“I hate this!” Melanie muttered as she wiggled the bottom of her black dress down over her probably-too-round hips.
Melanie jumped, suddenly aware that she wasn’t alone in the elevator, and cringed. Unbeknownst to her in her frantic, nervous state, several additional people had filed into the elevator as well. “Oh!” she gasped, whirling around to stare. There were four men and two women, some dressed casually and some in suits. One of the women eyed Melanie with disdain and disapproval while the guy in the cheap suit and ugly tie next to her winked at Melanie. Then there was a taller man and…Woah! Big guy in the back, she thought and quickly looked away. Incredibly handsome guy! Facing forward again, she tried to act natural. Tried to act as if she hadn’t been shifting her clothes around in an odd, weird manner. “Um…Sorry! Talking to myself.”
Melanie glanced at the big guy in the back, then shivered slightly. Cold grey eyes! The coldest eyes she’d ever seen!
The man in a cream colored suit nodded, but Chilly Dude in the back was clearly amused. Melanie thought about explaining, but the fluttering butterflies crowding her nervous stomach distracted her. Besides, hadn’t Chilly Dude ever seen a woman shimmying her skirt down? He looked like the kind of man who had seen plenty of women out of their skirts during his lifetime. But…Chilly Dude probably didn’t stick around to watch the women dress again. He looked like the kind of guy who would be very…efficient…about his interludes.
Not that she’d been undressed! Melanie groaned mentally as she tried to collect her thoughts. No, she’d just…well, she tended to squirm when she was nervous. So while driving over here, she’d squirmed in her seat as she practiced her presentation. Simple explanation.
Nope, a man like Chilly Dude probably prided himself on making other people nervous! And seriously, just because she was…okay, so she was practically re-dressing herself in a public elevator. Trying to be fair, she acknowledged that the other occupants had a right to whatever reactions sprung to their minds when another person was acting odd. ‘Nuff said, she huffed slightly.
She closed her eyes and went over her spiel one more time. It’s for the kids. Math skills. Computer skills. Art and marketing and science and writing…it was all there. The program she wanted to build checked every box!
The elevator doors opened smoothly on the fifth floor and several people exited the elevator. The same thing happened on the tenth and twelfth floors. She breathed mindfully, trying to calm her nerves and slow her pulse.
Melanie leaned her head against the expensive wood paneling of the elevator. “You can do this. You are strong and brave and it doesn’t matter if he says no.”
“Is he going to say no?”
The deep voice startled her. Melanie opened her eyes to see Chilly Dude watching her. He was the only one left in the elevator when she’d thought she was finally alone! Once again, she was struck by how handsome he was – in a coldly amused sort of way. But honesty forced her to admit that he was truly gorgeous, with high cheekbones and those icy grey eyes! He wasn’t gorgeous in a traditional sense but in an I’ll-make-your-head-spin kind of way. The best kind of way, she thought.
She shook the thought out of her head. This definitely wasn’t the time to be fantasizing about an attractive man, even if he had the sexiest eyes she’d ever seen.
Wait! Hadn’t his eyes looked cold and unappealing just a moment ago?
Magic eyes, she decided.
Okay, now she was being ridiculous! There was no such thing as magic eyes! Good grief!
The man was still waiting for a response and she straightened her shoulders. “Um…yes. He’s probably going to say no.”
The man moved subtly closer, his head tilting curiously. “Perhaps you should ask a different question, then. I definitely wouldn’t say no to someone as beautiful as you.”
Charm? That was unexpected! Melanie almost whimpered as warmth flooded her veins. “Uh…well…” She’d never been any good at flirting. Flirting was for the sophisticated, beautiful people of this world. She wasn’t ugly, but she certainly wasn’t a femme fatale either! And this guy was way out of her league. Blinking, she remembered that the man was still waiting for an answer. It took her another moment to remind herself of the question. “The question isn’t very exciting, I’m afraid. Unfortunately, a lot of people have said no.”
Those grey eyes turned almost molten. “Ask me the question. Maybe I’ll say yes.”
