The executive's assistant pressed a button, announcing Trisha's arrival.
A man responded with, "Send her in." The voice was deep and deadly serious. Had she come to the end of her journey? Did she at last stand at the mouth of the dragon's lair--the penthouse office of the legendary Lassiter Q. Dragan?
The air suddenly seemed frigid. Trisha felt chilled through, and weak in the knees. She squeezed Mr. Hodges arm tighter in an effort to remain upright.
He must have noticed, for he glanced at her. "Are you all right?"
She wasn't, but she didn't intend to turn into a Weeping Wanda. She and her mom had weathered many storms, just the two of them. If there was one thing Trisha learned from her mother, it was to face life with a positive attitude. Concentrating on her mother's good advice, Trisha managed a confident expression. "I'm fine."
He patted her hand, resting on his arm. "I'll leave you now." He walked her to the door and grasped the handle, then hesitated. Leaning close, he murmured, "Do what you feel in your heart is best--for you." His features were troubled.
She stared, unsure how to react. Do what you feel in your heart is best--for you! Was it advice or a warning?
With a nod of encouragement, he handed her her file folder and coat and opened the door, moving away as he did.
Lost in her mental quandary, she belatedly responded with a half-nod, which probably looked more like a convulsive tic than a reply.
"Come in, Miss August."
The booming command from beyond the door made her jump. On their own, her legs moved forward. It wasn't until after she felt a puff of air at her back, and heard the door whisper shut, that she managed to focus on the man across the room. He sat behind a large desk, the wall beyond him solid glass.
He rose to stand. Silhouetted against the window, he was little more than a black shape, a tall, broad-shouldered shadow-man. Since he wore no suit coat, his dress shirt was the most visible thing about him. The expanse of whiteness was bisected down the center by a dark tie.
He motioned her forward. "Please, come. Sit down."
Though his invitation into the room had been forceful, his tone was less formidable now, more inviting.
"Yes, sir." She walked toward the proffered chair. By the time she came within reach of his desk, her eyes had adjusted, and she could see his face. Shock made her stumble to a halt. "Oh...it's--it's..." She couldn't believe her eyes. The man from the coffee shop! The man she'd drenched with Colombian Dark Secret! "Mr. Gent?" She didn't know what to think. "I--I thought I was here to see Mr. Dragan."
He motioned her toward the chair. "Please sit down, Miss August. I'll explain."
She canted her head in the direction of the chair, but had a hard time removing her gaze from his face. Finally, she shifted her attention to the arm chair, sidled to it and sat down. But if he thought sitting would mean relaxing, he vastly misjudged her mental state. She sat erect, clutching her coat and her folder to her. "I'm sitting." Her tone held a surprising edge, considering how nervous she was. But she wanted answers.
He remained standing. "Would you care for coffee?"
She shook her head. "I get plenty of coffee, thanks."
He grasped the irony and pursed his lips. "Right." He surprised her by circling his desk and standing before her. She caught a whiff of his aftershave, tangy and masculine, like a cool breeze through a pine forest with the hint of smoke from a distant campfire. "May I have your coat, Miss August? I'll hang it up for you."
She's forgotten she had it and looked down, noticing she was crushing it to her, along with her poor folder. Annoyed with herself for showing anxiety in her body language, she tried to relax. "Why--yes, thanks." Their eyes met in a brief, electric shock. During the three days since she'd seen him, her imaginings had degraded badly. Those eyes, the color of polished steel, were so striking that to look at them made breathing difficult. She handed him her coat, then busied herself smoothing her crinkled folder on her lap.
"You're welcome," he said, but she avoided glancing his way. Flattening her hands on the folder, she stared out the window behind his desk. She could hear him move across the carpet as he deposited her coat somewhere. She continued to watch the snow flutter down. She breathed deeply, working on her poise.
After a moment he crossed her line of vision. Even the fleeting shadow moving before her made her pulse jump. So much for the calming influence of fluttering snow!
