Two

“Obviously,” Roger said to Sinclair, with exaggerated patience. “I can’t turn down the CEO.”

She nodded where she sat in a guest chair in his office, squelching the lingering guilt that she might have used her relationship with Hunter as leverage. She admitted she’d been counting on Roger having to say yes to Hunter.

But she consoled herself in being absolutely positive the spa launch was a worthwhile idea. Also, Roger had been strangely contrary lately, shooting down her recommendations left and right. It was all but impossible to do her job the way he’d been micromanaging her. Going to Hunter had been her option of last resort.

Besides, Hunter had invited all the employees to run ideas past him. She wasn’t taking any special privilege.

“I’m not holding out a lot of hope of you securing the Millennium,” warned Roger.

Sinclair was more optimistic. “It would be good for them, too. They’d have the advantage of all our advance publicity.”

Roger came to his feet. “I’d like you to take Chantal with you.”

Sinclair blinked as she stood. “What?”

“I’d appreciate her perspective.”

“On…” Sinclair searched for the logic in the request.

Chantal was a junior marketing assistant. In her two years with the company, she’d mostly been involved in administrative work such as ad placement and monitoring the free-sample program.

“She has a good eye,” said Roger, walking Sinclair toward the door.

A good eye for what?

“And I’d like her to broaden her experience,” he finished.

It was on the tip of Sinclair’s tongue to argue, but she had her yes, so it was time for a strategic retreat. She’d figure out the Chantal angle on her own.

Her first thought was that Roger might be grooming the woman for a public relations position. Sinclair had been lobbying to get an additional PR officer in her department for months now, but she had her own assistant, Amber, in mind for the promotion, and Keely in reception in mind for Amber’s job.

“Keep me informed,” insisted Roger.

“Sure,” said Sinclair, leaving his office to cross the executive lobby. First she’d set up a meeting at the Millennium, then she’d sleuth around about Chantal.

Three days later, Sinclair lost the Millennium Spa as a possibility. The President liked Lush’s new samples, but he claimed using them over the launch weekend would put him in a conflict with his regular beauty products supplier.

She’d been hoping the spa would switch to Luscious Lavender items on a permanent basis following the launch. But when she mentioned that to the spa President, he laughed and all but patted her on the head over her naivet?. Supply contracts, he told her, didn’t work that way.

Chantal had shot Sinclair a smug look and joined in the laughter, earning a benevolent smile from the man along with Sinclair’s irritation.

Then the next day, at a pre-Valentine’s event at Bergdorf’s on Fifth Avenue, Chantal earned Sinclair’s irritation all over again.

It was twelve days before Valentine’s Day and the main ball and product launch. Sinclair had worked for months preparing for both events.

For Bergdorf’s, she’d secured special space in the cosmetics department, hired top-line professional beauticians, and had placed ads in Cosmopolitan, Elle and Glamour. She’d even talked Roger into an electronic billboard in Times Square promoting the event. Her spa plan might have fallen flat, but she knew if they could get the right clientele into Bergdorf’s today for free samples and makeovers, word of mouth would begin to spread in advance of the ball.

The event should have come off without a hitch.

But at the last minute Roger had inserted Chantal into the mix, displacing one of the beauticians and making the lineups unnecessarily long. Amber, who had already heard about Chantal’s appearance at the spa meeting, was obviously upset by this latest turn of events. Sinclair didn’t need her loyal employee feeling uncertain about her future.

The result had been a long day. And as the clock wound toward closing time, Sinclair was losing energy. She did her hourly inventory of the seven makeover stations, noting any dwindling supplies on her clipboard. Then she handed the list to Amber, who had the key to the stockroom and was in charge of replenishing.

She reminded the caterers to do another pass along the lineup, offering complimentary champagne and canap?s to those customers who were still waiting. The cash register lineup concerned her, so she called the store manager on her cell, asking about opening another till.

The mirrors on stations three and six needed a polish, so she signaled a cleaner. In the meantime, she learned they were almost out of number five brushes and made a quick call to Amber in the back.

“How’s it going?” Hunter’s voice rumbled from behind her.

