Adjusting to his neat, minimalist office after weeks immersed in the wild beauty of Malaysia was proving to be a challenge. The uncluttered open space usually helped streamline his thoughts, but not today. Clark dragged his fingers through his hair and drew them away with a growl. He'd sheared off his shaggy mane close to the scalp, and the respectable cut didn't provide any traction to ease his frustration.
Seeing Jeannie after two years apart had felt good. Maybe too good. He'd shut out the world when Catherine died, including his closest friend. And he hadn't allowed himself to acknowledge how much he'd missed Jeannie—talking to her, laughing with her. He stomped down on the tenderness that threatened to rise to the surface. This was about helping Jeannie in a business capacity. Nothing more.
But he couldn't imagine a purely business relationship between them. How would that even be possible? He tugged at the suddenly suffocating knot of his tie and unbuttoned his shirt at the throat. Before she died, Catherine hadn't been happy with his friendship with Jeannie. Even when he'd reassured her that what they had was purely platonic, she didn't like how emotionally invested he was in Jeannie. The pain of Catherine's death had clouded his judgment and he'd severed ties with his friend when he probably needed her the most.
Clark had been faithful to his late wife despite her fears, and there was nothing wrong with rebuilding his friendship with Jeannie now. She understood him at a level where he didn't have to find the words to explain himself. Her loyalty and sage advice helped him be a better man. He needed her to find his way back into the world. He wasn't going to hold back anymore. He wanted his friend back.
So why did he feel so guilty about that decision?
His assistant's voice floated through the intercom, scattering his conflicted thoughts. "Ms. Jeannie Lim is here to see you."
"Send her in." Clark's voice sounded as creaky as an unused door hinge. He coughed and cleared his throat. "Thanks."
Jeannie strode into his office, sheathed in a form-fitting white dress and black patent leather stilettos. When her beauty had blown him away at the restaurant, he'd convinced himself that he was just elated to see her after so long. But this time the physical impact of her presence was even more visceral, more intimate. He stood from behind his desk and waited for her to approach. Every muscle in his body tightened, some parts more than others. What the hell?
When she slowed to a stop in front of him, her eyes widened and her lips parted on a quick indrawn breath. Awareness—primal and pulsating—spun and tightened around them like a boa constrictor strangling its prey. He realized he was holding his breath when his head swam, and forced himself to exhale. If he wanted to win her back as a friend, he couldn't lust after her.
"Thanks for coming in, Jeannie," he said as casually as he could manage. "Have a seat."
"My pleasure." Her eyes glided up and down his frame, leaving sparks of fire against his skin. Then she murmured almost to herself, "I have to say, I actually preferred your hair long."
His eyebrows shot up in surprise. "Really?"
"Oh, crap. I don't know why I said that." She looked adorably embarrassed as she sat down on one of the guest chairs. "You look good either way."
"I'll take that. Thanks." It was ridiculous how happy her offhanded compliment made him. He ignored the twinge of guilt tugging uncomfortably at his conscience. "I have your check ready for you. I figured you would want it as soon as possible."
"Absolutely." She rubbed her hands together. "Hand over the moola."
"Man, you're demanding when it comes to money," he teased.
Jeannie threw back her head and laughed. "But seriously, thank you so much for your support. You won't believe how far this money will go for Package Deal. I'll make certain not a cent of it goes to waste."
"Tell me about your plans for the next quarter." He leaned back in his seat and linked his fingers behind his head. Her eyes roamed his torso, and he quickly extinguished a burst of male pride. "You do have a business plan?"
"Of course, I have a plan." She narrowed her eyes at him and sat up straighter. Then she succinctly outlined the basics of Package Deal's plan for the remainder of the year. "As you can see, Package Deal doesn't just run itself."
"Impressive. When's your next charity event?"
"In a week." She jutted her chin out.
"What kind of event is it?"
"Um…it's an auction?"
"Please send an invitation to my secretary and I'll make every effort to attend." He planned to take advantage of every opportunity he had to spend more time with her.
"What?" Her eyes widened. "But—"
"Date and time," he demanded.
"Next Saturday at 7:00 p.m."
"The JW Marriott at L.A. Live."
"Perfect. Don't worry about sending an invitation. I'll put it in my calendar right now." He kept his eyes lowered as he tapped on his phone. "I'll see you then."
"You're welcome to come." She worried her lips before she continued, "But you've withdrawn from the public eye—from everyone—since… Why now?"
"Now that I've reconnected with you, maybe I don't want to go back to being a hermit." Uneasy with his admission, he hurriedly added, "And as I explained before, I'm not a ghost benefactor. I take my donations and the causes very seriously. I can't attend every event, but since I'm available, I'd like to come and meet the rest of your staff. I'm sure they won't mind a helping hand."
"You're absolutely right," Jeannie said in a sudden about-face, her uncertainty instantly disappearing. Her hungry smile made him a bit nervous. "Auctioning off one of the most eligible bachelors in America would give Package Deal priceless exposure."
"Wait, what? I must've misheard." He huffed with incredulous laughter. "You're not implying that you're going to auction me off, are you?"
"Oh, didn't I mention that the event was a bachelor auction? The best way for you to help is to take your turn on the auction block. You'll do it, right?"
His jaw went slack and his laughter faded into dull shock. He'd already committed himself to lending a hand, and he couldn't back out without looking like an ass after his speech about how seriously he took his charitable donations.
"Right," he said.
Damn. She had him.
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