Maxwell sat behind his desk, his fingers steepled in front of him, his heavily lashed eyes almost closed as he spoke to his secretary, Carmen Valez.
"Have the office managers in the Los Angeles office and in Tokyo be prepared for our arrival," he instructed in his characteristically soft-spoken modulation.
His heavy baritone tended to sound threatening even in the most innocent of circumstances, Carmen recalled, thinking back to the early years of working with Maxwell. Over the years, he'd trained himself to speak in calm, measured tones, in a pitch so sensual and alluring that his voice seemed to compel the listener to draw closer and do his bidding. It bordered on hypnotic. But just as it could be a soothing balm, it could be as crushing as the blows he'd mastered as a ninth-degree black belt. Carmen was always grateful that his wrath had never been directed at her.
She'd been with Maxwell since he opened the doors of M.K. Enterprises, five years earlier. They'd worked side by side every day for those five years, and sometimes she felt she knew him no better today than she did when she walked in the door. Whatever Maxwell thought or felt about anything that wasn't job related, he kept to himself. It was rare that he allowed the man inside to show through. She felt privileged to have been the recipient of his inner thoughts on those rare occasions. That didn't make him unpleasant to work with. On the contrary, he was probably one of the most charming and certainly the most gorgeous man she'd ever worked for. But he never let anyone get beyond the invisible wall he'd erected around himself. She felt sorry for the poor soul assigned to write the article about the enigmatic Maxwell Knight.
"When should I expect the reporter, Maxwell?"
For a fraction of a second, a shadow seemed to pass across his exotic bronzed features. "The Board received a fax this morning stating that a Reese Delaware would be arriving this afternoon," he replied in a turned-off tone.
"Should I make flight arrangements for Mr. Delaware as well, since you'll be traveling together?"
"I'm sure Mr. Delaware can make his own arrangements. But should he need some assistance, see what you can do."
"No problem." She gazed at him and his eyes met hers. "It's going to be fine," she said softly. "Don't worry so much."
He waved off her well-meant sentiment. "You know how I feel about this whole business, Carmen. This reporter is going to be a royal pain in the ass, and I'm the one stuck with having to squire him around." He clenched his jaw in frustration. "Reporters have been the bane of my existence for as long as I can remember. I prefer to stay as far away from those vultures as possible."
Carmen pressed her lips together to suppress a smile. "At least try to be pleasant."
Maxwell grumbled something unintelligible deep in his throat.
"If you would just check and make sure that the house in San Diego is taken care of and fully stocked, I'd appreciate that. And make whatever accommodations are necessary for the trip to Tokyo."
"I'll take care of it right away, and then I'm off to lunch." Carmen rose to leave.
Slowly Maxwell lowered his hands and placed them on the table, the first time he'd moved since Carmen entered the room. He smiled. "Thank you, Carmen. I don't know what I'd do without you."
"Neither do I," she teased, closing the door gently behind her.
Pushing away from the desk, Maxwell stood. What was he so concerned about? he chastised himself. The reporter was interested in how a seemingly ordinary kid from Maryland had become the leading computer expert in the world, beating out the Microsoft giant by mere months in the development of the ultra-fast processing chip. He was the first black to reach the heights that he'd achieved in the industry. As a result, he continued to be a prime target for newshounds who wanted the "inside story." What made Maxwell Knight tick?
He sighed, resigning himself to the fact that there wasn't much he could do about the situation. However, he would not allow access to his private life. He would control the direction of the interview.
He recrossed the highly polished wood floors and around the partition to where his drafting table rested. Slipping out of his taupe jacket, he hung it on the back of the chair and sat down, rolling up one sleeve and then the other. He slid the magnifying lens over the grids on the paper and began to work. Within moments he was immersed in what he loved best, developing computer chip circuits.
The persistent buzzing on his intercom finally jarred him away from his work. Frowning, he checked his watch. "Damn." He'd been sitting at his desk for three hours straight. In one smooth motion, he hopped down from the stool and reached for the phone that hung on the wall behind him.
