Authors: Jeanie London
Rex smiled, his smile alone overloading her senses. “I promise to be a gentleman and stop when you tell me to.”
Stop? The man had her surrounded. He blocked out the whole world with his body, sparked all those achy places he'd awakened with his magic hands while massaging her.
“Just one kiss to see if you like it.” And then he lowered his face toward her with exquisite slowness, allowing her a chance to retreat.
Decision by indecision.
The instant their lips met, April knew this would be like no kiss she'd ever experienced before. He seemed to explode with emotion. His muscles gathered against hers. He tucked her into all the sculpted places of his body, enfolded her in a layer of hard, aroused male.
Her every sense was heightened, focused on him intently. The steady beating of his heart. The feel of him draped over her. Her every breath became his as his mouth prowled hers hungrily, coaxing her lips wide, thrusting his tongue inside, devouring, demanding a reply.
She replied with the only answer that made any sense. She kissed him back
Once upon a time I worked for a Fortune 500 company and lived the whirlwind life of a career woman on the road. I discovered firsthand how easy it is to get caught up in the challenge of the job to the exclusion of all else.
Rex Holt is a man who loves his life on the roadâor so he thinks. Once April Stevens arrives to help him research the market for the Sensuous Collection, he realizes there is a whole lot of life he's missing out on. It doesn't take much more than some steamy nights between the sexy sheets to convince April that Rex is the man she wants to enjoy her life with, but there's one not-so-little problemâ¦.
Blaze is the place to explore red-hot romance, and I'm excited to write for a series that excels in steamy happily-ever-afters. I hope April and Rex's story brings you to happily-ever-after, too. Let me know. Drop me a line in care of Harlequin Books, 225 Duncan Mill Road, Don Mills, Ontario M3B 3K9, Canada. Or visit my Web site at www.jeanielondon.com. And don't forget to check out www.tryblaze.com.
Very truly yours,
53âABOUT THAT NIGHTâ¦
80âHOW TO HOST A SEDUCTION
For Ann Josephson, Kimberly Llewellyn and Tara Randel, the brilliant brainstorming buddies who helped me fan a tiny spark into a flaming love story.
And special thanks to Francine Bauer for introducing me to the fascinating world of nibbies!
To: Wilhemina Knox (mailto:[email protected])
Date: 3 Mar 2003 07:59:54-0500
Subject: Effective Stress Management
Install glory holes in the employees' bathroom stalls for a low-cost method of stress management!
Studies prove that the regular release of sexual tension contributes to the effective management of work-related stress, improving overall mental and physical performance. Condom dispensers located beside tissue holders will adequately meet all OSHA standards and state health requirements.
“Glory holes, hmm?” April Stevens frowned down at the hard copy of an e-mail post. She'd never heard of a glory hole, much less seen one, but she had no trouble grasping the concept. Or imagining the protruding body parts and variety of sex acts that might be performed through one.
As an investigative researcher for J.P. Mooney Investigators, Ltd., the premier agency in the Dallas area, April had witnessed a variety of oddball human behaviors during her eight-year tenure. The recommendation of glory holes in bathroom walls as a way to relieve work-related stress was a definite first.
Scanning the e-mail header, she noted the address and glanced back at her boss. He sat behind his desk, primed
and ready for her reaction, as though he'd sensed sex was the very last thing in the world she wanted to think about right now.
But her boss wasn't a mind reader, so she cocked a hip against the edge of his desk and gave nonchalance a stab. “Did someone send this post to Wilhemina as some sort of joke? I can't imagine she found it funny. It'sâ¦well,
John Patrick Mooney steepled his fingers before him and grinned a grin that April imagined had stopped quite a few hearts some thirty-odd years earlier. An undeniably attractive man in his sixties with knife-creased features, steely gray hair and piercing black eyes, he had this whole I've-seen-it-all-and-lived-to-tell attitude that people often found intimidating. The grin softened his appearance considerably.
Not that he needed softening for April. Not at all. Years ago John and Paula, his wife, had opened their home to April. And she'd worked for John in some capacity since her junior year in high schoolâthe year her search for her birth parents had introduced her to the world of private investigation. A world that had fascinated her enough to go into the field herself.
She'd convinced him she'd be an asset to his team despite her youth. He'd been insightful enough to give her a chance to prove herself. During her years with the company, she'd worked her way up from an administrative assistant to her current position as investigative researcher. While John Patrick Mooney might intimidate some people with his hard stare and deadpan expression, he didn't intimidate April. She'd seen up close what a fair and even kindhearted man he could be.
