Three

The next day, lying on her back in uptown Manhattan’s Crystal Spa, a loose silky robe covering her naked body, Sinclair was feeling very relaxed after her facial massage. A smooth, cool mask was drying on her face. Damp pads protected her eyes, and she found herself nearly falling asleep.

“Sinclair?”

She was dreaming of Hunter’s voice. That was fine.

Dreaming never hurt anybody.

“Sinclair?” the voice came again.

No.

No way.

Hunter was not in this room.

Warm hands closed up the wide V of her robe. “No sense playing with fire,” he said.

“What are you doing here?”

“I need permission to cancel your appointments for this afternoon.”

She tried to form words, but they jumbled in her brain and turned into incomprehensive sputters.

“We need to fly to L.A.,” Hunter told her matter-of-factly.

“This is a dream, right? You’re not really here.”

“Oh, I’m really here. But, hold on, are you saying you dream about me?”

“Nightmares. Trust me.”

He chuckled. “The only appointment I could get with the president of Crystal Spas was in their head office in L.A. at three today. We have to get going.”

She blinked. Why did they need to talk to the president?

“I want to pitch the idea of debuting the whole chain.”

Sinclair gave her head a little shake. “Seriously?”

“Yes, seriously.”

They were going to debut Luscious Lavender in the entire Crystal chain? That would be a phenomenal feat.

“I could kiss you,” she breathed.

“Bad idea. For the obvious reasons.” Then he looked her up and down. “Plus, you’re kind of…goopy.”

She just grinned.

“It’s not a done deal yet,” he warned.

“But we are going to try.”

“We are going to try. Can I cancel your appointments?”

“You got a cell phone?”

He pulled it out of his suit pocket.

She dialed Amber’s number.

The whole chain. She could barely believe it. The whole damn chain.

Hunter was sorry now that he’d even told Sinclair about Crystal Spas. The meeting hadn’t gone well, and she was clearly disappointed as she climbed into the jet for the return trip to New York.

“We knew it was a long shot,” she said bravely, buckling up across from him.

“I’m sorry.”

“It’s not your fault. Some people can’t make quick decisions.”

The whole thing had frustrated the hell out of Hunter.

“At his level, the man had better learn to make quick decisions. He had a chance to get in on the ground floor in this.”

“His loss,” said Sinclair with conviction.

“They’re superior products,” replied Hunter.

“Of course they’re superior products,” she agreed.

Hunter did up his own seat belt. “We say emphatically as two people who’ve never tried them.”

She smiled at his joke.

“We should try them,” he said.

“I’m not trying the wax.”

He chuckled. “I’ll try the wax.”

“Yeah, right.”

“Right here.” He pointed to his chest. “I’ll be a man about it. You can rip my hair out by the roots if I can massage your neck with the lavender oil.”

She stared into his eyes as the jet engines whined to life. “You don’t think we’d end up naked within five minutes?”

“I don’t think your ripping the hair from my chest would make me want to get naked.”

She obviously fought a grin. “Waxing your chest is probably the worst idea I’ve ever heard.”

“But it cheered you up.”

She sighed, and some of the humor went out of her eyes. “Crystal Spas would have been perfect.”

He reached for her hand. “I know.”

The jet jerked to rolling, and he experienced a strong sense of d?j? vu. It took him a second to realize it was Kristy, Kristy and Jack on this same airplane. During their emergency landing in Vegas, Jack had held Kristy’s hand to comfort her.

Right now, Sinclair’s hand felt small in Hunter’s, soft and smooth. The kind of hand a man wanted all over his body.

“You want to go see your sister?” he asked.

Sinclair looked startled. “What?”

“She’s in Manchester. It’s on the way.”

“We’d be too late.”

She had a point.

“Maybe not,” he argued. A visit with Kristy might cheer Sinclair up.

“Thanks for the thought.”

Hunter wished he had more to offer than just a thought. But then she smiled her gratitude. Hunter realized that was what mattered.

Business deals would come and go. He’d simply find another way to make Sinclair happy. Even as the thought formed in his mind, he realized it was dangerous. But he ignored the warning flash.

