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"SO WHO DO YOU think she slept with to get that promotion?"
Gabrielle Flannery tore her gaze away from the striking blonde in the front of the room, for whom the entire department had gathered for a send-off on a Friday afternoon, and frowned at her coworker, Tori. "Courtney has always been nice to me—and to you."
Tori snorted. "Yeah, because we catered to her like the servants we are."
Gabrielle shook her head at her friend and strained for a better view of the cake-cutting from where they stood behind a ficus tree in the crowded conference room. "Well, I, for one, am happy that Courtney is moving on to better things," she said, keeping her voice lowered.
"Yeah," Tori muttered. "A six-figure salary, a gargantuan expense account, a new company car and a corner office. Score another one for the cool kids, while we dweebs are still batting zero."
Gabrielle shifted uncomfortably at being included in the dweeb reference. "You're being unkind, Tori. We each contribute to the bottom line of this firm, we each have our own accounts." Her pulse picked up a notch as devilishly handsome Dell Kingston stepped up to say a few parting words about Courtney.
"Right," Tori said behind her hand. "Don't you think it's strange that all the high-profile, exciting products like sex-enhancement drugs and European cars go to people like Courtney Rodgers and Dell Kingston, and people like us get stuck with toilet paper and dog food?"
Gabrielle craned for a better view, although admittedly, the rugged profile of Dell Kingston was of more interest than the decorated sheet cake. "They have seniority," she murmured absently.
Tori scoffed. "Both of them came in two lousy weeks before we did, Gabrielle, and their careers are light years ahead of ours. Look at us," she said, swatting at a branch. "They're in the spotlight, and we're standing in a tree, spectators to their success."
Gabrielle bit into her lip, watching Courtney and Dell, the Barbie and Ken of Noble Marketing of Atlanta, smiling at each other as if they shared an intimate secret.
"Now that Courtney is leaving, Dell's going to be a free man," Tori whispered in Gabrielle's ear in a singsongy voice. "Stop it." But a flush heated Gabrielle's neck and face—she wished she'd never shared her huge crush on Dell with Tori, and was glad she hadn't shared the true extent of her feelings for him. As if Dell Kingston would ever be interested in her, except as the butt of a joke. The man teased her mercilessly about her red hair and freckles, often assuming an outrageous Irish accent for good measure.
"May I have your attention, please?" Dell asked, bestowing his trademark grin on the group assembled.
The room grew quiet, and Gabrielle could feel every cell in her body straining toward him. The man was absolutely magnetic, with big, brown eyes that tied her tongue in knots.
He turned toward the beautiful Courtney. "We're gathered here today in the presence of these witnesses," he began, then stopped. "No, wait—that's only in my dreams."
Everyone groaned, then laughed as Courtney punched him lightly in the arm.
Gabrielle joined in the laughter halfheartedly, but inside, she succumbed to a pang of envy toward Courtney Rodgers—a tall, golden-haired, voluptuous beauty queen with a distinguished Southern pedigree. She'd used all of those assets to achieve her status as a top-notch manager of some of the firm's most prestigious accounts and parlayed them into a promotion to the New York office.
Although it was hard to fault the woman. Courtney put in long hours at Noble.
Then Gabrielle sighed inwardly—but not as many hours as she and Tori had put in.
"Seriously," Dell continued, comfortable at the center of attention, "we're all going to miss Courtney and we wish her only the best in her new adventure. Oh, and just so everyone knows—I have dibs on the CEG account."
Everyone laughed at Dell's good-natured arrogance.
"That account should be yours," Tori whispered. The CEG account—Cutting Edge Gear, a hot outdoor equipment account with an even hotter celebrity spokesman. The highlight of Gabrielle's career had been acting as Courtney's unofficial assistant on the account, hoping that someday she'd get to meet Nick Ocean, the movie-star spokesman. With Courtney leaving, Gabrielle had secretly entertained fantasies of their boss, Bruce Noble, offering her the account...but, of course, Dell would get it.
Dell said a few final words about Courtney and everyone applauded.
Courtney, who wasn't just leaving for a new job, but embarking on a new adventure, Gabrielle mused. For some people, every move they made seemed more exciting, more exotic than that of the average person.
The average dweeb.
