Desire by Design
Author:Paula Altenburg

Chapter One

Evangeline Doucette tipped back in her office chair, closed her eyes, and plotted the mayor’s assassination.

While she’d never actually act on it—she felt certain—plotting it was her personal form of therapy. Mayor Bob Anderson was one of the few people she’d ever worked with who completely ignored the fact that once a bid for the work was accepted and the contract signed, there was a budget that needed to be followed. It was a little frightening to think of him running a city, although it certainly explained a few things to Eve. Did City Council even know how many changes to the new City Hall design he’d already authorized?

As a project manager for Sullivan Construction, the company that won the tender for the new building, it was her job to keep the stakeholders informed of any risks and budget concerns. She’d tried, but it didn’t help that her boss, Connor Sullivan, was good friends with the mayor—he didn’t seem to want to listen to her concerns, either.

“It will all work out, Eve,” Connor had said when she’d brought it up at their last meeting.

But it will all work out wasn’t a good risk-management strategy, and Eve had a lot riding on this upcoming project. She was one of the few project managers in the region who was also a qualified draftsman, and since the City Hall project was a design/build contract, Connor had placed her in charge of the design. In fact, she’d even drawn up the preliminary blueprints they’d sent in with the response to the tender.

The same ones the mayor kept changing.

A shrill wolf-whistle from outside jarred her concentration and brought her back to Sullivan Construction’s current project, a new federal government office tower. Eve’s eyes popped open, and her chair’s front legs thudded to the floor. Leaning over, she peered beneath mini-blinds that were keeping the hot afternoon sun from beating into the stuffy, portable trailer that served as the on-site headquarters.

A few of the crew had gathered around a low stone wall overlooking the quiet Halifax side street. An attractive young woman in a short Lycra skirt and skin-tight halter-top was scurrying down the opposite sidewalk from the construction site, pretending to ignore her appreciative audience.

Eve muttered under her breath. Leaping from her chair, she yanked open the trailer door, stepped out into bright afternoon sunshine, and marched toward her crew.

“Hey,” she called to the gathered men.

The young woman on the street was forgotten as they turned, en masse, and Eve had to work hard not to smile at the sea of repentant expressions before her. She’d seen those same looks before, yet it never made a bit of difference.

She folded her arms across her chest and tried to add a few extra inches to her overall height—which would still leave her by far the shortest person in the group. They might not mean any harm, but they had no idea how it felt to be a woman on the receiving end of their enthusiastic attention. This had to stop.

“Guys, I’m tired of fielding complaints because you harass every woman who goes by,” she said. “What if that were your wife or daughter? How would you like it then? Would you find it as amusing if I whistled at all the men who went by on the street? Or at you?”

As luck would have it, Eve spied a good-looking and attractive example approaching. There was a chin-up, eyes-forward purposefulness to him that spoke of someone comfortable with his own masculinity. He had the whole tall, dark, and handsome thing working for him in a way that caught her eye and made her look twice. While she couldn’t see the finer details from this distance, he had short black hair, cropped close on the sides with a bit of curl to it on top, and an angular, even-featured face that no doubt photographed well.

Definitely worth that second glance. He didn’t look like the type who’d need to whistle at a woman to get her attention. Not in that expensive, probably Italian, suit. No, more likely he’d have most women wanting to whistle at him.

Well, why not?

She elbowed her way through the crew, pushed up her checked-flannel shirtsleeves, and leaned over the short stone barrier.

“Hey, baby!” She punctuated her words with a wolf-whistle of her own that would have made her brothers proud. “Bring some of that over here!” She didn’t bother taking note of the stranger’s reaction but whirled back to face the speechless crew so she could finish her lecture. “It doesn’t sound very attractive coming from me, does it?”

The burly foreman shrugged his hairy shoulders and gave her a gap-toothed grin. “Actually, it’s kind of a turn-on.”

She might have known she was wasting her time trying to prove a point to this group.

“Jeez, Eve,” one of the carpenters complained. “First you paint mustaches on all the girls in the Port-a-Potty calendar, then you mark which ones have implants. Now, you won’t let us admire what’s right under our noses?” He cast a wistful look down the street, but the girl in the halter-top had disappeared around a corner. “And I’m pretty sure those weren’t implants, either.”

True, Eve had defaced their calendar. But only because they hadn’t noticed that there was a woman working on-site who had to use that Port-a-Potty, too. To them, she was just a really short, skinny guy.

Without implants.

She dropped her hands to her hips and offered a compromise. “Tell you what… If you guys stop with the whistling, I’ll quit drawing on the calendar.”

Having established a mutually satisfying agreement, Eve hiked back to the trailer, repositioned herself in her chair, and propped her size-five, steel-toed work boots on the battered desktop. She twirled a studded earring in a nervous habit she couldn’t seem to break. She had more important things to worry about than men being boys on a job site. She had to submit an update on the status of this nearly completed federal project, which was why she was on a construction site today and not in her office at Sullivan Construction.