“It is raunchy,” he said. “And you're right. My sister-in-law didn't find it remotely funny.”
April could well imagine. Professionalism was the end-
all and be-all of Wilhemina's world. She was a woman who'd forged a corporate career for herself during a time when executive management positions were filled by men through the good-old-boys' network.
Wilhemina had chosen career over marriage and made no apologies, which meant that at holidays she showed up at John's house to commune with family. This also meant that she and April were kindred spirits because April had attached herself to the Mooney family, too.
“Why did Wilhemina send this?” she asked. “What's up?”
“This post isn't the only one to come across the Luxurious Bedding Company's computer network.” Reaching across his desk for the copy of the e-mail post, John held it up between them. “It's one of over
“Oh my.” An image of the proposed glory hole sprang to mind and April shook her head to clear it. “All to Wilhemina?”
“No, she's only one of the recipients. Someone is stalking employees at corporate headquarters with similar posts on a variety of, er,
topics. They're showing up in the different departmentsâexecutive management, operations, sales, human resources, even the warehouse.”
“Suggestive e-mails popping up during business hours.” She gave a short laugh. “I'll bet that makes for an interesting day on the job.”
“No joke. Wilhemina said the place has been bedlam. And the timing couldn't be worse. She's preparing to launch the Sensuous Collection. It's a high-profile launch and a risky time for the company. These posts are distracting the employees from their work. âSex on the brain' is the way she described it.”
April would just bet. Whether a person was offended or titillated by the idea of what two employees might do with
a stall wall and a cleverly positioned hole between them, one thing was clearâthat person would be thinking about sex.
And thinking about sex was exactly what April didn't want to do. She couldn't afford a case of sex on the brain right now. No way. No how.
Collection?” She urged John to get on with his point so she could figure out why he was telling all this to her. “Didn't Wilhemina tell me at Christmas that the reason she accepted this presidency was to get the company back on its feet after they crashed with the Cuddly, Cozy Winter Collection?”
Let your nights be about more than sleep,
she'd recited the jingle to April over eggnog.
Get cuddly and cozy with our Cuddly, Cozy Winter Collection.
A seemingly clever marketing campaign for a collection of sheet sets that should have translated into public recognition, huge sales and a solid bottom line. However this particular marketing campaign had proven so cuddly and cozy that consumers complained the advertisements had gone too far to promote the sensuality of their product. Morality groups had protested and the backlash against the Luxurious Bedding Company had resulted in the company's reorganization. Not to mention earning a defining nickname for the mattresses, bedding and sheet sets.
urious Bedding Company.
April remembered John telling Wilhemina she was crazy to take on a company in the throes of consumer condemnation. The board had thrown out the former president for getting them into such a mess. But Wilhemina had waxed poetic about the challenges and argued that she had a blowout strategy to turn the disapproval rating around by capitalizing on their new image.
“Is the Sensuous Collection Wilhemina's blowout strategy?”
John nodded. “It's a line of luxury bedding that will compete with the European manufacturers, who apparently dominate the market. She's hooked up with a high-ticket marketing consultant to help capitalize on their
“Is someone unhappy with the plan? Is that why they're stalking the employees with these sorts of posts?”
“The posts are being generated in-house at corporate headquarters.”
“Oh.” A disgruntled employee then. “Where do you fit in? Can't security track down the stalker with the network administrator's help? Shouldn't be that difficult.”
“Apparently that's not the case.” He set the e-mail post back on the desk and lifted his black gaze. “The posts are originating from computers all over headquarters, forwarding files to everyone in the address book.”
She whistled. “That must generate a ton of traffic. I don't imagine it's feasible for the administrator to monitor all the posts.”
“It's not. Wilhemina tried curtailing network activity in various departments to give the administrator a chance to track the problem posts, but every time activity slows down, the stalker stops sending the raunchy posts completely.”
“So our suspect is operating on the same premise as a computer worm or a virus. Very clever, really.” Good, bad or otherwise, April appreciated resourcefulness when she saw it. “What files get forwarded?”
“Mainly information dealing with the Sensuous Collection, which has raised the issue about whether these posts are meant to obstruct the collection's launch.”
“You're talking about corporate espionage?”
