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Wilmington, North Carolina
"Claude, what is this? I thought you were in love with me?"
A purely girlish laugh escaped Claudia Aspen's lips. Her vivid blue gaze sparkled wickedly as it was directed toward the honey-toned giant who studied her with a consciously seductive gaze.
"I swear this is business and not
"Hmph." Mataeo North's responding grunt held a playful undercurrent and he shook his head at the stunning sixty-something woman seated on the sofa opposite him.
"I swear it," Claudia persisted in a tone that was just as breathy as it was sensual. "Many of the clients feel the same as I do."
"Are we about to have problems, Claudia?"
"Why no, dear." Claudia half turned toward the tall, lovely, coffee-complexioned woman seated to her left. "I'm only here to open the floor for discussion."
"You mean to warn us." Temple Grahame smiled knowingly while Claudia patted her knee.
"Honey, no." Claudia gave a saucy toss of her frosted wheat-colored bob. "Mataeo runs a first-class operation. You both do incredible work." She gave Temple's knee one final pat and then settled back to her side of the sofa. "It's just good business to let the clients know they're appreciated."
"By renegotiating already competitive rates?" Temple queried.
patting our backs a little." Claudia recrossed her legs and smiled at Mataeo.
He wasn't humored. "North Shipping's a private company, Claude, and it stays that way."
"Calm down, darlin'. Everyone knows you have no intention of going public, but many of the clients would be open to discussing current ratesin this economy that's fair to at least entertain, isn't it?"
A muscle flexed along Mataeo's square jawline. Propping a fist to his cheek, he looked toward Temple.
"Well, Claudia, it appears that we're on the same wavelength." Temple waited for the woman to turn to her again. "Mataeo and I have been working to put together a client weekend to begin with a dinner and round out with a series of individualized meetings to review the higherend shipping agreements."
Claudia's mouth was in the shape of a perfectly glossy red O. "Why, Temple, that's
that's a marvelous idea." Her tone sounded more awed than sensual then. "Is this a secret or may I"
"Oh, no, feel free to discuss it," Temple said, knowing Claudia would waste no time doing so regardless. "We haven't gotten all the particulars in place yet so it'll be several months into the future."
"Sweetheart, I certainly understand." Claudia leaned over to pat Temple's knee again. "This is a huge deal and will take quite a while to prepare. The mere promise of it will be great news for the clients. Oh" She paused to retrieve her vibrating cell phone from the sofa cushion. "Excuse me, darlins. I need to take this."
Temple's hazel gaze locked with Mataeo's chocolate one and they headed to the other side of the office to give Claudia a measure of privacy.
"Client weekend?" He whispered when they stood near the floor-to-ceiling windows along the wall behind his desk. "Nice," he added.
"Thanks." Temple shrugged and glanced toward Claudia.
"So how much planning have you done?" He leaned against a window and settled both hands into his blue-gray trouser pockets.
"None." She joined in when he chuckled. "Just came up with it to pacify her." She tapped a rounded nail to her chin and appeared thoughtful. "But it is a good idea. Don't know when I'd have time to plan something that extravagant, though."
"Thanks, anyway." Mataeo took her hand and tugged until she leaned close for the kiss he placed on her jaw.
She patted his cheek. "My job, remember?"
"No, really, Temp. Thanks." He squeezed her hand as his warm, deep stare shifted in Claudia's direction. "She's been a lot harder to take lately."
" Temple's entrancing eyes narrowed in suspicion. "You haven't slept with her, have you?"
Grinning, Mataeo laid Temple's hand against his chest. "No. I swear it," he added when her brow arched a notch higher. He winced a little. "I swear I've never slept with her. Just don't ask me to take any more meetings at her lake house."
"Damn." Mataeo checked the inside jacket of his suit coat. "Now I'm vibrating."
The timing was perfect. Claudia Aspen had finished her call and was avidly observing the couple near the window.
"You two look lovely together," she mentioned when Temple approached.
we work together, that's all."
"I'm sure it is, honey." Claudia kept her eyes on Mataeo while he handled his call. "I don't think I'd be quite as professional working underI mean with that."
Temple rolled her eyes. "Claudia, has anyone ever told you that you're too much?"
"A time or two." Claudia shrugged as if it were of little consequence to her. "But even you can't deny that is too much man to go.untested."
"Well, you help yourself." Temple bent to grab Claudia's portfolio. "I'm afraid you'd be among the masses." She handed Claudia the leather-bound book. "That is not a one-woman man."
Claudia shrugged, tucked the portfolio beneath her arm and squeezed Temple's elbow. "Well, darlin', that depends on who the woman is, now doesn't it?"
Temple set both hands on her hips. She watched as Claudia blew a kiss toward Mataeo and then sashayed out of the room.
"Would you please?"
Temple knew her below-the-breath hiss would do nothing to still the man who stood before her. A fullblown bellow would do nothing to encourage cooperation, either, she was sure. As usual, her boss had requested her "assistance" while he did nothing to assist.
"Dammit, Nev." Mataeo's sandpaper tone surged and his grip tightened on the phone receiver. "Forget it, I'll handle it. Forget it, Nevil."
Temple leaned back where she sat on the edge of the desk when Mataeo moved close to slam the cordless back to the mount.
