"I won't be late, sir. I promise." Paige Mangum gripped her cell phone and stared around the boring, non-descript hotel room outfitted with two double beds. The East Coast Better Sales Conference was barely underway, and already Mr. Mayfair was on her case.
Her boss rattled on. "I don't want you to miss a single session. I sent you to ECBS because you're Palm Pharmaceutical's most ineffective sales rep. People don't listen to you, and I'm hoping you'll learn to make a sale in those meetings. If you don't, I'll be forced to let you go."
"I want you to come back to New Orleans a different woman, Paige. Eager to sell our products, creative in your approach, and happy to be around people. You're always so damned jittery and nervous." At his words, she quit chewing on her fingernail, proof that he was right. He was still talking, and she struggled to keep up. "...uptight, like a prim and proper old lady. You're far too young to act that way. You need to lighten up and learn to enjoy life."
"I'll do my best, Mr. Mayfair," Paige assured him, not at all sure she would be able to comply. Raised by a drill sergeant father and a school teacher mother, she was used to strict discipline and quiet compliance. She'd always played by the rules, stayed within the lines, and completed her tasks in a timely manner--traits that had served her well in her former position as office manager for the huge medical supply house. Why in the hell had she ever thought she could sell anything?
She'd taken the new position for a boost in pay so she could help save her mother's quaint little house in the Garden District. Eva Mangum was in a nursing home for rehab after hip surgery, and the woman's sub-prime loan was causing both of them a world of grief.
Paige closed her phone and dropped it into her conference tote. After a quick check of her conservatively cut navy business suit, she put the finishing touches on her upswept hair and smoothed her makeup. Then she perched on the edge of the bed for exactly one minute and forced herself to draw in several deep breaths. Just being at this conference made her nervous. She didn't know what to expect.
She counted to twenty, made sure she had everything she needed in her bag, and came to her feet. She'd registered for the event the moment she'd arrived at the hotel. Now it was time for her to head downstairs and listen to a panel of talking heads discuss creative ways of selling drugs to doctors, hospitals, and clinics--a session titled, World's Best Selling Techniques.
Not exactly her cup of tea.
Loosen up, Mr. Mayfair had said. Paige rolled her eyes and reached for the doorknob. As if she would ever be able to do that in this atmosphere. The few people she'd met at the registration booth had been so lively and animated she'd imagined she'd been dropped into the middle of a child's cartoon. She was totally out of her league.
You have to do this, she lectured herself as she left the room. You have no choice, if you want to keep your job and save Mom's house. Determined not to let her mother down, she lifted her chin and marched down the drab hallway, which was decorated with loud plaid carpet offset by dull beige walls.
The alcove around the corner housed five elevators, two on each side, and one on the end. She raised her hand to punch the button on the right but before she could touch it, the doors on the single elevator in front of her slid open.
"Well, hello," she said, a bit unnerved. The car was empty. She looked around and saw no one else. In fact, come to think of it, she hadn't seen another soul on the floor since she'd arrived at the hotel two hours ago. With a shrug, she entered the elevator and pushed the button for the lobby. All of the meeting rooms were in the north section of the hotel, and she knew she could reach them by walking past the registration desk.
The doors closed, and the elevator slid downward.
Paige fixed her gaze on the illuminated numbers above the door, counting down the floors and using the time to brace herself for the daunting task ahead. Five ... I can do this. Four ... I have no choice but to do this. Three ... hello, my name is Paige Mangum. How are you? Two ... I'm a sales rep for Palm Pharmaceuticals, damn it. And you're going to buy some drugs. She laughed.
It was either that, or she would cry.
One ... time to plunge into my new life. In anticipation of the car bumping to a halt, she slung her bag onto her shoulder and edged closer to the door.
Only ... the elevator didn't stop.
The car bypassed the lobby and kept on going. Down, down, down. Not gaining speed, just continuing its slow, even glide. She blinked and reread the bank of numbers. No basement was listed; one was the bottom floor, and that was the number still illuminated over the closed doors. So why was she still moving?
A small jolt rattled the doors. Totally unsure what was happening, she lunged for the railing. Another bump sent her heart rate into overdrive.
"Oh, please stop," she whispered to no one, too frightened to even raise her voice. "I don't want to die. Not at this awful hotel, at a sales conference, for God's sake." She groaned in dismay.
To her surprise, the elevator slid to a halt.
"Whoa. Thank goodness." She released her frantic hold on the rail and struggled to slow her rapid breathing. Maybe the lights behind the numbers were malfunctioning. That had to be it.