“You don’t need to worry about me,” she told him. “I’m a big girl. And I still have the ball to plan.”

“The ball’s going to be fantastic,” he enthused. “It’ll be the best Valentine’s ball anybody ever put on anywhere.”

“I hate it when people humor me.”

“Then why are you still smiling?”

“Because sometimes you can be very sweet.”

“Hold that thought,” he teased, and he brought her hand to his lips.

“I’m not going to sleep with you.” She retrieved her hand, but the smile grew wider. “But, maybe, if you’re very, very good, I might dance with you at the Valentine’s ball.”

“And maybe if you’re very, very good, I might bring you flowers and candy.”

“Something to look forward to.”

“Isn’t it?”

They both stopped talking, and a soft silence settled around the hum of the engines as they taxied toward the runway.

“It’s just that we’ve worked day and night on this product launch,” she said, half to herself.

“I can imagine,” he responded with a nod.

“All of us,” she added. “The Luscious Lavender products are strong. The sales force is ready. And marketing showed me a fantastic television commercial last week. I really want to make sure I do my part.”

“You are doing your part.” He had no doubt of that. “There’s still the ball.”

She gave a shrug and tucked her hair behind her ears. “The ball’s pretty much ready to go. I know it’ll be fine. But I wanted that something extra, that something special from the PR department.” Then she sighed. “Maybe it’s just ego.”

“Contributing to the team is not ego. Taking all the glory is ego.”

“Wanting recognition is a form of ego,” she countered.

“Wanting recognition for a job well done is human.”

Her voice went soft. “Then I guess I don’t want to be human.”

He watched her for a silent minute, trying to gauge how deep that admission went. For all her bravado, he sensed an underlying insecurity. What Sinclair presented and who she really was were two different things. She was far more sensitive than she showed.

In the privacy and intimacy of the plane, he voiced a question that had been nagging at him for a while. “Why did you sleep with me?”

She startled and retrieved her hand. Then her shell went back into place. “Why did you sleep with me?”

“Because you were funny and smart and beautiful,” he said. Then he waited.

“And, because I said yes?” she asked.

He didn’t respond to her irreverence. “And because when I held you in my arms, it was where you belonged.”

She stayed silent, and he could almost see the war going on inside her head.

“You going to tell me?” he asked.

“It was Christmas,” she finally began. “And you were fun, and sexy. And Kristy had just married Jack. And life at your amazing mansion is really very surreal.”

She’d buried the truth. He was sure of it.

Kristy had married Jack, and for that brief moment in time, Sinclair had felt abandoned. And there had been Hunter. And she’d clung to him. And that’s what it was. He was glad he knew.

Even though he shouldn’t, he switched seats so he was beside her. He wanted to be the one she clung to.

She stiffened, watching him warily.

“The steward’s only a few feet away,” he assured her. “Nothing can happen.”

His reassurance seemed to work.

She relaxed, and he took her hand once again.

The cabin lights dimmed, the engines wound out, and the plane accelerated along the runway, pushing them back against their seats. Hunter turned his head to watch her profile, rubbed his thumb against her soft palm and inhaled her perfume, as he captured and held a moment in time.

The next morning, for the first time in her life, Sinclair came late to the office.

Amber jumped up from her desk, looking worried. “What happened?”

“I got home really late,” she said as she passed by.

“Roger was down here. He wanted your files on the Valentine’s ball.”

Sinclair crossed the threshold to her office, dropping her briefcase and purse on her credenza, and picked up a stack of mail on the way to her desk. “Why?”

“So Chantal could review them.”

“What?” She stared at Amber. “Why would she do that?”

“Because she’s queen of the freakin’ universe? Is there something I should know, Sinclair? Something pertaining to PR?”

“No.” Sinclair set down the mail. “There’s nothing for you to worry about.” She moved to the door. “Wait here.”

“I’m not going anywhere.”

“I assume you gave him the files?” Sinclair called over her shoulder.

“I didn’t have a choice.”

No. She didn’t.

