A scowling hawk settled in among the fluttering butterflies.
Selena faltered as she pulled her gaze from the man who folded his massive frame into one of the chairs at the back of the training room. “So tell your clients not to drink this! External use only,” she stressed, waiting until the laughter settled down again. “This is a serum for the skin and, trust me, after a week, you will notice a difference. It’s amazing! Softer skin is only a few drops away!” The ladies who worked the retail counters for Rembrandt Cosmetics were frantically scribbling notes, eager to hurry back to their makeup counters at the various upscale department stores so they could sell the new products.
She moved on to the next product, explaining the value of it, application process, and any tips to help sell the product. On and on, she moved from skin care to color palettes to body products, painfully aware of the man. It would be hard to miss him since the ladies were all wearing the bright, lemon yellow smocks which were the uniforms for Rembrandt representatives. Even the training room was painted the signature color with green lettering, the chairs were lemon yellow, the desks green, the curtains green, the walls yellow.
So the man in the dark suit stood out like…well, like a scowling hawk. Ready to swoop down and grab one of the dainty ladies. None of the women noticed that the man was there. It helped that the man had stepped in silently and sat down, not saying a word.
The room breathed a sigh of relief. Slowly, the ladies gathered up their belongings, chatting amongst themselves. Selena would have smiled with the triumph of a job well done, but the man in the back of the room was watching her closely, which left her uneasy.
Selena gathered up her notes and packed them away, eyeing the man warily. She sensed that the man might be trying to appear laid back, but…no. He wasn’t relaxed. Selena doubted that he even knew how to relax. Looking at him, she doubted that the man even slept.
Mentally, she chided herself for her ridiculous ruminations. Of course the man slept. Everyone slept! This man might just sleep…less.
As the room emptied, he approached the podium. Not good, she thought, but stiffened her wobbly self-confidence, refusing to be “that” woman. She’d forcefully banished “that” woman from her life a long time ago.
“May I help you?” she asked, leaning her head back further than she expected. Wow, he was impressively tall.
The man extended his hand. “I’m Reid Jones. You’re an excellent trainer.”
Selena blinked at the name, surprised and more than slightly awed. “You’re Mr. Jones? CEO of Rembrandt Cosmetics?” she asked, a bit too breathlessly, and closed her eyes, shaking her head slightly. “I’m sorry, silly question.” Opening her eyes, she took a deep breath and straightened her shoulders. “It’s a pleasure to meet you, sir,” she stuck her hand into his enormous one.
She was startled by the shock that sizzled through her as his fingers closed over hers, but she tried to hide it. This wasn’t just a big kahuna in Rembrandt Cosmetics, the cosmetics company for which she worked. This was THE big kahuna! Wait, there were two of them, she thought quickly, trying to place this particular one.
“Call me Reid,” he smiled, distracting her from trying to place him correctly in the corporate hierarchy.
She might have relaxed or smiled at his offer, but his hand was still holding hers and Selena couldn’t seem to pull her eyes away from his hypnotic gaze. The look in his eyes…she sensed a strange expression, a look that caused her feminine instincts to stand up and take notice…but she couldn’t quite define what it was.
Was it attraction?
Selena wasn’t all that great in the relationships arena so she dismissed the idea, focusing on the fact that this was her boss’s boss’s boss’s boss. This was the man in charge, the creator, founder, and director of Rembrandt Cosmetics.
“Yes. Right.” Staring up into his eyes, she shivered slightly. They were the color of dark chocolate and held whispers of untold delights in their depths.
Not that she was! Even if she wanted to flirt, she didn’t know how. Her history…the whole learning-how-to-flirt period of her life…well, that hadn’t happened. She’d never learned and after…well…that one, horrible night, she’d never even bothered to try learning. So Selena accepted that flirting just wasn’t…well, she couldn’t do it. Not really. She looked like an idiot whenever she tried so she simply didn’t try.
Swallowing a sigh, she focused back on the man, all the while trying not to focus too hard on him. He was so tall, with broad shoulders and…well, wow!
