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Richard Carlton made three business calls on his cell phone, scowled impatiently at the antique clock on the wall of his favorite Old Town Alexandria seafood restaurant, made two more calls, then frowned at the Rolex watch on his wrist.
Five more minutes and he was history. He was only here as a favor to his Aunt Destiny. He'd promised to give some supposedly brilliant marketing whiz kid a chance at the consultant's contract for the family corporation's public relations campaign despite her lack of experience working with a major worldwide conglomerate.
He was also looking for a consultant who could help him launch his first political campaign. His intention had been to hire someone more seasoned than this woman Destiny was recommending, but his aunt was very persuasive when she put her mind to something.
"Just meet with her. Have a nice lunch. Give her a chance to sell you on her talent. After all," Aunt Destiny had said with a suspicious gleam in her eye, "nobody on earth is a tougher sell than you, right?"
Richard had given his aunt a wry look. "You flatter me."
She'd patted his cheek as if he were twelve again and she was trying to call attention gently to one of his flaws. "Not really, darling."
Destiny Carlton was the bane of his existence. He doubted if there was another aunt like her in the universe. When he was barely twelve, she'd breezed into his life twenty-four hours after his parents' small plane had crashed in the fog-shrouded Blue Ridge Mountains.
His father's older sister, Destiny had lived a nomad's life, cavorting with princes in European capitals, gambling in Monaco, skiing in Swiss Alpine resorts, then settling into a farmhouse in Provence where she'd begun painting more seriously, eventually selling her works in a small gallery on Paris's Left Bank. She was exotic and eccentric and more fun than anyone Richard or his younger brothers had ever met. She'd been just what three terrified little boys had needed.
A selfish woman would have scooped them up and taken them back to France, then resumed her own life, but not Destiny. She had plunged into unexpected motherhood with the same passionate enthusiasm and style with which she embraced life. She'd turned their previously wellordered lives into a chaos of adventures in the process, but there had never been a doubt in their minds that she loved them. They, in turn, adored her, even when she was at her most maddening, as she had been lately, ever since she'd gotten some bee in her bonnet about the three of them needing to settle down. To her despair, he, Mack and Ben had been incredibly resistant to her urgings.
Over the years, despite Destiny's strong influence, Richard had clung tenaciously to the more somber lessons of his father. Work hard and succeed. Give back to the community. Be somebody. The adages had been drilled into him practically from infancy. Even at twelve, he'd felt the weight of responsibility for the generations-old Carlton Industries sitting squarely on his thin shoulders. Though an outsider had held the temporary reins upon his father's death, there was no question that the company would eventually be Richard's to run. A place would have been found for his brothers as well, if either of them had wanted it. But neither had shown the slightest interest, not back then and not now.
Back then, while his brothers had gone home after school to play their games, Richard had taken the family obligation to heart. Every weekday he'd gone to the historic old brick building that housed the corporate offices.
Destiny had tried her best to interest him in reading novels of all kinds, from the classics to science fiction and fantasy, but he'd preferred to scour the company books, studying the neatly aligned columns of figures that told the story of decades of profit and loss. The order and logic of it soothed him in a way he had been helpless to explain to her or to anyone. Even now, he had a better understanding of business than he did of people.
When he was twenty-three and had his M.B.A. from the prestigious Wharton School of Business, Richard slipped into the company presidency without raising so much as an eyebrow among the employees or among the worldwide CEOs with whom Carlton Industries did business. Most assumed he'd been all but running it behind the scenes since his father's death, anyway. Even as a kid, he'd displayed amazing confidence in his own decision-making.
Now, at thirty-two, he had the company on the track his father would have expected, expanding bit by bit with a strategic merger here, a hostile acquisition there. He was still young, successful and one of the city's most eligible bachelors. Unfortunately, his relationships tended to be brief once the women in his life realized they were always likely to take a back seat to the pressingand often far more interestingneeds of the family company. The last woman he'd dated had told him he was a cold, dispassionate son of a bitch. He hadn't argued. In fact, he was pretty sure she had it just about right. Business never let him down. People did. He stuck to what he could trust.