She couldn’t help but smile at the sound, even as she reflexively tamped down a little rush of pleasure. They hadn’t spoken in a few days and, whether she wanted to or not, she’d missed him. She twisted to face him, meeting his eyes and feeling her energy return.

“Controlled chaos,” she mouthed.

“At least it’s controlled.” He moved in beside her.

“How are things up on the executive floor?” she asked.

“Interesting. Ethan gave me a tour of the factory.” Hunter made a show of sniffing the back of his hand. “I think I still smell like a girl.”

“Lavender’s a lovely scent,” said Sinclair, wrinkling her nose in his direction. She didn’t detect lavender, just Hunter, and it was strangely familiar.

“I prefer spice or musk.”

“Is your masculinity at stake?”

“I may have to pump some iron later just to even things up.”

“Are you a body builder?”

Even under a suit, Hunter was clearly fit.

“A few free weights,” he answered. “You?”

“Uh, no. I’m more of a yoga girl.”

“Yoga’s good.”

“Keeps me limber.”

“Okay, not touching that one.”

“You’re incorrigible.”

“My grandfather would agree with you on that point.”

A new cashier arrived, opening up the other till, and the lineup split into two. Sinclair breathed a sigh of relief. One problem handled.

Then she heard Chantal’s laughter above the din and glanced at the tall blonde, who wore a cotton-candy-pink poof-skirted minidress and a pair of four-inch gold heels. She was laughing with some of the customers, her bright lips and impossibly thick eyelashes giving her the air of a glamorous movie star.

With Hunter here, Sinclair felt an unexpected pang of self-consciousness at the contrast between her and Chantal. Quickly, though, she reminded herself that her two-piece taupe suit and matching pumps were appropriate and professional. She also reminded herself that she’d never aspired to be a squealing, air-kissing bombshell.

She tucked her straight, sensibly cut hair behind her ears.

“So what happened at the spa?” asked Hunter.

“Unfortunately, it was a no go.”

“Really?” He frowned with concern. “What was the problem?”

“Some kind of conflict with their supplier.”

“Did you-”

“Sorry. Can you hang on?” she asked him, noticing a disagreement brewing between the new cashier and a customer. She quickly left Hunter and moved to step in.

It turned out the customer had been quoted a wrong price by her beautician. Sinclair quickly honored the quote and threw in an extra tube of lipstick.

When she looked back, Chantal had crossed the floor. She was laughing with Hunter, a long-fingered, sparkly-tipped hand lightly touching his shoulder for emphasis about something.

He didn’t seem the least bit disturbed by the touch, and an unwelcome spike of annoyance hit Sinclair. It wasn’t jealousy, she quickly assured herself. It was the fact that Chantal was ignoring the customers to flirt with the CEO.

Sinclair made her way along the counter.

“Chantal,” she greeted, putting a note of censure in her voice and her expression.

“I was just talking to Hunter about the new mousse,” Chantal trilled. Then she fluffed her hair. “It works miracles.”

Sinclair compressed her lips.

In response, Chantal’s gaze took in Sinclair’s plain hair-style. “You should…” She frowned. “Uh…have you tried it?”

Hunter inclined his head toward Sinclair. He seemed to be waiting for her answer.

“No,” Sinclair admitted. She hadn’t tired the new mousse. Like she had time for the Luscious Lavender treatment every morning. She started work at seven-thirty after a streamlined regime that rarely included a hairdryer.

“Oh.” Chantal pouted prettily.

Sinclair nodded to a pair of customers lingering around Chantal’s sample station. “I believe those two ladies need some help.”

Chantal giggled and moved away.

“Nice,” said Hunter after she left.

“That better have been sarcasm.”

All men considered Chantal beautiful, but Sinclair would have been disappointed in Hunter if he hadn’t been able to see past her looks.

“Of course it was sarcasm.” But his eyes lingered on the woman.

Sinclair elbowed him in the ribs.

“What?”

“I can tell what you’re thinking.”

“No, you can’t.”

“Yes, I can.”

“What am I thinking?”

“That her breasts are large, her skirt is short, and her legs go all the way to the ground.”

