Four

By the time Sinclair emerged from her bathroom, wrapped in a thick, terry robe, her face glowing, her wet hair combed back from her face, Hunter had cleaned up the paint and ordered a pizza. The smell of tomatoes and cheese wafted up from the cardboard box on the breakfast bar while he popped the cork from his housewarming bottle of wine.

“How did you know sausage and mushroom is my favorite?” she asked as she padded across the paint splattered tarps.

“I’m psychic.” He retrieved two stools from beneath the tarp, then opened the top of the pizza box.

“How’d it go in there?” he asked her, watching her climb up on one stool.

She arranged the robe so that it covered her from head to toe, and he tried not to think about what was under there.

She smiled in a way that did his heart good. “I’m a whole new woman.”

“Not completely new, I hope,” he teased as he took the stool facing her. The covered breakfast bar was at their elbows.

She grinned. “Don’t worry. I saved the best parts.”

“Oh, good.” He poured them each a glass of the pinot. “So, are you ready to move on to makeup?”

She reached for a slice of pizza. “You planning to help me with that, too?”

He took in her straggled hair, squeaky clean face and oversized robe. If he had his way, he’d keep her exactly as she was. But this wasn’t about him.

“I don’t think you want to arm me with a mascara wand.”

“But you’ve done such a good job so far.” She blinked her thick lashes ingenuously.

“We could call one of the Bergdorf ladies.”

She waved a dismissive hand. “I’ll be fine.”

“You sure?”

She hit him with an impatient stare. “It’s not that I can’t put on a lot of makeup. It’s that I don’t put on a lot of makeup.”

“Oh.”

She chewed on her slice of pizza, and he followed suit. After a while, she slipped her bare feet off the stool’s crossbar and swung them in the air while they ate in companionable silence.

“What about clothes?” he asked.

“I’ll call Kristy and get some suggestions.”

He nodded his agreement. Having a sister in the fashion design business had to help. “Sounds like you’ve got everything handled,” he observed.

She shifted on the stool, flexing her neck back and forth, wincing. “It’s not going to be that big of a deal. I’m a pretty efficient project manager. The only difference is, this time the project is me.”

Hunter wasn’t convinced project management was the right approach. There was something in the art and spirit of beauty she seemed to be missing. But he was happy to have got her this far, and he wasn’t about to mess with his success.

She lifted her wineglass and the small motion caused her to flinch in obvious pain.

He motioned for her to turn around.

She glanced behind her. “What?”

“Go ahead. Turn.” He motioned again, and this time she complied.

“You painted too long,” he told her as he loosened her robe on her neck and pressed his thumbs into the stiff muscles on her shoulders.

“I wanted to finish.”

“You’re going to be sore in the morning.” He found a knot and began to work it.

“I’ll live. Mmmmm.”

“That’s the spot?”

“Oh, yeah.”

He’d promised himself he’d stick to business, and he would. But his body had reacted the instant he’d touched her. Her skin was warm from the bath, slick from the bath oil, and fragrant from the water and the candles. But he scooted his stool closer, persisting in the massage, determined to keep this all about her.

To distract himself, he glanced around at the freshly painted room. It was small, but the windows were large, and he could see that it had potential to be cozy and inviting. In fact, he preferred it to the big, Osland family house on Long Island.

He stayed there whenever he was in town, but with just him and a couple of staff members, it always seemed to echo with emptiness. Right now, he wished he could invite Sinclair over to fill it up with laughter. “Have you always lived in New York?” he asked her instead.

She nodded. “Kristy and I went to school in Brooklyn. You?”

“Mostly in California.”

“Private school, I bet.”

“You’re right.”

“Uniforms and everything?”

“Yes.”

She tipped her head to glance up at him. “You must have looked cute in your little short pants and tie.”

“I’m sure I was adorable.” He dug his thumb into a stubborn knot in her shoulder.

“Ouch. Was that for calling you cute?”

“That was to make you feel better in the morning.”

She flexed her shoulder under his hands. “Did you by any chance play football in high school?”

“Soccer and basketball. You?”

“I edited the school newspaper.”

“Nerdy.”

“Exciting. I once covered a murder.”

He paused. “There was a murder at your high school?”

She gave a long, sad sigh of remembrance. “Mrs. Mitchell’s goldfish. Its poor, lifeless body was found on the science table. Someone had cruelly removed it from its tank after hours. We suspected the janitor.”

Hunter could picture an earnest, young Sinclair hot on the trail of a murder suspect, all serious and no-nonsense, methodically reviewing the evidence.

