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"Are you stalking me, Alex Harper? You're an attorney. You should know better." Amanda Crawford frowned at the too-handsome-for-his-own-good man standing beside the rows of mailboxes in her apartment building.
Alex feigned innocence. Badly. His coffee-brown eyes glinted with mischief, shooting off tiny gold flares in his irises, which in turn set off corresponding sparks below her navel. She clamped down on the unwelcome response.
He withdrew his hand from his black overcoat pocket and dangled a brass mailbox key in front of her. "I'm here to pick up Julia's mail. It's not all being forwarded to Max's place, and since I was going to be in the neighborhood I offered to stop by."
As excuses went, Amanda could almost accept that one. Julia, her former roommate, had married Alex's best friend just over three months ago. But Amanda had been seeing far too much of Alex to believe mail call was his only motive for turning up at 721 Park Avenue on a Saturday night at the exact moment she returned to her apartment building. No matter where she went lately he managed to make an appearance.
"The post office makes change-of-address kits for exactly that purpose. I'll send a few to Julia. Better yet, I'll fill them out myself."
Melting snowflakes glistened in Alex's dark hair, and he stood close enough that she caught a whiff of his cologne. She'd always been a sucker for Calvin Klein MAN, especially when applied to a tall, well-built body.
Stop it. You're all business all the time now, remember?
No men to divert your focus. Especially not this man.
At five foot ten in her bare feet plus her three-inch-heeled Stuart Weitzman ankle boots, she shouldn't have had to look up at anyone not affiliated with professional basketball. But with Alex she did.
"I'll take care of Julia's mail since I still live here," she insisted. "Besides, I have more upstairs."
"I'll come up and get it and deliver it when I meet them for dinner later."
Walked right into that one, didn't you, Amanda?
Disgusted by her slip, she turned and stalked across the marble-floored lobby toward the elevator. Henry the doorman sat in the center of the lobby behind his big mahogany desk, with the phone receiver pressed to his ear. She waved as she passed and his beady eyes followed her.
Alex kept pace beside her. "Why don't you join us tonight?"
"No thanks. I'm busy." Not exactly true. All she had planned was an evening of combing her accounts and trying to find the money to cover her most pressing bills, but she didn't want to encourage Alex by accepting. Not that a womanizer like him apparently needed encouragement. She'd given him none and yet here he was. Again.
"When are you going to stop playing hard to get and go out with me, Amanda?"
"Never. And I'm not playing. I am hard to get. Impossible, in fact. So have a little pride and stop asking." She stabbed the call button and caught Alex's inspection in the ornate gold-rimmed mirror hanging on the Tiffany-box blue wall.
"I never give up when I truly want something. Or someone."
She attributed the shiver working its way up her spine to the record-breaking cold November weather outside the glass lobby doors. Alex's deep voice and the interest in his eyes had nothing to do with it.
"Especially when she's equally as interested."
She caught her breath at his audacity. And his insight. "For someone who is supposedly brilliant, you missed the mark on that one."
Amusement mingled with disbelief in his eyes. "Did I?"
Why bother to lie? He wouldn't believe her anyway. She ducked her chin into the fox collar of her cashmere coat and repositioned herself so she couldn't see him or his reflection.
She had to admit she found Alex's pursuit incredibly flattering, but she was smart enough to recognize a relationship train wreck when she saw one. In the dictionary of dating, Alex's name defined the words temporary and heartbreaker. Getting involved with him would be a disaster on a major scale. Not something she needed to add to her already infamous and blotchy relationship résumé.
"Why is it the party girl"
"Party planner" she corrected instantly. Oops, that had sounded a little snippy and defensive. But he'd hit a hot button. Her disapproving parents had railed long and hard about her unacceptable career. If she heard Get a real job or marry money one more time she wouldn't be responsible for her actions.
"parties with everyone but me?" he continued as if she hadn't interrupted.
She squeezed into the elevator even before the doors finished opening. He followed her into the car, crowding her toward the back wall. She put as much room between them as possible, which meant he literally had her backed into a corner. Not her idea of fun.
"Other people pay me for my services."
"That's what it takes? I have to hire you?"
