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Within the fast closing walls of his downtown L.A. executive officea modern, stylized space reflective of his personal tastes, professional achievements and global prioritiesJeff Norton watched the limitless sky of his future crack and crumble as the woman in front of him doubled over, one arm clutching his trash can, while the other shot straight. Her hand alternating between a traffic cop's stop signal and a single finger indicating it was going to be a minute before she got to him.
"Not a problem, Darcy," he managed in a voice barely recognizable even to himself. "Really. Take all the time you need."
The sounds of distress emanating from the depths of his violated wastebasket ceased and the Vegas cocktail waitress he'd found too tempting to resist three months ago pinned him with a watery stare before rolling her you-did-this-to-me eyes in disgust.
Which was almost enough to pull a laugh from him, except, yeah, that look said it all. This was the end of days.
Because while it wasn't any great mystery as to why this woman was seeking him out now, months after those fateful few hours they'd spent together that ended with him staring down in abject horror at what could best be described as an epic latex fail, whether the hormone-wreaking miracle behind this reunion was, in fact, his, or whether his portfolio simply made him the most obvious solution to a problem which might be laid at the feet of any number of other candidates, was still yet to be seen.
Though even as he thought it, something inside him rebelled at the idea.
If she'd been here after one Hell, if she'd still been there that first night when he came back from the bathroom
He swallowed. Sucked a deep breath, only to realize what a monumental mistake he'd made when the smell permeating his officehis sanctuary, his power position, his godforsaken happy-place-no-morehad his stomach contracting in some kind of sympathetic reflex.
Darcy looked over the plastic liner at him and, seeming to catch the wayward direction of his stomach, tightened her hold in a move very obviously saying, Get your own can, buddy.
His molars ground together. This was the mother of his child.
Crossing to his desk, he dialed his assistant's extension. "Charlie, I need a bottle of mouthwash, a toothbrush and paste and a dozen trash liners. And if you can get it all in here in the next five minutes I'll cut you a check for a thousand dollars today."
Darcy pinched her eyes shut a moment and when she looked back at him, it was with reluctant gratitude. "Thank you."
"Suppose it's the least I can do ." Considering what he'd maybe, probably done already.
He watched the rise and fall of her shoulders as she struggled for her composure.
He waved her off, but her eyes narrowed so he let her go on. "About springing this on you. It must be a shock."
More so now than it would have been two months ago. "We can talk about it after you've had a minute to yourself. There's a private bathroom back this way. Charlie's freakishly efficient"
As if underscoring his point, a knock sounded as the office door swung open for the fastest man in the West, who'd somehow managed to collect a tray of the requested items along with an unopened sleeve of saltine crackers in a matter of seconds. Considering Charlie normally coordinated international business meetings, spoke seven languages and had an MBA from the top school in the U.S., the toiletry run wasn't perhaps the best use of his time. But for Jeff, the guy had just come through in what ranked up there with a life-and-death emergency.
"Charlie Litsky, this is Darcy" And there it was, the glaring reminder he didn't even know her last name. Right. Moving on. "Darcy, Charlie," he said, leading them back to the private bathroom in the far corner of the office.
"Why don't I take this?" he said, relieving a sallow-cheeked Darcy of the trash can at the door. "Before you leave today, I'll give you Charlie's contact information. If you need to get ahold of me, or anything else, he'll be able to help you."
But then Charlie produced a card of his own, already inked in with a private mobile number. The man was worth his weight in gold. Proven even more so, when they excused themselves to leave Darcy at the bathroom and Charlie eyed the trash Jeff was holding at arm's length.
"Can I take that for you?"
Jeff blew out a humorless laugh. More than anything he wanted to say yes. But whatever the actual protocol for vomit in the office was, Jeff couldn't stick this with someone else.
Holding out a hand for the liners instead, he shook his head. "This is my mess. Think I'd better be the one to clean it up."
Darcy Penn glared into the mirror in front of her, scrubbing the foul taste off her teeth and tongue with a vigor fueled by humiliation and outrage. One that wasn't going to get her anything but gums that wouldn't grow back if she didn't ease up a little. The nerve.
