Strictly Business

( 6 )

Overview

Kia Giavonni wanted better working conditions at Cunningham Hats. She went nose to nose with the boss everyday on the floor. So when he proposed to her, she was more than a little stunned. However after careful consideration she realized his plan was brilliant. He wanted to inherity his grandfather's trust money and save the factory. In order to do so he needed a wife, and Kia Giavonni was the one woman he knew he wouldn't fall in love with. But could such a scheme work?
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Strictly Business

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Overview

Kia Giavonni wanted better working conditions at Cunningham Hats. She went nose to nose with the boss everyday on the floor. So when he proposed to her, she was more than a little stunned. However after careful consideration she realized his plan was brilliant. He wanted to inherity his grandfather's trust money and save the factory. In order to do so he needed a wife, and Kia Giavonni was the one woman he knew he wouldn't fall in love with. But could such a scheme work?
Could they work together to save the factory? And could they possibly save thier marriage too?
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781456592967
  • Publisher: CreateSpace Publishing
  • Publication date: 1/30/2011
  • Pages: 182
  • Product dimensions: 6.00 (w) x 9.00 (h) x 0.42 (d)

Read an Excerpt

CHAPTER ONE

"I don't want a woman I can fall in love with, Giavonni. I want you."

Was he propositioning her or trying to insult her? Or had she even heard him right?

Kia Giavonni fingered a piece of lint from her dark coveralls, and then suddenly flicked it away with her fingertip. She watched it slowly float to the floor, as though it were important to watch, as though he were unimportant to listen to.

Joseph Cunningham III's words reverberated through her head like a bullet, but she'd never let him know it. Nor would he see the slight tremble of her hands, for she quickly hid them in her pockets. Nor would he know the speed at which her heart was hammering. She controlled it, quickly. She hated herself for trembling. Cunningham had just taken their relationship a step further, and she wasn't prepared to deal with that step.

Okay, so she hadn't been paying attention to most of his little speech. Heck, she didn't have the slightest idea what he was talking about. She hadn't heard him except those last two sentences. That was enough. She knew an insult when she heard one. What was he trying to pull now?

She shot him a quick sneer. Just because he owned this godforsaken factory didn't mean he could dish out insults at his convenience. Without thinking, Kia stood up, glanced at him, then strode across the space between them and slapped him on his cheek.

Peppermint permeated the air. She needed to concentrate on his reactions. But the peppermint momentarily distracted her.

Her hand stung from the contact with his cheek, but she ignored it, focusing on his stunned reactions instead. Good. At least she shocked him. He couldn'tmaintain his facade.

Yet, he quickly recovered. Managing a certain amount of affability, only his glance narrowed on her.

"I've offended you? I'm sorry for that. I just didn't expect such a typical female reaction from you!" His voice was patronizing

As lame as it was, it was an apology and it shocked Kia to hear it from him.

He could take his apology and shove it. Whatever he was talking about, she didn't want to hear it. She headed straight for the door. Then she made a fatal mistake. She hesitated. She turned to look at him. Wrong decision! Looking at him had always been a mistake, because as mad as she might be, her body always reacted to his male potency. A fact she didn't like to admit.

"Please hear me out."

Cunningham rarely said 'please', and never said 'sorry'. So what was he up to?

She hadn't been paying attention. Dammit, she didn't want to pay attention! She didn't like the way this conversation was going. They'd always managed to keep their conversations on a strictly business level. She liked it that way. Something forewarned her that letting it drift any other way could be lethal.

Perhaps she had misunderstood. Surely, she had misunderstood.

"We always seem to raise sparks when we're around each other, don't we, Giavonni? I can't understand why. We both want what's best for the company," he said and continued raking a hand through his cropped brown hair, his action bringing her attention to him again. He had nice hair, combed high and back, making her hand itch to disrupt it. She wondered how it might feel sifting through her fingers.

"Yes, but with one big exception. I want what's best for the people, you want what's best for the Cunninghams." She kept her tone neutral, and shoved her hands into her pockets as she sat back down..

"Isn't that one and the same?"

His voice cajoled, smoother than a glass of Kentucky bourbon. She didn't trust him. He was too darned smooth. She'd heard rumors he could be charming when he tried, although he'd never bothered pouring his charm on her. Why now, and why her?

She scanned the endless rows of books on the heavy bookshelf behind him,; better than looking at him. He was too good looking. She needed to find fault with him. His nose was big, but accommodated the wide-set gray eyes, and the generous curve to his lips. Sensual lips that beckoned a woman's attention. Her mind scattered. As usual, her body totally reacted to the man. It always had. Her mind raced to squash the awareness.

Momentarily distracted by the mass of books, she stalled. Not that she thought they were that interesting but looking at him any longer would be a mistake. She wondered if he read them, or were they merely for looks. No, he would have read them all, down to the last detail, she quickly decided. He could probably quote half of them by heart, as well educated as he was.

But there were plenty of things not to like about the man. Not only was he the closest thing to a playboy in Relief, Texas, he was quite possibly the smartest man within miles, too. When he finished college, his accomplishments were all over the front of the local papers. Kia had choked on them. Furthering her education had been a priority in her life, once. A dream she had to vacate when the realities of life set in.

"As far as I'm concerned you aren't making much sense." Her voice reeked with sarcasm.

All wasted, from the looks of it.

Just being in the same room with this man, sent a spark to the dry tinder in the air. It had always been like this, this friction between them. Though physically attracted to him, emotionally she ran from the sight of him. He was dangerous to her way of thinking, and much too much like her father.

They'd fought many battles out on the floor, where she felt equal. She wasn't afraid of him, only her reaction to him physically.

Yet, somehow being alone in the same room with him seemed different. It felt as though all the air had swooshed out of the room, leaving her breathless, as though she were at risk of losing something--her sanity--her heart. Nah, she couldn't lose her heart to a man like him. Impossible!

Still, she had to admit she didn't like what being around Cunningham did to her senses. She wanted to ignore the female reactions and concentrate on not liking him. That was easier, safer.

Better to focus her attention on her surroundings again. Funny, as old as this factory was, the air should have been musty in here, too, or at the very least stuffy. But it was neither. In fact, it smelled clean and polished.

He continued to study her for a long moment, with a look that unglued. Why did he have to make her feel so feminine--so aware of being a woman? Dressed in coveralls, dirty and sweaty from a hard day's work, she felt at a disadvantage. It was a constant reminder of their differences.

She knew what he stood for, too; the same things her father stood for; power, ambition, and a touch of greed. She'd survived it once. She wanted no part of it now.

"Look, I need your co-operation, Kia. I'm not getting into a fight with you. Those days are over. And you're not going to like what I'm about to say. So, brace yourself."

"Cut the dramatics. I've never liked much of what you've had to say. Just spit it out. I'd like to go home today."

"Try to be open-minded about what I am going to say, okay?"

