But that picture was taken months ago and his dirty-blonde hair had been short then. Now it flowed, framing his features like a portrait fit for display in a museum. For an instant all I could think about was how it would feel to run my hands through those silky locks.
My footsteps slowed, matching my breaths as I watched him elegantly rise and circle his large oak desk, closing the space between us with economical finesse. After shaking Richard’s hand, he stood in front of me. With brows furrowed in deep curiosity, his gorgeous eyes bored into my own, shrewdly assessing and evaluating. I felt strangely vulnerable and exposed under the weight of that stare, like I was undressed and naked before him.
I caught a whiff of something that made my mouth water and the area between my thighs ache. What was it? Cologne, after shave, his pheromones? Whatever it was, it smelled good.
Being so close, the raw magnetism he exuded jumbled my senses and made my pulse erratic. I felt compelled and pushed all at once; it was a potent male force that could never be bottled or captured on film, only experienced.
The sound of Richard’s cough and subsequent nudge on my arm broke the spell.
My lips were dry so I licked them before speaking. “Hello Mr. Sorenson. Kristen Daley. It’s a pleasure to meet you,” I said evenly.
I held out my hand, feeling like the appendage didn’t belong to me. I watched him take it with his own and squeeze firmly. The sensation alone was enough to summon pornographic images I neither approved of nor realized existed within me, ones where I was bent over his desk or splayed against a wall or on my knees. . .
“Vincent,” he said, the velvety rasp of his voice flowing over me. The way he spoke his own name made it seem even more divine. “The pleasure’s mine.”
The heat radiating from his hand and up my arm seemed to reach my brain, and I forgot to squeeze back.
When he released his grip and shifted his gaze away from me, I was both relieved and disappointed to have the dirty mental images fade.
Pull yourself together. You’re here for business.
“Great weather today,” Richard remarked. “Perfect for surfing.” He was already launching into the script.
It was then I noticed Vincent was wearing a t-shirt, shorts, and sandals—just as Richard predicted. The effect of the combination was more striking than I could have predicted and I figured he was the only man who could pull off sexy-casual well. Nevertheless, figuring the beach bum impression had been accurate, my fantasies subsided long enough to allow me to resume my feminine allure, smile included. It seemed to be working because I could feel Vincent’s gaze slide over my profile as we moved to the meeting area of his office.
Vincent gestured and we took two accent chairs near the large glass wall facing the beach. It was a spacious office, bigger than any I had ever seen.
“I’d like to work on my cutback. I hear the Bali Bay is a great spot,” Richard said. He had never surfed in his life.
Vincent sat across from us and I couldn’t help studying him. Even in a position as benign as sitting, he exuded primal confidence. “It’s one of my favorites.” His deep voice resonated, inciting a restless energy in my legs. I shifted in my seat, trying to ignore the growing ache between my thighs. Fortunately, Richard was the one talking so Vincent’s attention was trained on him.
Richard nodded enthusiastically. “From what I know, Kelly Slater got his chops riding those waves.” This was part of the plan. Richard would open up with a softball about the weather then progressively use more surfing jargon, ultimately tying it back to investments through analogies. It was like a children’s education program. I’d been skeptical—concerned the approach could be misconstrued as condescending—but when he spelled it out, the effective simplicity of the message was actually kind of brilliant.
Vincent’s demeanor was impassive. “I see you’ve done your homework.”
Receiving the anticipated signal, Richard continued, “The thing I admire most about him is his ability to read the water. They called him the Wave Whisperer.”
We’d rehearsed the lines, me playing Vincent and Richard playing himself. It was standard best practice. Everything was going smoothly so far. Next, Vincent would say something along the lines of “I’m glad to hear you’re a fan. Surfing’s a big part of my company and you seem to understand that.”
Vincent glanced at his expensive sea-diver watch. “I have another meeting soon, so if you don’t mind, let’s cut straight to the point. Why should I trust you with my money?”
Shit. This wasn’t part of the plan. In a flash, I saw weeks of work flushed into oblivion. Panicking, I looked to Richard, hoping he’d pull something from a deep place of wisdom and experience.
Richard swallowed a hard lump, tiny beads of sweat dotting his brows. I’d never seen him so frazzled. “Of course, Mr. Sorenson. I’m going to let Kristen tell you more about our exciting investment strategies.”
I reeled in horror when I realized where that deep place was.
