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"Sorry, Claiborne. The decision's been made. You're off the project. A lot of people don't like all the notoriety and publicity you've been getting lately because of your association with Mitchell Butler and his daughter, Alicia."
Jake knew better than to defend himself by saying he was a victim of Butler, too.
"I'm just the messenger," the caller said.
Jake clenched the phone but said nothing more. He wouldn't beg.
Not that he hadn't tried to defend himself to the press earlier in the week after they'd set up base camps outside his home and office. All he'd accomplished was to give the reporters words to twist in such a way as to make him look like he was guilty of having been a partner to Butler's embezzlement scheme.
A final click was followed by a dial tone.
For a second Jake thought about Mitchell Butler and his beautiful daughter. Had she aided and abetted her father?
Jake Claiborne felt his headache build as he replaced the telephone. Not that he hadn't been expecting such a call.
He wouldn't think about her. Or the night he'd spent in her arms. Or how cool and aloof she'd been ever since. Not that he could blame her. Hell, he and Hayes Daniels, his twin brother's CEO, had turned Mitchell into the feds the day after Jake had made love to her.
No doubt she was as guilty as her father. To think or feel anything about such a witch was a recipe for more disaster. No, the thing to do was to move on.
For a long moment he stared down at the miniature New Orleans he'd built. The structures, which were composed of cardboard, plastic and painted foam, looked vivid and exciting on his table against the window. When his icy-blue gaze swept to the model of the brazenly dramatic stadium that until five minutes ago he and his team had still dreamed of building, the hammer in his right temple pounded even more viciously.
Don't think about her.
Mitchell Butler had been rich and powerful and admireduntil six weeks ago. Now his shipyard was bankrupt and his plans for a merger with Claiborne Energy defunct. His pampered daughter had been fired from her job as editor of the Louisiana Observer. Millions were missing from Butler's offshore bank in the Caymans and from Houses for Hurricane Victims. Or was it billions? The figures quoted by the media seemed to grow exponentially.
Mitchell was broke and so were his investors. Butler, who was the most despised man in Louisiana, was responsible for ruining a lot of people besides Jake.
Tempted to smash the little buildings to the floor, Jake made a fist. He needed a few moments to himself to get his mind off the Butlers and regain his control.
Leaning against his desk and relaxing his hand, he stood there for a long moment, wondering how he'd tell his employees the bad news.
Better to face them now. Better to get it over with.
He jammed his hands into the pockets of his faded jeans and strode out of his private office into that of his secretary.
"Vanessa. Have everybody assemble in the boardroom. Say, in five minutes. And hold my calls."
Vanessa, who had twenty years on him and a will of iron hardened by a bitter marital experience, continued to tap steadily on her keyboard. She was a formidable worker, A single mother, she'd raised her three boys on her own.
Jake stepped closer to her desk and whispered, "It's not my fault your ex cheated on you and got that other woman pregnant."
Frowning, she pulled her gaze from her computer screen and looked up at him.
"Just checking to see if you even knew I was here or heard a word I said," he said.
"Five minutes. Boardroom. Everybody assemble. Hold calls." She poked her pencil into her bun, whirled, got on the intercom and barked out the order.
Ten minutes later, his headache much worse, Jake stood before sixty of his employees.
"I have some bad news," he said, stiffening when they whitened. He disliked disappointing those who counted on him almost as much as he hated failing.
"We can't get the funding we need to build the stadium. Jones won't even pay for our latest revisions to the designs so I'm afraid I have no choice but to "
He was about to mention he would be calling quite a few people into his office to discuss their termination when Vanessa whirled toward him looking as dark as those first ominous storm bands on the horizon that signaled a hurricane. She slapped a phone into his palm.
She was frowning so coldly he knew better than to ask what could possibly be more important than his informing his employees that because of Mitchell Butler he was going to have to let quite a few of them go.
"Your house alarm system went off. Your service says it's broken glass and that a perimeter has been breached."
"So? Tell them to send the police."
Vanessa's thin, painted eyebrows arched. "I did. Officer Thomas, who's on the phone, is there now. He says a Miss Alicia Butler's at your house demanding to see you and that she has her cat and a suitcase with her. What is this about?"
