Nervous energy caused Jade to pace for several seconds before she realized what she was doing. “Relax, it doesn’t have to be a bad sign that the new boss wants to see you,” she mumbled in an effort to calm herself.
It did not work. She knew only too well a change in administrations always meant out with the old, in with the new. Of course as a state employee with permanent civil service status, she could not be fired. Still she could be assigned new duties— duties that were dull. The title would be the same, administrative coordinator, but she would, in actual fact, be a well-paid secretary for several staff and maybe supervise one or two clerical workers. Jade had waited for the ax to fall for several days now. But why meet with her? Most big guns left such staff decisions for their assistants to handle.
She glanced around the comer office. The view from the sixth floor was spectacular. Mid-February in Louisiana was a mixture of cold, rainy days and warm, sunny ones. Through a sparkling clean picture window, the governor’s mansion was visible. The lake behind it shimmered in the late winter sun. Jade turned back to the room.
So this is the seat of power. She peered at a row of framed documents, one of which was a Master of Public Administration degree from Xavier University in New Orleans.
“Checking out my credentials before the interview, eh?” Bill Lang stood in the open door of the office wearing an impeccable charcoal gray suit and a half smile. Just over six feet tall, his dark brown face had a chiseled look. Heavy eyebrows framed eyes the color of black coffee. His black hair had a touch of premature gray at the temples. At thirty-four, his career achievements were the envy of many.
“Oh, I...I was just admiring all your credentials.” Jade felt foolish that she was caught in effect snooping on one of the most powerful appointed state officials. “You’ve accomplished quite a lot even before becoming deputy secretary of the Department of Health and Hospitals.” She tried to recover her composure.
Lang gave a slight nod in acceptance of the praise then closed the door. “A lot of paper—that means I had to work twice as hard to get where I am, earning half what I could in the private sector.” He chuckled.
“That rural health program you set up is a model still being studied by experts all over the country. And the Healthy Babies— Happy Mothers project in the Bottoms has resulted in a decrease in infant mortality in one of the poorest parts of East Baton Rouge Parish. It’s obvious your rewards don’t just come from money.” Jade spoke with intensity, forgetting her embarrassment.
“Thank you, Ms. Pellerin. You’re well informed—just one of the many good things Madeline Craig had to say about you.”
“She gave me opportunities to grow professionally.” Jade thought of the previous occupant of this office. The new governor had lost little time replacing her with a new appointee.
“Ms. Craig did the best she could under difficult circumstances.” Bill Lang sat down in the high-back chair behind his large mahogany desk—a desk that had become legendary in the few short weeks he’d moved it into this office.
Here it comes. Jade steeled herself for the inevitable. Madeline Craig had been a much-embattled secretary for the last year. Cuts in federal funding and scandals of uncovered Medicaid fraud had made all their lives miserable. The Baton Rouge Morning Advocate had run major stories about politically connected companies who benefited from money targeted for the poor. Favors were given, connections between state staff that regulated programs and owners of various health agencies were exposed. The new governor was swept into office by angry voters who responded to his message of reform and running the state like a business. Jade knew all Department of Health and Hospitals high-level staff were considered damaged goods. Might as well get it over with. Jade cleared her throat.
“I’ve organized all the pending memoranda that deal with requests by providers to increase their hospital beds. They’re divided into acute care, psychiatric and extended care.” Jade referred to the small notepad she’d brought in with her.
“I see. Very good.” Bill Lang nodded.
“Then there are messages from the top aides of two legislators who wish to schedule appointments to meet with you. I have this and some minor items that need attention within the next few days printed up in priority order so there won’t be any confusion.” Jade started to rise when Lang raised a hand.
“Just a minute, Ms. Pellerin. I realize that change is tough on everyone even in the best of circumstances. And this department can in no way be said to be in the best of circumstances.”
“No problem, Mr. Lang. As a state employee for the past twelve years, I know very well about change in state government. If you or your new assistant needs any help, just give me a call.” Jade stood up. She was sincere in her offer.
