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"The male models are in jail." Anne Marie whispered the words so Hannah wasn't sure if she heard her correctly. They were backstage working with the stylists to make sure the hair was correct for each model, and the deafening noise from the chatter made it difficult to converse without screaming. Anne Marie, the assistant director of Hannah Harrington Designs, had to be wrong. The fashion show launched in exactly forty-seven minutes and Hannah had planned everything down to the last stitch in the handbags the models would carry. There was no way something like this could happen.
Though it was freezing backstage, a small bead of sweat dampened her brow. "Did you say they're in jail?" Hannah tried to keep the panic from rising in her voice, but there was a tiny squeak at the end. "Oh, Anne Marie You Notake it back. I mean it. This is some kind of horrible joke. My entire life for the last six years is about to walk down that stage, and it has to be perfect. You know that. You promised me you had the models covered," she squeaked.
Anne Marie's lips formed a straight line at Hannah's harsh tone.
"Sorry." She'd been on edge the past few weeks and had lost her temper more than once. This was no time to make Annie Marie her whipping girl.
"Don't you dare apologize, Hannah. I know I screwed up." Anne Marie's jaw jutted out and her hands were in fists. "I saw them at Jake's party last night and they were drinking. I should have sent them home then. This sucks, and I've totally failed you. I just don't know how to fix it in" Anne Marie glanced at her watch "forty-three minutes."
Hannah glanced around the tent, searching for any man who could fill out the jeans she'd designed. It had been a risky venture to do male and female lines in her first collection, but it had paid off. Before tonight's show she had received great buzz in the fashion world from some of the magazine editors who'd toured her collection early. Without the men, the show wouldn't work. They were her big reveal.
The only men in a sea of six-foot female models were the ones doing hair, and they were all too short, pasty and waif-thin.
Are there any real men left in Manhattan?
She closed her eyes and lifted her head in a silent prayer.
I'm going to walk out the door, and I'm going to find two of the most handsome men I've ever seen in my life who will fit perfectly into my show.
Yeah, right. Opening her eyes again she headed out.
"Where are you going?" Anne Marie cried.
"To find the men of my dreams," Hannah said determinedly. "Check and make sure the girls have their belts right-side up, and that Clara wears the pink cowboy boots. I'll be back in ten minutes."
Hannah had almost convinced herself she would find the men she needed just outside the tent, or in the crowd waiting to get in. No such luck.
The good news was there was a crowd.
The bad news was that ninety-nine percent of it was women.
Any men she saw were either way too short, or a little thick around the middle. She never cared about anyone's size, but she needed a perfect fit for the jeans. Worried she might be recognized, Hannah pulled her cowboy hat down low on her eyes, and made her way around the crowd and out onto Columbus.
Shivering against the cold, she pulled her leather jacket tighter, which did nothing for her legs, which were in tights and a miniskirt.
As usual on Friday afternoon, the area was packed with people. There were some teens in baggy jeans and shirts, but they were all either too skinny or too short to fit in the clothes.
She didn't want to think about the worst-case scenario, but she had to.
Please. I haven't come this far to fail.
Everything she had was tied up in this show. If the editors hadn't had a sneak peak she could get away with losing the final two, but that was what most of the buzz had been about.
Glancing down at her watch she grimaced. Only thirty-two minutes till go-time. Tears brimmed her eyes. She tried to blink them back, but one errant drop of water slid down her cheek. She shoved it away with the heel of her hand.
This is no time to cave. Get it together.
"Whoever he is, he isn't worth that tear," a deep, whiskey-toned voice said from beside her.
Hannah lifted her head and met a pair of the most beautiful green eyes she'd ever seen on a man. Then she stepped backstunnedto find the perfect male specimen attached to those eyes. His blond hair was cut short, his shoulders broad, and, dressed in his blues, he was the sexiest man she'd ever seen.
She had to remind herself to breathe.
"Ma'am." He tipped his hat.
This couldn't be happening. She glanced down to his hips and then up to his face. He was absolutely beautiful. But there was also something about him. A presence, something that symbolized a strength that had nothing to do with the uniform he wore.
He smiled, seemingly amused by her appraisal.
"Hmm." She tapped her finger against her chin and then grinned. "How do you feel about helping a damsel in distress?"
"It's what I do, ma'am. Did he hurt you? I can't stand a man beating on a woman. That's one of the things that sends my temper over the edge, and I have to warn you I do have one."
Charmed by his slight Southern accent, she'd lost what he was saying. "You have one what?"
"Oh, no. This isn't about a man. But I need you like no woman has ever needed you. In fact, my life depends on you coming with me right now. And you would make me the happiest woman in the world if you had a friend who is just as hot as you."
The marine put two fingers in his mouth and whistled.
Hannah jumped slightly at the piercing volume.
There was a thud of running footsteps, and another man, this one with dark hair and light caramel skin, joined them. He stopped in front of the other marine, his hand flying up to a salute.
"You whistled, Captain, sir." His voice was clipped, but respectful. Hannah didn't know her marine ranks very well, but she knew that a captain was up there. She was crazy to ask these men to help her, but she didn't have much of a choice.
"Lieutenant, seems we have a damsel in distress."
The marine glanced down at Hannah, his dark eyes checking her face for injuries. "Are you hurt?"
She smiled brightly. "No, but I need your help. Can you gentlemen follow me? I promise, if you give me the next hour of your life, you'll save mine. And I'll throw in the best meal you've ever had."
