Spotlight on temptation
The tall, sexy stranger who just barged into Lexi Pendergrass's shop looks like a perfect ten to her. But not only does Stephen Reyes accuse the former beauty queen of selling his young niece a scandalous dress, he then prevents Lexi from buying her dream property next door. Not exactly Mr. Congeniality. Even still, beneath their bickering simmers an inconvenient chemistry that's shaking Lexi's legendary poise to the core.
Real estate mogul Stephen has had his world rocked twice in recent months. First, he became guardian to his late brother's children. Now he's falling for a feisty Southern beauty who, when she isn't coaching his pageant-crazy niece, is schooling him in desire. He misjudged her once. Now he's using all his seductive talents to win Lexi for now and forever
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"Mr . Foxx," Lexi Pendergrass began with a big, toothy smile, hoping to distract the elderly couple seated before her from the thumping music outside of her office. "I assure you this proposal of mine will not attract what you'd call riffraff:"
Mr. Foxx, the man holding the deed to the shop next doorthe deed to Lexi's dream of expanding her Grits and Glam Gowns Boutiquerelaxed his pinched shoulders and gave a squeeze to the hand of his wife of over forty years. Lexi did her homework. She understood Mr. and Mrs. Foxx wanted to sell the inherited piece of prime property located between her boutique and their café.
"You are aware Mrs. Foxx and I plan to retire soon?" said Mr. Foxx, squeezing his wife's hand once again. Mrs. Foxx tilted her head up toward her husband and smiled. Lexi swore the woman batted her lashes, as well. "And though we won't be here, we do want to leave this block in good moral standing."
Commercial property in Southwood, Georgia, sold like hotcakes these days. Morality seemed to be the invisible clause in every contract. Everyone wanted to make the move to the small Southern city to enjoy the peace and security. Companies were moving into town, buying up properties and turning them into businesses with a down-home hospitality feel. Like many twentysomethings trying to find their way, Lexi had left her job and apartment in Atlanta and came back to her hometown. Instead of staying with her parents, she had tried to pay a small rent to her grandmother until the day Grandma Bea sold her Victorian home. With the money Grandma Bea made from that, she'd given Lexi the funds to start her own boutique, a dream the two of them had shared since Lexi played with dolls.
Now, with her business booming, she needed the space next door to expand. She just needed to assure the owners she would take care of the property. Armed with a 3-D model of what the block would look like once the renovations happened, she'd just given the best pitch of her life. Knowing what was at stake, Lexi was wondering why her assistant, Chantal, had decided now, of all times, to turn up the music.
"Yes, sir, I am aware." Still holding her smile, she tried to brush off the condescending tone in the man's voice. This man spoke of decency, morality and Southern hospitality when he never as much as lifted a hand to wave when they passed each other on the block. This morning she'd jumped through hoops with a model, the speech and a finger-sandwich display, set up in case they were hungry on the credenza propped against the wall opposite the mirror.
Lexi's eyes moved toward the one-way mirror positioned against the soft pink wall to the right of her desk. The mirror typically helped Lexi pick out the customers having a little trouble deciding on a dress. Today, during the biggest meeting of her life, the one-way mirror provided the image of a tall man dressed in a dark suit, with a bald head and dark beard. His lean frame belonged on the runway. She was always a sucker for a man in a suit, and he'd easily caught her attention. The tailored suit fit well against his broad shoulders and tapered waist. Glasses rested on his sleek Roman nose and chiseled cheekbones. The close-cropped black beard covered his square jawline. The flat line of his luscious lips indicated he was not a man to mess withdangerous, evenyet tempted the curiosity within her of what those lips might feel like against her neck. The mirrored glasses covering his eyes added to the mystique of the stranger. For the first time in a long while, Lexi felt a faint quiver of desire for a man.
As far as beauty pageants went, this man scored a ten in at least half of the eight score categories. He owned poise, beauty, stage presence and overall appearance. What he'd win in swim, evening, interview and special category were yet to be determined. If he stuck around until after she finished with the Foxxes, she might try and find out. He stood at the counter holding a dark garment clenched in his fist. With no sound she heard no words but knew from the frown on his face the customer was not happy. Given the chance, she would never leave this man unsatisfied.
