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Michael Benjamin didn't see the slap coming, but he sure saw the stars afterwards. He touched his cheek gingerly, golden eyes glinting with genuine regret. "I'm sorry, Diedre ..."
"Sorry?" the seething redhead repeated, her voice rising several octaves. "First you tell me that the only way I'm going to get an engagement ring is to buy it myself, and then you have the nerve to tell me you're sorry?"
A heavy sigh escaped him. This wasn't the way he wanted to end his relationship with the model. He hadn't meant to snap at her, but pressuring him for something he wasn't capable of giving had brought out the cutting remark.
"I'm not the marrying type," he said quietly. "I told you that when we started seeing each other. I wish you had believed me."
His furious ex-lover laughed hollowly. "What woman in her right mind believes a line like that? That was a challenge, not a confession. What you should have told me is what a coldhearted son of a bitch you are."
True, but that wasn't something that could be brought up in casual conversation. Or bed. "Look, I know I've handled this badly. Maybe if we went to dinner?"
The statuesque woman who commanded thousands of dollars per photo shoot leaned over his desk, her teal dress revealing the creamy swell of her cleavage. "The only way we're having dinner together is if they're serving your magnificent specimen roasted on a stick!"
She stalked to thedoor, then turned. "Did you love me at all?" she asked, her voice becoming plaintive. "Even just a little?"
He wanted to tell her yes. She was a beautiful, vibrant woman. It should have been easy to love her, but he couldn't. He couldn't love anyone. "Diedre ..."
"Who is she?"
"The woman who ruined you for the rest of us."
Just like that, memories ambushed him, kicking him viciously in the gut. "I ..." he trailed off, unable to speak past the guilt and anger that clogged his throat.
Diedre nodded, as if his lack of answer was answer enough. "I never stood a chance, did I?"
He thought about explaining, but that damned tightness kept his throat securely closed. Wordless, he shook his head.
Diedre sighed. "I know it's wrong to speak ill of someone I don't know, but I hate her." She left without a backwards glance.
Regret mixed with relief as he rose then turned to gaze out the window behind his desk, not seeing the afternoon sunlight. "Sometimes I do too," he whispered.
"Trouble in paradise?"
Turning back to the door, he saw his partner, Thom Sebastian, in the doorway. "She wanted something I couldn't give her."
"So how many does that make for you so far this year, Casanova?" Thom chuckled. "You should try a temp agency. Maybe they can find the right woman for you."
"I'm not looking for Mrs. Right. I'm convinced she doesn't exist."
Thom crossed the room to stand beside him. "It's been nearly ten years," he said soberly. "Don't you think it's time to put the past behind you?"
"Do you have anything good to say or did you just come to gloat?" Thom had been happily married for four years. Michael didn't begrudge him his happiness, but he himself had no desire to go down that road again.
"Actually, I have bad news. I just got off the phone with Gredinger. He's taking his account to another firm."
"Damn!" Michael slammed his fist onto his desk. Gredinger's small information systems company was a lucrative account for their consulting firm, Better Business Concepts. "Did he say why?"
Thom shook his head, pushing his glasses firmly onto his nose. "He was vague, but when I pressed him, he said he wanted an established firm to handle his account."
"Established?" Michael gave a snort of disbelief. "BBC has been in business for eight years!"
"As I said, I didn't really buy the story. Conrad was handling Gredinger. He's sitting in my office right now. Do you want to chew him out? You look like you could stand to blow off a little steam."
"No, you should handle it. It scares them when you fly off the handle, especially since it so rarely happens." The phone buzzed. "Yes, Connie?"
"Mr. Maxwell, line two."
"Thanks." Michael turned to Thom. "I'll call Gredinger myself tomorrow, see if we can salvage anything out of this. Meanwhile, I'll see if Jeff has any leads he can throw our way."
Jeff Maxwell had been his best friend since high school, and the financial advisor networked with a wide variety of people. If anyone knew of a company needing marketing and management consults, it was Jeff.
"You do that. We need to replace that account in a hurry." Thom's benign expression hardened. "Meanwhile, I'll go have a little talk with Conrad."
Michael sat at his desk with a sigh. What else could possibly go wrong today? He picked up the receiver. "Jeff, tell me you have some good news."
"Mike. I need a favor. A big one."
"Where the hell are you? You sound like you're stuck in traffic."
"I am stuck in traffic. Some idiot in a Pathfinder just rear-ended me!"
Michael winced. Jeff treated his car like a child. "Need me to come get you?"
"No, I'm going to make sure the tow truck gets my car to the dealership in one piece. I need you to go to the airport for me."
"The airport?" He could feel a headache coming on.
"I have a friend coming in, and I promised to pick her up. Will you get her for me?"
"Did you say `her'?"
