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She could do this. She could do this. Really, she could do this.
Rhiannon Jenkins repeated the mantra that had gotten her through so much in the past two years as she squared her shoulders and climbed slowly out of her car. Despite the pep talk she'd given herself all the way over here, she couldn't help feeling like she was headed for the guillotine. Which was ridiculous, she reminded herself impatiently. It was just a business lunch, and she'd had hundreds of them over the course of her career. One more certainly wasn't going to do her in.
Of course, she'd told herself the same thing three years before when she'd made the mistake of trusting a source for her newspaper article. That meeting hadn't killed her, but it had come damn closeand taken a huge amount of her life with it. Including, she admitted with a grim sigh, her ability to confidently meet a man in a packed restauranteven for a lunch date that was strictly business.
But she didn't have a choice. She had to do this. The only other optionrunning back to her boss and best friend, Logan, and telling him that she'd been too chicken to even walk in the restaurant's doorwas somehow a million times worse. He'd taken a chance on her when she'd been all but paralyzed with grief and fear. She wouldn't repay him by screwing up one of the biggest responsibilities he'd given her.
So what if it was the first time she'd pitched a party completely on her own since joining Logan's firm two years before?
So what if the man she was supposed to have lunch with was young and sexy and a little bit intimidating?
So what, even if she was so scared she was literally quaking in the two-hundred-dollar boots she'd bought the night before to give herself courage?
She could do this. She would do this even if it sent her careening over the edge of the sanity she clung to with battered fingertips. She was never going to get better, never going to get any sort of a life back, if she didn't push herself. It was what she'd told Logan when he'd asked if doing this first meeting alone was really okay with her, and it was what she'd told herself in the bathroom mirror a hundred times that morning as she'd put on her makeup.
After gathering the briefcase and purse she'd almost forgotten in the car, Rhiannon headed straight toward the front door of the Mexican restaurant Shawnthe clienthad chosen. As she walked, she did her best to banish the nerves that continued to assault her.
She'd spent her life around menall kinds of menso she felt ridiculous working herself up into this state just because he'd called the office and specifically requested her. Why wouldn't he have? she asked herself viciously. She'd been the one he'd met at the party she'd coordinated on Saturday night, and it was her business card she'd handed him when he'd asked what company she was with. It only stood to reason that he would have asked for her when he'd spoken to the receptionist two days before.
Understanding the whys of how she'd gotten there didn't make it any easier to open the restaurant's door and walk inside. But then, nothing had been easy for nearly three years now. That didn't mean she'd stopped doing thingsit only meant that she had to go through this ridiculous freak-out in anticipation of every new or not-since-the-attack incident that came up. For a woman who had once been known for her intrepid and insightful newspaper articles, it was a hard thing for her to admit. And even harder for her to accept.
She spotted Shawn almost as soon as her eyes adjusted to the restaurant's dim interiorhe was sitting in a booth about halfway across the room, and her first glimpse of him had Rhiannon silently cursing like a sailor.
She'd wanted to get here first, had made sure to arrive ten minutes early so that she'd have a chance to get herself settled at the table before having to put on her game face. The fact that her plans were now ruined flustered her a lot more than it should have.
Telling herself to suck it up, she returned his welcoming wave and made her way toward him. Even the best-laid plans had to have some wiggle room, she reminded herself as she stopped next to his table. Today, now, was no exception.
"Rhiannon." Shawn rose and extended his hand, his blue eyes warm and his smile welcoming. "I'm so glad you could make it today."
"Me, too. I've been excited about hearing the details of this party you want to throw since you called the office on Monday." It wasn't a lie, she told herself, if she only told half the truth. She was excited about planning the party, so it was perfectly acceptable to leave out the fact that she'd been up half the night worrying about seeing him again.