She stepped to the front of the car and prepared to disembark.
The doors slid open to reveal a long, shadow-filled hallway. Paige took a step forward and halted, one foot inside the car, and one out. Wait--this isn't the lobby. A shiver rippled down her spine.
"What is this place?" she asked aloud, her nerves tripping. "I-I think I need to go back up."
She retreated back inside the elevator and punched the Lobby button.
"What's going on?" She punched all of the other buttons, but they didn't even light up. A spear of anxiety lanced her heart. "No! I have to go. I'll be late."
Tears filled her eyes. She slammed her fist against the plastic buttons. "Damn it! I have to get out of here. Mr. Mayfair's going to fire me."
She pressed the heel of her hand to her forehead and paced back and forth within the tiny car. Approached the buttons again, and kept pressing them.
None of them lit up. The elevator didn't move, not so much as an inch.
"No!" she shouted. A sheen of perspiration coated her face.
"Paige Mangum." Her name, spoken in a deep, even baritone, floated eerily down the hall and wrapped her in its smooth, warm tones.
Fear skittered up her spine. She went still. "Oh, my God."
"Paige Mangum? I know you're in there. Come out of the elevator and meet your destiny."
"My destiny? Wh-What the hell?" She widened her eyes and peeked into the hall. "Where ... Where are you? How do you know my name? What's this all about?"
"Let's go, sweetheart. It's time for you to embrace your future." A light flickered on at the end of the hall, revealing a tall, dark haired man in a red silk button down shirt and sleek black trousers. He motioned for her to join him. "Come with me."
"Are you crazy? I-I can't." Terror funneled through her. "I'm supposed to be upstairs in a meeting."
"Your meeting is with me."
"No. It's not." She yanked out her conference schedule. "I'm supposed to be in the Bushman Auditorium listening to a panel discussion on the World's Best Selling Techniques."
"I have my own techniques to show you."
"What? Wh-Who are you?" She eased farther into the hall. "How do you know my name?"
"I know more than just your name. I know all about you."
"How's that possible?" She stared at him. "I've never seen you before."
"Quit asking so many questions, Paige." His mouth curved in a wicked smile. "I need you to trust that I've been sent to help you. So stop procrastinating ... and come with me."
"What? No!" She jumped back into the elevator, dropped her tote, and frantically pushed every button on the panel. Floor after floor. She didn't give a damn where she went, just so it was up. "I have to go. I have a meeting upstairs in the Bushman Auditorium. I'm already late."
"Take it easy. Your boss told you to loosen up, didn't he?" he asked, suddenly appearing in the door like a slurp-worthy mirage. He smelled like spice, musk, and healthy man. "You won't be able to do that in some stuffy conference session."
"How do you know what he said to me?" She gasped. "Were you listening in on my cell phone conversation?"
"No. I told you--I know everything about you." With a smirk, he stepped inside the car, his mile-wide shoulders blocking any chance she might have to escape. A pair of sexy dimples appeared on his stubbled cheeks. "You're a very special woman with untapped resources."
"This is absolutely surreal." She gulped and backed away from him. He was a handsome, sexy man, but he also was a total stranger. A very tempting stranger. She hadn't been with a man in months. Years, even. Her last relationship had been in her late twenties, and she was now thirty-two.
He caught her hand and gave it a gentle tug. "Come with me, Paige. Time to go."
"How ... How do you know my name?"
"The same way I know your favorite color is pink, you love Siamese cats, and your favorite ice cream is rocky road. Can't tell you how I know it, just that I do. I also know you like sex, but you're scared to death of it."
"Am not." She jerked her hand free. "I've had sex plenty of times."
"Did you enjoy it?"
"Well, yes ... and no." She frowned as a hoard of embarrassing memories bombarded her. Then she glared at him. "Why am I even bothering to answer your questions? My sex life--and the rest of my life--is none of your damned business! I don't even know who you are."
"Simon ... what?" She narrowed her eyes.
He met her curious gaze. "Just Simon. A man who knows all about you, Paige Mangum. If you want to learn how to loosen up, and I think you do, you need to come with me. We're only wasting time bickering about this."
"I'm not going anywhere with you." She crossed her arms in challenge.
He lifted a brow. "Oh, really?"
"That's right." I wasn't born yesterday, and I don't know you. For all I know, you might be a serial killer. She lifted her chin. "So ... screw you."
"Believe me, you will." His lips curved in a sensual smile. "All in good time."