Man in Charge, page 1part #2 of Manly Series Series
Table of Contents
MAN IN CHARGE
The Manly Series
Steam Team Newsletter
Amazon Author Page
MAN IN CHARGE
BOOKS IN THE MANLY SERIES
To the wonderful readers who emailed me, begging for Tony and Cleo’s story. This one’s for you.
Please keep in mind that this story takes place before Leo and Juliette’s story in The Best Man. When you run across her in this book, Juliette has no idea Leo exists. Don’t let me confuse you!
All the books in this series are stand-alones, not sequels, but since they’re all about the same family, familiar characters will appear.
A HUMMINGBIRD IS LOOSE in the concert hall. It flutters in all its colorful glory, creating a stir wherever it flits.
At least that’s my impression when she finally lights on the empty seat beside me.
This bird (mid-twenties, striking) is every bit human. Her chin-length black hair is bobbed, and her skin is smooth-looking, flawless as a petal. Her plumage is a form-fitting dress, chopped at mid-thigh, looking like a kindergartner’s melted crayon box plastered with sequins.
She flutters some more, arranging herself on her velvet perch in our first-tier box that’s so near the stage she could float down to the cellos on a waft of air.
Break over, the house lights flicker, calling patrons back to their seats.
The man to her left—her date, presumably—hovers, tries to shush her into settling down.
Her hair swings when her head whirls toward him. “Don’t make me regret inviting you, Rodney,” she hisses.
Not exactly the tones of a sweet warbler.
The conductor taps his baton on the podium and raises his arms. An expectant hush descends over the auditorium.
“At least I got here on time,” the man named Rodney whines.
I barely control a smirk before my date lays a manicured hand on my forearm. “Shall I trade seats with you?” she asks.
Ah, Eleanor’s quiet voice is elegance personified, as polished as the jade collaring her delicate throat. She knows growing up with three brothers has left me prizing tranquility. But that same upbringing also taught me how to endure chaos. I pat her hand and shake my head. “Not necessary, but thank you.”
She leans a little forward, her sidewise glance taking in the creature on my left. A slightly raised brow is the only indication of her thoughts as she settles back into her seat. It’s one of the things I like best about Eleanor—she’s as serene as a woodland pool, never making waves. Good socialite wife material. I’m not sure why I haven’t taken that step with her. At thirty-one, it’s certainly time to consider it. Yet, we’ve never even discussed exclusivity in dating.
Violins staccato their way through Vivaldi’s Spring. Not my favorite of his Four Seasons, but apropos to this time of year and to the Baroque setting of the concert hall. It’s a good move, playing tunes that are familiar to the general public. Tom Clapp, the hall’s owner, is trying to convince people that saving this building is a good thing for the community. But it’s going to be a money pit. I’ve seen the structural engineer’s report. And as the owner’s financial advisor, I’m hard-pressed to suggest he sink as much money into it as it’s going to need. I accepted the tickets Tom gave me for tonight’s performance to refamiliarize myself with whatever magic used to be in this place. But tomorrow, when we talk, I’m going to have to give him the hard truth. This isn’t a project he needs to take on, and I’m sure not interested in funding it.
A flurry of activity beside me breaks into my musings. To the lilting strains in the middle of Spring, mimicking birds and bees doing Mother Nature’s bidding, my hummingbird rummages through her purse, reminding me of why I prefer to wait for films to hit cable rather than attending a movie theater where I’m forced to listen to peoples’ wrappers rustling, popcorn crunching, and straws slurping.
She produces a spiral pad and fancy enameled pen, flips through a few pages, and clicks the end of the pen. Predictably, it doesn’t work right on the first click, so she has to click the device a few more times.
I exchange a look with Eleanor, whose nose scrunches ever so slightly before emitting a tiny sniff. I agree; it is distracting. But not as much as the scratching on her pad. Interestingly, that furious activity coincides with the refrain in the music representing a torrent of rain.
Instead of being irritated, however, for some reason, I’m captivated, wondering what’s going to happen next. This is the most entertained I can remember being at a classical music concert.
It’s as though we’re in a video enactment of the concert masterpiece. An iPad would be an anachronism.
But probably less noisy.
As if I’ve transmitted the thought telepathically, the woman huffs and grabs her bag. From the corner of my eye, it’s apparent the pen is going to clatter to the floor. Fortunately I manage to snatch it up, while on her left, Rodney has shored up her purse as it threatened to slide off her lap in the opposite direction. She jerks it out of his hands and stares him down when he opens his mouth to say something. That gives me the opportunity to toss the pen in the bag’s capacious opening without her knowing.
I stifle a laugh and feel Eleanor twitch, but I can’t tell if it’s from mirth or disdain.
The music draws to a close, and since the program indicates the musicians aren’t going to perform all four of the concerti, the audience is allowed to applaud. Through the resounding noise, I barely catch hummingbird telling Rodney that she “has to make some drawings.”