Hunter coughed out a laugh.

“See?” blurted Sinclair in triumph.

“You’re out of your mind.”

“The doors are closing,” murmured Sinclair, more to herself than to Hunter, as she noticed the security guards stop incoming customers and open the doors for those who were exiting.

“You got a few minutes to talk?” he asked.

“Sure.” Hunter was the CEO. She was ready to talk business at his convenience.

She nodded to two empty chairs across the room.

They moved to the quiet corner of the department, and Sinclair climbed into one of the high leather swivel chairs. She parked her clipboard on the glass counter.

Hunter eased up beside her. “So what’s the plan now?”

She glanced around the big room. “The cleaning staff will be here at six. Amber will make sure the leftover samples are returned to the warehouse. And I’ll write a report in the morning.” Later tonight, she was going to start painting her new apartment, but she didn’t think Hunter needed that kind of information.

His gray eyes sparkled with merriment. “I meant your plan about the spa.”

“Oh, that.” She waved a hand. “It’s dead. We couldn’t make a deal with the Millennium.”

Her gaze unexpectedly caught Chantal. The woman was eyeing them up from across the room, tossing her glittering mane over one shoulder and licking her red lips.

Under the guise of more easily conversing, Sinclair scooted a little closer to Hunter. Let miss Barbie-doll chew on that.

Hunter slanted a look toward Chantal, then shot Sinclair a knowing grin.

“Shut up,” she warned in an undertone.

“I never said a word.”

“You were thinking it.”

“Yeah. And I was right, too.”

Yeah, he was. “It’s something Pavlovian,” she offered.

His grin widened.

“I didn’t want her to think Luscious Lavender mousse trumps brains, that’s all.”

“It doesn’t.”

“I don’t even use mousse. It’s nothing against Luscious Lavender. It’s a personal choice.”

“Okay,” said Hunter.

“Kristy has always been the glitter and glam twin. I’m-”

“Don’t you dare say plain Jane.”

“I was going to say professional Jane.”

He snorted. “You don’t need a label. And you shouldn’t use Kristy as a frame of reference.”

“What? You don’t compare yourself to Jack?”

“I don’t.” But his expression revealed a sense of discomfort.

“What?” she prompted.

“Gramps does.”

Sinclair could well imagine. “And who comes out on top?”

Hunter raised an eyebrow. “Who do you think?”

“I don’t know,” she replied honestly. Jack seemed like a great guy. But then so did Hunter. They were both smart, handsome, capable and hard-working.

“Jack’s dependable,” said Hunter. “He’s patient and methodical. He doesn’t make mistakes.”

Sinclair found herself leaning even closer, the noise of the store dimming around them as the last of the customers made their way out the door. “And you are?”

“Reckless and impulsive.”

“Why do I hear Cleveland’s voice when you say that?”

Hunter chuckled. “It’s usually accompanied by a cuff upside the head.”

In the silence that followed, Sinclair resisted an urge to take his hand. “That’s sad,” she told him.

“That’s Gramps. He’s a hard-ass from way back.” Then Hunter did a double take of her staring. “Don’t look at me like that.”

She swallowed. “I’m sorry.”

“It makes me want to kiss you,” he muttered.

“Don’t you-”

“I’m not going to kiss you.” He glanced back to Chantal. “That would definitely make the company newsletter.” He focused on Sinclair again. “But you can’t stop me from wanting to.”

And she couldn’t stop herself from wanting to kiss him back. And it didn’t seem to matter what she did to try and get rid of the urge, it just grew worse.

“What can we do about this?” She was honestly looking for help. If the feelings didn’t disappear, they were going to trip up sooner or later.

Hunter rose to his feet.

“For now, I’m walking out the door. Chantal is already wondering what we’re talking about.”

Sinclair shook herself and rose with him. “Check.” If they weren’t together, they couldn’t give in to anything.

“But later, I need to talk to you.”

She opened her mouth to protest. Later didn’t sound like a smart move to her at all.

“About the spa,” he clarified. “Business. I promise. What are you doing tonight?”

“Painting my apartment.”

