Risa nodded as the client on the other end of the phone described the part-time help she needed. "I think we have the perfect person—Deanna Simms. Do you have time to meet with her on Monday? 10:30, got it. Have a nice weekend!"
She hung up, tired from a long day but smiling. I love this job. Perfect Placement was her tribute to Maggie, her late mother. Even with her MBA and a loan from the bank, Risa couldn’t have built her business so quickly without her mom’s life insurance money. The Judge had controlled the funds until Risa turned twenty-one, even investing for her with lucrative results. Now, her work helped people find employment and acquire skills; many of those people were single mothers or housewives who had been out of the job market so long they needed help getting back in.
Maggie hadn’t had much help as a young, single mother, but she’d provided for her daughter. Risa knew her mother had often worried it wasn’t enough, though. Maggie had been so excited about the ways marrying the Judge, a wealthy man, could change Risa’s life. But he didn’t want a daughter. He only tolerated me because he loved her. For a man of the Judge’s stature to fall for his housekeeper had been like something out of a fairy tale…yet Risa remained cynical about happily ever afters.
"Rees? Shouldn’t you have left al—are you all right?"
Blinking, Risa sat bolt upright in her chair, startled to find Janine standing across the oak desk, a concerned expression on her All-American face. With her blond hair, blue eyes and rounded figure, Janine was as much the stereotypical female ideal as Phillip was the male. From an aesthetic standpoint, they would’ve made a cute couple.
Janine would probably resign if Risa volunteered that opinion. The two most important people in her life respected each other, yet had never really…clicked.
"I’m all right. I just didn’t see you there."
"Didn’t see me? From three feet away?" Janine fisted her hands at her hips. "You sure you’re all right? You aren’t still embarrassed about your little adventure earlier this week, are you? I know I laughed at the whole pajamas-and-mud-mask balcony story, but your hunky neighbor has probably forgotten all about it."
"As have I," Risa lied. She stood, cramming things into her scarred dark green briefcase. "I was just thinking about Mom. I guess Phillip’s proposal has made me a little emotional. Nostalgic."
Janine’s gaze softened. "That’s normal—she’ll be with you in spirit when the big day arrives. Speaking of Phillip, what time are you supposed to meet him?"
"In…" Risa glanced at her watch. "Yikes! How did it get so late? What are you even still doing here? It’s Friday. Go home, relax."
"I have three children. It’s easier to relax here."
"You work too hard. Your dragon-lady boss should schedule you for a vacation."
"Again, three kids. I can’t exactly jet off to the Caribbean with summer daycare tuition coming up." She looked wistful for a moment, then shook her head. "But we were talking about you. You need to get out of here if you’re going to be on time. Here."
Risa took the manila folder labeled ‘Deanna Simms,’ and her eyes widened. "I hadn’t even asked for it yet, how’d you know?"
Tapping her index finger against her temple, Janine said, "That’s why you pay me the big bucks. At least, it’s why I’m going to ask for the big bucks at my next evaluation."
"You’re an angel." Risa grabbed her suit jacket off the back of her chair, then strode toward the outer office. "Promise me you’re leaving, too, I don’t want you here working all night."
Despite the evening hour, the May sun blazed brightly over the parking lot. Accumulated heat from the day sizzled in shimmery waves off the asphalt. As Risa unlocked her car door, she calculated how much time she needed to dash home, get ready, then grab a cab to the downtown hotel that was hosting the fundraising gala. It wouldn’t look good to be late to the dinner where Phillip was being honored.
Tonight’s benefit was for a charity that helped financially enable sick children to receive treatment at specializing hospitals, even when those hospitals were across the country, defraying lodging costs for the families. Phillip had made a sizable donation. He hadn’t publicized his contribution, but since the organization was saying a special thank-you to him tonight, mention of his gift would inevitably make its way into the media.
Risa muttered a few choice words when congested conditions slowed downtown traffic. She could throw on her emergency brake, get out and walk—she’d probably get home faster. Since she was stuck anyway, she tried to be productive, making mental notes about people she still needed to find positions for, trying to think if there would be any bigwigs tonight who could use some extra administrative assistance.
Speaking of assistants…Janine looked so tired lately! It killed Risa that she couldn’t do more to help her friend. While the single mother was right about not being able to jet off to the tropics, Risa had done some work with a man who owned a resort in South Carolina and had promised her reduced rates if she and Phillip ever wanted to come up for the weekend. I’ll make a quick call tomorrow. Eventually, traffic got moving. Once in her apartment, she frantically got ready and was soon wobbling out of the elevator on a pair of sparkly blue high heels.
