Fiona’s British accent cut through my thoughts like a siren. “Stop drooling over that boy, and get your arse in here.”
Crap! My screen had been sitting idle on the seminude photo of a male model. Oops. I shuffled my tight-skirt–wearing-self into Fiona’s office. She was dressed immaculately, as always, in a Versace linen dress with a bright royal purple scarf and a pair of the highest Prada heels I’d ever seen. Those suckers put the Empire State Building to shame. Her hair was pinned back in a loose chignon, shiny dark tendrils framing her elegant face.
“Yes, Miss Stone?” I asked.
“Do you know what time it is?” Her expensively clad foot tapped the floor and she didn’t bother looking up from her computer screen. Tap, tap, tap.
Oh, shit. Was this a trick question? “Uh, it’s ten o’clock—”
She leaned back in her chair, peering at me intently. “And?”
And? And what? She gave me an icy glare, making my heart pound and a cold sweat break out under my arms.
After ten seconds of stony silence, during which she looked me over from head to toe in disgust, making me want to hide behind the big potted plant in her office, she finally spoke.
“It is time for my tea.” She grunted and waved a dismissive hand in my direction.
Oh. Right. Her midmorning tea. How very British of her. I dashed for the kitchenette as quickly as my restrictive skirt–Spanx-heels combo would allow to heat some purified water for her tea. I added the package of English Breakfast to the cup and scuttled back, just in time to see a man entering her office. Great. Another blunder. I was sure I’d catch hell later for letting a guest inside unannounced.
I stepped into her office behind him, still carrying the tea.
“Ben, love, come in,” Fiona drawled and gestured to the leather seat facing her desk.
Oh. So this was Ben Shaw. Seeing his photos on the computer was one thing. Seeing this delicious piece of man meat in person was quite another. My damn mouth was watering. He was tall and poised, with dark hair, broad shoulders, an angular jaw, and a pouty mouth built for kissing.
I briefly wondered if I’d be scolded for letting someone into her office unannounced, but Fiona was all smiles where Ben was concerned.
Benjamin Riley Shaw, the agency golden boy. Our most in-demand model and top earner by a wide margin. Seeing him in person for the first time, it was obvious why. He had a certain aura about him, a glow. My eyes were unconsciously drawn to him. He was by far the most captivating thing in the room. Having just reviewed his file, I felt slightly pervy knowing so many personal details about him, but it also made me feel just a little bit smug. Height:6 feet 3 three inches; Eyes: Hazel; Hair: Brown; Shoe Size: 12; Suit: 42L; Inseam: 34 inches.
I watched in stunned silence as Fiona rose and went around the desk to lean in and brush her boobs against his chest. She air-kissed both of his cheeks. He remained still, politely allowing it but not returning her affections. Something inside me liked that about him. Fiona was a grade-A bitch, and to see a fine specimen like Ben pretend to fawn all over her would have twisted the knife in my heart.
“Of course it’s lovely to see you, but did you need something, darling?” she asked him, pulling back only slightly. Ugh. Personal space much?
Ben shifted his tall, statuesque form moving away from her in the most elegant way. “I was asked to come in today,” he said flatly.
Fiona’s eyes landed on mine. Panic coursed through my system and I felt the teacup rattle in my hands. Her icy glare pinned me in place, imploring me to explain.
“But your, um, note . . . said to call Ben in,” I stammered.
Ben’s gaze traveled to mine and my stomach did a little flip. Whoa. His eyes were a brilliant hazel color with flecks of deep mossy green, and they held such sadness, such mystery that I was stopped cold. As he continued to stare at me, my ovaries did a little happy dance, totally defying the strictures of my Spanx. This guy was wreaking havoc on my libido.
With difficulty, I turned my gaze and attention back to Fiona, who was sighing dramatically.
She scoffed. “I meant for you to call Ben’s sizes into the designer for his shoot next week.” She shook her head like I was a complete moron to mix up the message. Crap.
My eyes flicked to Ben’s again and the cup and saucer shook in my hand. I attempted to cross the room to deliver the tea to her desk, but Ben’s heavy gaze following my movements proved to be too much and the teacup and saucer went tumbling to the floor.
