Authors: Linda Cajio
Finally, he spoke. “I understand you’ve been with the company for four years.”
The sensation faded. He did have a commanding presence, but this was ridiculous, she told herself.
“That’s right, Mr. Halford.” Why did he do it? she wondered. Why would any grown man dance around a fire and howl like that? He’d sounded like the Hound of the Baskervilles with a gland problem. He must be crazy. She also wondered when he was going to get around to firing her.
“Jake,” he said, smiling.
She blinked, surprised at the offer of familiarity. She cleared her throat. “Jake.”
“And you’re Dave Ringman’s secretary.”
“Well, it’s a little more than that,” she said stiffly, for he’d hit a bone of contention. She ran the entire sales staff for Dave, who preferred to spend the workday “touching base” with Wayans’s biggest clients. She didn’t mind the job, but she preferred the title and pay that went with it.
“Oh?” Jake’s tone had turned frosty, and she realized she’d just made a faux pas with the new VP. That wasn’t good. “What I mean is, there’s a lot of basic logistics to the sales staff that I handle.”
“And how are we doing in the sales department?”
“Not as well as we have,” she said frankly, knowing that was why he’d been brought in. He had the figures for the past year. She’d sent them to him over Dave’s signature. Wayans had been spiraling downward for more than a year now. She didn’t know how long it could continue to do so before jobs were in trouble, but she suspected the crisis point had already been passed.
“Well, we’ll turn things around.” He smiled cheerfully. He sounded so normal, rational. Even charming.
As she gazed at him, it occurred to her that he was being nice. He was not acting like a man who’d been caught in the raw and was about to cremate the catcher. She even found it hard to equate the naked dancing man with this self-assured executive in white silk shirt and pinstripes. His eyes were a startling gentle brown against his dark, saturnine features. Allowing herself to take a good close look at him, she realized he was quite attractive.
Maybe he wasn’t about to fire her. Maybe he had no idea that she’d seen him. Maybe he was just a nice guy with a sunshine-camp complex. Whatever, she had one up on the boss. A big one.
She grinned. What had he chanted to the gods that night? she wondered. Or had he just accidentally stepped on the fire? “Oo, oo, ahh, ahh” could go either way.
“What’s so funny?” he asked.
“Oh … ah … nothing.” But it was funny. Maybe he sang “Ring around the rosy with no pocket for a posy.” A snort of amusement escaped her.
He smiled at her. “Now, something is funny.”
What an understatement. She immediately rearranged her face. “No, no.”
Unfortunately, she giggled and completely ruined the effect.
“Come on,” he coaxed, grinning.
“Nothing.” She clamped her hand over her mouth. It didn’t help as she began to laugh. “This is terrible!”
She waved her hands, chuckling helplessly. She couldn’t believe herself. No one in her right mind laughed at the new boss—no matter what he did. The more she tried to get hold of herself, though, the more she laughed.
“All right,” he said, in a clipped tone.
“I’m sorry,” she gasped, leaning weakly against some file shelves.
He frowned, then obviously decided to ignore her slight problem. “I also wanted to talk with you about that project for Bickman’s. I understand from Dave that you helped him.”
That sobered her. She’d done the entire job while her boss took all the credit.
Jake smiled briefly. “Now that I finally have your undivided attention, I have a similar project I want you to work with me on.”
Anger shot through her. Another job where she did all the work and he got the credit? No way. Then she realized that he was
boss. Whom was he going to get credit from? Himself? Instead, he would see what she was capable of. It was actually a prime opportunity for a promotion and a badly needed raise.
Of course, it did mean working closely with him. She didn’t know if she could. He was attractive, a little too attractive to suit her. That could be dangerous. She’d be in hysterics half the time too.
“I’d be happy to,” she said finally, knowing she couldn’t afford not to do it. “But what about Dave?”
He frowned in puzzlement. “You’ll continue your work with him, of course. Why wouldn’t you? I already have a secretary.”
There goes my sanity
, she thought. Tentatively,
she began, “I do have a heavy workload already …”
“Can you take it home? This new project is really important for the company’s well-being. Even its continued existence.”
