STEPHANIE DARES was nervous about meeting the Darth Vader of venture capitalists, but that wasn't why she was under her desk. She was out of sight on the floor, hooking up the computer. It was slow going; there were about sixteen cords to match two outlets, not including the modem cords, and she didn't know as much about this sort of thing as she would have liked. An MIT grad wouldn't know as much about this sort of thing as I'd like, she thought with grim humor. Oh, to have invested in an IMac when I had the chance.
Still, it beat pacing, which was her only other option. She'd turned up the radio nice and loud, but it didn't lessen her annoyance. She wished Darth Vader would get here. And she hoped he'd have a surge protector with him. That would be just right. That would be just--
She sat up at the sound and bumped her head on the underside of the desk. "Ouch!"
"Who said that?"
She crawled from under the desk and tried to stand but misjudged the length of the desktop and banged her head again. "Ouch!" she said again, louder, standing up and rubbing her head. There was a man standing in the doorway, frowning at her. She glared, instantly blaming him for her throbbing head, however irrational she knew that was. "What is it?"
"You're not from the real estate agency," he said skeptically.
"I am. Are you Darth -- I mean, are you Erik Chambers?"
He scowled at her slip and she could feel the blood rushing to her face. Newsweek had called Chambers and Associates, and Erik Chambers in particular, the Darth Vader of venture capitalists. The article had been grudgingly complimentary but had pulled few punches. And while Stephanie had read every word and had seen the accompanying photo of Erik, she had been unprepared for the sheer presence of the man.
He was three or four inches taller than she, about six foot two. She liked tall men; short men made her uncomfortably aware of her height, made her feel graceless and huge. His hair was short, dark and curly, almost black, and his eyes were brown. A pleasant external package, but his most arresting feature was the two-inch jagged scar that slashed past his right eye, a bare half-inch from the socket. Whatever the scar's history, it had very nearly cost him half his sight.
Flustered, she grabbed for her malt, which had been melting while she crawled beneath the desk. She took a hasty gulp, swallowed too fast, and winced as a spike of pain sank into the middle of her forehead. She nearly groaned, caught in the insidious trap that was the ice cream headache.
She realized with a start that he was speaking to her. At her, actually. She took a smaller swallow and almost smiled as the pain started to ease. "Excuse me?" she asked.
He sighed impatiently. "I said, if you'll just hand over the keys, you can be on your way. I'm sure you've got plenty to do. Somewhere else."
Her temper rose in response to his sarcasm. She welcomed the surge of irritation -- it lessened the effect of those marvelous brown eyes. "I do not have plenty to do," she said.
He raised an eyebrow at her. "No doubt."
She coughed. "I mean, I'm supposed to help you set up. Answer any questions you might have, give you a tour of the facility, and set up the computers. Not toss you the keys and be on my way."
"Too bad." He dropped his briefcase on the desk from about a foot. It hit with a crash and popped open automatically. Stephanie was impressed in spite of herself. "Let's get to it, then. Here's the lease, signed. Here's my list of references. Here's -- hold still."
He sighed, pulled out a handkerchief, and leaned forward. Gripping her chin lightly, he started rubbing her forehead with the handkerchief. Stephanie hoped it was clean. At least he didn't spit on it first. "You've got dirt all over your forehead. And ice cream on your skirt. You're not really dressed to be crawling under desks, you know."
"I know. But I was here early and I was bored." In her ears, her voice sounded high and strange. For heaven's sakes, the man was wiping her forehead and she felt as warm as if he were kissing her on the neck. She mentally shook herself. What was the matter with her today?
Erik Chambers was having difficulty letting go of the gorgeous blonde in front of him. He'd had a hard enough time finding his tongue when she'd popped up from underneath the desk like some sort of grimy goddess. She was, without a doubt, the most beautiful woman he had ever seen, smeared forehead or no. She was tall -- nearly his height -- with glorious, golden blonde hair piled on top of her head. A few defiant curls tumbled about her forehead and temples. She was pale -- no, not pale -- white, her skin the color of cream, and her eyes the color of emeralds. A native, he thought. A born and bred Minnesotan. He'd never seen anyone who had skin that color. Or eyes that clear. Or a forehead so dirty -- there.
"There. You're clean." He forced himself to let go of her shoulder. She was so beautiful, she made him feel like a fool. Hell, he was a fool. Hadn't Jessica taught him enough hard lessons about women? Did he think he needed to learn a few more? "Let's have the tour."
"Right." She showed him the reception area, his office, the utility room, the break room, the rest rooms and the library. It took about ten minutes and she managed to gobble more than half of her malt during the task. Sir -- her guardian, Sir Archibald Chesterson -- had been right when he said this favor wouldn't take much of her time. He owned the real estate agency she worked for and Erik was the son of a close friend of his, looking for an office in Minneapolis. She had agreed to show him around because she'd read the Newsweek article and been intrigued.
"Everything looks good to me. Tell Sir I'll be renting at least the three months, but won't open the branch until after the new year."
"I'll get a branch manager in here over the next few weeks, they'll be able to get things up and running for me." He took another look around the reception area, flipped open the briefcase, and pulled out a check. "That ought to do it -- rent for the next six months."
"You don't waste any time, do you? You came here with your mind made up and you hadn't even seen the place."
He raised an eyebrow at the blunt question, liking her for her frankness. "I trust Sir's judgment. He knows what I like. Didn't he tell you? We've known each other a long time."
"He didn't say much about you -- but he did tell me he knew you when you were little. I can't imagine you as little."
"How well do you know him?" he asked, not terribly interested, but liking the sound of her voice. It was very smooth -- like verbal velvet.