“You’re very thorough. But you’ve made a serious mistake.”
“Well, I’m sorry. Just let me know what it is and I’ll be sure to correct it before I leave.” Jade frowned and opened her pad again.
“Good. Tell my new assistant not to jump to conclusions.” Lang held out his hand. The comer of his mouth lifted in amusement at her nonplussed expression.
“Me?” Jade was so stunned, she shook his hand without realizing it.
“Every one of your former bosses was high praise for your abilities. Of course Mike Testor will be my confidential assistant.”
“I... uh,” Jade stammered. She must have misunderstood him.
“But you will be my administrative assistant, a new civil service title with more responsibility and work. But more money, too,” Lang went on as though he had not heard her. “That is, if you want to work for me.”
“Oh, it isn’t that—not at all. It’s just that I worked closely with Ms. Craig, and I thought you’d want to pick your own staff.”
“And I have. Look, I’ll be frank. More than one person confided that Ms. Craig and you had heated words before she left. You disagreed with some of the practices of providers.”
“Ms. Craig was a fine person, who as you said had a difficult situation to deal with.” Jade spoke quickly. Despite the tension between them in the last nine months, she still had respect for her former boss.
“Which proves even more what kind of person you are, Ms. Pellerin. That one statement shows you not only have integrity, but discretion and good professional judgment as well. Well, what do you say?”
“Yes, I accept.” Jade smiled back at him.
“Good, now let’s get to work. I’ve got a meeting at one o’clock this afternoon about a new program. I want you to attend with me.” “Yes, sir.” Jade began taking notes as Lang rattled off a string of instructions.
For the next twenty minutes, Jade wrote at a furious pace. Then for another two hours, she walked him through standard operating procedures. Lang asked detailed questions then made a few changes that he found more acceptable. On the whole, Jade was impressed with her new boss. Things were looking up after all.
“Whew! Another killer staff meeting. I thought I’d never get to eat lunch.” Shaena pulled a chair up to Jade’s desk and set a brown bag on it.
“Hey, all you lawyers are long-winded and argumentative. What’s new?” Jade patted her lips with a paper napkin. “Shaena, we were supposed to be eating healthy these days.” She shook her head at the grease stains and smell of French fries.
Shaena Greene had been Jade’s best friend at work since they met seven years earlier. Working in the legal department kept her busy. They rarely had time for anything but quick lunches. Mostly they went out after work or met on the weekends.
“After the morning I’ve had, I needed one of those juicy burgers from downstairs in the cafeteria. Don’t give me that look. Tomorrow, I promise.” Shaena shrugged a halfhearted apology.
“Yeah, sure you will.”
“But forget about that, how was your morning?” Shaena gave her an appraising look.
“Fine.” Jade nodded slowly at her friend’s raised eyebrows. “I’m his new administrative assistant.”
“Get outta here!” Shaena almost dropped the French fry halfway to her mouth. “And I made a point to come down here and console you.”
“My pay is going up quite nicely, too.”
“Touchdown! A title don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got cha-ching! Congratulations, girlfriend.” Shaena grinned at her.
“Thanks. And he’s working my butt off all ready. But Mr. Lang is one sharp dude, just like I’ve always heard.” Jade took another bite of her shrimp salad.
“Yeah, but what’s he really like? Come on, nobody’s around.” She peeked out the door to Jade’s office to make sure they were alone.
“Like I said, he’s smart. It took him no time to start making decisions that will help things run a lot more smoothly around here. Minor housekeeping stuff, you know—but still things that make a difference in an office this busy.” Jade stuffed the empty plastic container with a few lettuce leaves left of her lunch into her garbage can.
“Oh, come on. You know what I mean. Give me the dirt.” Shaena hitched her chair closer, a gleam in her eyes.
“There is no dirt.”
“They say he’s full of himself. And he moved up by becoming a master at guerilla warfare.” Shaena munched on a comer of her hamburger.
