all, she was ultimately responsible for two of her teachers getting caught having sex by her students. She might have been able to manage the students if a picture of the incident hadn't been made public on the school's Web site. Stupid cell-phone cameras.
She felt flames of embarrassment sweep up her neck. Dawn had tried to explain that she'd gotten caught up in the moment and forgotten where she was, but Grace hadn't bought it. She'd kissed her share of guysokay, maybe fewer than her shareand not once had she forgotten where she was.
Adam cleared his throat and Grace swallowed hard. His eyes held determination; she knew he and the other regents were here to deliver bad news.
The prep school that bore his name, which at one time enjoyed a reputation for being one of the most prestigious in the world, was now mired in scandal and debt. Not at all what his great-grandfather and Angus Tremmel had envisioned when the school was founded more than one hundred years ago. And as headmistress she was ultimately the one to blame. But she had a plana plan that had absolutely nothing to do with staring into Adam's deep-blue eyes.
She took a breath and moved to the front of the room. "I want to thank you all for agreeing to this meeting today. I understand your position on closing the school. However, I think once you see the plan that we have ready to implement, you'll give us a second chance."
She skimmed her gaze over the regents, parents and student council, who were also in attendance, keeping a determined and confident smile fixed to her face.
Most of them didn't exactly looked inspired by her speech. And Malcolm didn't look close to even listening to any kind of save-the-school plan.
"We've terminated the contracts of Dawn O'Shea and Vernon Balder. The fraternization policy at the school is very clear. They both understood the reasons for their dismissal. I've made it clear to the staff that there are no exceptions to any of our rules."
"That's a good course of action, but it's not enough to change the board's decision, Ms. Stephens," Malcolm said.
Grace was disappointed by his comment but had expected nothing less. Malcolm had to have been humiliated when the pictures of Dawn were published first on the Internet and then in the local paper. He was out for blood.
"What Malcolm means is that we're also concerned with the school's financial state. As you know, the incident caused many families to withdraw their students and we had to refund tuition, which affected the operating budget for the remainder of the school year," Adam said.
Grace took a deep breath. It was January and the start of the second semesterenrollment had dropped by half. Parents didn't want their future leaders touched by any kind of scandal. She was painfully aware that the school was barely going to cover operating expenses until the school year ended in May.
This was the first conversation she'd had with Adam that had involved more than oneor two-word answers. "I know that. I've been working with our school accountant and I think we have a plan that will keep us under budget until the end of the year."
"Even if we keep the school open until the end of the semester, we'll be back here discussing the same situation in the fall."
Grace felt her heart drop. Though the board had agreed to this meeting, they'd already made up their minds and there seemed to be nothing she could say to change them. But giving up without a fight wasn't her style.
"I don't agree with that point of view, Mr. Bowen," next year and, together with the student council, we've started an aggressive recruiting campaign."
She'd spent her entire life in pursuit of this one goalliving a proper life and working at this school. She wanted the conservative reputation she now had. She'd wanted to be anything other than the sinful daughter of the Preacher Reverend Stephens.
She forced that to the back of her mind. She definitely wasn't going to dwell on the terribly clichéd fact that her mother had run off with a traveling salesman. Jenny Stephens had left long before Grace had been old enough to ask to go with her, and the reverend had made sure Jenny had little time with Grace thereafter. Although he'd taken her to her mother's funeral after Jenny's death from an aneurysm.
She rubbed the back of her neck and tried to concentrate, but the smell of Adam's cologne distracted her. It was earthy, woodsy, a scent that titillated her senses. "I'd like the chance to show you our entire presentation before the board votes," she said.
"That's why we're here, Ms. Stephens."
Adam's BlackBerry twittered and he pulled the unit closer to him. His hands were large, his fingers long and his nails nicer looking than hers, which were chewed to the quick.
"Excuse me," Adam said. "I need to see Ms. Stephens outside for a minute."
"Of course, that will give Bruce and me time to set up the presentation for our fiscal reconstruction plan. Will fifteen minutes be enough?" Jose asked.
