Stripped Down (Harlequin Blaze Series #814)

Stripped Down (Harlequin Blaze Series #814)

by Kelli Ireland

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781460338575
Publisher: Harlequin
Publication date: 09/01/2014
Series: Pleasure Before Business Series
Sold by: HARLEQUIN
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 224
Sales rank: 405,358
File size: 295 KB

About the Author

Kelli Ireland spent a decade as a name on a door in corporate America. Unexpectedly liberated by Fate's sense of humor, she chose to carpe the diem and pursue her passion for writing. A fan of happily-ever-afters, she found she loved being the Puppet Master for the most unlikely couples. Seeing them through the best and worst of each other while helping them survive the joys and disasters of falling in love? Best. Thing. Ever. Visit Kelli's website at www.kelliireland.com.

Read an Excerpt

Feet propped on the low windowsill and ankles crossed. Cass Jameson focused on her toes. Rather, the polish on her toenails. The electric blue polish, "Ogre the Top Blue" courtesy of OPI, was the only color in her otherwise staid corporate attire. She loved the color with an unholy passion, but it also served a purpose.

After her environmental engineering firm, Preservations, celebrated its first full year of operating in the black, Cass had treated herself to three indulgent days at a luxury spa. She'd purchased the nail polish before she left as a constant reminder she could, would, make Preservations a success. That trip had been the first time she'd allowed herself to breathe in more than three years. Now, eleven months later, she was holding her breath again.

So much hinged on the incoming email from the Environmental Protection Agency. Preservations had been awarded the contracts for establishing rainwater runoff and soil erosion at the proposed site of the elite Chok Resort on Lake Washington. She and her team had busted their asses for months to create long-term, environmentally sound solutions. They were due to present their plan to the resort's builder, Sovereign Developments, in under a week. Sovereign's board of directors, made up of old men with even older money, wanted a cheap fix to the runoff and erosion problems, but they also wanted the project endorsed as green construction for tax purposes and public support. She couldn't deliver on the former. The latter? She had it covered in spades.

But only if the EPA signed off on Preservations' plans. If it did, Sovereign would be hard-pressed to reject her proposal. She'd have the backing she needed to persuade the tight-assed CEO to move forward. Probably. Maybe. God, she hoped so.

A kernel of dread, her constant companion as this deal had been negotiated, threatened to erupt. Pressing her fist into her diaphragm, she forced her breathing to slow. Just once she'd be the emotionless Ice Princess her competitors accused her of being. Ironic that her father, David Jameson, was heralded for his cold-blooded business dealings while her peers and competing engineering firms lobbed it at her as an insult.

A seagull rode a thermal by the fourth-floor window, drawing her attention. Low-hanging clouds shrouded the Seattle skyline and blanketed pedestrians below in heavy mist. Behind her, her laptop chimed.

Such a soft, innocuous sound, that, the herald of her fate. Her fingers curled around the armrests of her chair, but she didn't drop her feet or face the monitor. Not yet.

She'd known securing this location had been a good strategy. It hadn't come cheap, but it positioned Preservations close to the downtown business district and near contractors. Signing the five-year lease had been a calculated risk.

"Greater the risk, greater the reward," she murmured. Provided the risk pays out. Her father's baritone echoed through her head, unwelcome. Particularly now.

Muffled voices hummed as the hive of employees gathered outside her door.

Her office door handle rattled as the door opened. She should really call maintenance, have them fix that.

"You didn't read it, did you?" Gwen's tone was neutral, guarded even.

Shoving her feet into her high heels, Cass swiveled toward her business partner and best friend. Everything they'd worked for—all the long nights studying, the family expectations, the sexist remarks of her peers, the casually exchanged conversation between competitors that she and Gwen were destined to fail as women in a man's world—it all came down to this. "Tell me the EPA cleared us to move forward with the Sovereign project. Tell me Preservations is going to be solvent for years to come because our proposal was accepted. Tell me we can hold Sovereign's board to their agreement to move forward with our solutions if we could get absolute EPA support. Say the words, Gwennie."

The stunning petite blonde propped a hip on the corner of Cass's desk. "You need to breathe."

She shook her head. "I can't. Not yet. You know how I get."

"You're right. I do. Here's a news flash, Cass. Your biggest character flaw? You're always expecting the worst. Negative Nancies aren't attractive."

"Negative Nancies?" One corner of her mouth curled up. "This is business. Being an emotionally reserved pessimist has kept us afloat."

Gwen's brows drew together in a fierce scowl. "You sound like your father."

A small hitch in Cass's chest made her words raspy. "I'm not my father."

"Then don't be so afraid to express a little emotion. You're not an automaton."

But a lifetime as the oldest child of business magnate David Jameson, a man who valued control above all else, had taught her to smother her reactions. He'd hammered home one thing above all else: to reveal emotion was to reveal weakness, and any opponent worth his salt would use that weakness against her. He'd proved it by using her emotions against her again and again, until all that was left between them was undisguised resentment and, at least on her part, more than a little paranoia.