"Yeah! Hey man, watch my fender!" Jeff yelled at the tow truck operator. "Look, Mike, I need to go before they hurt my car worse. Her name is Yvonne Mitchelson and she'll be on Delta flight 1504 from New York in about an hour." He disconnected.
Disbelief scoured Michael as he stared at the phone. "Jeff? Come on, man, don't do this to me. Dammit!"
He slammed the receiver down. The last thing he wanted to do was to fetch a woman from the airport. That usually entailed four or five massive casesdesigner, of coursefilled with enough clothing to stock a small department store.
God, he did not want to do this! But he owed Jeff more than a few favors. Going to the airport during rush hour to pick up a woman would definitely even the score.
Resolute, he stood, slipping into his jacket. Things were definitely going to hell in a handbasket. Losing a lover and an account within five minutes of each other. How could the day possibly get any worse?
* * *
Yvonne Mitchelson looked out the tiny window of the jet, relieved to see Hartsfield International Airport come into view. She hated flying almost as much as she hated cars. New York was now running a close third. She'd been in negotiations with textile suppliers until an hour before her flight left, and if she had to listen to another supercilious male in a tailored suit tell her what she couldn't do, she'd scream.
Being a five-foot-four, minority female was supposed to make her easily intimidated, but Yvonne didn't place faith in that theory. If everyone that told her no intimidated her, she wouldn't be walking, much less the owner of three successful boutiques.
Reaching this point hadn't been easy. Fifteen years ago, she and her twin sister had dominated pre-Olympic figure skating trials until the night a truck struck their parents' car. Yvonne's sister and parents had been killed instantly, and she was left temporarily paralyzed. Her mind, body, and spirit broken, it had taken three grueling years to heal.
Learning to walk again had been easier than learning to live with the loss. There were days when it became overwhelming, days like anniversaries and birthdays. Those days she gave in to the need to grieve, remembering, honoring, then moving on.
The darkness and pain never completely left her, but she persevered. She was a survivor. Her love of figure skating led to designing costumes and exercise gear which evolved into designing lingerie and opening her own stores. As always, the thought of her boutiques, Your Heart's Desire, brought a smile to her lips. They were posting record numbers again. The sales rush from Mother's Day to the end of dune promised to be bigger than ever.
But something wasn't quite right; and the artist in Yvonne knew it. Her designs weren't leaping out of her head the way they used to. They didn't sizzle on her sketchpad either. She was entering a creative funk. Her partners, Gwen and Angela, had a simple solution.
Yvonne needed a man.
She didn't trust their opinion on that, after all, the last man Angela introduced Yvonne to, her personal assistant Lawrence, turned out to be homosexual. But it did give new life to an old idea: a men's line. Perhaps finding a local Adonis to turn into an overnight sensation and serve as creative inspiration was just what she needed.
The plane taxied to a stop, and she retrieved her briefcase from the overhead compartment. Hopefully, inspiration was all Your Heart's Desire needed. But just in case, she had a meeting next week with Better Business Concepts, a hot consulting firm in Midtown. She didn't know much about them, but her best friend, Jeff Maxwell, said the firm was great with young companies. Her plan was to thoroughly question Jeff about it over dinner.
Yvonne smiled to herself, resolutely joining the mass of humanity teeming for the exit. Perhaps Desire was too small for the players in New York, but there was always more than one way to skin a cat. She would get what she wanted and she wasn't going to let anyone stand in her way, especially some jerk who wouldn't know a demi-cup if it hit him in the behind.
"Excuse me, I'm in a hurry." An older man, his jacket barely fastened over his protruding belly, pushed past her as she disembarked. She glared at his receding back.
"Probably needs to get rid of some of that hot air he's full of," a tall brunette standing next to her remarked.
Yvonne grimaced in agreement. "I know what you mean," she answered, her eyes scanning the crowd. Jeff was supposed to pick her up. Where was he? She wanted to stop by the Buckhead store before dinner.
"I wonder whom he's waiting for?" She couldn't miss the predatory tone of the woman beside her and followed the direction of her stare.
He was the epitome of tall, dark, and handsome. In his early thirties perhaps, with dark hair slicked back and broad shoulders draped in a navy Armani jacket, the man leaned against the column with all the arrogant sullenness of a GQ model. He had every woman on the concourse salivating and he knew it.
She regarded him with a purely professional eye. He was fine, for a white man. Definitely inspiring. She tried to imagine what he would look like in boxers and briefs and began to blush. Not that she had any experience by which to judge, but she was sure he was more than adequate in that area.
Intrigued despite herself, she thought about approaching him, but quickly abandoned the idea. What would she say? "Hi, I want to design your underwear"? He would probably think it was just a line at best, or think her crazy at worst. Besides, she had more important things on her mind, like finding her ride home.