"Perfect," Adam said.
He gestured for her to lead the way. She was conscious of him walking close behind her until they were outside the boardroom and in the relative privacy of the hallway in the administrative building. He had his hand on the small of her back. She felt the heat of his touch through the layers of her clothing.
She hoped that none of what she'd thought earlier showed on her face. She tried to keep her breathing even and told herself that she was at work, not a place for desire.
"What can I do for you, Mr. Bowen?" she asked, trying to keep her mind on business and not the way his suit jacket fit his broad shoulders.
"I've asked you to call me Adam when we're not in the presence of the other regents," he said.
"It wouldn't be proper," she said, trying not to notice that the dark-blue shirt he wore made his eyes even brighter and more penetrating than usual.
"And are you always proper, Grace?"
Yes, sadly she was. She nodded. Too bad other members of her staff weren't as vigilant. "I think maybe that's a good thing, considering the problems our school is facing."
He gave her a wry grin. "I need to use your office computer to print an e-mail that I just received and fax back a response."
She led him down the hall to her office. She logged on to her computer and then left him to his work. "I'll be right outside if you need anything."
Adam accessed the Internet and read the e-mail Lana, his assistant, had sent him. Every business had its headaches, but lately running AXIOM was no longer just a fun adventure, especially where Viper was concerned.
Viper had been one of the first bands he'd signed to his label and he felt a sense of loyalty to them. And the last year and a half had been hard on both the band and the label. Lead singer Stevie Taylor's mother had been sick and dying of cancer. Stevie had reacted to his grief by partying harder, and when Stevie drank he got violent. The latest episode involved three staff members at a Paris hotel and the authorities.
Adam rubbed his brow as the list of people he had to talk to lengthened. He needed a conference call with Mitch Hollaran, Stevie's attorney, and Nico DeTrio, AXIOM's attorney.
He picked up the phone and called Lana, giving her specific instructions for dealing with Stevie, who was more trouble than he was worth as far as the bottom line was concerned. But since Viper had made Adam his first million independent of his inheritance, he would put up with more crap from them than any other band he had. He hit the print icon and waited for his document.
As he turned back from the printer, he bumped into Grace's desk. Her office was a decent size, but not really big enough for the large oak desk. Two file folders fell to the floor and papers spilled out of both of them.
He dropped to one knee to pick them up, glancing at the papers for a second. The words breast and mouth caught his eye, and he pulled that page farther from the folder, reading it. He was surprised to see a very racy story that opened with the boss and secretary engaged in a steamy embrace on an office conference table. It was titled "Adam's Mistress," by Stephanie Grace. Not much of a stretch to conclude that this was Grace's pen name.
But even more intriguing was the fact that "Adam" bore a startling resemblance, both physically and financially, to him. And the heroine's name was Grace.
He finished reading that first scene, feeling more than a little aroused by the sexy images he assumed Grace had created. There were almost five pages of first-person fantasy there.
There was a knock on the door. Adam stuffed the scene back into the folder and covered it with his own papers. "Come in."
Grace stood in the doorway, looking the same as she always had. But for the first time, he really noticed her. Not as a school administrator but as a woman. He couldn't help but see that the silky shirt she wore matched the one her heroine had on. Grace's real blouse was covered with a boxy jacket.
"I'm sorry to interrupt, but Mr. O'Shea is anxious to continue the meeting. Will you need just a few more minutes, or should we reconvene after lunch?"
He was in no hurry to return to the meeting until he had a chance to think about the contents of the folder, but he knew the situation with the school needed to be resolved. Adam followed Grace back down the hall, trying not to dwell on what he'd read. He still saw the professional front she presented to him and the board, but his image of her was shifting. He saw more.
There was a hint of vulnerability in her eyes as she stood at the front of the room, knotting her fingers together as she waited for everyone's attention to return to her. When she spoke her voice was soft but firm. Not loud, not booming. There were layers to this woman he'd never realized were there.
She glanced at the student-council president and her entire demeanor changed. A fire lit in her eyes.