Jeannie's office door slammed with a clap of violence, causing a picture frame on her bookshelf to fall over. She was rid of her ex-husband. For good this time, she hoped.
Her ex had always been beautiful—the human replica of the statue of David. But watching that smooth, serene face distort into a vicious snarl never failed to chill her blood. She laid a hand on her throat, wishing she could rip away the fear strangling her.
With a low growl, she curled her hands into fists on her lap, clenching her jaw to stop her teeth from chattering. He can't hurt me anymore. She'd just told the bastard in no uncertain terms to never barge into her office again. Their divorce was finalized months ago, and they had nothing left to discuss.
At five feet one, she barely topped a garden gnome but she had cultivated a formidable presence that only an imbecile would test. No one could intimidate her. Not even her ex.
Unfortunately, his inopportune appearance might've made her late for a very important meeting. Jeannie Lim was the president of Package Deal, a nonprofit organization that helped women unexpectedly in the job market to get the career they deserve. While fundraising kept the organization afloat, their finances were stretched phyllo dough thin to accommodate the exponentially growing number of clients.
She'd had no choice but to reach out to her old friend Clark Nobu, the billionaire philanthropist. He was on the board of directors for the fashion giant Vivotex, and provided consultation for many Fortune 500 companies in need of his business expertise. He used much of the money he earned through that brilliant mind of his to help countless charitable organizations, and she wanted Package Deal to be one of them.
Jeannie, Clark and his late wife had met in college and been inseparable until Catherine's tragic death in a car accident a couple years ago. After the funeral, Clark had just disappeared. He'd ignored all Jeannie's calls and attempts to lure him back to the land of the living. She'd stopped trying after a year, exhausted with the divorce proceedings and her own pain. It was unfortunate that she had to reach out to him after years of no contact to basically ask him for money on behalf of Package Deal.
It wasn't just that he was her best bet at a significant donation, but it might be a way back into his life. She'd missed him, and wanted her friend back. He'd had time to mourn, and she'd had time to heal. Now they both needed to move on from their past, and rekindle their friendship.
And this time, he'd agreed to see her. That was so like Clark. When he needed help, he wouldn't let her near him, but the moment she asked for his help, he was there for her in a split second.
He had suggested a lunch meeting at a restaurant she'd never heard of. As the navigation app led her to the outskirts of downtown Los Angeles, Jeannie squinted through the windshield to search for the sign. She circled the block twice before she spotted the hole-in-the-wall storefront, and finally snagged a hard-to-get parking spot on the street after another trip around.
Jeannie walked in with three minutes to spare and smoothed down her gray dress suit. The restaurant had plain white walls and plastic chairs with a wood-fired spit roaster as its centerpiece. Her mouth watered from the aroma of roasted chicken but it certainly wasn't the type of place she'd expected to have what was essentially a business meeting.
Only a few tables were occupied. As she scanned the small space, a pair of intense brown eyes caught her gaze. Her breath hitched and a frisson of awareness trickled down her spine. The man had on a well-worn black T-shirt that outlined his broad chest and biceps. Overgrown black hair fell across his forehead, and even the thick beard covering half his face couldn't hide his wide sensuous mouth.
Catching herself ogling the intimidating stranger, she tore her eyes away from him. What's the matter with you? Maybe she was overdue for a hookup. No. A man was the last thing she needed. Wrangling her raging hormones, Jeannie released a shaky breath. Package Deal was her calling and she didn't need any messy distractions.
She checked her watch and saw it was a minute past noon. As she stood awkwardly near the entrance, waiting for someone to seat her, she felt the man's eyes lingering on her. Her heart performed a triple flip with the agility of an octogenarian. It was out of practice at pumping lust through her veins.
Where the hell is Clark?
The restaurant seemed to strain against its seams when the very tall, very broad man stood from his corner seat. He commanded attention and she obliged. She couldn't look away as he strode toward her.
"Jeannie?" His voice was rough and hot like the rest of him.
"Yes?" She blinked. How does he know my name?
"It's me. Clark." He grinned sheepishly, rubbing his beard. "Am I completely unrecognizable?"
"Clark Nobu?" she said a little too loudly.
His white teeth flashed as a full-blown grin spread across his face, the contrast blinding against his dark beard. "In the flesh."
"Oh, my gosh. I'm so sorry I didn't recognize you. But…" She waved her hands, outlining him in the air.