When the president asked for the files, you gave up the files. But there was nothing saying you didn’t go get them back again. Roger’s micromanaging was getting out of hand. So was Chantal’s apparent carte blanche in the PR department. Sinclair took a tight breath, pressed the button, and waited as the elevator ascended.

This inserting of Chantal into Sinclair’s projects had to stop. You didn’t add a new voice ten days before the ball. And you sure didn’t empower a neophyte like Chantal on a project of this size and importance.

What was the matter with Roger? Was he trying to sabotage Sinclair’s efforts?

Maybe it was due to her frustration over the failure of the spa plan, but Sinclair was feeling exceedingly protective of the ball. It was her one chance for the PR department to shine, and she was determined to do it or die trying.

The doors slid open on twenty, revealing burgundy carpet, soft lighting and cherrywood paneling. Myra, Roger’s secretary, looked surprised to see her.

“Did you have an appointment?”

“I need two minutes with Roger.”

Myra glanced at Roger’s door. “I’m afraid he’s-”

The office door opened.

Chantal Charbonnet stepped out, a stack of files tucked under her arm. She was wearing a leather skirt today, with a glittering gold blouse. Her heels were high, her neckline low. She gave Sinclair a disdainful look and passed by with a sniff of her narrow pert nose

“Looks like he’s free,” said Sinclair.

Myra picked up the phone. “Let me just-”

“I’ll only take a second.” Sinclair didn’t give the woman a chance to stop her.

Before Roger’s door could swing shut, she blocked it. “Excuse me, Roger?”

He glanced up, lips compressing, and a furrow forming in the middle of his brow.

“I don’t recall a meeting,” he said.

“I believe you have my files?”

“Chantal’s taking a look at them.”

Sinclair struggled hard to keep her voice even. “May I ask why?”

“I’ve asked her to provide her opinion.”

“On?”

“On the Valentine’s ball preparation. She’s taking a bigger role in the new product launch. I think we all recognize Chantal’s talents.”

Well, Sinclair sure didn’t recognize Chantal’s talents. And the ball preparations were all but done. She just needed to babysit it for the next week and a half. She sure didn’t need somebody messing with the plans at this late date.

Roger took in her expression, and his tone suddenly turned syrupy. “I appreciate how hard you’ve been working, Sinclair. And I know you’re busy. This will take some of the burden off your shoulders.”

“There’s no-”

“You’ll get your files back in a couple of days. Thanks for stopping by.”

Thanks for stopping by?

He’d pulled the most interesting and important project of her career out from under her, and that’s all she got?

Short of a raid on Chantal’s office, Sinclair didn’t know what to do. If the woman started messing with things, the ball could be completely destroyed. What if she called Claude at the Roosevelt? The head chef was temperamental at the best of times, and Chantal might push him right over the edge.

The conductor also needed hand-holding. The music was cued to coincide with speeches and product giveaways. Entrances and exits of VIPs were specifically timed, and the media appointments had to come off like clockwork.

But Sinclair couldn’t outright defy Roger.

She headed for the elevator, desperately cataloguing potential problems and possible solutions. By the time she punched the button, she realized there were too many variables. With a rising sense of panic, she knew she couldn’t possibly save the ball from Chantal. That left her with Roger. How could she possibly make Roger understand the danger of Chantal?

She entered the elevator, then froze with her finger on the button.

Wait a minute. She had this all wrong. She shouldn’t be fighting them. What better way to demonstrate the error in their thinking than to go along with it? Ms. Chantal wanted to take over the ball? She could bloody well take over the ball. It would take less than twenty-four hours for her to get into a mess. Sinclair wouldn’t argue with the president. She’d graciously step aside. She’d take the day off and leave Chantal with just enough rope to hang herself.

When Sinclair came back tomorrow, hopefully they’d be ready to listen to reason. As the elevator dropped, Sinclair drew a deep, bracing breath.

It was all but suicidal. But it would be worth it.

Ha!

Roger wanted to give Chantal a chance to shine? Sinclair would graciously step aside. When she came back tomorrow, hopefully they’d be ready to listen to reason.

As the elevator dropped, Sinclair warmed to the idea. When she got back to her office, she informed Amber they’d have the files back in a couple of days, and that she was going home to paint.