When she'd founded Preservations, she'd been so concerned about being singled out as Jameson's daughter she'd gone into business under her mother's maiden name—Wheeler. She'd also kept her name buried in the company directory, not touting her partial ownership. Distancing herself from both his name and his expectations had been a matter of self-preservation. She hated him for making it a necessity. She hated him more for continuing to steal moments like this from her.

"Cass?"

Running a hand around the back of her neck, she took a deep breath before looking at Gwen. "I'm working on it."

"You need to have fun, let your hair down, dance on a few tabletops now and then. You're not fooling me."

"I know. Just…update my online dating profile after you tell me what the email says, okay?"

"Oh! Can I really update your profile?" Gwen grinned and did a little hip shimmy on the desk.

Cass sighed and pinched the bridge of her nose, closing her eyes for a second. "Why do women who are about to get married always want to hook their friends up?"

"Because it makes us happy to think said friend, singular, is not destined to end up alone with subscriptions to multiple trashy tabloids that she reads aloud to the twenty-seven cats she lives with in an apartment that smells like tuna salad and vapor rub." Gwen never stopped smiling. "Now, if you promise me I can update your profile, I'll tell you what you want to know, since you're not brave enough to read it yourself."

"I promise," Cass said between gritted teeth.

"Deal. The EPA cleared us straight across the board. We're green-lighted to present the solutions to Sovereign Developments and its backers."

"Straight across the board. They accepted everything." Cass whispered the questions, but her intrepid spirit wound through the words so they came out with concrete assurance. Clearing her throat, she rose to her full height and squared her shoulders. The invisible fist that had been strangling her instinctive emotional response relaxed and, without warning, she erupted in a hip-shaking boogie dance, pumping her fists in the air with a scream. Yanking Gwen off the desk, she spun the woman in circles. Shouts and cheers rose outside the office door. Months of hard work and long hours had paid off. "Grab your partners and—"

"If she cries out 'do-si-do,' I'm outta here," someone shouted.

"Funny guy," Cass shouted back, laughing. "Grab your partners and meet us at Bathtub Gin tomorrow night. We can officially afford to say, 'It's on us!'"

Another cheer went up in the hallway, shouts and laughter weaving through the raucous group as everyone took a deep breath.

Cass realized she'd been clutching Gwen's hand hard enough to mottle the woman's skin. Releasing it, she stepped back. "Someday I'm going to get through this without you."

Gwen shut the office door to a chorus of laughter as the group moved off. Turning, she leaned against the nearest bookshelf. "I hope you always need me, Cass."

"I didn't mean…" She ran fingers through her hair, disrupting the smooth chignon. Tucking the loosened pieces in place, she moved to stand over Gwen. In heels, it was easy to dwarf the petite blonde.

"You're looming, love."

"I know." Cass leaned down and kissed the woman's cheek.

"Does this mean I get a rose and you ask me to stay on your island?" Gwen demanded, hands on her hips.

Cass laughed, that kernel of dread morphing into something effervescent and pervasive, something suspiciously akin to hope. It spread through her limbs and left her feeling light and impossibly encouraged. "We now officially have two things to celebrate," she said, letting a slow, seductive smile spread over her face.

Gwen stepped back, smacking into the door. "I know that look. That look says you're going to get me in trouble with Dave. I'm getting married next Saturday, Cass. I can't exactly return the dress, and I want that damn cake. We got a layer of peanut butter and jelly." She slid along the door as Cass stalked forward.

"You're the one who said to live a little."

Gwen shook her head. "You. Not me. You live a little. I've lived. I'm tired of living. That's why I'm getting married." Her brow furrowed. "That's not what I meant."

"Uh-huh."

"Cass, Dave has specifically forbidden me from getting in over my head, and the expression on your face says you're throwing me in the deep end in a total sinkor-swim, survival-style move."

"Yep." A feral grin tugged at Cass's lips. She adored Dave, but no one would ever truly be good enough for Gwen. It just wasn't possible.

"Swimming?" Gwen tugged at her collar. "I didn't bring my bathing suit."

"Naked swimming, Gwen."

A sheen of sweat dotted her friend's upper lip.

"N-Naked?"

"As in, without clothes. Yes." Cass reached out and grabbed her best friend's wrist when she reached for the door. "Nope. No bailing. Dave will be fine with this. He's no doubt getting the same treatment. You're not leaving my side until the night's over."

"A bachelorette party?" Gwen gasped.

The sound of surprise struck Cass particularly hard. "You didn't actually think I'd let you get married without a party, did you?"

"What happened to the emotionally suppressed pessimist? I want her back."

"Too bad. You're the one who told me to dance on a few tables. Besides, we still need to have my and Dave's names tattooed on your ass. He gets left and I'll always be right. It's more poetic that way."

"Tattoos?" Gwen squeaked, edging toward the door again.

Cass coughed to cover her laugh. "Truth?"

The smaller woman nodded, wide eyes never leaving Cass's face.

"Nothing's going to happen tonight that you don't want to happen. Period. I've got your back, as always." She arched a brow and slapped a cuff on Gwen's wrist, fastening the other around her own before the other woman could react.

