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Cowboys. Ranchers. Cattle. Beef.
Ashley Garrett typed in the words, Times New Roman font, eighteen point, and ran them across the page in the shape of a galloping horse.
Her mission was to put them all together and come up with an ad campaign and a slogan that was so terrific it would be on the lips and in the minds of every Texas citizen. In the process, she would put her name on the mapalong with the Texas Ranchers Association, of course.
This was her biggest account to date, a chance to leap a few rungs up the advertising success ladder and put her one step closer to some swanky office on Manhattan's famed Madison Avenue. Let other women marry and cook pot roasts. She'd influence what their kids wore, the kind of car they drove and where they'd buy their groceries.
But for now, it was sell the Texas Ranchers Association. Sell beef. Sell an image. The task had seemed so easy when Mr. Clintock of Clintock, Mitchum and O'Connell had offered her the plum account. Four days later, she was drowning in insipid, languishing in schmaltz, when what she needed was a spark of genius. Of course, she'd let the Creative Department guys in on the fun eventually, but she wanted to be the mind behind the idea, not just a facilitator.
Stretching her fingers and placing them back on her trusty keyboard, she prepared herself for another go at releasing a rush of ingenious juices. When in doubt, start with a cowboy. They were sexy, virile, rugged, totally masculine. Except for the ones who were dirty, sweaty and smelled of cattle droppings.
''Wrong mind-set, Ashley Garrett.''
Talking to herself againa sure sign she'd been punching keys and staring at the screen on her computer too long. Fingering her favorite silver bracelet, she glanced at the chrome office clock on the wall over her file cabinet. Six-thirty. No wonder the office was so quiet.
Everyone else had gone back to their cozy suburban homes, where, according to someone's statistics, they could enjoy their four bedrooms, two baths, two and a half children, one dog, one cat and two goldfish. Or else they'd headed over to happy hour at the hotel bar across the street so they could fortify themselves to face their mate and two and a half kids. To each his own.
She had a session scheduled with her personal trainer at seven. She loved saying that. It sounded so impressive. Not that she could afford him on a regular basis, but after one session, she'd been so excited about the results that her brother Dylan had made exercise her Christmas present. He was springing for three months of sessions, two per week. She had six weeks to go, and she could already see progress. By summer, she'd be able to do great things for a bikini.
In a matter of minutes, she'd flicked off her monitor, turned her daily calendar to the next day's page and straightened her desk, readying it for the morning. Organization was a key factor in maintaining the level of professional excellence she demanded of herself.
Standing, she ran a hand down her skirt, ironing the pleats with her fingers so that they lay straight. The suit was teal, the fabric a silk blend, the workmanship exquisite. The price tag had blown her budget to heck and back, but she couldn't resist it. Work was her passion, but clothes ran a close second.
The phone rang just as she grabbed her briefcase and threw the leather strap over her shoulder. She considered ignoring it, but thought better of it. It might be her pregnant sister Lily, and who knew what a woman with a stomach the size of a bloated beach ball might need?
''Clintock, Mitchum and O'Connell, Ashley Garrett speaking.''
''So this is where you spend your evenings. What a waste.''
The voice was male and unfamiliar. ''May I ask who's calling?''
''Guess I didn't make as much of an impression on you as you did on me this morning. I'd recognize that soft, feminine voice of yours anywhere. This is Jim Bob McAllister.''
''Yes ma'am. It's me.''
The Mr. McAllister from the Ranchers Association. She hadn't recognized his voice, but she'd make it a point to the next time he called. ''What can I do for you?''
''I've been thinking about what we talked about in our meeting, you know, about how to help folks see beef in a new, much more acceptable light. Anyway, I made a few notes this afternoon and I'd like to toss them around with you.''
''Great. You know what you want. I'm just here to put your desires into a total image package. I can see you tomorrow, any time that's convenient for you.''
''I'd rather make it tonight.''
Yuck. She'd spent an hour with him this morning, and enough was enough. ''Are you still in town?''
''Afraid so. I had hoped to drive back to the ranch this afternoon, but my business took longer than I'd planned.
