“…can see that I’ve incorporated your wish to maintain tradition with an awareness of the forward-looking principles of the future…”
Was he still making sense? Evidently. The directors’ attention was still fixed on him.
But not Lara’s.
She sat next to Edwin Dobbs, her hands folded neatly on the polished surface of the conference-room table. Their eyes met, and a coldness swept through Slade’s blood. She was watching him as if he were standing at his own gravesite with a shovel in his hand.
“…a reflecting pool, here, in the atrium garden…”
Her face was a perfect blank.
What in hell was going on here?
He flashed back, again, to that moment he’d first seen her in the doorway. The shock of it had smashed into him like a hot poker and, yeah, the pleasure, too. There’d been other women in his life since that night, sure, but the thing was, there’d been nobody quite like her.
And he’d thought, I’ll tell her that, after this meeting ends, I’ll say, Look, now that fate brought us together again, what are you doing this weekend?
Until he saw her looking at him as if she were a cat and he was a portion of breast of sparrow. He didn’t like it, not one bit. This was the woman who was going to advise the Beaufort bank directors on the reliability of his figures?
It wasn’t going to happen.
He wanted to tell her that, to say, I see that look in your eyes, Sugar, and believe me, you are the very last person on the planet I’d ever trust. You might be a firecracker in bed but…
Man, she surely was.
He could remember the heat of her, in his arms. The little tricks she knew that almost had him thinking she was sweet and innocent, that she’d never done anything like shacking up with a stranger before. Those little moans of hers, and the way she’d touched him at first, kind of shy and questioning…
Slade caught himself, frowned and took a quick look around the conference table. He half expected to see Dobbs and the others staring at him as if he’d lost his mind but they were all intent on the pictures on the screen.
Thank God for small favors.
His libido might have been in a Denver hotel room but the part of his brain that mattered was on automatic pilot. He’d finished his presentation and it had gone well. He could tell by the pleased expression on Dobbs’s face, and by the little buzz around the table.
Lara’s face was still a polite mask.
“Thank you very much, Mr. Baron,” Dobbs said. “That was most illuminating.”
Might as well cut straight to the chase, Slade thought, and looked at Lara.
“I’m glad to hear it,” he said. “But Ms. Stevens looks as if she has some questions.”
“Yes,” Lara said, “in fact, I do.”
She didn’t just have questions, she had statements and speeches, and pages of mind-bending figures. Slade had read her right. She had an agenda all her own. She wanted him out of here, and she’d do anything to accomplish it.
Within minutes, the conference table was buried under piles of paper. Articles. Clippings. Printouts. She had documentation that probably went straight back to the design of the Pyramids, all of it detailing the financial disasters that could befall a project between its plan and its completion. She had more stuff in her briefcase than he had in his office back in Boston, and she distributed it with the gusto of a clerk handing out free cereal samples in a supermarket.
Slade could smell the stink of doubt oozing into the air. Furrows appeared in the foreheads of the men who’d been beaming at him only moments before. And, in the midst of it all, Lara looked up, caught his eye and gave him a tight, condescending smile.
He smiled right back.
It was either that, or kill her.
What was with this woman? Wasn’t it enough that she’d left him high and dry in that hotel room? Did she need to make him look like a jerk here, too?
He could see himself vaulting the table, grabbing her and shaking her until her teeth rattled…or, better still, backing her against the wall, thrusting his hands into that silky mass of hair until it tumbled down over her shoulders, kissing that irritating little smile off her mouth. He could almost feel the smoothness of her jacket, the silkiness of her blouse and then the hot satin of her flesh as her breasts filled his hands.
That would tell her that she might be able to fool these idiots but she couldn’t fool him, couldn’t sit there and pretend that memories of that night hadn’t stayed with her. Was that her problem? Did she think running him out of town would eliminate those images? Or was this payback for that little speech he’d made about hoping they’d bump into each other again, sometime?
Either way, she’d made a mistake. If this was a battlefield, he was prepared to fight.
