Maneater, page 1
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Copyright © February 2009 by Caitlyn Willows
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Evan Fairfax stared at the folders and miscellaneous papers stacked on the desk before him. How was it possible to be so excited and yet scared to death at the same time? This was the success he and his partners had been reaching for. And yet, one screwup and it could all slip through his fingers.
He’d been at the office through the night, planning, juggling, looking for that one special something to add to these events that would continue to profile Diamond Dust. So far nothing. But at this point, Evan wasn’t sure he could remember his name. Lack of sleep three nights in a row had a tendency to do that to a person.
The blinking red light on the phone drew his attention, mesmerized him. He’d be glad when Amy arrived and could answer the blasted phones. It seemed they hadn’t stopped ringing since she left the day before. He glanced at his watch, wincing when the band flexed and pulled the hairs on his wrist. She was late. Thirty minutes late.
The blinking stopped, the red light steady. Phoebe must have finally grabbed it from reception. No sooner did he think that than another light started blinking, and another, until all the open lines were flashing. His heart raced as panic gripped him. Here they were, thirty minutes into the day, the blasted phones were ringing, and poor Phoebe was probably already close to imploding. She was a great worker but didn’t handle stress well. Amy always managed to keep her centered and calm. Evan was too exhausted to deal with it.
“Where the fuck is Amy?” He shoved to his feet, sending his chair into the wall behind him as he did so.
“I was wondering that myself.” Evan startled when he looked up and saw Richard Hall swing the door closed behind him. “Got any coffee?” He aimed for the full coffeepot in the corner. Richard poured himself a cup, then turned around. His nose scrunched up. “God, you reek.”
“I pulled an all-nighter,” he mumbled. It had to be a sin for anyone to be so upbeat this early in the morning. Okay…so it was eight o’clock. Still…
“Again?” Richard poured what amounted to an equal amount of sugar and creamer into the gargantuan mug, confirming Evan’s opinion of what kept the man so buzzed.
“I’m worried sick over these Mardi Gras parties. How can we repeat the success we had at New Year’s? This is the big time, Richard. We have to equal ourselves or do even better, especially with every other event planner in town breathing down our necks.” And clients were continually weighing Diamond Dust against Random Brothers, after Random scored the biggest party of the year at New Year’s two weeks before. Despite Diamond Dust’s huge success, it paled in comparison to Random Brothers. Now Random Brothers was a victim of its own success -- overbooked and understaffed. Clients were swarming to Diamond Dust. Evan was determined not to turn any of them away, even though they too were overbooked and understaffed.
Screw it. That’s what outsourcing’s all about.
Richard bent to look in the small mirror perched beside the coffee station and flicked his fingers over his short brown hair until one errant strand fell into place. “Relax.” He spun around and plopped into the chair behind his desk. “I have an idea. Remember that --”
“Where the hell is Amy?” Spencer Griffith slammed the door behind him, taking them both by surprise and shocking Evan. Their third partner was the most mild mannered of the three of them. Good God, if he was that much on edge, Evan and Richard had already fallen into the abyss. And Evan thought he was skittish from pulling all-nighters.
Spencer jerked his thumb over his shoulder. “The waiting room is packed with people, the phone’s ringing off the hook, and Phoebe has murder in her eyes.”
“I’ll take care of it.” Evan started for the door.
Spencer reared away from him. “Good God, not like that you won’t. You stink! Don’t tell me you slept here all night again.” Mr. Perfectionist passed a scathing glance over Evan’s rumpled clothing. “You did!” He tsk-tsked. “The least you could do was keep a change of clothes here. Deodorant and a toothbrush wouldn’t hurt either.”
“I have those, smart-ass.” He loved these guys like brothers. Unfortunately, they often bickered like brothers too. At times like this, sharing a large office space wasn’t such a great idea.
“Then use them,” Spencer snapped. “I’ll take care of the visitors. You go” -- he brushed his hand at Evan -- “home. Shower, sleep, do something about the dark circles and bags under your eyes. And see if you can’t find out what the hell happened to Amy. I hate to think of her in an accident, what with her being pregnant and all.”
Evan added guilt to his list of woes. He hadn’t thought of Amy being hurt, just late. She did so much to help them keep things running smoothly, and he hadn’t even considered she might be in trouble. Spencer ducked out the door as Evan pulled his cell from his pants pocket and punched up Amy’s number. A generic voice mail answered him.
“Hey…it’s us. We’re just worried because --”
Spencer burst into the room. “Hang up. Hang up now.”
Richard was on his feet a second later. Puzzled, and now more than worried, Evan ended the call.
Spencer jerked his thumb over his shoulder. “Amy’s on maternity leave. Phoebe says Amy reminded us last night.”
