Desire by Design
Author:Paula Altenburg

chapter Three

“Why do I need an escort for your fundraiser?”

Matt cradled the phone between his shoulder and ear and stood splay-legged at the large window in his hotel room. He’d turned down his uncle’s invitation to stay at his house. Uncle Bob was an extrovert who liked to entertain, while Matt preferred peace and quiet. A hotel was definitely the best option.

“You aren’t the one in need of an escort,” his uncle said over the clatter of caterers Matt could hear working in the background. “I doubt if Eve wants to come so much as her boss wants her here, and Connor Sullivan’s kind of old-school. He doesn’t think a woman should show up at these things unescorted. I told him you’d be happy to bring her.”

His uncle paused, waiting for some response, but Matt said nothing. It had been three days since he’d introduced himself to the pretty little project manager, and as yet she’d made no effort to contact him so they could sit down and talk. That might be because she was the draftsman who’d done the preliminary designs—an important detail he’d found out too late, after he’d already put his big foot in his mouth. What was it he’d said?

City Council has decided they want to hire a professional.

He was well aware of how condescending he must have sounded, and when he looked back, he should have noticed that she’d been insulted. She’d gotten very distant and then made no secret of the fact she couldn’t wait to be rid of him.

It was never nice to be set aside in favor of someone with higher qualifications, and while he did have his professional brand to consider, he hadn’t intended to come across as that guy who bought into his own fame and fortune and dismissed any input from others.

Or he might have come on a little too strong after she’d made it plain she wasn’t interested. But he’d been intrigued, and possibly challenged, by her complete lack of interest, both in his work and in him.

Somehow, he didn’t think she’d find an arranged date with him a whole lot of fun.

“Come on, Mattie,” his uncle wheedled. “I’m not asking you to marry her. Just spend a few hours with her. It won’t kill you. Besides, you both have common interests. You’ll be working together. And I bet she looks half decent in a dress.”

Matt had no doubt she would, but he had other reservations regarding the pint-sized woman with the hot-chocolate eyes and tempting lips. Being asked at the last minute to escort her to a fundraising reception at his uncle’s home did nothing to ease them. Maybe it was because his uncle was trying too hard to sound casual. That usually meant he was up to no good.

Matt stared out at the city lights sparkling across the black waters of the harbor. Several moored ships glowed against the dusky skyline, their masts decked out like great, white Christmas trees for the hordes of tourists swarming the waterfront.

“I have work to do,” he told his uncle. “Just because I’m not in my office doesn’t mean I can let things pile up.” A thought landed and took root. “You aren’t trying to hook us up, are you?”

“You and Eve? Don’t even joke about such a thing. I’m not getting any younger, and my heart won’t take it.” His uncle sounded so entertained by the idea that Matt’s suspicions were eased. Whatever his uncle was up to, matchmaking wasn’t it. “But I need you here tonight, and it won’t hurt to make Connor happy.” Uncle Bob lowered his voice, as if about to convey a big secret he didn’t want anyone to overhear.

A reluctant grin tugged at Matt’s lips. Oh yeah. Those caterers were probably dying to find out what his uncle’s current scheme was. And he knew his uncle. There had to be one.

“There are a few councilors I want you to talk to,” Bob admitted. “They aren’t convinced yet about the need for design changes, and I’m hoping you can sway them.”

So that was what his uncle was up to. Matt relaxed. Business, he could understand. And family loyalty. Uncle Bob might not be keeping score but Matt was, and Matt owed him for all the years he’d tried his best to fill in as a father. If Uncle Bob wanted a modern City Hall, then that was what he’d get. Matt could impress a few councilors.

It was the unimpressed project manager he seemed to be having the difficulty with. He wondered what her type was. And why he wasn’t it.

Maybe he’d find out at the fundraiser. He might even get a chance to make amends.

“Okay,” he said, feeling more enthusiastic than he had a few minutes ago. “What time should I be there?”

“Eve will pick you up around eight.”

Matt disconnected and tossed his phone into a padded armchair, then rubbed his stubbly chin. He glanced at his watch. Plenty of time for a shower and shave.