Just then, her name coursed through the address system. Clutching her briefcase, she moved to the attendant's desk.
* * *
Michael leaned against a column, impatient. Where the hell was this Mitchelson woman? Her name sounded familiar, but he couldn't place it. He had her paged; the attendant had been most helpful until he told her he was looking for a woman. And Jeff had been too busy yelling at the tow truck driver to give a good description.
His attention was snagged by a bright red pantsuit. A Black woman carrying a briefcase and black coat sported the body-conscious suit. She moved toward the attendant's booth with a feline grace.
Curious, he watched as more than a few men slowed their hurried pace upon catching sight of her. He couldn't blame themhe'd almost forgotten why he was in the airport. She wasn't Naomi or Tyra, being just below average height, but that suit and that walk demanded and received attention. He wondered who the woman was and if she was having someone paged. Maybe she was new to Atlanta. Maybe she needed to know where to pick up her luggage. Better yet, maybe she needed someone to take her to dinner.
To his surprise, the Delta clerk pointed in his direction. The woman turned, and Michael could feel her eyes, hidden behind sunglasses, assessing him. Then she turned back to the attendant, shaking her head. But the clerk nodded and again pointed to him.
The woman in scarlet walked toward him. Instinctively, he checked his tie. When she was close to him, she removed her sunglasses.
Their gazes met and he was brought up short. He forgot about Jeff, Jeff's girlfriend, and losing his patience. He forgot all that because he was losing himself in that gaze.
Her large; almond-shaped eyes were expressive and syrupy- soft, the color of fine brandy. They caught him and held him, mesmerized.
She broke the silence. "You've been waiting for me?" she asked, the Yankee of her accent softened with a slight drawl.
It was the perfect line and he couldn't resist. "You have no idea how long." He gave her his best smile.
Completely unfazed, that's what she was. Michael could feel his day taking another downturn. A wry smile twisted her lips. "I'm sure you've waited all your life, and from the look on your face a few minutes ago, you don't like it much."
Her expression was wary. "Why don't you tell me who you are and why you paged me."
It took a moment for that to sink in. "You're Yvonne Mitchelson?"
She took a step backward, wariness deepening to suspicion. "Who are you? How do you know my name, but not what I look like?"
"I'm Mike Benjamin. Jeff Maxwell asked me to come get you. Your name's familiar, but Jeff didn't tell me you were African-American."
"That's probably because I'm not from Africa, and neither were my parents."
Michael could feel his ears turning red. "I'm sorry, I'm still confused by the political correctness of it all. But if Jeff had told me you were Black ..."
"You'll have to forgive Jeff," she cut in, her voice heavy with sarcasm. "He has this annoying little habit of not categorizing people by their color. I told him not to be so blind to other people's hang-ups, hut he ..."
"Wait just a minute," he interrupted. "I don't have a hang-up about color."
She held up a hand. "Let me guess. Some of your best friends are Black, right?"
He looked down at her, feeling his face flush in a mixture of anger and embarrassment. Yvonne Mitchelson didn't top his shoulder, but she was primed to take his head off. Damn, today definitely wasn't one of his better days. What the hell did Jeff see in this woman anyway?
"Actually, that was not what I was about to say, Ms. Mitchelson," he said coldly. "But if you must know, Jeff happens to be my best friend. My business partner is Black, and I was best man in his wedding to a beautiful woman who is from Africa. What I was trying to say is that it would have saved a hell of a lot of trouble if Jeff had told me what you looked like."
He dug into his jacket pocket, then dropped his cell phone in her hands. "Why don't you give Jeff a call and verify my credentials? And while you're at it, call a taxi."
Ready to leave her where she stood, he folded his arms and counted back from fifty. Instead of answering him, she massaged her temples with her free hand.
"Look, I'm sorry," she said thinly, obviously not used to apologizing. "I've had a day from hell."
"You're not the only one capable of having a bad day," he informed her. "In fact, I think it's pretty contagious."
To his surprise she smiled, a dazzling display of teeth and dimples that nearly blinded him. "You're right. That was kind of bitchy of me, pissing off my ride home. I really do know better, so why don't we start over?"
She stuck out her free hand. "I'm Yvonne Mitchelson, but you can call me embarrassed!"
Michael took the proffered hand, and felt a surge that was almost electric. One look at her face, he realized she felt it too. The pulse at the base of her throat actually jumped. With a subtle tug, she attempted to extricate her hand until his fingers hit the big diamond she wore.
Without seeming to, he examined the gem. A lot of money had gone into the ring. A whole lot.
"You can call me your ride home." Trying to keep disappointment out of his voice, he caught himself. Why the hell was he disappointed? He decided he didn't want to think about it.