Obviously, this was stupid, as he wasn't looking at her with anything more than polite interestthe same interest he would show any woman charged with creating a fantastic party so that he could impress a bunch of Hollywood types. She must have imagined the way he'd looked at her the other nightwhich wasn't much of a surprise. Her radar was way off when it came to men these days, and had been for much too long.
"I'm glad. I need someone who's excited about this thing, since I'm still trying to figure out how I feel about throwing a formal party."
She pulled out her laptop and booted it up so that she could take notes while they talked. "You don't like formal parties?" she asked, culling about half of the options she'd come up with that morning from the mental list she wanted to run by him.
"I'm more a beer-and-nachos kind of guy. But I figure if I'm going to do this, I need to do it right formal, sit-down dinner, monkey suit, the works."
As if his way with words wasn't enough to clue her in, just looking at him gave her a good idea as to why the formal approach probably wasn't the way to go. With his shaggy brown hair and easy smile, Shawn Emerson looked like every footloose, slacker guy she'd ever run acrossthe kind who was more comfortable with a bat in one hand and a beer in the other than he ever would be in an office or behind a desk.
Even his meeting attirea football jersey and a worn pair of jeansscreamed immature male out for a good time. It was just one of the many reasons she hated that her hand was still warm from where his had clasped it.
But then, she was an idiot when it came to men. Life had certainly proven that in the past three years.
"So, your usual party style is ultra-casual yet you're thinking about throwing a completely formal gathering?"
"It's actually my agent's idea. He thinks I should have a really impressive gathering, kind of knock those Hollywood types' socks off. I'm just trying to follow along with his suggestions."
"What's the occasion?" she asked, trying to gauge which direction he really wanted to go in. For some people, formal meant black tie, while for others, it was just a step or two above beach attire. She had him pegged for the latter.
"Endeavor Studios just optioned the rights to my graphic novels. They're rushing to write a script based on the first two with hopes of starting filming in about eighteen months if everything goes as planned. A bunch of the guys involved in buying my project are going to be here in Austin for the film festival in March, debuting a new movie and Anthony thinks I should have a no-holds-barred party to welcome them to Austin and show my appreciation. It's not every day a guy's told his character is going to be made into a major motion-picture franchise, after all."
So much for a step above bathing suitsshe'd been wrong again. Big surprise. This guy was definitely in need of a party with a big wow factor.
But a huge Hollywood-style party meant pulling out all the stops and the film festival was onlyshe pulled the website up on her computersix weeks away. He wanted her to do a major party like this in six weeks? Was he kidding?
Trying to get her thoughts straight, Rhiannon pulled up a list of questions she needed to ask, then turned to him with the first one. "Who is Shadeslayer?"
Shawn grinned, an excited, happy smile lighting up his whole face and causing a weird flip-flopping in the pit of her stomach. Rhiannon did her best to ignore the feelingthe guy was at least ten years younger than herprobably closer to fifteen. Just the idea that his smile was directed at her specifically was absurd, not to mention pathetic.
"I was hoping you'd ask." He reached down to the seat beside him and picked up a few thick comicbook-style novels that he slapped on the table between them. "He's the superhero I created when I was in college. Now, he's the star of my twice-yearly graphic novels."
She blinked at the garish covers staring up at her. All three had a strong, muscle-bound guy in a gray-and-black superhero suit looking out of them, although he was in a different kind of peril on each cover. The artwork was absolutely gorgeous, but "You write comic books for a living?"
"Graphic novels. It's not quite the same thing."
"Right, of course." She couldn't help wondering what the difference was, but didn't want to ask, in case the question offended him. He had made a point of correcting her when she'd called them comic books, after all. "What does Shadeslayer do? "
"All kinds of things, but mainly he keeps shades dead people who are trapped on Earthfrom using their powers to enslave humans." He held the books out to her. "Here, take them. They're for you. I figured they'd give you a sense of who I am, what the deal was about."
"Oh, okay. That's very nice of you." She reached out to take the books, her hand trembling just a little as it brushed against his.