She also had to straighten out the mess Halifax’s megalomaniac mayor was making of the upcoming City Hall project. Just another day in the life, she thought. She’d had high hopes that her role as designer on the City Hall building would lead to more complex projects when it was finished. She already ran a nice little side business designing and renovating upscale private homes. At twenty-nine years of age—and as a woman in a male-dominated industry—those were no small achievements.

But Bob Anderson didn’t seem to agree and was driving her nuts with his input. Worse, he kept volunteering her for pro bono charity projects around the city as if she were his personal construction assistant and she had nothing better to do with her spare time. At the moment, he had her working on renovations for an Internet café for teens. How could she say no to helping out with a youth program?

Killing Bob might be her only means of escape.

She sighed and turned her attention back to her computer screen, the work crew and the handsome guy in the Italian suit already forgotten.

Matt Brison had been around enough construction sites throughout his career that not much about them surprised him anymore, but having one of the workers whistle at him was a definite first.

At least she was cute. He wondered if that was the “annoying as hell” project manager he’d been hearing so much about from his uncle. If so, she had quite the rapport with the crew…and would be an interesting nut to crack.

His steps slowed as he neared the wall separating the construction site from the rest of the world, and he forgot all about being whistled at as he took in the project. He scanned the new four-story, ironstone structure with an architect’s eye. It was staid, refined, and predictable, and without a doubt, suited its genteel, Georgian surroundings. Oak trees lined the neighborhood streets, filtering sunlight and shading sidewalks. Enormous lilac bushes sprawled against rolling green lawns, and the tangy scent of fresh-cut grass lingered on the thick, humid air.

Matt rubbed his forehead with the back of his hand. While he admired the historic feel of Halifax, his international reputation was based on modern, innovative design. Honesty compelled him to admit that his work wasn’t suitable for this small, East Coast seaport. He wished with all his might that he’d been able to say no when asked to design its new City Hall, but his uncle never asked Matt for favors, so the project must be important to him.

“We want to bring Halifax into the twenty-first century,” he had said when he’d asked Matt to fly down from Toronto and meet with the construction company that had been given the contract. “We want the world to know we’re moving forward into the future. And you’re just the man to prove it. I wouldn’t trust it to anyone else.”

The sentiment was perhaps admirable—and flattery was always nice—but Matt wasn’t sure the future was where Halifax, Nova Scotia wanted to be. Anything he designed was going to stick out like a sore thumb in a city that dated back to the 1700s, and whose tourism industry relied heavily on promoting its Historic Properties district. He had visions of the Nova Scotia Association of Architects picketing the project.

Matt headed for the small office trailer near the entrance to the construction site, where all visitors were required to check in. He knocked on the door, then pushed it open when a woman called out, “Come in.”

It took his eyes a second to adjust to the dingy, ill-lit interior. At first glance, there didn’t even seem to be anyone inside. A drafting table stood in one corner, with a battered desk and laptop in another. There was a slight movement in the shadows, and he bent over to peer beneath the desk, where he was treated to the sight of a well-rounded, and very feminine, denim-clad posterior. Matt recognized the shirttail covering it.

He contemplated his opening line. Hey baby, I brought it—where would you like me to put it?

“Hello,” he said, opting for a more professional greeting.

The sound of something connecting with the underside of solid wood made him wince. Her head popped up on the other side of the desk, and velvety brown eyes widened in recognition as they met his. A slim hand rubbed the back of a mass of coppery, auburn hair tied in a long, thick braid. Stray wisps clung to her cheeks. With her other hand, she held up a tiny object.

“Sorry. I dropped the back of my earring,” she said.

Her soft voice made the nape of his neck tingle. Matt had to work hard not to smile. This wasn’t at all the type of woman who’d need to whistle at strange men to get their attention. He watched in growing fascination as she slipped her earring back in place, then extended a hand to him. She had a firm, no-nonsense grip—he liked that in a woman.

“Well, this is awkward.” Her cheeks flushed a pretty pink. “Eve Doucette, project manager.”

“Matt Brison. Bob Anderson told me I might find you here.”

Dismay crossed her face, and he wondered if she recognized his name. If so, she didn’t seem like a big fan of his work.

“Sorry for that little incident outside,” she said. “I was trying to prove a point to the men and made an error in judgment.”

He felt a flicker of sympathy. Being a woman giving orders to a bunch of men on a construction site couldn’t be easy. He didn’t blame her for wanting to fit in with the guys.

Besides, she really was cute.

He pasted on his best smile and let a little interest slip into his eyes. “No need for apologies. I was flattered by the attention.”