Kia wanted to get out of here. The air was stifling and it was hot. "Look, you wanna fire me for protesting the overtime for the third time this week? For the bathrooms last week, the unfair and unequal pay raises around here? You want me to shut my mouth? Well, go ahead--say it. I figured you'd get around to it sooner or later. I wondered what took you so long. But don't play games with me."

He moved from around the desk toward her. "If only it were that simple, Kia. Going a round or two with you might be stimulating, but not practical. No, I'm not about to fire you. And I'm not playing. You're a damned good employee. I'd have to be blind not to know that."

"Well, damn, boss, shut my mouth."

"Dammit, Kia, I'm serious." He moved closer, dangerously closer. "Let's get back to why you're here. As I'm sure you know, my great-grandfather started this company."

She rolled her eyes. Here we go again, another history lesson about Cunningham factories! She, like everyone else in the factory, was well aware of the Cunningham history. Four generations had run this place, and the building itself was living proof. Cunningham Manufacturing practically supported the small town of Relief, Texas. There wasn't a soul in town who didn't know its history.

She nodded woodenly.

"Naturally when my father died, it came to me. But, unfortunately, there is a stipulation in my grandfather's trust fund that has stymied progress here at Cunningham's. The same progress, I might add, that you have complained about for the past five years. I can't get around it. I should know. I've tried everything. It controls the outcome of my future, the company's future. What all this amounts to is--in order to keep controlling interest in Cunningham Hats, I have to be married by the time I'm 30--which is next month. And I have to stay married for at least a year."

Kia shrugged, rolling her eyes again, gathering what was left of her patience. She didn't care about his birthday, or social life. She didn't care if he kept controlling interest in the company, either. As far as she could see, it might do better in someone else's hands. What she wanted was to get out of here. That, and she wanted to know why he insisted she stay after hours. She wanted to know why he wasted her time. "So how does this concern me?"

He moved closer to the edge of the mahogany desk, his long leg going over the edge, lightly brushing against her knee, jolting her into awareness again. His eyes no longer met hers, but his smile was big and wide and friendly.

"I want you--to marry me."

"You want what?" Stunned, and unprepared, she fidgeted with her car keys in her coveralls pocket ... jingling them. Damn! She hadn't expected that!

"Surely even you've received a proposal or two in your lifetime." His voice was slightly sarcastic, but firm. His lips melded together tightly. The smile was gone. She could tell he was barely holding his temper at bay. It couldn't be easy for a man of his stature to ask such a thing of a lowly employee. But why ask at all? And most importantly, why her?

"You're crazy. Of all the asinine things I've heard you say and do, this takes the cake." She stood up and placed her hands directly on the desk. "Do you know how much sense that makes? You aren't stupid--so what are you up to?" She frowned up into his handsome face, not afraid to meet him eye to eye. When she was riled she felt she could face down a tiger.

"Hardly, and if you think of it in my terms you might understand what I'm getting at."

Kia flopped into the chair again, shaking her head. "I seriously doubt it, but go on. I'm enjoying you making a fool of yourself."

"It's simple." He began rolling up the sleeves of his shirt to elbow length. "Not flattering, but simple. I need a wife. I don't want one. I need one. Therein lies the difference. I intend to collect what's mine, one way or another. So ... the way I see it--I need someone who won't fall in love with me, who won't get hurt. Like I said before. And that--my dear little Giavonni is you!" He smiled at last as though he were the cat with the mouse dangling between his teeth.

Kia opened her mouth to object then quickly shut it. What could she say? It was brilliant. It made perfect sense. It bordered on pure genius. And she hated the fact that he came up with it.

Her eyes went from the finely polished desk to the spotless, equally shiny floor. This must have been the cleanest room in the whole darn building. For some reason it irritated her that his office sparkled.

His frown narrowed on her. Obviously he was studying her reaction.

"It means that much to you?"

"It does. So, what do you think?"

"What's in it for me?"

He moved back behind the desk again, and something in his mannerisms told her he was disappointed in that question. Although he didn't voice his disapproval, it was almost as though he expected her to ask it. And yet, by his visible shudder, he hadn't really wanted her to ask. As he turned she saw the muscles bunch in his shoulders; she could actually see them growing and tensing against his shirt. Her heart betrayed her again, fluttering. She'd touched a tender spot, and she knew it.

She twirled the end of her long dark ponytail, her mind running through their entire conversation for a hint of what this might be about.

"Giavonni, you've never minced words on what you want. A better place to work, cleaner, safer, with a bathroom marked 'female' on it. You've got it and more. Once I'm in control of my money, I'll make those improvements. Until I'm in control I can't do a thing. That's how it stands."

"You don't have control?" Her eyes widened with shock.

His jaw clenched and she knew she had touched another nerve.

"Not to the extent that I could do any good. No. I haven't for some time. That's one of the reasons there have been no improvements. There can be no improvements till this is settled. But that's about to change, one way or another."

That had to be hard to admit. It was even harder to face the fact that he wasn't totally responsible for the building's conditions. She might have to rethink her opinion of him. But if he wasn't in control, who was?

"This isn't some kind of a trick?"

"No tricks. I'll put it in writing. If you want."

"Oh, I'd want everything in writing. If I was stupid enough to go along with something like this." She nodded, feeling like a full cat with an extra plate of milk. She flopped back in the chair again, then she bolted forward as something occurred to her. "Wait a minute."

"There's something else?"

"Yes, there's something else." She leaned over the desk at him. He glanced at her hand, and she realized she'd left prints all over the wax job. She didn't move. "Exactly what am I expected to do in return?"

"I was wondering when you'd ask." He chuckled softly, his gaze going over her thoroughly. "This might be the hardest part to pull off."

"What might be?"

"I'd expect you to act like a bride. My bride. No snipes, no barbs. You might even on occasion have to kiss me; in public, of course."

"Kiss you! Now wait a minute. That's taking it too far. Especially since I don't like you in the first place." So why was even the suggestion of a kiss burning a hole in her stomach? Why had her throat gone so dry?

"Exactly. That's why you're so perfect." He came closer; she backed up. "Look, you're smart enough to pull this off, cunning enough. Especially if you get what you want in the end. Put on an act. Wouldn't it be worth it?"

"Maybe, but--that'd be a tall order." She jingled her keys again until his glance landed on her pockets.

"Must you do that?"

"What?"

"Jingle those damned keys."

"Sorry."

"So, what do you think?"

"I couldn't act that well."

"Try, for your own good."

"How long?"

"A year."

"You're out of your mind." She dared to move closer. She'd get right in his face if she had to. "It'd never work. I've got family to support. I can't just run away from responsibilities."

"Your mother and a brother, I believe. You support them?"

Her hooded gaze fastened on him with confusion. "Mostly, my mother takes in boarders from time-to-time and my brother works evenings."

"And your father?"

"You tell me, you seem to have all the facts."