So, since I'm still stuck here, how about talking over dinner? My treat.''
''That's not necessary.''
''It is to me, little lady. I don't cotton to women taking out a wallet when they're out with Jim Bob McAllister.''
Little lady! Gag me with a spoon. But if he wanted to talk business, she couldn't very well turn him down. ''Are you sure you wouldn't rather fax me your ideas? That way you could spend your evening in town with friends and not devote it to business.''
''No, once I get something galloping around in my mind, I just can't let it go till I've put the horse in the stall.''
Which meant there wasn't an easy way out of this. It could be worse. She'd met him on several occasions before today, mostly at Ranchers Association functions that she'd attended with her dad.
He was a respected rancher and around the same age as her father. Surely he wouldn't grope her thigh under the table like the last client had after he'd insisted she join him for dinner to discuss the scope of the campaign. She'd told him as nicely as the situation allowed just what he should do with his scope.
''Dinner would be fine, Mr. McAllister, if we can make it around eight-fifteen. Can I meet you somewhere?''
She wrote down the name and address of the restaurant. The office was quiet as she locked up and headed toward the elevator. The parking lot would be even quieter, almost deserted this time of night. It never used to bother her, but ever since her self-acclaimed secret admirer had started leaving cards and flowers attached to her windshield, she was a bit uneasy when leaving the office alone.
Not that she was afraid. It hadn't happened all that often and the cards were harmless enough, probably someone's idea of a joke. Besides, her brother Dylan was an ex-cop and he had made sure she was well-trained in the art of self-defense. Pity the poor mugger who mistook her for an easy target.
Still, she walked to her car quickly, anxious to get to the health club as soon as possible so she could finish her session before she met Mr. McAllister.
Ashley pushed the breath from her lungs as she pulled her body up in yet another stomach crunch.
''That's the way,'' Bernie encouraged. ''Use the stomach muscles, no stress on the back and neck.''
''How many more?'' she gasped between breaths.
''Don't think of it in numbers. Just get in the rhythm of crunch-release. And think what a taut stomach you're going to have, not that your figure isn't already great.''
''Then why am I paying for this torture?''
''You're not. Your brother is. One more. Crrrunch and down and stop.''
She groaned and stayed flat on her back until Bernie took her hands and tugged her to a sitting position.
''We've worked on your abs, your stomach and your upper thighs,'' he said. ''I guess that about does it for this session. Now you can go out and party the night away.''
''Not me. I'm pretty much a dud.''
''Really, I never heard that about you, but I did hear that you're a workaholic.''
''Who would you hear that from?''
He glanced across the room to where her neighbor Kyle Blackstone was leaning against a weight machine, chatting with a couple of bosomy females in form-fitting tights and clingy tops.
''You surely don't believe everything Kyle says.''
''I don't, but the women sure hang on his every word.
You're about the only one in here who doesn't drool when he shows them a little attention.''
Kyle caught her looking at him and waved. She hated that, but she waved back in what she hoped was a nonchalant, offhand manner. He started over, and her pulse shot up. No need for aerobics when he was around. But she had no intention of letting him know he had that effect on her. He was far too sure of himself as it was. She'd just as soon Bernie not know, either.
''The man spends a lot of time watching you,'' Bernie said. ''Have you ever been out with him?''
''Good. You have a lot more class than those bimbos that follow him around like groupies chasing a rock star.'' ''He's not my type.''
''I don't think you've convinced him of that yet.''
''He's only interested because he thinks I'm a challenge.'' She groaned as she pulled her stressed muscles into a standing position. ''Thanks for the session, though I feel like I've been run over by a truck.''
''No pain, no gain. It's trite but true.''
Kyle stepped up beside her. ''That was quite a workout. If you need someone to massage those aching muscles tonight, I'm available.''
''And just which muscles do you plan on massaging?''
''You name it. I'm very accommodating.''
''I'll just bet you are.''
''Well, if you don't want a massage, how about dinner? There's a new Italian restaurant just a block from our building. The pasta is eccellente and the vino is squisito." He used his hands, fingers and mouth to add emphasis to his claim.