“Really?” He drew back. “That’s what you do on Saturday night?”

Yeah, that was what she did on Saturday night. She rattled on, trying not to seem pathetic. “I just bought the place. A great little loft in Soho. But the colors are dark and the floor needs stripping, and the mortgage is so high I can’t afford to pay someone to do it for me.”

“You want a raise?”

“I want a guy with sandpaper and a paint roller.”

“You got it.”

“Hunter-”

“Give me your address. We can talk while we paint.”

Her and Hunter alone in her apartment? “I don’t think-”

“I’ll be wearing a smock and a paper cap. Trust me, you’ll be able to keep your hands off.”

“Nothing wrong with your ego.”

He grunted. “I know you can’t resist me under normal circumstances.”

“Ha!” The gauntlet thrown down, she’d resist him or die trying.

Now that she thought about it, maybe painting together wasn’t such a bad idea. Hunter’s family had bought the company. He was a permanent part of Lush Beauty Products, and the sooner they got over this inconvenient hump, the better. In fact, it was probably easier if they smoothed out the rough spots away from Chantal’s and other people’s prying eyes.

“Seventy-seven Mercy Street,” she told him with a nod. “Suite 702.”

“I’ll be there.”

On his way to Sinclair’s house, Hunter stopped in at the office. He was pretty sure Ethan Sloan would still be around. By all accounts, Ethan was a workaholic and a genius. He’d been with Lush Beauty Products for fifteen years, practically since the doors opened with a staff of twenty and a single store.

He had developed perfumes, hair products, skin products and makeup. The man had a knack for anticipating trends, moving from floral to fruit to organic. In his late thirties now, he’d wisely set his sights on fine quality, recognizing a growing segment of the population with a high disposable income and a penchant for self-indulgence.

Hunter was also willing to bet Ethan had a knack for management and the underlying politics of the company. And Hunter had some questions about that.

He found Ethan in his office, on the phone, but the man quickly motioned to Hunter to sit down.

“By Thursday?” Ethan was saying as Hunter took a seat and slipped open the button on his suit jacket.

Ethan was neatly trimmed. Hunter had noticed that he generally wore his shirtsleeves rolled up, although he’d wear a jacket on the executive floor. Smart man.

“Great,” said Ethan, nodding. “Sign ’em up. Talk to you then.”

He hung up the phone. “New supplier for lavender,” he explained to Hunter. “Out of British Columbia.”

“We’re running short?”

“Critically. And it’s our key ingredient.” He rubbed his hands together. “But it’s solved now. What can I do for you?”

Hunter settled back in his chair. “Not to put you on the spot. And way off the record.”

Ethan smiled. He brought his palms down on the desktop, standing to walk around its end and close the office door. “Gotta say.” He returned, taking the second guest chair instead of sitting behind his desk. “I love conversations that start out like this.”

Hunter smiled in return. “Tell me if I’m out of line.”

“We’re off the record,” said Ethan. “You can get out of line.”

“What do you think of Chantal Charbonnet?”

Ethan sat back. “Sly, but not brilliant. Gorgeous, of course. Roger seems to have noticed her.”

“She was at the Bergdorf’s promotion this afternoon.”

“Yeah?” asked Ethan. “That’s a stretch for her job description.”

“It got me wondering,” confided Hunter. “Why was she there?”

“Eye candy?”

“Women were the target demographic.” Hunter had been thinking about this all the way over.

“Maybe she asked Roger really, really nicely?”

Hunter had considered that, too. But he didn’t have evidence to support favoritism. He was coming at this from another angle. “Could she have been a role model for the consumers?”

Ethan considered the idea. “There’s no denying she knows how to wear our products.”

“Lays it on a bit thick, wouldn’t you say?”

Ethan grinned. “My kind of consumer. We want them all to apply it like Chantal.”

Ethan’s words validated the worry that was niggling at Hunter’s brain. Chantal was dead center on the new target demographic. Hunter was worried that Roger had seen that in her, and it wasn’t something he’d seen in Sinclair. Sinclair was a lot of things-a lot of very fabulous, fun, exciting things-but she wasn’t a poster child for Lush Beauty Products.