"I did have some background research done."

"He's dead."

"I'm sorry. At least that explains why I found nothing on him. He wasn't mentioned at all in your file."

"I didn't think it was any of your business."

"Fair enough. Okay, I'll see your mother and young brother are provided for."

"You'd do that?"

"Of course. I'm taking your time and employment away from you. You will not work on the floor after we are married. Only, they'd remain where they are."

"But come on, Cunningham, we wouldn't last six hours in the same room, let alone a year. No one would believe it anyway. Everyone here knows how we feel about each other."

"True, but it's not the factory workers we're going to be fooling, is it? No, we have to fool a Board of Directors, and Gene Walsh."

"Walsh? You mean the Vice President? Why him?" She knew very little about Walsh; he rarely put in an appearance at the factory. What she did know, she didn't like. Walsh was another power player.

"Because I lose to him if I can't pull this off. He was my father's confidant, for reasons I can't fathom. He knows all about my grandfather's restrictions and is counting on it. If I lose, he can take over the company. And believe me, he's counting on it. Walsh is from the north. I'm afraid his sentiments don't lie with small town factory workers, especially, a non-union factory. If he couldn't vote the union in, he'd shut this place down for good. And, I don't know if you know it, but he wants to--"

"Sell the plant and make a shopping center out of it. Put hundreds of people out of work, without a backward glance. We heard the rumor. God, even I can't let that happen. Only, to be honest, we thought it was you who was going to do that."

She watched his face pale. He really wasn't in touch with his people. "You thought this through, didn't you? Down to the last detail."

"I had to. Look, I'll level--we've lost the oldest and biggest account just last week. An account we depended on to keep Cunningham's going full blast. If I'm married I might impress the older gentlemen of the company to reconsider. They like stability, loyalty. But I can't wait too long. I've got to make my move fast. Otherwise, half the town will be out of work. Yes, I've given it a lot of consideration. It means everything to m--to us--to the town."

"But why me? I mean you could find any number of women to be your wife. As I recall there was that blonde last month, hanging on your every word as she toured your factory. She was shapely, from a good family so I've heard. What's wrong with her? What's wrong with half the women you've brought here over the past five years?"

Cunningham liked blondes from what she could tell. Every woman he had brought into the plant had been blonde or redheaded, ultra thin, with delicate features. So why had he chosen her as the sacrificial lamb? She had hair almost the color of a raven, so her mother declared, eyes to match. Her skin was a light olive, her bones big, and fleshed out. Voluptuous, was the word she had heard most of her twenty-four years.

"Alisha; would expect hearts and flowers," she heard him say, breaking her reverie. "Too young, too inexperienced. She'd want to make it permanent. She's an old friend of the family. And I'm not ready for that. I know lots of women--beautiful women, rich women. And they'd take me for all I have, even though they wouldn't need to. They're the kind of people I deal with every day. You, on the other hand, are entirely different. Besides, in the end I wouldn't accomplish anything."

His sudden loud sigh said everything. He was on the level. He was actually proposing to her. And the air in the room just got two inches thicker. He seemed he had taken his problem and laid it squarely on her shoulders.

"No, I may not get along with you, agree with you, even like you, Giavonni, but I've come closer to trusting you. I've learned that. You're honest, hard working, and you stick up for what you believe in. I know this much by working with you for the past few years. You've admitted to every prank you've pulled around here even though it's kept you from getting a few deserved raises. Your boss speaks highly of your work. Says you pull your weight like a man."

"I've had to. Pulling hats isn't easy."

"I know. My grandfather put me out there when I started working here. I know exactly what you do, and I respect it. It's hard, hot work in the summer and miserably cold in the winter. And no one seems to notice out there in the warehouse exactly what you do. But I know. I also know you'd have to pull your weight out there or Leroy would fire you."

"I do an honest day's work, and I'm not ashamed of what I do."

"I know that, too. That's another reason I picked you. I need someone who's gonna fight just as hard as I'm willing to, to keep this place running. You are a fighter, Giavonni."

He paused, seeming to gauge her responses. Obviously he could tell he hadn't swayed her better judgment so he went on.

"Look, we've had our differences. I'm not saying this would be an easy task for either of us. Especially since we don't particularly like each other--as you say. But I do respect you," he added, obviously hoping to win her favor.

"You sure know how to charm a girl. I guess I should appreciate that much from you. You're being honest. Had you flattered me personally, I'd already be out the door."

"I figured as much."

She firmed her lips, hardened her heart, and nodded.

"That's what I mean," he nodded. "We don't have to use pretense, and believe it or not, that means a lot."

Kia studied him, studied the room. She'd only been here once, when she was first hired. Then it rang cold and impersonal, and nothing had changed. There were no family pictures on his pristine desk. No great grandfathers adorned the walls. Instead, it was almost bare of decorations. It held necessities and that was all.

"So--would I--have to live with you?"

"Of course."

"And all I'd have to do is act like I cared for you--in public. The rest of the time, would be mine?"

"Of course. As long as you didn't create scenes in public, your life is your own. And other men would have to wait till we got an annulment or a divorce. An--I'd never force myself on you, Kia, but if you wanted to ... I mean I have nothing against having sex with you. But that's all it would be Kia, sex. I'm not going to lie about that either. Strictly sex."

She fell silent, contemplating. Damn his honesty! She'd been ready to turn him down flat, but he had to go and act like some kind of hero. He certainly hadn't wasted his time with flattery, but she respected that. Even though, for some strange reason, it did hurt her pride a little, he'd never know it.

But this, this was crazy. It was crazy, ludicrous, way off the beaten track, and also exciting and stimulating. Kia never contemplated marriage after her father went to prison. The shame and degradation her father had put her and her family through, made her leery of men, especially rich and powerful men.

Once a prominent political figure back in New York, her father had quickly let the power go to his head. He committed fraud, a federal offense, and was sentenced to ten years in prison. He unknowingly put his family into complete peril. Bankruptcy, foreclosure, and immense embarrassment sent Kia and her family far away. They had moved to a small town in Northeast Texas where no one would ever know about the scandal. He wasn't dead, but he might as well have been to Kia. Her father and his deeds were a secret she decided to live with. Besides, as far as she was concerned, her father was dead.

"There is one thing, though. You'd need to clean up your act a little." He hesitated, his brow furrowing.

"Clean up my act?" She was half listening again. He almost had her convinced he was on the level till now.

"Those coveralls would have to go. You'd have to wear make-up, fix your hair. Dress like a lady of means. I'd furnish you a wardrobe. You'd have your own car."

"I have my own car now."

"That piece of junk?"

So that was it. She was just a greasy coverall, with a sassy mouth, a Plain-Jane appearance, who drove a piece of junk. That's how he saw her. So where'd he get off being judge and jury and asking her to do him favors? She owed him nothing. She didn't want lies, but she hadn't expected insults, either.

