The following excerpt is unedited and may differ from the final format and/or published work.
“Damn it to hell.”
Jane Rochester glanced in the rear view mirror then slammed the gearshift into drive and slowly rolled her car forward a couple of feet. With another vicious jerk of her arm, she threw her small SUV into park. Although she wasn’t running late, this was one morning when she could have done without the extra headache of a fender bender. Quickly scrambling out of her car, Jane hurried to the back of the vehicle. What she’d been certain was just a slight bump looked more like a sumo wrestler had landed on the bumper of the BMW she’d hit.
“Damn. Damn. Damn.” Jane studied her handiwork in disgust. “Why the hell didn’t I get that park assist fixed like dad told me to last month?”
It wasn’t like her to let things slide, but things had been so hectic at the agency she’d kept putting off the car repair. She’d even made an appointment two weeks ago, but had been forced to cancel it when the Carpenter contract unexpectedly dropped into her lap. This whole thing could have been avoidable if she’d simply rescheduled the appointment then and there. She shook her head in self-disgust.
Bending slightly at the waist, Jane ran her fingers across the dent in the expensive car’s fender. Her inspection didn’t make the damage disappear. This would definitely jack up her insurance now. Two fender benders in eight months. The Rochester sisterhood would have a field day at Sunday morning brunch.
Of all the things Jane could do, parking had never been her strong suit. At least not backing a car into a parking spot. It was as if the car company had designed the parking assist option just for her. Jane released a loud noise of anger then pulled her business card out of her bag. She quickly wrote a short note of responsibility for the damage and added her contact info. Cell phone trapped between her ear and shoulder, Jane listened to her insurance agent’s message on the other end of the line while slipping her card underneath the BMWs wiper. At the beep in her ear, she straightened upright.
“Hi Dean, this is Jane Rochester. I just had a fender bender this morning in the James River Towers garage. Nothing major, other than a nice size dent in the fender of a pristine black BMW.” She paused for a second and looked over her shoulder. It wasn’t just pristine, it looked brand-new. Jane’s heart sank at the thought. “Anyway, the owner isn’t here. I’m leaving my card under their wiper with my contact info on it and yours. Give me a call when you get this message. Thanks.”
Jane tapped the smooth surface of her phone before pulling up the camera app and taking pictures of the damage. When she’d finished, she quickly inspected the front of her car to ensure it was out of the line of traffic. Thankful for that small blessing from the universe, Jane pulled her bag and satchel from the car and headed for the garage elevators.
Of all the days for Alice Marks to have two sick kids. It wouldn’t have been so bad if one of her other top two qualified staffers had been available. But Kimberly had already been assigned to one of the city’s top law firms, and Sarah had broken her foot two days ago. She frowned.
If it weren’t for that ridiculous experience qualifier clause in the Thornfield Agency’s contract with Chandler Enterprises she’d be enjoying a hot cup of vanilla mocha coffee with Adele. She had plenty of staffers with five to ten years of experience who could easily handle this assignment and do it well. She’d tried a couple of times to have the clause altered, but Mary Parker had indicated Lincoln Chandler wouldn’t budge on the issue.
All three of the agency staff who’d subbed in the executive offices at Chandler Enterprises had mentioned rumors of an incident behind the clause. The references had been vague, but from what little she’d heard, the whole thing had involved a young woman. She could just imagine some office romance gone bad. The elevator dinged loudly as it arrived on the ground floor of the James River Towers main office complex. The high-pitched peal sounded in her ears at the same time her sister’s favorite song from Frozen echoed out of Jane’s phone.
“Where are you?” Adele’s voice was filled with puzzlement. “You were supposed to meet me for coffee this morning before work.”
Half-listening to her sister’s question, Jane stared at the wall signage as she tried to figure out what elevator bank would take her to up to Chandler Enterprises.
“Trust me. I’d love to have a large dose of caffeine right now. I stayed up late finishing that book you loaned me, so I’ve had about four hours of sleep. Everything imploded around five-thirty this morning when Mary Parker called me.”
“Mary Par—the Mary Parker?”
“The very same.”
Mary Parker was a legendary figure inside the Thornfield staffing agency. The woman was known for her calm, professional demeanor, and a strong dash of dry wit. Most importantly, Mary Parker was the wall between Lincoln Chandler and the rest of the world. As the executive assistant to Chandler Enterprises’ CEO, Mary Parker even had her own staff. The day Jane had won the contract bid for providing temporary staffing to Chandler Enterprises had been the day the Thornfield Agency had gone from being in the red to being in the black.
She owed her current success to Mary Parker. Although the woman had negotiated Chandler Enterprises’ contract with Jane, she never called the agency. One of her assistants always did that. So it had been an eye opener this morning when the answering service had pushed Mary’s call through to Jane’s phone.
“Why on earth did she call you? The woman always has Teri or Candace call for staffing needs.”
“Apparently Teri went into labor last night, two weeks early, and Candace has that flu bug the whole city has, and Mary has a daughter getting married this weekend.”
The elevator taking Jane to the top floor chimed softly, and she lifted her head in surprise at the short trip. As the doors opened, she realized the car had stopped at the floor of the athletic facilities the office complex offered tenants. Slightly annoyed by the delay, Jane shook her head as she tried to focus on her conversation with Adele.
“Do you want me to call Alice?” her sister asked. “And you still haven’t told me where you are.”
“I’m at the James River Towers.”
“What on earth are you doing there?” Adele snorted in bewilderment.
“Alice called me right after Mary did. The kids are sick, and Alice told me to take her off the roster for the week.”
Out of the corner of her eye, Jane watched a tall, dark-haired man step into the elevator. The stranger barely glanced at her as he pressed a button on the panel opposite Jane. The button lighting up on her panel said the stranger was getting off a couple of floors below Chandler Enterprises’ main offices. As the stranger moved to the far corner of the elevator car, Jane instinctively shifted her body so her back was pressed into the wall next to the button panel. It was a safety move she’d learned in a self-defense course several years ago.
“So with Alice out, Sarah’s broken foot, Kimberly at Hutson and Jones, who does that leave—oh my God, do not tell me you’re going to take Mary Parker’s place.”
“You have another suggestion?”
“I can do it.” The cheerful note in her sister’s voice made Jane laugh out loud.
“Not happening. You know the rule. You don’t have the experience,” Jane said softly, cognizant of the man a short distance away. “Besides, you’d have the guy for lunch, twisted around your finger in half a day or both.”
In the far corner of the elevator the male passenger coughed as if he’d stifled a laugh. Jane glanced at him, but he was still studying his cell phone.
“Well, you don’t have fifteen years of executive assistant experience,” Adele said with a bit of disgust. “How are you going to explain that to Lincoln Chandler?”
“It’s only for a week. I’m reasonably certain I can keep things running smoothly. I’m not incompetent, and I’m certainly not looking for any office romance,” Jane murmured with more than a hint of sarcasm.
Another sound echoed out of the car’s other occupant. She glanced in his direction, thinking he might be listening to her conversation, but he appeared completely absorbed in his phone.
“So what do we need done at the office while you’re out?”
“I’ll draw up a list tonight when I get home. I know the Somerville contract still needs review. The paperwork on those two new temp workers has to be finalized. Someone needs to follow up with Doug at the Waterman firm about that project starting next week. What else?” Jane paused as she tried to think what task she was missing, but lack of sleep had made her brain dysfunctional. “I can’t think straight at the moment. Four hours of sleep doesn’t crack it anymore. I need coffee.”
“Are you sure you don’t want me to fill in? What they don’t know about my inexperience won’t hurt them.”
“You know me better than that,” Jane said sternly.
“Sorry, wasn’t thinking straight.”
“Obviously. Besides you don’t look old enough to play the part.”
“Neither do you,” Adele snorted.
“Perhaps you’re forgetting I’m five years older than you, not to mention the fact that I’m fine with my permanently unmarried status.”
“I keep telling you that Ken Williams was an ass. He didn’t appreciate you,” Adele said with vehement loyalty. “It’s time to put yourself out there again.”
Jane closed her eyes for a brief moment. Her sister was right. Ken hadn’t appreciated her at all. It irritated her that she’d taken three years to come to that conclusion. The man was focused only on himself. Although she’d dated on and off before Ken came into her life, she’d never had a long-term relationship.
When she’d moved in with him, she’d convinced herself to overlook the little things. After all she was in love. It had taken her a lot longer than the rest of her family to realize how one-sided her relationship with Ken had been. Everything they’d done had been what he wanted to do. The weekend getaways, the restaurants they ate at, the trials and tribulations of his job.
Perhaps worst of all was his lack of support when it came to the Thornfield Agency. Every time she had to work late, he’d encourage her to get a real job. She’d always brushed it off until the day she’d lost two clients and had come home needing to feel loved and reassured. Instead, the evening had been spent with Ken ranting about a new hire in his division.
She’d moved out a week later. Walking away from the man had been the right thing to do. Being free of romantic entanglements for the past year had taught her that there was a difference between being lonely and being alone. Other than a non-existent sex life, she’d been too busy to miss having a man around. When she didn’t respond to her sister’s comments, Adele blew out a harsh breath of disgust.
“He’s out there, Jane. Your Mr. Right is just around the corner. You just have to be open to it.”
“You’re a hopeless romantic, and I’m a realist. I like my life the way it is.”
“What are you going to do when you really get old?”
“I’ll become a dog lady as opposed to a cat lady. Dogs are easier to train,” Jane said with a quiet laugh.
“Well, I refuse to accept that you’re a hopeless cause. You need to let me set you up with one of the guys at the gym. I’m thinking you’d really like Nate.”
“Stop.” Jane laughed. “You’re like a pitbull with a bone.”