They sank into their respective chairs, heads buried in their hands. Evan couldn’t speak for the others -- well, he could but wouldn’t -- but he’d never felt more stupid, more self-centered, than at that moment. If it wasn’t work related, Evan had ceased to care. Getting ahead, beating the competition, building Diamond Dust -- that had been his sole focus to the exclusion of everything else. Her greatest joy, this baby, and they’d all essentially ignored her.
Of course, their behavior was nothing new. They’d been locked in work mode from the beginning. Amy worked with them every day, managing their office with a precision that came as second nature to her. She knew what they were like. But this was her baby. They’d be lucky if she ever came back. Yet even as he realized this, Evan couldn’t help worrying about what they were going to do without her. Amy kept them functioning, well-ordered, organized. She was their glue.
“Phoebe said…” Spencer looked like Evan felt, like he was going to be sick. “Phoebe said if we don’t get
“Didn’t Amy take care of that before she left?” Richard asked.
“Apparently not,” Spencer snarled and shoved to his feet. “Fix it. I’m going to go help Phoebe.”
Richard was on his feet again, pacing the space between the desks. “Placate her any way you can. Offer to buy her lunch forever. Offer her a raise. Hell, give her anything she wants, but keep her here,” he shouted after him.
Evan reached for his desk phone. “I’ll call Oliver Holbrook and see what temp agency he uses.” He sure as hell wasn’t going to pick a name out of the phone book, and calling Amy was out of the question. They were in deep enough as it was. Evan wanted a solid recommendation he could rely on. Oliver Holbrook knew everyone.
“Wait!” Richard’s steps burned the space between them. “I want you to talk to him about something else while you’re at it. This might involve a face-to-face. There are some things Oliver won’t discuss over the phone.”
At this point Evan didn’t know whether to be scared or thrilled. “What is it?” He left the phone alone and sat on the edge of his desk. An unpleasant earthy smell arose from his pits. God…he did reek.
Richard put a few steps between them. “That idea I started to mention?”
“Remember the Elias New Year’s bash?”
How could he possibly forget? Diamond Dust’s events were a pale and distant second to Random Brothers’ crowning achievement for the millionaire. Everyone who was anyone was at the Elias party, including Evan and his partners…and a few very memorable ladies. Random Brothers had hired dominatrices to entertain Elias’s guests. The bevy of beauties had held court on a dais at the far corner of the ballroom. Not a one of them lifted a finger, much less a whip, to garner attention. They didn’t have to. They were damn hot. Most especially a certain redhead who had all three of their dicks hard with a mere glance, erections that lasted the duration of the party and beyond, to be resurrected, in his case, at the mere thought of her. Even now, when Evan was about as exhausted as he could get.
He eased into his chair to hide the bulge, then had to laugh. This position put him at eye level with Richard’s crotch; he had a boner of his own. Evan tore his gaze away and focused on the stack of notes he’d scribbled earlier.
“You want to hire dominatrices?” he managed to ask Richard.
“Just as the main attraction.”
“The redhead,” they said together. Evan remembered that her Domme name was Maneater. A little over-the-top but somehow appropriate, he supposed. Men and women were drawn to her. Her power and beauty were intoxicating, impossible to resist. Evan had been forced to admire from afar. The crowd around her and her friends never stopped. He’d wanted a…private audience or nothing at all. Nothing was exactly what he’d gotten.
“Having Maneater at any of the parties we’ve been hired to do would be the ultimate draw.” Richard perched on the edge of Evan’s desk. Out of the corner of his eye, Evan saw the man adjust his erection. He wished he had that luxury, because right now, his agony grew with every beat of his heart.
“There’s just something about that red hair…”
And her creamy skin, that aloofne in her green eyes, that hint of a smile, the way her fingers --
“Don’t get me wrong.” Richard squirmed again to find a comfortable position.
Good luck with that, buddy.
“The blonde and the brunette were damn hot too. If we could get each at one of the parties and then all three at the final event…”
“No,” Evan slowly replied as he shook his head. “We don’t want it to seem like we’re copying Random Brothers. We want a higher concept. Of course, with it being Mardi Gras, we could get away with a lot more.” More than Random ever dared.
“A demonstration, you think?”
Evan’s body hit overload at the thought. His brain shut down. “Perhaps a private showing. Ticket holders only.”
“Proceeds to charity?”
Man, they could rake in a fortune. News media would be all over it. Business would roll in. The possibilities… Oh, yes, the possibilities. They’d have to hire more staff, maybe find a bigger place -- things they admittedly needed now but had neglected to handle.
“Don’t get ahead of yourself.” Richard knew him too well, but then a near lifetime of friendship did have its benefits.
“Understood.” Evan reached again for the phone. “I’ll call about the temp service and see if Oliver has time to see me today.” With luck, Evan might be able to stop by after he went home to shower and change.