My mouth opened to protest, but I quickly shut it to avoid ruining what remained of our facade of professionalism. I didn’t dare look at Vincent, but I could feel his intense focus on me. Eyes wide, I fumbled through the documents in my dossier, trying my best to control my trembling fingers. If I screwed this up, Richard would blame me; he’d left me to drown.
“We’ve prepared materials illustrating the key benefits you’ll receive from choosing Waterbridge-Howser,” I somehow managed in a steady tone. I rose from my seat and walked over on shaky legs to hand Vincent the briefing materials we had planned to leave with him after we finished our pitch. What was I doing? Where was I taking this?
Stressed out by the situation as it was, I made an effort to avoid touching him in the exchange, but juggling the maneuver with everything else proved to be too complicated. I wobbled on my heels and fell, winding up with my chest and palms flat against his shirt, papers strewn across his lap.
I distantly registered strong hands catching my waist and my nipples instinctively tightened at the sensation. Something strange beneath my fingers caught my attention. Hard. Round. Circular. What was it?
He has nipple rings.
Curiosity overriding logic, my fingers pinched one of the rings through his shirt. I’d never met a guy who had nipple piercings before. His dark eyes locked with mine and I could swear for an instant I saw a spark turn into a smoldering fire.
When the silence passing between us became deafening, I collected my bearings and apologized emphatically.
“Are you okay?” he asked, his voice having the same effect on my body it had earlier.
No, your chest is too firm and I can’t focus. “I’m fine, thank you. Sorry for the clumsiness. As I was saying, we have experts specializing in diverse strategies to fit your goals. Think of us as partners. Our firm helps your firm grow.” He eyed me curiously and I felt my cheeks grow hot with embarrassment at the poor choice of words. “I mean wealth. Helps your wealth grow.”
Awkwardly, I returned to my seat. It was the longest five steps I’d ever taken. Vincent was silent, his attention focused on the materials. I couldn’t guess what he was thinking, only that the dark look in his expression couldn’t be good. I tried to fill the void by verbalizing what he was already reading and in the middle of my meandering explanation about discretionary allocations, he cut me off. “Who made these charts?”
We were already bombing this presentation and this was going to be the nail in the coffin. Poor presentation, poor graphs. Could it get any worse?
“Kristen did,” Richard said, surprising me. I made a mental note to strangle him when this was over.
Vincent looked at me with what I could only guess was a mixture of approval and fascination; it made him even more attractive, as if everything else wasn’t enough. “They’re good,” he said, flipping the page and moving on to study the next document.
At the first sign of positivity, Richard attempted to salvage our chances. He cleared his throat and over the next fifteen minutes made an eloquent speech about value-added returns ending full circle with the surfing analogies we’d practiced. Apparently I’d bought him enough time to reformulate our strategy.
Still, only a few slight nods hinted Vincent had actually been listening. Mostly, he was just reading the materials I gave him.
“Any questions, Mr. Sorenson?” Richard asked.
“No. That’s all I need to know.” Vincent’s rise from his seat indicated our meeting was over and we followed. “Thank you, Kristen.” He shook my hand first, then Richard’s. “Thank you, Dick.” Richard paused then reciprocated the handshake, seemingly ignoring the misnomer.
When we left Vincent’s office, my shoulders slumped and my body felt numb. Even the lively South African air couldn’t reinvigorate me. On the walk back to the hotel, I was tempted to call Richard out on his behavior during the meeting, particularly the part where he threw the entire burden on my shoulders when things started going sour. I studied his features, expecting to find him dejected since he had more to lose than me, but he looked surprisingly calm.
“We blew it, didn’t we?” I said, more as a statement than a question.
“Huh? I don’t know why you think that.”
“He wasn’t responding to the emotion-driven strategy like we practiced. He barely said a thing.”
Richard waved his hand as if dispelling an odor. “These brooding billionaire types, they just want you to think they’re dark and mysterious. It gets the ladies but it’s all an act. Did you see the guy? I was spot-on about his clothing. And I’m certain we aced that meeting. Don’t worry.”
I groaned. “Sure.”
“Besides, I think he was into you. That move where you tripped and groped his pecs was perfect. We couldn’t have planned something better.” Richard chuckled.
“Don’t tell anyone that happened,” I snapped. It was bad enough Richard knew about that mishap, but it’d be even worse if more people at the firm found out—there was no telling how they would interpret it. The office gossip would be trouble.
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