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"I feel a shift in the Force."
Spencer's words might sound like bullshit, but Evan could tell by the faraway look in his eyes that he meant every word. Besides, Evan felt it too. So did the clients sitting beside their desks. Whatever had happened in the lobby was enough to halt all conversation in midstream. A flash of blonde caught his eye, then sunlight as the back door opened.
"Excuse me," he told the supplier. "I'll be right back."
Panic welled up for the second time that day. Evan couldn't believe Phoebe had made good on her threat to quit. Once he cleared the office door, he darted down the hall and out the back. Phoebe had her sneakers on and was halfway to the parking lot.
She turned a smile his way and kept walking backward. "I'm going to get lunch. I won't be long."
"But the phone ... the clients." Had she gone nuts?
"Julia's got that covered." She spun around and bounced off. He'd never seen Phoebe so ... buoyant.
By "Julia," he presumed she meant Julia Green. If so, the woman was as good as her word. It'd been a little over an hour since he'd called her service, and already a temp hire was in place. The fact she hadn't bothered to introduce herself was a little annoying; since they were up to their ears in work, he could forgive the slight. But he was still going to take a few minutes and meet her.
Evan hurried back inside. He realized the difference in the atmosphere immediately--the shift in "the Force" that Spencer had mentioned. The rock station Phoebe loved wasn't on. Someone had replaced it with classical music and at a volume low enough to soothe and placate a person, not blast them away. He was surprised at thedifference the type of music made.
He paused long enough in his office to tell his visitor he'd be "just a few minutes longer," then went through to the waiting room. The empty waiting room. Stunned, Evan stared at the vacant chairs. A woman sitting at Phoebe's desk, juggling phone calls while she organized stacks of mail, design concepts, and sample binders, finally caught his attention. She'd opted for a telephone headset that kept her hands free yet busy. How it managed to stay in place without messing up her French twist was, he was sure, a miracle. Of course, he'd always been mystified how women got their hair to do the things they did with it.
Evan studied her as she worked, processing one call after the other with an efficiency that made Amy's diligence pale in comparison. Finally it dawned on him what she was wearing. He'd never seen so much brown in one place in his whole life. Everything the woman wore--everything except for those huge, black-rimmed glasses--was some shade of brown. Her faux-suede skirt hugged her hips, then flared to her shins. Her beigeish blouse looked like it was a size too large. Nails? Evan glanced at them. Natural, he decided. Buffed, but not polished.
He had an uncanny feeling that this wasn't what Julia Green normally looked like. The word "camouflage" came to mind. Like she was trying to hide herself. Yet, while she might be trying not to stand out physically, professionally, his first impression of her was "unforgettable." The power radiating from her sent shivers down his spine.
God, he loved women who could kick ass.
Somehow sensing his presence, she ended the call and smiled up at him. She extended her slim hand his way. "Hello, I'm Julia Green."
Evan accepted the handshake. It was firm, confident. More pluses. "Evan Fairfax. Julia Green, as in the owner of Julia's Gems? I never imagined--"
"Amy and I are old friends. I promised her that if you called, we would supply the very best for her team while she was gone. Needless to say, I was glad that you did. I wouldn't want Amy to worry needlessly. She should take her time off to enjoy bonding with her baby and firming up her family unit."
"And not worrying about us," he added.
"Exactly." She pulled her hand away and handed him the stack of mail. "Everything's sorted for you."
He wrapped his hand around the bundle. "Thanks. I'll go through it during lunch."
"Which will be as soon as Phoebe returns," she answered. "She's bringing back sandwiches. Perhaps we can all sit in the conference room and get better acquainted, go over the schedule."
Evan's eyes narrowed, her take-charge attitude rubbing him the wrong way a little. She was just a temp, for God's sake, not their real office manager. "Sounds good."