Despite her nerves and the sensual tingles crawling down her spine, she laughed at the daring sparkle in his eyes. “I don’t need you to say yes. I need Jackson Hughes to say yes. He’s pretty famous for saying no.”
Chilly Dude moved closer, his eyes glowing with amusement and, for a moment, she wanted to move closer to him too. “Ah, but to a beautiful woman, I bet he’d say yes to just about any question.”
Melanie smiled crookedly. “You’re certainly charming enough, but you’re not the man I need.”
Did he actually move closer? “I could be,” he pointed out, his voice huskier. Deeper. And infinitely more dangerous. He’d gone from a charming flirt to a dangerous man on a mission in a flash. An incredibly attractive flirt, Melanie could generally handle. A dangerously charming man? Nope! In this case, she was drowning.
“I don’t think we are talking about the same issue anymore,” she whispered, feeling the wall of the elevator against her back. He was tall and shockingly attractive in an indefinable but almost magical way that set her body singing a “let’s go for it” song.
Those thin lips curled upward slightly. “Then let’s talk about the same issue. Change the subject.”
Oh, he was good! Licking her lips, she tried not to fidget, afraid that her body might betray her and drift closer to the man. She firmly reminded herself that she was a teacher. She was here in the capacity of a teacher. A sedate, non-dangerous, elementary school teacher! “I’m afraid the issue is pretty clear.”
Those lips shifted again. Not into a smile. She doubted he ever smiled. Hunted? Yeah. This guy was definitely a hunter! But did he ever smile or laugh? Most likely not.
He moved imperceptively closer. Melanie had no idea how he did it but…she kind of liked it! “So, tell me the issue and I’ll change it for you.”
She stared up into those silver eyes and wanted to change the subject. For the first time in her life, she wanted to flirt with a man. Unfortunately, she didn’t have time. “Tomatoes,” she admitted.
The startled look he gave her was enough to ease some of the thick tension. Obviously, tomatoes weren’t what he’d anticipated! “Tomatoes?”
“Yes. My mission has to do with tomatoes.” She laughed at his surprise. “Not a gorgeous man. More’s the pity,” she mumbled to herself. When she looked up at him, she knew she should have left off that last sentence. There was a fire burning in those silver eyes.
“Tomatoes are one of my favorite fruits,” he commented, stepping back but putting a hand to the small of her back as the elevator doors opened onto the executive floor.
She jerked slightly, startled by the heat that singed through her clothes where his hand touched her. “Um…yes. Most people don’t know that tomatoes are technically a fruit. I’m impressed.”
“I can do a whole lot better at impressing you if you’d have dinner with me tonight.”
She laughed, shocked, flattered, and wary even as she stepped away so that his hand fell from her back. “I’m sure you have many impressive skills, but no.”
“No?” he prompted, somehow moving closer so that he was towering over her, but somehow not in a threatening, scary way. Intimidating, yeah. But not scary or threatening, which was a remarkable talent! “No excuses? No justification as to why you won’t have dinner with me? Just a hard no?”
“I’m afraid so,” she told him. Glancing at her watch, she stepped away from him again. “Unfortunately, I have a meeting. It was a pleasure meeting a stranger in the elevator, especially one as confident and charming as you. But I have a meeting with a man reputed to be a real hard…umm–” she looked away, changing her phrasing so that it was more appropriate, “jerk. So, if you will excuse me, I need to compose myself in order to face a man that I’m fairly sure I’m not going to like.”
Handsome Mystery Man (no longer Chilly Dude) threw back his head, laughing at her quip. Thankfully, he would leave in a moment and he’d never know how appealing she found his amazing smile and the intoxicating sound of his unexpected laughter. Just a few minutes ago, she’d have wagered a good amount of money that he never smiled. But that laugh…it sent shock waves through her system. She wanted to say something funny so that he’d do it again. The sound was deep, joyful, and amazing! This man should laugh every moment of the day, she thought.
