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J.T. rubbed the back of his neck as he watched the numbers of the downtown office building's elevator ascend. A run was definitely in order. Or a workout in the hotel's gym. There was nothing like working up a sweat to lessen tensionwith the possible exception of sex. Since he didn't know any women in Portland, Oregon, and since he wasn't into one-night stands, a workout seemed his best option for loosening the knots and easing the restiveness he could never quite shake.
His broad shoulders lowered with a long expulsion of breath. He didn't want to think about women just then. Aside from making him aware of a different sort of frustration, since it had been a while since he'd had the pleasure of intimate female company, thinking about women reminded him that he was supposed to be looking for one.
He still couldn't believe the ultimatum his father had delivered two months ago. Two and a half, he mentally grumbled, reminding himself that the clock continued to tick.
His jaw worked in a slow grind as the numbers continued to climb. Justin had discovered he was a father not long after that meeting, but no one knew if he was making any progress with his little girl's mom. As far as J.T. knew, the guy still didn't want a wife. He knew for a fact he didn't want one himself.
He wanted nothing to do with the whole home-and-family thing. He knew firsthand that commitment on that level simply didn't work. He couldn't even remember his own mother, his father's second wife. She had bailed when J.T. was two, leaving him to a series of nannies, au pairs and the two succeeding stepmothers who'd pretty much ignored him before they'd abandoned him and their sons, too. They'd literally taken the money and run, which had pretty much proved to him long before he graduated from high school that women could be bought.
He'd learned a couple more valuable lessons back then, too. He'd learned that women pretended to care only when they wanted something in return. And that the best way to get any attention from anyone was to get into trouble. A visit from a truant officer was usually good for at least a ten-minute audience with his father. That was often the most time the man spent with him all week.
The elevator slowed. Over the quiet drone of the Muzak, a refined ding announced his floor.
He didn't cause problems now. At least, not the kind that involved threats of expulsion or fines for speeding tickets. He'd refined his talent for trouble into a tendency to merely break or bend any rule that didn't suit his purpose. His opinion of women, however, hadn't changed much. His father's rules for the Bride Hunt were that the women not know who they were or anything about the family wealth. When he got around to looking for a woman, which he was still in no rush to do, his personal requirements would be more specific.
The woman would have to have good genes. Preferably, in a tall, leggy blonde sort of way. She couldn't come with any emotional or familial baggage. And she needed to have a career she wanted to keep so she'd have interests of her own. His father had said that the woman had to fall in love with himnot that he had to fall in love with her. Not that he believed for an instant that his father's demands could be metwhich was why he was about to implement Plan B.
The elevator doors slid open. Stepping into a wide hall, vaguely aware of the sounds of construction coming from a floor below, he noted the plaque on the wall indicating the direction of the suite he was looking for.
Plan B was to have everything in place to open his own architectural firm so he'd have something to fall back on when his father sold out. He figured that would happen in nine and a half months, when the time for the hunt expired. The logistics of that new venture became the sole thoughts on his mind as he opened the door marked Kelton&Associates.
A spacious reception area of white walls, gray industrial carpet and a wide mobile of what looked like stainless steel boomerangs greeted him. Beneath the slowly moving mobile sat a large amoeba-shaped Lucite secretarial desk. A state-ofthe-art computer monitor and telephone system, lines ringing, occupied the short side of the curved L.
He'd chosen to interview this particular marketing firm because of its reputation for being cutting edge, and its relatively small size. Small meant fewer people who might recognize him. It was also half an hour away by air and two and a half to three hours by car from Seattle, which meant that it operated outside the sphere of core support businesses HuntCom used in the Seattle area. To avoid the publicity that would come if news of his endeavor got out, he wanted to keep everything under wraps until implementing it became absolutely necessary.
His first impression of the ultramodern decor was that it echoed the firm's cutting-edge hype. His second was that there was no one manning the reception desk. There wasn't a soul in sight.
Or so he was thinking when a totally preoccupied young woman in a gray sweater and skirt barreled around the corner from a hallway. Her dark head was down, her arms loaded with files. Judging from her direction and her speed, her destination was the ringing telephone on the desk. Before he could do anything more than think about stepping from her path, she walked right into him.
Her startled gasp met the rustle of papers and the soft plop of files hitting the carpet. Of the dozen thick folders she carried, half of them hit the floor. The other half she clutched to her chest as she dropped to her knees.
"Ohmygosh. I'm so sorry." Flushing to the roots of her barely chin-length, chopped brown hair, she grabbed a file.
"Our receptionist isn't in today, so I thought I'd work out here so I could get the phone
" She shook her head, flushed.