Putting aside her personal feelings, she blinked slowly as she spoke, not even trying to keep the acid from her words. "So, you think I might clean up well?"

"Don't be sarcastic. You should be flattered that I picked you out of all the other possibilities." He loosened his tie as though it suddenly bothered him.

"And why did you?"

"Believe me, I've asked myself that, too. I guess you stand to win or lose as much as I do."

She moved about the room nervously now. "And what about you. Would you change?"

"Change?" He glanced at her again as though surprised by her question. "What are you talking about?"

"I don't think anyone would think you were a newlywed, especially the way you talk to me. You're the one who wouldn't be convincing. What makes you think you can act that well?" She liked throwing him a curve or two, watching him squirm.

He came around the desk, big and powerful, like a stalking cat who had found his prey. Suddenly, his arms were on either side of her, trapping her against the desk. Long arms, that never seemed to end. His dark-eyed gaze narrowed on her mouth as he leaned into her. Were his eyes blue or brown or gray like she'd first thought? It was hard to tell, they were so dark.

He seemed to be enjoying her discomfiture, too.

"Why don't we give it a dry run now," he murmured, as his lips hovered just above hers.

Panic gripped her, pride held her still. Everything inside her turned to mush; her knees quivered. This was a challenge, and that's all it was. It was on the tip of her tongue to protest, but stunned by his sudden entrapment, her mouth no longer worked.

His warm breath feathered her cheek, and her legs began to shake. She could handle this, she told herself, even as his head lowered. She'd show him sophistication.

He smelled like peppermint. Peppermint! Damn him! How unfair. She loved peppermint, and her taste buds suddenly hungered for it. His exotic cologne tickled her nostrils, sending her thoughts to nicer places than a factory office could supply. And when his head dipped even lower to caress the corner of her mouth she was jolted by his velvety touch. He was gentle, tender, unexpectedly so. Heat radiated between them, like a furnace blowing beneath their feet.

When she gasped, he took advantage and covered her mouth with his own. The gentle persuasion of his lips sent sparks everywhere.

Peppermint, peppermint, her mind kept repeating, as she began to slowly devour the taste of him.

Heady sensations overcame her rational thinking. The tender probe of his tongue stroked her lower lip; teasing, tempting little thrusts.

The Italian in her wanted to slowly savor the flavor, the Irish part of her wanted to resist. Because of her complex make-up, her emotions usually won out over good thinking. She tried to force herself to remember that this was merely some point he was trying to make. But it was hard to remember, because no peppermint had ever tasted this good.

Only the slight groan, like an echo from deep within, as he pulled away made her open her eyes again. Had it come from her or him? She couldn't be sure.

And there, in the depths of those indigo eyes, she saw a spark of desire that could only match her own, and she knew she was in big trouble.

He moved away slowly, watching her.

She was silently afraid he might hear the loud drumming of her heart. Her breathing finally returned to normal.

But for nothing would she let him see he had gotten past the smart mouth, or the hard reserve. Instead, she wiped her trembling lips with the sleeve of her coveralls. His face broke into a knowing smile.

"Are you wiping it off, or rubbing it in?" His smile widened even though the kiss had obviously shaken him just as much. He looked shocked, stunned even. She had surprised him. All those emotions warred in his eyes and she recognized it as the same confusion she was feeling.

"I can't do it, I'm sorry." She backed toward the door.

* * * *

"I never figured you as a coward." His words halted her again. He knew her pride wouldn't let her walk away from him just yet. He counted on it. What he hadn't counted on was kissing her and enjoying it so thoroughly. That threw him.

"I'm not a coward," she corrected and whipped about to face him. "I'm not afraid of you. Just your wealth and power."

"You needn't be. I'm no threat to you." He watched her composure slowly slip into place again. Something intrigued him about her, and he couldn't put a name to it. He wanted a name for it. He sought it but it wasn't there.

"A coward wouldn't admit that your kiss threw me--a little. You're the one with all the power and money. Go hire an actress to pull it off. You'd have more success."

"I don't want an actress." He moved towards her again. He had to make her understand the importance of it all. He'd lose if she didn't cooperate. He'd lose everything. He could feel the very life of the company slipping from his grip, and he couldn't let that happen. "I want you. And I'd have no advantage if you married me, Kia. We'd be partners in this. I'd treat you fairly. I've never welshed on a deal yet. Check it out if you don't believe me."

She backed away from him just a little and he smiled.

"Look, Texas is a community property state. And I'll offer you a generous settlement if you go along with this. But, of course, you'll have to sign a pre-nuptial agreement."

"Yeah, and I'd love to be the town heroine, but this is asking..."

"Don't sell yourself short, Giavonni. If I didn't think you could pull this off, I certainly wouldn't have gone to the trouble and embarrassment of asking you." He eyed those pouting lips, and expressive, nearly black eyes. "No need to look so smug about it. It wasn't easy for me either. You've made no secret of how you feel about me. But I need your help. The factory needs your help. Hell, the town needs your help."

Kia Giavonni was a heroine and didn't know it yet. And something deep within him told him that she'd help him pull this off.

She came closer, leaned over the desk at him.

"Look, I can give you a list of women on the assembly line that would die for such a chance. I'll make it out tonight. It'll be on your desk in the morning. And we can forget this conversation ever happened."

His hand reached out to gently stroke her cheek, and she pulled away. So the little hard-case wasn't as hard as she'd have him believe. And her skin was so smooth and silky to the touch. He found himself wanting to touch more.

He cleared his throat.

He seemed to have touched a chord in her, whether she'd admit it or not. He'd be gentle with her. He wouldn't hurt her, and he wouldn't allow her to hurt him.

"Can't we find some level ground we can work from? Sorta man to man, like we do out there on the floor? Why would this be any different?"

"I--"

She shook her head when the door suddenly flew open and Gene Walsh walked in. Walsh was a big man, in his late thirties, with a confident air, and an ultra ego to match. His presence was like a stalking lion entering a cage. He glanced at them curiously.

"Sorry, Cunningham, didn't know you had anyone in here. You should have warned me you were using my office. The secretary is gone for the day." His silver eyes searched the room and landed on Kia again. "Say, aren't you the one who works out there in the warehouse, pulling hats with all those men?"

Kia nodded, moving away from both men. "That's right."

The way he worded that reminded Kia of all the insults she fought off when she first took the job in the warehouse.

"Oh, yeah, that's right, you're the women's libber, the protestor. Now I remember. The two of you going at it again? After hours?" The big man chuckled, moving towards the desk and laying a set of papers down.

"Actually, Walsh," Cunningham said, his eyes never leaving hers. "Kia and I have gotten to know one another pretty well during our matches on the floor. We've been seeing each other for quite some time. Our disputes were just to cover our personal relationship. She's just consented to being my bride, so watch your mouth, won't you?"

"What? What kind of bull is this?" Walsh nearly roared, his eyes going first to Cunningham then Kia. Joe's glance narrowed on him.

