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WORTH by Deborah Bladon (1)

 

 

Maya

 

 

I notice him immediately. It's impossible not to. Julian Bishop is the man of the hour, after all. This celebration, complete with expensive champagne and stiff-backed wait staff, has drawn the crème de la crème of Manhattan's social elite. It's the place to be tonight, and with a lot of crafty manipulation and a fair bit of luck, I'm standing in the midst of it, wearing a killer little black dress and diamond earrings I borrowed from a broker who has sold more than her fair share of apartments with Park Avenue addresses.

"I got you another glass of champagne, Maya."

I turn toward my date for the evening, taking the tall crystal flute from his hand. I enjoy a small sip while I look at his hands. They're adequate, not too large, and not too small. Those hands, along with the brief kiss he gave me when he picked me up tonight promise a night of passion that would be forgettable at best. He's nothing to write home about or to write about at all, for that matter.

"Thanks, Charlie," I purr. "Where's your drink?"

He nudges the sexy-as-all-hell, black-rimmed eyeglasses up the bridge of his nose with his index finger. He has a nerd with a side of male model look. That's what made me stop at his desk two weeks ago to ask if I could borrow his stapler.

I don't staple. If I did, I'm sure I'd find one in my desk, hidden beneath the three dresses and two pairs of shoes I have tucked in the drawer. I never know when a change of wardrobe is called for. A girl has to be ready for anything when she's trying to claw her way up the hierarchy of the real estate market in this town.

"I had one. That's my limit." He squints as he looks at the bar. "Is she here yet? I heard someone say she's going to make an entrance."

I heard someone say she's a dirty, dirty slut.

That, someone, was me. I said it to myself. She's far from dirty or slutty. She's a lawyer, Harvard educated, with looks to rival her intelligence.

Jealousy is a filthy accessory, and I don't wear it well.

"I don't think she's arrived yet." I turn back to where Julian is standing. He looks just as he did when I first laid eyes on him. That was more than a year ago. I was helping a friend, and he was offering her a job.  Our paths crossed, the energy flowed, and then he left.

I never saw the man in person again.

I would have settled for one tumble in the sheets of his bed. A brief encounter would have satisfied my craving, but it wasn't meant to be. He continued on his happily-ever-after path, and I sailed the dating waters of Manhattan occasionally snagging a Charlie in my net.

"I'm going to mingle," I say it like I mean it. "I'll meet you back here in thirty."

Charlie looks down at his watch. It's not impressive. That's not Charlie's style.

"Thirty minutes, Maya." He touches the lenses of his glasses with the tips of two of his fingers before he points them right at me. "I'm going to have my eyes on you."

Good for you, Cowboy.

I take my champagne, my spirit of adventure, and my too tight black heels and I start to cross the room. I took my time getting dressed tonight in anticipation of that split second we all live for. It's that moment when the man you imagine running naked through a field of daisies with or fucking in a back alley, turns to looks at you.

I've been planning this accidental meeting between Julian and me for weeks, including carefully plotting every word I'll say when his eyes meet mine.

I'm counting on him remembering me because I've been told that I'm not easy to forget.

"Maya Baker." The voice behind me is unmistakably his. It's warm with a hint of control and deep with the promise of pleasure.

I start to pivot at the sound of it. It's a beacon, a pull that is too strong to resist.

"Don't turn around." A hand, steady and determined, touches my hip. The fingers assert enough pressure to control my movement. "I don't recall seeing your name on the guest list."
Something's caught Julian's cock's attention. I can feel the length of it pressing against me in the middle of the room while we wait for his business partner, rumored lover and woman I'd most like to lock in a closet for eternity to arrive. "I was a last minute addition."

"A welcome addition," he adds. "Are you enjoying yourself?"

I feel the undercurrent of desire. It was there over a year ago when we met. It's stronger now.

"I am now." I push my fingers into his on my hip.

His chest lifts and then falls on a heavy exhale. "I'm needed at the podium. You won't run away before we have a chance to talk, will you?"

I turn to look up at him. Black hair, ocean blue eyes and a face that could make a woman want to lock her office door mid-day to fantasize about him.

I've done it more than once.

"You're as handsome as ever, Julian." I lower my voice. "I'm available to talk whenever you are."

He rounds me, his hand still holding mine. "You're more enchanting than the day we met, Maya. I've followed your career. I have a position I think you'd be interested in."

"What position might that be, Julian?" A woman's voice asks from behind me.

I don't have to turn to know who asked the question. I've heard her speak enough times this past year that I would recognize her throaty tone anywhere.

Isadora Patel, Julian's girlfriend, is not only a highly regarded attorney; she's also an advocate for women's issues in the workplace. She's been the keynote speaker at two conferences I attended. Both of those were focused on women in business. 