Eve hopped around her bedroom on one foot, trying to stuff the other into an uncooperative pair of pantyhose while cursing the man who’d invented them. Then, she cursed men in general.

I forgive you, Eve, Claude, her ex-husband, had said.

Even after three days, her anger over that statement hadn’t burned itself out. It seemed they had vastly different recollections as to why their two-week marriage had ended, and she didn’t feel quite as forgiving about them as Claude. Maybe she should have said so before blowing that rape whistle in his ear.

To call her five years later to tell her he forgave her for some figment of his imagination was only one example of his unfortunate tendency to fixate.

For what felt like the millionth time, she wondered what it was that had attracted her to him in the first place. Flattery, she supposed. He’d been a marine biologist with a PhD who traveled all over the world, and had been working on a research project in the Bay of Fundy, near her small Acadian hometown, the summer they’d met. Handsome and brilliant, he’d treated her like the sun rose and set for her pleasure alone. He was handsome, too, in a bookish, nerdy kind of way. The attention had been overwhelming for a girl who’d seen nothing of the world and never gotten more than a drafting diploma from the local community college.

His teasing about that education should have served as her first warning. It hadn’t taken her two days after the wedding to realize the magnitude of her mistake. Claude’s adoration turned to obsession in the blink of an eye. He’d trashed their apartment because he hadn’t liked her talking to an old boyfriend from high school. He’d called her stupid on several occasions, and she’d almost begun to believe it. After all, she’d made the mistake of marrying him.

But when he said they were going to spend the next few years on an isolated island in the Pacific doing marine research, and had given her only a few days to prepare, Eve dragged herself out of denial and finally balked. He’d actually raised a hand to hit her, violent anger burning in his eyes, and that was the end, as far as she was concerned. An older brother had taught her how to defend herself, and she’d laid Claude out flat, breaking his nose and blackening both of his eyes, then packed her bags and moved home.

When faced with a choice between leaving for the Pacific and pursuing her, Claude had chosen to leave—as she’d expected him to, despite his possessive tendencies. She’d shown herself to not be his puppet anymore.

All she told her family was that she wasn’t about to live on a deserted island that had no electricity or modern medical care. She hadn’t said a word about Claude; Eve had her pride.

Once she was sure Claude was out of the country, she’d moved to Halifax and talked her way into the construction business. She’d started off with only private clients before hiring on with Sullivan Construction and scraping her way up the ladder to project manager. She’d worked long and hard to get where she was.

And now, Claude was back. She’d never really known him, she now understood. She had no idea if he’d try to contact her again, or what his motives were for doing so in the first place. He’d signed the divorce papers years ago, and she’d assumed they were through. That rape whistle she’d blown in his ear should have been enough to convince him, the arrogant bastard.

She finished wriggling into her uncooperative pantyhose and zipped into her dress, checking the clock by her bed. She had to go pick up her “date” soon.

Eve smoothed her dress and stood up taller. If there was one important lesson she’d learned from the whole experience with Claude—and with her job—it was not to get involved with clever, ambitious, overly confident men. Not professionally, and definitely not personally. They were good at hiding their true natures behind a thin layer of charm.

And Matt Brison was charming.

He might be an architect, not a biologist, but brilliant was brilliant. The ego was there. The sense of self-entitlement. Deep down, on the level that mattered, he made Eve uneasy.

So why she’d agreed to accompany him to the fundraiser tonight she would never know, although it likely had a lot to do with her paycheck. If she wanted to remain on the City Hall project, Connor Sullivan had hinted, she’d better paste on a smile and pretend to be pleased.

She grabbed her shoes and her purse and sprinted down the stairs.

It was ten minutes past eight by the time she parked in the hotel’s gloomy, underground parking garage.

She examined her makeup in the rearview mirror one last time before climbing out of the car and hitching down the tight skirt of her black dress. She wished she’d had something more conservative to wear than a dress her brothers had given her as a joke for her twenty-ninth birthday. They said it was to help her catch a man before she became an old woman of thirty.

She’d rather catch a bad cold.

The dank smell of sweating cement and automobile fumes ambushed her as she tottered to the elevators. The sound of her high heels tapping on concrete echoed eerily throughout the empty parking garage. Eve tried not to think about the long shadows and dark corners created by the inadequate overhead lighting, and breathed a small sigh of relief when the elevator doors slid closed behind her.