Were her eyes brown, or did he detect a hint of green there? Hard to tell with those glasses. Did she really need to wear those ugly things? Why not contacts? She was pretty enough, and it looked like she had a weak prescription. Her eyes would really stand out without them. Or was that why she opted for glasses? To help with her little-brown-mouse routine? Her skin was flawless, her makeup light. Evan sniffed. No perfume. And such a long neck. Her pulse fluttered at the base, as if begging for his lips...
Evan mentally shook his rambling thoughts aside. He jerked his head toward the empty waiting room chairs. "What happened to all the clients?"
"I handled it. It was a mix of vendors, decorators dropping off sample designs and swatches, walk-in clients who weren't scheduled for appointments, things of that nature. I'll bring in all the information during our lunch meeting."
Julia turned her back on him to answer the phone. Her apparent dismissal grated on Evan's nerves. She might be their salvation, but he'd be damned if he let her take over. He raked his gaze down her back to that shapely bottom she'd hidden behind her drab clothes. It'd been a long time since he'd had a woman over his knee. Too long.
"One moment, please." She placed the call on hold and glanced up at him, eyes bright. "Yes, sir? Was there something else?"
Sir ... damn right. "No, we're good now." And now that he had her full attention, Evan turned his back on her. She still managed the last laugh, only she didn't know it.
He was hard as a rock.
Julia pulled in a slow breath. She'd wanted a challenge. She just hadn't expected it to be so soon and catch her so unaware. Seeing Evan Fairfax across a crowded room didn't give justice to the full impact of the man. He reeked testosterone. The wave came close to knocking Julia to her shaking knees. She expected him to peel her panties off with his teeth and shove his face in her crotch. Even more surprising, she was perfectly willing to let him do so. He called to that submissive side Julia rarely let others see. Or rather, rarely found anyone willing to take that command.
Just a few minutes in the man's presence and Julia could tell that Evan fit the alpha role naturally. A born leader, a Dominant in all his glory. He'd take her all right. Push her up against the wall with those firm hands, nail her there with a look, and strip her for a leisurely taste. Splay her on top of the counter before her and run his tongue over all her secret places. Then push her to all fours on the floor and stab his cock deep inside. Oh, yes. Julia found herself getting wet. And there'd be nothing she could do about it. Nothing she'd want to do about it, except take every blessed inch.
His blue eyes missed nothing, despite the dark circles under them testifying he needed a good night's sleep. She'd sensed him delving beneath the surface of her disguise, searching for the woman hidden within. He wasn't dumb. Evan Fairfax had caught on right away that she was more than she purported to be. She'd have to be oh-so-careful. A momentary twinge of panic hit her. Maybe this hadn't been such a good idea. She could easily assign someone else to work at Diamond Dust. She'd just tell them that she'd filled in until the temp could come on board. That was plausible. As for the issue of them wanting to hire Maneater...
Indecision plagued Julia, an even rarer event than meeting a man dominant enough to tempt her.
"You must be Julia Green."
A hand appeared before her. Julia blinked and slipped her fingers into it, wondering how the man had managed to sneak up on her. "Yes."
"Richard Hall. A pleasure to have you here. We were drowning. I didn't realize how much we'd grown to depend on Amy. I hope we haven't sent her screaming from us forever. I can hear her now, 'I'd take twenty hours of labor over you guys any day of the week.'"
Julia laughed. She liked him instantly: his ready smile, his charm, his sparkling brown eyes. And the man knew how to dress. Where Evan oozed testosterone, Richard's aura projected self-confidence. She'd been expecting someone self-absorbed, since Amy indicated he spent a lot of time checking his appearance when he thought others weren't looking.
"Perhaps I can help you and your partners find some middle ground," she said. "I understand the business has grown by leaps and bounds lately. A new game plan might be in order."
"I agree, especially now when things are going crazy. A little self-evaluation never hurts."
Odd that the little phrase had come her way twice today. "We can discuss a few things over lunch."
"Wonderful. Amy's office is the first on your right, by the way."
A charmer with focus, one who wanted to get right down to work with few preliminaries. The pleasing-to-the-eye package hid a shark inside. Julia could appreciate that; however, a little tempering wouldn't hurt. Then she caught the flash of pink in his cheeks. It happened so quickly, she might have missed it if she'd blinked. Richard was nervous! Hiding inside his business mode and apparent vanity were his shields. Realizing that brought her protective self to the fore.