She squared her shoulders and tried to focus. This was business. This was the owner and founder of the company! His eyes seemed to promise something but she didn’t want to try to interpret the message, sure that she’d mess up the translation.
“You are an excellent trainer, Ms. Bailey.”
“Please, call me Selena,” she replied automatically. “And thank you. I truly enjoy my job.”
He chuckled softly. “Exactly what any good employee would say when confronted by the boss.”
She smiled as well, feeling his soft laughter all the way down to her toes. Something curled inside of her. She should probably be flattered, but she’d learned the hard way not to wish looks from men meant something more than what they were.
“You’re very kind,” she realized that he was still holding her hand and pulled away. “What brings you to Virginia?” she asked, grasping for a topic. She stepped back, putting the podium and table between them. The air around him seemed to sizzle. She stared like a deer caught in headlights until he broke her trance with a smile that seemed incredibly sexy somehow.
She jumped, looking down at the papers and cosmetics scattered across the table. With shaking fingers, she clumsily started stuffing everything into her bag. Anything to distract her from the oddly intense pull drawing her towards the man.
What are you thinking, she mentally chided herself. Keep your eyes off him. Ignore those wickedly broad shoulders and that taut, tapered waist. Even though it was nice. Very nice! The whole man’s body was incredibly fit and nice and…well…amazing!
“I saw your marketing ideas,” he announced.
That grabbed her attention, and she dropped the lipstick she’d just picked up. Her marketing ideas? The ones she’s submitted just last week? Woah!
He smiled slightly, not a full-out smile. Nor could the flash of his expression be considered even a grin. But there was a curling of his lips and his white teeth showed for a brief moment.
The blush was fast and furious, but thankfully, dissipated before she looked too foolish. “Thank you,” she replied, hoping she sounded professional instead of silly and flustered.
“I flew out here to discuss it with you. Do you have plans for dinner?”
He wanted to discuss her ideas?! How crazy was that? “Dinner?”
Darn it, that blush hit her again. Looking down, she thought about the spin class that she’d planned to take tonight. She tried to remember the gym’s schedule…but the thought of spending time with this man distracted her.
She nodded in what she hoped was a professional manner and not a reflection of the silly, schoolgirl excitement that saturated her body. “Yes. Dinner would be perfect.”
“You had plans?”
Boy, he was perceptive! Or maybe she just wasn’t good at hiding her thoughts. She waved her hand dismissively. “Nothing urgent.”
Now? As in…this moment? She looked down at her uniform and shook her head. “Yes! Of course.” She unbuttoned the lemon yellow smock with fumbling fingers while searching for her bag at the same time.
“Looking for this?”
She spun around and, sure enough, her pretty, leather tote was dangling from his fingers. Somehow, the bag actually looked delicately sexy there. He was all tough, strong, and raw while her bag was about as feminine as it could be without being pink and flowered.
“Yes,” she replied, clearing her throat slightly. “Thank you.”
“My pleasure.” He gestured towards the doorway and she smiled nervously. With any other man, she would simply follow. But in this case, she was painfully aware of him behind her. She’d worn a simple, black sheath dress today with her favorite yellow heels, the ones that matched the Rembrandt Cosmetic’s uniform perfectly. Thankfully, they gave her another three inches, additional height that she definitely needed. But her shoes suddenly seemed a bit frivolous, even though they perfectly matched the amazing necklace she’d found last week. Caressing the delicate, linked blossoms, she wondered if she looked too frivolous.
If Reid had imagined the person who had submitted the brilliant marketing suggestion, he might have pictured a woman in her fifties wearing a sleek bun at the back of her neck and dark, severe suits with bright red lipstick and a sharp look in her eye that announced she was all business. So being faced with this stunning woman, soft, silky curls cascading over slender shoulders, delicate, almost elven features, and gorgeous blue eyes, he was enchanted. Surprised, amazed, and enchanted.