She had no idea what she was supposed to do with three comic books, but it was a sweet gesture. She opened the cover of the first one, began to flip through it and was shocked when she came to the title page. Scrawled between the title and his name, were the words, "To Rhiannon, because a party is so often just the beginning. Shawn Emerson."
She stared at the inscription a moment, unsure what to make of it. Were the words a threat? A promise? A suggestion? Her back stiffened and she closed the books without comment, even as she tried desperately to figure out Shawn's agenda.
"Do you like them?" he asked, and she looked up to find him watching her closely.
"Of course I do," she answered, ignoring the confusion inside that told her very clearly that she wasn't sure how she felt about the booksor about the man who had given them to her. "They're an interesting gift."
Interesting?Nice? Shawn barely suppressed a shudder. Obviously, he'd struck out big time with his gifthe'd been an idiot to think Rhiannon would be interested in his graphic novels. He almost hadn't brought themhe didn't give them away very often anymore, and rarely signed them now that he was no longer busting his ass on self-sponsored book tours to promote the things but this morning he'd been struck by a sudden desire to show her what he did. To give her a glimpse of himself, and of Shadeslayer, the greatest character he'd ever created.
But from the way she placed the books on the table like they were a cross between poison ivy and rotting meat, he figured he probably should have gone with flowers insteadfor some reason, women always seemed to like those more. Leaning back in his chair, he studied Rhiannon and tried to decide what kind of flower she was.
Not a rose, though she was long-stemmed, beautiful and surprisingly fragile, if the delicate hand she'd put in his was any indication.
Not a daisy, because she was much too quiet and self-possessed for the cheerful white-and-yellow flowers.
Carnations were boring, and while she was doing her best to blend into the woodwork in her bland gray suit and white blouse, he had a feeling she was anything but boring underneath. Not with those intense coffee-colored eyes and that fiery red hair.
No, carnations would never doand neither would orchids. They were too temperamental. Which left him drawing a blank. He shoved the dilemma to the back of his mind, with a quick reminder to get back to it later after they'd talked more. Because he'd meant what he'd said when he'd signed those booksthis party was just the beginning. He'd been thinking about her since they'd met Saturday night and couldn't wait for a chance to get to know her.
The waitress chose that moment to come up for their orders, and he watched as Rhiannon smoothed a self-conscious hand over the tight bun of her hair. He wondered if she ever let it down.
"You know, they make a killer margarita here. I'm partial to their plain ones, but Lissa swears by their sangria margaritas." He deliberately brought up the name of his best friend Robert's wife to put her at easeLissa was the one who had introduced them at the party the other night, and it had been obvious she and Rhiannon liked each other very much. "I swear, she can drink three or four of those in a sitting."
She stared at him. "It's one o'clock in the afternoon."
"One-fifteen, actually," he corrected her, reaching for a chip.
"Either way." Her voice was drier than the martinis his mother used to makeand gulp down by the half dozen. "I try not to drink during business hours."
"Right. Business. I can see that about you."
That got her attention. She looked away from the waitress, eyebrows furrowed, lips pulled into a deep frown. "What's that supposed to mean?"
"Nothing. Just that you seem like a really responsible person." He barely succeeded in hiding his grin as Rhiannon's teeth snapped together with an all but audible click.
"Well, we can't all have the intellectual and emotional makeup of a thirteen-year-old boy. More's the pity."
"Touche." He inclined his head, offering her the verbal point. As he did, he let his eyes linger on her full upper lip and the dimple that kept flirting with her left cheek. He'd been fascinated with both from the first time he'd seen herand the story they told.
Even at the party, she'd looked so prim and proper. Long sleeves, long skirt, blouse buttoned up to her throat. He'd wondered at first if she was channeling someone's maiden aunt. But then she'd opened her mouth and that voicelow and smoky and incredibly sexyhad curled around him. And he'd wondered how he could have ever failed to see the fire.