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'If unique is what you want, you've come to the right man.' Alex MacKay's words were accompanied by an almost deliberately cheeky half-smile.
A lot of people might have taken that expression and seen nothing deeper than a cheerful, confident young businessman being just a little flirtatious purely because he knew he could.
Jayne Cutter certainly saw those things, although she had a feeling his smile was part of his personality but not all of it. There were depths in the backs of Alex MacKay's blue eyes that told Jayne this man had lived. That he had his share of secrets and history.
At the same time, those blue eyes looked into Jayne's sherry-brown ones with enough male awareness that Jayne couldn't help but acknowledge, even if only to herself, that she was being flirted with by this gorgeous mid-twenties man.
He couldn't mean the flirting, though. Could he? Because this was a business meeting and whether he seemed not only attractive but also intriguing, Jayne wasn't exactly in his age bracket to be flirted with!
'Unique is definitely what I want.' Her response emergedlow cosy tone and allbefore she could stop herself. Jayne cleared her throat and hoped he would blame that tone on a frog in her oesophagus or something. Yet flirting with a man ten years younger felt rather appealingly forbidden.
Not appealing, Jayne! As for the forbidden parthasn't your father caused enough stress with his mismatched relationships for you to know better than to exchange this kind of banter with a substantially younger man?
'I'm looking for unique pillow gift ideas for Cutter's Tours,' Jayne clarified.
She had to maintain her professionalism. The trouble was, she did find Alex MacKay attractive. She had done from the moment he'd entered her central Sydney apartment for this discussion. Jayne was curious about him, about those depths in the backs of his eyes 'I'm hoping you can supply those gifts to meet the diverse themes of all the tours.' This was the matter at hand.
Jayne didn't understand why Alex attracted her to such a degree. She had a very organised status quo in her life. Work came first, social needs second. Golf with Stuart every third Saturday. Dinner or a show with Drew the first Tuesday. Other dates with various male friends as they fitted into her schedule. Now and again she allowed a friendship to turn into more, but Jayne protected her emotions. She'd had enough of that sort of minefield through her parents, thanks very much.
Lately she'd really only been bothered with the socialising anyway. Her brow furrowed as she mentally considered the contents of her little black book. What had happened to outings with the others?
Troy Carringbar had said he was looking for more commitment. And there'd been Harry who'd 'met someone'. And George had just stopped calling.
Alex MacKay, Jayne. Concentrate!
Jayne glanced out of her home office windows at the fifteenth floor view of central Sydney.
She wasn't avoiding Alex MacKay's blue gaze. To prove it, she returned her glance to his face. 'With a company the size of Cutter's, if you gained this contract it would be a highly successful move for your business.'
Behind the twinkle in his eyes, a shrewd determination surfaced. For a moment there were shadows too, and his brow furrowed and the planes of his face tightened. 'I'm always prepared to consider projects that'll grow the business. And I could do with something productive and focused to put my energy into right now.'
He seemed to add the latter thought almost unconsciously. And then he shrugged his shoulders as though to shed those thoughts and leaned forward in his chair. 'Tell me more about what you're looking to achieve with this idea.'
Jayne wondered why he felt the need to distract himself with work at the moment, but it wasn't a question she could ask.
'I'm putting together a multi-layered approach to improving Cutter's tourist turnover, uniqueness in the marketplace, and to creating enough interest to make us even more sought after than we are now.' Jayne drew a breath. 'The pillow gifts form an important and innovative part of that overall outline.'
This proposal was very important to Jayne. She'd worked over the last two years on various projects that had laid the foundation for her acceptance into the position of a partner in her father's company. Jayne should have received that partnership months ago. She'd done enough work and proved herself well enough to have earned it, but her father had become obsessed with the new employee, Eric, and had backed away from awarding Jayne the deserved promotion.
Instead, he had fallen for Eric's slick insinuations that if Jayne hadn't had Eric's help she wouldn't have pulled off her last couple of work successes. The opposite had been true. Eric had tried to undermine Jayne's success because he wanted to fast track through the company himself and thought he could do that by making Jayne look bad.
What killed Jayne was that her father had listened to Eric. Instead of honouring his commitment to award the partnership when Jayne successfully achieved her last major project for the company, he had said he wanted to focus on encouraging Eric for the moment.
Because of that, because her father wouldn't listen to her and refused to see Eric's duplicity through the nice little 'boys' club' mentality they had going togetherbecause Jayne had worked hard for her partnership and had earned it and wasn't getting any younger and her father was being unreasonable and refusing to budge from his stanceshe had decided this was her father's last chance of recognising her efforts with that promised partnership. She didn't want to leave the company but she wasn't prepared to stagnate and be ignored there, either.
'You won't find sourcing such a volume of quality hand-crafted items easy.' Alex draped one arm over the leather armrest of his chair. The other rested casually across one khaki-clad knee, yet his focus and attention was razor-sharp. 'In fact, I'm pretty sure I have the only company in Sydney that would be able to solely meet your demands.'
'That's quite probably true.' Jayne's research had suggested this. And for that reason she didn't hesitate with her next words. 'I'm very keen to establish a business relationship with you.'
He unfolded from his relaxed position and leaned both hands on the edge of the desk. 'Then let's talk about exactly what it is that you need, and work out how I can give it to you.'
This time his words held absolutely no flirtatious tones. So why did Jayne's pulse flutter at the base of her throat and her breath catch?
Because, despite his utter focus, he is still conscious of you as a woman. It's there. You can see it. Sense it. Feel it in the air between you. It's there in you too, Jayne.
'You're very confident for a man your age,' she replied, not wanting to admit to such feelings towards him. 'You can't have been running your business all that long.'