He filed away the information and switched gears. “Did Sinclair mention her spa plan to you?”

Ethan nodded. “Had lots of potential. But I hear it went south with Millennium.”

“I’m going to try to revive it.”

“I hope you can. If you secure the outlet, we can provide the product.”

“Including lavender.”

“Got it covered.”

“Do you have any thoughts on a spa release overall?”

Ethan stretched out his legs, obviously speculating how frank he could be with Hunter.

Hunter waited. He wanted frank, but there was no way to insist on it.

“If it was me,” said Ethan. “I wouldn’t target a single spa, I’d go for the whole chain. And I’d try for the Crystal. The Millennium is nice, but the Crystal has the best overseas locations.”

Hunter didn’t disagree with Ethan’s assessment. The Crystal Spa chain was as top of the line as they came.

“You get into Rome and Paris,” said Ethan. “At that level. You’ll really have some momentum.”

“Tall order.”

Ethan brought his hands down on his thighs. “Osland International usually shy away from a challenge?”

“Nope,” said Hunter. When he was involved, Osland International always stepped up to the plate.

He could already feel his competitive instincts kick in. Although he’d come into the job reluctantly, making Lush Beauty a runaway success had inched its way to the top of his priority list.

He also knew he wanted Sinclair as a partner in this. He liked the way she thought. He liked her energy and her outside-the-box thinking. And, well, okay, and he just plain liked her. But there was nothing wrong with that. Liking your business associates was important.

All his best business relationships were based on mutual respect. Sure, maybe he didn’t want to sleep with his other business associates. But the principle was the same.

Sinclair hit the buzzer, letting Hunter into the building.

She didn’t know whether she’d been brilliant or stupid to take him up on his offer to paint, but there was no turning back now.

She’d dressed in a pair of old torn blue jeans and a grainy gray T-shirt with “Stolen From the New York City Police Department” emblazoned across the front. Her hair was braided tight against her head, and she’d popped a white painter’s cap on her head. She had no worries that the tone of the evening would be sexy in any way.

The bell rang, echoing through the high-ceilinged, empty room. Her living room furniture was in storage for another week. But she’d already finished the small bedroom, so it was back together.

She opened the front door and the hinges groaned loudly in the cavernous space as Hunter walked in.

“Nice,” he said, looking around at the tarp-draped counters and breakfast bar, the plastic on the floors, and the dangling pieces of masking tape around the bay window.

“It has a lot of potential,” she told him, closing and locking the oak door. There was no doubt it was smaller than he’d be used to, but she was excited about living here.

“I wasn’t being sarcastic, honest.” He held up a bottle of wine. “Housewarming.”

“That might be a bit premature.” She still had a lot of work to get done.

He glanced around the room for somewhere to set the bottle down. “In a cupboard?” he asked, heading for the alcove kitchen.

“Beside the fridge,” she called.

He got rid of the wine and shrugged out of his windbreaker. Then he returned to the main room in a pair of khakis and a white T-shirt that were obviously brand-new.

She tried not to smile at the outfit.

It really was nice of him to come and help. Still, she wasn’t about to pass up an opportunity to tease him.

“You don’t do home maintenance often, do you?”

He glanced around the tarp-draped room. “I’ve seen it done on TV.”

“It’s not as easy as it looks,” she warned.

He shot her an expression of mock disbelief. “I have an MBA from Harvard.”

“And they covered house painting in graduate school?”

“They covered macroeconomics and global capitalism.”

She fought a grin. “Oh sure, go ahead and get snooty on me.”

“Dip the brush and stroke it on the wall. Am I close?”

“I guess you might as well give it a try.”

“Give it a try?

Her grin broadened at his insulted tone.

He bent over and pried open a paint can. “You might want to shift your attitude. I’m free labor, baby.”

“Am I getting what I paid for?”

“Sassy,” he said, and her heart tripped a beat.

“You need to shake it,” she told him, battling the sensual memory. He’d called her sassy in Manchester. In a way that said he wanted her bad.

“Shake it?” he interrupted her thoughts.

She swallowed. “You need to shake the paint before you open the can.”

