“Sorry.” The receptionist turned back to her computer and began tapping away.
“One minute,” Annabelle pleaded. “That's all I ask.”
“There's nothing I can do.”
Annabelle needed this meeting, and she needed it now. Pivoting on her heels, she rushed toward the paneled door at the far end of the reception area.
Annabelle dashed into an open hallway with a pair of offices on each side, one of them occupied by two buff young men in dress shirts and neckties. Ignoring them, she headed for an imposing mahogany door set into the center of the back wall and turned the knob.
The Python's office was the color of money: lacquered jade walls, thick moss carpet, and furniture upholstered in varying shades of green accented with bloodred pillows. An assortment of news photos and sports memorabilia hung behind the couch along with a rust-streaked white metal sign with faded black block letters that said beau vista. Appropriate, considering the sweeping wall of windows overlooking Lake Michigan in the distance. The Python himself sat behind a sleek, U-shaped desk, his high-backed chair turned toward the water view. She took in a state-of-the-art desktop computer, a small laptop, a BlackBerry, and a sophisticated black telephone console with enough buttons to land a jumbo jet. An executive headset lay abandoned next to it as the Python spoke directly into the receiver.
“The third-year money is good, but not if they cut you early,” he said in a voice that was deeply resonant, crisp, and mid-western. “I know it's a gamble, but if you sign for one year, we can play the free agent market.” She glimpsed a strong tanned wrist, a rugged watch, and long tapered fingers curled around the receiver. “Ultimately, it's your decision, Jamal. All I can do is advise you.”
The door burst open behind her, and the receptionist flew in, feathers ruffled like an offended parakeet. “I'm sorry, Heath. She got past me.”
The Python turned slowly in his chair, and Annabelle felt as if she'd been punched in the stomach.
He was square-jawed and tough, everything about him proclaiming a brash, self-made man—a roughneck who'd flunked charm school the first couple of times around but finally gotten it right on the third pass. His hair was thick and crisp, its rich color a cross between a leather portfolio and a bottle of Bud. He had a straight, confident nose and bold dark eyebrows, one of which was bisected near the end with a thin pale scar. The firm set of his well-molded mouth proclaimed a low tolerance for fools, a passion for hard work that bordered on obsession, and possibly—although this might be her imagination—a determination to own a small chalet near St. Tropez before he was fifty. If it weren't for a vague irregularity to his features, he would have been unbearably gorgeous. Instead, he was merely drop-dead good-looking. What did a man like this need with a matchmaker?
As he spoke into the phone, he turned his eyes on her. They were the exact green of a hundred-dollar bill singed at the edges with displeasure. “This is what you pay me for, Jamal.” He took in Annabelle's disheveled appearance and shot the receptionist a hard look. “I'll talk to Ray this afternoon. Take care of that hammy. And tell Audette I'm sending her another case of Krug grande cuvee.”
“Your eleven o'clock appointment,” the receptionist said as he hung up. “I told her she was too late to see you.”
He shoved aside a copy of Pro Football Weekly. His hands were broad, his fingernails clean and neatly clipped. Still, it wasn't hard to imagine them ringed with motor oil. She took in a navy print necktie that probably cost more than her entire outfit and the perfect fit of his pale blue dress shirt, which could only have been custom-made to accommodate the width of his shoulders before tapering toward his waist.
“Apparently, she doesn't listen well.” His shirt molded to an impressive chest as he shifted in his chair, making Annabelle uncomfortably aware of a junior high science lesson she vaguely remembered about pythons.
They swallowed their prey whole. Head first.
“Do you want me to call security?” the receptionist asked.
He turned his predator's eyes on her, leaving Annabelle at the receiving end of another of those knockout punches. Despite the effort he'd taken to polish all those rough edges, the bar brawler still showed. “I think I can handle her.”
A jolt of sexual awareness shot through her—so inappropriate, so unwelcome, so totally out of place that she bumped into one of the side chairs. She was never at her best around excessively confident men, and the absolute necessity of impressing this particular specimen made her silently curse her clumsiness right along with her rumpled suit and Medusa hair.
Molly had told her to be aggressive. He's fought his way to the top, one client at a time. Brutal aggression is the only emotion Heath Champion understands. But Annabelle wasn't a naturally aggressive person. Everyone from bank clerks to taxi drivers took advantage of her. Just last week she'd lost a confrontation with the nine-year-old she'd caught egging Sherman. Even her own family—especially her own family—walked all over her.
And she was sick of it. Sick of being condescended to, sick of too many people getting the best of her, sick of feeling like a failure. If she backed down now, where would it end? She met those money green eyes and knew the time had come to tap deep into her Granger gene pool and play hardball.
“There was a dead body under my car.” It was almost true. Mouse had been dead weight.
Unfortunately, the Python didn't look impressed, but then he'd probably been responsible for so many dead bodies that he'd grown bored with the whole concept of corpses. She took a deep breath. “All that red tape. It made me late. Otherwise, I would have been punctual. More than punctual. I'm very responsible. And professional.” Just like that, she ran out of air. “Do you mind if I sit down?”
“Thank you.” She sank into the nearest chair.
“You don't listen well, do you?”
He gazed at her for a long moment before dismissing his receptionist. “Hold my calls for five minutes, Sylvia, unless it's Phoebe Calebow.” The woman left, and he gave a resigned sigh. “I assume you're Molly's friend.” Even his teeth were intimidating: strong, square, and very white.
He tapped his fingers on the desk. “I don't mean to be rude, but you'll have to make this fast.”
Who did he think he was kidding? He thrived on being rude. She imagined him in college dangling some poor computer geek out a dorm window or laughing in the face of a weeping, possibly pregnant, girlfriend. She sat straighter in the chair, trying to project confidence. “I'm Annabelle Granger from Perfect for You.”
“The matchmaker.” His fingers tapped away.
“I think of myself as a marriage facilitator.”
“Do you now?” He drilled her again with those money-hard eyes. “Molly told me your company was called something like Myrna the Matchmaker.”
Too late, she remembered that she'd overlooked that particular point in her conversations with Molly. “Marriages by Myrna was started by my grandmother in the seventies. She died three months ago. I've been modernizing since then, and I've also given the company a new name to reflect our philosophy of personalized service for the discriminating executive.” Forgive me, Nana, but it had to be done.
“Exactly how large is this company of yours?”
One phone, one computer, Nana's dusty old file cabinet, and herself. “It's a manageable size. I believe the key to flexibility is staying lean.” She hurried on. “Although this was my grandmother's company, I'm well qualified to take over.” Her qualifications included a B.A. in theater from Northwestern that she'd never officially used, a short-lived stint at a dot-com that went bankrupt, partnership in a failed gift shop, and, more recently, a position at an employment agency that had fallen victim to the economy.
He leaned back in his chair. “I'm going to cut to the chase and save us both time. I'm already under contract with Portia Powers.”
Annabelle was prepared for this. Portia Powers, of Power Matches, ran the most exclusive matchmaking firm in Chicago. Powers had built her business around serving the city's top executives, discriminating men too busy to find the trophy wives they desired and rich enough to pay her exorbitant fees. Powers was well connected, aggressive, and reputed to be ruthless, although that opinion came from her competitors and could be based on professional jealousy. Since Annabelle had never met her, she was withholding judgment.
“I know about your contract, but that doesn't mean you can't also use Perfect for You.”
He glanced toward the flashing buttons on his phone, a vertical slash of irritation bisecting his forehead. “Why would I bother?”
“Because I'll work harder for you than you can imagine. And because I'll introduce you to a group of women with brains and accomplishments, women who won't bore you after the newness wears off.”