'Full-time for seven years.' He said it with a return of that engaging smile, with complete pride, and added just as frankly, 'If my brothers had been able to spring me sooner I'd have started even earlier than that. I've been around. When it comes to age, I don't think a date on a piece of paper has much to do with life experience or maturity.'
Jayne's father could behave quite immaturely at times, so perhaps Alex's belief worked in reverse in his own case.
'The reputation of your company certainly speaks for itself.' Jayne had made her enquiries before she'd contacted him and she had the connections in Sydney's business world to get the answers she had needed.
Alex's words had put Jayne in her place a little for what she'd said, though he'd done it kindly. And maybe Alex was mature for his years. It didn't change the fact that he would qualify in some eyes as 'toy boy' material in comparison to Jayne's age.
Not that Jayne wanted to turn him into such a person in her life.
'What made you think of offering individual, unique gifts as part of your coach tours, Jayne?' Curiosity lit Alex's eyes.
'I wanted to lift Cutter's above other tour companies. The gifts will cost more than generic mass-produced items would, that's true. But if they're used in the right way I think they'll more than earn back the cash invested in them.'
Alex's brows lifted. 'You know that most of my work up to this point has been in exports of items to other countries?'
'Yes, I've seen the wide array of items on your website.' Jayne had read up about the available items on the site, checked costs. Asked her questions in the business community. And then she'd got on the phone and arranged this meeting. If her father wanted to banish her from work for a week while her offices were renovated, Jayne would use that time to pull this proposal together.
Thanks to Eric's interference, she'd been working secretly on this at home for over a month now, with a view to bringing it to her father as one large overall project, ready to go.
Jayne had discussed the concept of it with Dad on a number of occasions over the past year and he'd been keen, so she knew he'd accept the plans once he had them in front of him. Jayne just intended to make sure her father gave her the partnership to go with that acceptance.
'Our tour figures are good.' She didn't want Alex to feel that Cutter's wasn't doing well. 'We get a nice turnover but there's room for improvement. I'd like to see every tour bus filled to capacity, rather than most of them running with a few spare seats each time. I want a waiting list, more tours running, for Cutter's to be the most popular tour company out there.'
'And supplying people with not only a satisfying tour but also a gift at the end of it that's unique and memorable will help with both those things.' The shrewd approval in Alex's eyes told her he agreed with her.
'Yes.' Jayne met his gaze and gave a slight shrug of her shoulders. 'I have this week out of our city office. I'd like to complete my work on this project before I go back on Monday.'
He nodded. 'From my research, it looks like Cutter's covers all kinds of tours.'
'We do.' It pleased Jayne that he'd studied up. 'The annual turnover at Cutter's is'
'Somewhere around' He named a figure very close to Jayne's latest statistical data.
'It appears you truly have done your research, Alex.' Jayne's hopes rose even more. He wouldn't go to those lengths if he didn't really want this and believe it would work.
The only thing Jayne had to do was make sure he understood any risks to him. 'I can't guarantee a contract for you. That decision is ultimately my father's but he's keen for me to explore this concept.' He just didn't know that Jayne was wrapping up exploring it this week, but sometimes an element of surprise was necessary.
Alex searched her face for a moment before that half-smile reappeared and he said softly, 'For the chance to work with you on this, I'll take the risk.'
Jayne's pulse fluttered again at the base of her neck. 'I'll do my best to make sure it's worth it for you.'
Take that in whatever way you want.
You do not mean that, Jayne Cutter. The man is half your age!
He wasn't, though. He was about ten years younger.
And he might as well have been half her age when that placed him in his mid-twenties. There was a big difference between twenty-five and thirty-five when it was the woman looking down the barrel at the latter age. Not to mention, this was about business, not pleasure?
Not going there.
Jayne let out a breath, regrouped, started over. 'To pin down your part in this I need us to work out exactly what items you can source which will work best for each tour.'
See? She could be perfectly professional. She simply needed to avoid getting caught up in that inviting smile of Alex's.
He watched her thoughtfully as if allowing her some breathing space. 'Have you got stats and demographics of the tours?'
'I have them right here.' Jayne held out a sheaf of papers.
Lean brown fingers brushed against her long slender ones as he took the papers. 'Thanks.'
Was his voice deeper than before? Did his fingers linger just a little longer than was necessary?
They didn't. Not really. He hadn't set out to do that. It had just been an exchange of paperwork.
'You're er ' A shiver went through Jayne's nerveendings regardless and sharpened her awareness of him. She cleared her throat. 'You're welcome.'
Jayne couldn't stop herself. Her gaze searched his face. She caught a corresponding awareness before he dropped his gaze to quickly examine the index list before flipping to various pages in the report.
So he was feeling thisthe way Jayne was. His flirting hadn't simply been an empty, automatic thing that he might have done for kicks, or with just any woman.
Jayne had never shared this kind of exchange with a younger man and a little thrill did run through her. One that she needed to set aside so she could focus on the task at hand!
'I have clear ideas for a lot of the tours already.' She had researched as best she could. 'I'd like your feedback by Friday, if that's possible, but between now and then I need to work out what's needed for two specific tours before I can approach you about sourcing for those.
'Meanwhile, I can let you know what the tour themes and details are for all the others. Then it'll be up to you to suggest what you can supply that will match up. I'd like to be in a position to present my proposal to my father on Monday.'
'I can work with that time frame. What tours have you got left that you need to work out?' He closed the report pages. When he lifted his gaze, it tracked over her hair, where the waves of brown fell against her shoulders, over the almost severe grey business jacket with the hint of white camisole beneath.