“I’m not that bad,” Adele said with a small huff of pique before she laughed. “And you wouldn’t want me any other way.”
“No, I wouldn’t,” Jane said with an affectionate laugh. “Who would fill the role of kid sister?”
“Good point. So did the infamous Mrs. Parker give you a list of dos and don’ts where the great man is concerned?” Adele took on a more serious tone. “I can’t imagine she’s going to be too happy that no one on the regular roster is supporting Chandler while she’s out.”
“She said she’d call me later this morning when she arrives at her daughter’s place.” Jane shrugged. “I’ll explain things and assure her I’m the best option she has at the moment.”
“What if the Chandler demands you bring him coffee?” Her sister’s question was filled with good-natured teasing, but it made Jane grit her teeth. She’d never liked being ordered to get coffee or food for a boss. It had always felt demeaning to be a treated as a servant and not a valued contributor to the company’s operation.
Like most places in the US, Virginia still had a long way to go when it came to clerical staff being given the respect they were due. Northern Virginia and the Washington Beltway had a lot of cronyism, but it was still more progressive than Richmond. The state capital still had a strong good-old-boy network running through the heart of it.
Change took time, and while progress had been made, administrative staff was still treated like second class citizens in a lot of businesses. It was why Jane was very selective about her clientele. She wanted her people to have the best working experience possible. While it sometimes meant losing a worker to a good company, happy employees meant higher productivity and better client relations.
“Suggesting I’ll have to wait on the man hand and foot is not winning you brownie points right now. In fact, it sounds like you’re deliberately trying to talk me out of this assignment in the hope you can step in and take my place.”
“Umm, no,” Adele chuckled. “I just like getting a rise out of you. Although, now that I think about it, maybe I should push for the assignment. Have you met the guy? He’d make me willing to get him coffee whenever he asked for it.”
“No, I’ve not met him, and what he looks like has nothing to do with bringing him a coffee,” Jane said with a sigh. She’d been out of the administrative track for more than seven years now, and she wasn’t looking forward to the coming week.
“Are you seriously telling me you’ve never met Lincoln Chandler at one of those events you go to?”
“We don’t move in the same circles.”
“Oh. My. God. Then be forewarned, big sis. The man is major eye candy.”
“He could be Bess’s latest Hollywood man crush for all I care,” Jane said as she rolled her eyes at Adele’s relentless determination to find her a man. “All that matters is keeping the guy happy. I’ll do whatever it takes, and I’ll do it with a smile.”
“I doubt seriously it’s going to be like that. Alice told me Chandler is quite nice and has never said or done anything to make her feel less than a valued member of his team.”
“Nice is irrelevant,” Jane said muttered with a shake of her head. “I’ll even buy his girlfriend a nightgown if I have to.”
Another sound rumbled out of the corner of the elevator, and Jane jerked her gaze toward the man. A steely-blue gaze met hers, and her heart skidded to a stop before it resumed at an accelerated rate. When the man had stepped onto the elevator, she’d noted the basic attributes one would tell a police officer. But she’d not studied his features closely or looked him in the eye. Now, the full force of him was a frontal assault on her senses.
Sable-colored hair framed strong, rugged features, and his height topped her five-eleven by at least three inches. The penetrating look he directed at her sent tension streaking though her until her muscles were tight as a bow ready to release its arrow. The man had an air about him that shouted raw, masculine power. She worked with powerful men regularly, but this guy broke the mold without even saying a word. The Rochester sisterhood would be having orgasms over this eye candy.
Not until this moment had she ever understood what her sister Bess had meant by a man having a sensual mouth. This man had a mouth that brought to mind all the fantasies she indulged in when she was alone in bed. Her stomach lurched at the thought as an erotic image filled her head. Panic struck as she fought to keep breathing and maintain a serene, professional appearance.
It was impossible to tell if he’d heard her reply to Adele as his expression was unreadable. Even a poker player would find it difficult to read the man’s face. But something flashed in his eyes that could have been amusement before it vanished. He arched his eyebrows arrogantly at her as his gaze remained locked with his. In her ear she heard Adele calling her name. Suddenly feeling more self-conscious than she’d felt since she was fifteen and Danny Brown had smiled at her in the upper commons, Jane jerked her gaze away from the stranger.
“Hello? Jane? Are you still there?”
“Yes, I’m—” She peeked a quick look at the man in the opposite corner who was working on his phone once more. “I was distracted for a moment. It’s been a bad morning all around. To top things off, I managed to put a dent in someone’s car in the garage.”
“Oh, lovely. How many does that make for the year?”
“Not funny.” The elevator chimed as the car slowed to a stop. She glanced upward and noted they’d stopped a couple of floors below the main lobby of Chandler Enterprises. The doors swished open, and without looking at her again, the stranger stepped out of the car, and the elevator doors closed.
“Oh, sweet Jesus,” she breathed softly as the tension holding her limbs taut ebbed out of her.
“Nothing,” Jane muttered.
“You do not think I’m buying that.”
“It was this guy…he was…”
“That hot, hmmm?” Adele’s laughter made Jane smile.
“Yes. He was that hot. The sisterhood would give him ten plus stars.”
“Whoa. So I take it you didn’t ask for his number.”
“That’s your style not mine, and how many times do I have to say I’m not interested in a relationship,” Jane said as the elevator doors opened on the main floor of Chandler Enterprises. Jane stepped onto the polished marbleized floor of the corporation.
“You say that, but I don’t believe you,” Adele said cheerfully. “But I’ll stop nagging you, and just find the perfect guy for my big sister.”
“Lord, help me.” Jane blew out a loud sound of exasperation. “Look, I need to go. I have to set up for a meeting one of the vice-presidents is having this morning.”
“Don’t forget the sugar when you’re making coffee.” Adele teased as Jane ended the conversation. Jane glared at her phone for a moment before she began to create a list in her head on ways to extract sisterly vengeance on the head of the youngest Rochester sister.
With a sniff of irritation, she made her way down the corridor of executive offices. She’d only been here once before when she’d made her presentation to Mary Parker and the woman’s assistants as to what the Thornfield Agency had to offer its clients.
There was a masculine elegance to the decor with its mahogany paneled walls and understated wallpaper. She grimaced at the fanciful thought. She wasn’t here to notice the interior design. Her job was to keep the CEO of Chandler Enterprises happy and ensure the agency didn’t lose its contract. At the end of the corridor, she saw the double glass doors leading into the executive suite.
Digging into her purse, she dug out the keys she’d picked up at the agency on her way downtown. They kept an extra set of keys on hand for all their client offices for emergencies just like this. The moment she was inside the suite, she flipped the light switches to brighten the office. Quickly making her way past the open area where Mary’s staff worked, she entered the large alcove partitioned off from the main office space.
A few feet past the alcove was the entrance to the hallowed offices of Chandler Enterprises’ owner. Ignoring the sudden twinge of uncertainty nipping at her, she turned to study Mary Parker’s desk. It was almost immaculate. There was a digital photo frame sitting on top of the dark cherry desk along with a rack of files, an in-box for documents, and a computer. Using the key marked filing cabinet, Jane opened the wood cabinet and set her purse inside then locked it. A glance at the locket timepiece she wore around her neck said it was seven-thirty.
“Right, time to get the coffee perking,” she muttered as she remembered Adele’s teasing. If her younger sister ever found out about the last time Jane had been setting up and making coffee for her boss, Adele would be mortified for having teased Jane about it. That was a secret only Helen knew about.
As twins, she and Helen had an invisible bond that bound them together. They told each other practically everything. Things she wouldn’t necessarily tell the rest of the sisterhood, especially if she knew her other three sisters would become over-protective as they had when she’d broken up with Ken.
The next twenty minutes passed quickly as she set up for the eight-thirty meeting in the boardroom. Mary Parker’s efficiency bordered almost on the obsessive as Jane used her cell phone to follow the detailed instructions the woman had emailed to her. The small, but full-sized, kitchen that adjoined the board room was well-stocked, and it didn’t take long before coffee was brewing and frozen sausage biscuits were in the oven. Jane retrieved the notebooks for the meeting and quickly set out the discussion packets on the board table. By the time the first pot of coffee was sitting on the counter’s built-in hot plate, there were already people mingling near the counter. She pulled the sausage biscuits from the oven and seconds later the biscuits were sitting on the counter next to the chilled tray of fruit and yogurt she’d found in the refrigerator.
“Good morning. You’re new here.” The jovial voice echoing from the kitchen doorway made Jane look up from the sink where she was cleaning the cookie sheet she’d used. With a smile she nodded.
“Yes, I’m Jane Rochester. I’m with the Thornfield Agency.”
“John Powell, a pleasure to have you on board.”
The portly man extended his hand to Jane, and she quickly dried her hands to shake the man’s hand before returning to her task.
“Mary called with news that Teri went into labor late last night, and Candace is out with the flu. She asked me to have my assistant, Connie, give you a hand if you needed it.” The offer filled Jane with a small amount of relief as she nodded.
“Thank you, I’m sure there will be questions that come up, and I prefer not to trouble Mrs. Parker if at all possible.”
“I call Connie my Radar, like that character in that old 70s show MASH. It’s scary sometimes when she just hands me something before I even think to ask for it. There aren’t many questions she won’t be able to answer,” John Powell said with a chuckle.
“My office is the last door down the hall, and Connie’s desk is right outside.”
“Thank you.” Jane smiled. “I’ll be sure to find her when I have questions.”
The man appeared ready to continue the conversation when a woman on the opposite side of the serving counter greeted him.
“John, lovely to see you again.”
“Meredith.” The older gentleman’s expression change from cheerful to polite. The woman didn’t seem to notice as she looked at Jane with a critical eye before her gaze perused the offerings on the counter.
“Are there not any muffins today, Miss…?”