“Did he do it?” Hunter asked.

“We couldn’t prove it. But it was the best headline we ever had. Broke the record for copy sales.” She sounded extremely proud of the accomplishment.

“You were definitely a nerd,” he said.

“I prefer the term intellectual.”

“I bet you ran in the school election.”

“True.”

“There you go.” He’d made his point.

“Billy Jones beat me out for class president in ninth grade.” She put a small catch in her voice. “I was crushed. I never ran again.”

“I’d have voted for you,” said Hunter.

“No. Like everyone else, you’d have fallen for Billy’s chocolate coconut snowballs-”

“His what?

“Chocolate and coconut on the outside, marshmallow cream on the inside. He brought five boxes to school and handed them out during his speech. I didn’t have a chance.”

“Marshmallow cream, you say?”

Sinclair elbowed him in the chest. “Quit salivating back there.”

“I’d still have voted for you.”

“Liar.”

He chuckled at her outrage and eased her back against his body. “Oh, I’d have eaten the snowball. But it’s a secret ballot, right?”

“Traitor.” But her muscles relaxed under his hands, and her body grew more pliant.

Finally, he stopped massaging and wrapped his arms around her waist. “I bet you were a cute little nerd.”

She rested her head against his chest. He didn’t dare move. He barely dared breathe. All it would take was one kiss, and he’d be dragging her off to the bedroom.

She tipped her head to look up at him, all sweetness and vulnerability.

“Hunter?” she breathed, lips dark and parted, eyes filled with passion and desire.

He closed his, fighting like hell to keep from kissing her lips. “I don’t want to be that guy,” he told her, discovering how true that was. Because he didn’t want to screw up their budding friendship.

“That guy?”

“That guy with the bath and the candles and the shoulder massage.”

“I liked that part.”

He opened his eyes again. “It’s Seduction 101 for losers.”

“Are you calling yourself a loser?”

“I’m saying if I make love with you, I’ll feel like I cheated.”

“There’s a way to cheat?”

He reflexively squeezed her tight. “I cheated, and you never had a chance.”

“As in, I don’t know my own mind?”

“Is there an answer for that that won’t get me in trouble?”

“Not really.”

He ruthlessly ignored the feel of her in his arms. He wasn’t willing to risk that she might regret it in the morning.

“You’re tired. You’re vulnerable. And we haven’t thought this through. We turn that corner,” he continued, “we can’t turn back.”

“I know,” she acknowledged in a soft voice.

He leaned around her, placing a lingering kiss on her temple. “I’ll see you at the office?”

“Sure.”

He forced himself to let go of her. Then, using every ounce of his strength and determination, he stood up and walked away.

By 7:00 a.m., Sinclair was in her office.

After Hunter left last night, she’d lain awake, remembering his soft voice, his easy conversation, and the massage that had all but melted her muscles. She would have willingly made love with him. But, he was right. They hadn’t thought it through. It was hard enough ignoring what had happened six weeks ago, never mind rekindling all those memories.

Hunter was a thoughtful man. He was also an intelligent man, and she’d spent some time going over his professional advice. He saw Chantal as her competition. And he saw Roger in Chantal’s corner. Sinclair realized she had to do this, and she had to do it right. It was time to stop fooling around.

So, she’d arrived this morning with a plan to do just that. She submitted an electronic leave form, rescheduled her meetings, plastered her active files with Post-its for Amber, and left out-of-office messages on both her voice mail and e-mail.

She was working her way through the mail in her in-basket when Roger walked in.

“What’s this?” he asked, dropping the leave form printout on her desk.

“I’m going on vacation,” she answered cheerfully, tossing another piece of junk mail in the wastepaper basket.

“Why? Where?”

“Because I haven’t taken a vacation in eight years. Because I’m entitled to vacation time just like everybody else. And because I’m not currently needed on the Valentine’s Day ball file.”

“Of course you’re needed on the file.”

“To do what?”

Roger waved his arms. “To make plans. To order things.”

“Plans are made. Things are ordered.” She rose from her chair and smiled at him. “You’ll be fine, Roger. You’ve got Chantal on the case. She can oversee things.”

“But, where are you going?”

“Chapter Three, Section Twelve of the employee manual. Employees shall not be required to disclose nor justify their vacation plans. All efforts will be made to ensure employees are able to take leave during the time period of their choosing. And leave shall not be unreasonably withheld.”

“She’s right,” came Hunter’s voice from the doorway.

Roger looked from Hunter to Sinclair and back again. “You knew about this?”