"Ah--now I know you've got to be kidding. I mean, she's a real looker, but come on, Cunningham. You and I both know you could do a lot better. Since when did you start slumming?"

Joe crossed the room in three strides, and pulled Walsh up by the collar of his shirt, his glance meeting the other man's with deadly intent. "Don't you ever, ever talk that way about Kia again, Walsh. Now get out of here."

He hadn't known how much he meant that statement until he grabbed Walsh, but he suddenly realized he didn't want anyone talking about her that way again.

Walsh's face reddened; shock momentarily riveted him. Then he pushed Cunningham's arm away and rocked on his heels. "So, that's the way it is, huh? You're so damn desperate for that money you'd marry a little warehouse who--"

"Why you bigot--" Kia started toward the man.

"Get out, Walsh, before I flatten you." Joe's fist clenched as his teeth gritted.

"I thought you'd try something sneaky, but I never counted on something this low. Well, it won't last."

Cunningham came at him, his fist doubled, but Walsh made a quick bee-line for the door, slamming it as he left.

It wasn't until that moment that Joe turned around and looked at Kia, who stood with her hands clenched on her hips, glaring at him. A grim look on her face.

"I guess it's settled." He walked to the desk. The dead silence rang like an alarm clock, the kind of alarm clock that gets slung across the room at too early an hour.

"You had no right--" she began.

"No..." His eyes suddenly met and held hers. "I didn't." He placed both hands on the desk, as though groping for control. "But I had to do it, Kia. I know what you think of me. But we need to put our personal feelings aside. Look, this company has been in my family too long to let it go to ruin. I'm proud of this place, this town, and the people. We used to make the finest hats in this part of the country. It used to be a proud name. It used to stand for something. I can't stand by and watch Walsh destroy it. And I can't let it go. I can't let the town go--can you?"

"I don't deserve this. You're putting a guilt trip on me."

"Maybe you do, partly," he shouted back. They were nearly nose-to-nose again, only this time they weren't kissing. And his blood was pumping just as hard, just as fast as when he kissed her, and she nearly blew his socks off.

"What do you mean?" she protested, not stepping down.

"I mean, you are a lot of talk, and no action, Giavanni. I mean all your protesting was just some big act for attention. You don't care what happens to this place any more than Walsh does. You get up on your grandstand and preach for better working conditions, more pay, cleaner and safer facilities, but when it comes to doing, you're all mouth."

She went to the chair and crawled up into it, pulling her knees up and under her chin, and quickly closed her eyes.

When she was silent too long, he growled at her. "What are you doing?"

She pushed her feet to the floor, sat up straight, twisted a tendril of hair from her face and frowned at him. She slowly knitted her hands at her mouth and mumbled incoherently. "I'm thinking."

"You're what?"

"I was thinking."

"Good grief, Kia, it would all be over in a matter of twelve months. You'd end up the town heroine, so why are you making such a big production out of it? What makes you think you'd get such a raw deal anyway? Unless, of course, I didn't even think to ask--are you involved with someone? Is that the problem?"

He'd never once given it a thought, a bad move on his part if her expression were any clue.

"I've got a steady fella, if that's what you mean. But this would be business, strictly business. Right? And you say in a year--it would be over?"

"A year," he countered his eyes sparkling into hers, feeling the victory before she actually spoke the words..

"I'll have to think it over. I'm not going to let you bombard me with this. I won't be pushed into anything, right now. Something inside me tells me no, but I'll consider it. You get the contract drawn up about all the improvements I've listed in my file." Kia moved toward the door again.

"I'll have them drawn by morning, in writing. Anything else?" His mouth stretched to a near grin. He had her! He knew he did.

"Yeah, I don't want to go to bed with you."

"For Pete's sake, a year is a long time for anyone, Kia. I told you it would be strictly sex, no attachment, no guilt."

"No!"

"You wouldn't have to enjoy it." He smiled knowingly.

She was halfway out the door when she turned and looked at him. "I wouldn't."

"Wanna bet?"

* * * *

CHAPTER TWO

"Kia, there's a man at the door with a big box of candy, and an arm full of flowers."

"Norman never brings me flowers and candy. Unless ... no, not Norman." She smiled appreciatively at her mother's flawless face peeking through the doorway. Silver hair framed Louise Giavonni's pleasant face, and emotional brown eyes watched with amusement, as Kia fidgeted. Although the stress of losing her husband had taken its toll, her mother still carried herself proudly. Kia could think of no one she admired more. "You think maybe Norman's getting serious?"

"No. No, dear, it isn't Norman. He says his name is Joe and he'd like to see you," Kia's mother announced. "I should let him in?"

Kia finished sewing a button on her work shirt and stuck the pin in the pincushion, spit her chewing gum in the trash, and frowned. "You're kidding. Oh, Mama," she grabbed her mother's hands and looked into her beautiful eyes, "tell me you're kidding. Oh, God, you aren't kidding? Oh, no, not now. What's he doing here?"

"Who, dear?"

"But--I've got a date with Norman in thirty minutes. Just tell him I'm not home, Mama." Kia glanced at her perplexed looking mother once more.

"Who--Joe or Norman?"

"Oh, I don't know. Geez! What am I going to do?" Kia glanced at herself in the mirror.

"Maybe you better tend to it, dear." Her mother shook her head and chuckled, closing the door again.

"Mama, wait," Kia wailed as she heard her mother's footsteps down the hall. She glanced at herself, and then looked in the mirror again. She danced about in a fit of something mixed with anger and confusion, and a tinge of excitement she didn't want to acknowledge. The fact that Joe Cunningham III was here at her house on Saturday night both thrilled her, and boggled her mind. She'd just spent an hour on her hair, pulling it up in curls on top her head. Her dress was a tasteful black sheath, a little shorter than Norman liked, but she had hoped to catch his interest tonight. In reality, she knew getting Norman's attention from a chess game was like pulling teeth with a rubber hose.

She couldn't have looked better if she'd tried. Yet, she knew she'd be lucky to get a nod and a smile out of Norman the whole evening. When would she learn?

Tonight her resolve had been ambitious. It was time Norman took note of something other than Chess. For two years their dates had consisted of rides in the country, chess matches, an occasional tennis match between them, and one social dance given by the company. Even the dance hadn't inspired his imagination. Norman considered a company dance as business.

The fact that Norman didn't press her for sex, made Kia feel safe. Until recently that hadn't bothered her, but it had been two years. Until Joe Cunningham had kissed her; it had been best to let sleeping tigers lie.

Two years without a taste of romance would drive anyone stir crazy, she reasoned. Kia hated admitting it, but she loved romance, dreamed about it. Like every girl she'd dreamed of finding Mr. Right, and instead she settled for Norman Wilkes. As far as she could see there were two kinds of men in the world, the Norman Wilkes, the safe dates, and the Joe Cunningham's, the dangerous ones.