“Shaena, you’ve been around this place long enough to know that most successful people get called arrogant. Usually it means the person had the guts to work hard and got recognition for it,” Jade said.
“Yeah, well, just be careful. There’s usually some truth to even the wildest rumor. That’s something else I’ve learned working in state government.” Shaena shook a finger at her for emphasis.
“Damn, it’s twenty after. Gotta go—it’s another meeting on getting back money from Health Tech.” Shaena scooped up the food she had left back in the bag. “Tell you about that later. Bye.”
“Oops! Me, too.” Jade sprang up and grabbed her cosmetics bag at the same time.
It was fortunate for her they were meeting in the conference room right down the hall. Jade combed her shoulder-length hair, put on lipstick and popped a breath mint in record time. She was even able to walk into the room with her notepad and not seem out of breath. The receptionist ushered in a short, stocky man with blond hair at the same time. He held out a chunky hand.
“Hello, I’m Steve Franklin with Second Start.” He gave her a warm, moist handshake.
“Good afternoon. Have a seat. I’m sure Mr. Lang will be here soon.” Jade resisted the urge to wipe her hand when he let it go. Once seated, she eased a tissue from her jacket pocket and blotted her palm beneath the conference table.
They were soon joined by two women and another man. They introduced themselves as administrators of agencies that provided health and social services. One of the women, Connie Mason, seemed very friendly with Franklin. Susan Taylor was Franklin’s staff. The other man, Eddie Simon of Gracie Street Center, sat quietly. Lang came into the room with an air of brisk authority. They all helped themselves to coffee from a pot on a nearby table.
“Sorry I’m late. A meeting at the legislature ran late.” Lang shook everyone’s hand. “Thank you for coming on such short notice.”
“No problem, Bill.” Connie Mason beamed at him. Her silver hair and expensive business suit were in perfect order.
Lang smiled back. “Let’s get started then. There are three large grants that we stand a good chance of getting. The purpose—”
The door to the conference room opened, causing all heads to swivel around. The newcomer paused momentarily. Dark eyes the color mahogany scanned the room. He seemed satisfied to see Eddie Simon.
“Come in, Damon. Damon Knight, this is Connie Mason of Quality Medical Services; Steve Franklin, you know. Miss Taylor is his program coordinator.” Lang pointed to the plump brunette.
“Sorry—I got here as fast as I could.” Damon Knight stood at least an inch taller than Lang at six foot three. The dark gray jacket he wore over a striped shirt open at the collar did not seem at all out of place beside Lang’s dark silk suit and tie. “I wanted to be here even though Eddie is my administrator. But I hope you didn’t wait for me.”
“It’s okay. We were just starting. This is Jade Pellerin from my office,” Lang said. “Mr. Knight is not only the vice president of the Gracie Street Center Board of Directors, he founded it.”
“I had help from a lot of good people—including Eddie,” Damon said with modesty. His gaze moved around the table until it rested on Jade’s face.
Jade caught her breath when those eyes focused on her. Even at five foot seven, she was craning her neck at a towering figure when he crossed the room to grasp her hand. Unlike Franklin’s sweaty greeting, the touch of his hand was velvet smooth. Full lips and a strong nose that flared gave his face a sensuous look that shook her. She searched for just the right description for the color of his skin. Pecan? No, not quite right. Almond? That did not seem to be it, either. Then it hit her. Dark honey, the gourmet kind she’d seen in a small shop in the mall...clear and sweet. Jade felt dazed by the still warm tingle from his touch that tickled the palm of her hand.
Damon let go of her hand and sat down abruptly. “Nice to meet you, Miss Pellerin.” He dipped his head in acknowledgment and looked away.
Jade felt a rush of embarrassment. She hoped no one sensed her reaction to this striking man. Then she became incensed. He seemed to take his magnetic effect for granted. A real cool customer, he was ready to get down to business while she was mooning like a teenager in heat. Well, forget him. Another conceited lover-boy was the last thing she needed after what Nick had put her through. Jade looked down at the materials she’d prepared for the group. She assumed her best professional demeanor.