"I've known him for ages. I moved out a while ago, but we still--"
At her words, for some reason, a thwarted jealousy so great he could hardly see swept over him. He felt foolish for not realizing it right away. Obviously, this girl was Sir's mistress. Sir was very handsome and very rich and English to boot. Everyone knew women flipped over English aristocrats. And she was the type, too -- blonde, leggy, smart, and just ambitious enough to realize the life of luxury one could have as Sir's playmate dujour.
"Isn't he a little old for you?" Erik growled.
"Sir! And you call him Sir," he sneered. "You don't even know his real name."
Shocked, her green eyes blazed. "I do too! And what do you mean, too old for me? He could be a hundred years older than me and he'd still be perfect."
"Ha! Perfect for rocking by the fire, maybe, but not lovemaking. As I'm sure you've figured out." He watched with interest as the color rose in her cheeks and her eyes widened.
She popped the plastic top off her drink and stepped close. "Five seconds."
"I never apologize." Insults he expected. Shouts, maybe even calculated tears. At the very least, a tantrum. But this deadly calm, this was something new.
The color had faded from her cheeks and she looked horribly pale. Her eyes blazed out at him, narrow and tilted at the ends like a cat's. He began to feel a little ashamed of himself. What was he doing, tormenting this silly thing? He had more important things to do, and besides, she wasn't so bad. Maybe she was very poor, and needed to sleep with Sir so she could pay rent or eat or something. Sure. That was it. That was-- She threw her drink on him, her arm blurring so fast he had barely time to register the fact she'd moved before semi-frozen dairy product smacked him in the face and chest.
"You have a filthy imagination," she said while he coughed and sputtered. "And by the way, Mr. Know-It-All, you forgot to include your security deposit with the rent check." He felt chocolate malted drip down his neck and shirt, to the floor and peered at her with an expression of amazement. He was even more amazed when she ripped his check in two and threw it at him. "Good-bye, Lord Vader. I doubt the loss of your business will send Sir into financial ruin. Certainly it won't bother me either way."
She turned and he heard the door shut firmly behind her. He tried to say something, but his head was spinning. "Wait!" he croaked, dabbing ineffectually at his shirt. He couldn't let her go. She was the most amazing creature he had ever met. And he didn't even know her name. "Wait!"
In the hall, Stephanie was resisting the urge to bang her head against the wall. Creep or not, the swine in the other room was the son of her guardian's best friend. Sir had asked her to do this one thing, this one small favor, and she'd responded by ruining the man's suit.
She squared her shoulders and pulled open the door. Erik was trying to mop himself with the two halves of his check. "I'm sorry," she said. "I shouldn't have done that. I really am sorry. But that was an awful thing to say."
"I know," he said. He had said it to upset her, to make her mad or make her cry. Certainly not to drench him! "Wanted to make you mad."
"You did. But I shouldn't have done it anyway. Here, sit down. I'll get some paper towels. God, you're shirt's ruined."
She gently touched his damp chest, biting her lip. "I guess I'll have to get you a new one, I don't think the chocolate stains will ever come out -- hey!"
He knew a few tricks of his own and he grabbed her wrist, sat down, and pulled her into his lap. When she had touched his chest, a frown on her usually smiling face, heat had uncoiled in his belly and his mouth had gone dry for the second time in just a few minutes. He suddenly had to touch her, had to have his hands in that glorious hair and his mouth on hers. A mad impulse, one he should definitely struggle against, but he wouldn't. Couldn't.
"Chambers, you grabby schmuck, if you don't let go you're going to get another milkshake in the -- mmph!" For heaven's sakes, she thought in stunned amazement. I drenched him and he's kissing me? What kind of a disincentive is that?
He plunged his hands into her hair and pressed his mouth to hers in a searing kiss that quite literally took her breath away. His mouth was slanting over hers again and again and she clung to the arms of the chair for dear life, dimly glad they were sitting down because her legs would have never supported her through this. She gasped and he made a funny little groaning sound.
She didn't want to end this, but no matter how much she was enjoying the kiss she could not let it continue. And she certainly was enjoying this. Yes, indeed. He really knew how to kiss. He really -- no. NO!
She shifted her weight and drove her elbow into his groin, not without regret. He groaned and shoved her off his lap. "Aagh, that hurt you silly little--"
"Serves you right," she said breathlessly, climbing to her feet. "Sexually harassing the help -- and you rich enough and mean enough to know better."
"Harassing, hell," he growled, some of the color coming back into his face. He didn't trust himself to move just yet, but she hadn't put her full weight into the blow, so he didn't feel like throwing up. "You enjoyed it as much as I did. And you're not my employee."
"That is hardly the point," she said primly. She swept her hair back from her face and straightened her jacket. He saw there was ice cream on her blouse. Again, that surge of desire. He fought it down. "Good-bye, Chambers, you lecherous creep. I'm sorry about your suit, even if you did have it coming. Because you're a friend of Sir's, I'm not going to the authorities, though by rights you should be charged with sexual harassment."
"If you did I'd just counter-sue for assault."
"You had it coming and we both know it. Good-bye, Chambers," she said again. For some reason, leaving was difficult. She took a step away from him and then another. She was almost at the door now, yet still reluctant to leave. She looked at him, for what she honestly believed to be the last time, and thought she might weep. He was beautiful and so alone. No one scowled constantly without cause. "Good-bye. I won't be seeing you again, I think." She shut the door firmly and practically ran for her car.
"Wait!" he shouted after her. "What's your name?"
Copyright © 2001 by MaryJanice Davidson