"Never mind. Please," she murmured, clearly embarrassed as he crouched beside her and picked up a file. "I'll get these. You don't have to help."
Ignoring her insistence, he reached past her for another file. Closer to her now, her scent drifted toward him. Something fresh, faintly herbal and unexpectedly, inexplicably erotic. Caught off guard by the quick tightening low in his gut, he jerked his focus to the delicate lines of her profile. As he did, she looked upand went still the instant her dark eyes met his. A quick, deep breath, a quicker blink, and her glance fell away.
Young, he thought. That was how she looked to him as he scanned the fine lines of her profile once more. Pretty. A little self-conscious. And impossibly
innocent. As edgy as he'd felt lately, he figured her to be about a lifetime shy of his own admittedly jaded thirty-eight years. The thought made him feel older, and edgier still.
Her focus remained on her task. "Please tell me you're not Jared Taylor."
The name caught him momentarily off guard. To protect his plans, he'd made the appointment using his full first name and his mother's maiden name. He needed to remember that. "Sorry," he replied, "but that's me." He handed her another file as his eyes narrowed. "You wouldn't be Candace Chapman, would you?"
Still looking a little flustered, she took the file, reached for another. She had a beautiful mouth. Full. Unadorned. Kissable.
With a frown, he reminded himself that she also didn't look a day over twenty-two. Not exactly jailbait, but not fair game for a man who preferred women who held as few illusions as he did when it came to the opposite sex.
no," she repeated. " I know you have a oneo'clock with her, though. I can get these. Really," she insisted, her focus on the transparencies and computer disks she quickly pushed back into a folder. She reached past him for another disk. Bumping his knee with her forearm, she pulled back, apparently deciding that disk could wait. "If you'll have a seat, I'll let her know you're here."
He handed her the disk and another file, then watched her snatch up the rest and start to rise. Snagging her upper arm, rising, too, he helped her to her feet.
"Thank you," she murmured, and aimed an apologetic smile at his chin before she reached across the desk to punch a button on the ringing phone.
Her tone totally professional, she answered with a brisk, "Good afternoon, Kelton&Associates," as she dumped the files on the desk.
His glance ran over the curve of her narrow hips, down to where her slim skirt ended modestly at the back of her knees. Her slender legs were covered with dark gray tights. The black ballet flats she wore spoke of comfort and practicality. Nothing about the way she dressed could be remotely construed as provocative. Yet he found himself thinking her body looked as taut as the muscles in her arm had felt, when a tall, leggy blond in killer heels and a lipstick-red suit rounded the corner into the reception area.
"I'll need ten copies of this report, too, Amy. And when you get a chance" she continued, only to cut herself off when her head snapped up and she saw him standing there.
The young woman at the desk immediately transferred the call she'd answered and put another on hold. "This is Mr. Taylor," she informed the blonde with a nod in his direction. "He just arrived. Ten copies," she repeated, and slipped into the secretarial chair to straighten the files she'd dropped while telling whoever was on the line that the person he wanted to speak with wasn't in but that she'd be happy to transfer him to her voice mail if he wanted to leave a message.
The thirty-something ad executive in the red power suit gave him an easy smile as she extended her perfectly manicured hand. In that same moment, she managed a blink-ofan-eye once-over that somehow managed to take in everything from his Italian leather shoes to the quality of his open-collared dress shirt and hand-tailored sport coat and the neat cut of his dark, slightly graying hair.
"Jared Taylor. I'm Candace Chapman." Eyes the pure blue of a summer sky held his. Expertly applied makeup turned her strikingly attractive features flawless. "I've looked forward to meeting you. It's always exciting to be in on the birth of a new company." She tipped her head to one side, the motion causing her shining, shoulder-length hair to shimmer in the overhead lights. She snagged it back with her left, noticeably ringless, hand.
"Hold my calls, will you please?" she asked the young woman now heading into another hallway with the report she'd been handed. "Would you like coffee?" Candace asked him.
His attention diverted as much by the woman speaking to him as his reason for being there, he replied, "Please. Black."
"And two coffees?" she called after her infinitely more nondescript subordinate.
"So, tell me, Jared," she continued, only to quickly pause.
"May I call you Jared?"
Since he'd been J.T. all his life, "Jared" would definitely take getting used to. "If I can call you Candace."
"Of course." The charming smile was back. "Anyway," she continued, leading him past offices with employees at drafting tables, "you mentioned on the phone that you're new to the Portland market. Are you planning to offer your architectural services only in Oregon, or all of the Northwest?"