“I was just saying, Damon, it looks like the department will be getting the three-million-dollar grant. That’s over a five-year period of course and statewide.”
“But it’s to work with teen parents. Right, Bill?” Connie Mason asked.
“Yes, but the description really means the scope can be broader to include some prevention of teen pregnancy and even health services,” Lang said.
Franklin assumed a sincere expression. “A terrible problem in this state. But we at Second Start have done some work in this area. We are committed to helping these youngsters get a better start in life.”
Damon sat forward. “How do you propose the money be committed? Three million statewide isn’t much.” He frowned at Lang.
“That’s why I wanted input from you folks. You’ve got some of the most successful programs in Louisiana, in the southern region even. I think with proper planning, we can have a positive impact.”
“There are ways to get matching federal dollars from other sources and maximize the dollars we get.” Franklin spoke with eagerness. He blinked at Damon Knight’s sharp glance. “To spend on the kids of course.”
Damon turned to Lang. “You don’t even know if the grant will be awarded to DHH yet, and we’re already talking about using it to get more money?”
Jade gazed at Damon first then her boss. The muscle along Lang’s jaw jumped a few times as he looked down at the table. It was not her imagination. There was some tension between these two men. An expectant silence hung heavy in the room.
“We’re here to examine all options. Including ways to help as many people as possible. I’m sure you would agree, with a problem as big as this, we’d want to hit the ground running. It makes sense to do some preliminary planning.” Lang spoke in a measured tone, one that said he was only trying to be prudent.
“Oh, certainly. It’s just us and Arkansas in the running for the funding now. The proposal we submitted is far superior. I think it’s a very smart move to begin work now, Bill,” Connie Mason said. She tapped a manicured finger on the tabletop.
“We’re only here to talk about a strategy, Knight. To build on what you folks are doing and how you can help improve services. Frankly I expect a call at any minute giving us the award,” Lang said.
“Really?” Franklin perked up again.
Lang nodded. “Arkansas was asked for additional information about support services that they don’t have in place. We do, that is, through agencies such as yours.” He looked at Damon. “That’s why we’re here—to talk about the money we can use now. You’re right; anything else is premature at this point. I’m sure Steve meant that as just a brainstorm idea for now.”
“Absolutely, just added in as food for thought on down the line,” Franklin put in quickly. He seemed just as eager to play down his earlier suggestion. “Might not even be necessary.”
Jade watched Damon Knight, fascinated with the way he pursed his lips when deep in thought. How would it feel to press her lips against them? When his gaze met hers, she felt a rush. Those smoky eyes sent a thrill through her she’d never experienced before. Not even with Nick. She looked away. No thank you, Mr. Heartbreak. I will not give in to hormones this time.
Damon dropped the pen he was holding and sat back in his chair. He turned away from Jade. “Fine. Then I suggest we concentrate on teenage fathers with equal emphasis and work with local school systems to offer programs as either part of their health education curriculum or as an elective.”
“Okay, that’s a good place to start,” Lang said.
For the next hour, the group went back and forth debating the merits of various approaches. They agreed to very general goals but decided to wait until the grant award was made official. Throughout the meeting, Jade avoided making eye contact with Damon—a difficult task since he sat directly across from her. Despite the distance of several feet, he seemed too close for comfort. His presence was a palpable force that she had to make a conscious effort to resist. At last the meeting came to a close, with Lang thanking them again for coming. Jade suppressed a huge sigh of relief. She hoped Lang would not include her in future meetings. Damon and Lang stood talking even though the others had left.
“Ms. Pellerin, could you come back please?” Lang called out to her.
Jade reluctantly went toward the two men. Damon did not look in her direction. His square-jawed face was impassive. She spoke in a cool tone that contradicted the heat she felt looking at Damon Knight. “Yes sir?”