Since he'd been so unsuccessful at romance, he'd turned his attention elsewhere in recent months. He'd been considering a run for office, perhaps the Alexandria City Council for starters. His father had expected all of his sons to climb to positions of power, not just in the corporate world, but in their community and the nation. Helping to shape Richard's image and get his name into print as a precursor to this was just part of what his new marketing consultant would be handling.
His timetableokay, his father's oft-expressed timetablefor this was right on track, too. His father had espoused the need for short-term and long-term strategic planning. Richard had doubled the number of years his father had planned ahead for. He liked knowing where he should bewhere he would beten, twenty, even thirty years down the road.
For someone whose precise schedule was so detailed, wasting precious minutes out of his jam-packed day waiting for a woman who was now twenty minutes late pretty much drove him crazy. Out of time and out of patience, Richard snapped his fingers. The maitre d' appeared instantly.
"Yes, Mr. Carlton?"
"Could you put my coffee on my account, please, Donald? My guest hasn't arrived, and I have another appointment to get to back at my office."
"No charge for the coffee, sir. Would you like the chef to box up a salad?"
"Shall I get your coat, then?"
"Didn't wear one."
"Then at least let me call a taxi for you. It's started to snow quite heavily. The sidewalks and streets are treacherous. Perhaps that's why your guest is late."
Richard wasn't interested in finding excuses for the no-show, just in getting back to work. "If the weather's that bad, I can walk back sooner than you can get a taxi here. Thanks, anyway, Donald. And if Ms. Hart ever shows up, please tell her
" His voice trailed off. He decided the message he'd like to have relayed was better left unsaid. It was bound to come back to haunt him with his aunt, who was one of Donald's favorite customers. Though he considered his duty to Destiny's young friend done, his aunt might not see it the same way. "Just tell her I had to go."
He opened the front door of the restaurant, stepped outside onto the slick sidewalk and ran straight into a battering ram. If he hadn't had a firm grip on the door, he'd have been on the ground. Instead, the woman who'd hit him headfirst in the midsection, stared up at him with huge, panicked brown eyes fringed with long, dark lashes just as her feet skidded out from under her.
Richard caught her inches from the icy ground and steadied her. Even though she was bundled up for the weather, she felt delicate. A faint frisson of something that felt like protectiveness hit him. It was something he'd previously experienced only with his younger brothers and his aunt. Most of the women in his life were so strong and capable, he'd never felt the least bit inclined to protect them from anything.
The woman closed her eyes, then opened them again and winced as she surveyed his face. "Please don't tell me you're Richard Carlton," she said, then sighed before he could respond. "But of course you are. You look exactly like the picture your aunt showed me.
"That's the way my day has gone," she rattled on. "First I get a cab driver who couldn't find his way to the corner without a map, then we get stuck behind a trash truck and then the snow starts coming down worse than a blizzard in the Rockies." She gazed at him hopefully, brushing at a stray strand of hair that was teasing at her still pink cheek. "I don't suppose you'd like to go back in, sit down and let me make a more dignified entrance?"
Richard bit back a sigh of his own. "Melanie Hart, I presume."
She gazed at him, her expression thoughtful. "I could pretend to be somebody else, and we could forget all about this unfortunate incident. I could call your office later, apologize profusely for missing you, make another appointment and start over in a very businesslike way."
"You're actually considering lying to me?"
"It would be a waste of time, wouldn't it?" she said with apparent regret. "I've already given myself away. I knew this whole lunch thing was a mistake. I make a much better impression in a conference room. I think it's the setting. People tend to take you more seriously if you can use an overhead projector and all sorts of charts and graphs. Anyway, I told Destiny that, but she insisted lunch would be better. She says you're less cranky on a full stomach."
"How lovely of her to share that," Richard said, vowing to have yet another wasted talk with his aunt about discussing him with anyone and everyone. If he did decide to run for office, her loose tongue would doom his chances before he got started.
"I don't suppose your stomach's full now?" Melanie Hart asked hopefully.
"Then you're bound to be cranky, so I'll just slip on inside and try to figure out how I managed to mess up the most important job interview of my entire life."
"If you decide you want an outside opinion, give me a call," Richard said.