A few hours later, with U2 blaring in the background, Sinclair’s frustration had translated itself into a second coat on most of one wall. She was busy at one corner of the ceiling when there was a banging on the door.

She climbed down the ladder and set her brush on the edge of the paint tray.

The banging came again.

“I’m coming,” she called. She wiped off her hands, then pulled open the door.

It was Hunter, and he was carrying a large shopping bag.

“I’ve been buzzing you downstairs for ten minutes.” He marched across the room and turned down the music. “Thank goodness for the lady on the first floor walking her dog.”

“I was busy,” said Sinclair.

Hunter dropped the bag onto the plastic-covered floor. “What happened?”

“I decided I should spend the day painting my living room.”

“I talked to Amber.”

Sinclair shrugged, picking up her paintbrush, and mounting the ladder. “What did she tell you?”

“That you were painting your living room instead of working.”

“See that?” she gestured to the brushes, paint cans and tarps. “All evidence points to exactly the same thing. I am, in fact, painting my living room.”

“She also told me you haven’t taken a day off in eight years.”

Sinclair dipped the brush in the can on the ladder and stroked along the top of the wall. “Meaning I’m due.”

“Meaning you’re upset.”

“A girl can’t get upset?”

He crossed his arms over his chest. “What happened?”

“Nothing much.” The important thing now was to get the painting done, then go in tomorrow and see if her plan had worked.

“Do I have to come up there and get you?”

She laughed, dabbing the brush hard against the masking tape in the corner. “Now that would be interesting.”

“Quit messing around, Sinclair.”

She sighed in defeat. Being micromanaged was embarrassing. “You want to know?” she asked.

“Yes,” said Hunter. “I want to know.”

“Roger gave Chantal my Valentine’s Day ball files. She needed to review them because, apparently, we’ve all recognized her talents.

“We have?”

Sinclair dipped the brush again. “Therefore, she’s ready to be the PR assistant. No. Wait. I think she’s ready to be the PR manager.”

“What exactly did Roger say?”

“Not much. He just gave her the files. He seems hell-bent on involving her in every aspect of my job.”

“Oh.”

There was something in Hunter’s tone.

Sinclair stopped painting and looked down. “What?”

He took a breath then paused.

“What?” she repeated.

“There’s something we should discuss.”

“You know what’s going on?”

“Maybe.”

Sinclair took a step down the ladder. “Hunter?”

He dropped his arms to his sides. “I have a theory. It’s only a theory.”

She climbed the rest of the way down. “What is it?”

Hunter took the brush from her hand, setting it on the paint tray just before it dripped on the floor. “Chantal asked if you used the mousse.”

He lifted the shopping bag. “I think that might be what Roger’s picking up on. Chantal’s, well, pizzazz.”

A sick feeling slid into Sinclair’s stomach.

Roger thought Chantal knew better than Sinclair?

Hunter thought Chantal knew better than Sinclair?

“You have to admit,” Hunter continued. “She’s the demographic Luscious Lavender is targeting.”

“You sure you want to keep on talking?”

“We both know she’s not you. We both know you’re smart and talented and hard-working.”

“Well, thank you for that.”

He opened the bag to reveal the full gamut of Luscious Lavender products. “I think you should try these out. See what you think, maybe-”

“Right. Because all my problems will be solved by a good shampoo and mousse.” Her problem wasn’t a bad hair day. It was the fact that Roger, and maybe Hunter, too, preferred beauty over brains.

Hunter attempted a grin. “Don’t forget waxing.”

She reached down for the paintbrush. “I’m forgetting all of it.”

“Will you at least hear me out?”

“No.” Without thinking she waved the brush for emphasis, and paint splattered on the front of his suit.

Her eyes went wide in horror. “Oh, I’m so sorry,” she quickly blurted out.

“Forget it.”

“But I ruined your suit.” She could only imagine how much it had cost.

“I said to forget it.”

How was she supposed to hang on to her moral outrage when he was being a gentleman?

“It’s more than just a good shampoo,” he said. “It’s about relating to your customers. Having your customers relate to you.”

She started up the ladder.