"I was climbing in Malaysia. I just set foot on American soil for the first time in weeks. Sorry I couldn't clean up first."
"Don't worry about it." She waved away his apology. "I really appreciate you finding time to meet with me."
"Are you kidding? Of course, I'll always meet with you," he said earnestly.
She arched her eyebrow and stared pointedly at him.
"Okay, okay." He held up his hands with a sheepish grin, which quickly morphed into a somber expression. "Sorry for not responding to your calls after Catherine died. I was working through…issues. But I wouldn't ignore you when you needed my help."
Jeannie had heard that Clark had changed into an adrenaline-seeking eccentric since losing Catherine, so she was relieved to find that he was still the laid-back frank guy he'd been in college. But what issues? She pushed aside the thought. They would have to revisit that later. For now, she had to deal with the mortifying fact that she'd been lusting after her college buddy.
There had always been a spark of attraction between them, but neither of them was ever in a position to dwell on it. They'd both been spoken for during their entire friendship, so they'd never acknowledged their attraction much less explored it. But now, both of them were single. Not that it mattered either way. She finally had her friend back in her life after two years. She wasn't going to risk that by acting on his magnetic pull on her.
Magnetic pull? Melodramatic much?
Clark led her to the table he'd gotten for them and pulled out her chair. She smirked at the old-fashioned gesture. "Since when have you been so chivalrous?"
"Shut up," he said, the tips of his ears reddening. "I'm just being polite."
"Since when have you been polite?"
"Point taken." He flashed his grin again and her heart flopped around like a fish out of water. "Let's order our lunch. I'm starving."
After the waitress took their order, Clark reviewed Jeannie's Package Deal proposal, asking insightful questions here and there until their food—roasted chicken, rice and beans, and fried plantains—arrived. They both dug in like people who hadn't eaten in days.
"God, this is so good," she moaned, her eyelids fluttering.
His heated gaze roamed her face and her breath caught in her throat. He blinked rapidly and averted his eyes. Looking down at his plate, he mumbled something in agreement and resumed shoveling chicken into his mouth. The brief tension soon dissipated as they ate in companionable silence, the food demanding their undivided attention.
"Tell me more about Package Deal," he said once they'd finished off half their plates.
"So many talented, intelligent women are overlooked because they don't have the confidence to put themselves out front." Goose bumps rose on her arms and her hands curled into fists. Her work meant so much to her. "I mean, one of our clients has a B.S. in physics from Cornell, and she was applying for data processing jobs before she came to us. Package Deal isn't only about giving those women nice suits. It's about making them believe in themselves."
"It sounds like you're doing something amazing, Jeannie. I'm impressed and very proud."
"Thank you," she said with a blush creeping up her neck.
Their server discreetly put their check on the table and walked away. Jeannie quickly pulled the bill toward her. "This was delicious. It'll be my treat. It's the least I can do for your time."
Her eyes widened when his rough hand covered her own. The touch zapped electricity through her body, and something dark flared in his eyes. His gaze moved to her parted lips, and lingered. Then he gently unfurled her fingers from the bill, and took it away from her. She belatedly frowned across at him.
"I'm the one who suggested a working lunch," he said with a shrug. "You buy next time."
"Next time?" Her heart jumped to her throat.
"I don't just write a check and ride off into the sunset."
"Does that mean…is that…a yes?" She stared at him with laser-beam intensity, holding her breath.
"Yes." He grinned. "I'll be donating the amount requested in the proposal, and will consider future donations based on how well our collaboration goes."
"Oh, thank God." She slumped in her seat. "And you're not just going to hand me a check and go off-grid again?"
"Working with charities is part of my job, and I don't half-ass things when it comes to work."
"Do you half-ass anything?" she said lightly, happy and relieved that he wasn't going to disappear again.
"No." His smile widened. "But I'm serious. I want to be kept apprised of Package Deal's progress and plans for future growth."
"You have a deal as long as you don't expect to have the final say in Package Deal's business." Jeannie lifted her chin, determined to stand up for her company and her clients. "I'll respect your input and take it into consideration but I can't promise anything beyond that."
"Yes, ma'am," he said with his hands raised in surrender. "You're quite formidable when it comes to your business."
"You'll find that I'm quite formidable, period." She leveled him with a steely gaze. "And if you pull another disappearing act on me, you'll find out exactly how formidable I am."
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