“It’s Ms. Rochester, and I’m sorry but muffins weren’t on the menu Mrs. Parker left me. I did notice a box of granola bars in the cupboard. Could I offer you one of those, Miss Branford?”
Jane gestured toward the cabinets while she saw John Powell beating a hasty exit from the kitchen. A neutral expression on her face, she smiled politely at the woman. Although Jane was more comfortable staying at home curled up with a good book or playing video games with her nephew, she’d attended more than her fair share of networking and charitable events.
She’d recognized Meredith Branford the moment the woman had appeared at the counter and greeted John Powell. The Branford family was one of the oldest in Virginia, and they were a political powerhouse in Richmond and the state. The woman narrowed her gaze at Jane as a dainty frown creased her haughty, yet lovely, features.
“Have we met before, Miss…?” The woman’s feigned puzzlement as if trying to remember Jane’s name. It was a passive-aggressive tactic Jane had witnessed many times before, and she fought the impulse to tell the woman they’d met less than two months ago at the Virginia Fine Arts Museum’s annual fundraiser.
“Ms. Rochester,” she said politely. “It’s possible. I’ve seen you at a number of charitable events.”
“That would explain it,” Meredith said with a smile of condescension. “You must have been there with one of the caterers.”
“Perhaps,” Jane said as she bit back a snarky response. The woman’s disdain was irritating, but Jane had her business to think about, and she’d worked with a lot of people like Meredith Branford. They were convinced their money and name made them superior to others. There was very little that would shame people like Meredith into treating others as equals. The woman glanced toward the boardroom door and smiled.
“Lincoln, they said you weren’t going to be here this morning.”
Jane’s heart sank as she realized it was unlikely there was more than one Lincoln working at Chandler Enterprises. The doorway was out of Jane’s line of sight, and she quickly turned away to put the cookie sheet she still held in her hand back into the cupboard. The thought of being introduced to Lincoln Chandler while standing behind the counter like a lunchtime street vendor was far from the professional one she’d envisioned when she’d pulled her most sedate business suit from her closet earlier.
“My meetings in Norfolk were canceled at the last minute.” The low, male voice behind her held a distinct note of cynical amusement as he greeted the other woman. Although Jane was certain the sound wouldn’t even register with Meredith.
“Well, I couldn’t be happier that they were. You know how much I value your input on this pet project of Daddy’s.”
“So you’ve said a number of times.” There was a note of irony in the man’s voice that made Jane believe Lincoln Chandler knew Meredith Branford had him in her telescope.
“It’s true,” the woman exclaimed in a soft voice that was almost a purr. Jane bit back a soft meow at the woman’s obvious desire to stroke the man’s ego. “Come, sit by me. I have a project of my own I want to discuss with you.”
“I’ll be along in a moment. I want a cup of coffee.”
“All right, I’ll save you a seat.”
The sultry note in Meredith’s voice held an invitation that would be hard for any man to miss. Jane barely managed to suppress a snort of disgust as she quickly wiped down the counter next to the sink and washed her hands. Drying her hands on a paper towel she headed for the kitchen doorway, which promised a reprieve from her meeting with the head of Chandler Enterprises.
“Is it possible for you to make a fresh pot of coffee before you leave, Miss Rochester? It is Miss Rochester, isn’t it?” The request made Jane halt in mid-flight out of the kitchen. Startled to hear her name, she realized Mary Parker’s efficiency had ensured Chandler Enterprises’s CEO knew about the administrative support situation.
“I prefer Ms., and I’d be happy—” Jane voice died a quick death as she turned around and froze beneath a steel-blue gaze.
The mockery on his face made her stomach lurch with a sickening sensation. When she didn’t move, he looked pointedly at the coffee maker them back to her. Embarrassment rolled over her, and with a sharp nod she quickly moved to make a fresh pot of coffee. Despite the silence behind her, the way the hair on the back of her neck was standing on end told her the man hadn’t moved.
“Tell me, Ms. Rochester, what size nightgown do you think Miss Branford wears?”
The quiet words made bile rise in Jane’s throat as she missed the coffee pots reservoir and spilled half the pot of water onto the counter. Mortified, she grabbed a handful of paper towels to keep the water off the floor before turning around.
A chill swept over her skin as Jane fought to hide the panic rising inside her. Just as nailing her contract with Chandler Enterprises had catapulted her business to success in the Richmond business community, losing the contract would cast doubts on her ability to deliver quality staff. It could irreparably damage the agency. Her stomach churning violently, Jane met his gaze before looking at her feet.
“I’m sorry you heard that,” she choked out with raw humiliation. “It was unprofessional of me. I really am sorry.”
“I’m sure you are,” he murmured as he occupied himself by adding a sausage biscuit and a helping of fruit to his plate. Was that a trace of amusement in his voice? No, that was simply her praying for a miracle.
All too aware of the ice cracking beneath her feet, Jane prepared herself for the next words out of his sensual mouth. Unable to save herself or the agency, she remained stiff, silent, and unmoving where she stood. He lifted his head to look at her steadily. Something flashed in his light-blue gaze, and for a brief second Jane could have sworn she saw amusement flicker in his eyes. Once again she immediately dismissed the thought as wishful thinking. There were few men who’d be able to find humor in her comments, especially men in a position of power.
“You seem at a loss of words, Ms. Rochester,” he said softly. The challenge in his voice made Jane flinch. She swallowed the knot swelling her throat closed.
“If I could take back my words, Mr. Chandler I would. I truly am sorry.” She wasn’t sure whether her apology satisfied him or not, and for some strange reason, she didn’t think groveling would be welcomed by him. The silver-blue eyes studied her for a moment longer before he nodded.
“We’ll discuss this later. In the meantime, I’d like that hot coffee. Now. Black, one sugar.”
Lincoln Chandler offered her a slight smile, arched his eyebrows upward then turned away and walked toward the empty seat Meredith had reserved for him. Trembling with reaction, Jane turned around to brew a new pot of coffee and quickly cleaned up the mess she’d made while it brewed. Horrified and sick to her stomach, she rehashed her conversation with Adele. Although her words hadn’t revealed whom she’d been referring too, she’d revealed enough information for Chandler to realize he’d been the topic of her conversation.
It had been inappropriate and indiscreet, and she knew better. It had been a long time since she’d made such a stupid mistake, and she could only blame it on lack of sleep. But it was an error that could easily cost her the independence she’d worked so hard for. If she wanted to appease this man, she was going to have to bend over backwards the entire time she was at Chandler Enterprises. She breathed a silent prayer that Alice’s children would make a quick, miraculous recovery.
The coffee pot sputtered the last bit of brew, and Jane quickly poured Lincoln Chandler a large cup. Setting the coffee pot down on the counter’s built-in warmer, she grabbed a packet of sugar. She added it to the beverage, stirred it briskly then with a couple of napkins carried the coffee into the boardroom. When she reached Lincoln Chandler’s seat, she leaned past him to set the drink in front of him along with the napkins she’d brought with her.
The subtle scent of his cologne brushed against her nose. It reminded her of the woods in the mountains where her grandfather lived. It was a fresh, crisp smell that made her want to stay right where she was. The thought made her draw in a quick breath, and she stepped backward as if she’d been burned. Lincoln turned his head at her abrupt movement and narrowed his gaze at her. Swallowing hard, Jane smiled wanly at him then forced herself to walk slowly out of the board room.
The moment she was in the hallway, she picked up her pace until she was almost running back to Mary Parker’s office alcove. Sinking down into the desk chair, she stared at the smooth surface of the desk. She wanted to run as far away as she could, but knew she wasn’t going anywhere. She should have known it would be difficult to fall back into the role of an administrative assistant.
She’d been a boss, a damn good one, for seven years now. It wasn’t going to be easy to take orders when she was so used to giving them. But her business was on the line, and she was going to take whatever humiliation Lincoln Chandler threw at her over the next few days. The truth was she deserved whatever he dished out. She’d insulted him, and he had every right to be pissed as hell. Jane closed her eyes. It was going to be a really long week.
Lincoln took the shortcut through the small conference room connected to his office, which bypassed the mai administrative area. At the moment, he wasn’t in the mood to talk to anyone, least of all Ms. Jane Rochester. He wasn’t sure what or who had pissed him off the most this morning. Whether it was the outbreak of flu that had taken down Jarrett Construction’s president and forced the cancellation of their meeting until late next week, Meredith’s usual game of cat and mouse, or Jane Rochester.
The cancelled meeting with Mike Jarrett was more an inconvenience than anything else. It meant shifting appointments around, but they were ahead of schedule on the Wetherburn Estates development so they had a little time to spare. Meredith was always a pain in the ass, but Jane Rochester was a new and completely unexpected addition to the problems multiplying on his plate.
Lincoln pulled the business card out of his jacket pocket and glared at it. After the investor’s meeting for the Commonwealth project, he remembered he’d left his briefcase in the car. When he’d retrieved it, he’d discovered Jane’s calling card and a sizeable dent in his front bumper.
He released a grunt of anger. If he’d waited just a few more days to buy the new sedan, she would have hit the old Tahoe he’d traded in. The new car had been a celebratory purchase for having made the Fortune 500 with Chandler Enterprises’ annual revenues. When his father had handed over the company reins to him four years ago, he’d developed a plan to expand the real estate development firm his dad had built from the ground up.
In the course of two years, he’d acquired two construction companies, a titling business, and a small law firm. With all of the businesses operating under the umbrella of Chandler Enterprises, he’d driven his property development costs down, while increasing income as all of the subsidiary businesses maintained clients outside of Chandler Enterprises.
His goal had been to make the prestigious list of profitable companies before his thirtieth birthday, and he’d done it with several months to spare. The sense of accomplishment was something he would savor for a long time. Lincoln’s cell phone buzzed in his coat pocket.
