Chapter 1: Drafting
“…firmness, commodity, and delight.”
—Essential architectural qualities as defined by Vitruvius, circa 27 B.C.
God, he’s hot.
Her hands stilled, her breath caught, and she stopped listening.
Lillian Victoria West had watched the newcomer walk to the podium to shake the hand of Drake Design Group’s senior partner. Introduced as their newest star architect, Finlay Hyde came from London, with an outstanding pedigree.
Come on already! Lilli wanted them to get on with announcing the contest winner, but she applauded politely along with everyone else in the large conference room, while Hyde shook the other partners’ hands, his back to her.
But then he’d turned and smiled.
And her world had tilted.
Lilli’s pulse raced and her chest tightened, like she couldn’t breathe.
He definitely looked British in his tweed jacket and slightly disheveled baggy chinos, but it was his quirky, Jude Law-esque grin that threw her into chaos. His tousled light brown hair that made her want to do something crazy, like go up to him and run her hands through his tawny curls. Lilli wasn’t looking for a guy, didn’t even have a Tinder account, but her attraction to him blasted her like wind off the San Francisco bay.
She quietly hugged herself, applying pressure to her shoulders, needing the grounding such contact gave her. She tried not to squirm, but the chair was uncomfortable for the high-rent, high-rise offices. Or maybe it was him that made her so antsy.
Hyde stepped up to the podium and, in cultured tones that spoke of wealth and status, thanked Drake for the opportunity. “I’m chuffed to be here, and I must say I feel right at home with all this beastly weather.” Chuckles echoed around the room, given that it was a typical Fog City day.
Arms still wrapped around herself, she leaned forward, trying to see what color his eyes were behind his expensive horn-rimmed glasses. He was the quintessential representation of a nerdy but handsome Englishman. He looked older, maybe forty, but that didn’t lessen his appeal. A small grin played across her face as she enjoyed a moment of anonymous admiration from her spot in the third row. Although she didn’t date much, too busy with her career, Lilli had “a type,” and that type was standing before her.
While Hyde spoke about his goals at the firm, his words held her spellbound. Not their meaning, but his British accent that sounded at once foreign, formal, and flirty. It washed over her with the tangy sensuality of an English ale drunk on a hot summer day. Her eyes drifted shut, and an image of a large plush bed sprang to her mind, Finlay whispering sexy things into her ear as they lay naked and tangled upon it.
Lilli’s eyes popped open. Where did that come from?
“It is my privilege to announce…”
She tried to focus, but heat flushed her skin. Her thighs closed, clenched, and she sucked in several breaths of cooling air. Applause sounded around her. Without thought she joined in, her hands patting slowly together like a winding-down automaton. His mouth moved, but she didn’t hear the words, his lips—their dusky rose color and enticing contours—seizing her attention.
“As we say across the pond, I am absolutely chuffed about this deserving project. So, I hope the winner is here today. Again, would Miss Lillian West please come forward?”
Louder applause startled her back into the moment. It felt like she was waking from an erotic dream. Everyone was glancing around until the general milieu settled on her, the senior partner pointing her way. Lilli rose and looked about in confusion.
Oh, shoot. What did I miss?
“Come on up, Ms. West,” Hyde said, encouraging her forward with his hand.
Did I win?
Giving her head a little shake, she sidled out of her row and moved forward, focusing on the senior partner to avoid ogling Mr. Sex-on-a-Stick.
Her eyes darted over anyway. Hyde smiled at her, but the twinkle in his eyes suggested he was amused by her curious conduct.
“Congratulations, Ms. West,” said Mr. Drake, shaking her hand. Lilli gave him what she hoped was a grateful smile, distracted as she was.
Hyde came next, but when her fingers touched his, electricity, hot and energetic, shot up her arm, spreading fire through her body. Her eyes rose to his, and he quirked a naughty grin, an eyebrow raised, as if he knew exactly what she was feeling. She pulled her hand back too abruptly and forced her gaze to Mr. Drake, who started speaking to the audience.
“We’re pleased we can assist the Fresh Start Training Center, a neighborhood-based program that provides free job training assistance for the unemployed, something much needed in the Hunter’s Point area.”
More applause followed.
Mr. Drake led her to the microphone. She looked out at everyone, a dazed smile on her face. She hoped that any remaining Fresh Start board members who still harbored doubts about hiring such a young woman to helm an important organization would at last be satisfied. Lilli’s tentative smile surged into a beaming, ecstatic grin as her full triumph hit her.
“Thank you so much to all the partners at DDG. Winning this prestigious competition will make raising the remaining building funds much easier. Thank you.”
After the press conference concluded, Lilli was invited to stand with the firm’s top staff for a photo op. She was ever aware of Hyde’s presence next to her.
As people filed out of the room, Mr. Drake turned to her and Hyde. “What do you say, Finn? Think you can do this little lady a good turn? Transform a derelict building into a useful space? On budget and on time.”
Lilli’s gaze swung from the elderly man to the gorgeous Brit. He seemed friendly, if somewhat overly polite in that English way, but her anxiety shot up at the realization she’d have to maintain a professional demeanor with Mr. Sex-on-a-Stick. Her feeling of triumph wobbled, like one of the stairs in the run-down building that had been donated to her nonprofit.
“I’m looking forward to the challenge,” Hyde answered.
His gaze caught hers and locked her to him, his wide grin exuding confidence and authority. Meeting his smile with her own, Lilli’s chin notched up a little higher.
“I can’t thank you all enough.” She spoke a little too loudly, attempting to cover a strange, skittish energy that made her want to squirm. What the heck is wrong with me? Even her palm still felt hot from their brief handshake.
“Congratulations again, Ms. West,” Drake said, starting to turn away. “I’ll leave you both to it, then.”
Hyde stepped near, obliging her to tilt her head back to look up at him. “We’re going to work well together. I’m sure of it.” The low dulcet timbre of his voice sparked yet another warm tingle that traveled down her spine all the way to her toes.
Standing this close, Lilli could see that his eyes were green, an amazing shade of hazel with flecks of burnt auburn on the edges, fringed with dark, thick lashes. Again, she longed to reach up and remove his expensive glasses for a better look.
Get ahold of yourself, Lilli thought.
“Why don’t we go to my office and get started talking over some preliminaries?”
Lilli nodded, mouth closed, not trusting her voice to sound strong and professional. Every time he smiled down at her, she grew warmer, knees weaker. This was the first time she’d had an immediate and overwhelming reaction to a man, and she didn’t know how to handle the feelings coursing through her.
Don’t blow it, she repeated over and over while Hyde escorted her down the long hallway to his corner office. Her entire career hinged on this. She surreptitiously pressed a hand to her thigh, needing the grounding sensation.