Clearing her throat to distract from the commotion on the floor, Lexi stood up and smoothed the palms of her hands against the wrinkles of her black pencil skirt and flattened the point where her black-and-white pin-striped shirt tucked into the waistband. She waved her French-manicured nails toward the small structure of the city block where their businesses were. "You both may have noticed my kitchenette when you entered. I would love to patronize your establishment, maybe buy your coffee every day or send the customers' families to you while they wait on fittings and things along those lines. And so "
The whole purpose of standing was to distract the Foxxes, but Lexi's attention suffered. The stranger slipped his sunglasses off his face. His onyx eyes pierced the oneway glass. When he half smirked, Lexi gulped and clutched her neck, stumbling over her words. The slow ease of his lopsided grin sent a shiver down her spine. She'd been so focused with the store and resettling in town that she'd unknowingly set her carnal desires aside. Chantal had failed to keep the chaos outside contained.
"Are you all right, dear?" asked Mrs. Foxx. The dangling green-stemmed daisy flower at the top of her hat caught Lexi's attention.
"Yes," Lexi exhaled.
The door to her office banged open. Poor Chantal, her mocha cheeks filled with red, flattened herself against the door as the massive man stormed through. At five foot eleven, Lexi took notice of men taller than her, especially when she wore her signature four-inch heels. Quickly, she came around her desk offering an apology to the elderly couple, who were now coming to their feet at the intrusion.
With as much grace as she could muster, Lexi crossed the hardwood floor of her office and patted Chantal's arm, excusing her with a smile of assurance that this was not her fault.
"Good afternoon, sir," Lexi said steadily as she looked up into the man's angry eyes, "but if you wouldn't mind sitting outside, I will be with you in a min"
"I will not sit and wait." The man cut her off. "I came to find out who would be so reckless as to sell a provocative gown to a sixteen-year-old." He cast a glance up and down Lexi's long frame. "Now I understand."
"I beg your pardon!" Lexi gasped and reached for the pearls around her neck. This morning she'd smoothed her honey-blond hair into the perfect chignon. She knew her high cheekbones became heated with red after being reduced to some scolded teenager.
Mr. Foxx's voice rose, "Young man, is there a problem?"
The man peered over Lexi's shoulder and offered a half smile. "Please forgive me," he said, offering a dazzling smile in Mrs. Foxx's direction.
This time Lexi did not miss the batting lashes, though she did not blame the woman for blushing. Two seconds ago, she would have melted at the same smile. Despite the angry tone, his deep, velvety voice purred in her ears.
"I needed to come back and hand deliver this piece of garbage this woman sold to my young niece. You ought to be put in jail for this." He clenched the black material in his fists and shook it in the air.
Over her shoulder, Mrs. Foxx gasped. Lexi twirled a pearl between her thumb and forefinger as he held up the barely there dress she'd designed and worn once during her youthful indiscretions. Of course, seeing the black dress held up in this man's meaty hands caused Lexi to finally understand her parents' concern at the time on her direction in life. Mary Pendergrass had warned her about it coming back and haunting her one day.
At the time, Lexi had paid no attention to her mother. Lexi was never quite the angel her sister, Lisbeth, was. She had designed the dress in order to get noticed by design schools and modeled it, something she did to supplement paying for college when pageants weren't covering the bills. Designers wanted the iconic dress in a vault. Lexi wanted it burned. Her assistant, Andrew Mason, had insisted on holding on to the dress as a memento, reminding her what launched her career.
"Do you deny this belongs to you?"
"Well, yes." Lexi bit the corner of her lip. The last time she'd laid eyes on it, she'd played a game of tug-of-war over it in her loft upstairs with Andrew, who wanted the dress hung on a platinum hanger and sealed in a glass case. How the dress had come to be sold was beyond her.
"Miss Pendergrass." Mr. Foxx stepped forward with his wife, who adjusted the strap of her purse on her shoulder. "We'll be leaving now."
Lexi's heart sank even before Mr. Foxx made his excuse to leave. Mrs. Foxx offered Lexi a curt smile as they quickly exited the office. Once the door closed behind them, Lexi craned her neck toward her intruder.
"Are you serious?" Lexi ground her back teeth together. Her body began to shake with bubbling anger.
"Did I ruin something for you?" the man spat out, sarcastically amused. "Imagine how I felt being called down here from an important meeting, only to discover your garment on my niece."
"I don't understand how your niece got my dress."
"Clearly you're in need of some capital." He strolled over to the 3-D model of her proposal on her desk and she followed. "And you want to get it by any means necessary, so you sold a skimpy dress. No decent woman would even think about wearing this." For emphasis, he shook the garment in the air again.
Typically, Lexi always liked to keep her cool, but this man had possibly cost her a building salenot a dress sale, but a building sale. She narrowed her eyes at the dress before reaching out and snatching it from his hands. "Look, I have no idea how this dress got in your niece's hands."
"Of course you don't," he said folding his arms across his broad Black Label Ralph Lauren suit.
