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Dawson Burke was used to people doing things a certain way. His way.
For that reason alone he found the telephone message he'd just retrieved from his voice mail annoying. He flipped his cell phone closed and tapped it against his chin as he stared out the limousine's windows at the fender-to-fender traffic fighting its way into Denver. What did Eve Hawley mean she would be popping by his office later today to discuss his gift needs? What was there to discuss?
He'd only met his previous personal shopper on a handful of occasions during the past several years. All other dealings with Carole Deming had been accomplished by telephone, fax, e-mail or proxy. Dawson provided a list of names and the necessary compensation. In return, Carole bought, wrapped and saw to it that his gifts were delivered. Mission accomplished. Everyone happy.
Well, he wasn't happy at the moment.
Eve said she needed to ask him some questions about the intended recipients on his list. Eve said she preferred to meet with her clients face-to-face at least once before setting out to do their shopping. She said it gave her a feel for their tastes and helped her personalize the purchases she made. Eve said
Dawson scrubbed a hand over his eyes and expelled a ragged breath. This was the third voice mail full of comments and requests that he'd received from the woman. He didn't have time to deal with this bossy stand-in any more than he cared to make time for Christmas. He couldn't help but wonder what had possessed Carole, who was recuperating from knee surgery, to suggest this woman as her replacement.
Maybe he should call Carole and see if she could recommend someone else. Someone who didn't ask unnecessary questions. Someone who simply did his bidding and required no hand-holding.
The limousine pulled to the curb in front of the building that housed the offices of Burke Financial Services. His grandfather, Clive Burke Senior, had started the company, which specialized in managing stock portfolios and corporate pensions. Clive Senior had been gone nearly a dozen years and Dawson's father, Clive Junior, had retired the spring before last. These days, Dawson was the Burke in charge. And he believed in running a tight ship.
His secretary rose from behind her desk just outside his office the moment the elevator doors slid open on the eleventh floor. Her name was Rachel Stern and her surname suited her perfectly. She was an older woman with steel-gray hair, shoulders as wide as a linebacker's and a face that would have made a hardened criminal cross to the opposite side of the street before passing her. In the dozen years Rachel had been in his employ Dawson couldn't recall ever seeing her crack a smile. Stern. That she was, but also efficient and dedicated. He swore sometimes she knew what he wanted before he did.
This morning was no different. She fell into step beside him, prepping him on the day's itinerary even before he had peeled off his leather gloves and shrugged out of his heavy wool overcoat.
"The people from Darien Cooper called. They got held up in traffic and are running about fifteen minutes late. I've put the information packets in the conference room and the PowerPoint presentation is ready to go."
"And my speech for the Denver Economic Club this evening?" he asked.
"Typed, fact-checked and on your desk. The television stations are looking for a preview since their reporters won't be able to get anything back before the late night news. I've taken the liberty of highlighting a couple of points that might make for good sound bites."
"Oh, and your mother called."
Dawson gritted his teeth. He reminded himself that the only reason she called him so often was because she loved him and was worried about him. Of course that did nothing to assuage his guilt. "Does she want me to call her back?"
"No, she just asked me to remind you to have your tuxedo dry-cleaned for the ball this weekend. She's reserved a seat for you at the head table and won't take no for an answer."
He bit back a sigh. The annual Tallulah Malone Burke Charity Ball and Auction was the see-and-be-seen-at event for Denver's social elite. He'd hoped to send a generous check along with his regrets. But the ball was celebrating its silver anniversary this year, and he had little doubt his mother would show up at his door to personally escort him.
The cause was worthy, raising funds for the area's less fortunate. At one time Dawson had been happy to do his part by suiting up like a penguin, shaking hands and making small talk with Denver's movers and shakers. But for the past few years he'd made excuses not to attend the event, which always fell the second Saturday after Thanksgiving. It was a bad time of the year for him. The absolute worst, in fact. He'd been grateful that his mother, who was a stickler for appearances, had been willing to let him shirk his responsibilities as a Burke. Apparently his amnesty had run out.
And she claimed he had inherited his stubborn streak from his father.
He consulted his watch. "My housekeeper should be in by now. Give her a call. Ingrid will see to it that the tux gets cleaned. And when you get a minute"
"A cup of coffee and a toasted bagel, light on the cream cheese, with a side of fresh fruit," Rachel finished for him.
His efficient secretary could all but read his mind, whereas Eve Hawley apparently was unable to make sense of a simple list of names, even when it included particulars like sex, age and how they were acquainted with Dawson.
"Will there be anything else?" Rachel asked.
"Actually, yes." He retrieved the cell phone from the inside pocket of his suit coat and handed it to her. "Call Miss Hawley back for me. Hers is the third number down. She's the personal shopper Carole recommended. Tell her I'm too busy to see her today and, though it should be completely self-explanatory, see if you can answer the questions she claims to have about the list of names I had you e-mail her last week."
"Thanks." He reached up to massage the back of his neck as he said it, grimacing when pain radiated all the way down his spine. It had been a frequent visitor for the past three years, ever since the car accident that had claimed the lives of his wife and daughter. Tension made the pain worse. This time of the year, when memories and regrets swirled their thickest, it became almost unbearable.
"Is your back bothering you again?" Rachel inquired in a tone devoid of the syrupy concern he so detested. The last thing he wanted was to be the object of pity.
Yet he knew that's precisely what he had become in many people's eyes.
