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Lisa stepped out of the cab and onto the sidewalk, staring at the narrow entrance of Fare, complete with uniformed doorman, ahead of her.
Why a restaurant?
Not for the first time since she'd flown from Boston to New York City was she still puzzling over the choice. Even though the meeting had been arranged by Ted Bonner, its purpose was business. Not social.
She realized the doorman was staring at her, and with a confidence that she didn't feel, smiled at the man and strode across the sidewalk, unfastening the single button on the front of her black-and-white houndstooth jacket when he ushered her into the softly lit restaurant before silently departing.
The shadowy hostess station was unattended and she waited in the hushed silence. There was a faint strain of music, but it was subtle and nonintrusive.
Waiting to be shown to the table was okay with her. She didn't want to be there anyway. But she'd promised Paul.
This is just another meeting with a potential funder.
Her mind debated the term.
She was used to meeting with funders. Usually representatives of a philanthropic or scientific foundation to discuss research grants that the institute was seeking.
This…this was another kettle of fish, entirely. And even though it had been her idea to use investors to solve their current dilemma, she'd never in her wildest imaginings thought she'd be meeting this particular one.
She smoothed her hand over the wide belt of her high-waisted slacks and buttoned her jacket again. Switched her slender, leather briefcase from one hand to the other.
The meeting that Paul had called earlier that week replayed in her mind. She'd never seen her ever-confident, ever-capable big brother actually question whether or not the institute could survive at all and that—as much as the reason why—still had her deeply shaken.
"The gentleman is waiting for you."
Lisa blinked herself to the present where an exotically beautiful girl dressed in a narrow black sheath was smiling patiently, her hand extended slightly to one side.
She undid the button again, gripped the handle of her briefcase more tightly in her moist hand and stepped forward.
She spotted him immediately.
The "gentleman" whom Lisa would never have termed as such.
Billionaire venture capitalist. A man who never had to worry about finding funding for his own work because he was the fund. He was Ted Bonner's friend. And even though she could appreciate that fact, could appreciate the generosity he'd shown to Ted and Sara Beth during their trip to newly wedded bliss, she couldn't envision anything productive coming out of this encounter.
He was dark. Powerful. Arrogant. Rich as Midas.
And as frightening as the devil himself.
Rourke didn't even rise as she approached his small round table situated in the center of the exclusive, small restaurant. But his black gaze followed her every step of the way.
She felt like a lamb sent to slaughter and damned Derek all over again.
She might have promised Paul that she'd do her best on this meeting despite her personal reservations, but it was because of Derek that this meeting—or any of the other half dozen that she'd frenetically set up for the following week—was necessary in the first place.
A black-clothed waiter had appeared out of nowhere to pull out the second chair at the table for her.
She thanked him quietly and took her seat, tucking the briefcase on the floor next to her. There were plenty of tables surrounding them, but none was occupied. Only Rourke's, sitting here, center stage like king of the castle. "I've read reviews of Fare," she greeted him. "The food is supposed to be magnificent."
Hardly a conversational treasure trove. She hoped it wasn't an indicator of how the rest of the meeting would go, but feared it probably was. Despite Ted's insistence that Rourke was open to meeting with her, she couldn't help but remember her encounter with him months earlier at their Founder's Ball—and the single dance they'd shared—as well as his seeming disapproval at the time of the institute in general. "The view is lovely."
He didn't turn his head to glance at the bank of windows overlooking a pond surrounded by trees that were just now beginning to show the first hint of coming autumn. "Yes."
In her lap, her hands curled into fists beneath the protection of the white linen draping the table. All right. Forget pleasantries. She'd just get to the point. "I appreciate you meeting with me."
He lifted a sardonic eyebrow. "Do you?"
She studied him, wondering not for the first time exactly what it was about the man that seemed to place him on a different plane than others.
There were plenty of men as powerfully built. Plenty of men who possessed strikingly carved features and well-cut, thick black hair. All it took was money to buy the fine white silk shirt he wore with such casual ease. There was a single button undone at his tanned throat; a charcoal-gray suit coat discarded over the back of his chair.