“Well, from the sound of your voice, I’d say you’ve had a bad morning.” The quiet note of amusement in Mary’s voice made Lincoln release a grunt of annoyance.
“Considering I have a nice dent in the bumper of my car, I think my greeting was pretty restrained,” he growled as he shut the side door of his office behind him.
“The BMW?” his aunt exclaimed with obvious dismay. “Oh Lincoln, I’m so sorry. What happened?”
“Jane Rochester happened.”
“Oh.” Silence filled his ear, and he thought he heard his aunt choking back laughter.
“Are you laughing?” he muttered in disbelief. “There’s nothing funny about the dent in my car.”
“It’s not the car. It’s the fact that Ms. Rochester seems to have been a major thorn in your side all morning.” This time his aunt didn’t hold back her laughter. “I understand she insulted you in the elevator this morning.”
“How the hell did you hear about that,” he exclaimed with amazement. Mary always had her finger on the pulse of Chandler Enterprises, but knowing about the comments Jane had made in the elevator had him thinking his aunt was psychic.
“Ms. Rochester told me what happened.” The response made Lincoln stop in his tracks uncertain he’d heard his aunt correctly
“Ms. Rochester told me you overheard a conversation she had with her sister earlier this morning. Something about saying she was willing to wait on you hand and foot even if it meant buying your girlfriend…what was it?” His aunt paused for effect before her laughter echoed in his ear. “Oh, I remember now, a nightgown.”
Floored by his aunt’s revelation, Lincoln moved to the expanse of office windows of his corner office to look out at the James River. Unlike the law firm a block down the street, the James Center Towers didn’t have any buildings blocking his view of the waterway. Although the start of summer was only a few days away, the river was still high and fast-flowing from the spring rains. His gaze focused on a barge heading downstream as he frowned in puzzlement. What the devil had made Jane Rochester confess to his aunt?
“I knew you’d be surprised, but I didn’t expect you to be speechless.” Mary Parker’s words caused his lips to twist in a humorless smile as he bobbed his head despite the fact his aunt couldn’t see him.
“It’s impressive she brought it up with you, but I’m not sure why she would.”
The instant the words left his mouth, his conscience kicked him in the ass with a healthy dose of guilt. She’d probably thought he’d have her fired by the temp agency. The memory of Jane’s ashen face made Lincoln suppress a quiet oath. Although her comments hadn’t been flattering to his ego, the nightgown remark had been funny.
Primarily because he was convinced Jane Rochester would never buy intimate apparel for any of his girlfriends. Not that he had a girlfriend to buy anything for, but he knew it wasn’t the sort of gift he’d ever ask someone else to buy for him. The thought left him wondering what sort of underwear she had on beneath that prim, nondescript suit she wore.
When he’d stepped onto the elevator this morning, he’d been preoccupied with email and hadn’t paid close attention to the other occupant in the car. It wasn’t until he heard her soft comment about rules and experience that he’d noticed she was headed to the main floor of Chandler Enterprises. Mary’s email about being short staffed was still fresh in his mind, and he was certain the woman was talking about him.
Any other time he, or anyone else for that matter, wouldn’t have put two and two together, but her destination had convinced him she was the replacement the Thornfield Agency was sending over until things in the office righted themselves. The fact that he’d never seen her before had prompted him to eavesdrop. Although he’d only been privy to one side of the conversation, he’d learned a great deal about Jane Rochester.
“Lincoln, did you hear me?” His aunt’s voice punctured his thoughts.
“I asked you, what did you say to Ms. Rochester?”
“I asked for a cup of fresh coffee,” he hedged.
It was the truth. Well, a half-truth. He’d asked for coffee, and watched Jane nervously work the coffee maker. When she’d spilled water all over the counter, he’d realized he probably shouldn’t have asked what size nightgown Meredith wore, particularly when what he really wanted to know was what size Jane wore.
“And that’s all you said?”
“I mentioned she seemed at a loss for words, and she apologized,” he said with a slight twist of his lips. “It was a sincere and humble apology too.”
“And your car?”
“I’ll give Ms. Rochester a couple of hours before I share that particular problem with her. Did you bring her up to speed on the Merton RFP that needs to be completed by mid-week?”
“Yes, and I told her to be sure the printer delivers those plats for the New Kent project by two o’clock for your review. You’ll need those if you’re still going out to look at the property this afternoon,” Mary said in her usual businesslike manner. “I told her to keep your calendar clear this week as I know you want to visit the Agincourt site as well as that monstrosity you’re thinking about buying in Cumberland.”
“It’s a plantation.”
“It’s a money pit. Not to mention it’s an incredibly risky venture.”
“You’re a pessimist,” he chuckled.
“No, I’m a realist. That place is going to cost you more money than you think.” His aunt’s unusual resistance to his idea caused Lincoln to frown.
“I’ve saved more than enough money to buy the place, plus having a budget to remodel it. You know I’m far more cautious than ever when it comes to projects I decide to invest in.”
“Yes, I know all that, but I just don’t understand what you see in the place.”
“Northfield is perfect for entertaining, and—”
“Entertaining?” Mary snorted. “You need a wife for that, not to mention a wife willing to live that far out in the country. We both know Meredith Branford won’t live out there.”
“I’ve no intention of marrying Meredith.”
“Well, you’d better find a girlfriend quick because I overheard her telling Jason Smith that you and she were incredibly close.”
“Christ almighty. We are not anywhere near to being close.”
“Then I suggest having a heart-to-heart with her, and be sure to mention Northfield.” The laughter in his aunt’s voice made him grimace.
“There’s nothing to discuss with the woman, and there are a lot more reasons than the entertainment factor that has me thinking seriously about buying the plantation.”
“Well, it’s one hell of a commute.”
“There’s a thing called telecommuting, and I’m out of the office so much now, it’s not going to be all that different.”
“Fine. I’m not going to argue with you anymore, but I won’t hesitate to say I told you so when the time comes.” Despite the laughter in her voice, Lincoln heard the warning as well. It was a warning he knew was unfounded. There were a lot of good things that could happen out at Northfield.
“So, back to the topic of my week.”
“Ah yes, and Jane Rochester.” His aunt snorted with laughter again, before resuming their conversation in her normal efficient, pragmatic manner. “I asked her to make arrangements for you to meet with the land agents for Northfield as well as that other property out near West Chester Commons. Don’t forget the meeting with Derrick Maidstone on Thursday morning. You might want to have Ms. Rochester prepare a couple of bullet points for that meeting.”
“Sounds good. Did you explain you usually join me on some of these site visits to keep me on the straight and narrow?”
“No, I didn’t think you’d need her to go with you. Should I let her know?” The note of puzzled curiosity in his aunt’s voice made him grimace. What the hell had made him ask the question in the first place?
“No, just curious. If I think it’s a necessity, I’ll let her know. So have you heard from Seth? How’s Teri doing?” Lincoln quickly changed the subject unwilling to give his aunt the opportunity to dwell on his question.
“She delivered a healthy baby girl about an hour ago. Seth said Teri’s tired, but doing well. I think they’re going to keep the baby for a couple of days just to be sure she’s doing okay. Teri will go home tomorrow.”
“That’s great. I’ll have Ms. Rochester send some flowers to the hospital.”
“I can do—”
“No, I’m sure Ms. Rochester will be happy to help out,” he said with a tight smile of satisfaction. “Besides you’ve enough to do keeping Susan off the ceiling. I’m guessing my cousin is in a major state of panic at the moment.”
“You have no idea. There’ve been two snafus to date, and she’s a bit over the top,” Mary said with a motherly groan of despair. “I’m not sure I’ll be able to remain sane for the next five days.”
“I don’t believe you,” he said with a chuckle. “Nothing ever fazes you.”
“You don’t have a daughter getting married,” Mary said with more exasperation than he was accustomed to hearing in her voice. “Anyway, be sure to have Ms. Rochester confirm that Cecil is going to pick you up Friday at ten sharp, as well as confirming what time the plane Mike’s family rented is going to be at the airport.”
“I’ll be certain to do that.”
“Lincoln.” The unspoken warning in his aunt’s voice made him laugh.
“I promise not to torture her too badly.”
“As long as you play nice.”
“I’ll be sure to do that,” he said with a chuckle as he ended the phone call. His aunt’s words made Lincoln’s smile broaden.
The idea of playing with Jane Rochester held a certain amount of appeal. It would be interesting to see what kind of woman was beneath that cool, austere professionalism. It was an image he was certain she worked hard at.
Dark blonde hair pulled back in a severe hairstyle, she wore very little makeup. Intuition told him the lack of makeup was a deliberate attempt to enhance the severe look she had clearly cultivated. Everything about her, even down to the dark gray business suit she wore, created a prim and proper look.
It was an image he knew others would have labeled serious and staid, but it made him think it was a shield she wore to keep people at a distance or maybe just men in general. Although the suit hid whatever curves she possessed, it didn’t hide her legs. He’d always been a leg man, and he’d liked what he’d seen.
But it was her mouth that had him thinking pleasant thoughts. Full, plump, and a dark pink, her lips were designed for a man to explore their heat. Jane Rochester presented a challenge. She made him want to rip off her severe exterior to see if there was a fire beneath it that matched that appealing mouth. Watching her in the elevator this morning he’d wanted to pull her hair free of the swirled knot at the back of her head to see if it was as silky as it looked. Most of all, he’d wanted to find out just how kissable her lips were.
Lincoln groaned softly in disgust at the way his imagination was running wild. In less than six hours, Jane Rochester had thrown his life into chaos. It was the last thing he needed at the moment. He had enough problems dealing with Tom Branford and his daughter. If it weren’t for the fact that he needed Tom’s backing for the Commonwealth project, he wouldn’t be forced to handle Meredith with such great care.