“Mr. Knight has some excellent ideas. In fact, his program aimed at teen dads is one of only two in the state. I’d like you to work with him once the grant comes in, which I’m sure it will.” Lang nodded at Damon.
Jade clamped her jaws shut to keep from blurting out a loud refusal. Why was she afraid? “Yes, Mr. Lang.”
“Eddie Simon can give you all the information you need.” Damon smiled at her. “But of course if you need anything from me, just ask.” He looked down at her legs then cleared his throat. “I’ll make myself available.”
Jade felt a charge of aggravation. So he thought a lift of his dark eyebrow in her direction would make her melt, did he? “Thanks, but I doubt I’ll need to bother you, Mr. Knight. I’m sure Mr. Simon, as the director, has all the information I’ll need,” Jade said in a clipped tone. She took a step back to stand behind her boss.
Damon picked up his leather portfolio. “Of course.” He shook Lang’s hand and strode off without another word.
Jade forced herself not to smirk at putting him in his place. His long stride was a study in fluid motion. A tiny prick of regret grew as Jade watched him go. Stop it, fool. Be glad he’s gone. She made a determined vow not to think of him again. Yet forgetting those eyes would take great concentration. Bill Lang’s high energy level helped. She juggled assignments the rest of the day with no time to daydream about full blown lips and strong arms.
By the time she fought rush hour traffic to arrive at her condo at six that evening, Jade was spent. She kicked off her pumps and plopped down on her sectional sofa. Before she could relax with a diet soda and watch the network news, the doorbell rang. Her mother’s face was magnified in the glass of the peephole.
Jade rested her forehead against the door. This was not the way to end a long day. She opened the door. “Hello, Mama. Hi Lanessa.”
Clarice Pellerin swept in ahead of her oldest daughter. Her gold lightweight wool cape hung just so on her shoulders. Neatly coiffed hair dyed a dark auburn fell in soft curls swept away from her face. Lanessa looked to be a younger version of her mother. They were frequently mistaken for sisters and turned male heads when they made an entrance either together or separately.
“Hello, baby.” Clarice gave Jade a peck on the cheek. “We saw a simply stunning sofa at Rosenfield’s that would do wonders for this room. Wouldn’t it, Lanessa?”
Jade clenched her teeth. “I’m not looking for new furniture. I bought this set only two years ago.”
“Hi, Jade.” Lanessa gave her sister a look of apology. “I’ve always loved this sofa and love seat. That soft fawn color is perfect with those drapes.”
“Thanks, Nessa.” Jade shot her a look of sister-gratitude. “Hmm, well...” Clarice cast a critical gaze that said she did not agree. “So what are your plans this evening, Jade?”
“To curl up with a good book and enjoy a cup of herbal tea. I’m really beat tonight. Getting to bed real early will feel so good.” Jade stretched, hoping her mother would take the hint. Clarice took off her cape and settled in.
“With that jazz concert down in the Atrium at eight, you should be going to that. I swear, you’d think you were my age. Lanessa has a date with Alex—what a catch!” Clarice beamed at her oldest daughter with pride.
“To tell you the truth, I’d just as soon stay home myself. Alex St. Romaine isn’t exactly Mr. Excitement.” Lanessa crossed her long legs.
“Nonsense, he’s perfectly wonderful. He’s a computer program analyst or something high-tech like that.” Clarice waved a hand, dismissing her statement. “He makes a ton of money, too.”
“Too bad he can’t buy some personality,” Lanessa said with a snigger.
Jade started to giggle, but both daughters stifled their mirth at a sharp look of disapproval from Clarice.
“Lanessa, Alex cares a great deal for you. I hardly think you should be making fun of him behind his back,” Clarice scolded her.
“Oh, come on, Mother.” Lanessa tossed her dark reddish brown hair. It set off her cocoa brown skin beautifully, and the long curls fell just below her shoulders. “Alex is no Prince Charming by any stretch of the imagination—but he’ll do it in a pinch.”
