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The Accidental Engagement
A Chance Romance
By Maggie Dallen
KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP.Copyright © 2015 Maggie Dallen
All rights reserved.
Ivy Sinclair thought she'd seen it all as a hostess at a hotel bar — but when a young man came running up to her with a look of panic before diving behind her hostess stand — well, now she'd really seen everything.
"Excuse me, can I help you?" she asked, looking down at the top of his head as he crouched beside her.
The young man barely looked at her. He was too busy peering around the edge of the stand toward the door. He muttered a curse as a large, brutish man wearing an intimidating scowl walked in.
"I'm not here," the young man at her feet whispered.
"Please," he added. His eyes widened and filled with panic. Ivy couldn't help but take pity.
The large man who looked ready to kill zeroed in on her. "Where is he?"
She swallowed a lump of fear at the aggressive tone. "Where is who?" Ivy tried to keep her voice innocent but it came out as a squeak.
She cleared her throat and tried again. "I'm afraid I don't know to whom you're referring."
He leaned in closer and Ivy fought the impulse to run. "Where is Everett?" he growled.
Ivy stared down the oversized thug who was leaning over the hostess stand. She tried not to flinch even as his hot, rancid breath hit her square in the face.
"As I said before, sir, I have no idea what you're talking about."
Several guests had paused in the hotel lobby, en route to the restaurant to watch the drama unfold. The giant didn't seem to mind the attention but this job was Ivy's only source of income and she could repeat the manager's lecture on courtesy and service verbatim. But above all else, her job was to be discreet.
Ivy had to believe that meant covering for the well-dressed, albeit rumpled young man who was currently crouching behind the hostess stand, uncomfortably close to her legs. She didn't know what the hidden man had done but she couldn't blame him for hiding from the heavyset giant who loomed over her — he looked like a man who was capable of causing serious pain.
And at this particular moment he looked like he would throttle her given the slightest provocation. Ivy was a good foot shorter than the brute, with a petite frame — not exactly an even match. She tried to keep her voice soft but stern — the same tone she used to cajole Otis, her parents' German Shepherd, into his cage when it was time to visit the vet.
"I don't know what this Mr. — uh —"
"Everett. Jack Everett," the man sneered.
The name caused even more passersby to stop in their tracks. Why did that name sound familiar?
"I don't know what Mr. Everett has done, but I assure you I have not seen the man you described come into this restaurant."
His frown deepened into a menacing glare and she added, "If Mr. Everett comes looking for you, I'd be happy to pass along a message, Mr. —"
He leaned in even closer. "You tell Jack that if I see him with my wife again, he's a dead man."
Ivy's hands clenched at her side. That was it. She couldn't have people making death threats in her restaurant. She drew a deep breath and mustered her courage. "If you don't leave immediately, I'm afraid I'll be forced to call the police."
The burly man slammed a fist against the podium. "Listen, lady, I'll do whatever I —" His voice cut off abruptly when she snatched up the phone and started dialing, keeping eye contact all the while.
The man muttered a curse, shook his head, and backed toward the door. "You tell that little bastard I'm coming for him."
When she was certain the man was gone from view, Ivy let out a deep breath and looked down at the young man.
"You are my hero," he said with a grin.
Ivy rolled her eyes and reached out a hand to help him to his feet. "You're Jack, I presume?"
The young man paused on his knees, a lock of floppy brown hair partially covering eyes that were filled with mischief.
"If I were you, I would get out of here quick, before he comes back," she said.
He ignored her advice and grasped her hands in his. "I'm serious, I owe you my life. That guy was going to kill me."
Ivy stifled a laugh at his melodramatic tone. He looked to be around the same age as her — most likely in his late twenties — but everything from his laughing eyes to his mussed hair said he was a little boy in a grown man's body.
"In case you didn't hear, that nice gentleman would prefer that you stay away from his wife. I hope you take his advice," she added, allowing honesty to outweigh discretion for a moment.
His look was sheepish and he gave her an adorable lopsided grin but he made no attempt to deny the accusations. The man had the face of a movie star and clearly the charm and confidence to go with it. She shouldn't be surprised that he was a ladies' man. Working in a hotel restaurant she'd witnessed more than her fair share of adulterous rendezvous. She'd thought she was worldly-wise when she'd first started working at the hotel. She was no longer fresh off the bus from her tiny hometown in Ohio, but she'd still been shocked by the constant and casual affairs. Now, after two years in one of New York's swankiest hotels her scandalized disgust had given way to weary disapproval.
The young man was still on his knees and resisted her insistent tug. She was horrified to realize that the crowd of people who'd gathered to witness the earlier scene were now watching her — with more than a little amusement. Heat flooded her cheeks and she dipped her head. "Please stand up," she muttered.