“It's a concern. Selling details about the Sensuous Col
lection could translate into big bucks if a rival manufacturer introduces a competing product line before the Luxurious Bedding Company launches. Wilhemina has turned the problem over to in-house security to conduct an internal investigation.”
“Has she asked you for advice on the investigation?”
John tapped his fingers on the desktop and met her gaze thoughtfully before answering. “The investigation is pretty clear-cut. The only thing they can do is eliminate their employees one by one. This isn't a mom-and-pop organization. While it's not Fortune 500, the Luxurious Bedding Company is large with the opportunity for spectacular growth if this collection takes off like the projections indicate.”
Which still wasn't explaining why John was holding on to that post. April must have looked confused because he said, “Wilhemina's got a rogue elementâa high-ticket independent marketing consultant. Rex Holt's his name.”
“Never heard of him.” And she'd prefer to keep it that way. She didn't need to be thinking about any man on a list of suspects who had the potential to get his jollies from stalking an entire company with the kind of posts she'd just read.
Not at this particular time in her life, at any rate. “If he's independent can't she just replace him? She'd eliminate one suspect from the equation.”
“He's not a suspect.”
“Wilhemina has worked with him a number of times before when she was running Duval Foods International. She doesn't think he has anything to do with the posts or corporate espionage. She's so sure that she's betting her career on it.”
That was saying something. “Yow.”
“Yow is right,” John agreed. “She's got a mess on her
hands. The board of directors is understandably edgy after being burned with the Cuddly, Cozy Winter Collection and they're pushing to opt out of their big bucks contract with this guy. Wilhemina says it's way too close to the launch to bring in another independent consultant and she needs Rex Holt to pull off this launch. Apparently he's big potatoes.”
“If she's so convinced her big spud isn't guilty, what's worrying the board?”
“Aside from the fact that Holt is the only one besides Wilhemina who has free run of the company at every level from operational to executive management, he also has means and opportunity. He consulted for a competitor a few years back. Wilhemina believes his past experience in the industry is working to their benefit but the board thinks it means loyalty to a rival manufacturer. Given the fact that he's out-of-house, I see their point. The guy's positioned to do a lot of damage.”
“Do you think Wilhemina's made a mistake?”
“I've been married to her sister for thirty-five years. Trust me, that one doesn't miss a trick.” He shook his head decidedly. “But even so, I've been looking into this guy's history the past few days and Holt's MO doesn't jive by a long shot. He's got references up the wazoo and he's considered one of the top marketing consultants nationwide. Big-name corporations are lined up for his services.”
“Then she wants you to find out who's sending these posts?”
“Wilhemina has decided to buck the board on this but she's up against a time limit. Holt will be moving his base of operations out of corporate headquarters to conduct marketing studies around the country. She needs to cover her
assâand his, tooâwhile he's out on the road. This is where we come in.”
That one word and the way John leveled a steely gaze her way shot April's internal alarm system into the red zone. “But you just said her in-house security is investigating and they've exhausted the computer angle.”
“I'm pulling you off the computer.”
April knew what was coming next and launched into evasive maneuvers to avoid yet another lecture about how twenty-five-year-old women should be out living life, rather than viewing it through a flat-screen computer monitor.
“I'm an investigative researcher, remember? I'm supposed to work behind a computer.”
You call yourself a researcher, but I don't have researchers on my payroll. Only
“But that's what I do. I
through the computer. Some agencies would call me an information specialist.”
“You work for
agency, April. I employ investigators who can work behind a computer
in the field.”
Could she help it that she was more comfortable with binary and circuitry than she was with English and humans?
John heaved a sigh that drove the alarm indicator in her head right off the gauge. The man was gearing up for an argument. She recognized the raised brows, the stiff neck and the squared shoulders as surely as if the word
had been tattooed across his forehead.
She took a judicious step back. Unfortunately, her sweater caught the edge of his in-box as she did. John came halfway out of his chair in a vain attempt to catch it, but the whole tray toppled off the desk with a clatter.
“No, no, don't get up,” she said, sinking to her knees to collect the scattered papers. “I've got them.”
She could feel his gaze on her as she gathered the various
documents and envelopes and quickly restacked them. By the time she returned the tray to his desk, her cheeks were hot and John was watching her with an expression of resignation that only made her blush burn hotter.
Backing away to minimum safe distance, she took a calming breath and another crack at appearing nonchalant. But John still looked resigned, which meant he wasn't buying her act.