“Fine. I’ll leave you to compose yourself for your tedious meeting, my beautiful lady. But I am sure that we’ll meet again, very soon. So until then,” he lifted her hand to his lips, pressing a gentle kiss to her fingers and making her melt. “Good luck with your discussion on tomatoes.”
And then he was off, heading down the hallway. She watched until he disappeared, admiring both his shoulders and the confidence with which he walked. Hot, she thought with a shake of her head when he finally disappeared around the corner.
With a sigh, she turned to face the receptionist that stood guard over the executive floor.
“May I help you?” she asked in a painfully polite tone. The disapproving look in her eyes reminded Melanie that she was here in a professional capacity.
Melanie smiled, trying to mentally dredge up a previously untapped source of confidence. Maybe if she walked like her Handsome Mystery Man, she could gain a bit of his confidence as well. “I’m here to speak with Mr. Jackson Hughes. I have an appointment.”
The receptionist frowned slightly and looked at Melanie with an odd glance. Obviously startled, the woman peered down the hallway, then at the computer monitor in front of her. “Right,” she finally said. “Ms. Larsden?”
“Yes. That’s me,” Melanie said, smoothing nervous fingers down her skirt and trying not to wiggle apprehensively.
The receptionist looked uncomfortable or…confused? Melanie wasn’t sure how to interpret the woman’s hesitation. “Mr. Hughes…well, he knows that you’re here. I’ll let his assistant know that you’re ready to see him.”
“Thank you,” Melanie replied. A moment later, an older, rather elegant woman stepped into the reception area.
“Ms. Larsden?” When Melanie nodded, the woman smiled. “Mr. Hughes’ office is this way,” she led the way down the hallway.
There was a set of double doors and she heard a deep voice speaking on the phone. Melanie recognized that voice and a pit opened in her stomach. The butterflies that had started earlier in the elevator while she’d talked and…dare she say it? Flirted?...with the charming stranger had calmed during the odd interaction with the receptionist. But hearing that voice, those butterflies came back to life with a vengeance as she listened to the voice talking about exchange rates and combating something she assumed was the European competition.
She stepped into the office and he was there, winking cheekily at her as he leaned against the massive desk. “Yep. I gotta go. Send me the details and we’ll discuss it when I’m in London next week.”
He pressed a button on the phone, disconnecting the call. Melanie heard the door click closed behind her as his assistant gave them some privacy.
She felt trapped and tricked. Not a good combination because she hated being tricked. And she intensely disliked being trapped.
Frowning at the man she’d thought so charming only moments before, she tilted her head to the side slightly. Melanie didn’t even try to hide her irritation. “So…you’re Jackson Hughes.”
That charm was out in full force, she realized. “Yes. And I’m at your service to discuss tomatoes.”
Irritated now, she shifted her feet, unaware of her belligerent stance. “You didn’t think it might be pertinent to tell me who you were in the elevator?”
He chuckled as he came towards her. “Tell you I’m the hard-ass that you were planning to talk with but didn’t want to talk with because you thought I wouldn’t be interested in tomatoes?” He took her hand in his, leading her over to a sofa and two big, leather club chairs. “You said you were in need of a man. A man who can help you with tomatoes. Why don’t you tell me about your tomato issue? Maybe I can help.”
Melanie heard his teasing tone and her spine straightened with indignation. “You’re mocking me. I don’t like being mocked.” She hefted her tote bag higher onto her shoulder. “Good day, Mr. Hughes.” With that, she turned on her heel, stalking towards the door. Melanie hated being made to look foolish. She was so furious she could just…! Later, she might regret her righteous indignation, but right now, she felt good about walking out of this office as fast as she could!
“Wait!” he called back, reaching out to grab her arm.
Melanie looked down at his hand, startled by the tanned fingers against her pale skin. She should have worn a suit, she thought. But the black sheath dress made her feel powerful and confident. Obviously, the dress’s magical qualities were negated when next to this man. And she resented his power, his charm, and how appealing she found him.
She could see the conciliatory look in those incredible grey eyes. “I’m sorry that you feel that you’re being mocked. That definitely wasn’t my intention.” He paused, as if trying to show her his sincerity. Then he shifted slightly and continued. “Why don’t we start over, and you tell me about the tomatoes?”