The doorbell rang again and Kia reached for the mascara. Once confidant she could do no more, she headed down the stairs two at a time.

"Not classy, but certainly an improvement from coveralls," she blurted as she dashed for the door, with a grain of composure. Wondering why her heart was thumping just a little harder, a little faster.

And there he was right in her foyer, staring up the stairs at her; her mouth went drier than a barren desert. Before her stood one sensual hunk of man. For Heaven's sake, she hadn't expected this. Joseph Cunningham III looked good enough to eat, even though he wasn't dressed for going out, his simple jeans and sweatshirt made him look somehow more approachable.

He eyed her with a wide smile.

"Oh, Mr. Cunningham, you look like you just won the prize for being the millionth customer at Ronnie's Grocery down the street."

If he thought a big box of candy and the most beautiful bouquet of American Beauty roses would sway her to his way of thinking, he could think again. Oh, but my, they smelled heavenly.

His looked surprised. Sooty lashes framed hallowed cheeks. She'd never noticed how long the man's lashes were. His almost square chin jutted with a defiant flair. He walked through the doorway, turning toward the TV in the other room. She liked a man that could look at home in a suit, and even better in jeans. His hair glistened as though he'd just stepped out of the shower. The lingering scent of lime after-shave tickled her nostrils, while a crooked smile masked his thoughts from her.

Peppermint, her mind flashed, remembering their kiss.

"Kia, I'd like to talk to you about--" He turned back toward her and caught her staring.

Her cheeks flushed.

"Sure."

It was hard to think of him as the boss, or Joe Cunningham III. Bosses weren't hunks. Feeling an immediate heat between them, every time she locked onto him, she looked away. Might as well let him take a good long look at where she came from, then he'd be running in seconds.

Suddenly, she realized she had to get rid of him.

Why couldn't it have been Norman with flowers and candy? But then she knew why. Norman always practiced logic, not romance. Up until a few weeks ago, she had appreciated that, but damn those roses smelled delightful, and she knew she'd pig out on the chocolates later.

"This really isn't the right time, Mr. Cunningham."

"Call me Joe, Kia."

She swallowed hard. First names with the boss seemed too intimate. And the last thing she wanted was intimacy with Mr. Sexy. "Okay, Joe. It's Saturday night and I'm expecting Norman any minute. We have a date, and I'm not in the habit of breaking dates."

He didn't move; his smile didn't leave his face.

"Are these for me?" She gestured toward the flowers and candy.

"Uh, yes, they are. Norman? Do I know him? I'm sorry. You have a date?"

"No need to be sorry. And, yes, you know him. He's your accountant. I always have a date on Saturday night. In about twenty minutes to be exact. Let me put these in water. You really shouldn't have. I love roses though. How'd you know?"

"I didn't. But most women do."

His answer seemed clipped, but she really didn't know him well enough to read into his reactions.

"You date Norman Wilkes, my accountant?"

"That's right.

"Why?"

The question was so unexpected she paused. Kia reflected a moment, then answered with a slight chuckle in her voice. "I find him--refreshing. We've dated about two years now. He may not be the most gorgeous man in the world but he is talented in other ways."

"I can't believe I didn't know about this." Joe raked a hand through his hair, barely ruffling it.

Kia's hand itched to follow his actions, but she ignored it. "Why should you know about it?"

"But Norman?"

"Norman happens to be the champion Chess Player at the Country Club. He plays a magnificent game of tennis, too. And he's a gentleman."

"Norman's a nice guy, plays a mean game of chess I'll agree, but..."

She couldn't resist the sweet odor from the roses, and her heart lightened. It had been a long time since anyone had brought her flowers. Come to think of it, no one had ever brought her flowers. At least Joe Cunningham III didn't know that. And what he didn't know wouldn't hurt him.

She couldn't find a vase that would hold all of them, so she stuffed them in a heavy, glass tea pitcher and filled it with water from the kitchen sink, then set them on the bar between the living room and kitchen. Her breath hitched as she caught sight of his backside again. Why hadn't she ever noticed such a thing before? It angered her that her own body betrayed her so. That she liked looking at him.

She watched him take in the small two-story house with amazing calm. No censure, no comment. She wondered how he might see it. Nothing elegant about it, it was worn, and needed wall-papering, but it was home. It tended to be cluttered--with unopened mail on the old battered desk in the corner, family pictures all over the walls, a soccer ball nested under the coffee table, an afghan thrown haphazard across the sofa, and a fat, lazy cat stretched out in the arm chair.

"Get out of the chair, Bimbo. You lazy cat."

"Bimbo?"

Kia shrugged, and looked at his bewildered look. "She was a stray when we moved here. Mother refused to give her a name. She was afraid we'd all grow attached. But Bud, my brother caught her eating his fishing worms one day and hollered, 'Get away you bimbo.' That's been her name ever since."

Joe threw back his head and chuckled. A melodious sound Kia hadn't expected. Damn his beautiful gray eyes, tight jeans and melodious laugh. She didn't need it. She didn't need any of this. He was charming her, that's what he was doing and it wasn't going to work. No, siree, it wasn't going to work, no matter how many times her eyes drifted downward.

Her mother came down the stairs, as elegant as a queen, her hand gripping the handrail as though she were afraid she might fall. She had dizzy spells quite often and Kia worried about her constantly.

"Mama, come look at the beautiful roses. Aren't they lovely? Mr. Cunningham brought them. You know Mr. Cunningham, of Cunningham Manufacturing. This is my mother, Louise. My boss." There--that should have put him in his place.

"Just call me Joe." He smiled and took the elder lady's hand. "After all, we're practically family."

Kia nearly fell on her face. Surely he wouldn't...

"We are?" Her mother shot Kia a quick glance, and then turned back to Joe. "My, you are as handsome as Kia said you were."

"Mama!" Kia scolded, wishing the floor would swallow her up. He wasn't going to get away with this. She wouldn't let him. He couldn't march in here and claim her like territory or something. Who did he think he was?

Joe shot Kia a quick satisfied smile. This time when he smiled at her, directly at her, Kia's heart did a flip-flop hard against her ribs.

Her mother smiled and tried to pin a string of graying hair to the top of her head, but her look of confusion didn't go away. "We're honored. And the flowers are beautiful. Please sit down. Would you like a glass of tea?"

"That would be nice, thank you."

Her mother darted off to the kitchen.

"Don't bother, Mama, Mr. Cunningham didn't realize I was tied up, so he's just leaving. Aren't you?" Kia invited him towards the door once more. He didn't budge. She started to object his not leaving, but her mother returned.

"Actually, no." He hadn't moved an inch from the middle of the living room, even though her hand tugged on his arm. Solid as a rock. Her mind scattered from the touch. Every time she touched him she felt as though she'd touched a live wire. Physical chemistry, that's all it was.

Their gazes locked momentarily.