She and the agency knew exactly how to make an impression. The first thing he noticed when she led him into her corner office at the end of the hall was an expansive view of the city, its river dividing east side from west and several of the dozen bridges linking them together. Then there were the industry and civic awards on and above a black-lacquered credenza behind the matching executive desk. Photos in sleek frames of Candace and an older woman who looked much like her shaking the hands of presumably important personages graced the opposite wall.
Rather than sit in the executive chair behind the desk, she headed for the end of the room and one of four barrel chairs spaced around a low cube-shaped coffee table.
"I'm not limiting myself," he replied, as they settled themselves. "I'll go wherever the client wants."
She crossed her long legs, carefully adjusted her skirt and balanced a yellow legal pad in her lap. "And your market will be business developers?"
"And companies looking to build new facilities. I can handle anything from a single-level building to multilevel campuses with subterranean access and egress."
"So we'll need saturation in trade and financial magazines," she concluded. "Do you mind if I ask what sort of advertising you do now?"
He told her he did none himself, then danced around the nature of his present situation by explaining that he was with a company that designed industrial complexes in Europe and Asia. He didn't say a word that wasn't true, he just omitted a lot as he went on to tell her that his partners didn't yet know he was leaving. No one in the company did. Because of that, because he was striking out on his own, confidentiality was imperative.
It was as he was speaking of the need for discretion that he realized the associate she'd addressed as "Amy" had entered the room. With his back to the door, he didn't see her until he noticed Candace give her a nod and she moved to his side.
Holding the small tray she carried low so he could take his cup, she accepted his "Thanks," with a quiet "You're welcome," then set the tray with the other mug soundlessly on the cube.
The gaminelike woman was the antithesis of the chic advertising executive with the obvious business savvy and notso-subtle sexuality. Even as the girl in gray slipped back out, her motions quiet, efficient, the woman across from him shifted to cross her legs the other way.
The motion immediately drew his glance to the length of her shapely calves. A man would have to be drawing his last breath not to notice legs like hers.
"No one outside the offices of Kelton&Associates will know of your plans until the time comes to unveil them," Candace assured him. "Everyone from our assistant," she said with a nod toward the now empty doorway, "to our graphic artists knows it would hardly be to our advantage to ruin the impact of an advertising campaign or alienate a client."
"Just so we understand each other."
She touched her pen to the corner of her glossy red mouth.
"I'm certain we do. So," she said, "talk to me about your vision. Do you have a mission statement?"
She asked intelligent questions, took notes, and spent the next ten minutes having him do the talking to get as much information as possible. He spent the next ten letting her impress him with previous work they'd done for their clients and confirming what he'd learned about the agency in his research. By the time Candace gave him a tour of the place and started introducing him to the various people on the agency's creative team, she was well on her way to convincing him that Kelton&Associates was the firm he needed to launch his new venture.
It also became enormously apparent that Candace Chapman hadn't a clue that he was Harrison Hunt's sonand, unless he was totally misinterpreting her subtle cues, that she might be interested in something more than designing him a company logo and getting that logo recognized in the right circles.
The last thing he'd expected to find when he'd walked in the door was a possible candidate for the Bride Hunt. But he couldn't deny the possibility staring him in the face. While she reminded him of any number of other beautiful, sophisticated women he'd known over the years, as ambitious and career driven as she seemed, she might well meet his criteria for a wife.
Because of that, and because of his father's rules, he surreptitiously pocketed his Rolex on his way out of the graphics department. On his way into Film Media where he met Sid Crenshaw, their techno and art wizard, he made a point of claiming that every penny he had was going into his new business, so he really needed whatever campaign they designed to work. He wanted Ms. Chapman and the entire KA team, as she called them, to think him an average, modestly successful architect who lived part-time in Seattle, presently worked mostly overseas and wanted to open his own firm in the Northwest so he could return to living in the States.
He handled the logistics of paying the retainer without writing a check or otherwise exposing his identity by claiming to be in the process of setting up a separate account for his new firm. Candace didn't bat a single lush eyelash when he said he'd return the contract she would send him with a cashier's check for five thousand dollars to cover their preliminary work. She'd simply said that would be fine, and offered him her hand to seal the deal after they'd entered the reception area, where he found himself glancing around for the young woman who'd run into him when he'd first arrived.
"So we're agreed," Candace said, as he absently withdrew his hand. "We'll have a preliminary presentation for you next week." She tipped her head, her blue eyes steady on his. "If you have any questions or ideas in the meantime, call me. If you're in town, I'd be happy to meet and discuss them."
A faint smile tugged at his mouth. Not "we'll talk on the phone." Rather, "we'll meet." He had to give her points for being direct. He liked that in a woman. It took the guesswork out of the whole dating thing.