Sydney sat in the conference room at Brass Cat Advertising, sipping her coffee and wishing the caramel latte could take her to an alternate reality. One where Derrick Porter wasn’t sitting in front of her. His presence had caught her off guard. Sydney took another sip of her coffee as she tried not to stare stupidly, but holy chocolate-covered cherries, the man was hot.
Dark hair and eyebrows made a striking contrast against his strong bone structure and fair skin. His lips, good grief. They looked so soft. Derrick’s long, lean body fit nicely in a suit. The material stretched over his broad shoulders and came in at the waist. He probably had amazing six-pack abs.
When they’d met that Saturday in running group, it hadn’t merely been the fog coupled with Sydney’s exhaustion and two-year streak of celibacy that had made Derrick appear so handsome. Even under the bright lights of the conference room, he was gorgeous. What rotten luck that she couldn’t seem to get away from him.
Great Oaks wasn’t exactly a large city. Eventually, she would have run into Derrick somewhere
. Maybe at the store or at some get-together at Carly’s. That wouldn’t have been too bad. She could have dealt with a polite conversation before walking away to catch her breath, pushing Derrick out of her head with every retreating step. On their Saturday-morning runs, Sydney had already planned to wear her earbuds and let her music help her be antisocial.
An ongoing work project was a much worse problem. As it turned out, Derrick knew her boss, Shayla. Only two days after meeting Derrick and trying not to think about the fact that their being partnered at their running group was an obvious setup, Sydney would not have the luxury of ignoring his existence. She ground her teeth.
Bringing her laptop to the table in the meeting room and pretending it was being slow to start had bought her about all the time and silence such distractions could bring. Sydney’s strategy during their first run with Jack’s new team had been to not talk much at all to the handsome, dark-haired man with the stunning grayish-blue eyes. Meeting with him about a graphic-design project didn’t allow for an easy way out.
Polite and professional. Keep it simple. No personal conversation. No X-rated fantasies about lawyers and conference-room tables. Remember he is a player.
Derrick had spoken with everyone at the meet-and-greet of their running group with charm and ease, the same way Jerk-off Jeff had charmed everyone in his presence. Including Sydney, once upon a time. But her former Prince Charming had turned out to be a lying man-whore. Derrick would most likely be no different. Maybe she was being unfair, but after all the shit she’d been through, Sydney wasn’t taking any chances. She was not really ready to date yet, especially not someone like Derrick.
Earlier that afternoon, when Shayla let her know there would be a lawyer representing the Great Oaks Merchants Association coming to meet with her, Sydney was excited and looking forward to the job. Great Oaks was in the process of getting itself back on the map after spending more than a decade nearly deserted. Sydney’s town house was built on the grounds of a former blue-jeans factory. Brass Cat Advertising was located in an abandoned convenience store, though it had been modernized a bit, and Shayla had added on to the back of the building to create more office space.
Things were beginning again in Great Oaks, and Sydney liked the idea of helping the Great Oaks Merchants Association members make their presence known. Using her graphic design to update logos and create designs for the Merchants Association was Sydney’s chance to give something back to the town that had given her such a feeling of peace and security after she had left the violence, fear, and regret of Seattle. The change of scenery had helped her more than she ever thought it would. Meeting Angel and deciding to adopt her had been an unplanned but wonderful decision. Great Oaks would be a good place to raise a child.
After discovering Sydney and Derrick knew each other, Shayla had announced she had some things to do and walked out of the conference room, oblivious to—or maybe just ignoring—Sydney’s please-don’t-leave-me-here-by-myself face.
Sydney put down her coffee cup and smiled what she hoped was a polite, businesslike smile that held no clue how handsome she found Derrick. He returned her smile, though his was warmer. Sydney noticed his bloodshot eyes.
“Allergies?” she asked, thinking of all the pollen blowing through the air. She had done her fair share of sneezing that morning. Cut the crap and move along, she chided herself. No reason to prolong the meeting chatting about the weather.