He'd referred to her as "his mess." And offered his assistant's number in case she needed to get ahold of him.
What an ass.
And to think she'd been afraid of seeing him again. Worried she'd find herself susceptible to the same judgment-obliterating spell she'd fallen under that last night in Vegas when she'd found this guy so unbelievably compelling, she'd essentially broken every rule she had, just for a few hours with him. Anxious the man whose easy charm and demanding kisses infiltrated her dreams with nightmarish frequency would be as irresistible as she remembered him. And once again, he'd tempt her toward the kind of destructive fantasies she'd made it her life's mission to avoid.
Nope. Whatever freaky mojo he'd been working back in Vegas wasn't in play today.
Not even a little.
Well fine, maybe a little.
There'd been an instant when Jeff opened his office door and she'd seen something hot in his eyesbut that was before she'd lunged past him making a practiced grab for the nearest garbage. Before the horror replaced the heat. And all the walls she'd suspected were there from the start slammed into place.
Now not even a little.
Which was good. Because her plate was more than full enough with this serving-for-two fate had dished her without having to worry about some weird chemistry snaking through the air between them. It distracted her with a momentary feel-good buzz she was too much of a realist to think might actually last, when she needed to focus on working out the details that would impact not just the rest of her life, but her child's, as well.
Her frenetic brushing slowed and she spit the paste. God, what was he going to want? The mess cleaning reference didn't exactly suggest an instant, joyfully embraced, paternal connection. And how she felt about that she didn't know.
On the one hand, her child would be lucky to have the kind of emotional security afforded by two parents who wanted it. But on the other, did either she or her baby really need to be tied to some overgrown kid who, by all appearances, didn't know the meaning of the word no? The man had made a desk of some re-purposed airplane wing and a conference table from a disassembled jukebox topped in glass, for crying out loud. Essentially turning his workspace into a playground filled with the toys of a boy's heart.
And, yes, that boyish, world-on-a-string mentality packaged within a rugged all-man's body may have held some appeal when she first encountered it in Vegas. He'd known how to laugh. How to grab life with both hands and live in the moment without overana-lyzing every move he made, without weighing every decision. And for a few incredible hours he'd shown her how to do the same.
But now, as that same mentality applied to the father of her child and with her body as exhibit A as one of the consequences to that just for fun mindset?
She let out a slow breath. Reached for the mouth-wash, went for a bracing swish and spit.
Not so much.
Darcy placed a hand over her still flat belly, her emotions caught in a tug-of-war between awe over the precious life within her and resentment directed at herself. Disappointment. Frustration.
She'd known better. She'd spent years saying no to every temptation, because she'd had no one to count on but herself. No net to fall back in. No desire to allow herself to be trapped the way her mother had been.
She'd always been so relentlessly careful.
So how was it, this time, this one night, this guy she'd said yes?
Three months earlier.
And here he'd thought he might be bored.
Within the swank Vegas lounge, Jeff Norton folded his arms over the tabletop, leaning forward in what had turned out to be a ringside seat for the crash-and-burn All-Stars playing out before him as a table of guys tried to score on the leggy blonde who'd just served him his Scotch.
He couldn't believe the one kid was throwing her a line after the world-class freeze she'd laid on the last chump. And his friends were encouraging him. Forget that on the hot scale, this woman ranked so far out of the kid's league, they weren't even on the same planet, let alone page. But hadn't they seen her eyes? The flat, wholly uninviting, all-business expression leaving zero wiggle room for misinterpretation: not interested. Period.
Probably not. These guys had a just legal look about them, which, coupled with their collection of empties lined up like trophies on the table, and the frequent "Vegas, baby!" fist pumps suggested they hadn't made it past the admittedly dynamite body before their brains blew out.
Live and learn, boys.
Thirty seconds later, the kid was taking a round of conciliatory back slaps from his cohorts and Jeff was back to waiting for Connor. His best friend fresh off a broken engagement and the reason behind this "guys' weekend" in Sin City.
Where the hell was he anyway?
Checking his texts, Jeff cursed seeing it was going to be at least another hour.