Unfortunately the woman had decided Lincoln was husband material. If Meredith had been any other woman, it wouldn’t be a problem to distance himself. But Branford doted on his only child, which meant constantly walking on ice to avoid backing himself into a corner. Worse, Meredith had a vindictive streak.
He wouldn’t put it past her to throw a monkey wrench into the Commonwealth project if she got pissed off. It didn’t help that Branford himself had made subtle references to a possible match up. The man saw it as a business merger, while Meredith saw it as her clock running out.
With a grunt of irritation, he moved to his desk where a small stack of file folders were neatly centered in front of his chair. A Post-it note with phone number, contact name, and a sentence stating the reason for the call was attached to the top of each folder. Mary did almost the same thing, but by email. Beside the folders was a notepad and pen. Although it wasn’t the technology solution he was accustomed to, it was still efficient. For the next two hours he worked his way through the folders making notes on the pad during his conversations.
Deep in the middle of a call with a prospective investor, he got out of his chair to pace the carpet. He stopped to stare out the window while listening to the concerns Denise Wilcox had about the New Kent property he was proposing they develop. A soft click echoed behind him, and he turned to see the door leading out to Mary’s alcove closing. With a frown he glanced at his desk and saw the sandwich, chips, and bottled water sitting next to the folders.
“Christ,” he muttered.
“I beg your pardon,” Denise said in the offended tone of voice. Grimacing, Lincoln shoved his hand through his hair.
“My apologies, Denise. I knocked a stack of files off my desk,” he lied.
It was almost another twenty minutes before he finished his conversation with Denise. The call ended with his reassurance that he would meet with New Kent County officials to discuss her concerns. Tapping the button on his smart phone to end the call, he dropped the device onto the desktop and stared at the meal. Lincoln released a harsh breath and strode to the main door of his office.
As he stepped into the large alcove his aunt called her office, he saw Jane searching through one of the file cabinets. Bent at the waist, her straight skirt was pulled tight across her softly curved bottom. Lincoln’s body immediately tensed in reaction. He closed his eyes and shook his head slightly. What the hell was wrong with him? It wasn’t as if he hadn’t seen an attractive woman before. He focused his gaze on Jane again and cleared his throat. A small cry escaped her as she jumped upright and whirled around to face him.
She’d removed her jacket, and the white blouse she wore outlined curves that had been hidden beneath her suit. Green eyes large in her oval-shaped face, the surprise on her face swiftly changed to one of polite guardedness. He glanced at her desk which had only a few pieces of paperwork strewn across it.
“Have you eaten?” He eyed her steadily as she shook her head slightly.
“I wasn’t hungry.” Her reply made him frown. Lincoln moved to a nearby cabinet where Mary kept some general supplies. He pulled out the paper plates and napkins then turned to face her.
“Let’s talk in my office,” he said quietly. An odd look flashed across her pretty features as he gestured for her to precede him. When she hesitated he smiled slightly.
“I promise not to bite,” he murmured with amusement.
A flash of gold fire sparked in her eyes with what he was certain was irritation, but she smiled politely and walked into his office. She paused a few feet inside the room as Lincoln headed for his desk.
“Have a seat at the table,” he said as he grabbed the food off his desk and set it down on the table with the plates. As Jane took a seat at the small round table in the opposite corner of his office, he pulled out a bottled water from the small refrigerator hidden inside the wall hutch. Sitting down opposite her, Lincoln quickly split the sandwich between the two plates along with the chips and pushed her half of the meal toward her.
“First order of business. No one brings me lunch or coffee unless they’re getting it for themselves too,” he said in a firm voice. As her eyes widened in surprise, he bit back a smile. “That goes for nightgowns as well.”
He wasn’t quite sure if his reason for mentioning the nightgown was punishment for her assuming the worst about him or if he just wanted to see her blush again. The rosy flush cresting high in her cheekbones softened her features. Jane bit down on her plump bottom lip, and Lincoln swallowed hard at the way his body reacted to the action.
“I know I’ve already apologized, but I really am sorry.” The remorse in her voice made him nod then point toward the sandwich in front of her.
“Apology accepted.” Lincoln opened his water bottle and took a bite of the ham and cheese Jane had brought. They ate in silence for a moment before Lincoln eyed her with curiosity.
“You’ve not temped with us before. How long have you been with the Thornfield Agency?” At his question she coughed and quickly took a drink of water. She set the bottle back down on the table before meeting his gaze steadily
“Seven years this past January. I own the agency.” The answer startled Lincoln, and she narrowed her gaze at him. “You look surprised. Women do know how to run a business.”
“It’s not that you own the business, it’s the fact you didn’t send someone else.”
“You seem to have forgotten the experience clause in your contract with the Thornfield Agency.” The mockery in her voice made him frown.
“That clause is there for good reason,” he said tersely as he remembered the havoc Sherry Davis and her inexperience had cost him. It had been almost as bad as the damage Francine’s betrayal had caused.
“I’m sure it is, but it does limit the resource pool to draw from,” she said quietly. “I provide first-class talent for my clients, but I only have three people who meet your experience requirement. Those three women weren’t available. I have two other temps who have the experience, just not the required number of years. Today was the perfect storm of staffing on both sides of the table.”
Lincoln nodded his understanding as he took another bite of his half of the sandwich. A second later he swallowed hard as he remembered Teri. He coughed and took a quick swig of water
“Damn it. I forgot to ask you to send flowers to Teri.”
“I took care of that while you were in your board meeting.”
“Thanks,” he said with a nod.
His gratitude for her help was genuine along with his appreciation for her efficiency. Mary had spoiled him when it came to someone taking charge of the administrative needs necessary to keeping Chandler Enterprises running smoothly so he could focus on the heart of his business affairs. Not even Teri or Candace were able to match Mary’s intuitive method of reading his needs, and the fact that Jane had impressed him.
“You’re welcome. It’s why I’m here.”
The perfunctory reply rankled him somehow, but she didn’t give him a chance to speak. The notepad she’d brought with her in hand, she skimmed the writing on the page.
“I took several messages for you while you were working your way through the conference calls that were on your schedule. Mrs. Parker said you like messages sent as tasks so you can check them off, so I documented them on your calendar task list. Only one of the messages seems to be of any real urgency.” She paused as she studied the handwriting on the steno pad. “The contractor for the Agincourt Estates wanted to let you know there would be a three week delay with the south portion of the development. Apparently the power company is two weeks behind. This late season outbreak of flu has affected their manpower.”
“Wonderful. If these delays continue, housing construction will be pushed back until early next year.” Lincoln muttered with disgust as he leaned back in his chair to look up at the ceiling. In his head, he quickly calculated the potential ramifications of this latest delay. He looked at Jane again and shook his head.
“Have Charlie Burton in accounting come see me when we finish up here. I want to know what this delay is going to cost us. Also, have John Powell join us, he’s aware of the issues we’ve had with the development over the past few months. What else?”
“I’m almost done editing the Merton proposal for you. It should be ready by the end of the day.”
“Excellent. Before I forget, would you check with Madge in land titles and remind her I need the documentation I discussed with her before the investor meeting this morning. Her number should be in the main company directory on the intranet.” At the directions, he noted she jerked slightly. No doubt she was remembering the elevator ride. Normally, he would have teased her about it, but decided to spare her more embarrassment. “You haven’t said, but I’m assuming you have adequate computer access to the files you need.”
“Yes, Craig in IT had me up and running by the time the meeting started this morning.”
“If there’s sensitive information you need, let him know. He’s used to what directories can be released with or without authorization from me or Mary.”
“I’m sure I’ll be fine. Mrs. Parker is very organized. She sent me detailed directions via email as to where things are and whom I can speak with if I can’t find something.” Her brow furrowed slightly. “Before I forget, the plats Mrs. Parker ordered from the printer arrived shortly before lunch.”
“Good.” Lincoln nodded with satisfaction. Jane was correct. His aunt was efficient and organized, and God help him when she decided to retire. “Anything else I need to know about?”
“Just a few appointments I added to your schedule and two calls from Miss Branford.”
The mention of Meredith’s name made Lincoln grimace, and his gaze swept over Jane’s polite, professional expression. Her features revealed nothing, but it was her eyes that told him a great deal. For whatever reason, he didn’t think Jane Rochester liked Meredith.
“How well do you know Meredith?” he asked nonchalantly. The question clearly startled her, but her cool, professional demeanor barely faltered.
“Not well at all.”
“But you don’t like her.”
“I didn’t say that.” Although her response was quietly delivered there was a sharp edge to her tone that said he was right. His lips twisted in a wry smile.
“But you didn’t say you did, either.”
“I don’t know her well enough to say one way or another.”
“Why am I having a hard time believing you?” His chuckle made her narrow her gaze at him.
“I don’t know,” she said crisply. “Why are you?”
Jane stood up in an abrupt fashion and busied herself cleaning up the remains of their lunch. Despite the unreadable expression on her face, Jane’s quick, sharp movements betrayed her exasperation. Feeling somewhat guilty for having teased her, Lincoln reached for the empty water bottles only to find his hand clutching hers as the plastic containers bounced away from them.
Almost instantly a surge of electric current zapped him hard. For a brief moment, he simply stared at his hand wrapped around hers. It was warm and soft in his, and he liked the sensation. His gaze shifted to her face. Pink lips parted in surprise, she met his gaze for a long moment then tugged her hand free from his.
“If you’ll excuse me,” she murmured in a breathless voice. “I’ll go make arrangements for your meeting with Mr. Burton and Mr. Powell.”
With that parting remark, Jane bolted from the office. As he watched the office door close behind her, Lincoln rubbed the back of his neck.
“What the hell was that,” he muttered to himself.
