"We have to get better figures!" Lyndsay railed, slapping the file on the table. She caught sight of Luke's delighted expression, and realized she'd left herself open for one of his pithy comments. Wide open. Damn.
He opened his mouth, and Lyndsay lifted her forefinger. "Don't," she warned him.
Which, of course, meant everyone else at the long boardroom table swiveled to look at Luke, encouraging him to express himself.
He soaked up the attention, leaning back in his chair. The dark eyes danced with devilment while everyone waited for him to speak. Of course they would -- anything was better than facing Lyndsay's wrath. She had been tough on them, but lord how they deserved it this month.
Lyndsay braced herself as Luke pursed his lips and shrugged. "Well, boss, generally speaking most people want better figures, but I don't think I could stand the strain if you were to improve on yours."
"Competition too tough for you, Pierse?" she asked sweetly, deliberately misinterpreting him.
"What competition?" His face was bland.
Irritation flared and she drew in a breath, but before she could speak, Timothy leaned forward and tapped the file in front of her. "The medicos."
His quiet reminder lopped the head off her indignation. Lyndsay nodded at the mousy man next to her, and gathered her concentration. She addressed the twelve people that made up her department with the low voice she had cultivated to help her exude confidence and authority.
"This is the Public Relations department's worst month in five years. We're a front runner team, people, and that means our performance can be measure in tangible results. Figures. If we don't get those results, heads will roll." She glanced at each of them including, reluctantly, Luke.
He stared back at her with a straight face, but there was a glitter in his eyes that warned her he had more mischief brewing.
The problem with Luke was that he wasn't good looking enough, she decided. The dark, dark hair, that wasn't quite the perfect hero's pitch black, for instance. It was a deep shade of brown, which cast subtle highlights in sunlight, to contrast with the thick dark mass beneath created an interesting affect. The face wasn't precisely perfect. His jaw was solid instead of refined, and there was a dimple on the chin that wasn't quite symmetrical. And, too, there was a barely visible scar -- a tiny one -- on the corner of his jaw, that always made her wonder how he'd got it. His teeth were wonderfully white -- she knew that from watching him throw his head back and laugh, way too often, and usually at her expense. But the teeth weren't totally straight. No braces had ever smoothed them out to bland perfection. His hands were large and useful, the wrists strong with muscle, but the fingers were unexpectedly long, like a sensitive artist's hands. And the eyes -- she'd learned his black eyes gave away nothing. They danced all too often with amusement, humor, or mischief, but rarely anything else. Except on the odd occasion when she'd come upon him quietly, she had caught an expression that was almost contemplative and far away. On those few times she had assumed he'd been thinking about his beloved New York.
And his clothes weren't quite right either. Oh, he wore the latest suits, and the trendiest ties and shirts, but it was the way he wore them. Nearly always the tie was loosened and the collar button undone. Often, he pushed the jacket sleeves up -- or he would strip off the jacket, and roll his shirt sleeves up. And he would lounge against the edge of people's desks, his hands in his pockets -- an indolent pose that made Lyndsay's teeth ache. It was as if he was donning the high-powered account executive's uniform, but refusing to take it seriously.
All in all, the little imperfections gave him an intangible sense of character. It hinted of a past, and gave him more presence. And that was just the problem. If he had been model-perfect, if he had the immaculate grooming and plastic perfection of the oily, endlessly charming salesman, she might have been able to dismiss his presence in her mind and from her office.
But the fact was, he was a brilliant marketing man.
It was far from the first time she had regretted he was such a good salesman. If he had been one whit less than dazzling at bringing in business, she could justifiably curb his flamboyant ways.
She dragged her attention back to the task at hand.
"Now, Vince Gormley has agreed that figures have been lousy for a while because of the unseasonable weather, but we're coming up on Christmas, and the snow has come in just fine...recalcitrant weather won't do as an excuse any more."
Alexander, the third man of the marketing team, shook his head. "It's not just the weather. Ever since the Sherbourne Hotel added that convention center, they've been killing us."
"They've been marketing pretty heavily," Timothy added. "They're all over the Internet."
Lyndsay shook her head. "That's no excuse. Competition is the name of the game. That's why we have jobs in the first place. That's why marketing was invented."