The teacup shattered and scalding hot water sprayed my exposed skin. Mother, that was hot. I winced and took a step back, assessing the damage. Shit. The dark stain was spreading over the beige carpet in front of me, and I looked like an overexcited puppy that had pissed itself in front of one of the world’s top models. Pull it together, Emmy!
Ben’s eyebrows drew together and Fiona let out an exasperated huff.
“It’s a wonder she can even walk and talk at the same time. She’s from Tennessee,” Fiona said by way of explanation. Ben’s attention slowly pulled back to Fiona.
My face heated with embarrassment. I liked my quaint country upbringing, and I wouldn’t change it for all the glamour and designer labels in the world. So I wasn’t from London, big whoop. I wouldn’t let her make me feel like I was two inches tall.
“I’m sorry. I’ll handle this.” I picked up my chin and scurried to my desk.
Tennessee huh? That explained the sweet little lilt to her voice. She wasn’t Fiona’s usual assistant. First, she was female. Secondly, she was still female, and Fiona didn’t play well with those of her own kind.
The assistant, with her tight little, knee-length navy skirt and proper tucked-in blouse, would have looked like an innocent schoolgirl if it weren’t for those curves. Holy hell, those curves. A luscious ass and the swell of a generous chest. Eyes up, buddy. No getting wood over the new girl.
Her innocence was cute, different. A hint of pink blossomed across her cheeks and her teeth were buried deep in her bottom lip. She had dark hair tucked efficiently behind her ears, and her hands shook, unable to stop the teacup from rattling. She stared up into my eyes, looking lost before the teacup went tumbling to the floor. For a split second I worried that the city of Manhattan—or Fiona—would chew her up and spit her out. A surge of protectiveness flared up inside me, the feeling strange and foreign. Also, not entirely welcome. I didn’t know this girl. Shouldn’t care. Yet I did. I couldn’t deny the instant chemistry and intrigue that buzzed between us, the suppressed shudder when I met her gaze, the soft inhalation of breath. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t feel something when watching her fidget in front of me.
Fiona turned to face me, curling her hand around my bicep, bringing me back to the situation at hand. “Well, since you’re here, love, you might as well take me to lunch.”
“Sure,” I responded automatically. I could see through Fiona’s ploy. She wanted to see me today—but didn’t want to admit it. I knew her games. This pretty young thing didn’t. And she was left to feel like the village idiot.
If she understood Fiona’s true motivation for calling me in, she wouldn’t be staring up at me with those innocent gray-blue eyes. If she knew the depravity lurking inside me, she’d flee for Tennessee without a backward glance. I’d devour a girl like her. Own her. The thought was intoxicating. I watched her with interest, considering my next move. “I’m sorry. I’ll handle this.” Tennessee picked up her chin and scurried to her desk, her confidence broken.
Watching her retreat while Fiona touched up her lipstick, I decided her assistant would be fun to play with. She’d be all soft feminine innocence, and those perfectly proportioned curves were begging for my hands. Fiona’s claws would come out though, so it might not be worth it. Fiona had done too much for me. Shit, she was my manager. I wasn’t about to do something stupid, like sleep with her assistant to piss her off. Bad career move. My dick would have to stay in my pants.
The low murmur of voices coming from Fiona’s office kept me from reentering. I searched my bottom desk drawer for the emergency roll of paper towels I kept there. I was waiting for them to leave before I scampered in on hands and knees to clean up the mess. But they seemed to be taking their sweet time. I couldn’t hear the discussion but their postures were tense and they spoke in hushed voices.
Every time I thought about the way he’d gazed into my eyes, my heart did a funny leap. There was a certain depth to this man, one that his beauty kept hidden. I doubted most people dug below the surface. Yet strangely, I wanted to know him. It was a stupid thought and I had no idea where it came from. Perhaps it was my upbringing, southern hospitality, or something like it. But I wanted to take care of this man, ease that little worry line creasing his forehead. The depth and complexity in his eyes had held me captive a moment too long.
As if my thoughts had lured him away from Fiona’s clutches, Ben came striding out of the office and hesitated at my desk. “Did you get burned?”
His question took a moment to resonate. Oh yeah, my legs. The humiliation had blocked out the pain. But now that he mentioned it, I realized they were tingling where they’d been splattered with the searing water. With his gaze so intent on mine, it took me a moment to remind my mouth how to work properly.