“Hadn’t a clue.” Hunter looked to Sinclair. “Taking a vacation?”

“I am.”

“Good for you. A refreshed employee is a productive employee.”

“I plan to be refreshed,” she said.

Hunter smirked. “I’m looking forward to that.”

“I’ve left notes for Amber,” Sinclair said to Roger. “The meetings with the Roosevelt Hotel have been rescheduled. Unless Chantal wants to take them. You could ask her. The florist order is nailed down. The music…Well, there’s a little problem with the band, but I’m sure Chantal or Amber can handle it.”

She dropped the last piece of mail in the waste basket and glanced around the room. “I think that about covers it.”

“This is unexpected,” said Roger through clenched teeth.

“Can I talk to you for a minute?” asked Hunter.

“My office?” Roger responded.

“I meant Sinclair,” said Hunter, stepping aside from the open door.

Roger frowned.

Sinclair should have cared about his annoyance, and she should have been bothered by the fact that the CEO had just dismissed the president in order to talk to her. But she truly didn’t care. She had things to do, places to go, beauticians to meet.

Roger stalked out of the office, and Hunter closed the door behind him.

“Career-wise,” said Sinclair. “And by that, I mean my career. I’m not sure that was the best move.”

“You’re taking some time for the makeover?” asked Hunter.

She straightened a stack of reports and lifted them from her desktop. “You’re right that Lush Beauty Products is going through a huge transition. And you’re right I should thwart Roger by getting a makeover. And, honestly, I believe Roger and Chantal need some time alone to get to know one another.”

Hunter grinned, obviously understanding her Machiavellian motives.

“I’m a goal-oriented woman, Hunter. Give me a week, and I can accomplish this.”

“I’m sure you can. Any interest in accomplishing it in Paris?”

She squinted. She didn’t understand the question.

“I had an idea,” he said. He paused, obviously for effect. “The Castlebay Spa chain. It’s a very exclusive, European boutique spa chain, headquartered in Paris.”

She got his point and excitement shimmered through her. “We’re going to try again?”

“Oslands don’t quit.”

Enthusiasm gathered in her chest at the thought of another shot at a spa. She squared her shoulders. “Neither do Mahoneys.”

“Good to hear. Because that platinum card I gave you works in Paris.”

“Oh, no.” She shook her head. “You don’t need me to do the spa deal, and I don’t need to go to Paris. I’ve got things to do in New York.”

He took her hand. “I want you in on the spa deal. And Paris is the makeover capital of the world.”

“Paris is definitely overkill.” She didn’t need to cross an ocean to get a haircut and buy dresses. Plus, in Paris, she’d be with Hunter. And there was the ever present danger of sleeping together. Since they’d so logically decided against it last night, it seemed rather cavalier to take off to Paris together.

“Do I need reinforcements? I could call your sister. She’ll back me up.”

“Don’t you dare call Kristy.” Kristy would be over the moon at the thought of a Paris makeover for her sister. And Sinclair would have two people to argue with.

He pulled out his cell phone and waggled it in the air. “She’s on speed dial.”

“That’s cheating.”

“I’ve got nothing against cheating.”

His words from last night came back to her, but she didn’t mention it.

“I need you in Paris,” he said.

She didn’t believe that for a second. “No, you don’t.”

“I need your expertise on the Castlebay deal.”

She rolled her eyes. “Like my track record on spa deals is any good.”

“You know the Lush Beauty company and the products, and you can describe them a lot better than I can.”

“There’s a flaw in this plan,” she told him. But deep down inside, she knew Hunter was winning. If she wanted to beat Chantal at her own game, a Paris makeover would give her the chance she needed.

“Only flaw I can think of,” he said, shifting closer, “is that I desperately want to kiss you right now.”

“That’s a pretty big flaw,” she whispered.

“We’re handling it so far.” But he moved closer still, and his gaze dropped to her lips.

“How long would we be in Paris?”

“A few days.”

Her lips began to tingle in reaction to his look. “Separate rooms?”

“Of course.”

“Lots of time in public places.”

He returned his gaze to her eyes. “Chicken.”

“I’m only trying to save you from yourself.”

“Noble of you.”

She couldn’t help but smile. “If we do this-”

“The jet’s waiting at the airport.”

“Did I miss the part where I said yes?”

He reached for her hand. “I’m generally one step ahead of you, Sinclair.”

She shook her head, but she also grabbed her purse. Because she realized he was right. He had an uncanny knack for anticipating her actions, along with her desires.

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