Through the lobby’s revolving glass doors, she spied the yellow cab pull up to the curb. That was fast, she noted with relief. She’d called from upstairs, while waiting for the hot rollers in her hair to cool, and asked them to get here as soon as possible. Thankfully, they’d surpassed her expectations. Deciding to tip the driver extra well, she tried to quicken her pace, which was difficult considering the stiff, strapless bustier she wore beneath her dress barely allowed her to breathe.
Between the heels and the corset-like instrument of torture, she wasn’t sure how she would smile and make pleasant small talk all night, but the tummy-tucking bustier had been necessary. Oh, sure, it was lacy and black and looked sexy, but the real reason she’d bought it was to hide the occasional pastry she had with her morning coffee and the pizza runs with Janine and her kids. The form-fitting cut of Risa’s glittering, midnight blue, sleeveless dress was lovely, but unforgiving.
Nodding to the night doorman as she passed, Risa approached the curbside cab.
"I believe that’s my taxi," a deep voice said behind her.
No, no, no. It was hers, and if it wasn’t, it would be when she finished begging. Refusing to relinquish her grip on the handle, she looked over her shoulder. But one look at the man behind her, and her breath caught in her throat, her pleading forgotten. "Wow. You clean up really nice."
"Thanks, I think." Devastating in a black tuxedo and graphite colored vest and tie, Jack Wolfe grinned his irreverently crooked half-smile. "You don’t look half bad yourself."
"Mr. Wolfe, Jack, I’m afraid there’s been a misunderstanding. You see-—"
The taxi driver rolled down the window, his expression and tone identically impatient. "What’s the delay, folks?"
"Just a misunderstanding," Risa answered. "The gentleman thought the taxi was for him."
"Right." The driver consulted a sheet of paper on a clipboard. "Here to pick up Jack Wolfe. You’re not together?"
Of course. Her cab was probably stuck on the side of the road somewhere with four flat tires.
"Jack, please, could I ask you a huge favor? I’m already running late, and I have to get across town to the Wynslette Manor Inn for—"
"The recognition dinner and benefit ball?" His eyes, made even more intensely silver by the color of his vest, widened. "Unbelievable. That’s where I was headed."
Relief hit her so hard her knees almost buckled. "Then we can share a cab?"
"By all means." He made shooing motions. "Get in."
She hastily obliged. Jack slid in next to her on the lumpy but thankfully clean bench seat, and had barely shut the door behind them when their driver sped off toward Peachtree. Risa inhaled, enjoying the subtle spiciness of her companion’s cologne. He smelled as good as he looked, and he looked good. Darting a sidelong peek in his direction, she was startled to find him staring at her.
"You’ll be the most beautiful woman there." The masculine appreciation lacing his voice made it clear the words weren’t empty flattery.
Sitting up a little taller, she told herself she was glad she’d worn the masochistic girdle thing that made her stomach flat and her silhouette sleek.
Jack added, "But of course, I’m sure your fiancé will say the same thing…he will be there, won’t he?"
"Of course. He’s one of the contributors being recognized. What about you, are you meeting a date?"
"Are you kidding? I couldn’t afford two tickets to this benefit." He laughed. "Actually, I don’t know many people on this side of town yet. Don’t mock me, but I invited one of my sisters. Her husband travels a lot on business, and I thought she’d enjoy a glamorous night out. But my niece Sara came down with a flu at the last minute, so I’m flying solo."
He’d have no trouble meeting women. All eyes would be on him the second he walked through the door. Except hers, of course; she’d be looking dutifully at Phillip. Truth be told, Phillip was more classically handsome. Still…
"How long have you been involved with the organization?" she asked.
He turned to look out the window, but not before she saw his smile straighten into a grim line. "A few years, I like their track record, everything they do for the kids and their families. I’d hoped to be raising kids by now, but… Anyway, since I don’t have children of my own to spend money on, I help groups like this."
"That’s wonderful." And it was, but she was preoccupied with how sad he sounded. Because of the divorce? She empathized with his longing to be a parent, to have a family. She envied him his siblings.
Jack cleared his throat. "So, what do you do?"
"I put people in their place."