He waited patiently while she spoke, keeping his expression neutral, his hands in his pockets so nobody would see he’d knotted them into fists. Eventually she ran out of numbers, and she looked at Dobbs.
“I’m sorry to have to make all these negative comments, sir,” she said, with what Slade knew the others would accept as genuine regret. “Mr. Baron’s design is excellent, I’m sure. I just don’t see that Beaufort can go ahead with this project within the defined budgetary constraints.” She looked at Slade. “Unless,” she said politely, “I’ve missed something…?”
Her smile, her voice, made it clear such a thing was impossible.
The room was silent. Dobbs and the other men looked from Lara to Slade.
“Well, Mr. Baron,” the chairman said, after clearing his throat, “I’m sure you have some comment to offer.”
Slade nodded. “Yes,” he said evenly, “I do.”
He walked across the room, knowing every eye was on him, stalling a little to make sure he regained his composure. When he reached the windows, he took a deep breath and turned around. The men were watching him with interest but the look on Lara’s face had gone from smug anticipation to wary concern.
“My compliments, Ms. Stevens. That was quite an interesting presentation.” He flashed a quick smile around the table, one that made it clear he’d have offered similar praise to a precocious three-year-old who’d managed to get all the way through her ABCs. Slade looked at Dobbs and his smile faded. “Interesting—but inaccurate. Ms. Stevens seems to be confused on several key points.”
It took him less than five minutes to refute her arguments, actually, to reduce them to rubble. In Lara’s zeal to run him out of town—and Slade was sure that had been her intention—she’d made mistakes. She knew lots about numbers but nothing about architecture. And she sure as hell had underestimated him as an adversary.
When he’d finished, the room was silent. After a moment, Dobbs looked around, engaged the others in some kind of unspoken communication, then put his hands, palms flattened, on the table.
“Well, Mr. Baron, it’s obvious you’ve done your homework.”
Slade smiled pleasantly. “I always do,” he said, and thought that this was probably the first time in his life he’d come up with anything positive he could attribute to his old man, who’d done what he could to beat that philosophy into the seat of his pants.
“Wantin’ ain’t enough, boy,” Jonas would say. “You got to go in prepared to win
Well, he’d wanted to win this commission. And he’d come prepared, not for a personal attack, which this damned well was, but for the usual nit-picking of bean counters. It was just that he’d never expected the bean-counter to be a blue-eyed, strawberry-blonde named Lara.
It made the victory he knew was his all the sweeter. He’d have stood on his head, if that’s what it took, to teach her that she couldn’t make a fool of Slade Baron a second time. Because, dammit, she had made a fool of him, sneaking out of his bed that way, and it was time he admitted it.
Dobbs pushed back his chair and stood, an obvious signal that the meeting was over. Everyone else rose, too, including Lara.
“Thank you for your input, Ms. Stevens. You certainly raised some important issues and the board will take them under advisement.”
Lara nodded stiffly. “You’re welcome, sir.”
Dobbs came around the table and clapped Slade on the back. “I hope you don’t think our Ms. Stevens gave you too difficult a time.”
“No, not at all.” He looked at Lara. Her face was expressionless as, he hoped, was his. He still couldn’t figure out why she’d tried to sabotage him. None of the reasons he’d come up with really made sense…unless she was involved with some other guy.
Slade’s jaw tightened.
Yeah, that would explain it. She was seeing somebody else and suddenly, here he was, walking, talking proof of the fact that she’d once spent a hot night with a strange man.
He looked at her left hand, and saw a thin gold band on her ring finger.
Years before, when he was a kid, a bronc had bucked him off. He’d hit his head, hard. All Slade could ever recall of the incident was going down into a spinning whirlpool of darkness. That was the way he felt now.
Married. Lara was married.
He tore his eyes from her hand, dragged air into his lungs. Okay, she was married. So what? It was nothing to him. What they’d shared had been sex, that was all, and it had happened a long time ago. She’d gone her way, he’d gone his, and now she had a husband.