Her expression cooled, wariness creeping like a shadow over her face. It seemed she wasn’t into flirtation. Duly noted. He wondered if that was because she was married. He checked. No ring.

Then, he examined her more closely.

She wasn’t very tall. Matt estimated she stood about as high as his shoulder, but then again, he was a big man. Her skin was olive-hued and looked as if it might tan easily. She was thin—too thin, really—and her wide, long-lashed eyes had dark smudges under them, an indication she probably worked too hard. That wasn’t unusual in an industry that often demanded twenty-three of the twenty-four hours available each day. Based on her job, she had to be in her mid-to-late twenties, but if he had to guess at her age on appearance alone, he’d swear she was too young to drink.

All things considered, she was attractive—in a wholesome, girl-next-door kind of way. Sexy, if one was attracted to the type.

He definitely could be. Lately, though, he’d taken to assessing the women he met for more than their sexual potential. That was still important, of course. At thirty-five, he wasn’t dead. But he was starting to think about his future and where he saw himself by the time he was forty—and who he’d be sharing his success with. His ideal woman would be more comfortable in an evening gown than a hard hat—although that might be classed more as a job requirement than a priority since Matt entertained clients a lot. And she’d have to make a great mother because he wanted lots of kids. Being an only child had sucked.

And while Eve Doucette was cute—he was a sucker for big brown eyes, too—she didn’t seem the right type. Besides, they had to work together. Then there were his uncle’s warnings: “Watch out for her, Mattie. She’s all about the work, plain and simple. There’s no reasoning with her once she gets an idea in her head. It’s her way or the highway.”

He looked over at her. Okay, she was sending off huge I’m-unavailable-so-don’t-waste-your-time vibes. That answered that. Matt might as well get right down to business.

“I wanted to touch base with you before I start on the new design for City Hall,” he said. “Since we’ll be working closely together, I thought we should meet. I’m the architect,” he added, since she wasn’t acting like she knew who he was.

Which knocked his ego down to size. He’d won major international awards and owned one of the most successful architectural firms in Canada. He couldn’t recall the last time his name wasn’t recognized by someone who worked in the industry.

“I know who you are,” she said. “But I’m afraid I don’t understand why you’re here.” She indicated a gray steel, tubular chair across from her desk, and he took a seat. She then skewered him with a steady, penetrating gaze that brought to mind his third-grade teacher, the one who’d caught him sticking a wad of chewed gum in Missy Parsons’ gym sneaker. “I thought the draftsman who did the preliminaries would be doing the final design.”

“City Council decided they want to hire a professional. Besides,” he said with a shrug, “the final blueprints would need to be stamped by a licensed architect anyway.”

Eve’s pretty brow furrowed in a way that didn’t bode well. Matt made a mental note to thank his uncle for giving him the job of messenger, since it was apparent no one at Sullivan Construction had spoken to her about him yet. He hated being the bearer of bad news, and he was fairly confident that Eve would consider this very bad news, indeed. Even though he was doing it as a favor to his uncle, he couldn’t work for free, and his price tag was going to be a lot higher than some local draftsman’s. That meant she was going to have to redo much of the cost analyses and budget. And the look on her face already indicated her feelings on the matter.

This truly was third grade all over again—except the wad of gum was a set of blueprints, Missy Parsons was an angry project manager, and somehow, Matt doubted that offering to share his granola bar at recess would make an adequate peace offering.

Uncle Bob might want to launch the city into the twenty-first century, but right now Eve Doucette looked ready to launch Matt a little farther.

His words might have been delivered in a foreign language for all the good they did Eve.

She’d spent weeks working on a budget for Sullivan Construction’s proposal, and her plan didn’t allow for hiring someone like Matt Brison. She’d wanted so much to do the design herself. It had been offered to her, even if unofficially. While she understood that preliminary designs were only meant to provide cost estimates on a design/build project, and that the final design often ended up being much different from what was submitted, the one she’d drawn up had been well received. So what on earth was Connor Sullivan thinking, agreeing to this?

It was like hiring Van Gogh to paint a garage, Henry Ford to design a go-cart, or Veronica Tennant to choreograph an elementary school dance recital.

“But I thought…” She tried not to sound hostile. “There must be some mistake. Surely you can see you’re all wrong for this project.”

“Oh?” He edged forward in his chair, suddenly intent, and the tiny trailer got even smaller. “Why do you say that?”

He had very blue eyes that never wavered from hers, as if he were reading her thoughts, which was distracting.

Because her thoughts veered off in an unsettling direction she hadn’t expected…and didn’t want him to know.

That, coupled with deep disappointment, made her speak with even less tact than usual. “Your work is very modern. Abstract, in fact. You use a lot of glass and round edges. While your designs may have their place, I don’t think the downtown district of Halifax is quite ready for them.”