"Good to know."
Trying to ignore him, she flipped through her mail and grimaced. Bills, bills and more bills. No surprise there. Her business, Affairs by Amanda, continued to grow, but unfortunately not fast enough to cover the balloon payment coming due on her bank loan.
If she didn't land a lucrative and highly visible event contract soon she'd have to consider closing her doors ora fate worse than deathbeg her parents for a loan to tide her over. Either way, her father would need a larynx transplant because he'd wear out his voice box lecturing her about disgracing the venerable Crawford name. Not that she hadn't heard that speech a thousand times already.
The elevator opened. She exited with Alex's shoulder bumping hers. The contact acted like a blaring alarm clock on every cell of her being. She absolutely detested his ability to affect her this way.
Honestly, the man had nothing going for him aside from being rich, smart and gorgeous. It had even been rumored he had a sense of humor. But she could and would continue to resist his advances.
She dug her keys out of her Carlos Falchi python tote bag and shoved them into 9B's lock. It turned smoothly. The building might be prewar, but the security was modern era. If not for her friend Julia's connections, Amanda could never have found herself at such a prestigious uptown address. The real question was how long could she afford to stay without a significant boost in income.
"I'd love to come in. Thanks." Alex's chest bumped her shoulder when he reached past her to push open the door. The usual unwanted frisson of awareness hit her.
Why him? Why did Alex Harper have to be the one to ring her chimes?
She stared at him for five seconds, debated the wisdom of letting him in and then decided it wasn't worth arguing. He'd be gone in minutes. She left him behind and crossed the living room to the brushed stainless basket where she'd piled Julia's magazines and mail. When she turned with the bundle in hand, Alex was right on her heels. Her breath caught at his nearness. She shoved the mail forward, jabbing him in his flat belly, in an attempt to make him back off.
"Here you go. Thanks for picking it up. I'll show you out."
He stayed planted, his big body blocking her path to the door. His gaze held hers as he accepted the stack of letters and magazines. His fingers grazed hers. That fleeting contact hit her like a speeding subway train, quickening her pulse, shortening her breath and knocking her silly with lust.
And then he blinked his ridiculously thick lashes, releasing her from his spell. He scanned the pale pink and white high-tech decor of her living room. She could swear he zeroed in on each new addition. The votives, the trio of bubble-glass vases she'd picked up at an estate sale for next to nothing, the lime-green-beaded sari she'd draped over the back of the white sofa and the new raspberry tasseled lampshade.
"You've made some changes since Julia moved out."
"A few." He'd been in the apartment dozens of times, but not recently and never without Max or Julia as a buffer. Funny how he seemed to take up more space and air when it was just the two of them. "You don't want to be late for dinner."
"I have time."
She gritted her teeth in frustration.
"I want more than Julia's mail from you, Amanda."
As if she didn't know that already. Nevertheless the words sent a quick thrill through her. She'd considered more with Alex a time or two during her weaker moments. More would probably be pretty darn good with him considering all the practice he'd allegedly had. But the man and the timing were all wrong. She had to work on organizing her life before she could allow someone else into it.
She folded her arms and rocked back on her heels. "Really? Now there's a surprise. But there's this little
word. No. N. O. I'm sure you're familiar with it since I've shared it with you so often."
The corners of his mouth twitched as if he fought a smile. She would bet a month's rentwhich she didn't have to sparehe enjoyed their little verbal duels. Why else would he provoke her every time they met?
"You'll change your mind when you hear my proposition."
A proposition. Again, no surprise. Nonetheless, her mouth dried because she really was going to have to say no. Again. And each time it was a little harder to squeeze out that single syllable. "I doubt it."
He took off his coat and draped it over his forearm, revealing a charcoal Brooks Brothers suit, blinding white silk shirt and ruby power tie. "I need Affairs by Amanda."
He'd employed the one line that guaranteed she'd hear him out rather than kick him out. "For what?"
"Harper & Associates just landed a substantial public settlement. I'd like to reward the staff for their hard work."
He definitely knew how to tickle a girl's interest. A party for his firm could be good for business. His and hers. "What kind of event?"