“You look beautiful,” he assured her when he noticed her nervously fingering the delicate yellow necklace. The movement brought his attention to her throat and Reid wondered if she was sensitive there. Or maybe along her ear? He’d already noted that she wasn’t wearing a ring. Neither a wedding ring nor an engagement ring.
A good thing, because he was more than interested. Hell, he even liked the sexy heels she wore even though she’d probably break an, admittedly sexy, ankle if she had to sprint anywhere.
Startled, she glanced over her shoulder at him.
Another blush. Damn, he liked that. He suddenly realized that the women he normally dated were tall and athletic. They wore heels, but they were more severe. This woman’s shoes were…pretty. It also occurred to him that the women in his past rarely wore jewelry except for perhaps sedate, gold earrings.
This delicate butterfly was about as far as possible from the women he was normally drawn to, but he couldn’t deny the instant, clawing need to…get to know her better. In many ways, he thought, as he held the door open.
The painfully hot sunshine combined with humidity that generally hovered in the seventy percent range hit both of them like a wet blanket as they stepped out of the air-conditioned office building. Virginia in the summertime was miserable. But Northern Virginia, where most of the federal government workers lived, was especially bad because, on top of the heat and humidity, one had to deal with the traffic. In a recent report, the Washington, D.C. traffic was listed as the worst in the country, even worse than Los Angeles and New York City. Not a list one wanted to top, but the residents of this area earned it.
From June through September, the sweltering, miserable heat was more pronounced because one had to sit in almost unmoving traffic just about any time of the day or night. During the winters, God help the area if even a snowflake appeared. The drivers in this metropolitan area didn’t get enough snow to learn how to drive in it. So even the smallest of snowfalls caused traffic to snarl and numerous accidents turned highways into parking lots.
Right now, the heat was in the nineties with no end in sight. Add in the seventy-plus percentage of humidity and the air felt like it was in the triple digits. Clothes stuck to one’s back, naturally curly hair curled into tight spirals and naturally straight hair lost any sort of bounce, laying limp against one’s neck. It was miserable!
“I don’t know how you deal with summers here,” he growled, taking off his jacket after only a few steps along the sidewalk.
Selena laughed and he turned his head, wanting to see those blue eyes sparkle.
“So why don’t you move? Find some place where the summers aren’t a miserable marathon of humidity and dread?”
Another laugh. Reid realized he could really get used to hearing her laughter. “Well, the summers are horrible here in Virginia, but remember, Washington, D.C. was built on a swamp. So it’s not surprising that the weather during July and August and…yeah, sometimes June and September…is so bad.” He opened the door to a black Land Rover, gesturing for her to get in.
Before stepping into the soft leather of the SUV, she tilted her face to smile up at him and her beauty took his breath away. His gut tightened as anticipation hit him hard. It took all of his concentration and self-discipline to hear her next words.
“Wait until autumn arrives! This area might be bad in the summer months, but in the spring and fall, the DC area is the most glorious place to live!”
And she slipped gracefully into the seat. He stood there, watching with rapt attention as she pulled her legs in. Strong legs, he noticed. He couldn’t see her thighs, because her dress came down to just below her knees, but her calves were strong and lean, well muscled. Sexy as hell! Damn, she was gorgeous!
Yeah, he had a thing for legs. And her legs were…extraordinary!
But still, his reaction to her was so out of character! This sudden and intense attraction wasn’t normal. Perhaps he was jaded, but while women were pretty and enjoyable, none had ever made him feel this…he wasn’t sure how to describe what he was feeling. But the sudden urge to pound his chest like a caveman was ridiculous!
He looked up, realized that she was waiting for him to close the car door and smiled slightly. And yes, he glanced down at her legs one more time before he closed the door.
“What would you like to eat tonight?” he asked as he pressed the button to start the engine. He turned, sliding his arm behind her seat to look at her, noting the dilated irises and the pulse pounding at the base of her throat. Perfect! She felt it too.
“Umm…anything is fine with me.”
“Thai? Mexican? Something less ethnic?” He admired her arms, bare from the shoulders, noticing even her arms were muscular. Yeah, that turned him on too.