"Kia, where are your manners, dear?" Her mother brought a tall glass of iced tea and handed it to him, with a demure smile.

"I left them upstairs when the doorbell rang, Mama." Kia couldn't keep the agitation from her voice as she dragged herself away from his magnetism.

Norman would be here at any moment, and she had to compose herself and figure out how to get rid of Joe.

Okay. She glanced at him with a frown. He'd had his look around. He saw she didn't come from anything close to wealth. She lived in an old neighborhood. The house needed a paint job,; one of her next summer projects, Kia defended. So, what more did he want? He had to know what a mistake his idea was now.

"No?" Kia's surprise registered at last. No, he wasn't going to leave? He was going to sit here and do what, her mind screamed? He couldn't stay here. Hadn't he heard her?

"I'd like to stay if you don't mind." He glanced at the elder woman, then Kia.

But she did mind. She minded a great deal and was about to verbalize it when he interrupted.

"Oh, don't let me interrupt your plans, honey. Go on your date. I'm sure you have lots to discuss with Norman."

"Y-yes." Kia frowned. Now what was he up to? She had nothing to discuss with Norman. Besides, Norman would never believe what Cunningham had in mind. "You're staying. What for? I mean, why?"

"Kia." Her mother cast her an indignant frown.

"Sorry, mama. But I can't imagine why is all."

"Can't you, honey. I can, for a lot of reasons. I wish you'd stay, too. We have lots to discuss. I'd like to get to know your family, Kia. This is the first time I've met them after all. And if we're going to be married, I think I should certainly get to know your mother, don't you? And your young brother, is he here?"

"No, he went to a school dance."

"Married?"

"Maybe I'll still be here when he gets home."

Still be here. No, this would never do. She had to get him out of here and now.

But it was too late.

Now he'd done it! Kia's eyes closed slowly, knowing a headache was only a minute away. She wished she had some tape for his mouth. Wished she could be rude and shove him out the door before he disrupted her ordered little life.

"Married? Why Kia..." her mother gasped.

Kia could see her mother's mind working overtime. Kia wanted to throw Joe Cunningham out the door and rush to explain, but it wasn't to be. "No, Mama." Kia's eyes narrowed on him with precision.

"Yes, it just happened the other day, Mrs. Giavonni. I guess this feeling between us has been building for years. Naturally, I've had my eye on her for a long time. She's so beautiful, I couldn't let her get away. I just wasn't sure it was mutual. I'm sure she didn't want to announce it yet. I haven't even given her a ring. But we're engaged. Perhaps she wanted me to be the one to tell you. She seems rather old fashioned about that. That's what I like about her. And I wanted to come and introduce myself. I want your blessing, naturally, Mrs. Giavonni."

Blessings? Kia wanted to hit him, wanted to pounce on top of him and beat some sense into his blasted head. Why was he doing this? What did he hope to accomplish? Before this was over he'd have the announcements in the local paper. But right now she had a lot of explaining to do and wasn't sure where to begin.

"But I thought you and Norman--"

"You thought right, Mama." Kia turned on Joe now, her eyes brewing a storm cloud. How was she going to explain this so it made any sense?

About to disprove everything Joe had just said, the doorbell rang, and she forced herself to answer it. She had to let Norman in. Didn't she? Yes, of course she did, but how was she going to explain all of this? Now what was she supposed to do? Joe Cunningham had one big mouth!

"You look especially nice this evening, dear," Norman said with a smile as he strode comfortably through the house. Kia grimaced, knowing the inevitable was coming and not knowing how to handle it.

Norman was a short man, not much taller than Kia, thin and well-dressed. He adjusted his glasses as his eyes drifted through the room, then back at her to the hem of her skirt. There was no smile. Almost censure. She'd deal with Norman about the dress later.

There was no comparing the two men, Kia thought to herself. Sure, Joe was taller, bigger, better looking even, but twice as dangerous, too, she decided. No, she knew better than to tread these waters. And Joe was definitely off limits.

"Oh, I'm sorry. Didn't know you had company. Why--Mr. Cunningham, imagine running into you here. Didn't come to fire our Kia in person, I hope." Norman's eyes rounded on Joe with open curiosity.

Kia's head reared. Why did everyone jump to the conclusion that she was about to be fired? Sure, she protested everything from the coffee machine that stole quarters from everyone everyday to the bathroom that simply read "Restroom" on it. But this was America, she could protest, couldn't she?

"No, not at all. Kia is much too valuable employee to consider firing. But of course you know that, don't you, Norman?"

Norman blushed. "Yes, of course."

"Nice to see you, again. Who would have guessed Norman Wilkes, my top accountant, is dating Kia."

"That's right." Norman beamed. Then as though Joe were the intruder, he turned all his attention on her mother. "Good evening, Louise. Nice to see you feeling better."

"Thank you, Norman." Louise kept staring at Kia who had gone very quiet. "This young man was just telling me--"

"Yes, well, we better be going Norman. We don't want to be late for the tournament. I won't be late, Mama. You know where to reach me."

"But Kia--your fiancee?" her mother blurted.

"Fiancee?" Norman repeated looking from one to the other.

"Yes, of course, it's such a joke. I'll explain it all later. Let's go, Norman." Kia jerked on his arm and found him not budging.

"Wait a minute." Norman whipped about to stare at Kia, and their audience. "Your Mother thinks we're engaged? Did you tell her that?"

What if she had? Wasn't it time? Kia thought boldly to herself. "No, no of course she doesn't think we're engaged," Kia began, realizing the longer she stayed the worse it was going to get.

"Now wait a minute, Kia." Norman stayed them all with a hand. His gaze flitted from one to the other. "I think we should set things straight. Don't want your mother thinking something is going on between us. Kia and I aren't engaged yet, Louise. We haven't talked about that possibility, yet. I'm sure in time we will. Don't want you getting the wrong impression. But Mother hasn't even met her, yet. You know we've only been dating--going on two years now. There's plenty of time. We want to get to know each other. I'm rather old fashioned about that kind of thing, and you and my own mother would be the first to know if anything develops between Kia and I. But we like things the way they are, don't we, dear? Kinda comfortable like. I'm sure as time goes by it'll progress to that stage."

Kia reddened. She wanted to scream. Nothing was going right. Absolutely nothing! Her mind reeled with agitation. No, things hadn't progressed, and the way things were going, they never would. But right now was not the time to bring it up. No, she definitely wanted to get out of here. So, instead of arguing in front of Joe, she pulled on Norman's sleeve again. "Yeah, now let's go."

"So you don't have honorable intentions toward Kia?" Joe's voice stilled the room, his accusation hanging in the air between them all. Blue-gray eyes penetrated narrowed green ones as Norman pulled at his collar.

Now Norman was on the spot. Not a thing Kia wanted to see.