She stared at him. Take it home? “I’m enrolled in night classes at Drexel University—”
“Surely you don’t go every night.” He stared back at her, grim-faced. “This is an important project for Wayans, and I need the help. Someone who knows what they’re doing. Dave is too busy as it is.”
And if he gave it to Dave, she’d get stuck with it anyway. Charity knew defeat when she saw it. Dances with No Clothes On clearly deserved a second moniker.
As Jake watched Charity nod, agreeing to help him, he decided all was going well. Very well.
Though he kept trying not to stare at her, he couldn’t help it. Charity Brown was extremely attractive. He’d first noticed her about a week before as she’d left the building, and he’d been startled by an instant surge of lust, followed by an even deeper surge of the soul. He couldn’t remember the last time a woman had caused that kind of reaction in him, and he’d been determined to meet her ever since. He’d asked around, checked her records, gotten some information, and finally had come up with a plan.
He’d found his prey, marked her for capture, and now he was stalking her in the ancient way. He was utilizing the skills that fed the male spirit, and it felt immensely satisfying to be on the hunt. It would be a long process, but that was only more fulfilling for the male soul. Of course, when he finally captured her,
and he would, the result would be mutual pleasure. He was sure she wouldn’t be displeased. Looking at her now, he knew it would be worth it.
Her hair was a rich brown, the color of dark honey, and curved around her features. Her face wasn’t classically beautiful, but was still somehow memorable, with her wide brown eyes and generous mouth. A mouth made for kissing. And her body didn’t quit. Watching her walk away from the building to her car that first time had been a study in sensual motion. She was tall; in heels she nearly matched his six feet. That made eye contact just about perfect. When he could catch it. She was extremely shy.
And nervous. At least, she seemed that way. First she’d blushed fiercely red, then she’d had a case of the giggles. Those weren’t reactions he’d expected, but he was willing to continue his pursuit. Too much about her was intriguing.
He’d have to watch himself, though. When she’d seemed unwell, all that oversensitivity he’d thought he’d rid himself of had rushed to the fore. When she’d said she wasn’t ill, he’d had to force himself not to keep pressing.
“Well,” she said, smiling slightly. “I don’t want to keep you any longer … Jake. And I better be getting back to my desk.”
“Fine. How about if we get together tonight to talk about—”
“I’m sorry,” she interrupted, “but I have a class.”
He blinked, then remembered she had said something about classes. “Then tomorrow—”
“I have to study.” She smiled apologetically. “I’m sorry.”
He frowned. He might want Charity on a personal
level, but he wouldn’t risk the new project if she couldn’t handle it. All he’d discovered about her work habits told him she was perfect for the job, and it was a good opportunity for her. But scheduling was clearly going to be a problem. “Well, how about right after work? We really need to go over what I want you to do.”
“Ahhh …” She looked unhappy. “I’m sorry to ask, but can’t we do it during working hours?”
“I wouldn’t want to impose on Dave. It wouldn’t be fair for me to pull rank on him and borrow his secretary when he needs her too.”
“Right.” Her voice was flat.
He smiled encouragingly. “Really, Charity, it won’t take long at all. I know you’re worried about that.”
She nodded, though she still looked unconvinced. He decided he’d just have to convince her.
“We’ll get together toward the end of the day. Go on back to your desk now,” he added in a good-natured tone, waving his hands in a shooing motion. “The sooner you do Dave’s work, the sooner you can do mine.”
The look she shot him was murderous. He wondered what he’d said to offend her, but she stepped around him and took off for her department, her high heels tapping on the polished checkerboard tiles.
He realized now that what he was asking of her was more difficult than he’d anticipated. But he had to have her help. After seeing that one company go under, he’d vowed never to lose another one, and he’d kept that promise with all the companies he’d worked with since. He’d fight like hell before he let Wayans go bankrupt. He had some other strategies besides this one project to pull the company out of
its mire. They weren’t as easy as a multimillion-dollar government deal, though, and the work would be a double pleasure with Charity involved. That is, if he got anywhere with her.