She found herself once again staring at the man as he took a seat and folded his hands on his desk top. She looked at his fingernails. They didn't shine with polish, but they were neatly trimmed. His fingers were long and graceful, in the most masculine sense of the word. Her gaze trailed over his torso, taking in broad shoulders, strong arms, muscular chest and taut belly. Those attributes not only refused to be camouflaged by his crisp, white shirt, but were somehow magnified. It almost seemed as though nature had taken special pains forming and perfecting him and then made sure no mere piece of cloth could mask such exquisite handiwork.
"Miss August, I'm sorry for the confusion," he said, drawing her gaze to his sharp, arresting features. "My name is Dragan, Lassiter Dragan. However, some of my business associates know me as Gent." He paused, looking at her with such intensity she felt it physically, a low humming in the center of her chest. It didn't help ease her breathing. "You see, Gent is a nickname."
She found herself biting her lower lip and made herself stop. That would be a clear sign of distress. "Oh?" she said "Then--why?" was all she could say.
"Why didn't I tell you who I am?"
She nodded. Was the man clairvoyant? The notion that such a handsome man could read her mind was disconcerting. On the other hand, if he could not only ask the questions, but answer them, too, it would make her malfunctioning mental processes less of a stumbling block.
"I'm a private person, Miss August," he began. "It's no secret that my name is well known in Kansas City. I was in a hurry that day, and signing Gent saved time." He glanced at his wristwatch, then back at her, as though the mention of time reminded him he was on a tight schedule. She wondered how many minutes he'd allotted for her. Peeking at her own watch, she noticed it was three-twenty. "I didn't anticipate meeting with you myself," he said. "I don't often handle preliminary meetings."
She was confused. "So--why am I here?"
He smiled briefly, the glint of his teeth disarming, yet strangely ominous.
She experienced a skittering along her spine and couldn't be sure what it meant--attraction? Foreboding? She had a feeling it was a little of both. "I'm glad you're a women who likes to get to the point." His gaze was steady, steely. "It's important that we do."
"Please--go on," she said. Her pounding heart couldn't stand much more punishment. Was it possible he might be considering giving her a loan? She threw out a silent prayer.
"The reason I had you see Herman Hodges was because I felt you needed a break. I get feelings about people, Miss August, and I felt you might be a good risk," he said. "My initial thought was to loan you the twenty-five thousand you want."
Her heart soared. She smiled and opened her mouth to begin an effusive thank you, along with a thousand reassurances that he wouldn't be sorry for putting his faith in her. But before she could speak, he held up a halting hand.
"However, something's come up that has made me rethink my original idea. Something that I feel could benefit us both." He paused, his nostrils flared, and his jaw muscles flexed. It seemed as though he was having trouble stating his proposal.
"Tell me, Mr. Dragan." She was almost sick with excitement. She'd come here expecting accusations, a reprimand at the least. Now, suddenly, a rich and powerful venture capitalist was actually talking about loaning her money. It didn't seem possible. But she wasn't dreaming. She bit the inside of her cheek and it hurt, so she knew she was really there. "I--I can make a success of my business plan. All I need is the chance."
"I'm sure that's true." He relaxed back in his big, executive chair. "That's why I'm prepared to offer you not only the bare-bones twenty-five thousand you need, but an additional twenty-five thousand, to upgrade the operation--and at the prime interest rate."
Trisha sat stunned. She wanted to scream with joy, but a tiny fragment of her mind sensed his offer was a smoke screen to obscure some hidden agenda. She didn't want to believe that, but no matter how she tried to shake off the feeling, it nagged. "I--I'm..." She swallowed to steady her voice. "I'm flattered, Mr. Dragan," she said. "But, why? Why would you do such a generous thing for me, when nobody else would give me the time of day?"
"The situation is unusual, Miss August." His lips curved in a half-smile that made her heart flutter and her nerves buzz ominously. "I have a small problem."
From the book A BRIDE FOR THE HOLIDAYS, by Renee Roszel
Published by Harlequin books S.A. Copyright © 2003 by Renee Roszel
Publication Date (USA), December 2003, ISBN # 0-373-03778-3
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