He exuded confidence. Power. And he looked at her—just as he had on the other few occasions they'd been in one another's company—as if he knew things about her that she might not even know herself.
Which mostly left her feeling as if she were playing some game in which she didn't know the rules.
She moistened her lips, realizing as she did that it was an indicator of her nervousness, particularly when his gaze rested on her mouth for a moment. "I know your time is valuable."
The waiter had returned and was silently, ceremoniously presenting, then opening a bottle of wine. The cork presented and approved, the first taste mulled over, the crystal glasses partially filled. Lisa had been part of the production hundreds of times and wondered silently what any of them would say if she told them she would have preferred a fresh glass of iced tea. Wine always went straight to her head.
And it didn't take her MBA to know that she needed all of her faculties in prime working order when it came to dealing with Rourke Devlin, who hadn't volunteered even a polite disclaimer about the value of his time.
But she said nothing. Merely smiled and picked up the glass, sipping at the crisp, cool Chardonnay. It was delicious. Something she might have chosen for herself if she were in the mood for wine. But she would have pegged Rourke as a red wine sort of man. To go along with the raw red meat those strong white teeth could probably tear apart.
"I told the chef we'd have his recommendation," Rourke said. "Raoul never disappoints."
"How nice." She really, really wished they were meeting in his office. This just seemed far too intimate. Additional diners around them would have helped dispel that impression. "Isn't Fare usually open for lunch?" It was well past noon. And the reviews she'd read about the place had indicated it took months to get a reservation.
Which explained so much. She lifted the wineglass again and thought she saw the faintest glimmer of amusement hovering around his mobile lips. And it suddenly dawned on her why they were in a restaurant and not his office.
Because he'd known it would set her on edge.
She wasn't sure why that certainty was so suddenly clear. But it was. She knew it right down in her bones. And the glint in his eyes as he watched her while he lifted his own wineglass seemed to confirm it.
She set down her glass and reached down to pull a narrow file out of her briefcase. "Ted gave you some indication why we wanted to meet with you." It wasn't a question. She knew that Ted Bonner had primed the pump, so to speak, with his old buddy, when he'd arranged the meeting once Paul had jumped on the bandwagon of approval. "This prospectus will outline the advantages and opportunities of investing in the Armstrong Fertility Institute." She started to hand the file over to Rourke, only to stop midway, when he lifted a few fingers, as if to wave off the presentation that they'd pulled together at the institute in record time.
Not that he could know that.
Ted wouldn't have told the man just how desperate things had become. Friendship or not, Dr. Bonner was now a firmly entrenched part of the Armstrong Institute team. And nobody on that team wanted word to get out about the reason underlying their unusual foray into seeking investors. Their reputation would never recover. Not after the string of bad press they'd already endured. Their patients wouldn't want their names—some very well-known—associated with the institute. And without patients, there wouldn't just be layoffs. The institute would simply have to close its doors.
Damn you, Derek.
She lowered the prospectus and set it on the linen cloth next to the fancy little bread basket that the waiter delivered, along with a selection of spreads.
"Put it away," Rourke said. "I prefer not to discuss business while I'm eating."
"Then why didn't you schedule me for when you weren't?" The question popped out and she wanted to kick herself. Instead, she lifted her chin a little and made herself meet his gaze, pretending as if she weren't riddled with frustration.
He was toying with her. She didn't have the slightest clue as to why he would even bother.
And she also left the folder right where it was. A glossy reminder of why they were meeting, even if he was determined to avoid it.
He pulled the wine bottle from the sterling ice bucket standing next to the table and refilled her glass even though she'd only consumed a small amount. "Have a roll," he said. "Raoul's wife, Gina, makes them fresh every day."
"I don't eat much bread," she said bluntly. What was the point of pretending congeniality? "Are you interested in discussing an investment in the institute or not?" If he wasn't— which was what she'd tried to tell Paul and the others—then she was wasting her time that would be better spent in preparation for meeting with investors who were.
"More bread would look good on you," he said. His gaze traveled over her, seeming to pick apart everything from the customary chignon in her hair to the single silver ring she wore on her right thumb. "You've lost weight since I last saw you."