Like moths drawn to flame, Eleanor and I watch as Rodney confesses to having no pen with him. He brandishes his smart phone.
“I can’t draw with a smart phone, Rodney. I need paper and pen or pencil. Or, wait, I could just snap some pictures.” She wrestles Rodney for the phone.
With a minimum of commotion, Eleanor opens her small jeweled evening bag, locates a very unfancy pen and holds it out to me. I give her a wink and a smile before turning to dangle it before the hummingbird.
She halts instantly and stares at the pen in my fingers. The hapless Rodney and I exchange a nod. The man really needs to grow a pair if he’s going to handle this high-strung beauty.
The applause dies down, and the conductor steps back up on his dais, rapping his baton for attention. Hummingbird lunges for my pen.
“Oh, thank you!”
Rodney shushes her, and I hold a finge
Only one click is required for this pen, and she scratches happily through some Handel. I, on the other hand, am absorbed by the scent I picked up when I leaned in to her. It’s what I imagine nectar might be—fragrant, alluring, designed to help propagate the species. No wonder poor Rodney is enthralled.
She’s way out of his league. He’s a drone to her queen bee.
Good Lord. My brother, Leo, is the family poet. I never have flowery thoughts. It must be the music. Maybe it’s time to go.
The pen taps in rhythm to the orchestra for a few beats before resuming the hummingbird’s drawing. Is the woman never still?
Her damnable purse falls over, and items spill out over the floor.
“Dammit!” Her muffled cry attracts angry eyes from the main seating below. Tossing aside the pen and pad, which Rodney manages to catch in mid-air, hummingbird dives to stem the waterfall of paraphernalia streaming out of her bag. Her dress rides dangerously high up the back of her thighs, hugging the delectable round of her backside that’s virtually waving in our faces as she scoops up her loot.
Rodney grabs for her hem, startling a squawk from her that elicits a smattering of shushes from the audience.
Enough. I reach down and wrap my hand around her upper arm. The contact makes her jerk, but I hold on. She sits back on her haunches and swings her head to the hand gripping her arm, following it up to me.
Even her eyes come from the crayon box. They’re the bluest blue I’ve ever seen. Not sky blue, navy blue, baby blue, or sapphire, but the clearest, intense blue imaginable.
I’m down for the count.
Right now, I couldn’t tell you my name if my life depended upon it. The orchestra could haul in a choir and perform the entire Hallelujah Chorus while I was lost in those eyes, and I’d never hear a note. This concert hall could fall in, and when the dust settled, I’d still be here, mesmerized.
Who the hell is this woman?
She looks as though she’s shocked, too. It’s the first time tonight I’ve seen her really, truly still.
Wordlessly, I hand over her stuff. Our fingers touch in passing, and there’s no mistaking her gasp. One side of my mouth pulls up.
Yes, beauty, you just responded to my touch. Rodney has no idea how to keep you still.
And with that surprising thought, the spell is broken.
Strains of the end of Moonlight Sonata sound.
In the midst of applause, Eleanor and I excuse ourselves and leave.
A hand circles my upper arm. I stop and follow the tanned skin to where it disappears into a sparkling white cuff. My eye trails up the dark suit to the face of the quiet man. And my world stops. My head doesn’t chatter at me, my legs don’t bounce with energy to release, my muscles relax, maybe for the first time in weeks…months.
Relief. Is this what meditation is supposed to feel like?
I scan his face. He doesn’t look much older than I am, but there’s a seriousness about him, a soberness I rarely see in the faces of people our age. His jaw is clean and strong. His eyes and skin are about the same soft shade of caramel. Dark hair with an expensive cut, groomed brows and sideburns. His lips aren’t full, but neither do they look pinched or mean. Just serious. Like maybe they don’t practice smiling very often.
He passes me a handful of items collected from the floor, and when his fingers graze my palm, I’m jolted into awareness of him on another level. Unable to tear my gaze from that face, I feel his vitality and power surge through me, blanketing me from the inside out. It’s like nothing I’ve ever experienced.
And it feels good. Replenishing.
One side of his mouth lifts, and his sherry eyes sparkle for just a moment. They’re saying something to me, something I don’t know how to interpret.
I’d like to learn their language.
Who is this man?
I open my mouth to ask, but applause bursts, and he slips away.
I’m left with a sense of loss I don’t understand. After all, the man’s a complete stranger.
Rodney chooses this moment to remind me of his presence. He looks so foreign to me after the stranger, that I have to blink and refocus.
“This is very gentle music, Cleo. Try to let it calm you.”
His words are an unwelcome intrusion. “I am calm, Rodney.”