He was still laughing at her and Melanie’s chin went up a notch. “I don’t think so.”
“Why not? I’m a willing audience. I’m enthralled by your beauty, especially your eyes. You have me at an advantage, so why not go for the kill?”
She stiffened, her fury making her whole body burn with righteous anger. “You’re still mocking me, Mr. Hughes. That’s not…”
He shook his head, the laughter draining his eyes. “I’m not mocking you, Ms. Larsden. I’m being honest. You are a beautiful woman and I’m more than interested, which is why I asked if you’d have dinner with me tonight. You have a willing audience. So please,” he waved towards the sitting area again. “Let’s sit down and you can tell me why you wanted to talk to me.”
Every instinct in her told her to run, to get as far away as she possibly could. But those eyes…! Darn it, his eyes looked as if he might be telling her the truth.
He lifted his dark eyebrows encouragingly, waiting for her to continue.
Melanie shook her head, sighing with resignation. Remember the kids, she thought. They deserved this program and…well, if this jerk needed to mock her, she’d take it. The kids…remember the kids.
She glared up at him. “Fine!” she snapped impatiently. “I’ll give you my spiel, you can say no and I’ll be on my way. Your assistant only gave me five minutes and I believe that time is already up. So…whenever you need to leave, just interrupt me.”
“I already told my assistant to cancel my next meeting. You have my rapt attention for the next hour.”
That surprised Melanie. No one had ever given her an hour! It was unheard of! People in his position gave her five minutes, tossed her a petty amount of funding, and considered their good deed for the day accomplished.
Perched on the edge of one of the leather chairs, she pulled out a pair of folders, handing one to him and keeping the other for herself. “I teach fifth grade at Norvel Elementary School, which is about…”
“I know where it is,” he interrupted, flipping through the pages quickly. “It’s that new school about five miles from here.”
She was stunned he had that kind of information at his fingertips. And slightly impressed, although he finished skimming through the information and closed the folder. Obviously, he’d dismissed her idea, which irritated her. But looking over the low, expensive coffee table, Melanie was even more determined than ever to get a donation for her project. Even if it was only fifty dollars, she wanted to win this conversation. She wanted to convince him to contribute. Why it was so important, she wasn’t really sure.
Taking a deep breath, she straightened her shoulders, trying to find that elusive confidence that Mr. Hughes seemed to have in spades.
“The program I’m trying to establish is a school-wide effort. We’re going to grow tomato plants, a full-cycle, start to finish effort. It sounds like a simple endeavor on the surface, but it’s actually quite complicated. Other schools that used this program discovered that the kids were surprisingly enthusiastic about the concept. Every grade and each school discipline will teach the students some aspect of tomato plants. The science department will teach the kids to grow the tomato plants. The art classes will draw posters to advertise the sale, once the plants are grown. The math classes will teach the children profit and loss, return on investment calculations, how to choose the best price to sell the plants based on how much the tomato plants cost to buy and grow. This is a school wide business, Mr. Hughes. This program will teach the children at every grade level how to start a business and grow it, plus how to grow plants, while offering a product that the community will buy, need, and actually use.” He didn’t seem interested. In fact, he appeared to be more intently focused on her legs than at the presentation in his hands. Invoking her “teacher’s voice”, she shifted her legs and leaned forward. “The cafeteria team suggested composting the leftover food from the lunches and using it for fertilizer, encouraging the use of natural and environmentally helpful fertilizers. So, we’re going to teach the kids how to compost, adding more complexity to the science aspect.” Nothing. No change in his expression. “As the project expands over the next few years, we can incorporate vermiculture, which is…”
“Using earthworms to compost,” he interrupted.
Melanie paused to look at him, startled by his knowledge. “Yes. Exactly. Most people don’t know that. The math classes will use the worms to explain exponential growth.”
“Worms will teach kids how to calculate exponential growth? How exactly?” he asked. Demanded, actually.