Dell gave Courtney a hug, leaving his arm slung around her shoulders. Gabrielle leaned forward, wondering how people reached that magical place where the world seemed to fall at their feet. She wished she was fearless, exuded charm, had the nerve to go after what she wanted. How lucky the woman was to orbit in Dell's galaxy...to have him touching her...
Suddenly the potted tree in front of Gabrielle moved. No, she realized with horrific clarity—she was falling! Hugging the tree, she and the ficus both pitched forward and landed hard on the floor, soil spilling up her long skirt. Gasps sounded all around her, then laughter traveled around the room. Gabrielle rolled onto her back and closed her eyes, praying that everyone would ignore her—as usual—and that the festivities would continue.
"Gabrielle, for heaven's sake, your skirt is up to your shoulders," Tori hissed. "Mr. Noble is staring at you. Get up!"
The laughter gained momentum, although it sounded as if people were trying to muffle it with their hands. She lay there, eyes closed, limbs unresponsive, willing a blood clot to take her.
"Are you trying to upstage me?" a low voice murmured.
Gabrielle's eyes opened to see Dell Kingston leaning over her, his rich, chocolate-brown eyes full of mirth.
"No," she croaked.
"Are you hurt?"
He reached down and pulled her to her feet.
"Nothing to see here, folks," he said in a fake authoritative voice. "Move it along to the cake table, please."
Gabrielle's face flamed in humiliation as people filed past them. Mr. Noble squinted at her as if trying to recall her name. She brushed soil from her tan-colored tweed jacket. Her long matching skirt had fared worse, bearing dark, wet smears. Contrasted with the bright blue silk suit that Courtney wore, her own scratchy suit seemed worse than frumpy, and completely inappropriate for the summer heat.
"You sure you're okay?" Dell said, a smile curling his gorgeous mouth.
She nodded, mortified to have created such a spectacle. "I'm sorry."
"Don't be," he said with a laugh, then leaned in and murmured, "That's a nice pair of legs you've been hiding, Gabby."
Her mouth tightened—she hated that nickname. But a little thrill bolted through her at his compliment.
"Dell," Courtney called, "I need some help over here."
"Coming," he said, then he reached forward and touched his finger to the tip of Gabrielle's nose, coming away with a smudge of dirt. "Watch out for those attack trees."
Her throat convulsed at his close proximity. His features were strong and masculine, his short, dark hair sexily rumpled. His teeth were white against his bronze skin. His spicy cologne teased her nose. She couldn't have spoken if she tried.
So instead, she turned and fled for the exit.
DELL KINGSTON quirked a smile as he watched the slender redhead escape from the room—the woman was certainly good at disappearing. And she was a bit of a klutz, he thought wryly, remembering the times he'd rescued her from an overflowing coffeepot, a copier machine that had gone on the offense and an avalanche of binders in the supply room. He righted the unfortunate tree, leaving mounds of dirt on the carpet.
He enjoyed teasing Gabby Flannery because she was so quick to blush, and didn't lash back like most of the women in the department. It was obvious that she was crushing on him, and he smiled at the thought of little Gabby lying awake at night fantasizing about him.
It was sweet, really.
Although there was nothing sweet about the expanse of killer legs her tumble had exposed, or his gut-clenching reaction. He wondered idly what other secrets the flame-haired wallflower was hiding beneath those Puritan suits she wore, and just how daring the woman might be...in the right hands.
"Dell," Courtney sang, her voice lilting higher.
"Coming," he repeated, forcing his mind back to the happy occasion of Courtney's departure.
They'd passed some good times between the sheets, but otherwise he and the buxom blonde were woefully incompatible. Her leaving was a win-win situation—she was moving up to the company's Manhattan office, and he would have the coveted CEG account. With Courtney gone, no one else stood in his way. Gabby certainly didn't present a threat—with the encouragement of a well-placed wink or two, she'd pass along everything she'd learned about CEG from working on the fringes of the account...and perhaps would fall into the role of his unofficial assistant.
Then his mind flashed back to the image of Gabby Flannery lying on the floor, her long, lean legs parted, and he pushed his tongue into his cheek. With Courtney gone, he'd also need to find a new...pastime.
And suddenly the idea of a blushing, tongue-tied, useful redhead in his bed was tremendously appealing.