He lifted an eyebrow. “You know me that well, do you?”
“Mr. Champion”—Surely that wasn't his real name?—“you're obviously accustomed to being around beautiful women, and I'm certain you've had more opportunities than you can count to marry one of them. But you haven't. That tells me that you want something more multifaceted than simply a beautiful wife.”
“And you don't think I can find that through Portia Powers.”
She didn't believe in trashing the competition, even though she knew fashion models and socialites were exactly the sort of women Powers would be introducing him to. “I only know what Perfect for You has to offer, and I think you'll be impressed.”
“I barely have time to deal with Power Matches, let alone adding anybody else to the mix.” He uncoiled from his chair. He was tall, so it took a while.
She'd already noted the wide shoulders. Now she took in the rest of him. He had a lean-muscled athlete's body. If you liked your men swimming in testosterone and your sex life dangerous, he'd be number one on your automatic dial. Not that Annabelle was thinking about her sex life. Or at least she hadn't been until he stood up.
He stepped around the corner of his desk and extended his hand. “Good effort, Annabelle. Thanks for your time.”
He wasn't going to give her a chance. He'd never intended to do more than go through the motions so he could pacify Molly. Annabelle thought of the energy she'd expended to get here, the twenty bucks it would cost to bail Sherman out of the parking garage, the effort she'd put into learning everything she could about the thirty-four-year-old overachieving country boy standing before her. She thought of her hopes for this meeting, her dreams of making Perfect for You unique and successful. Years of frustration boiled inside her, fueled by crappy judgment, bad luck, and missed opportunities.
Ignoring his hand, she shot to her feet. He was more than a head taller, and she had to tilt her neck to meet his eyes. “Do you still remember what it was like to be the underdog, Mr. Champion, or was that too long ago? Do you remember when you were so hungry to close a deal that you'd do anything to make it happen? You'd drive across the country without sleep just to meet a Heisman candidate for breakfast? You'd spend hours hanging around the parking lot outside the Bears' practice field, trying to catch the attention of one of the veterans? Or what about the time you hauled yourself out of bed with a raging fever so you could bail another agent's client out of jail?”
“You've done your homework.” He cast an impatient eye at the blinking phone buttons, but he didn't throw her out, so she kept going.
“When you started in business, players like Kevin Tucker wouldn't give you the time of day. Do you remember what that was like? Do you remember when reporters weren't calling you for quotes? When you weren't on first-name terms with everybody in the NFL?”
“If I say I remember, will you leave?” He reached for the executive headset that lay next to the telephone console.
She curled her hands into fists, hoping she sounded passionate instead of loony. “All I want is a chance. The same chance you got when Kevin fired his old agent and put his faith in a fast-talking, sports-savvy guy who made his way from an armpit town in southern Illinois to Harvard Law.”
He coiled back into his chair, one dark eyebrow angling upward.
“A blue-collar kid who played college football for the scholarship, but counted on his brains to get ahead. A guy with nothing more than big dreams and a strong work ethic to recommend him. A guy who—”
“Stop before you make me cry,” he said dryly.
“Just give me a chance. Let me set up one introduction. Just one. If you don't like the woman I choose, I'll never bother you again. Please. I'll do anything.”
That caught his attention. He pushed aside the headset, tilted back in his chair, and rubbed the corner of his mouth with his thumb. “Anything?”
She didn't flinch from his assessing gaze. “Whatever it takes.”
His eyes made a calculated journey from her rumpled russet hair to her mouth, down along her throat to her breasts. “Well… I haven't gotten laid for a while.”
Her constricted throat muscles relaxed. The Python was toying with her. “Then why don't we do something about that on a permanent basis?” She grabbed her fake leather tote and whipped out the folder of material she'd finished preparing at five o'clock that morning. “This will tell you a little more about Perfect for You. I've included our mission statement, a timetable, and our fee structure.”
Now that he'd had his fun, he was all business. “I'm interested in results, not mission statements.”