“They relate to Chantal in a particular way,” he said. “They see her look as an idealized version of themselves. These are people that put great stock in the value of beauty products to their lives, and they want to know that you put great stock in them, as well.”

“You’re suggesting I could replace an MBA and eight years of experience with a good makeover?”

What kind of a man would think that?

“Yes,” he said.

She stopped. She couldn’t believe he’d actually said it out loud.

“But,” he continued. “I’m also suggesting you’ll blow the competition out of the water when you have both.”

“You think Chantal is my competition?”

“I think Roger thinks she’s your competition. I think you could do a makeover with your eyes closed. And I think she’s only a threat to you if you let her be a threat to you.”

“So I’m choosing to have this happen?”

All she’d ever done was her job. She’d shown up early every day for eight years. She’d written speeches and press releases, planned events, supported her coworkers, solved problems and taken the message of Lush Beauty far and wide. If her performance evaluations were anything to go by, she’d been more than successful in her role as PR manager.

“You’re choosing not to fight it,” said Hunter.

“I shouldn’t have to fight it.” When had hard work and success stopped being enough?

“Too bad. So sad. Are you going to let her win?” He paused. “Do you want your career path to end?”

“Don’t be ridiculous.” She loved her job.

“I’m the one being ridiculous? Chantal’s nipping at your heels, and I’m the one being ridiculous?”

“Why do you care?”

There were a few seconds of silence. “Why do you think I care?”

Sinclair didn’t have an answer for that, so she finished climbing the ladder.

“I’m not saying it’s right,” he spoke below her. “I’m saying that’s the business you’re in. And you’re the PR manager. And, yes, I’m sorry, but it matters. And, as for why I care.”

He stopped talking, and she held her breath.

“I like you? I slept with you? You’re an asset to Lush Beauty? You’re family? Take your pick. But I’m about done fighting, Sinclair. If you don’t want my help, I’m out of here.”

She dipped her paintbrush, feeling hollow and exhausted. Hunter’s words pulsed in her ears, while paint dribbles dried on her hands. She pretended to focus on the painting while she waited for the door to slam behind him.

Emotion stung her eyes.

She didn’t mean to fight with him.

It wasn’t his fault that Chantal was prancing around the city like a poster child for Luscious Lavender. It wasn’t his fault that Roger was interfering in her management of the PR department. And what did Sinclair want from Hunter, anyway? For him to intervene with Roger?

Not.

She could take care of her own professional life.

Sort of. Maybe.

Because a tiny, little voice inside her told her some of what Hunter said made sense.

She focused on the paint, stroking it into the corner, listening for his footfalls, for the door slamming, for him walking out of her life.

“I’m sorry,” his unexpected words came from behind and below her. “I should have approached that differently.”

She stopped midstroke. Shocked, relieved and embarrassed all at the same time. She set down the brush.

“No,” she spoke to the wall. “I’m the one who’s sorry.”

Silence.

“Will you come down then?”

She gave a shaky nod. She couldn’t bring herself to look at him as she started down the ladder. Maybe all of what he said made sense. Maybe she’d been hasty in dismissing a makeover. After all, what could it hurt to try?

What exactly was the principle she was standing on? She’d always wanted the world to take her seriously. She hadn’t wanted a free ride because of looks and glamour. But did she want to put herself at a disadvatange?

“I suppose,” she said as her foot touched the floor and she turned toward him. “It wouldn’t kill me to try the shampoo.”

“That a girl.” His voice was full of approval.

“It’s just that I never wanted to cheat,” she tried to explain. “I never wanted to wonder if a promotion or a pay raise, or even people’s reactions to me were because of my looks.”

“You’re not cheating. You’re leveling the playing field. Besides, being beautiful has nothing to do with makeup and mousse.” He shrugged out of the ruined jacket and tossed it on the floor. He whipped off his tie. “You’re beautiful, Sinclair. And there’s not a damn thing you can do about it.”

Her heartbeat thickened in her chest, wondering what would come off next.

But he rolled up his sleeves. “Okay, let’s get to work.”

That threw her. “We’re going to the office?”

“We’re painting your walls.”