“That and a little vodka,” he told her with a regretful smile. “Celebrated a birthday Saturday night.”
Sydney wondered why a man would admit to drinking too much at a party if he was embarrassed by it, or perhaps his embarrassment was from the stupid things people did when they drank too much. Whatever. Not her problem. She didn’t even ask him whose birthday it had been.
Derrick handed her a file with several folders tucked inside. Each was full of ideas and sketches from different business owners who belonged to the Great Oaks Merchants Association. He placed one folder on top.
“Brick, Plank, and Stone is a construction company that especially needs help with its branding and logo. Seven hundred thousand acres in western Great Oaks were just sold off at auction and rezoned to allow residential homes and small-scale businesses to be built on the land.”
Sydney thought she caught the slightest edge of a grin from Derrick. Did he have a hand in the rezoning?
“Brick, Plank, and Stone,” he continued in his hypnotizing, mouthwateringly sexy voice, “wants to make sure they can secure a large amount of building contracts from the investment company who purchased the land. This one is the top priority. Then there are several other businesses that need pretty much the same: updated logos, graphics, captions, and different and better print to make their slogans more visible.”
Sydney mentally sighed in relief. The meeting was nearly over, and it didn’t look as if she would have to do much more than give him an occasional update. The sweat she had felt dampening her neck and thighs would soon be gone.
Derrick gave her his business card with his work number and e-mail. She took the card, and her fingers brushed his.
“We’ll meet soon to discuss progress.” The rich, deep tone of his voice filled the room and surrounded her like a favorite song. He looked straight at her. His bloodshot, blue-gray eyes were unlike any color she had ever mixed with her watercolors or oil paints. While she was listening and trying to think which shades of gray she could mix with the blue, she realized he had finished talking. She’d been in Sydneyland mixing paint colors and listening to the timbre of his voice like it was a background song.
“Uh, what? Sorry.” Sydney felt her cheeks get warm at being caught not paying attention, though he would never need to know why her mind had drifted. He laughed, the sound beautiful and…kind of rusty. Derrick told her they would meet up again soon.
The man made her break out into a sweat when she had to talk with him. She liked him, didn’t want to like him, and hated making small talk with people she didn’t know well. She could ignore him when they were running, but a business meeting was different. Sydney chided herself for being so silly. He was just a hot guy with whom she would be meeting about purely professional matters. Why couldn’t she make herself feel like it was no big deal? Why did the universe want to make things difficult? Can’t anything ever be easy?
She nodded and politely showed him the door.
“It was nice to see you again, Sydney.” The sound of Derrick’s voice made her knees weak. Obviously, something was wrong with her. They could handle business by e-mail. She could send him files.
Yet, Sydney wanted to hear the sound of his voice again. Soon.
GETTING SYDNEY TO give him a chance wouldn’t be easy, but Derrick didn’t care. He would just have to impress her. He needed to figure out a way to make Sydney see him as a man worthy of her attention. Was he though? He could pretend.
From the short amount of time Derrick had spent with Sydney, he was certain that she wasn’t just some random, attractive woman he could easily drool over for a moment and then forget. He also knew damned well that she thought he was good-looking. Carly had shared that with him, not seeming the least bit guilty at betraying her friend’s confidence.
Though Sydney was shy, her open smile and laughter among her friends indicated she cared for them, yet Sydney had closed Derrick out, not even willing to give him a chance as more than a running partner. That spoke of a woman who was guarded with her heart. Maybe because she gave so much of it? The thought was too much. Did he even deserve what she could give him if she let herself? Probably not, but he would take it. Anything she offered, he would take.
Derrick turned up the air-conditioning in his car. It wasn’t hot outside, but he needed to cool off in a big way. His pulse raced, and Derrick wiped away the sweat that had beaded on his forehead. Everything out the car window looked gray, and his ears roared. Anything Sydney gave him could be taken away. He didn’t deserve the good things that everyone else around him seemed to have. Other thoughts of the future and thoughts of a life with her turned to ash and dust in his mind in an instant.