“Baby, he’s perfect for you. The right family and a good profession. You’ve known him practically all your life, since grade school. You should appreciate what you’ve got.” Clarice tried to reason with her.
“Whatever,” Lanessa quipped. “So, Jade, what’s up with your superfine new boss? I hear he’s got it.” A gleam was in her eyes.
“Oh, don’t embarrass her, Lanessa. You know she won’t keep that position with her old boss gone.” Clarice gave Lanessa a significant look before turning to her youngest daughter. “Now, Jade, you’ll get another little job. Why, maybe your daddy can help.”
“I have a job. In fact, I’ll be working for Mr. Lang as his administrative assistant,” Jade said with an edge to her voice. Clarice always managed to belittle anything she did.
“Why, that’s nice, baby. Isn’t that nice, Nessa?” Clarice nudged her.
“Great, kiddo. Keep climbing. I admire the way you make it in that jungle out there.” Lanessa took a deep breath. “I doubt I could do it.”
“With that hefty settlement from your second divorce, I don’t know why you work at all.” Clarice pursed her lips at Lanessa. “I mean really, Lanessa, wasting your time.”
“Hey, there are lots of fine, well-to-do businessmen hanging around the state capitol these days. More and more African-American men, Mother.” Lanessa smoothed her dress over her curves.
“Re-ally?” Clarice lost her frown as she contemplated this fact. “I hadn’t thought about it like that.”
Jade looked from her mother to her sister. Clarice had groomed Lanessa from the cradle to be the wife of a wealthy man. Lanessa seemed to have the perfect temperament for it. She hated getting up early or any activity that required too much work on her part. Males of all ages raced each other trying to make life easy for her since kindergarten. Jade, on the other hand, was the “competent one” as her mother loved to tell anyone who would listen.
To Jade this meant unattractive and that she needed to pursue a career since her marrying prospects were slim. Jade had taken her height and build from her father’s side of the family, taller than average with healthy curves. Lanessa, at five feet three, had a lean frame and looked like Clarice had at her age. Not only that, but Lanessa shared her mother’s temperament. An outsider, which was what she was in her own family.
Alton Pellerin doted on his baby girl but was gone much of the time, tending to a successful dry cleaning business. The familiar feeling of sad resentment flooded her as she watched the two of them in easy camaraderie discuss men.
“I guess we should be going if you’re going to have time to get ready for your date.” Clarice stood and lifted her cape to her shoulders. Jade jumped up and helped her. “Don’t work too hard, sugar.” She pressed her lips to Jade’s cheek then rubbed the smear of lipstick from her skin. “Such lovely skin runs in our family.”
“Bye, Jade-girl,” Lanessa said. “Really, it’s great about your promotion. You deserve it.” She held Jade’s hand a moment before letting go.
“Thanks, Nessa.” Jade felt a rush of affection. A fleeting shadow of...something passed over her sister’s face. Sadness? Regret? “Are you okay?”
“Hey, fine as wine.” The old Lanessa, confident and self-possessed flashed a dazzling smile. “Child, I’ve got a sweater dress that is going to have old Alex’s tongue hanging out all night. With any luck I’ll have a diamond necklace this Christmas. Then it’s so long, sucker.”
Jade laughed in spite of herself. “You ought to be ashamed of yourself, girl.” Even with all her vanity and being favored by Clarice, Jade could not help but have a deep sister-love for her.
“Don’t you sit around alone every night. With your looks you could have a dozen fine men to choose from.” Lanessa shrugged into her leather pant coat.
“Oh, yeah. I had to change my phone number three times to avoid them,” Jade said with a snort. “Besides, I’ve had my fill of men for a while.”
“Hey, your divorce was final a year ago. Forget about Nick, he didn’t deserve you.”
“I’m over Nick. My life has gotten one hundred percent better since he’s out of it. And no other look-so-good brother is going to mess with my mind again,” Jade blurted out with force—too much force not to make Lanessa take note.