For someone I want to hate, I admit I have a lot of respect for her.

"We'll discuss it later." Julian's hand drops mine. "I'm about to take the stage, Isadora."

"We're about to take the stage," she corrects him. "Introduce me to your friend."

I know that I shouldn't get in the middle of whatever is happening between them right now, but since I'm physically in the middle, I turn to face her.

She's a stunning woman and that's as true tonight as it's been every time I've seen her. Isadora's taller than me by at least six inches. Her long blonde hair is pulled back into a high ponytail and her brown eyes are framed by long lashes.

The strapless black dress she's wearing may bear the same designer label as the one I have on, but it's tailored to fit her every curve. It's obvious that she didn't pick it up off the rack.

"I'm Maya Baker." I extend a hand toward her, surprised that I'm not trembling. "I've heard only great things about you, Ms. Patel."

"Maya," she repeats back my name as her gaze volleys from my face to Julian's. "You were at the leadership in business summit two months ago. I remember you."

I hear the instant relief in her tone as she reaches for my hand. She gives it a firm shake before she pulls back. I'm no longer a threat in her eyes. She thinks I'm an admirer. 

"Your speech was enlightening." In my experience, genuine compliments are the most effective tension breaker, at least when it comes to other women. "I'm glad I had the chance to hear it."

"It was an important topic." She studies my face. Her eyes trail over my shoulder length black hair, blue eyes, and pale pink lips. "I'm surprised to see you here tonight."

She's surprised that her boyfriend was holding my hand when she approached us. I no longer have to wonder why Julian asked me not to turn around. His plus one was keeping an eye on her man from across the room.

"My date had an invite for two, so I tagged along." If I were going to be completely truthful, I'd confess that the only reason I'm here tonight is so I can talk to Julian.

She smiles at me. "I hope you and your date are both enjoying yourselves."

I can't speak for Charlie, but I was having the time of my life until she showed up. It's time to make myself scarce. "I should get back to him."

Isadora reaches out to stop me with a hand on my forearm. "I'm curious how you know Julian. You two seem like old friends."

Apparently, jealousy isn't in short supply tonight. The green-eyed monster has its claws in Isadora too.

"Maya and I met some time ago at Falon Shaw's studio," Julian answers from behind me.

"Ah." Isadora squeezes my arm. "So you're a photographer too? Julian has been anxious to find someone to shoot the interiors of our new residential suites. If you send a few sample shots to the manager of our marketing department, she'll let you know if we're interested."

My close friend, Falon Shaw, should have that job. She's done work for Bishop Hotels in the past. As much as I'm tempted to point that out, I let it slide. Falon can do her own bidding. She doesn't need me to pitch her name. She's an established photographer whose work speaks volumes.

"Maya?" Charlie moves into view behind Isadora just as I'm about to tell her that I'm in real estate, not photography. "I have another glass of champagne for you."

Since I'm still holding onto an almost full glass of bubbly, I shoot Charlie a look, but he's eyeing Isadora's ass like it's a treasure he's been searching a lifetime for. "I'm good. I was about to come find you, Charlie."

Charlie takes that as his cue. He steps forward, introduces himself to Isadora and launches into a discussion that's peppered with legal terms I don't understand.

I take the opportunity to turn back to Julian.

His eyes meet mine instantly. "I still have your business card, Maya. Is the contact information on it current? Can I reach you at that number?"

My phone number is one of the few things in my life that hasn't changed since I first met him. I've transitioned from being a rental agent to an associate broker. I moved to a new neighborhood and I've dated some of the most interesting men in this city and a couple of duds too.

When I handed him that card in Falon's studio, I wasn't sure what I hoped would come from it. We had a very brief conversation before he offered her a job photographing the interior of The Bishop Hotel in Tribeca. He told me that he'd consider me if he were ever looking for a rental, but I never heard from him again. I assumed my card was tossed in the trash and I became a non-existent memory.

"You can reach me at the number on the card," I say politely knowing full well that even though I can hear Isadora engaging in small talk with Charlie, her gaze is glued to her boyfriend and me.

"I'll be in touch, Maya."

I blink at him as he moves around me to talk to Charlie and Isadora. I don’t bother trying to hear what he's saying to them.

I came to this event to arrange a face-to-face meeting with him.

This party is a celebration of his newest hotel, which contains a dozen luxury residential suites. I'm determined to secure a shot at selling those. When Julian reaches out to me, I'm going to convince the man that I'm exactly what he needs.

I'd jump at the chance to prove that I'm what he needs in bed, but his sheets are already being warmed by someone else.

He's committed to Isadora and I'm committed to my career.

I want in on his business, and I'll do whatever it takes to show him that I'm the woman for the job.