Take it easy. One step at a time.
The wolf’s baritone echoed through Derrick’s mind, and he let the wolf ease his fears with more stupid clichés. The gray haze of anxiety dissolved, and the roaring in his ears muted as he considered giving up his plan to win Sydney over. After all, Derrick had only met her twice. What feelings could he possibly have for her? Derrick couldn’t name what he felt or why; it was just there, but he needed to forget about his plans to pursue the gorgeous redhead.
* * * *
The week brought Derrick plenty of distractions. Hard cases came to his firm involving difficult clients who needed a lot of patience. A lot of fucking patience. His alpha, Diane, the wolf in charge of shifter wolves in the western region of Virginia, had brought him disturbing news.
Three girls with supernatural abilities, all under the age of thirty, had been killed in the southeastern United States. One of the girls was multi-gifted, an animal shifter but also something else of the strange and special variety. The other two girls were most likely psy and possessed the ability to do unbelievably weird stuff with their minds, or they could have been weather shifters too. Hell, maybe both for all he knew.
Derrick had taken the folders full of lifeless pictures of the three dead women from Diane, along with the notes and all the miniscule details, and he had promised to bring her answers. Handling that kind of thing was part of his job now as a shifter representative for the state of Virginia in Shifters United. In addition to all that, Derrick was working on various projects to keep the land in Great Oaks from being overdeveloped. He had plenty to do, and if he continued to focus on all of it with a meditative vengeance, he could keep his mind clear. He was treading a thin line with his strategy of working himself into forgetting Sydney, and he knew it.
* * * *
One visit with Shayla Patrick while they waited for their workaholics’ support group meeting to start, and Derrick’s plan to view the luscious Sydney Reid as an ordinary acquaintance began to fall apart.
“So when are you gonna ask Sydney out? I know you’re both available. I think you’d be good together, but I haven’t heard her mention you.”
Sydney hadn’t even mentioned him? She hadn’t even brought up his name to say he was a player, to say she didn’t like him, didn’t trust him, or that he might be worth a second look? Just…nothing? Great. Sydney apparently had no problem forgetting him.
Shayla smiled. She might not be a shifter, but she could read him and probably anyone else in the world like a book. Derrick unclenched his jaw and let out his breath. He had been baited.
“Getting Sydney to agree to anything resembling a date with me might not be a simple task.” Derrick replied.
Shayla smiled at his answer like she knew something he didn’t.
The question of what to do about Sydney was still on Derrick’s mind as the meeting began. That particular evening during the discussion portion, Derrick shared a few things with the other members.
“Work and women,” he said were his two biggest coping mechanisms when his life had fallen apart. “But I can’t go back to being that way. I won’t. It’s… I don’t know. If I move forward the way I want to and everything gets wrecked, I don’t know if I can come back from that.”
“I take it there’s a new challenge on the horizon for you, Derrick?” Juan, their discussion leader, asked.
“Something like that.”
Juan wished Derrick well with his decision. The thing about Juan was that he didn’t offer a lot of advice or strong opinions. Shayla, on the other hand, didn’t seem to mind being direct.
As a few people lingered in the meeting room, munching on crackers and cheeses, Shayla told Derrick, “I know Syd. Maybe it might take some time and effort, but she’s not indifferent to you. No matter what she might lead you to believe.”
“And you know this how?” Derrick was searching for a reason, something to tell him whether he should close off or open up.
“While you were meeting with Syd, I was testing out the new security equipment. There are cameras now in the lobby and each meeting room. I really wanted to make sure the one in conference room A worked, so…”
“Testing out the equipment, spying. Semantics. Anyhow, I saw the way you looked at each other. And believe me, when she watched you walk out the door, she looked anything but indifferent.”
Christina Lynn Lambert