Aha! There was a brief flash of interest! Melanie leaned forward, really getting into her subject. “We buy one thousand earth worms. If we feed them properly and keep them in the right kind of housing that allows them to move through the soil easily, the earthworms will reproduce. Each earthworm lays about 20 eggs at a time, which take approximately three to five months to hatch, depending on the conditions. If you have one thousand worms, that’s…”
He chuckled softly. “Quite a lot of earthworms.”
She couldn’t stop the reciprocating grin. “Yes. It’s a lot of earthworms. But think of the ick factor! Kids in elementary school love gross things! Teaching kids how to do math with worms? They’ll love it!”
He laughed outright at that. “Yes, I can imagine the ick factor could be a motivating force.”
Melanie warmed to her subject now. “Plus, there’s the science in all of this. Once we get the program running, the science teachers help the kids to experiment on growing the tomato plants in the soil they’ve created through vermiculture versus the soil they buy at the hardware store versus the composted materials from the cafeteria. Math is important too. If they sell the tomato plants to the parents and the neighbors around the school, what is the profit margin? What could they do better? The English classes could write news articles about the progress of the tomato plants, the sales, the worms, the composting…it’s a school wide effort. Eventually, I’d like to grow a butterfly garden and show the kids how butterflies are important to the environment, allowing us to discuss the plants we need to grow the butterflies, and…”
He smiled, leaning back in his chair. “It sounds fascinating. So, why are you here?”
This was always the most difficult part. Goodness, she hated asking for money! She hated feeling like a beggar! Taking a deep breath, her muscles tensed and she looked at his nose. She’d found that looking at a person’s nose while being rejected was easier than looking into their eyes. “We’re looking for money to build the raised beds and the composting bins.” Too late, she glanced at his eyes!
His eyebrows went up. She smiled back at him, thinking about how she’d love to shave off those eyebrows. He wouldn’t be raising them then, now would he?!
Completely off topic, she reminded herself.
He flipped through the pages of her presentation, obviously playing for time. When he looked up, his eyes gave nothing away. “You talk about greenhouses and experimenting with temperature and condensation.”
That stopped her cold. “How did you…?’
He lifted the presentation slightly. “I read through the pages, Ms. Larsden. It’s all in here.”
She glanced down at the folder, stunned. “You…read it? While we were sitting here? But…” she trailed off, looking into his eyes and those damnable eyebrows lifted as he waited for her to finish. “You only skimmed the text, Mr. Hughes,” she declared.
He laughed again. “I read through every scintillating detail, Ms. Larsden. The raised beds will be built by the parents in the summer, before school starts. The composting bins will be right next to the raised beds. The plan is to plant one hundred tomato plants in April or May, depending on the weather. But over the winter, the students will start to compost, using the leaves from the fall as the base, and adding in the leftover food from the cafeteria.”
“How did you…?”
He leaned forward, resting his elbows on his knees. “What if you had greenhouses earlier? You could start the tomato plants as soon as the students start school in September. They could begin documenting the growth over the winter months, comparing the growth rates to those in the spring after the composted soil is created and the plants are out in the air. There’s also the issue of hardening for the plants. That’s another science project for the kids and could be connected to psychology and real life.”
She stared for a long moment, frozen. Greenhouses now? Comparison later? And adding in a psychology component? It was genius! But then reality came flooding back. Reality was such a downer, she thought. “We won’t have the money for the greenhouses by the beginning of the school year. We’re just…”
“You will if I donate the money,” he interrupted.
Her jaw practically hit her lap. He was going to buy the kids a greenhouse? “Umm…well, we don’t…”
He listed on his fingers. “You need two hundred dollars for the materials to build the raised beds. More for the soil. The composting bins are five hundred dollars each and you need two of them. Right there, that’s about two thousand dollars.”
“Yes, but…” she had only collected three hundred dollars in donations thus far and school was scheduled to start in four weeks. They couldn’t raise that much money by then.
“I’ll donate the money for all of it, plus the greenhouses. In addition, I’ll add in the cost of the worms and even start a mentoring program with my company. I can encourage my employees to donate their time and expertise to the project. Will that help?”