"I heard Edison invented it to keep himself occupied on long journeys." It was Luke's voice. Of course it would be Luke, she thought grimly.
There were grins and muffled laughs around the table, but they quickly died. Luke looked in Lyndsay's direction and shrugged. "Well, who'd want to do it anywhere else except on a slow boat to China?"
"Unlike you, Pierse, most of us here love our jobs," she shot back.
"Yes, we all know you love your career, boss. You go into withdrawal symptoms by Sunday afternoon," Luke drawled.
"That's on the weekends she actually stays at home," Timothy added, and Lyndsay frowned at him. It wasn't like Timothy to take Luke's side.
Timothy shrugged too. "Well, it's true," he added defensively. "Name one weekend you haven't come into the office this last month."
"Name one weekend he has!" Lyndsay demanded, pointing at Luke. She mentally winced, and withdrew her pointing finger. This wasn't the way a leader would act. This wasn't the way her mother would have acted. She took a deep breath, calming herself, and squared her shoulders.
"Rather than denigrating my efforts, it would be nice if I could see some symptoms of dedication in all of you. I want to see some results!" She pushed the file she had been holding out into the middle of the table. "And now you have the ideal opportunity to get some. I heard on the grapevine the other day that the Washington State Medical Association are shopping around for a new AGM location. They love holding the AGM here in Deerfoot Falls, but they're unhappy with the Sherbourne Hotel. They feel it's too commercial."
She watched the realization move around the table like a wave of warm air.
"We could steal one of Sherbourne's richest accounts from them," Alexander murmured. The twitching of his marketing instincts was apparent from his eager expression.
"Yes, we could," Lyndsay agreed, lifting her voice a little over the murmurs and comments around the table. "It's up to us to earn our salaries by bringing in business for the hotel. We seem to have lost sight of that fundamental fact, but this should serve as an overdue reminder."
"Who gets to go after the account?" Luke asked loudly, creating a silence.
"Are you about to impress upon me yet again your wonderful talents as a market man?" she asked dryly.
"I bring in more business than anyone here."
"Everyone, including you. Timothy ran figures for me, spread over the last six months, so smooth down those hackles of yours. I've brought in two thousand dollars more than you."
"Two thousand is chicken feed," Lyndsay protested. "Some of the executives we deal with have that much for incidental expenses!"
"It's still two thousand more than you bought in," Luke said flatly.
Impossible. Lyndsay sat silently, trying to counter this unprecedented change. Luke was doing better than her? That wasn't part of the plan. No-one could do better than her. How had she allowed this to happen?
"Face it, Lyndsay," Luke said quietly. "I'm the best PR man you've got. I should get the chance to land the account."
"And I'm the manager of the department," Lyndsay countered. She wanted this account for herself, now. She needed to shore up her record, and letting Luke in on it was a certain way to loose even more ground. The manager of the hotel, Vince Gormley, already thought Luke walked on water. What would he think if Luke pulled in the state's Medical Association, and the lucrative five year contract they were dangling?
Luke leaned well back in his chair, and waved a languid hand. "Of course, if you think you have to have the account to bolster your...figures," and he gave one of his little sideways grins that Lyndsay hated, "then feel free."
Lyndsay felt a sharp tug on the bottom of her jacket, and looked down. Timothy had hold of a great fistful of it, and was pulling down sharply, holding her on her seat, stopping her from jumping to her feet, as she was trying to do.
"What about both of you, then?" he said.
"Sure." Luke shrugged.
"Not in a million years!" Lyndsay shot back.
"What's wrong boss? Can't you stand the competition?" Luke asked sweetly.
"I didn't mean as a competition...." Timothy trailed off,
"Yeah, a competition!" Alexander crowed. "All right." He rubbed his hands together.
"I refuse to be a party to this!" Lyndsay had to lift her voice.
"It's just a friendly competition," someone called.
"Friendly, my left foot," Lyndsay returned. "I've seen these friendly competitions before. People get obsessed by them. Next thing you know, the staff of the entire hotel will be taking side bets."
"I can arrange that," Alexander volunteered.
"I said no." It was already getting out of hand. She needed to stop this right now.