"Richard, you are such a slave driver." Julia started as a man appeared around the corner of her desk. "Spencer Griffith." The last partner she had yet to meet extended his hand, which she shook. He gave Richard a look. "You could have offered her coffee or water, maybe even showed her where the restrooms are." He gave a slight, disgusted shake of his head. But Julia saw the smile tugging at the side of his mouth and realized it was said in jest. "My apologies, Julia. Can I get you anything? Coffee? Water? Give you a quick tour of the office?"
Another protector, quickly covering Richard's unease. A caregiver as well. He wanted everyone happy and comfortable, but he'd just demonstrated that he wouldn't do so at the cost to his partners. For him, though, they would also be his primary concern, even above his own needs. Julia wanted to lay the world at his feet.
"I'm fine. Thank you." Another firm handshake. "Although knowing where the bathroom is might come in handy."
The comment earned her a polite chuckle, yet neither of them enlightened her as to the whereabouts of said restroom. Fortunately, Phoebe's return covered any possible awkwardness.
She jerked her thumb over her shoulder--"Everything's in the conference room"--and slipped into the seat Julia vacated.
"Excellent." Julia gathered the work she'd collected in the short time she'd been there, hooked her purse over her shoulder, and sidestepped the men. "Gentlemen, I'll be waiting."
Evan cut her off before she could reach the conference room. "Did you see who delivered this?"
He waved Maneater's signature invitation in front of her--black cardstock edged in gold. She'd calligraphed the penthouse address and time on the back in her own hand. Julia couldn't tell whether fear or excitement lit up his face. She hated not being able to read a person. This one--Evan--definitely threw her instincts off-kilter.
"It was delivered with the mail." She moved the heavy sample books to her other arm. "Why?"
He flicked the envelope up between two fingers. "There's no return address. No mailing address. Just our names."
"What is it?" Richard took the invite from him and smiled. "Well, I'll be..."
Spencer glanced over Richard's shoulder and flushed. "Oh."
Julia craned her neck. "May I know--"
"No!" they all said in unison.
Trying not to laugh at them was nearly impossible.
"I was just wondering how it arrived. Thanks," Evan muttered.
Like boys with a purloined Playboy, they ducked in to their office. The last thing Julia heard before she continued on to the conference room was, "There's an RSVP number. Call it."
Julia smiled when her cell phone shuddered against her ribs from inside her purse. "Here we go, gentlemen." And she had exactly one afternoon to lock onto their personalities before Maneater met with them tonight. One afternoon to decide whether her libido needed to take a hike or go for it. Having met the three up close and personal, there was little doubt what she'd do.
She wanted them--all three of them. And she wanted them now. Julia didn't know whether to laugh or cry over the predicament. Once Maneater took the three, any snippet of a chance with Evan disappeared for Julia. But wasn't that doomed before it started? She didn't realize she'd truly wanted a start with Evan until this moment. Now she was mourning the loss of something that had never been and never would be. Was it best to take what she could get rather than nothing at all?
She closed the door to Amy's office and locked it for ensured privacy while she called Oliver. He let the phone ring four times before he answered. She sighed, growing irritated. Teaching her a lesson, no doubt. She heard the smirk in his voice when he answered. Smart aleck.
"I'm going to need a little help tonight."
"Really? How odd."
She reaffirmed her assessment. Smart-ass.
"What can we do to help you with your ... challenge?"
Two could play this game. Julia had learned that from the master himself. "Now, dearest, don't you always know exactly what I need?"
Oliver chuckled. "As a matter of fact, I do. The question is, are you ready to receive it?"
She was glad they weren't face-to-face.
"I'll see if Lori and Rachel are available. They always give a good demonstration."
"Will you be there too?" she asked.
"I'll be around. Discreetly, of course." He chuckled. "I wouldn't miss this for the world."