However, luck wasn’t with him.
In all the decades Richard had known Evan, he’d never seen him go so pale. His wan complexion made his dark blond hair look brown, his blue eyes more stark. He wondered if Evan was going to hurl and briefly considered grabbing the nearest trash can for him, just in case. Evan had been worrying himself into an ulcer over the high-profile jobs coming their way. It was the culmination of all their hard work, the realization of their dreams. Richard worried too. But losing sleep over it wasn’t going to make anything better. If Evan wasn’t careful, he wouldn’t live to reap the benefits of their rewards. And Richard couldn’t stand that thought. They’d all been together too long, planned so much. Each of them knew they couldn’t have done it without the other.
His eyes wide, Evan slipped the receiver back onto its cradle, almost as if in a trance. His voice barely above a whisper, he said, “He’s coming here.”
Richard wasn’t sure he’d heard correctly. “Who? Oliver? Oliver Holbrook’s coming here?”
“Yeah.” Evan pushed to his feet, looking dazed.
Richard could sympathize with that. At least Evan could move. Richard was frozen in place. The erection he’d sported daydreaming about Maneater fizzled. Hearing Oliver’s name did that to a man. The man had more power and control in his little finger than most men had in their entire bodies. A nod of approval from Oliver Holbrook meant everything. A well-timed tsk and a business might as well board up the windows. The hell of it was, Oliver did it all so seamlessly. The entrepreneurial entertainment mogul had his fingers in all the important pies just by employing sound business practices and without coercion.
“When?” Richard choked the word out.
“He’s in the area. Says he’ll be here in an hour. That he wanted to see the operation, what we’ve done to the place.”
Which would be nohing. Richard saw disaster looming on the horizon in big black scary letters. Once Oliver got a look at how crazy things were, especially today, they wouldn’t be able to book so much as a clown for any of their events. Amy could have covered their asses. Even eight months pregnant, she could charm the scales off a snake. But this…
“I won’t have time to go home,” Evan said. “I’m going to run to Target,” he said over his shoulder as he headed for the door, “and grab some stuff.”
“What do you intend to do about your stinkiness?” Richard shot at his backside.
“I’ll shave in the men’s room. Hell, I’ll take a bath in the sink if I have to.” Evan turned and gave him a grave look. “We can’t screw this up. I’ll run out the back door. Don’t forget to tell Spencer. And for God’s sake, make sure Phoebe’s not smacking her gum.”
Evan was totally stressed if he couldn’t remember it was their previous receptionist who’d been guilty of that habit. Amy had just about had her for lunch when she caught her. With grace, of course. The girl had left in tears and quit the next day.
Richard smoothed his tie and rehearsed the news as he walked to the outer office. Spencer manned Amy’s desk like he’d done it every day, but then, everything Spencer did was perfection. Not one hair out of place, clothing crisp and fresh, shoes shined even when he was crawling around trying to help put last-minute touches on the events they put together. It was a lovely facade. Richard smiled to himself. He’d seen Spencer sweat a million times, he
“Oliver Holbrook’s on his way here.”
Spencer’s brown eyes bulged out. His Adam’s apple bobbed up and down. “Here?” His voice squeaked like a prepubescent choirboy’s.
The telephones had the courtesy to pay silent homage to the upcoming visit while he briefed Spencer on the plan. Richard doubted he processed much. He’d be worrying about the people in the waiting room -- suppliers, caterers, potential clients -- Phoebe’s near meltdown, Evan’s exhaustion, and the fact the three of them still shared an open office space like college nerds playing business tycoon. It was great for tossing around ideas and the occasional paper airplane and wadded notes. Not so pleasant when they were at odds.
They could have done with a little distance, more privacy -- something Oliver had recommended during his visit the previous year. Smart businesses took Oliver’s advice to heart, since he didn’t give it to just anyone. When he did, it was like a benediction. If you were good enough for Oliver Holbrook’s attention, you were good enough for the world. That might explain why business had starting booming this last year. And here they’d glossed over that tidbit. At least they had a great conference room. He hoped that made a difference, showed Oliver they appreciated his advice. God, he could barely breathe.
“I’ll make sure we have coffee, water…” Spencer’s brain looked like it had gone bye-bye.
Richard cupped his shoulder. “No. Business as usual. Let’s start by seeing those people in the waiting room.”
Spencer nodded. They had a plan. Richard knew that was all he needed. Well, a hug might have helped, too. He wished he were brave enough to dare it. There was a time and place for the buddy-buddy stuff. Right now wasn’t it. They were leaning on each other emotionally enough the way it was lately and didn’t need to do so physically as well. Once this stumbling boulder was behind them, they could do the whole backslap, chug a beer, and all the bear hugs they wanted.
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