There was no doubt about it. The phone call from Claude had left her nervous and on edge, and that just made her angrier. If she got to pick her next life, she was coming back as a man. A huge, hairy one.

The elevator doors hummed open. She stepped into the hotel lobby, crossed to the front desk, and asked the clerk to call Matt’s room to let him know his ride was waiting. She reminded herself she was a professional and to act like one, then caught a glimpse of herself in a mirror and had an uneasy addendum to that thought.

Did this dress make her look like the wrong kind of professional?

Matt’s gaze wandered around the lobby, then lingered appreciatively on the mirrored reflection of a woman standing near one of the potted plants.

Recognition snagged his insides. It couldn’t be.

The thick mass of auburn hair was now twisted in a smooth knot and pinned at her crown. A light touch of makeup emphasized large eyes and long, dark lashes, and her plump lips demanded his attention. She wore a black dress that clung to her curves. The dress fit her perfectly, granted, but it showed a lot of leg—and she had great legs.

Matt’s mouth went dry. Somehow he doubted those high heels had steel toes.

She watched him approach with an air of hesitation about her that disarmed him even more.

She held out a hand to greet him. That handshake put them right back on a professional footing and reminded him she hadn’t planned the evening for his entertainment. This was business, not pleasure.

“I’m sorry I’m late,” she said.

“Not a problem,” he managed to reply, despite the wad of cotton coating his tongue. “You look very lovely.”

“Thank you.”

Tough audience. He might have been commenting on the weather for all the reaction the compliment got from her. He usually didn’t have to work this hard to give a woman a reason to like him.

Surely he could find some way to redeem himself for his poor first impression.

They walked together to the elevator, noticing again how very small she was in spite of her towering heels. And how much more reserved she seemed than she’d been on site. He thought maybe he preferred her in work boots. At least then he’d had something to say to her.

Although, up until now, he’d said all the wrong things. He wondered how he could lead up to an apology without coming off sounding like a condescending ass again.

He punched the button beside the gleaming, silver elevator doors. The doors slid open, and they stepped inside.

“Out of curiosity,” he said. “What kind of toys did you play with when you were a little girl?”

Her lovely eyes were puzzled as she glanced up at him through those thick lashes. The elevator gave a slight jerk, and Matt took her elbow to steady her, her skin surprisingly soft and smooth beneath his touch.

“The usual girl stuff, I guess. My mother had a thing about buying me dolls.” Eve’s button nose crinkled, and she looked amused—and maybe a little embarrassed. “But my favorite was a dump truck one of my brothers abandoned. Why?”

Matt felt a flash of relief. That sounded more like what he’d expected. And a great deal more interesting. “Just curious.”

He remembered to release her elbow, then didn’t know what to do with his hand so he stuck it in his pocket. When they reached the parking level, he followed her to her car.

He frowned as he looked around the deserted garage. “You shouldn’t park down here. It’s not safe.”

She reached into her glittery evening bag for the keys. “I grew up with three older brothers.” She pressed a button and unlocked the doors. “I can take care of myself.”

Matt waited until she’d slid into the driver’s side before getting in himself, then turned to face her, propping his elbow on the back of the seat. “Having three brothers isn’t much help if you’re alone when you’re mugged.” Or worse.

She inserted the key in the ignition, and the engine turned over as she gave a little shrug. “It is when one of them teaches self-defense courses and makes you practice.”

She backed the car out of the parking space with the skill of a stock-car racer, then, with a heavy foot on the gas, shot out of the garage and into the street.

Matt yanked the seatbelt across his chest and hips and clicked it into place. He ran his fingertips over the dash. “Does this car have a passenger-side air bag?”

Eve’s supple lips curved. Slowing down to navigate a sharp corner, she turned onto a quiet street and headed for the south end of the city.

“I’m really a very good driver,” she assured him. “I’ve never had an accident.” She peered at him again, and Matt found himself holding his breath when her smile deepened. “Mind you, I’ve only had my license for three weeks.”