“And results are what I'll give you.”
She drew an unsteady breath. “Does that mean…”
He picked up the telephone headset and hooked it around his neck, leaving the cord dangling down his shirtfront in a serpentine tail. “You've got one chance. Tomorrow night. Hit me with your best candidate.”
“Really?” Her knees went weak. “Yes… Fantastic! But… I need to clarify exactly what you're looking for.”
“Let's see how good you are.” He flipped up the headset.
“Nine o'clock at Sienna's on Clark Street. Make the introduction but don't plan on leaving. Stay at the table and keep the conversation going. I work hard at what I do. I don't intend to work hard at this, too.”
“You want me to stay?”
“Twenty minutes exactly. Then take her away.”
“Twenty minutes? Don't you think she'll find that a little… demeaning?”
“Not if she's the right woman.” He gave her his country boy's smile. “And do you know why, Miss Granger? Because the right woman will be too damned sweet to take offense. Now get the hell out of here while you're ahead.”
By the time she slipped into the McDonald's restroom, Annabelle had stopped shaking. She changed into capris, a tank, and sandals. Today's experience had justified her lifelong phobia of snakes. But other women wouldn't see Heath Champion like that. He was rich, successful, and gorgeous, which made him a dream match, assuming he didn't scare his dates to death, which was a distinct possibility. All she needed to do was find the right woman.
She pulled her wild hair back from her face with a pair of barrettes. She'd always worn her hair short to keep it under control, but her curly pixie had made her look more like a college freshman than a serious professional, so she was biting the bullet and letting it grow out. Not for the first time did she wish she had a spare five hundred dollars to have it professionally straightened, but she couldn't even pay her utility bill.
She stowed Nana's pearl earrings in an empty Altoids box and took a swig of lukewarm water from one of the bottles she'd dug out of Sherman's backseat. She kept the car well stocked: snacks and water bottles; a change of clothes; Tampax and toiletries; her new brochures and business cards; workout gear in case the mood struck her, which it hardly ever did; and, just recently, a box of condoms in the event one of her new clients developed a sudden, desperate need, although she couldn't see men like Ernie Marks or John Nager being that impulsive. Ernie was an elementary school principal, good with kids, but nervous with grown women, and John the hypochondriac wouldn't have sex without running his partner through the Mayo Clinic.
One thing was certain. She'd never have to pass out emergency condoms to Heath Champion. A man like that always came prepared.
She wrinkled her nose. Time to rise above her dislike. So what if he was overbearing and dictatorial, not to mention too rich and too successful for his own good? He was the key to her economic future. If she wanted Perfect for You to be successful as a specialized, high-end matchmaking service, she had to find him a wife. Once that happened, the word would spread, and Perfect for You would become the hottest service in Chicago. Which it definitely wasn't now, because inheriting her grandmother's business had also meant inheriting her remaining clients. Although Annabelle was doing her best to honor Nana's memory, it was time to move forward.
She squirted soap on her hands and considered her place in the business world. Matchmaking services came in mind-boggling varieties, and the rise of inexpensive online dating services had forced a lot of brick-and-mortar companies like hers to shut down while others scrambled to find a niche. They offered speed dates, lunch dates, and adventure outings. Some staged singles dinner parties, others served only graduates of prestigious universities or members of specific religious denominations. A lucky few, like Power Matches, were holding their own as “millionaire services,” accepting only male clients and charging them staggering fees for introductions to beautiful women.
Annabelle intended to set Perfect for You apart from all of them. She wanted to make her name the first one that upscale Chicago singles, male and female, thought of when they were ready for a committed relationship and realized that old-fashioned personalized service was the best way to get it. She already had a few clients—Ernie and John her most recent— but not nearly enough to turn a profit. And until she'd established her credentials, she couldn't charge higher fees. Finding a match for Heath Champion would make those select clients and bigger fees possible. Except why hadn't he been able to find a wife on his own?