He had to. The urge to be with her was so powerful, it shook him, and he could feel it coalescing inside him. Something about her pulled at him deeply, arousing more than just an interest in an attractive woman. Was this how eagles recognized their mates?
And then he remembered that eagles mated for life.
Jake touched his heart, feeling it beating steadily inside his chest. True, the emotional urge for her was strong, but could it be that strong? He shook his head, deciding he was mistaking a potent physical attraction for something more.
He also decided that later on that afternoon he’d have ample opportunity to fix whatever he’d said to offend her. He walked to the archive room door, whistling.
“Good afternoon, Mr. Halford,” the clerk said in an attention-getting voice.
“Hi,” he said without glancing at the woman. He went back to his whistling.
He had a feeling Charity Brown would be pleased with both projects in the end.
The one she knew about and the one she didn’t.
Several hours later Charity walked into Jake Halford’s office with the distinct feeling she was walking into her doom.
Doom looked pretty good, she had to admit, surveying
the room. The walls and rugs were done in tones of gray and beige, and the gleaming mahogany furnishings added warmth. Jake Halford was not a man who believed a desktop should be devoid of all but a lamp and phone, as Dave did. Jake’s desk was a vast ocean of wood filled with orderly piles of paperwork. She approved of that.
He was leaning back in his chair, reading something, and she decided doom also looked pretty good in the guise of man. His dark-blue suit fit him perfectly. It probably was tailor-made. His hair was brushed back from his face, and he was sporting a shadow of a beard. She bet he had to shave twice a day.
He glanced up and asked her to take a seat, then went back to his reading.
She slipped gingerly into a director-style chair. He continued to read, and she looked up at the ceiling … at the credenza on her right … at the door on her left … out the window behind the desk. He kept right on reading, and she cursed under her breath. She had a test that night in her marketing class and she wanted to go over the chapters once more. Worse, his dawdling kept her enclosed in this room with him. The office was spacious, yet felt like a closet with his presence. And that was the word, she thought. He had presence, virility. Sexual magnetism. Looking at him could be harmful to her blood pressure, her heart rate, and she tried to keep her gaze focused right above his head.
Finally, he put down his paperwork and leaned forward in his chair, his arms on the desktop. He stared at her.
She looked right back, determined not to be intimidated. “You said you had work for me.”
“A special project.” He smiled an easy smile. “Wayans has the opportunity to bid on a big army project. We would supply several major departments with a complete overhaul of their computer systems and maintain them for the next ten years. They want computers and all other office automation equipment—with all software and local area networking, LAN, special software adaptations, and operating systems—to communicate with what they currently have.”
“Is this for defense work?” Charity asked. They’d done several defense projects before and they were always headaches.
“No,” Jake said. “Information. Their offices are antiquated. The contract, if we get it, will include upgrades and ‘technology refreshment.’ ”
Charity smiled at the doublespeak phrase for receiving new equipment whenever it became available.
“It’ll mean millions for the company,” he went on. “I won’t lie to you, Charity. Wayans is in big trouble. I’m instituting a number of programs to streamline us and get us back on track. But this contract would put us over the top.”
The word “streamlining” had an ominous ring to it, but Charity pushed that aside. Instead, she calculated the scope of the project he was talking about. It would mean jobs for years to come, and more opportunities within and outside the company. She could feel the door opening for herself. And she’d better walk through it. She was thirty years old, single, and likely to stay that way.
Jake continued. “I want you to research and organize the basic system components. We’re a small company in the scheme of things, going up against big
competitors. I expect the computer manufacturers themselves to bid on the project. That means we’re going to have to be inventive with the combinations of equipment and software we put together, and we’ll really need to push the personal-service angle. We’ll be the systems integrator.”
She groaned at the thought of all the work involved in being the systems integrator. They would have to figure out the myriad components required and who could supply them, then they’d have to put the various computer equipment and software into a special networking system at the cheapest price. By buying “à la carte” from different manufacturers and suppliers rather than using just one system, they could undercut the big guys’ prices.