“I love Thai!” she exclaimed, her shoulders straightening with excitement.
Decision made, he backed the SUV out of the parking spot. If he leaned into her a bit, getting a whiff of her perfume, that wasn’t a crime. It took a moment for him to recognize the scent as their signature perfume, “Rembrandt”, which smelled more erotic on her than he ever would have expected! Yes, he knew that the oils and other ingredients mixed with a woman’s individual body chemistry. But the spicy, feminine scent hit him hard and fast. The scent wasn’t cloying, or overly sweet, like some perfumes. It was made to be light, almost airy, but with a floral scent mixed in with a bit of cinnamon and vanilla. He’d heard from other customers that they enjoyed the scent because of the different layers, but on Selena, those layers became a siren call.
Selena folded her hands in her lap, not really sure what to do. The man smelled…amazing! He smelled like fresh air, pine, and male. How was that possible? Rembrandt Cosmetics didn’t sell a male product line, but sitting in the close confines of the SUV, she thought that this particular scent should definitely be bottled.
Turning slightly, Selena tried to suppress the scorching desire, reminding herself that she was a professional. “So, if you don’t like Virginia in the summer time, why are you here? Is there some secret product release that we’re getting soon?”
He controlled the vehicle easily and with confidence. The traffic was heavy, but he wasn’t one of those arrogant drivers who cut people off in order to get ahead of one vehicle. He took the back roads, avoiding the main arteries of the Four-Ninety-Five beltway or Interstate Sixty-Six that took residents from the edge of Washington D. C. all the way out to edge of suburbia and beyond. Both of those routes would be parking lots at this time of the day. Instead, he took the less known roads.
“I came here to meet you and discuss the marketing idea you submitted,” he reminded her.
“Yes, but what else?”
“No other reason. Brant, my brother and the chief operating officer, and I listened to our marketing director explain your ideas yesterday. I flew out today specifically to talk with you.”
“You came out here just to hear about a marketing idea?”
He nodded his head. “Yes. Your idea, bolstered by the fact that sales in your district are higher than any other area in the country, confirmed the decision to come out and meet you in person. I want to hear more and understand the genesis of your ideas. They’re great!”
This time, the pink in her cheeks was the flush of pride. “Thank you,” she said softly, but with a sincerity that came from her heart.
“No, thank you. Your idea was well researched and well thought out. We get ideas all the time, but most don’t have details and data to back them up.” He pulled into a small strip mall, which surprised Selena. He had an underlying elegance about him that shouted “extreme wealth”. He had said something about a hole in the wall restaurant, but Selena hadn’t believed him.
She stepped out, shielding her eyes from the evening sun, and stared at the restaurant. It was tiny, with the tackiest décor she’d ever seen, and it seemed completely deserted. But the smells! Goodness, the scent of food made her stomach scream!
“I promise that the food here is better than the décor. I stop by whenever I’m in the area because it’s really that good.”
Pasting what she hoped was a confident smile on her face, she nodded. “It certainly smells amazing,” she walked slightly ahead of him but stepped back when he reached around her to open the door. Wow, good looking and a gentleman! How…rare!
“You’re welcome,” he replied. Had his voice gotten huskier somehow? Even his eyes seemed darker.
“Mr. Jones!” an elderly voice called. “What are you doing out in this miserable heat?” the voice demanded. A moment later, a tiny woman appeared from behind the chipped, dingy counter, her arms outstretched, wearing an enormous smile that revealed missing teeth and sparkling brown eyes. “Shouldn’t you be back on your mountain, doing fun things in the nicer summer weather?”
Reid immediately hugged the tiny woman who must be the owner of the restaurant.
“Elsbeth! How have you been?”
The two of them chatted about her kids and grandchildren, before she turned her weathered eyes on Selena. “Ah! You finally bring your bride to meet me, eh?”
The woman cackled for a moment, then shook her head. “Not yet, right?”
Selena’s face burned with embarrassment. “No! Oh, my goodness! Sir, I’m so sorry!” She glanced up at Reid, who looked as if he was fighting back laughter. “This is just a business dinner!”