"I don't know."
But what was she doing there? She wouldn't return his calls and now she was at his house with her cat? Had she been trying to break in? Why? His pulse accelerated. With rage, he tried to tell himself.
"Claiborne speaking," he growled impatiently into the receiver.
"Mr. Claiborne. Officer Thomas. Sorry to bother you. You've got a yard full of reporters along with some angry hecklers."
"I know." They'd been there ever since a lead story in the newspaper had all but accused him of helping Mitchell Butler embezzle funds from Houses for Hurricane Victims, a charity Jake had created and foolishly put Mitchell in charge of.
"A Miss Alicia Butler and her cat were on your veranda when I arrived, sir," the officer explained. "Apparently, some of her father's investors followed her from her apartment, and the crowd got pretty stirred up. Someone threw a brick through your front window and ran off. I've got Miss Butler and her cat in my patrol car. She's pretty shaken up, and her cat won't stop howling."
Although Jake rented his home, it was a large, modern house in a top-end neighborhood. Unfortunately, he lived next to his landlady, Jan Grant, who was both nosy and highly opinionated. Jan had already complained about rude reporters disrupting her mornings. The last thing he needed was for her to get upset about the arrival of the police and evict him.
"Officer, I'm sorry about all the excitement. Give me a minute. I was in the middle of something when you called."
Rubbing his brow, he tried to think what he should do. He wanted to deal with the layoffs now. But Alicia, who'd been hounded in the papers and on television because of her father's problems, was in big trouble. She'd come to him for a reason. Why?
Ever since Mitchell had been federally indicted and put under house arrest, she'd been pestered by the federal government, the press and her father's investors. She'd looked thin and vulnerable in the pictures he'd seen of her on television.
Against his will he remembered a night that should never have happened and a delectable, silken, female body writhing beneath his a body that had been in tune with his like no other. Prim and proper Alicia Butler had driven him past the brink of sanity. He wished he could erase all memories of her, but despite what he'd learned about her father since that evening, he hadn't been able to.
Indeed, he'd thought about Alicia and how sweet she'd seemed and what they had done that night too often. Hell, they'd barely managed to get inside his house and lock his door before they'd stripped and made love.
Aware that his employees were watching him and hanging on his every word, he realized he had to get his mind off sex with Alicia and act quickly.
"You said she has her cat with her? And a suitcase?"
Alarm bells that had more to do with memories of Alicia's sensuality than her cat and suitcase had his temple throbbing harder than ever.
She hadn't come to see him on a whim.
"The girl seems unwell."
"Whatever do you mean?" Jake asked, suddenly more concerned than he should have been.
"Her voice is so soft I can barely hear her."
Jake's eyes burned as he remembered the honeyed tones of Alicia's cultured voice whispering his name as he'd made love to her. Why did every detail about their night together stand out?
The faces of his employees blurred.
"I'll come home immediately and take care of this," he said.
Sounding relieved, the officer said a quick goodbye.
Jake handed the phone to Vanessa.
"I didn't realize you were personally involved with Alicia Butler," Vanessa hissed as soon as she had him all to herself in his office.
Her accusing tone set him on edge. The last thing he desired was the third degree from his secretary. Without looking at her, he grabbed his keys out of a drawer and slung his jacket over one shoulder.
"I'm not," he lied.
"Then what is she doing on your doorstep?"
"I can't let you know until I find out, now, can I?"
"I don't like the sound of this. If there are reporters and cops along with Alicia at your house, there'll be more bad publicity. The Butlers are thieves. You'll be tarred with the same brush. We're barely surviving this downturn as it is."
"You think I don't know that? I'm already taking the rap for what Mitchell did. Look, why don't you concentrate on taking care of things here while I go to see what she wants, okay?"
"You're right, of course. This whole thing just has me upset."
When he reached the parking garage, his gut twisted as he thought about all the people he'd have to fire later because of Alicia Butler and her father.
When Jake braked sharply in his drive, six reporters stampeded across the wet grass toward him. There had been only one this morning. No sooner did he open his door than they shoved raised microphones at his face.