One eyebrow quirked, and she was pleased to have put that gleam of amusement back in his eyes. "I wouldn’t imagine that pays well."
"I own Perfect Placement. We help people build job skills and find employment. A lot of temp to perm stuff and part-time work. We go through the interviewing process and test people’s computer literacy as well as other abilities. Then we match them up with companies who are short-handed and too busy to do their own searching and hiring."
"Sounds like you enjoy your job."
"I really do."
They talked a bit more about work and moved on to other subjects, like the Braves’ chances for the Pennant. By the time the cab pulled up in front of the Wynslette Manor, Risa felt as though she and Jack were old friends. Still, she couldn’t claim the same kind of comfort she had with Janine. As much as Risa enjoyed talking to Jack, she was never—much as she tried—unaware of the tension.
Did he feel the electric push and pull, too, or was it only on her end, the attraction and resulting guilt?
There’s nothing wrong with noticing a man’s attractive. And we were only making conversation to kill time.
They’d barely made it into the elegant ballroom, candlelit despite the many gorgeous chandeliers suspended over head, when Phillip appeared in front of her.
"There you are." He kissed her cheek. "I’ve been—what is he doing here?"
The guilt Risa had been feeling over her enjoyable cab ride with Jack turned to apprehension. Phillip’s normally smooth features were pinched as he glared at Jack, obviously just now recognizing her tuxedoed companion as her paint-spattered neighbor.
Jack’s smile didn’t reach his eyes. "If you mean why am I here with your fiancée, it’s because we shared a cab. If you mean how did riffraff like me get past security, you’d be amazed at who they’d let in to these things based solely on a donation."
Risa inserted herself between them, annoyed with men and all their accompanying testosterone. "The two of you obviously got off on the wrong foot, and we should fix that. Phillip, this is Jack Wolfe, a common supporter in the children’s cause—which is of course why we’re here. Jack, Phillip Donavan, the man I’m engaged to, as you know."
Studying Risa’s expression, Phillip sighed. "Sorry about my assumption the other night," he offered to the other man.
The two men shook hands, and Risa wondered if, despite their tight smiles of congeniality, they were trying to break each other’s fingers.
"I’m starving," she said brightly. "When do we eat?"
"The dinner presentation isn’t until eight," Phillip replied, "but how about I get you a glass of champagne, Clarise?"
"Thanks, but no. I was reminded the other night that champagne leaves me with a headache."
"What about a nice Chianti?" Jack suggested, his expression deadpan.
Recalling her Silence of the Lambs comment the night they’d met, she laughed—drawing a scowl from Phillip.
"If you’ll excuse us, Mr. Wolfe, Clarise and I have some important people we need to speak to."
Jack caught her gaze. "Maybe you’ll take pity on the guy with no date and save a dance for me later?"
Phillip’s arm tightened around her shoulder, and though she knew he was too politically correct to say anything, she also knew he disliked the idea. Which is just silly. At law firm dinners, they both danced with other people. Why was Jack Wolfe any different?
But he was. She knew it from the way her pulse sped up at the thought of being in his arms.
Obviously seeing her discomfort, Jack relented. "Never mind, I understand you’ll probably be busy. See you around the building, Risa."
As he drifted off through the crowd, she slanted her gaze up at Phillip. "He’s really a nice man, once you get to know him."
"I didn’t realize you knew him well," Phillip said mildly. He dropped a kiss to her brow. "Your taste is impeccable, darling. If you say he’s a decent guy, I’m sure you’re right."
Something was wrong with her. Why should her heart rate kick up at the mere thought of dancing with Jack, but not the brush of Phillip’s lips?
"Over here on your left, darling, are the Morrows. You remember—"
"Phillip, are you sure about us? Getting married I mean?"
His hands dropped to his sides, his expression uncharacteristically stunned. "Why would you say such a thing?"
She swallowed. "I wonder…should there be more passion?"
"Do you know how many awful ‘crimes of passion’ lawyers see committed every year? You know I find you a very attractive woman. Are you nervous about telling the Judge this weekend?"
They’d decided they’d tell him in person over Sunday brunch, but that wasn’t what worried her. "No, he’ll be thrilled. I just hope we’re happy."
"We’re perfect together," he assured her. "Isn’t this what you do full-time, find where a person belongs? You and I belong together, darling. Trust your instincts."
Easy for him to say. His instincts weren’t scared they were about to make a huge mistake.