"You let me go right now, Ramona Cassidy Jameson, or I'm calling your father and informing him you're a sexual deviant."

"Stomp your foot and I swear I'll dump your new Mac in the Sound."

Gwen watched her for a minute and then smiled wide. "You would, too. That's one of the reasons I like you so much. You don't take shit from anyone, ever, and you always come out on top."

"Because I fight to get there." Cass grinned down at the vixen latched to her wrist. "Tonight? What you do, I do. That'll keep things from getting too wild."

"Too wild?" Gwen glanced up, biting her bottom lip. "How wild is too wild?"

Cass dragged a superficially reluctant Gwen out of the office to yet another round of cheers. As they waited for the elevator, Cass rattled their joined wrists. "How wild is too wild?" She waggled her eyebrows. "Fifty bucks says we find out tonight."

Eric Reeves walked through the office, navigating cubicles, stopping here and there to exchange a word of encouragement or thanks, sometimes a laugh, with his employees. Sovereign Developments, the real estate development firm he'd founded on dollar bills and a dream, was on the cusp of a huge deal. After securing the rights to develop the Chok Resort on Lake Washington in a battle with David Jameson, an established developer, that had, at times, been brutal, they were waiting for the EPA to approve the environmental engineer's plan. More importantly, they were waiting for the board to agree to fund the plan. In the meantime, he'd had to forgo his salary to make sure Sovereign could pay its bills, and he was working a second job to pay his own bills.

When the contracts between the parties were signed and Sovereign was officially the development firm of record, Eric would breathe again. Until then, he had a metric crapload of work to do, not the least of which involved long hours at his second job.

"Hey." Eric's assistant, Gretchen, fell into step beside him. "You're on your fifth lap around the office.

What's up?"

"I'm not making laps. I'm managing," he answered, smiling absently as he watched an engineer manipulate a drawing on his computer.

"Managing, huh?" She held out a clipboard with several papers attached. "Well, I need you to manage this while you wear the soles off your shoes."

He took the clipboard and scanned the forms. Payroll. Shit. "How deep are we in it this time?" Gretchen's studiously blank face was answer enough, but Eric wanted to hear it before he saw the numbers. "Prepare me, Gretch."

"Let's just say we're going to be pushing the limits of our line of credit this pay period."

His stomach tightened as bile rose in his throat. Still, he nodded and let one corner of his mouth curl up in a half smile. "Once we're officially cleared on the Chok Resort, you'll be able to stop hovering over the line of credit like a financial mother hen over her little brood of dollar signs."

"I don't hover," Gretchen huffed. Her lips twitched.

"Much."

"Right. And I'm actually a leprechaun."

"You're too tall."

He glanced over and arched a brow as he crossed his arms over his chest. His suit pulled at his shoulders. "Are you disparaging my people because I'm a physical anomaly?"

Gretchen laughed out loud, drawing several glances from around the room. "Eric says he's a leprechaun," she announced.

"Where's my pot of gold?" someone shouted.

A discussion ensued regarding leprechauns and what people would do with the gold if they had it. Eric signed forms, keeping one eye on the clipboard and one ear on the chatter. The underlying energy in the room hummed along his skin like a small electrical current. He fed on it. It kept him moving forward, kept him focused and encouraged. As the owner and CEO of Sovereign, he had to ensure the company's financial security and longevity, and there was nothing he wouldn't do to make sure that future was as secure as it could be.

Handing the signed forms to Gretchen with a word of thanks, he shoved his hands in his pockets and headed for the chief financial officer's office.

Dan had been a financial whiz and good friend in college. Eric had recruited him fourteen months ago, spending a pretty penny to make sure Dan came on board. The guy could nearly project markets, could wring out the last cent from every investment and generally make a dollar go further than anyone else Eric knew. Beside himself.

Dan sat behind a beat-up desk, hammering away at his computer. He looked up as Eric came in and closed the door.

"Payroll. When will we be able to afford it?"

Dan swiveled back and forth, his old office chair groaning in protest as he rocked. "We're pushing the financial envelope, Eric. The line of credit won't support another payroll unless we supplement it with some kind of cash influx. The investors won't come up with the cash until the deal is done, and we still don't have a clear picture of how much Preservations' plan is going to cost. If it's too much, the board is going to balk. I have to have twenty grand just to make this week's payroll, so if they postpone their decision, we're screwed. Bottom line? We need your other source of income." Dan spun a pencil between his fingers. "What is it that you do, anyway?"

Eric leaned against the wall and closed his eyes. "Whatever I have to."

Or, to be more specific, whatever his alter ego, Dalton Chase, headline stripper for Beaux Hommes, had to do.

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Stripped Down 5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 1 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Some man knows how to wear a suit. And some man knows how to take it off. But eric reeves id the CEO of a real estate development firm that on break-though. But first he finds the taste of first fruits of true success or watch the business go down the drain. But he has to earn a living by stripping at Eaux Hommes. Cass homes hires dalton for her best friends bride shower. And when dalton steps throught the door. His his never leaves her. The chemisty between dalton and cass goes on from then on.