The curtain next door on Jan Grant's front window was pulled aside and he made out the stout bulk of his landlady, who wasn't about to miss anything.
A snicker from the closest reporter. "What was Alicia Butler doing on your doorstep?"
Instead of dignifying the man with an answer, Jake focused on the slim figure hunched in the back of the single patrol car parked in front of his home beyond the reporters' dripping black umbrellas. Then he looked at the broken window beside his front door.
He knew he should hate Alicia, but he couldn't forget the beating she'd taken from the press for the past few weeks. Ever since that article about how he'd appointed Mitchell Butler treasurer of Houses for Hurricane Victims, and about how all the funds had vanished, he'd really been able to relate to what she must have been going through.
She looked too crushed and defenseless cowering in the back of that car, so utterly unlike the tall, elegant woman he'd bedded or the defiant woman who'd told him to go to hell the next morning. He couldn't hate her. Fool that he was, his chest constricted with sympathy.
A cop, who was probably Officer Thomas, pointed needlessly toward his car. "She's over there."
Jake loped past the reporters, his Italian loafers sinking into the ooze of his soaked lawn as he made his way toward the patrol car.
"Alicia?" he muttered in a harsh tone as he rapped his knuckles on the glass window.
She rolled the window down a few inches and his gaze roved the length of her willowy body, taking in her white, translucent skin. Mascara ran beneath her long-lashed, almond-shaped, brown eyes. Wet, dark ropes of her hair stuck to her neck. Despite her thinness and her pallor, she affected him every bit as intensely as she had their one night together.
Opening the door, he took her hand, which felt icy, and helped her out.
She wore a white, gauzy dress that clung. When his gaze lingered on the raindrops moistening her full lips, he remembered with an almost visceral ache exactly how soft that mouth had been against his and exactly how sweet she'd tasted.
His lips thinned as other memories of the intimacies they'd shared assaulted him. With all her problems, why was she here?
"Thank you for coming so fast," she said.
"How did you get here?" he asked.
"Well, you were reckless to come in a public taxi and let your horde follow you."
"II didn't think. Sorry I embarrassed you."
"You could have called me. We could have met somewhere discreet."
"Sorry. I hate all this as much as you do."
The officer had been right about her looking ill. The brown eyes that had sparkled with fire each and every time he'd kissed her or licked her that night were dull and glazed with pain.
Frowning, Jake looked across his yard and saw Officer Thomas talking to the reporters. Jake's selfish agenda would be best served if he told the officer to see about her. But an unhealthy mixture of curiosity, sympathy and some self-destructive emotion that was better left unanalyzed overpowered him.
Fool that he was, instead of signaling for the policeman, he grabbed her hand and pointed her in the direction of the sidewalk that led to his front door. Then he leaned inside the car and picked up Alicia's suitcase and her cat carrier. Hissing, the animal lunged at the walls of his cage. Ignoring the beast, Jake strode up the walk after Alicia. Pulling out his keys, he unlocked his door, then thrust it open so violently it banged the wood paneling of his interior wall.
He stood to one side so that she could enter. Reluctant to follow him, she remained frozen, her skirt dripping, her eyes staring at him, so he said, "In case you didn't notice, I'm inviting you inside."
"I noticed," she whispered in a sexy croak that unnerved him.
"So, ladies first."
A bolt of lightning was followed by a crash of thunder. Then several flashbulbs went off in their faces.
Yowling, Gus hurled himself against the side of the cage, rocking it even harder.
"Your cat says he thinks going inside would be a very good idea," Jake said.
"He has issues about water, not to mention thunder."
"Well, if you came over here to grant interviews on my porch, enjoy. But Gus and I have had enough of our five minutes of fame. We'd prefer to go inside and open a can of tuna."
Once he had set her cat and her bag down inside his ultramodern foyer, which was now covered in glass shards, he ran his hand along the slick, polished surface of his paneled wall until he found the light switch. Flipping it on, he looked back outside. She was still glaring at him.
"Your foyer is not exactly neutral territory," she whispered.
"Don't remind me."