He flashed her a wicked grin. "Not until you accept my sincere gratitude —"
"Fine, you're welcome. Now stand up, please."
"And tell me how I can repay you," he finished.
"You can repay me by standing up." Whether it was her pleading tone or the red cheeks, he did stand up — and planted a sloppy kiss on her lips.
Sputtering with surprise and embarrassment, she pushed him away and turned her face from the people who were now laughing and clapping. Ivy ducked her head, trying to hide her flaming cheeks behind a curtain of hair. She grabbed Jack by the hand and dragged him into the hallway leading to the restrooms, away from the prying eyes of strangers. "What do you think you're doing?"
"Sorry," he drawled. "I just wanted to say thank you." His eyes were wide with innocence but the unapologetic grin told her that he found her distress entertaining.
"You've said it," Ivy said with a scowl. She tugged her hand out of his and crossed her arms into her chest.
His lips twitched in what she assumed was a valiant attempt to keep from laughing. "Do you know who I am?"
Ivy blinked at the sudden turn in conversation. "According to your friend who was just here, I'd assume you're Jack Everett."
He crossed his arms and leaned back, his eyes searching her face, waiting for something — some sort of recognition, no doubt. The hotel where she worked was one of the most exclusive in the city; nearly every guest thought they were famous as well as rich. They were almost always wrong.
"Should that mean something to me?" she asked.
"Nothing," he said with a laugh. "Nothing at all. So now that we've established my name, why don't you tell me yours?"
"As in poison ivy?"
"As in The Holly and the Ivy." At his raised eyebrow, she explained. "My mom has a thing for Christmas."
"Don't tell me you have a sister named Holly," he teased. She gave a sheepish shrug and he burst out laughing.
He gave a jaunty salute as he walked back toward the hotel lobby. "Thank you for saving my life, Ivy Sinclair. I'll be in touch."
* * *
Word had spread quickly in the hotel and less than twenty minutes after Jack left, Ivy had been summoned to the manager's office. Franklin Webster was known for being a tough boss but he kept his mouth shut through the entire tale, giving her a chance to fully explain her side of the story.
Ivy cleared her throat and forced herself to continue despite Franklin's intimidating frown. "So you see, sir, I really didn't intend to cause such a scene. I was trying my best to keep the situation under wraps. But this young man ... well, I'm afraid he was a bit of a ham and he sort of made me — er, us — the center of attention."
When she'd finished explaining, he took his time polishing his glasses and made a show of straightening his tie. Ivy tried not to squirm in her seat. Every time she was called into Franklin's office she couldn't help but feel like she'd been called in to see the principal. More nerve-wracking since the only times she was called on to speak to the principal were when her sister Holly was in trouble.
"Ivy, do you have any idea who Jack Everett is?"
Ivy's eyes widened in surprise. "Uh, no sir."
Franklin sighed. He handed her a copy of one of the tabloids that were sold in the hotel's gift shop.
Ivy stared at the front cover, momentarily speechless. There he was — the man who'd huddled by her feet while she fended off an angry husband. He was flashing the camera that now-familiar cocky grin, one hand on the back of a supermodel as they made their way toward a waiting limo. "Tech Mogul Out on the Town," the headline read. Ivy had never taken much interest in gossip columns or celebrities and today her willful ignorance was on display.
When she looked up she saw that Franklin was watching her with a tight-lipped look of disapproval. "I'd say your Mr. Everett has a tendency to find the spotlight. Or rather, the spotlight has a tendency to find him."
Ivy let out a pent up breath. "So you're not angry?"
"No, I'm not angry. I think you handled the whole thing quite well, considering...."
"Oh, thank you, Mr. Webster," Ivy interrupted.
Franklin's lips twisted into a rare hint of a smile. "Of course. And if Mr. Everett should be true to his offer and come back to the hotel, I know you will do everything in your power to keep him ...entertained."
The suggestion made Ivy's skin crawl but her smile didn't falter. It remained frozen in place as her stomach churned. She had heard stories about coworkers being urged to dress more provocatively or to flirt with the guests but she never believed them to be true. She struggled to keep her voice even. "Excuse me?"
His expression remained coy. "I think you know what I mean, my dear." His gaze lowered and he studied her figure as though appraising a piece of art at auction. "My sources tell me you were quite a hit with the young man."
She forced a joking tone as she held the tabloid up before her. "From what I gather, most women are a hit with that young man."
Franklin let out a cackle that made her jump in her seat. Franklin Webster did not laugh. Everyone knew that. But at least he wasn't eyeing her like a piece of meat anymore.