Screw it. He wasn't interested in watching guys, age twenty-one to ninety-three line up to strike out while Connor wrapped up his call with Hong Kong. Flagging another server, he handed her his still full drink then pulled out a few bills for the table.
He was halfway to the door when feminine laughter, rich and warm, spilled down the hall beside the bar. The full-bodied sound of it snared his senses and had him cranking his head around to catch a glimpse of the source.
He stopped dead, his eyes locking on the silky blond ponytail streaming over one shoulder. The legs. The hourglass curves, and finally the softest, warmest, twinkling gray eyes he'd ever seen, crinkled at the edges as his cocktail waitress peered up at the ceiling laughing at whatever it was the shorter, redheaded server adjusting her shoe had said.
Gone was that untouchable, unattainable, disinterested, cold set of attractive features. And in their place was this woman.
And no wonder she'd kept that laugh under wraps.
She could barely make it across the lounge as it was without some bozo putting a move on her. If anyone saw her like this.
Well, hell, their thinking would probably follow the same as his.
How do I get her to laugh like that for me?
They'd never leave her alone.
The redhead sauntered deeper down the hall and the leggy blonde with the killer laugh straightened her apron and turnedpulling up short at the sight of Jeff standing there.
The warmth and light from her eyes blinked off as she schooled her features back into a mask of utter disinterest. The one that probably would have been easier to take if it were utter contempt because at least then a guy would know he'd made her radar. Damn, she was good.
Yeah, Jeff wasn't going anywhere.
"Another Scotch when you get a minute," he said, flashing her a grin before starting back to his table.
It wasn't like he'd come to Vegas with some plan to score. He hadn't. Only now the part of him that couldn't resist a challenge, the part that got off on getting what no one else could havethe fastest time, the highest grade, the biggest trophy, the most successful com-panythat part wanted to stake a claim on the secret prize so effectively hidden away, he wouldn't have believed in its existence if he hadn't heard the seductive, tantalizing sound of it himself.
And as it happened, he had an hour to kill.
Whatever the deal was with the guy from table twelve, Darcy didn't have time for it.
To think she'd pegged him as harmless.
Not in general, no. He definitely had the whole devastating male magnetism thing happening with those roughed up looks and his buttoned-down suit. Every set of female eyes in the place and probably half the men had homed in on him the second he entered the bar. But he hadn't been on the makeand she'd clocked enough hours in this lounge over the past two years to be able to tell. So she hadn't paid him much mind. At least not until she turned around to find him watching her with some half-cocked gotcha grin, looking like he'd busted her with her hand in the cookie jar.
Because he'd caught her laughing.
Something she didn't let happen very often at work as it tended to give the male clientele the wrong idea about what kind of good time she might be interested in having.
But then, tonight of all nights, what did it really matter?
Leaning a hip against the bar, she waited for Mr.
Not-So-Harmless-After-All at table twelve's fresh Scotch.
This was her last night on the job. Her lastshe checked her watch and felt a surge of excitementtwo hours. And then she was through.
Sheryl Crow echoed through her mind, singing about leaving Las Vegas, and it was all Darcy could do not to put a little swing in her step as she pushed off the bar. Two more hours of tables to turn, drinks to serve, tips to make. And then she'd move on to life's next adventure.
Though even as she thought it, the word seemed an off fit to the relentlessly conservative way she managed her life.
Adventure implied risks and unknowns. Challenges. Excitement. That wasn't exactly how Darcy rolled. She couldn't afford to. Not after the steep price she'd paid to ensure her independence. She knew the suffocating experience of being at the wrong man's mercy and she'd been willing to sacrifice her education to facilitate that escape. Drop out of high school and get the job that set her free.
She'd sworn never to allow herself to be in a position of dependence again, which meant she took care of herself. She played it safe. Stayed in control. Lived within her means. And if the cost inherent to a life that felt safe was adventure of the tall, watered-down variety? She'd gladly pay it.
Stopping at table twelve, she leveled him with a flat stare. "Your Scotch, sir. Anything else?"
His speculative look had her wondering what this guy's game was exactly.
And then his focus lowered to her mouth, causing an unfamiliar dip and roll deep in her belly. One she met with a stern frown because oh, no, she was not going to be tempted by this guy. No way.