"Ah, the reporter from Visions Magazine is here." Carmen looked across to where Reese Delaware sat.
Maxwell clenched his jaw and drew a deep breath. "Send him in," he bit out, snatching his finger away from the intercom button.
"But it's not a?" Carmen's response was lost on him. She turned toward Reese, her smile wavering as she shrugged in apology. "He's really quite nice," she offered.
Reese picked up her heavy briefcase and crossed the space that separated her from Carmen. She stood in front of Carmen's desk. Reese's right eyebrow rose speculatively. "He thinks I'm a man," she stated more than asked, just the barest hint of amusement lacing her husky voice.
Carmen looked up at the striking woman, a tone of conspiracy in her response, "It appears so."
Reese's mouth curved into a grin. "May I go inside now?"
"Of course." Carmen stood up. "Follow me, Ms. Delaware. Mr. Knight's office is right down this corridor. I'm Carmen Valez, executive assistant in charge of East Coast operations and Mr. Knight's personal assistant. My desk is back there also, I'm just covering for lunch." They proceeded down the hall until they reached twin glass doors. Carmen placed her palm on the scanner and the doors slid open. Reese's eyes widened in awe. She'd only seen that done on television and in the movies.
She dutifully followed Carmen down the acoustically sound-treated, semi-hushed hall. Futuristic offices and security cubicles to the left and right were closed off from the hallway traffic by huge Plexiglas panels. Behind these smoke-tinted panels, high-tech equipment, most of which she couldn't even give a name to, occupied much of the space, expelling information to white-coated technicians and to others who looked no different from the video-game junkies who haunted the arcades.
What a group of nerds, she mused. She wondered if the mysterious Maxwell Knight was half as uninteresting.
Carmen stopped at the security panel and repeated the previous process. Upon entering the next corridor they turned left and Reese was instantly aware of the change in decor. There were no more glass walls. Heavy wood doors with gold-plated name tags had taken their place. Here was the suite of executive offices that ran M.K. Enterprises. "We call this the Black Forest because of all this oak," jibed Carmen.
She slowed, then stopped in front of an intricately carved door. She tapped once and turned the knob. Stepping aside she opened the door for Reese to enter.
Maxwell wasn't rude by nature, but this whole interview business had put him in a foul mood. He hadn't put on his jacket and didn't even bother to look up from his drafting table when the door opened.
"Have a seat, I'll be with you in a minute," he said with all the civility he could summon.
Reese's eyes swept across the room to locate the southern preacher's voice that seemed to emanate from the depths of a gospel standard.
Maxwell's heightened senses, ever alert, caught the subtle, yet potent whiff of her African Musk body oil before she'd stepped completely across the threshold. Every muscle in his body tensed, as if sensing imminent danger.
He came from around the dividing wall and their worlds collided. Reese Delaware was not a man by any means. The reality slammed against his invisible wall, causing tiny fissures in the structure.
Reese stepped farther into the room, noting the infinitesimal look of surprise that widened the irises of his unusual eyes. This was no nerd. She used her warm, slow smile as a beacon, allowing it to cut a path directly to his outstretched hand.
"Reese Delaware," she announced in a tone that seemed to stroke the tightened muscles of his body.
Husky, throaty, smoky, sultry. Her voice was all that and more. No. This definitely would not work.
"Ms. Delaware," he responded, his body virtually vibrating from the pressure of her slender hand in his. She was the first to pull away.
"I'm sorry you came all this way for nothing." He paused to gauge her reaction, and much to his chagrin he saw nothing.
She shot him a steady look from behind luminous amber eyes that seemed to whisper, "come to me."
He cleared his throat, his own hot stare meeting hers. "I'm sure that everything there is to know about my company can be gleaned from our annual reports."
Reese placed her briefcase at her feet, looked up at him from beneath heavy black lashes, then took a seat opposite his desk. With a deliberance that bordered on an "X" rating, she crossed her long legs. Her short, canary yellow skirt barely hit her mid-thigh. Max tore his gaze away.