"What if the stakes were high enough?" Luke asked with an innocent expression Lyndsay knew was a facade. That man had by-passed innocence when he moved from childhood to devil in one advanced leap. Lucifer Furey Pierse. The name fit him as well as his Armani suit did.
A tiny touch of fear fluttered through her. She didn't know Luke. That was the problem. Despite working with him for well over a year, she still didn't know him. What she did know, from hard experience, was that if she gave him an inch, he'd have six miles from her before she caught her breath. She had to stop it now. Here, and no further.
"No." She shook her head. "I'd don't care what the stakes are. I'm not doing it."
"What do you most want in the world?" Luke asked.
"I'm not even going to begin to talk about it, so you can save your charm and beguile for the clients you're supposed to be wooing," she snapped.
"You can have anything you want," he enticed.
"You'll supply whatever I want?" It was an astonishing offer.
Timothy laughed. "You can't do it," he told Luke. "No-one is going to be able to make her the hotel manager before her birthday unless Gormley spontaneously falls down dead."
"Who knows?" Luke swiveled around in his chair, sitting up, as if he was getting down to business. "I've got an uncle -- Ben -- used to drink a bottle of Bourbon a day -- and he swore he had the power to give people thrombosis, usually while they were eating chicken at the best restaurants in town--"
"And he claimed this before or after the daily bottle?" Lyndsay asked sweetly.
"Before. After the bottle he would confide that the gift was given to him by a passing gypsy when he born, in exchange for the cawl that was over his face. Personally I don't believe it, because his second wife -- my aunt Rose -- used to show me the cawl. His mother kept it in a dill pickle jar on the mantle shelf, and would pray to it every night."
A wave of giggles went around the room, but Lyndsay didn't feel at all amused. Luke's stories about his extended and eccentric family were already the stuff of legend around the office. He always produced them at the most auspicious moment -- usually when he was doing his best to annoy her. "And the point of this badly composed story?"
"Story? It's all true, every word of it." He managed to look offended, with a wide-eyed innocent expression that absolutely no-one took for real.
"Let me make this clear. You're offering to stick your uncle onto Gormley for me?" she asked.
"That would be difficult as Uncle Bill is dead."
"I thought he was called Ben?" Alexander asked.
"Lemme guess, he died of cirrhosis of the liver," Timothy said.
"Thrombosis," Luke corrected gravely. He glanced at Lyndsay. "But I don't have to worry about supplying what you want. You won't win. You can't. You don't have what it takes."
The bald statement took her breath away a little. And she was irritated by his timing. Did he have to lay down such a anarchistic challenge in front of everyone else?
"She won't play anyway," Timothy said with the flat certainty that came from having known Lyndsay for nearly twenty years.
Salt, black fury swept through her. To be judged aloud in this way, for people to make such assumptions of her.... Worse -- to be so thoroughly predictable...it stuck in her throat. "Oh, yes, I will play," she said swiftly. "And when I win, Luke leaves town. Forever. He goes back to the hole in New York he crawled out of."
"Done," Luke said swiftly.
Thoroughly ruffled, Lyndsay began packing up her papers and pens. "Fine. That's it for this month. Everyone knows what I want to see -- more business."
They all stood, gathering up their papers. It had been a short meeting, but intense. Lyndsay had only the one vital message to get across to them: Results! From the energetic way they were moving, she thought some of her drive had been communicated.
"Doesn't anyone want to know what I want out of the bet?" Luke asked in a loud voice that brought the room to a standstill.
"Well, yeah. Shoot," Timothy offered.
"No, wait, let me guess," Alexander interrupted, holding out his hand. He rubbed his temples like a mind-reader, and grinned. "52 return tickets to New York, one for every weekend."
There was a burst of laughter around the room, for everyone knew of Luke's passion for the far off city, and his habit of slipping aboard the Friday night flight. He'd arrive back in Deerfoot Falls on Monday morning with blood-shot eyes and a two-day growth, yet he would be full of energy and enthusiasm.
When Luke didn't instantly confirm Alex's guess, the laughter died away. Luke continued to gaze at Lyndsay. His black eyes were boring into her. Holding her attention.
"So, is it the plane tickets?" Timothy asked.
"No. It's a date with Lyndsay."
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