Reid stepped behind one of the chairs, holding it for her. She stared at him for a long moment, surprised. It was one thing for a man to hold a door for a woman. But holding out her chair? That was a lost art. No one had ever held her chair before and she wasn’t really sure what to do.
Sitting down, she glanced behind her as he pushed in her chair. She couldn’t help but wonder why he was being so polite. She was just an employee. And not even one that was high up the corporate chart! In the grand scheme of her world, Selena accepted that she was one of the worker bees of this corporation. She was good at her job and loved it, but she didn’t pretend that it was as important as what the employees at the headquarters out in Colorado did for the company.
“Tell me how you came up with the ideas you sent to me.” He leaned forward eagerly, eyes sparkling with curiosity.
Ah, firmer ground, she thought with a sigh of relief. “Well, I flew out to your corporate headquarters in Denver last fall for a training class and noticed that most of the women there didn’t wear much makeup. They went for more natural colors, but with a little flare. Whereas, when I travel downtown to Washington, D.C., I notice the women wear almost no makeup at all. In New York, the look is all about red lips and lots of color.”
“Exactly! So I thought about how to market to not just the different areas of the country, but also the various groups of women. Such as the suburban mother, who might not put on makeup until the end of the day, if at all, because she’s running around with her children, cleaning the house, or meeting with teachers. Or the working mother who has about five minutes to put on makeup before she has to run out the door so she can drop her kids off at school or day care, then get to that meeting someone obnoxiously scheduled at eight in the morning.”
“I loved your idea about a lower cost line of products for teenagers. Where did that come from?”
Selena smiled briefly, thinking back to the day she’d thought of it. “I was getting my mail one afternoon and my neighbor’s daughter was doing the same thing. We chatted for a moment, but I was so distracted by her eye makeup that I couldn’t tell you what we were discussing. It was awful, clashed terribly with her skin tone, and wasn’t well applied. When we started discussing makeup, she mentioned she borrowed her mother’s makeup but it didn’t really work for her.” Selena shrugged slightly. “Then I thought about luxury car companies. Over the past decade, they started making inexpensive cars, priced for college kids who’d just started their first job. They don’t have a lot of money, but they like the prestige of the brand. The car companies earn the loyalty early on with a quality, lower-cost product, and the consumers understand that there will always be a more expensive car they can exchange for when they get their next raise or promotion.” She shifted slightly in her chair, excited about her idea. “That’s when I came up with the idea of boxing the various products for the individual consumer based off needs. It’s much easier for a busy working mom or a mother with kids to walk up to one of our counters and ask for the ‘box for me’ instead of trying to figure out all of the various items. I figure it will take them five minutes at the counter to figure out their skin tone and colors. From that moment forward, they need only submit something online and the box with colors and makeup is sent directly to them. Although, they don’t have to buy the whole box all the time, just what they run out of. It is a way to up-sell, but with compassion for busy lifestyles.”
He watched her for a long moment. Selena had trouble remaining still under his continued perusal, but finally, he nodded his head. “It’s brilliant, actually. I love the idea.”
Their food arrived and, although though neither of them had taken a moment to glance at the menu, the elderly woman brought out every one of Selena’s favorites.
As they ate, he continued to ask questions and she warmed under his genuine appreciation for her ideas. Never had anyone paid her this kind of attention before and it was startling and gratifying.
“Have you had enough to eat?” he asked, glancing at her plate. “You hardly ate anything.”
He stood up and pulled out his wallet. “Good. Let’s get dessert.”
She shook her head. “No need for dessert,” she told him, thinking she needed to go for a long run in order to release the tension that had only intensified during the meal. Frustration from the almost continuous awareness of him as a man was hitting her hard and fast. A good, long run would ease some of the tension that had built up in her back and shoulders during the meal. While dessert sounded lovely, she knew that she couldn’t manage all that sugar.
The woman appeared out from behind the curtain that guarded the secrets of the kitchen from the dining area, a huge grin splitting her features. “Next time you come back, have a ring on your woman’s finger!” she admonished.