He settled back into his seat. "I like you, Ivy. You're smart and you're a go-getter. This is a tough business and there aren't a lot of openings in the areas where you show an interest ..." his voice trailed off and he seemed to be weighing how best to phrase the next statement. "You'll soon learn that to be considered for promotion, an employee must show that he or she is willing to go above and beyond for the company."
Bile rose in her throat. She was going to be sick. She knew exactly what he was insinuating but feigned confusion. "Mr. Webster, are you suggesting that I get involved in a romantic relationship with Mr. Everett for the sake of my job?"
Franklin's mouth opened and closed to resemble a guppy as he protested the coarse accusation. "Of course not. I would never suggest such a thing."
"Of course not," she repeated — because that would be illegal.
Feeling a twinge of success at having the last word, she made a move to leave the office but he stopped her.
"No one would ever make such a crass suggestion at this hotel," he said. "But I hope you keep in mind, my dear, that there are a limited number of jobs at this hotel and there is no room for employees who aren't team players."
She stopped in her tracks halfway to the door with her back to the manager. The threat could hardly be called "veiled".
Panic warred with disgust. She needed this job.
She heard the crinkle of the tabloid when he picked it up. "We're willing to overlook your antics this afternoon because we know that you are a team player. Am I making myself clear?"
Ivy resisted the urge to spin around and tell the old man where he could shove the tabloid and her job. But that couldn't happen. She could barely afford to pay this month's rent and she was drowning in debt from her stint on unemployment. And there was no way she could turn to her parents. They had enough on their plate trying to keep their house. The last thing they needed was another mouth to feed.
It was only the thought of having to run back to her parents that gave her the strength to turn around and force a smile. "Understood, Mr. Webster."
* * *
Ivy's studio apartment in Brooklyn was tiny, but it was all hers, and for that she was eternally grateful. Particularly that evening when all she wanted was a hot bath and a glass of wine.
Hours had passed and she still couldn't get rid of the disgusted feeling. Not even a hot bath could wash it away. For what felt like the millionth time that week, Ivy considered quitting. Oh, it would feel so good. She sank further into the tub and let herself daydream about all the ways she could give her notice. In reality, she would go to bed, wake up, and do it all over again.
She'd moved to the city right after college because she'd landed a great job in an up-and-coming ad agency. But less than two years into the great new job, the recession had hit, and Ivy's entire office had been liquidated. Hers was a small branch of a large company and the closure of their office had been a necessary sacrifice for the greater good — or so she'd been told.
The hostess gig wasn't exactly her dream job but it paid the bills and it was steady work after a series of temp jobs. And it wasn't all bad. More and more lately she'd been called in to help the assistant manager with event planning for the hotel and she'd discovered it was something she really enjoyed. She knew there was an opening for an events manager at the hotel. If she could just keep her head down and hold her tongue with Franklin, the job could be hers.
She sighed and sipped her wine. That was a very big "if."
The front door buzzer rang just as she was stepping out of the tub. Her elderly neighbor Edith liked to stop in for a cup of tea and a chat often and she always seemed to show up at a time when Ivy craved solitude. Sleepy and wet from the bath, she threw on a robe and went to answer the door. She tried to summon a smile for her elderly friend.
"Hi Ed —" The name stuck in her throat as she faced the stranger in her doorway.
This visitor was not a harmless old woman.
Ivy's mouth gaped as she took in the tall man with dark hair and even darker eyes. His shoulders were broad and he wore a well-tailored suit that looked incongruous in the dingy hallway of her apartment building. Behind him stood a nondescript man with an earpiece and ramrod posture.
"Miss Sinclair?" The tall man before her smiled, causing his eyes to crinkle and eased the intimidation factor only slightly.
"Yes?" Ivy cinched her robe tighter. She was keenly aware of the fact that she wore nothing beneath her flimsy robe.
"I'm Daniel Gladwell, I work with Jack Everett. I believe you met him this afternoon?"
Ivy nodded, unable to take her eyes off of the man before her. He had the kind of chiseled features that were usually reserved for statues or actors portraying James Bond. She made a futile attempt to swipe away some of the unruly auburn curls that had escaped from the loose bun atop her head.
She closed the door a little behind her and took a step into the hallway, wary now that the surprise of finding a gorgeous man in her doorway had worn off.
"Can I help you with something?"
The man's smile grew and he tilted his chin in a charming sort of aw-shucks way, but it was all show — the look in his eyes was strictly business. "Actually, I believe you can. May I come in?"
Ivy hesitated; her small town politeness warred with practical street smarts. "I'd rather not invite strange men into my apartment."
Excerpted from The Accidental Engagement by Maggie Dallen. Copyright © 2015 Maggie Dallen. Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
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