"So what am I handling?" she asked after his breathing had filled the office with sound for more than five seconds.
"What?" His response held an absent tinge.
Temple's long, light gaze softened with a mix of humor and mild agitation. "Whenever I hear you tell someone that you'll handle it that means I'll handle it."
"Ah, Temp." The easy charm Mataeo seemed to possess in droves came through for him then. "You know you're so much better at most things than I am."
Unfortunately, the charming effort fell short of his right hand. Right arm seemed a more fitting description.
"Just cut it out and tell me what I'm taking care of this time." Temple returned her focus to the silver-gray tie she was securing about Mataeo's neck.
The fact that Mataeo North had no actual assistant was as amusing as it was intriguing. The man was notorious for going to Temple for everything from help with his tie to advice on whether the next deal was worth the pursuit. Any assistant hired for the shipping magnate was of little use. Eventually, the position was phased out entirely.
"Hold still." Temple slapped his forearm. "Unless you'd like to be choked, and I promise you, I can arrange it." She tugged the silver tie threateningly. "So what were you talking to Nevil about?" She frowned as she focused on securing the knot.
"Development was supposed to be in charge of planning the lion's share of the survey expedition for the new building site near the docks."
"Hmph." Temple's hands slowed over the knot she was making in the tie. "I didn't realize you'd already had a place in mind considering." She dismissed the thought and continued with her task.
Mataeo's long brows drew close. "Considering what? That I haven't closed the deal yet?"
Temple merely shrugged.
"That's why I didn't tell you."
She smiled, feeling the smoky heat of his mocha stare boring into her. She could tell by the strain of the tie around his neck that his temper was on the rise.
"It's just that you've got some serious competition on this one." Her hands stilled again. "Sanford Norman wants Manson Yates's client list as badly as you do."
"Hell, Temp, every exporter along the Eastern Seaboard wants Manson Yates's client list. Sadly, many aren't in a position to accept his conditions for sale."
"And too bad for you Sanford Norman has his headquarters right here in good old Wilmington, N.C." Once again, Temple resumed her work on the tie.
Mataeo leaned down a bit to look into Temple's lovely coffee-brown face. "And that's the only hitch standing in the way of my closing this thinga pretty pitiful hitch if you ask me."
Temple tapped his chin, instructing him to straighten. "From the reports I've read, that's enough. Thank you, Jesus," she whispered upon finishing with the tie. She knocked her fists against his broad chest to urge him out of the way.
Mataeo didn't move. "Do you think Sanford Norman's willing to set up new digs right on the dock to accommodate Manson Yates's clients and treat them in the manner they're accustomed to?"
Temple braced her hands along the desk, the natural arch of her brows rose as her suspicion set in. "I still don't know how you managed to convince
anyone to part with property in that area."
"Impressed?" Mataeo stood back and folded his arms across his chest. The glint in his rich chocolaty gaze dared her to deny that she was.
"Only if you close the deal." Temple made a pretense at quickly straightening the knot in his tie. "Otherwise you're just an idiot who paid too much for a piece of property he can't use."
"Why the hell do I keep you?" Mataeo went around his desk in search of his cell phone and keys. "You're no good for my ego."
"Which is considerable." Temple toyed with the box pleats at the hem of her tan skirt. "Lucky for you, you've got enough volunteers around to
Mataeo rose to his full six feet eight inches. "Funny." He tucked the phone into the jacket of his gray three-piece.
"But true." Temple didn't look away from her pleats. "You only keep me around to tie your ties."
"And a damn good job you do of it, too." He went back to searching his desk. A scowl shadowed his face as he massaged a hand across the back of his neck. "Temp, have you seen"
The jingle of keys caught his ears and Mataeo looked up to see them dangling from Temple's fingers.
"I keep you around for everything that matters." He shook his head and grimaced while voicing the confession. He leaned across the desk. "You know I can't function without you."
Temple laughed and brushed a playful slap to his flawless cheek. "You'd be just fine."
"You're wrong. I need you for everything that matters." His stare didn't waver. "Like this lunch."
" She rolled her eyes. "Don't start, not about this. You know how I feel about us taking on more clients right now." She watched him with accusation lurking in her hazel eyes. "This is all about your greed and that damn win-atall-costs competitive streak of yours."
"That's what business is all about, Temp." He moved from behind the desk.
"That may be, but it's getting more dramatic every day, and I've had enough."
Mataeo's glare harbored more concern than anger.
Temple shifted her gaze back to the hem of her skirt. Silently, she cursed her slipup as she noticed the uncertainty creeping onto Mataeo's handsome face.
"I just prefer playing this one from the background, you know?"
Soothed by her fast clarification, Mataeo gave a slow nod.
Temple leaned over and tugged his jacket lapel as if to set it straight. "You should get going unless you want Sanford Norman entertaining Mr. Yates over drinks while they wait for you."
"Right." Mataeo grimaced and pushed himself from the desk. "I'll see you later. You're heading home, right?"
It wasn't exactly a question. He knew his right arm/ best friend well enough to know her routine rarely changed unless he changed it.
He stopped just before the double doors to his office suite and turned to ply her with a crooked smile. "Last chance for lunch? My treat?"
Temple blew him a kiss. "Good luck."