The answer he got back wasn’t one he liked. Lincoln groaned softly. Jane Rochester hadn’t just turned his day upside down. She was doing a damn good job twisting his body inside out too.
Jane slowly sank down into the chair behind Mary Parker’s desk. Palms flat on the desktop, a shudder rippled through her. How had such an innocent touch left her feeling as though her skin was on fire? Her mouth went dry as she remembered the look in Lincoln’s eyes. She’d always teased Bess about the smoldering gazes in the romance books her sister used to write before switching to thrillers. Jane had never believed they actually existed in real life, but Lincoln Chandler had proven her wrong. Bess would have a field day if she ever found out.
Her stomach did a flip-flop at the memory of how she’d scurried out of the office like a frightened mouse. She’d acted like a teenage girl scared of her own shadow when the team’s quarterback smiled at her. She was thirty-six years old with a successful business. She didn’t need a man in her life, even if her sex life was non-existent. A fact that had been painfully reinforced by her reaction to Lincoln Chandler. She drew in a deep breath. A week from now she’d be back in her own office, and all would be right with her world.
She ignored the voice questioning that logic. She really needed to check on Alice to see how the kids were doing. Hopefully she’d be able to come back sooner than later. Jane reached for the phone, then stopped as she remembered Lincoln’s request. She sighed at the lapse in memory. Sleep deprivation clearly was working against her. First things first. She’d arrange the impromptu meeting then she’d call Alice.
Within minutes, John Powell and Charles Burton were standing at her desk. She quickly checked to see if Lincoln was ready before ushering the two men into the CEO’s office. As she slowly closed the door behind them, she glanced in Lincoln’s direction. His gaze met hers, and he smiled.
It was a kind of smile that could make a girl’s heart skip a beat. In that split instant her heart started to pound wildly in her chest, and she quickly closed the office door. Oh, she was in deep trouble. The next thing she’d be imagining was that he was interested in her. The moment the thought filled her head, she knew her imagination wasn’t running amok. It wouldn’t take much to be the object of Lincoln Chandler’s attention. Instinct said the man was definitely interested.
The thought made her wince. Before her three-year dead-end relationship with Ken, she’d had plenty of flings. She didn’t want another fling. They always ended up leaving her feeling even more alone than before. The remake of Wonderwall by UGA Noteworthy filtered its way out of the desk drawer where Jane had stored her phone. Pulling the mobile device out of the drawer, a picture of Helen covered in flour filled the screen. With a swipe of her finger Jane answered the call.
“Hi stranger,” she said.
“Hey you. Adele told me you were pulling a shift at Chandler Enterprises this week. I thought I’d see how you’re adapting.” The cheerful greeting was mixed with a slight amount of concern.
“I’m adapting just fine,” she said in a reassuring voice.
Helen was the only one who understood why her current assignment might be uncomfortable. The entire Rochester brood believed Jane’s low tolerance for the male-dominated business culture in Richmond had been the reason for starting the Thornfield Agency. It had played a strong role in her decision, but her twin was the only one who knew Harrison Padgett’s behavior had been the catalyst for Jane opening up the Thornfield Agency.
“Good. I was a little worried when Adele told me you were playing administrative assistant for the day.”
“Other than a couple of missteps, it’s been fine. It definitely makes me appreciate my decision to run my own business
“Is it that bad? No one’s—”
“No one’s done anything. In fact, Lincoln Chandler is the type of employer I wish I had more of in my clientele.” It was true. The man was nothing like she’d expected.
“So he’s not the kind of man who would take advantage…” Helen’s voice trailed off, and Jane wanted to reach through the phone and hug her sister for being so worried about her.
“He’s nothing like Padgett.”
“Good,” her twin said with relief. “So what do you think about him?”
“He seems quite nice.”
“According to Adele he’s incredibly hot.”
“Not bad,” Jane said in a nonchalant tone.
It was an understatement where Lincoln Chandler was concerned. The man was an outright assault on the senses. He defined sex appeal on every level known to woman. Not to mention his touch was enough to make her senses spiral out of control. Jane glanced down at her hand as she remembered the sensations just a small touch had aroused in her.
“Don’t tell Adele that, she’s hell bent on seeing to it that you have a man in your life. Apparently our baby sister thinks Lincoln Chandler fits the bill,” Helen said with a laugh. “If you’re not careful, Adele will have you out on a date with the man.”
“At least you didn’t say never,” Helen teased. “When we were growing up, that attitude always came back to bite you in the ass.”
“As the oldest child in the family, I don’t get into trouble.”
“You’re older by ten minutes,” Helen snickered.
“Ten minutes is ten minutes.”
“Fine, I’ll remember that the next time one of us has to volunteer for something. Since you’re the oldest you can go first.”
“As long as I don’t have to volunteer to help you make cakes again.” Her reply made Helen laugh. The one and only time Jane had tried to help her sister had been a disaster. Helen was a dictator in her kitchen, and it was one of the rare occasions when the two of them had been at each other’s throats.
“Oh, I promise that won’t ever happen again.” Helen snorted with laughter before she hesitated slightly. “I actually called for another reason.”
Jane heard her sister blow out a soft breath of air. The sound filled Jane’s head with an image of her twin pushing hair off of her face with the back of her hand in a reflexive gesture. As a caterer with a growing business, Helen constantly had flour on her hands. When her twin didn’t continue with her train of thought, Jane frowned with amusement.
“And that reason is?”
“Oh, right. Sorry I was checking on some rolls rising,” Helen said in an apologetic manner. “Mom’s birthday. I was planning my schedule for the next two months, and realized we’d tentatively set the date for Mom’s party the third week in July, and I really need to change that.”
“I don’t think anyone would have a problem with that. After all, you’re the one who does all the work. We just pay you for it. Just mention it at weekend brunch. So why do you want to change the date?”
“Well, a really great opportunity came up for that weekend. The governor’s office called and asked if I would fill in for the caterer who bailed on them. It’s an opportunity I can’t afford to pass up, so naturally, I said yes. Then I remembered Mom’s party.”
“That’s fantastic, Helen. And you know Mom would be the first one to lay into you if you turned this opportunity down.”
“Well don’t tell anyone this, but I almost did. The whole thing scares the hell out of me.”
The note of insecurity in her sister’s voice made Jane’s heart ache. Her twin had gone through a bitter divorce two years ago, and years of passive aggressive behavior on the part of Helen’s ex made her sister doubt herself constantly.
“I’m so happy for you, sweetie. This is great news. Just the kind of thing to help establish your business more solidly in the community.”
“Yeah, it’s definitely exciting, although scary. I’m taking it to the next level.”
“You’re stretching yourself, and that’s a good thing. You can do this. There isn’t anything you can’t do. You proved that the day you left Brad.” Her encouraging words were met with silence until Helen released a breath that resounded with renewed confidence.
“You’re right, but I’ll probably need you to pull me off the ledge a couple times in the next few weeks.”
“You know I’m always here for you, just as the rest of the family is.”
“I know that. Other than you, I haven’t told anyone yet. I wanted to tell you and Jesse first. I’ll spring all of this on everyone this weekend.”
A wealth of emotion swept through Jane as she heard the excitement and apprehension in Helen’s voice. Her sister deserved all the best life had to offer after the pain and emotional abuse Brad had put Helen through in all the years they were married.
“When are you going to tell Jesse?” Jane asked, knowing her nephew would be as thrilled for his mom as she was.
“I’m picking him up after band practice. I’ll tell him then. I’m taking him to that favorite Chinese restaurant of his so we can celebrate.”
“Why don’t you come too?”
“No, I only got four hours sleep last night. I’m already feeling like I’m on my last legs.” Jane declined despite the fact she loved Chinese as much as her nephew did. “I’m not even sure how I’m going to finish this report I’m editing.”
“Okay, I’m going to let you go then,” Helen said. “We can firm up plans this weekend when we’re all up at Mom and Dad’s place.”
“Sounds good. I’ll talk to you later. Love you, and I’m really proud of you.”
“Thanks, and love you too.”
As Jane put the phone down, she stared at the report she’d promised Mary Parker to have done by noon tomorrow so Lincoln could look it over. A large yawn forced her to cover her mouth. God, she would love to take a nap right about now. With a shake of her head, she got to her feet and went in search of black coffee. She hated the taste, but she hadn’t brought any of her tea, and she needed something strong to keep her going for the next two or three hours. She was on her way back to her desk when she saw John Powell heading toward her. The older gentleman smiled congenially.
“There you are. Linc was looking for you.” The observation made Jane grimace with dismay. She should have anticipated he’d need her after his meeting. Nothing was going right today. She forced a smile.
“I just needed some coffee.”
“Don’t look so worried. Linc’s not a taskmaster. He just needed a file. When I left him, he was rummaging through the file cabinet. Of course, Mary will have a fit if he messes up her filing system.”
“Thanks,” she said as the man smiled at her. “I’ll go and make sure he found what he wanted.
With a quick nod, Jane hurried back to the alcove outside Lincoln’s office. She set her coffee on the desk then moved quickly toward the open doorway. She’d barely had one foot over the threshold, when a hard body slammed into hers. Stumbling backward, Jane felt herself falling before strong arms wrapped around her waist. In a quick move, Lincoln turned them so they were braced against the wall that served as a break between the main administration area and the desk.
Caught between a solidly built male body and the wall, heat streaked its way through her blood as she breathed in his clean, outdoor scent. The frantic beat of her heart pounded loudly in her ears as she remained frozen against him. When he didn’t move right away, her breathing grew ragged.
“You okay?” The husky note in his voice sent a frisson dancing across her skin as she looked up into a pair of silvery-blue eyes. Every part of her was alive with sensation.
“Yes, I’m sorry—”
“Nothing to be sorry about. I shouldn’t have come barreling out of the office like that. I’m just glad you didn’t end up on the floor.”