“Just on my legs,” I stammered. Brilliant. Put a gorgeous man in front of me and I became a bumbling idiot. This job did not bode well for my self-esteem.
His eyes fell to my nak*d shins and I forgot all about the burn.
Fiona appeared, dropping a tube of lipstick into her Fendi handbag. That thing cost more than I made in a month. She lifted her chin, sniffing the air. “What is that smell?” Her face twisted in repulsion. She looked from Ben to me. All I could smell was the mouthwatering goodness of baked treats emanating from the container on my desk. “It smells like processed sugar.” Frown lines deepened around Fiona’s mouth.
“I baked blueberry muffins for the office.” I opened the lid and the most delicious scent wafted out, reminding my stomach that I’d skipped breakfast in lieu of taking the time to dress in something presentable and straighten my hair. “Would you like one before I put them in the kitchenette?”
Ben’s gaze flicked down to the floor as he tried to hide a smile. Fiona looked at me like I was mentally unstable, like I was trying to serve her a pile of manure rather than a homemade blueberry muffin.
What was her problem? Guess my gesture of goodwill was a dumb idea. I sniffled and raised my chin. I was damn proud of my muffins. But the look of disdain dripping from Fiona’s pouty red mouth instantly told me bringing baked goods into a modeling agency was akin to killing a puppy. Slowly, Fiona groaned and strode away. I looked down at my burned, tea-splattered legs and my self-confidence fell to an all-time low.
“Hey, Blueberry Muffin Girl . . .” Ben’s voice was low and authoritative, drawing my eyes back up to his. He fixed me with that sexy stare. “Make sure you put some ice on your burn.” His expression was flirty and kind, even if his concern felt out of place.
Forming words wasn’t possible at the moment, but I managed a nod. Ben followed after Fiona, chuckling to himself. I heard snickers around me. They’re probably taking bets on how long I’ll stick around.
I thanked the gods it was Friday as I dragged my sorry carcass into the apartment I shared with Ellie. I wanted to do nothing more than slip into a pair of sweats, eat take-out Chinese food, and drink mass quantities of cheap wine. And after the day I’d had, I might have needed my own bottle.
Ellie was already in the kitchen when I arrived with apparently the same thought. She was opening a bottle of wine, or rather, wrestling the cork out of it. Our corkscrew really was a piece of crap.
“Emmy!” she called when she saw me. “Survive another week?”
“Yup.” I pulled off my jacket and tossed it on the cluttered dining room table. “Thank God.”
“Good, because I was a bit worried you weren’t going to make it and, I mean, the chance to go live in Paris for three months? I’d work for Satan himself. I’d even have his babies.”
I laughed and accepted the filled-to-the-brim glass from her. “Well, before you go spawn with Satan, I’m not cleared yet. I know for a fact she hasn’t bought my ticket.”
Ellie pushed her sexy-nerd glasses up higher on her nose and took a sip of her wine. “Please, if you’ve made it through her temper tantrums and snotty insults this far without going postal, you’re golden. I would’ve cracked that first day. What was her comment again . . . Kmart chic?”
I shuddered at the memory. It was my first day. We had sat in Fiona’s opulent office covering the basic roles and responsibilities of my new job. She’d brought up the dress code and said she had an image to maintain and my Kmart-chic wardrobe wouldn’t be tolerated. I had been dressed according to the dress code—or so I’d thought—in black pants and a button-down top. No matter. What Fiona didn’t understand was that a few nasty comments weren’t going to drive me away.
I’d always wanted more out of life, and with my parents’ encouragement I’d set my standards fairly high, attending a state university on a scholarship and getting my degree in communications and fashion design. I didn’t need an Ivy League education and a six-figure job offer. I just wanted to break free from the financial stress of living paycheck to paycheck like my parents.
I had lived the quintessential simple upbringing while constantly striving for that ever-out-of-reach American dream. Underpaid, hardworking parents. Double-wide trailer in a one-stoplight town in western Tennessee with a jock younger brother who delivered idle threats to any guy who showed even the slightest interest in me. Climbing trees in my younger years, cheerleading and sleepovers in high school.