"Let's get right to the point," she began, her low voice threading its way through his bloodstream. "You don't want me here. You know it and I know it. I don't have a problem with that, because I have a job to do, one which I take just as seriously as I'm sure you take yours. I intend to get my job done,' she added, emphasizing each word with an almost musical cadence. "So?" she exhaled a long breath "?we can do this the easy way or we can do it the ugly way." She flashed him a brilliant "Colgate" smile.
Damnit, he liked her. When was the last time that anyone, least of all a woman, told him just where to get off? However, these shaky emotions could be his undoing?and that couldn't happen. Think with the head on top of your neck, buddy, he warned himself.
"And not to belabor the subject," she continued, "but I'm not the least bit interested in your company, Mr. Knight." She paused for effect. "I'm interested in you."
Maxwell gave her a long, hard look. "Humph," he chuckled. "You seem pretty sure of yourself, Ms. Delaware."
"Call me Reese, since we'll be working so closely together. And yes, I am very sure of myself. I have to be in this business?Max." She saw the nerve jump beneath his right eye and mentally ticked off a point for herself. She couldn't afford to let her guard down for a minute. If he got the slightest inclination that he could railroad her, or intimidate her, this whole trip would be for nothing, just as he'd said. She had no intention of returning the ten-thousand-dollar advance. The money had been a lifesaver. Had it not been for the windfall, she'd probably be looking for someplace else to live. At least her apartment was secure for the time being. If only the other holes in her life could be filled as easily.
Maxwell turned away from her, took a seat behind his desk and proceeded to review the stack of documents in front of him. He didn't bother to look up when he next spoke. "I hope, Reese, that you're as talented at making yourself invisible as you claim you are at your job." He signed a document, put it to the side and continued, "I don't want to be hovered over, interrupted when I'm designing, or followed to the men's room."
She bit down on the inside of her lip to keep from laughing.
Suddenly he looked up, and she was assaulted once again by the allure of his eyes. She swallowed, cocked a brow and met his gaze head on.
"I was informed," he continued in that voice that could make a good girl do wicked things, "by the Board that you'd be with me for the next two months."
"I have that long to complete my story and hand it in," she corrected. "I'm sure I'll finish before then so that we can get out of each other's way as soon as possible."
The tiny corner of his mouth lifted, indicating the bare beginnings of a smile. "I hope you have your passport in order. After leaving the Los Angeles offices, I'll be heading to Tokyo."
"I'm aware of that. I was given your itinerary. Actually, I'm looking forward to the next six weeks." She smiled that slow, burning smile again and he felt his insides begin to smolder.
Maxwell stood and shoved his hands into his pants pockets, partly in dismissal, but mostly because he didn't know how his body would react if he touched her again.
Her eyes challenged his. She straightened her shoulders. "What time do you come in?"
Even a simple question sounded suggestive coming out of that mouth of hers, Maxwell thought, annoyed.
"I'm in the office by eight."
"Then I guess that's when we'll see each other again." She bent to retrieve her briefcase. "It was a pleasure to finally meet you Max. I'm sure we'll get along just fine."
"Take the elevator directly to your right," Maxwell instructed, ignoring the pseudo-friendly overture. "Security on board will see you out."
Without another word, she turned and strolled out of the office, her hips swaying to a slow, erotic beat that only she could hear.
Alone now in his office, Maxwell could hear the rapid beating of his heart, feel the throb that pulsed between his muscular thighs, smell the scent of her that had settled over him like morning dew. This isn't going to work, he realized, and the sooner that was understood the better. Maxwell strode across the room, slung his hand into his pants pockets and stood in front of the window. He'd find out how much her advance was and write a check to whomever. The quicker Reese Delaware was out of his way and his life, the better for everyone.
For several seconds, unobserved, Reese stood on the opposite side of Maxwell's door, concentrating on breathing and getting her legs to stop trembling. Briefly she shut her eyes, and took a deep, calming breath.
That was more than just animal magnetism in there, Reese realized as she pushed the button for the elevator. Whatever thing that connected them and virtually lit up the room with electricity was something so powerful, it frightened her with its force.