“You want to spend the afternoon here?”

“You bet.”

By late afternoon, Sinclair’s arms were about to fall off. Her shoulders ached, and she was getting a headache from the paint fumes. Her latest can was empty, so she climbed down the ladder to replace it.

Hunter appeared, taking the can from her hands.

“You’re done,” he said.

“There’s another whole wall.”

He pointed across the room. “See that bag over there? Full of bath oil, shampoo and gel?”

“Uh-huh.”

“I want you to take it into the bathroom and run a very hot, very deep bath. In fact-” he set down the paint can and propped up his roller “-I’ll do it for you.”

Before she could protest, he picked up the shopping bag and marched into the bathroom.

She heard the fan go on and the water gush from the faucet. She knew any self-respecting woman would fight against his high-handed behavior. But, honestly, she was just too tired.

After a few minutes, he returned to the living room. He didn’t talk, just unplugged her CD player and gathered up the two compact speakers. He popped out U2 and replaced it with Norah Jones.

Then he was back to the bathroom.

Curiosity finally got the better of her, and she wandered in to find her tub full of steaming, foamy water, and three cinnamon-scented candles flickering at the base of the tub. They’d been a Christmas gift from somebody at the office. But she’d never used them.

“I never have baths,” she admitted.

“Why not?”

“Showers are more efficient.”

“But baths are more fun.”

“You have baths, do you?” she couldn’t help but tease.

He faced her in the tiny room. “Guys don’t take baths. They want girls to take them. It makes them all soft and warm, and in the mood to get beautiful.”

She gave a mock sigh. “It’s time-consuming being all girly.”

He grinned. “Piece of cake being a guy.”

“Double standard.”

“You know it.”

“Still.” She glanced down at the steaming water. “It does look inviting.”

“That’s because it is.” He reached across her shoulder and flicked off the light.

“Time to take off your clothes,” he rumbled.

A sensual shiver ran through her, and she reflexively reached for the hem of her T-shirt.

But his large hands closed over hers to stop them. “I mean after I leave.”

“You’re leaving?”

He kissed her forehead. “I didn’t come here to seduce you, Sinclair.”

Suddenly, she wished he had.

“Don’t look at me like that. I’m going to paint for a while, or we’ll never finish.”

“I can paint later.”

His finger brushed over her lips to silence her. “The price of being a guy. Your mission is to get all glammed up and frou frou. My mission is to give you the time to do that.”

Then he winked, and left the room, clicking the door shut behind him. And Sinclair shifted her attention to the deep, claw-footed tub.

It looked decadently wonderful. He’d set out the shampoo, bath gel and lotion. And he’d obviously poured some of the Luscious Lavender foaming oil into the water. She’d spent the last six months thinking about the artsy labels, the expensive magazine ads, the stuffed sample gift baskets for the ball, and the retail locations that needed some extra attention promotions-wise. Funny, that she’d never thought much about the products themselves.

The water steamed, and the lavender scent filled the room, and the anticipation of that luxurious heat on her aching shoulders was more than tempting.

She peeled off her T-shirt, unzipped her jeans, then slipped out of her underwear. She eased, toe-first, into the scorching bathwater, dipping in her foot, her calf, her knee. Then she slowly brought in her other foot, bracing her hands on the edges of the tub to lower her body into the hot water.

After her skin grew accustomed to the temperature, and her shoulders and neck began to sigh in pleasure, her thoughts made their way to Hunter. He was on the other side of that thin wall. And she was naked. And he knew she was naked.

She pictured him opening the door, wearing nothing but a smile, a glass of wine in each hand. He’d cross the black and white tiles, bend to kiss her, maybe on the neck, maybe on the lips. He’d set down their glasses. Then he’d draw her to her feet, dripping wet, the scented oil slick on her skin. His hands would roam over her stomach, her breasts, her buttocks, pulling her tight against his body, lifting her-

Something banged outside and Hunter swore in frustration. Clearly, he wasn’t out there stripping off his clothes and popping the wine cork. She was naked, not twenty feet away, and he was dutifully painting.

She sucked in a breath and ducked her head under the water.

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