“Who have you met? Some man has got you more turned on than you want to be.” Lanessa was never so self-involved that she could not read her little sister like a book. The accuracy never ceased to amaze Jade, or annoy her.
“Don’t be ridiculous,” Jade said. She looked down at the carpet. “I’m just making a general statement.”
“Uh-huh.” Lanessa started to say more when Clarice called out. “Lanessa, you and Jade can talk about me behind my back later. Now come on.”
“That woman thinks she’s the center of the universe.” Lanessa rolled her eyes up to the ceiling. She gave Jade a quick hug. “And the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree,” Jade murmured with good nature as she watched the dove gray Lincoln Continental drive off.
Finally able to enjoy a peaceful night, Jade put on her big nightshirt with matching knee socks. A steaming cup of Sleepy Time tea sat on the end table near the sofa. As she flipped through television stations looking for some bland old move that would not tax her thoughts, Lanessa’s words came back to her. Even hours later it seemed the stamp of Damon Knight’s powerful and magnetic effect on her was visible. The man was sexy, no use denying it. Just sitting a few feet across from him had set her body thrumming with the desire to feel his hard chest pressed against her. What was this? Until now, abstinence had been an easy choice. Now she had to feel a sensual ache because of one encounter.
“It’s just the natural effect of being without a man for so long. Nothing more,’’ she said out loud as though hearing her own voice would make it so. But even as she spoke the words, she felt a small glow at the possibility she might see him again very soon.
* * *
Damon sat in the second-floor office of his carpet and floor covering store on Coursey Boulevard. The store manager, Joe Kinchen, and other employees had locked up long ago and most were gone now. He’d reviewed the inventory and sales reports at least three times in the last hour. To his deep dismay, the face of that gorgeous assistant of Lang’s kept coming back, sending his mind off on a very un-businesslike reverie. Just his luck she sat across from him. One look at those dark lashes and eyebrows framing the most startling cocoa brown eyes made his libido come alive.
Joe stood anxious to leave. “Everything in order, Mr. Knight? I mean, you got any questions...?”
“Hmm? Oh, sorry, Joe. No, everything is fine.” Damon rubbed his eyes.
“If you need to get the shipping lists, they’re right here.” Joe went to a metal file cabinet.
“Damon, I thought you were at the Main Street location today. Hi ya, Joe. How’s that new baby?”
Damon’s younger brother strode in and gave Joe a handshake. Trent Knight had the same good looks stamped on his nut brown face as his older brother and father, but the similarity stopped there. Oliver Knight was a dour workaholic. Damon did share his trait of being serious and hard working, though he was not as humorless. On the other hand, Trent always had a joke or was ready to laugh at himself. He owned his own business, cleaning up construction sites and commercial buildings. That he did not follow in the family business was a constant source of tension in the family.
Damon felt a rush of guilt. Here it was almost seven o’clock at night, and he was keeping Joe from his family. All because he could not keep his priorities straight and stop mooning over some woman he had seen only once.
“Go on home, Joe. I’m sorry for keeping you here so late.” Damon jumped up from the chair and crossed to him. “I’ll finish up. Tell Beryl hello for me.”
“Thanks, Damon. Night.” Joe waved a hasty goodbye.
“Give that sweet baby girl a kiss for me, man!” Trent yelled after the fleeing proud papa. A muffled reply came back. “Can you believe how he turned his life around in two years?”
“Sure. Even when I met him in jail, I could see Joe was a man who wanted something more in his life.” Damon began to organize the papers in brown file folders.
“And he’s got it. A lovely wife and baby.”
“Uh-huh. How’s business with you?” Damon did not want to talk about happy nuclear families. It brought too much pain at what he did not have.
“Great. That new Lancaster Estates development has been keeping my crews busy.” Trent sprawled his lanky frame in the large leather chair opposite his brother.
“You’ll be adding more employees soon then?” Damon paused in his task of arranging the documents.
Trent held up a hand. “Yes, and I’ll interview a couple of boys from your program.” He laughed. “Always putting the touch on me for those little scamps, as Grandma would call them.”