Calmer than I’ve been all day, that is, considering the miserable photography shoot I halted, only midway done this afternoon. My fingers begin their twitchy pattern of pinkie to thumb, middle finger to thumb, ring finger to thumb, pointer to thumb, middle to thumb again, middle extended over thumb, before reversing the pattern. Rinse, repeat. Some people mindlessly work their digits to roll a coin over and under adjacent fingers; I speed-tap this pattern with mine.
Rodney reaches over and clasps my hand in his. I contemplate eviscerating him, but after a hard glare through narrowed eyes, I switch to the fingers on my other hand instead. Foolish man, thinking he can cage me. I’m an ambidextrous twitcher. It helps expend energy and ground me while I worry over my ad campaign.
Never thought there could be such a thing as men that are too handsome, but I was drowning in them earlier. The bevy sent over by the modeling agency all looked like Michelangelo’s statue of David. Too pretty to poop. Putting underwear on them—even silk boxers—was like defiling perfection. Nobody’d ever buy skivvies from statues. So I had my exec, Janelle—who’s also a fabulous photographer—tear down the shoot and send the beautiful people home.
The music changes, and Rodney perks up. I study the program. Good, the concert’s almost over. Soon I can return to the land of the living. I’m enjoying the music, but I’d enjoy it more someplace where I could pace out my agitation with work, drink some tequila, and reassess the campaign.
It needs to be warmer, less high-tech looking somehow. That sterile black and gray set we used today just accentuated the models’ perfection. If I were a guy, with testicles, the idea of cool silk next to my skin in a room like that would make my balls shrink up inside my body for warmth.
No, I need more Ralph Lauren than Calvin Klein. I need models who are more real-rooking. Men who look strong and serious about carrying the weight of the world on their shoulders. The kind of men women love and men want to be.
Men like my stranger. He was real. Not a statue. Wonder how he’d look in silk boxers?
My fingers stop dancing. I can definitely see him, in a paneled room, maybe leaning against a heavy mahogany table, sporting these boxers, focused on a general ledger or a legal brief, looking fabulous. Or maybe…if buxom babes can adorn sexy automobiles, why not my stranger with a BMW or a Jag, or even a Hummer?
I rip my hand back from Rodney, grab my bag for my pad and the pen I got from my stranger and never returned, and I start scribbling notes to myself.
Oh, this campaign is going to be so good, if I can just find men who remind me of my stranger.
“Some on, Rodney,” I whisper, shoving everything back into my purse. “I’ve got work to do, and you’re holding me back .”
LIGHT SNOW FALLS past my office window in one of those freak events that sometimes happens in early spring here in North Carolina. Big, fat flakes drift lazily and melt instantly upon landing.
No color breaks up the sea of gray outside. No intense blue electrifies my day. Not a hummingbird in sight.
A chuckle huffs out of me as I wonder whose world she’s turning upside down today. Lousy weather probably just adds a layer to her chaos.
Flipping through my schedule, several items need my attention, and yet I’m having trouble finding focus. I pick up my phone to make the call to Tom I’ve been putting off about his concert hall project—it’s going to be a tricky call, and I’m too scattered. I drop the phone back onto my desk.
Women don’t usually get to me, not like this. None is more beautiful than Eleanor, but this alien hummingbird kee
The phone rings, and I grab it like a lifeline back to my brain. “DePaul here.”
“DePaul here, too, bro. I need a workout. Wanna join me?”
“Depends, Mick.” My test-pilot brother often uses unconventional means of exercising his muscles. “What’s on the agenda?”
His laugh is diabolical. “Pack a chute.”
Skydiving sounds wonderful right now but I really should get a few things off my desk, do the responsible thing, take care of peoples’ money. “It’s snowing, Ace.”
I sigh. “I’m not as keen as you to throw away my life. Besides, some of us have real jobs.”
“Fuck you,” he drawls good-naturedly. “Sac up and suit up, wuss. The financial world can do without you for a few hours.”
“Don’t be too sure. It’s in sad shape.” It’s our usual schtick.
“Will I still be able to buy that new plane in a couple of months?”
“Well, then, you’re out of excuses. Airport, thirty minutes.”
We toddle like Michelin men to the plane in our snowsuits and ski masks. From experience, I know that however chilly it is on the ground, it’s going to be at least twenty degrees chillier up there, and then the wind whipping around as we freefall will make things even colder.
I can’t wait.
In spite of the grief I give him about his many hairbrained schemes, Mick always calls me first of the three other brothers, because I usually say yes. I love the moments of exhilaration he plans. I just don’t allow myself a steady diet of it like he does.
The pilot nods a greeting and finishes his preflight checklist while Mick and I wrestle each other into the plane.
“You touch my ass again, and I’ll cut a few of your lines,” I threaten as Mick shoves my backside through the doorway of the Cessna specially fitted for jumpers. “Not enough to kill you, but enough to remind you to respect your elders.”
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