''And I already have a dinner invitation. Just my luck,'' she teased.
He cocked his head to one side and flashed a devastating smile. ''We can always do dessert at my place.'' ''Dream on.''
''I already am.'' He closed his eyes. ''Wow! You're good.''
When he opened his eyes, she closed hers. ''Yeah, I am, aren t I? She gave him a playful right cuff to his upper arm. ''I'm out of here. Thanks again, Bernie. And, Kyle, happy hunting. I'd hate for you to have to sleep alone tonight.''
She turned and walked away, not stopping until she reached the door to the ladies' locker room. Bernie and Kyle were still standing together, immersed in conversation. Two very nice-looking men. Bernie had more of the macho build, huge shoulders, well-defined biceps, muscular arms and legs. Kyle was just lean and mean. Rock-hard body. Thick dark hair. Deep-blue eyes that a woman could drown in and never yell for help.
The man was drop-dead gorgeousbut he was not for her, and she needed to keep that thought firmly planted in her mind. The minute she became interested in a man, her life became complicated. The men either became possessive and jealous of the time she spent on her career, or else merely wanted to get her into the sack.
Without a doubt, Kyle fell in the latter category. Turning away from him, literally and figuratively, she pushed through the door of the locker room. She'd have to hurry to be at the restaurant by eight-fifteen, and it wouldn't be prudent to keep Mr. McAllister waiting.
Ashley studied the menu. The restaurant was pricey for her expense account, but no reason to worry, since McAllister would be picking up the check. She'd offer again anyway. Mr. Clintock had informed her when he'd given her the account that he wanted the Ranchers Association to be extremely happy with both the treatment they received from all employees of the agency and the quality of the finished product.
The waiter stopped at her elbow and asked for their drink order. Jim Bob ordered a vodka martini. She ordered a glass of sparkling water with a twist of lime.
''Nonsense. You need a real drink,'' the rancher insisted. ''Something to help you relax, so that we can get to know each other better.''
''I never drink when I'm on the job.''
''Then let's just call this a get-acquainted night. I always work better when I feel I m in tune with the person I m working with.''
She cringed at the intimacy that had crept into his tone. It would never have been there if he was talking to Mr. Clintock or any of the other men connected with the firm. It was more of the ''little lady'' mentality that she hated. Or else Mr. McAllister was not as harmless as she'd assumed.
''What I m most interested in are your ideas about the ad campaign, she said, making sure he realized she was here only for business purposes. ''I know the Ranchers Association is eager to modernize their image.''
''And Mr. Clintock assured me that you're the woman who can do that for us.''
She centered her attention on the menu. By the time the waiter returned with their drinks, she d decided on a green salad and a broiled trout filet. Jim Bob went for the steak, the largest and most expensive cut they offered, with a loaded baked potato and a side order of sauteed mushrooms. He ordered an appetizer of oysters Bienville for the two of them to share and a bottle of cabernet sauvignon with two glasses.
She waited until he d gulped down half his martini, the time span of about four seconds, before she went back to the subject they had supposedly come to discuss. ''Why don t we start with the ideas you ve come up with since our meeting this morning? That will give me more insight as to how you see this working.''
His mouth stretched into a smile. ''I hate to talk business on an empty stomach. Why don't you tell me something about yourself? And, by the way, the color of that suit really brings out the green of your eyes.''
''You're welcome. Now tell me, what does an attractive little filly like you do for fun?'' ''I work.''
''That sounds much too boring, and I have a feeling you're not a boring lady.''
''Actually, I am.'' She sipped her water. ''But if you want to know about me, I can certainly give you the details that affect my ability to do my job. I have an undergraduate degree in graphic arts and a master s degree in commercial advertising. I've worked for Clintock, Mitchum and O'Connell for almost two years.''
''And I'm sure you're very good at what you do. But you can't just work. As pretty as you are, I bet you have dozens of men on the string.''
''Afraid not. I've never wanted the kind of man who would settle for dangling from a string.''
''Then you must break a lot of hearts.''
''None that I know of.''
''I don't believe that for a second.''