“You get as much of a kick giving those kids a break as I do, so don’t even try it.” Damon gave him a playful punch as he passed to get to the file cabinet.
“That’s true. Well, I’m on my way to pick up Carliss. Say, you ought to join us. Her friend—”
“Forget it,” Damon cut him off.
“But she’s a fabulous lady. A corporate attorney.” Trent twisted around in his seat.
“Sure. Just what I need after being taken to the cleaners by Rachelle in that divorce settlement—to spend time with another lawyer. No, thanks.”
“Come on, bro. Don’t get all bitter on me.”
“I’m taking a time-out from the mating game for a while. When I start dating again—and it won’t be soon—I’ll take it slow.” Damon thought of Jade’s lips, touched with lipstick the color of dark red wine. Her hair, parted down the middle, was a soft coal black frame to that lovely face. No, he was not falling into that tender trap again. Not him. He shook his head and went back to the desk.
“Real slow. No more getting turned around by a fine woman who... uh, anyway I’m doing okay. I don’t need it.”
Trent watched him for a while before speaking. “Who is she?”
“Who is who?” Damon shuffled the files in front of him.
“I got a strong impression that you had one particular female in mind. That wasn’t a theoretical fine woman that put a spark in your eyes just now.”
“My point is it’s only been a year since I finally had Rachelle surgically removed from my life. I don’t mind telling you it’s been a peaceful twelve months.” Damon heaved a sigh.
“Yep, you had it rough.”
“Ten years of The Marriage from Hell. I’m happy to be lonely these days. So let’s talk about something else.”
Damon did not want to dwell on the memory of Jade. What had she done to him to leave such an indelible mark of arousal that came back at the mere thought of her? He needed to put a halt to any weakening in that direction. Beautiful women were trouble. And pain. An image of Rachelle, cold and calculating, made his stomach clench. Rachelle was as heartless as she was beautiful. No way. Jade Pellerin had heartache written all over her.
Trent took a melodramatic deep breath. “Okay, I’ll let Carliss know she’ll have to give up trying to find you a new love.”
“Definitely. Now have you seen Dad lately?”
“Have I! Will he ever get over me not running these stores with you?” Trent let out an exaggerated groan.
Damon snorted. “You know the answer to that. At least he’s following the treatment plan these days.”
“Yeah, he’s got more movement in his left arm than ever before. But it’s been a long way back for him.” Trent lost the irritated expression at the reference to how ill their father had been.
“That stroke could have killed him.” Damon spoke in a sober tone, saying what Trent would not. “A year of treatment and he’s still weak. But at least he’s doing much better.”
“Sure, nothing wrong with his mind—or his mouth,” Trent said.
“Don’t let it get to you. Besides, fussing and carrying on is his hobby. I think it helps him stay alert.” Damon grinned at the grimace his comment caused Trent.
“Oh, so having him chew on my rear end is medicinal. Well, then he ought to be himself in no time,” he said with a twinkle in his eyes. He glanced at the clock on the wall. “Let me get outta here. Sure you don’t want to—”
“Goodbye, Trent.” Damon pushed him toward the door. “Have a nice time.”
Damon spent another fifteen minutes putting things in order for Joe. He glanced at his watch—eight-thirty already.
He decided to stop by Mario’s for take-out Italian food on his way home. It seemed there were couples everywhere: in the cars alongside his at every stop sign or red light, in the restaurant while he waited for his order. Damon tried to ignore them, yet seeing them made him feel an emptiness that he had not felt before Jade Pellerin... Somehow not only his body but his heart told him she would be a perfect fit to fill that void. There was a seductive grace about the way her hair swung when she turned her head. She had a habit of tilting her head to the right when considering something said to her. It made her smart and sexy at the same time. Boy, he had to get out of this frame of mind. Without a doubt, he would not let her get too close to him. He did not care what Lang expected, Eddie would have the job of working with her. And that was that.
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