Reid. “I’ll work on it,” he promised.
He waved that away. “Don’t worry about Elsbeth. She’s a hopeless romantic and thinks she knows everyone’s business.”
Once more, he held the door open for her and waited until she’d pulled her legs inside. While she attached the seatbelt, he closed the door and walked around. “So no dessert. How about a glass of wine?” he offered. “There’s more to this request than just information on how this got started.”
She shrugged, liking the idea. Probably dangerous, but…why not? She hadn’t had a glass of wine in…years! “Okay, there’s a small pub right across from my apartment building. Would that be okay? That way I wouldn’t have to take the Metro home.” She cringed at how that sounded. “I mean, if it’s not too much trouble, that is.”
“Your apartment it is,” he told her.
Another cringe. “I didn’t mean to imply that I was…that wasn’t a sexual suggestion. I don’t…we aren’t…”
He laughed softly. “Selena, it’s much too early in our relationship for sex.”
She sighed with relief, her shoulders relaxing. But then his words sank in and her whole body stiffened with…horror? Too early for sex? Huh? What did he mean by that? She couldn’t interpret his expression.
So instead of saying anything or making a fool of herself with another silly blush, she turned to face forward while he drove towards her apartment building.
It was only a short drive to her apartment. She had him park in the space across the street where the pub was located. She could just walk across the street from there.
Needing to return to business, she leaned forward, looking into his eyes with a determination that sprung from a deep-need inside of her to control her world. “Okay, what else do you need to know about the marketing plan?”
“I need to know when you’re coming out to Denver to implement the plan.” He watched her for a long moment before continuing. “We’ll pay all your relocation costs, plus a salary increase.” He named a figure. Selena gasped, not sure she’d heard him correctly. Surely, he hadn’t meant that number in dollars!
“Plus you’ll be flying to the various cities to train the trainers and implement the details. I estimate that it will take approximately six months to get the marketing plan in place and the materials designed. Another six months to get the publicity details worked out. Then six months to travel around to train everyone on the new concept.” He waited, letting the details sink in. “How about next week?”
He smiled slightly. “Selena, my brother and I started this company because we knew what we liked. Women, cosmetics…we knew the kind of look we wanted to go for and we accomplished that goal, building the company into a renowned international brand. We know what we like. We know what works. You’re the one who thought up the idea and I want you to deliver it for Rembrandt Cosmetics. The idea is huge. It’s a massive change in the way we’ve been doing things but it will definitely put us ahead of the competition. Your idea is solid, innovative, and affordable to a wide range of people. I anticipate that the appeal will be immediate and intense.”
Their drinks arrived and she leaned back, allowing the waitress to set her wine in front of her, but she didn’t touch it. His beer looked delicious, tall, golden, with a small bit of foam at the top. But…moving to Denver? Leaving this area?
“Are you kidding me?” she whispered, shocked and more flattered than she could believe.
“I’m completely serious.”
He put a hand over hers. “Why don’t you think about it tonight? Write down all your concerns and we’ll discuss them tomorrow morning, over breakfast. Does that sound fair?”
Selena thought about it for a long moment, then nodded her head. “Yes. Very fair.”
“Good. Talk it over with your boyfriend and see what he thinks.”
“Good. My research says that your parents are retired, living down in Florida and you rent an apartment here, so you won’t have to worry about selling your house.” He lifted a hand to stop her next words. “We’ll negotiate with your landlord if you’re in the middle of a long term contract.” He waited another moment. “Whatever the obstacle, I’ll figure out how to remove it, Selena. I want you out in Denver, getting started on this project.”
“Why do you need me?”
He smiled slightly. “I’ve learned that getting someone who believes in a project tends to ensure the success of that project. You believe in this idea. Furthermore, as you start working through the details, I suspect that you’ll find more ways to enhance and expand further. It makes sense to move you out to Denver, so you’ll be close by.”
She smiled, feeling hope blossom inside of her. “Okay, I’ll think about it.”