When he didn’t, move, Jane’s heartbeat increased its pace like an out-of-control train heading for derailment. Something fiery flashed in his gaze as she wet her dry lips. The heat scraping across her senses left her feeling raw and exposed in a way that wasn’t unpleasant, but it was definitely unsettling. Her breathing became ragged as his head dropped slightly.
Oh God, he was going to kiss her. The moment the thought penetrated her consciousness, she instantly knew she wanted him to. Anticipation flooded her body as she drew in a sharp breath. A moment later her body screamed its objection as Lincoln pushed himself away from her until they were an arm’s length apart. The instant his heat left her body, Jane found herself wishing he hadn’t moved.
Stunned by the strength of the feeling, Jane’s chest tightened and the air left her lungs. Lincoln’s gaze locked with hers, and she was once again reminded of Beth’s observation that men could have sensual mouths. They stared at each other for a brief moment before Jane dragged a deep breath of air into her oxygen-deprived lungs.
“Mr. Powell said you needed something?”
“The Cheswick property file,” he said with a smile. “I found it without any problem.
Actually that wasn’t why I asked for you though. I need a favor.”
“My dealership picked up my car to be serviced a short while ago. But I forgot I have a four o’clock with a realtor for a piece of property in New Kent County,” Lincoln said with exasperation “It’s too late to get a rental if I’m going to make the appointment. I was hoping you could give me a ride out then back to my place. I’ll make arrangements for transportation in the morning, and I’ll see to it that you’re reimbursed.”
The request made her heart begin to race again. Depending on what part of New Kent he needed to go to, it could easily be an hour’s drive away. An hour in close confines with a man who was making every inch of her explode with heat and other sensations she didn’t want to name, let alone consider. When she hesitated, a wicked grin curved his lips. He leaned forward until she could smell his woodsy cologne again.
“As I recall, Ms. Rochester, you did say you would do whatever it takes to keep me happy.” The seductive note in his voice sent her senses reeling as he tossed her own words back at her. Jane swallowed hard and slowly nodded her head.
“Of course. I’m happy to help,” she choked out
“Great. I appreciate it.” The smile curving his mouth sent her pulse skyrocketing. Quickly bowing her head, her fingers fumbled with the watch on the chain around her neck.
“It’s almost three-fifteen. Where exactly are we going?”
“Off route sixty, the Providence Forge area.” His response made Jane frown in concentration.
“That’s a good forty minutes, longer if traffic is heavy. We should probably leave now if you’re going to be on time.”
“I agree. Let me get the property plats and lock up.”
Jane nodded as he walked back into his office. For a brief moment, she didn’t move. Had she just actually agreed to be the man’s chauffeur? Of course she had. Her heart skipped a beat as she remembered the way he’d teased her when she’d hesitated to respond to his request. The man wasn’t just sexy—he’d was downright devastating.
Even if she’d wanted to refuse, she would’ve found it impossible to do so. Lincoln might be over her insults from this morning, but she still had a lot to atone for when it came to making amends. With a shake of her head she moved to the desk to quietly gather her things. She was just pulling her jacket off her chair when a tingling sensation skimmed across the back of her neck. Before she could turn around, Lincoln’s arm reached past her, and he pulled the lightweight garment from her hand.
“Here, let me.”
Like an obedient lamb being led to slaughter, Jane allowed him to help her slip her jacket up and over her shoulders. In the back of her mind a tiny voice wondered what it would be like to simply lean back into his chest. Appalled by the idea, she quickly stepped away from him to finish locking down her computer and the file cabinets.
The folder on her desk she swooped up and dropped into her bag. She’d get up bright and early after a good night’s sleep and finish editing the document. When she was ready to go, she turned to see Lincoln watching her with a cold expression on his handsome features. His eyes narrowed, and he cocked his head slightly.
“You’re taking files with you?”
“It’s the Merton request for proposal. I didn’t have—”
“Leave it,” he said in a chilly voice. Startled by his icy demeanor, Jane frowned.
“I don’t understand. Mrs. Parker said it needed to be—”
“Proposals are always kept in a secure place, and they never leave this office unless they’re being submitted for bid.”
Lincoln’s features could have been etched in stone as his chilly gaze met hers. Jane could feel the heat of color in her cheeks as she realized he was questioning her motives for taking the file with her. With a sharp nod, she immediately secured the proposal in her desk. She would have to come in early tomorrow to get it done by noon. Jane turned around to see Lincoln was already halfway to the main doors of the executive suite.
She followed him and didn’t look at him as he waited for her to lock up the office. Jane glanced up and saw him look at the keys in her hand before he turned to head toward the elevator. A flash of intuition told her the man had actually contemplated taking the keys from her. That he’d resisted the urge, she put down to him realizing she would have to sign-in with security to enter the building after hours. Irritated that he was questioning her integrity, she stalked after him.
When she reached the elevator bank, he was keeping the door from closing. Lincoln waited for her to enter then followed. Once inside he pressed the button for the lobby. The level of her outrage warned her not to speak for fear of saying something she’d regret. She’d already screwed things up enough today where Lincoln Chandler was concerned. If the guy thought she wasn’t trustworthy there wasn’t anything she could say that would change his mind.
As the elevator car moved downward, Jane glanced at the man beside her. His features were still harsh and unyielding. Clearly he wasn’t in the mood for talking, but then neither was she. Jane shifted her gaze back to the burnished brass-plated doors. Their figures were wavy images reflected in the polished metal. The atmosphere in the elevator car had become exceedingly uncomfortable, and Jane seriously regretted agreeing to drive the man to his appointment. The silence between them continued until they stepped into the parking garage elevator. Jane automatically pressed a button to the third floor then stepped back to study the numbers over the doors.
“Three years ago Chandler Enterprises lost an important bid because someone I trusted gave away proprietary information to a competitor. Ever since then it’s been company policy not to take the proposals out of the office.” The terse words came out of the blue, and Jane turned her head toward him. Staring straight ahead, his mouth was tight with what she was certain was anger. Immediately, her own outrage disappeared. His reaction to her taking the file home with her now made perfect sense.
“I understand.” Her soft reply made him look at her.
“No, I don’t think you do,” he said without rancor. “I wouldn’t expect you to. I spent my summers as a kid working for my dad. I watched him build this company from the ground up. I almost destroyed it because of that lost contract. I’d bet heavily on acquiring the job and had taken risks elsewhere. I refuse to ever let that happen again.”
The words were filled with determination, but there was another emotion layered beneath his firm resolve. Jane couldn’t figure out what it was, but she instinctively knew the event had been a painfully personal one. Still, it was an apology of sorts, and she was willing to forgive him now that he’d explained his reaction. The elevator bell dinged loudly, and a moment later they were walking in the direction of her car. The moment her small-sized SUV came into view she noticed the BMW was gone. Jane hesitated slightly and released a breath she didn’t realize she’d been holding.
“Something the matter?”
“No.” Puzzled and confused Jane shook her head. “Actually, I’m not sure.”
Why hadn’t the BMW owner contacted her about the damages? They couldn’t have missed her business card with the insurance information on it. Still bewildered, she pulled her car keys from the pocket of her purse. A quiet click echoed in the garage as she unlocked the car. As Lincoln settled his tall frame into the passenger seat, the interior of her car suddenly seemed to shrink in size.
She started the vehicle and turned her head to see him watching her intently. Her cheeks began to burn beneath his curious expression. Jane quickly looked away and drove out of the parking space.
“I’m assuming sixty-four east is the fastest route to take?”
“Correct. We can get off at Pigeon Forge and track back a couple miles on route sixty.”
Jane nodded and proceeded out of the parking garage. In minutes they were on the interstate heading east. Silence filled the car for almost fifteen minutes before Lincoln cleared his throat.
“What made you start up your agency?” The unexpected question had her responding without thinking through her reply.
“I had a bad experience working for a man who didn’t know what the word no meant.”
The instant the words were out of her mouth she regretted it. Helen was the only one who knew the truth about Harrison Padgett, and Jane had no intention of dwelling on the bastard’s action let alone explaining it to Lincoln Chandler.
“You were assaulted.” The statement held a wealth of anger in his voice, and she glanced at him before focusing her attention back on the highway.
“He groped me,” she said.
The memory of Harrison cornering her in the office kitchenette after work hours made her stomach churn. The man had only kissed her, but she’d often wondered what would have happened if she’d not been able to slam her knee into his balls. When she’d escaped him, she’d collected her things and handed in her notice via email that night. At the time Harrison hadn’t been a partner in the law firm of Johnson and Winters. But she’d known it would be his word against hers, and in this town she would have come out on the losing end.
Jane hadn’t had the stomach for a battle she believed she would lose. She knew now it had been a mistake not to pursue the matter. She should have risked humiliation if it meant holding the man accountable. All she could do now was refuse any contract with the law firm that had added Padgett to its name a year after she opened the Thornfield Agency.
A few months ago, Harrison had had the balls to call her direct in hopes of acquiring staff to assist his firm. When he’d suggested she should let bygones be bygones, Jane had bluntly told him to fuck off. The entire conversation had left her feeling soiled all over again. That was the night she’d bared her soul to the only person she’d ever told her story too. Helen had been livid and urged Jane to take legal action, but too much time had passed, and Jane knew any legal action would impact Thornfield Agency in a detrimental way.
“Did you consider—”
“What are your plans for this property we’re going to look at?” she asked, forestalling any further questions about her situation with Padgett. Her question was met with a brief moment of silence. Out of the corner of her eye she could tell he was studying her, but she didn’t look at him as she waited for his reply.
“I’m planning a subdivision for middle-class families. There are far too many developments that cater to annual incomes of a hundred fifty and up. I want to offer rent-to-own houses for qualified buyers.” The idealistic response surprised and impressed her at the same time.