His jaw started to drop and then he snapped it shut. “That’s a joke, right?”

“Good heavens. Lighten up a little. Of course, it’s a joke. I—”

Something on the sidewalk caught her attention. She muttered an exclamation and slammed on the brakes, throwing them both forward against their locked seatbelts. Matt grabbed for the dash with both hands, then looked over to make sure she was okay.

“Sorry,” she said. “I thought I saw someone I knew.”

If so, then it wasn’t a person she liked. Her hand trembled slightly on the gearshift, and it took her a moment to get the car back in motion, but it was the expression on her face that struck Matt the most. Her eyes darted back and forth like she was scanning the terrain for enemy snipers. She looked almost…

Hunted was the word that sprang to mind.

Eve hoped she had lipstick on her teeth. The way Matt had stared at her during the rest of the drive meant it was either that, or he thought she was crazy.

She paused in the doorway of the large reception room and gave her front teeth a quick, furtive buff with her thumb just to be safe. Nope. No lipstick. He thought she was crazy.

She didn’t blame him. She wanted to get this evening over with as quickly as possible. She wasn’t in the mood for dodging budget questions on a design that didn’t exist, and diplomacy wasn’t one of her strengths. Neither did she care for this type of function. She didn’t golf, she didn’t sail, and she didn’t have a million dollars to give away to some worthy cause.

But Matt looked all male-model gorgeous in a charcoal-gray suit that had to have been custom-made for him. He fit right in. This was his world, not hers.

He gestured for her to precede him through the doorway, and when she took a step forward, he placed a hand on the small of her back. His thumb subtly skimmed the swell of her hip. Eve wrestled a spontaneous, bone-melting desire to arch against his touch like a cat at a scratching post, then almost had a panic attack. She edged away from his lingering hand, aware she was overreacting to what amounted to nothing more than a gentlemanly gesture.

Matt grabbed them a glass of wine from a passing waiter as a smiling middle-aged woman in her forties, with artificial blond hair and an ill-fitting dress, jiggled her matronly body in their direction. Eve, glad for the diversion, scanned her memory, trying to come up with a name. Marion Something-or-other. Provincial Government, Department of Tourism and Culture.

Her stomach let out a little flutter of excitement. Eve had been trying for months to get work with these people. They had a few restoration projects that she’d love to be involved in.

The older woman extended a heavily ringed hand. “Hello, Ms. Doucette. I was hoping I might see you here this evening. We’ve never been formally introduced. I’m Marion Balcom.” Her gaze swept over to include Matt. “And you must be Matt Brison,” she said, shaking hands with him, too, before zeroing back in on Eve. “It’s amazing how fast Bob made all this happen, isn’t it? There hasn’t been much press coverage on this whole project, yet already Culture and Tourism has been fielding calls from the Historical Society regarding what will happen to the current City Hall building.”

“I’m the project manager,” Eve explained, her head still foggy from the touch of Matt’s hand. She took a sip of her drink. “I’m in charge of the expenditures and cost analyses, so that’s not really my area, but it’s my understanding that the old Hall has been slated for decommission.”

“Then the old Hall isn’t worth saving?”

Eve was no good at figuring out what information people were really trying to get from her, and it was obvious Marion wanted something. For Eve’s part, she wanted to make a good impression.

“That depends on how much money you’re willing to spend on it,” she replied carefully. “According to the engineer’s report the answer is yes, it can be saved, but if the building is to be decommissioned, then my guess would be the city can’t afford the expense of renovating. Sometimes it’s cheaper to start from scratch.”

“Hmm.” Marion’s eyes again rested on Matt, who’d been quietly listening. “Mr. Brison, I thought your designs tended to be much more sophisticated than anything our quiet little city would require. Hadn’t other plans already been approved?”

Again, Eve wondered where Marion was headed with her questioning. She was on the prowl for something, though.

“This is a design/build project,” Matt explained. “The preliminary blueprints are used as a guideline so the general contractor can provide cost estimates and a timeline for completion. I’ll be the one making sure the client gets what they really want for the final design.”

His eyes went to Eve on that last comment, as if he were trying to get her concurrence. Well, he wasn’t going to get it. Clearly, he needed a reminder that technically, in this instance, he worked for the general contractor and not the client—and there was a difference between what the client might want and what the client could afford. Architects tended to forget funny little details like that.