He considered brushing right on past this walking disaster, but she looked so genuinely forlorn he couldn't seem to bring himself to do it. Besides, Destiny had said she was very good at what she did, and Destiny was seldom wrong about personnel matters. She was a good judge of people, at least when she didn't let emotion cloud her judgment. Richard very much feared this was one of those instances when her heart might have overruled her head. Still
He tucked a hand under Melanie Hart's elbow and steered her inside. "Thirty minutes," he said tersely as Donald beamed at them and led them back to the table Richard had vacated just moments earlier. It had a fresh tablecloth, fresh place settings and a lit candle. He was almost certain that candle hadn't been there before. He had a suspicious feeling Donald had been expecting him back all along and had hoped a little atmosphere would improve his sour mood. No doubt the maitre d' and his aunt were in cahoots. He'd probably called Destiny with a report five seconds after Richard had walked out.
When Donald had brought a fresh pot of coffee, Richard glanced at his watch. "Twenty-four minutes, Ms. Hart. Make 'em count."
Melanie reached for her attaché case and promptly knocked over her water glass
straight into his lap.
Richard leaped up as the icy water soaked through his pants. The day was just getting better and better.
"Oh, my God, I am so sorry," Melanie said, on her feet, napkin in hand, poised to sop up the water.
Richard considered letting her do it, just to see how she reacted once she realized exactly where she was touching him, but apparently she caught on to the problem. She handed the napkin to him.
"Sorry," she said again while he spent several minutes trying to dry himself off. "I swear to you that I am not normally such a klutz." At his doubtful look, she added, "Really, I'm not."
"If you say so."
"If you want to leave, I will totally understand. If you tell me never to darken your door, I'll understand that, too." Her chin came up and she looked straight into his eyes. "But you'll be making a terrible mistake."
She was a bold one, no question about that. Richard paused in his futile attempt to dry his trousers. "How so?"
"I'm exactly what you need, Mr. Carlton. I know how to get attention."
"Yes, I can see that," he said wryly. "There's unforgettable and then there's disastrous. I'm hoping for something a little more positive."
"I can do that," she insisted. "I have the contacts. I'm clever and innovative. I know exactly how to sell my clients to the media. In fact, I have a preliminary plan right here for your campaign and for Carlton Industries."
When she started to reach for her attaché case again, Richard grabbed the remaining water glass on the table and moved it a safe distance away, then sat back down while she scattered a flurry of papers in every direction. When she was finally done, he said, "I appreciate your enthusiasm, Ms. Hart, I really do, but this isn't going to work." To avoid hurting her feelings, he tried to temper his dismissal. "I need someone a little more seasoned."
He refrained from adding that he wanted someone less ditzy, someone a little less inclined to remind him with every breath that she was a female and that he was a male who hadn't had sex for several months now. He did not need an employee who stirred up all these contradictory reactions in him. In this day and age that was a lawsuit waiting to happen.
His response to Melanie Hart bemused him. He'd gone from annoyance to anger to attraction in the space ofhe glanced at his watchless than twenty-five minutes. Relieved that her allotted time was nearly over, he tapped his Rolex. "Time's about up, Ms. Hart. Nice to meet you. I wish you luck and best success."
She gave him that forlorn, doe-eyed look that made his stomach clench and his pulse gallop erratically.
"You're kissing me off, aren't you?" she said.
It was an unfortunate turn of phrase. Richard suddenly couldn't stop looking at her mouth, which was soft and full and very, very kissable. He obviously needed to find the time to start dating again, if he was going to react this way to a woman as wildly inappropriate as Melanie Hart.
"I wouldn't put it that way," he said finally. "I'm just saying it's a bad match. If you're as talented as my aunt says, you'll be snapped up by another company in no time at all."
"I already have other clients, Mr. Carlton. In fact, my business is thriving," she said stiffly. "I wanted to work for you and for Carlton Industries because I think I have something to offer you that your in-house staff cannot."
"A fresh perspective that would drag your corporate and personal image out of the Dark Ages." She stood up. "Perhaps I was wrong. Perhaps your current stuffy image has it exactly right."
As Richard stared, she whirled around and marched out of the restaurant with her head held high, her back straight and the tiniest, most provocative sway of her narrow hips he'd seen in a long time.