“For someone who says they don’t take risks, that sounds like one.” She darted a glance toward him before returning her gaze to the road as she fought off drowsiness.
“Since the buyer is renting to own, they’re far more apt to care for the property well. I’ve designed some safeguards such as character references, length of job situation, financial stability, and things like that. I got the idea from my cousin in California. She pointed out one of the communities near where she lives and how successful it’s been.” When Jane didn’t answer he chuckled softly. “You think it’s a crazy idea.”
“No. I think it’s quite admirable.”
“I’m glad you approve.” At the wry amusement in his voice, Jane looked in his direction. He arched an eyebrow at her, and she looked back at the pavement in front of her.
“Not that it matters, but yes, I do approve,” Jane replied as a yawn parted her lips. A soft masculine laugh rumbled out of his chest.
“If I didn’t know about your late night, I’d have to think you were bored with my company.”
“My late—oh, what you heard this morning,” she murmured with embarrassment.
“It must have been a good book for you to stay up into the early morning hours.
“It was.” Jane nodded as she remembered turning the last page of the novel. “Although I should never have assumed I could claim boss’s privilege and arrive late at work today.”
“That’s definitely a perk when you’re running the show. But you make up for it with late nights.”
“That I’m accustomed to,” she said with a laugh.
“You should laugh more often.”
“What?” She darted a surprised look at him.
“You have a nice laugh.” His voice was a gentle caress across her skin.
“You also find it hard to take a compliment.” His chuckle made her lips twist with chagrin.
“You’re welcome,” he said as he directed that devastating smile of his in her direction.
“Mary indicated you have a sister, whom I assume you were talking to earlier.”
“Adele,” she said with a nod and cringed slightly at the memory of her phone conversation with her baby sister. “Actually I have four.”
“Yes, Helen, my twin, and I came first. I’m the oldest by ten minutes. I have a younger brother too.” She laughed at his astonishment. “It makes for rowdy, but fun, family dinners.”
“Are you and Helen identical twins?”
“Yes, although most people can easily tell the difference between us now. When we were younger we were able to switch places when we wanted, and usually got away with it. What about you?”
“I have two sisters, although Mary’s kids, my cousins, are like siblings. We all grew up together and are still close even though we only see each other once or twice a year.”
“Mary Parker. She’s my dad’s sister. She’s been working for the company since she lost her husband more than ten years ago.”
The response made her jerk her head to look at him in shock. It wasn’t until he reached for the wheel and steered the car back into its lane she realized how distracting his revelation had been. Jane cringed at the thought of what might have happened if he’d not acted quickly. She couldn’t wait until she dropped the guy off at his place. She needed to get home and crawl into bed. Maybe she’d wake up to find today was nothing more than a nightmare. She twisted her lips in a frown of self-disgust.
That wasn’t going to happen. But if she really wanted to daydream, there was more than six-feet of hot male seated next to her to focus on. The moment the thought crossed her mind, she closed her eyes for a brief second. She was mad, just stark raving mad. Alice. She had to call Alice and plead with the woman to come back to work. Hell, she’d find a nanny for Alice if the woman would come to Chandler Enterprises first thing in the morning. The loud jangle of her car’s hands-free phone system filled the air. The screen showed her assistant’s number, and Jane pushed the button on the steering wheel to accept the call.
“Cassie’s in the ladies room.” To Jane’s horror Adele’s voice floated out of the speaker. “So how’s your day going with Mr. Hot Stuff? Bought any nightgowns yet?”
“Oh my God,” Jane gasped. “Adele, you’re on speaker, and Mr. Chandler is with me.”
“Oh.” Adele paused for a moment and Jane heard Lincoln laughing softly at her side. Less than a second later Adele picked up where she left off. “Hi there, Lincoln. I hope my sister is treating you right. Here at the Thornfield Agency we pride ourselves on giving our clients the best service possible.”
“Under the circumstances, I think Jane is doing a terrific job. Thanks for asking.” The amusement in his voice made Jane want to crawl into a hole and die. She was going to kill her baby sister and no one in the family would blame her for doing so.
“Mr. Chandler’s car is in the shop.”
“Lincoln.” The sinful whisper made her right ear burn as her brain tried to right itself.
“I’m taking him to an appointment and then back to his place.”
“Well you have to eat. The two of you should check out that new restaurant in Shockoe Bottom,” Adele said blithely. It was official. She was going to murder Adele Rochester slowly and with great pleasure.
“Was there a reason you called?” Jane said as she gritted her teeth.
“Okay. I just wanted to let you know that Gordon Somerville looked over the contract and signed it right away. I knew you were a little worried he might not like the contract termination clause, but he didn’t even question it.”
“Great thanks for letting me know. Let me call you in the morning.”
“Sure, I’ll talk to you later.”
“Okay, hey wait!” Adele exclaimed. “Mr. Chandler, you wouldn’t happen to own a black BMW do you?”
There was more curiosity in her sister’s voice than anything else, but Adele’s question made Jane’s knuckles grow white as she gripped the steering wheel tightly. Oh dear God, it was Lincoln’s car she’d hit. She knew it with a certainty that made her stomach churn. Desperately, she fought to keep the bile down. It made perfect sense. He’d called for his car to be repaired, which was why he was currently in her car.
“Adele, I’m on sixty-four and traffic’s already getting bad. I’ll talk to you tomorrow.” With a quick press of a button, Jane abruptly ended the call. Eyes fixed on the road in front of her, Jane struggled to collect herself then swallowed hard.
“Was my sister right, Mr. Chandler? Do you own a black BMW with a sumo wrestler handprint on the front bumper?”
He didn’t answer and Jane’s heart sank. She glanced sideways. He was watching her with that enigmatic gaze of his. He didn’t have to say a word to confirm what she knew was the truth. She’d been teleported to an alternative reality designed to humiliate and reduce her to tears. What had she done to deserve this today? Staying up reading a book. That’s what she’d done. Next time lights out by midnight no matter how good the damn thing was.
“I asked you a question, Mr. Chandler.” She said sharply as her grip on the steering wheel tightened further. Why she wanted verbal confirmation, she didn’t know. In all likelihood it was because she was simply a glutton for punishment.
“It’s been pretty obvious to me that this is not one of your good days. I don’t believe in kicking someone when they’re down. I figured it could wait twenty-four hours.”
Jane didn’t know whether to sob or throw up. The man was making an understatement when he’d said that today had been a bad day for her. Mistakes happened. She knew that, and she was far from perfect, no matter how much she tried to be. But today? She couldn’t remember ever having a meltdown on the monumental scale this day had become.
The urge to cry made her blink as she pushed back the tears. She had zero intention of making herself look even more unprofessional than she already had today. Jane swallowed the ball of tears lodged in her throat.
“I’m not sure what to say except I’m sorry, which is sounding far too repetitive,” she whispered.
“Accidents happen. It can be fixed.”
The matter-of-fact response created a large crack in the fragile shell of control she’d encased herself in. The man was being kind, and that wasn’t helping her keep it together. She’d come into Chandler Enterprises this morning expecting Lincoln Chandler to be an ass. Instead, he was turning out to be a nice guy. Never in her life had she been so eager to see a day disappear into oblivion.
Unwilling to speak for fear of becoming a blubbering idiot, Jane concentrated on getting him to his appointment. As if understanding her need to drive in silence, he didn’t speak until she took the exit off of the interstate. Quietly, he directed her to their destination off of route sixty. A large navigator was parked on the side of the gravel road Jane turned onto several moments later. She parked in front of the realtor’s car, and shut off the engine. Hands still on the steering wheel, Jane shot a quick look at the man beside her.
“Do you need me to go with you?”
“It’s not necessary, but the fresh air will wake you up. You look like you’re about to fall asleep at the wheel.” His words sent images of a horrific car wreck flooding through her head, and Jane nodded.
“Fresh air is definitely a good idea.”
Without waiting for a response, Jane opened her car door and stepped into a sizeable patch of thick mud. Staring down at her shoe embedded in the mud, Jane sat there dumbstruck. The absurdity of it all had her wavering between laughter and tears. Lincoln had already left the car, and she heard him utter an oath beneath his breath as he squatted next to her foot.
“Hold on, Cinderella.” A warm hand cupped the back of her calf as he eased her foot out of her shoe.
There was something intimate about the action, and the air left her lungs as electricity streaked up her leg. It spiraled through her with a strength of an out-of-control wildfire until her thundering heartbeat was ringing loudly in her ears. His hand still on the back of her leg, Lincoln cradled her foot in his hand and gently urged her to swing her leg back into the car. With a small tug Lincoln pulled the ruined shoe from the mud. What had been a sensible, serviceable pump would have to be tossed. She’d never be able to get the mud out of the black suede material.
“You haven’t pissed off a gypsy recently, have you?” Lincoln said wryly as he lifted up the shoe to examine it. “I’m beginning to think you’re cursed.”
“I have a pair of tennis shoes in the back. I’ll just—”
“Nope, you’re staying here. Turn on the stereo, roll down the windows, lean back and close your eyes. I shouldn’t be too long.”
Lincoln’s expression dared her to argue with him, but she was more than happy to follow his instructions. He shut her car door then opened the rear door to place the mud-soaked shoe in the floor board of the back seat. Hands braced on the roof of the car, he stared down at her for a moment.
“Your eyes aren’t closed.” Despite the lazy, seductive note in his voice, it was still a command.
He arched an arrogant eyebrow at her, and Jane obediently closed her eyes and leaned her head back against the headrest. The scent of honeysuckle brushed across her senses, and something like the kiss of a butterfly caressed her cheek. It was the last thought she had before she sank into a dreamless sleep.