He raised his brow as he crouched to tap the lid back down. “You’re enjoying this, aren’t you?”

“You bet. Nothing like keeping the billionaire humble.”

“Don’t stereotype. I’m always humble.”

“Yeah. I noticed that right off, Mr. Macroeconomics and Global Capitalism.”

“Well, what did you take in college?”

She hesitated for a second then admitted it. “MBA. Yale.”

“So, you took macroeconomics and global capitalism?”

“Magna cum laude,” she said with a hoity toss of her head.

“Yet you can still paint. Imagine that.”

She glanced at him for a moment, trying to figure out why he hadn’t escalated the joke by teasing her about the designation. Then it hit her. “You got summa, at least, didn’t you?”

He didn’t answer.

“Geek,” she said.

He grinned as he shook the paint. Then he poured it into the tray.

She broke out the brushes, and he quickly caught on to using the long-handled roller. Sinclair cut in the corners, and together they worked their way down the longest wall.

“What do you think of the Crystal Spa chain?” he asked as his roller swished up and down in long strokes.

“I’ve never been there,” said Sinclair from the top of the step ladder. This close to the ceiling lights, she was starting to sweat. She finally gave in and peeled off her cap.

Wisps of strands had come loose from her braid. Probably she’d end up with cream-colored specks in her hair. Whatever. They were painting her walls, not dancing in a ballroom.

“You want to try it?”

She paused at the end of her stroke, glancing down at him. Was he talking about the Crystal Spa? “Try what?”

“I was thinking, we shouldn’t let the Millennium’s refusal stop us. We should consider other spas.”

Was he serious? More importantly, why hadn’t she thought of that?

She felt a shimmer of excitement. Maybe her spa idea wasn’t dead, after all. And the New York-based Crystal Spa chain would be an even better choice than the Millennium.

She’d learned from the Millennium experience. She’d make sure she was even better prepared for a pitch to the Crystal.

“Can I try out the Crystal on my expense account?” she asked with a teasing lilt.

“Of course.”

Scoffing her dismissal, she went back to painting. “Like Roger would ever go for that.”

Besides, she didn’t have to test out the Crystal Spa to know it was fantastic. Everyone always raved.

“Forget Roger, will you?” urged Hunter. “Here.”

She glanced back down.

With the roller hooked under one arm, he pulled out his wallet. Then he tossed a credit card onto her tarp-covered breakfast bar. “Consider this your expense account.”

She nearly fell off the ladder. “You can’t-”

“I just did.”

“But-”

“Shut up.” He went back to the paint tray. “I know the spa idea’s great. You know the spa idea’s great. Let’s streamline the research and make it happen.”

“You can’t pay for my spa treatments.”

“Osland International can pay for them. It’s my corporate card, and I consider it a perfectly legitimate R & D expense.”

Sinclair didn’t know what to say to that. Trying out the spa would be great research, but still…

He rolled the next section. “It’s not like I can go in there and check out the wax room myself.”

She cringed, involuntarily flinching. “Wax room?”

He chuckled at her expression. “Buck up, Sinclair. Take one for the team.”

“You take one for the team.”

“I’ve done my part. It’s my credit card.”

“They’re my legs.”

“Who said anything about legs?”

She stared at him. He didn’t. He wouldn’t.

“We were this close!” She made a tiny space with her thumb and index finger. “This close to having a totally professional conversation.”

“I’m weak,” he admitted.

“You’re hopeless.”

“Yeah. Well. Irrespective of what you get waxed, and whether or not you show me, it’s still a good idea.”

It was a good idea. And her gaze strayed to his platinum card sitting on the canvas tarp. Even if he couldn’t keep his mind on business, this was not an opportunity she was about to give up. “I’m thinking a facial.”

“Whatever you want. I need to know if they can deliver the kind of opportunity we’re looking for.”

“What if they’re locked into a supplier contract like the Millennium?”

Hunter shrugged. “Every business is different. We’ll deal with that when and if it happens. Tomorrow good for you?”

She nodded.

With only twelve days until Valentine’s Day. There was no time to lose.

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