There was no way to mistake the accusation as a compliment and her lips parted. She stared, letting the offense ripple through her until she could settle it somewhere out of the way. "Women can never be too thin," she reminded him coolly, and picked up the wineglass again. Might as well partake of the excellent vintage since it was apparent that he wasn't taking their meeting seriously, anyway.
No doubt he'd agreed simply to get Ted off his back.
"A ridiculous assumption made by women for women," Rourke returned. "Most men prefer curves and softness against them over jutting bones."
"Well." She swallowed more wine. "That's something you and I won't have to worry about."
He looked amused again and turned his head, glancing at the bank of windows. His profile was sharp, as defined— and cold—as a chiseled piece of granite. His black hair sprang sharply away from his forehead and the fine crow's-feet arrowing out from the corner of his eyes were clearly illuminated.
Unfortunately, they didn't detract from the total package.
"The view here is good," he said. "I'm glad Raoul went with my suggestion on the location. Initially he was looking for a high-rise."
She wanted to grind her teeth together, as annoyed with her own distraction where Rourke-the-man was concerned as she was with his unpredictability. "I didn't know that restaurants were something you invested in. Techno-firm startups seemed to be more your speed. Aren't restaurants notoriously chancy?" She lifted a hand, silently indicating the empty tables around them.
"Venture capitalism is about taking chances." He selected a roll from the basket and broke it open, slathering one of the compound butters over half. "Calculated chances, of course. But as it happens, in the five years since Raoul opened the doors, I've never had cause to regret this particular chance." He held out the roll. "Taste it."
She could feel the wine wending its heady way through her veins. Breakfast had been hours ago. Wait. She'd skipped breakfast, in favor of a conference call.
Which meant drinking even the tiniest amount of wine was more foolish than usual.
Arguing seemed too much work, though, so she took the roll from him. Their fingers brushed.
She shoved the bread in her mouth, chomping down on it as viciously as she chomped down on the warmth that zipped through her hand.
Chewing, she nodded. The roll was good. Deliciously so.
It only annoyed her more.
She chased the yeasty heaven down with more wine and leaned closer to the table. "Obviously excellent bread and wine isn't always enough to ensure success, or this place would be busting at the seams."
"Raoul closed Fare until dinner for me."
She blinked slowly and sat back. "Why?"
"Because I asked him to."
"Because I wanted to be alone with you."
A puff of air escaped her lips. "But you don't even like me."
Rourke picked up his wineglass and studied the disbelieving expression of the woman across from him. "Maybe not," he allowed.
Lisa Armstrong had looked like an ice princess the first time he'd seen her more than six months ago in a crowded Cambridge pub called Shots where he'd been meeting with Ted Bonner and Chance Demetrios.
He'd had no reason to change his opinion in the few times he'd seen her since.
"But I want you," he continued smoothly, watching the sudden flare of her milk-chocolate eyes. "And you want me." He'd known that since he'd maneuvered her into sharing a single, brief dance with him months earlier.
Her lips had parted. They were slightly thin, slightly wide for her narrow, angular face, and a shade of pale, delicate pink that he figured owed nothing to cosmetics.
And he hadn't been able to get them out of his mind.
Obviously recovering, those lips pursed slightly. Her eyebrows—darker than the gold that covered her head—returned to their usual, level places. Her brown gaze was only fractionally less sharp than it had been when she'd first sat down across from him. But a strand of hair had worked loose of that perfect, smooth knot at the nape of her neck and had curled around her slender neck to tease the hollow at the base of her throat. "You have an incredible ego, Mr. Devlin."
So he'd been told. By foes, friends and family alike. He pulled his gaze from that single, loose lock of hair that tickled the visible pulse he could see beneath her fair, fair skin. "I don't think it's egotism to recognize facts. And you might as well make it Rourke."
"Why?" She didn't seem to realize she'd reached for the other half of the roll he'd buttered and flicked a glance at it before dropping it back on the small bread plate. "Are we going to be doing business together after all?"