She opened her mouth to speak as their host wove his way through the crowd toward them. Tall, with a thick shock of silver hair and blue eyes much the same color as his nephew’s, Bob’s face was a wreath of smiles.

Eve clenched her teeth. The last time he’d smiled at her like that, she’d found herself working pro bono. And the thing about free labor was that one tended to get what one paid for.

Which reminded her, she still had some doors to shave down and hang at that Internet café. The other volunteers didn’t know how, and the bathroom doors had to be installed for the café to pass a building inspection.

“Hey, Matt. Evie.” Bob pumped her hand. “You look absolutely beautiful this evening. Glad you could make it. By the way, thanks for picking Matt up.” His voice carried, and a few people laughed. Even Marion smiled.

Eve’s cheeks stung with heat. “The hotel was on my way,” she said, willing him to spontaneously combust. The twitch of a muscle under Matt’s jaw indicated he was trying to control a grin of his own.

“I see my husband’s hooked up with a colleague,” Marion said, excusing herself. “Never leave two healthcare specialists from the same research study alone at a party. They’ll be talking about infectious diseases all evening if I don’t go put a stop to it.”

“We’ll find time to chat later,” Bob said to her. He shifted his drink to his other hand and turned back to Eve.

Her fingers curled around her wineglass. She vowed she was not going to let him talk her into anything, but he had a way of getting what he wanted that was truly astounding. In a previous lifetime, he’d no doubt sold snake oil to unsuspecting settlers.

“Be honest,” Bob said as he clapped a hand to his nephew’s shoulder. “Now that you’ve met him, you have to agree that getting Mattie to do the design for City Hall is a real coup. He’ll set a precedent for modernizing this city, and before you know it, we’ll be on the international map.”

Matt lifted his eyebrows. Well? His amused look challenged her. Am I a coup or what?

“We’re already on the international map,” Eve said, trying to ignore Matt’s efforts to make her smile back at him. It was no easy feat—that was one killer smile he possessed.

“We have one of the largest and deepest natural harbors along the Eastern seaboard. And for the record,” she added, “I don’t think the city needs to be modernized. More and more historic sites are being lost to glass and steel projects with no character. Glass and steel certainly have their place, but if we don’t protect our downtown district, it will no longer have the atmosphere that makes it such an attraction to tourists and movie companies.”

Bob gave a low chuckle, as if she’d said something cute. Eve had the horrible fear he was about to pat her on the head. If he did, she’d be forced to lay him out flat at his own reception. She tolerated him calling her Evie, but she had boundaries.

“Sweetheart, there’s more to attracting tourism and movie companies to the downtown core than a few old buildings.”

Eve refocused the conversation. “What about the budget?” she asked. “Sullivan Construction has already won the contract. Technically Matt works for us now, and our budget dictates his plans will have to be a bit more practical than he’s used to.”

“Excuse me for interrupting, but my plans are always practical.” Matt’s deceptively soft voice rumbled above her head, enveloping Eve’s insides in a sudden flash of heat. He had a voice like polished oak. Solid, but smooth. “Every inch of space is both usable and aesthetic.”

“But can you make sure it’s affordable, too?” she challenged, determined not to forget where her loyalties lay.

“That’s what I like about you, Evie.” Bob nodded a greeting to a cadaverous man in a dark suit walking by. “You’re so passionate when it comes to money. Has anyone ever told you that you worry too much?”

Eve set her untouched drink on a nearby table, the blood pounding in her temples like the low, slow throbbing of a drum. She’d show him just how passionate she could be when the necessity arose. She was tired of Bob not taking her seriously. “I get paid to worry about budget money.”

“Uncle Bob.” Matt’s firm hand took possession of Eve’s punching arm. “Do you mind if I borrow Eve for a few moments?”

“Not at all,” Bob said, already scanning the room like a shark sniffing out blood in the water. “You kids go have fun.”

Matt hustled her down a short hall, through an open set of sliding glass doors, and onto a small flagstone patio cobwebbed in shadows.