As a designer, Lexi familiarized herself with the difference between an off-the-rack ninety-nine-dollar suit and one costing two grand. This man reeked of money and entitlement. And armed with the knowledge, Lexi realized he would not give upor leavewithout an apology. She wanted him out of her office. She wanted him out of her store, hell, out of her life. "Look, Mr." Lexi realized he'd never even given his name before ruining her day.
"Reyes," he provided in a clipped tone, "Stephen Reyes."
Thanks to the suit and the introduction of his last name first, Lexi imagined him as some secret spy, like in the movies. Instead of a James Bond British accent, she detected a slight Caribbean accent, which wasn't the point. Lexi shook the image of him in a black tuxedo holding a vodka martini out of her head.
"Mr. Reyes," Lexi said with a slight nod. "I cannot explain how my dress ended up in your niece's possession. It has never been on the floor. I apologize."
"Are you telling me you don't know who you sell your dresses to?"
Lexi's mouth gaped open for a moment at his belittlement. She braced herself by placing her hands on the edge of her desk. "Did you hear the part where I apologized for this mix-up?"
"I heard it. I want an explanation. Do you not keep track of your customers and their purchases?"
"For the most part, yes," she said, pressing her lips together and biting the inside of her cheeks. "We don't make a habit of carding customers."
"So you carelessly sell hooker dresses?"
"Hold on one damn minute, Mr. Reyes!" Her employees glanced toward the mirror as her voice rose. "I am sorry your sixteen-year-old got ahold of this dress, but I do not understand how. Either way, you have no reason to hurl insults at my work."
Mr. Reyes closed the three-foot gap between them. His square jaw twitched as his back molars ground together. His dark eyes narrowed on her face, judging her, as his creamy, cafe-au-lait skin turned a slight red. "Your work" he used air quotes "nearly got a sixteen-year-old assaulted at a club."
Immediately Lexi's mind wheeled. The dress would certainly bring unwarranted attention to a naive woman. Her mouth dropped open. "Assaulted? What a woman wears has no bearing on an attack. Is she okay?" She didn't know what to say.
"No thanks to you." Mr. Reyes took a step back and sniffed the air. His eyes skimmed over the pictures and trophies of her beauty pageants on the shop walls.
"Again, I am so sorry for the mix-up."
"Sure you are," he said, as if no longer interested in her explanation. His eyes fell on the curios representing her past.
The accolades ranged from her time as a teen pageant queen and crossed over into her world of modeling and her Bachelor of Fine Arts degree from Parsons The New School for Design. His eyes focused on Lexi's party-girl images, including one of her wearing the infamous dress his niece had somehow got ahold of. The corners of his mouth turned into a frown; obviously her accolades did not help her apology. Just as her mother had predicted, people were going to judge her by her past.
Lexi cleared her throat, "Please let me know if I can do anything to help. I have two"
Whatever Lexi wanted to say fell on deaf ears to Mr. Reyes. He snapped his gaze back at her. Not sure what had brought on his newly formed coldness, she shivered and stepped backward.
"What you do with your whatever is your business. You need to keep underage girls out of here, so you don't influence them with floozy dresses. "
The smirk spreading across his face chilled her. "If the dress fits, lady."
"I suggest you keep a better eye on your niece, instead of looking to blame other people." Her statement clearly shocked him. With him off guard, she continued. "I think you should leave, Mr. Reyes," Lexi said, tight-lipped, her heels clicking across the hardwood floors as she opened her office door. When the door swung open, Chantal and Andrew jumped back half a foot. "We're done here," she told him.
Mr. Reyes cocked his head to the side. The smile turned into a snarl as he approached. Stopping in front of her body, he leaned in close to her ear. Lexi turned her head, hoping to block out the delicious scent of this arrogant man.
"Lady, after what my niece went through, we're far from done," he whispered before straightening upright and squaring his shoulders at her assistant.
Andrew squared his lineman-sized shoulders backward. To the naked eye, Andrew appeared to be just a six-foot-tall mass of muscle with a long scar that raked down the left side of his cheek. One might assume the scar came from a knife fight, but in actuality it was from a hard lesson learned after running with scissors. Thankfully, today Andrew puffed his chest. Most people found him intimidating before they realized he was a teddy bear.
Mr. Reyes was not most people. He cast a rueful glance over his shoulder and laughed at the lack of danger. "I'll be seeing you around, Ms. Pendergrass." Without another word or glance he walked out. Lexi stood in disbelief.
"Who in the hell does he think he is?" Chantal breathed.
"My future boo."
Giving a heavy sigh, Lexi rolled her eyes toward the natural lighting of the sky roof. "Too soon for jokes, Andrew, too soon."
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