They headed for the baggage claim, Michael explaining Jeff's bad luck. As they walked, he assessed the woman beside him. She was petite, barely five-five, yet the elegant confidence she exuded as she walked made her seem taller. Her skin was a rich warm caramel and her shoulder length hair a mass of dark brown curls. And somewhere under the pantsuit, he was sure, was a body that could stop traffic on the Downtown Connector.
He frowned slightly. Why did her name seem so familiar? Jeff, also a confirmed bachelor, would have told him if he was engaged. They even had a running bet on who would get married first. But someone had put a rock the size of Stone Mountain on her finger. He suddenly wanted to know who.
"So what brings you to Atlanta, Yvonne?" he asked, retrieving the luggage she pointed out, surprised to see only a large rolling suitcase in addition to the briefcase she held. "Visiting your fiancé?"
They left the airport for the parking lot. "Jeff really hasn't told you about me, has he?" she asked. "I mean, it's not a big deal, but you should at least be aware that you're not playing taxi for a mass murderer."
He stopped before his pride and joy, a pristine black '65 Mustang convertible that he'd restored himself. "You're definitely not a mass murderer," he stated matter-of-factly, putting her cases and coat into the trunk. "Ballet maybe?"
He came around to hand her into the car. She hesitated, then got in. The graceful way she swung her legs inside made him warm. Some women practiced that forever without mastering it.
She turned to face him when he entered the car. "I've been living in Atlanta for about eight years. I'm not a spy or a dancer or even engaged."
The gem on her hand sparkled as she held it between them. "This is my `keep away' ring. It helps deter unwanted attention. I'm too busy with work to maintain a relationship."
The day was looking up after all! "So what kind of work keeps you so busy?"
When he started the car, she fastened her seat belt and pushed her seat as far back as it would go. "Have you ever heard of Your Heart's Desire?"
"Those local shops giving Victoria's Secret and Frederick's a run for their money? Yes, I know themthe one in Buckhead turns Peachtree Street to permanent gridlock around Valentine's Day."
He paid the parking fee and pulled into the traffic heading for the highway. "Wait a minute! Are you that Yvonne Mitchelson? Of Gemini Enterprises?" She nodded. "Well, I'll be damned! No wonder Jeff said I'd recognize you when I saw you. You were the cover story in Georgia Business magazine last month."
"If you read that, you're more than a pin-up guy," she said, smiling.
He grinned back. There was a compliment in there somewhere, he supposed. "I hope so. Thom wouldn't like it if I didn't pull my share at BBC."
"Better Business Concepts. It's a ..."
"Well if this isn't the mother of all coincidences!" she exclaimed, turning in her seat to face him again. "I have a meeting scheduled with your firm next week."
She shook her head, her gaze on the Atlanta skyline as it came into view. The last of the sun gleamed on the dome of the Capitol, turning its gold cap into a burnished copper. The rest of the city proper spread along the skyline like an electric rainbow. "I've heard a little about your firm, so I called and set an appointment with Kyle or Conrad or someone like that. Jeff said he knew someone at the firm, and he was going to pick me up so that I could pick his brain over dinner."
Forcing down the surge of excitement at her words, Michael kept his eyes on the highway. "It must be fate, because I'm a senior partner of Better Business Concepts. If you believe Gemini Enterprises is at a level where a management firm would be a benefit, then BBC would certainly like to be considered."
"Spoken like a true businessman," she observed with laughter. "Where's the sales pitch?"
"I've definitely got one. Care to hear it over dinner?" That slipped out on its own, but now that he thought about it, dinner was a good idea. He certainly wasn't ready to say goodbye yet.
He stole a glance at her. Her profile was determined, and her hand had the armrest on the passenger door in a deathgrip. "I really should call Jeff," she said, her voice hesitant. "We were supposed to go out to dinner, but if that precious Lexus of his got hit, he'll probably want to baby-sit it."
"We can call him from the restaurant. That way, he can join us and explain how we both know him and not each other."
She had to laugh at that. "Sounds like a segment on Unsolved Mysteries. But surely I'm keeping you from more important pursuits this evening? I'll be more than happy speaking with Kevin or Carter next week."
A little frisson of worry had him tightening his grip on the steering wheel, his only outward display of emotion. "What could be more important than discussing a terrific business over a wonderful meal? And given our mysterious mutual friend, I must ensure that you receive the best consultation BBC has to offer." Besides, the only consulting Conrad's going to be doing is with the classifieds.
"All right." She settled firmly into her seat, rechecking the seatbelt. "On to dinner. I can see Jeff tomorrow."
Michael watched her watching the skyline and hid a smile. The day was definitely ending better than it had started.
Excerpted from No Commitment Required by Seressia Glass. Copyright © 2000 by Seressia Glass. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.