“In most circles, it’s considered impolite to punch your host in the nose,” he said, once they were outside. He sounded amused, but it was hard for Eve to tell in the dark.

“I wasn’t going to punch Bob,” she protested, ninety-nine percent certain she was telling the truth. “I was only going to give him my opinion.”

“That can be just as bloody, sometimes. I thought you might want to think about it for a few moments.” He released her arm as if reluctant to do so, his fingers lingering long enough to make Eve’s mouth go dry. “If you still want to give him your opinion after that, hey, I’ll even hold him down for you.”

“Bob could use a good opinion every once in a while.” Eve pinched the bridge of her nose. “I don’t know why I let him get to me,” she nearly growled.

“I’m sure he gets to a lot of people,” Matt said.

“Now there’s an understatement.”

Eve dropped onto one of the stone benches, the sweet scent from a mock orange bush drifting on the fresh evening air that whispered over her bare skin. Light streamed through large windows, bathing a section of the small patio in a gentle glow. A leafy grape arbor hid them from sight if anyone should happen to glance outside. Matt settled beside her, stretching out his long legs. She leaned forward and propped her chin on her hand, then tilted her head sideways to look up at him. A jolt of awareness tightened her chest in a way that was hard to ignore, but Eve tried her best. She doubted they shared the same sense of humor. He was far from spontaneous. She suspected he was more than a little uptight, in fact.

And they were colleagues. She wasn’t planning to let attraction overrule common sense, not when it came to her work, but being friendly would get her more cooperation than acting crazy. Matt wasn’t to blame for the things his uncle said or did. Or what Claude had done, either.

“Since we’re going to be working together, there’s something you should know about me. I have a quick temper,” she said.

He clapped a hand over his heart. “I would never have guessed.”

That made her laugh. “Hard to believe, isn’t it?”

The last of her anger wafted away. She shouldn’t let Bob’s cavalier attitude irritate her so much. She was, indeed, passionate about her work, and these days, it was all the passion she seemed to possess. She wiggled her toes inside her narrow shoes, keenly aware of the male presence beside her. She couldn’t remember the last time she’d been alone in the dark with a man, and just like that, Eve realized the dangerous position she’d put herself in. She wasn’t ready for another man in her life.

And this was most definitely the wrong man for her even if she were. Matt was a rich and famous architect. She’d be nothing more than entertainment to someone like him. She had more self-respect than that, and she’d earned it the hard way.

She eased away from him so that they weren’t sitting so close.

“Uncle Bob’s not so bad once you get to know him,” Matt said.

Eve had known Bob for three years, and so far, she hadn’t seen any real improvement. He could be charming, yes, but he never did anything without a motive. Quite frankly, he made her head tired.

“Why did he insist Sullivan Construction hire you, anyway?” she asked. She couldn’t see what would be in this for Matt. He certainly wasn’t doing it for the glory. Or the money. “You must have more important projects you could be working on.”

“Yes, but this project is important to my uncle.” Eve could feel the affection in his smooth voice. In fact, she felt it all the way to her toes. “He’s been good to my mother and me. I’m grateful to be given the opportunity to do something for him in return.”

She couldn’t argue with that. “But you’re working for the contractor,” Eve felt compelled to remind him.

Matt studied the tips of his shoes with casual disinterest. “So I’ve heard.”

“And I control the budget.”

“I keep hearing that, too.”

“Since those two things are true,” she persisted, “your design will have to meet with my approval before it goes to the client.”

Matt tapped the fingers of one hand against his pant leg. He turned his attention from the tips of his shoes to her face.

“Why didn’t you just come right out and tell me that you did the preliminary design when I introduced myself?” he asked.

The question caught her off guard. Someone must have told him.

“That’s not what this is about,” she said.

“I think it is.” His fingers ceased their tapping. “There was nothing wrong with your design, Eve. It was good. But the truth is, the client wants something different.” He blew out a sigh. “We both know that the one with the final say on the new design will be the architect. That happens to be me. So, why don’t you tell me what your real objection to working with me is?”

He paused a beat. Heat entered his unwavering gaze. He edged closer, filling the small space she’d created between them.

“Because I’m starting to think that it’s personal.”