"A couple hundred guests including friends, clients and a few celebrities to make it interesting. Choice of venue is yours, but I'd prefer something upscale like the Metropolitan Club."
Size and visibility. Class and clout. A-list guests who might be persuaded to use her services for their future affairs. Not exactly money in the bank, which she desperately needed, but the exposure could be just the boost her business required.
As a millionaire finance attorney, Alex had the kind of connections she could use. Not that she didn't have her own connections. But his were better.
She knew there would be strings. A wheeler-dealer like Alex would always have strings. She curved her fingers in a "give me more" gesture. "Details."
He named a budget that made her salivate. "The catch is I'd like to do this within the month. The sooner, the better."
"That could be problematic." But aboon for her finances.
"If you're not up to it I can go elsewhere."
A power play. And he knew exactly what he was doing. She didn't miss the challenge in his eyes or in the angle of his chin. "What makes you think I'm available on such short notice?"
"Julia mentioned you'd had an unexpected cancellation."
A huge engagement party had gone kaput. The bride-to-be had run off with the groom's youngest brother. Not pretty. And while Amanda would get to keep the deposit to cover most of her losses, there would be little left after she paid the vendors and her employees.
She ought to turn Alex down. He was demanding and impatient and a workaholic like her father. He'd be hell to work with unless he stayed out of her way. And she doubted he would.
But she couldn't afford to say no.
"If I do this, your party is all I'm doing. Is that clear?"
One dark eyebrow hiked and his delectable mouth tilted mischievously. "Amanda"
"Don't 'Amanda' me. I have no intention of being your latest accessory."
His slow, confident smile hit her below the three-inch-wide patent leather belt she'd cinched over her lavender cashmere tunic sweater. "But we'd be so good together."
That's what she was afraid of. He'd be amazing. Right up until the moment he dumped her. And she'd be left with yet another failed relationship. Wouldn't her parents love to rub that in her face?
"But as you pointed out, I'm an attorney. I know better than to force my attentions when they're not welcome. Meet me tomorrow to discuss the party details. Park Café. Four o'clock."
She sputtered at his pushiness. "That's less than twenty-four hours."
"Long enough for you to know if you can pull this off." He turned on his heel. His long strides carried him out of the apartment. The door shut quietly behind him.
She had her work cut out for her, but she'd be darned if she'd back down from the challenge he'd issued.
She couldn't afford to.
Amanda shifted her laptop case to her left hand, braced herself for another onslaught of Alex's charisma and pushed open the door of Park Café.
The upscale coffee shop was her favorite, and not just because of its close proximity to the building where she lived. If she ever had to have a last supper, she wanted it to be one of the café's double chocolate chip walnut muffinspreferably fresh from the oven while the chocolate chips were still gooey.
She waved to Trish, the barista. The warmth enfolding Amanda had everything to do with leaving the blustery outside behind and nothingabsolutely nothingto do with spotting Alex unfolding his tall frame from a chair at a corner table.
He'd dressed casually for a Sunday afternoon in charcoal wool trousers and a dove-gray cable V-neck sweater that made his shoulders look a mile wide. She caught a glimpse of the black T-shirt he wore between the cashmere and his skin.
Don't think about what's next to his skin.
Keep the meeting on a business footing.
And if he flirts, ignore him.
Easier said than done when even his smile invited her to break rules and promised she'd love doing it. Why did the man tempt her to throw caution and common sense out the window?
He pulled out a chair for her and nodded toward her briefcase. "You came prepared."
"I'm good at what I do. That's why you're hiring me. I brought a list of venues and dates that we can get within the next four weeks. Needless to say, it's a short list since the most desirable locations book up months or years in advance. I can pull up pictures of the spaces online since the café has wireless Internet access."
Trying to make connections with vendors on a Sunday had been absolute hell. But she'd done it by calling in every favor she was owed. This job was that important.
"I've ordered your usual. Trish said to tell you she'd start your latte when you walked in the door and a fresh batch of muffins would be out of the oven in five minutes."
Her usual? She'd met Alex here with Julia and Max a few times, but she hadn't realized he'd noticed she always ordered the same thing. Most likely Trish had told him. "Thank you."