She reached out her hands and wriggled her fingers, begging them to follow.
Both men shrugged.
"Captain, sir, if there's food involved, I'm in."
"Then let's get to it." The captain took Hannah's hand. "Fair damsel, lead the way," he said.
Hannah didn't have time to question her good fortune, or the fact that the marine warmed her with his touch. She had a show to put on and a career to save. With these two, she had a feeling she was going to kill lincoln Center in a way that had never been done before.
Captain Will Hughes had done dumb things in his life, especially when it came to women, but this would go to the top of his crazy list. In the past fifteen minutes he'd been asked to strip, put on a pair of great-fitting jeans and a shirt that forced him to keep his arms by his sides, and while one woman messed with the shirt, another held out a pair of cowboy boots for him to slip on.
"His chest is too damn big," the woman said through the pins in her mouth. "I've never seen so many muscles in my life. Hannah, what do you want me to do?"
Hannah stood there appraising him for a few seconds. The desire in her eyes made his crotch uncomfortable. It had been too damn long for him, and she was his idea of the perfect woman. From that honey-blond hair piled on top of her head in a mass of curls, to her pert breasts, down to long legs ending in red cowboy boots she was nothing short of gorgeous. Surrounded by models, none compared to her beauty.
"Leave the shirt open. Though, they probably won't be looking at the clothes when he walks out." Hannah laughed, and something tugged at Will's heart.
"One minute. Line up, people!" someone screeched.
The tension in the room was palpable and the noisy din died down.
"What's wrong?" Will glanced around the tent to see what was happening.
"Nothing. Show's about to begin and we need it quiet back here so everyone can hear their cues." Hannah waved over Rafael. As the models walked by, it looked as if his friend was watching a tennis match. Rafe always had a way with women. "All I need you guys to do is walk at a steady pace to the end of the stage, pause about fifteen seconds and walk back. You need to be prepared for the photographers' flashes when you pause. It can be blinding at times.
"Just give them your best marine glare. You can watch what the girls do on that screen right there." She pointed to a flat-screen television. "Kayleigh is the stage manager and she'll tell you when to go on. You'll enter here, and exit the stage on the other side. I can't thank you guys enough. And I'll owe you big if we can just get through the next twenty minutes."
He was a marine, and would have helped her no matter what, but Will liked the fact she felt she owed him. He could think of at least thirty different ways she could pay him back.
Mind out of the gutter, Marine.
"We've got it covered," Will told her.
"That's right," Rafe said. "If there's one thing marines can do, it's follow orders."
"You guys really are the best." She squeezed Will's arm. Then she left to take her position near the other side of the stage.
"Sir, we've been in some tough situations, but I never thought I'd have to be a male model," Rafe whispered. "Promise me none of the guys will ever hear about this. Otherwise we'll never live it down. Though, I got to admit, I love these damn jeans."
Will chuckled. "Mine could be a size bigger, but I like them, too. And trust me, no one will ever hear a word out of me. I appreciate you helping out."
Rafael shrugged. "It's what we do."
"Showtime!" The stage manager waved her hand.
"Yeah, Rafe?" "Are you nervous?"
"We're marines. We don't have nerves." He winked at the man. "But if I did, I'd tell you I'd rather be in the desert fighting hostiles than walking out on that stage."
"Me, too, sir. Me, too."
Poor guy. They'd been looking forward to doing some sightseeing before they had to report to the UN the next day as part of a defense attache force. It would be Will's job to coordinate the teams assigned to protect foreign dignitaries for a global conference in town. Most of the preliminary work had been done, so he and Rafe had been kicking around the past twenty-four hours as tourists.
"You're up!" A woman touched his arm and gently shoved him forward. Will hadn't even noticed he'd advanced to the stage. He swallowed and walked up the few steps. He saw Rafe exit the other side, and the stage manager told him to go.
The lights blinded him as he stepped out onto the white-carpeted floor and walked to what he hoped was the end. He couldn't really see until he damn near fell off the thing. He stood there for a moment while the cameras flashed, but couldn't figure out why everyone was screaming. People were up on their feet clapping. He turned and walked back, forcing himself not to run.
"Holy crap! They've gone ape out there." Hannah was there to guide him off the stage. "You two were amazing." She stood on her tiptoes and kissed Will full on the mouth. He wanted it to last longer, but then she moved on to Rafe. The other man received a hug, but not a kiss. That sat just fine with Will.
She took them both by the hands. "Okay, you two, one more time down and back and we are done."
"Again?" he and Rafe said at the same time.
Laughing, she pulled them up the steps and onto the stage.
The lights were different this time and he could see more of the audience. They were giving Hannah a standing ovation. He had no right to be proud of her, but he was. He held up her hand as if she'd won a prizefight. They walked that way to the end of the stage and back.
He helped her down the steps and then she wrapped her arms around his neck.
"Marine, I have to do some press for a bit, and then we can do anything you want. You name it!" She gave him another quick peck and she was off.
"Why do I have the feeling you're going to tell me to get lost?" Rafe chuckled behind him.
"As soon as I find my pants you're getting a hundred bucks, and I'm giving you the night off to see the city," Will told him.
"That's all right, sir. I think I might be kind of busy, too." Rafe winked at a model with short pixie hair and blue eyes. She blew him a kiss with her fingers.
"Guess this modeling thing isn't so bad after all."
And the woman of his dreams had promised him anything.
Luckily he knew exactly what he wanted.