Let him chew on that. Eve hated most of his work, although she acknowledged it wasn’t without merit. The modernist project he’d designed in Brussels had been an excellent example of practicality. She could appreciate practical.

She just didn’t like modernist.

“And what do you think might be the appropriate style for this particular project?” he asked.

The neutrality of his tone, combined with his unwavering attention, set off an alarm in the back of her head. She wasn’t sure if he was genuinely interested in her opinion or giving her just enough leeway to showcase her ignorance. Did he assume she didn’t know what she was talking about simply because she didn’t have a few extra letters after her name?

She counted to ten. More than once she’d been accused of being overly sensitive about her lack of a degree. She had an ex-husband with a PhD in Biology who used to make fun of her lower level of education to thank for that particular insecurity. It was one of the reasons he was now an ex. But this was not the time for her to get defensive or back down. She had done the research and was comfortable with her facts. Plus, there was nothing wrong with her design for the new City Hall. Her hackles started to rise, though she tried to tamp them down.

They want to hire a professional, indeed. Arrogant ass. She was a professional. And a darn good one.

She caught his eye and held his gaze, which turned out to be a mistake. He had a thick fringe of black lashes around those amazing blue eyes.

He was waiting for her to say something. She searched for her tongue.

“Second Empire,” she stated. “Monumental, but not too flashy. Maybe with Georgian columns and simple arches, similar to what we’ve used on this site.” She gestured toward the door and the building under construction outside. Then she shifted in her chair and tapped her fingertips on its wooden armrest. “That’s what I did on the preliminaries, and it was exactly what the city wanted.” She paused a minute to let it sink in, but his expression didn’t shift. “Mr. Brison, did you even look at the preliminary plans? Have you even bothered to visit the city’s Historic Properties district?”

“Yes to both. And please, call me Matt.”

That good-natured, GQ smile of his made it harder for her to pull two thoughts together. He was smooth, she’d give him that, but some lessons were learned the hard way, and she knew better than to trust any man at the top of his field. Especially one who was being so nice. Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice….

She cleared her throat. “Well, Matt. Do you agree with me or not? Do you really think your work will suit the style of the district?”

A fleeting expression she couldn’t identify crossed his face and was gone, and the easy smile was back in place fast. He would make a good poker player.

“I think my work will make a statement.”

Eve couldn’t resist. “It’ll say, ‘Help. I don’t belong here. Find me a Starbucks.’”

A dark eyebrow went up. “Or it might say, ‘Look at me. I’m a trendsetter, and in a class all my own.’”

“The poor thing will be lonely. We wouldn’t want that.” She took a deep breath and reminded herself that this was hardly his fault. He’d been asked to come here. She doubted very much that he’d begged for the opportunity. “I can straighten this out with a few phone calls. That way we won’t be wasting any more of our time.” She reached for the telephone. “Who hired you?”

“Bob Anderson approached me.”

Of course. The mayor. Eve’s assassination plot was looking more and more attractive by the second.

“That would explain it,” she said. “The mayor is a moron.”

Matt’s easy expression never changed. “Maybe so. But that moron is my uncle.”

Heat scorched her cheeks. She needed to learn to think first before she flipped the operating switch on her mouth.

“Perhaps ‘moron’ is too strong a word,” she amended, nearly choking on the retraction.

A flash of humor curled the corners of his firm, full mouth. “He speaks highly of you, too.”

Eve could well imagine. She recalled her last two conversations with the mayor without fondness. Bob considered himself a visionary. Eve thought his opinion of himself was overrated, unless by visionary, he meant delusional. He wanted City Hall to look like a giant sail. She’d like to know how that said twenty-first century.

As her hand hovered over the telephone, she found herself in a quandary. City Council was going to back the mayor’s orders. And Eve knew Connor Sullivan was probably salivating over the prospect of having someone of Matt Brison’s caliber handling the final design on behalf of his company. Eve sighed. She also understood family. Matt Brison was trying to make his uncle happy.

Therefore, Eve knew she had only two real choices at this point—she could either be a gracious loser, or a poor one.

She settled on a combination of the two as her hand dropped onto the desk. She’d counted on this project to help her earn bigger design roles. Instead, she’d be fighting to keep the budget from getting out of control. She’d do it, though. Eve’s reputation as a project manager was every bit as important to her as Matt Brison’s was to him.

“I guess I should be welcoming you on board, then,” she said. “I’ll be happy to share some of my ideas with you.”

Eve made the offer with no real hope of it being accepted. She shuddered to think what expenses Matt Brison would incur. Architects considered themselves answerable only to God and always ran projects way over budget, leaving Eve holding the bag. Or, rather, a handful of invoices she would then have to justify.

Between the over-qualified architect and his moron uncle, Eve’s migraine medication would need to be taken at a double dose.