Poor Dawson Burke.
"I'll call Wanda and see if she can come by for a session between your afternoon meetings today," she said, referring to the masseuse he'd kept on retainer since leaving the hospital after the crash.
That sounded like heaven, but he shook his head. "No time. I ran into Nick Freely on my way out last night. I promised I'd go over some stock options with him."
"I can call him, reschedule," she offered.
"No. I tell you what. Ask Wanda to come by my house this evening. That way I'll be nice and limber for my speech."
When Rachel was gone, he made a mental note to increase the amount on her holiday bonus check. She had it coming.
Eve Hawley had something coming, too, he decided later that evening. And it wasn't monetary compensation.
He was lying on the portable table his masseuse had set up in the center of his den, only a thin white sheet standing between him and immodesty, when his housekeeper tapped at the door.
"Excuse me, Mr. Burke," she said from the doorway. "There's someone here to see you."
He wasn't expecting company. He had barely an hour before he was due to leave for his speech. As Wanda kneaded his knotted muscles with hands that would have done a lumberjack proud, he asked between gritted teeth, "Who is it?"
He lifted his face from the donut-shaped rest and gaped at the housekeeper. "She's here now?"
The woman was relentless and obviously incapable of doing the job if, even after talking to Rachel, she was still hounding him.
"Tell her I'm indisposed."
"I did, Mr. Burke. But she's insisting on seeing you," Ingrid said.
"Insisting? Well, if she's insisting " He figured he knew a surefire way to get rid of her. "Send her in."
"Right now?" The housekeeper gaped at him.
"Yes. Right now." If Eve Hawley wanted to see him, Dawson would give her an eyeful.
Ingrid's gaze cut to his bare back and the sheet that rode low across his hips, covering the essentials and then leaving his legs exposed. She was old enough to be his mother. In fact, it was at his mother's suggestion that he'd hired her. Her pursed lips told him exactly how inappropriate she found his suggestion to be. But, like allor at least the vast majorityof the people in his employ, she minded her own business and did as he asked.
"Very well," she said, withdrawing from the room without further comment.
"Carry on," he told Wanda, before lowering his face back into rest. The masseuse was chopping down his spine in karate fashion when he heard the door open a moment later. The person who entered sucked in a startled breath. Though it was small of him, Dawson grinned at the floor.
"Oh. You're "
"Busy," came his muffled reply.
Feminine laughter trilled. "Actually, I was going to say naked."
"Not quite." But he frowned at the same floor he'd smiled at a moment earlier. She didn't sound nearly as distressed by that fact as he'd hoped.
"I'm Eve Hawley."
"Yes, I know," he snapped. "Even if my housekeeper hadn't announced your arrival, I would recognize your voice from the many messages you've left on my phone."
"Messages that went unreturned," she had the audacity to point out.
"They were returned. My secretary called you back," he said.
"Ah, yes. Mrs. Stern. If I'd wanted to talk to your secretary, Mr. Burke, I would have dialed her direct. I need to speak to you."
Dawson felt the muscles in his back beginning to tighten again despite Wanda's competent ministrations. "Look, Miss Hawley, surely Carole Deming briefed you on what I'm looking for. This is gift shopping, not rocket science. If you can't do the job"
"Oh, I can do the job. I just believe in doing it well," she replied in a voice that was stiff with pride. Another place, another time, he might have admired it. He had no patience for it at the moment. "I won't take up much of your time," she promised.
Dawson relented with a sigh, but he didn't raise his head from the padded hole. He was being rude, insufferably so. But then that was the point. The woman already had strained his patience.
"You want to discuss this right now?" Her tone was incredulous.
"Right now is all the time I have. My schedule is very tight and will be for the next several days."
"I see." He thought she might object and leave. That had been his goal. But he heard a pair of heels click over the parquet floor. They stopped just outside his limited field of vision.
"I have some concerns," she said, her tone that of a professional who apparently was not the least bit concerned about discussing business with a nearly naked man. Perhaps like the housekeeper, she, too, was old enough to be his mother.
"What are these concerns?"
"Well, in addition to business associates and acquaintances, your gift-giving list includes friends and several family members."
"My parents, sister, her husband and their two children," he said. "I'm well aware of who is on the list, Miss Hawley. After all, I'm the one who made it out."
Well, his secretary had done that, but he'd approved the final version.
"I do things a little differently when family members are involved."
Heels clicked on the floor again and Dawson was forced to revise his opinion of her age when a pair of lethal-looking pumps came into view. They were red and made of faux alligator skin. But those weren't the reasons that had Dawson subtracting a few decades from her age. Women of his mother's generation generally didn't have little butterflies tattooed on their ankles.
Curiosity got the better of him. He brought his elbows up and levered partway off the table so that he could see her. Then he sorely wished he hadn't. The rest of Eve Hawley, from the curves that filled out her knit dress to the long dark hair that snaked over her shoulders, was every bit as sexy as her legs and those shoes. Suddenly, the fact that he was nearly naked didn't give Dawson the advantage he'd sought. No. That had shifted squarely to the black-haired beauty who at the moment was eyeing him with her arms crossed, brows raised and unmistakable amusement glimmering in her eyes.
He sent a glance over his shoulder in the direction of his masseuse. "Wanda, that will be enough for now."
"I don't know, Mr. Burke. You still feel awfully tense to me," she objected.
Out of the corner of his eye, he thought he saw Eve's full lips twitch.