It got very quiet. As though a bomb had gone off and everyone was waiting for the dust to settle. Norman turned to look at Joe as if for the first time acknowledging him in the room. "Of course I have honorable intentions. Kia knows exactly how I feel."

"Oh, so you are planning on proposing to her?" Joe prompted, a sardonic smile curling his lips.

"Well, see here, Mr. Cunningham, I don't know why you're asking, but I think my relationship with Kia is our affair. I mean we aren't at work, now are we?"

For a fleeting second or two she was proud of Norman.

The little man stood up to Joe Cunningham like no other. And Kia could have sworn she saw a twinkle in Joe's eyes, too. Anyone else might have been angry, but not Joe Cunningham. Anger was something he always managed to control, even when she deliberately set out to make him angry.

Her eyes rolled once more. "Yes, well, let's go, shall we? We don't want to be late, do we? The match starts in fifteen minutes, Norman."

"Go ahead, honey, I'll be here when you get back," Joe said as though he meant every word of it, and joined Louise on the couch. Kia froze, waiting for his words and actions to have the effect she knew they would.

"Honey?" Norman glanced at Kia. He seemed to grow two more inches. "Honey? Now, wait a minute. I think you've got the wrong girl. Kia and I--we're..."

"What?" Joe asked, obviously curious and just as obviously baiting him. "You just said you're nothing."

"Well, we're sort of a twosome. Everybody in town knows that. Have been for quite a while now. So, I expect I've got a right to know why you're calling her 'honey'."

"Come on, let's go, I'll explain later." Kia grabbed his arm and began pulling Norman to the door. But Norman put one arm against the door-frame and halted her progress.

"You have every right." Joe came toward them. "And, if you have a moment, I'd like to explain this to you."

"I don't thin..." Kia began only to be cut off again.

"Now, Kia, if we're going to do this, we might as well level with your family. And obviously, from what Norman just told me, he's practically family, too. Unless his intentions aren't honorable."

Norman stood his ground. "Of course they're honorable. I mean, yes, I guess so. So, what's this all about?"

"Now see here, Joe, this has gone far enough," Kia interrupted.

"No, I think we need to explain to them what's going on. They obviously have a right to know. We might need their cooperation. You see, Kia and I are going to be married, very soon," Joe announced not looking at Kia as he spoke.

"I never a--"

"No, you're right, honey. I didn't get down on my knees and ask the right way. I'm sorry. A situation I intend to correct." He got down on his knee and took her hand in his. "Kia, please, will you marry me?" His eyes devoured her and she tried her best not to notice.

The Charmer, her mind warned. "Stop this. Get up. This is ridiculous."

"I know. And I didn't give you a ring, yet. That's true. But naturally I want you to shop around for one and find one you like. We'll go together to pick it out if you like. That is ... unless you want my mother's?" Joe pulled Kia into the circle of his arms. He whipped out a small black box and flashed a huge, three-carat marquise ring at her. It was so big it looked as though it blinked at her.

"Your mother's ring?" Louise barely uttered as her eyes rounded on the beautiful diamond.

Kia gasped. The diamond sparkled blue and red fire. She couldn't take her eyes from it. She'd never seen anything like it in her life. Never in all her wildest dreams had she dared think about something so gorgeous. It was magnificent and definitely too much for her!

Norman backed up, and glared. "Now see here, Cunningham."

Louise didn't move an inch. But from the twitch of her mouth she seemed amused.

Joe slid the ring on Kia's finger. It fit as though made for her. Kia blinked rapidly, trying not to let the stream of tears that had built within the last ten minutes spill. She stared at the ring for a long moment. A tear sparkled in the corner of her eye. It wasn't supposed to be like this, her mind screamed. He was completely destroying her dreams. And yet--

"I think you better explain--now." Kia flopped into the armchair with resignation. He'd have to explain, she didn't know where to start. And despite all her beliefs, all her dreams, she couldn't stop staring at the ring. The ring she'd dreamed about for years, the ring that fit her finger like a glove, the ring that truly didn't belong to her. Could a woman fall in love with an object? she wondered.

"It's all very simple. I want Kia to marry me." Joe repeated his eyes never leaving hers. He was leaving this entire fiasco in her hands.

"Why didn't you tell me you'd been seeing Mr. Cunningham, Kia?" Norman broke into the ring of doubts.

"I haven't been seeing him." She glanced at Joe, then Norman. "Oh, for Pete's sake, Norman, sit down and let me explain this."

* * * *

Joe came to stand beside her chair, half enjoying the chaos and confusion he had created. He'd never seen a woman react to a ring like Kia had. Oh, he'd read about such things, but never witnessed the awe in a woman's face before. Most of the women he'd known would have taken a ring that size for granted. Not Kia. She was mesmerized. It stirred something deep within him that he thought totally foreign to him. Emotion!

Tears shone in her eyes. Real tears. Damn, he hadn't expected her to feel anything. He hadn't expected a lot of things, especially the way his body reacted to her in that dress. He had no idea she had such a body. Coveralls were deceiving, he decided. It ought to be against the law for a woman to wear coveralls.

But despite everything, he hadn't planned on her display of emotions. This relationship would be platonic, strictly platonic. It had to be. He had no intention of hurting her or using her. They'd both get something out of this deal, he'd see to that.

He had made Kia react and the results were stunning. Never had she looked more beautiful than at this moment. Beautiful? Kia Giavonni was beautiful? Why hadn't he seen it before? Was he blind?

He hadn't expected this entire night. On his way home, intending a quiet night at home, he suddenly found himself in the local flower shop. It all started with those damned flowers. Then, as the idea fermented, he stopped for candy at the local drug store. No, he shook himself , if he were truthful he'd have to admit it started with that damn kiss in the office the other day. It had rattled him. And he wasn't sure why. It certainly wasn't his first kiss. He'd had his share of amorous kisses. Still, there was something in that kiss that he hadn't found anywhere else.

Perhaps the element of surprise had him baffling over his unplanned proposal. Desperation could make a man do a lot of things out of character, he reasoned. The plan had been simple at first. He needed a wife before he turned thirty. Any number of women came to mind at the prospect.

Perhaps if Kia hadn't been late leaving the building that day, hadn't been scolding herself for not bringing an umbrella, maybe he would have overlooked her. But he had been instantly intrigued with her berating herself so. Maybe, he had overlooked her but he doubted it. Kia was hard to overlook. Even in coveralls. She had the most compelling black-brown eyes. They reminded him of pools of dark chocolate. She was perfect for his plan.

Heaven only knew she didn't deserve this, but he'd reward her in the end. Before it was over, she'd be glad he forced her into this. No one would be hurt, he'd see to that.

His gaze traveled about the old house, and something stole inside Joe's heart. A slight whiff of spaghetti sauce from the stove enhanced his reverie. Old memories of his grandfather's home perhaps, where chaos abounded, and love overflowed. That was the difference, he knew--love. The one thing he hadn't had since his mother died.

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