She was silent for a long moment, stunned by his offer. Then she nodded. “Yes! Yes, that would be wonderful!” she gasped. Her boss, the principal of the elementary school was fully on board with the project, as long as Melanie could find companies to donate the funding. And she couldn’t go to the parents for donations, because most couldn’t afford additional school costs. The school wasn’t located in one of the more affluent neighborhoods. “That’s incredibly generous of you.”
He leaned forward. “I want something in return though.”
Her heart plummeted. There was always a catch.
He smiled and Melanie knew that she wasn’t going to like whatever he said next. “I want you to have dinner with me tonight.”
Melanie swallowed. “Dinner?”
“Just dinner. No expectations beyond a meal. I’m not expecting sex. Just the pleasure of your company.”
Could she believe him?
Pulling herself together, she sat back, straightening her spine. “Mr. Hughes, I’m a fifth grade elementary school teacher.”
He smiled faintly before he asked, “Elementary school teachers don’t eat?”
A chuckle snuck up on her, but she looked away for a moment to school her expression before looking him directly in the eye. “I’m not for sale.”
He smiled and it was the first sincere smile she’d seen from him. It wasn’t mocking or teasing. It was a nice, genuine smile. And was there a bit of admiration mixed in with the sincerity?
“I respect that. I’d really like to take you to dinner and get to know you a little better.” He gestured with the folder in his hand. “In fact, to make it easier for you to decide, I’ll donate the money for the project simply because it’s a brilliant idea. The money isn’t contingent on you having dinner with me. Does that make my invitation more palatable?”
His assurance really did make her feel better. “Yes,” she finally replied.
“Yes, the invitation is better? Or yes, you’ll have dinner with me?”
She laughed, feeling her shoulders relax. “Yes, I would love to have dinner with you. And also, yes, I’ll take whatever donation you’d like to make towards the project. The kids at my school will appreciate every penny. Thank you.”
“Excellent!” he said and stood up. “I’ll pick you up at six.”
Melanie was stunned by the shock of excitement that hit her with the thought of going out to dinner with this man. She preceded him to the door, wondering if she’d just made the biggest mistake of her life.
Outside of his office, he stopped by his assistant’s desk, handing her the presentation. “Doris, draft a memo to the staff, letting them know about this project and that JJH Technologies will be partnering with the school on this. Call the accounting department and tell them to send a ten thousand dollar check to Ms. Larsden.”
Ten thousand? She gasped. “We don’t need that much!”
“You’ll figure out how to spend it,” he replied easily. “I’ll walk you to the elevator,” he told her, putting a hand to her back again. She trembled both with the speed of what was happening as well as with the heat that flooded her system. She wanted to tell him to slow down, but the words wouldn’t come out. She was too shocked, too overwhelmed. That sense of being trapped hit her. It was as if he was a steamroller and she’d started something that she couldn’t stop.
“Mr. Hughes,” she began, but Melanie wasn’t sure what to say.
They arrived at the elevators and he pressed the call button. “We’re having dinner tonight. You should call me Jackson,” he teased.
She pressed her lips together, but caught the daring look in his eyes. She didn’t want to say his name. For some reason, using his first name would cross a line that she couldn’t come back from. His name implied an intimacy she wasn’t ready for yet. Probably not ever!
His laughter stopped her and she wanted to tell him to stop doing that. His amusement caused her emotions to fluctuate between anger and heated sexual awareness.
He shifted so that his huge shoulders and dominating height hid her from the others passing by in the hallway. “You’re going to do everything possible to avoid using my name, aren’t you, Melanie?”
She turned to look when the elevator doors opened, almost sighing with relief at the escape. “I don’t know what you mean,” she said as she stepped pointedly into the sanctuary of the elevator.
He put a hand on the doors, keeping them from closing. “I’ll pick you up at six, Melanie. We’ll continue this discussion over dinner.”
He stepped back. She would have leaned against the back wall of the elevator in relief, but he stood there, watching as the doors closed. And with that look, she was still trapped. Still under his power.