Desire by Design
Author:Paula Altenburg

chapter Four

He had hoped to get a chance to apologize to her this evening for dismissing her design. Instead, he’d ended up pointing out, once again, how his professional designation trumped hers.

But he did think this was personal, and he couldn’t quite put his finger on why. Aside from that one little blunder, he’d been nothing but friendly. Maybe she was transferring her annoyance with his uncle—and yes, he knew Uncle Bob could be annoying—onto him.

Sounds from the gathering inside drifted around them in the moonlight as he waited for her reaction.

“I don’t even know you,” Eve said. “But I know your work. Even if the city does want to hire a professional, I think you have to agree that you’re the wrong one for this job.” She stood and smoothed silky fabric down over her slim hips. “Excuse me. I need another drink.”

“Not so fast.” Matt caught her hand before she could walk away. He, too, rose to his feet, then had to dip his head in order to see her face as she looked away. “This is a small project in an even smaller town. If it’s not personal, and we’re going to be working together for the next few months, then it might as well be on friendly terms. I still want to see your ideas.”

She eased her fingers from his grasp. “This might be a small project to you, but to me, it’s important. But don’t worry. You won’t need to do me any favors. I have my own reputation in this city. Small as it is.”

He had handled this badly. All her contradictions, and passion for her work, intrigued him. But he still thought there was more to her objection to him than a dislike for his work.

“I’m not doing you a favor,” he said. “I’m always open to ideas.”

“Thanks. I appreciate the opportunity. It’s very generous of you.”

The words were polite but hardly brimming with enthusiasm. Matt tried not to grin. At least she wasn’t going to be stroking his ego, which was kind of refreshing. Not to mention, challenging.

She turned to the patio doors, paused as if about to say something more, then peered through a crack in the sheer curtains.

“Oh, nuts. Here comes Connor’s wife, Lena,” she whispered. “The last time she caught me at one of these functions, I spent two hours listening to her talk about the horrors of breastfeeding and the agony of having an older husband who doesn’t pay enough attention to her. If you really want to do me a favor, tell her you haven’t seen me.”

With that, Eve climbed over one of the stone benches and ducked behind a low cedar hedge.

Matt’s mouth dropped open.

The glass doors slid back and an elegant, black-haired Latina woman stepped onto the flagstones. He vaguely recalled having been introduced to her at some point in time.

“Excuse me,” she said. “I thought I saw Eve come out here.”

There was a hint of a question to her fluid, heavily accented words that should have warned him, but Matt’s attention was focused elsewhere. His eyes darted to the bushes, unsure of the proper protocol for this type of scenario.

“Eve went to powder her nose,” he said, feeling like an idiot. Then his sense of humor took over. “But she should be back any moment. You’re welcome to wait with me if you’d like.”

The bushes behind him rustled at that. He was beginning to enjoy this—but just a little.

“I would like that very much.” Lena Sullivan moved a little closer—too close—and it suddenly occurred to Matt that the situation was potentially even more awkward than he’d first thought. He hoped he’d mistaken the delight in her tone. “I have been wanting to catch you alone from the moment I saw you.”

Nope. It seemed he hadn’t mistaken anything.

“Oh?” Matt didn’t know what else to say. Was Eve hearing any of this? If so, she could at least have the decency to help him out.

Lena moved closer still. “Yes.” She placed a hand on his chest, and he swallowed, hard. “I would imagine you and I have a lot in common.”

He did his best to sound discouraging. “Really?”

Light fingers began to draw circles on his shirtfront. “You are alone in a strange city, and no doubt lonely. I am alone in a strange country where nobody understands me.” Lena’s voice trembled. “And I am definitely lonely.”

Matt’s mind raced. The woman was hitting on him, and he had to do something to make her stop. This was a prime reason why he most definitely wasn’t looking for a trophy wife. That was the trouble with trophies—sooner or later, they landed with the competition.

“Eve should be back any moment,” he repeated, inching backward. “She’s a jealous woman, Lena. I’d hate to have her misinterpret the fact that you and I are out here alone together.”

Lena’s hands dropped to her sides, much to his relief. Her accent grew more pronounced, although he suspected that was an affectation. Most men likely found it charming.

“I had no idea you were a couple. Eve, she does not normally bother with the men.”

“No?” That was nice to know…although Eve probably didn’t bother with men because she scared them off.

“I thought this was a business event,” Lena added. “Connor sometimes asks her to introduce the V-I-Ps around on behalf of the company.”

“It’s definitely not strictly business between me and Eve,” he said.

Lena heaved her impressive breasts. “I would hate to get you into trouble with her.” She gave his tie a little tug. “Maybe I will see you later?”

She sauntered off with an elegant sway to her hips and a smoldering glance over her shoulder. Matt waited until he was certain she was gone before crossing to the bench Eve had hurdled.

“Get back up here,” he grumbled, scanning the long shadows. “I want to talk to you.”

Eve’s voice came from out of the darkness. “I’d be angry with you,” she said with an air of satisfaction, “except you got exactly what you deserved. ‘You’re welcome to wait with me if you’d like,’” she parroted, then mumbled something that sounded suspiciously like, “Lena can’t resist the good-looking ones.”

At least she thought he was good-looking. That meant one thing had gone right so far this evening.

“You could have warned me about her before you did your disappearing act,” Matt said. He placed one knee on the bench and peered into the bushes. “Would you get up here where I can see you?”

The bushes rustled again. “I can’t.”

Matt wondered how long they had before someone else wandered outside and found them like this. He was torn between fascination and maintaining his dignity. She didn’t seem all that concerned about hers.

“What do you mean, you can’t?”

“I mean,” Eve explained in a matter-of-fact tone, “that my dress is snagged on a twig, and I’m trying to get it free without tearing anything.”

“Let me give you a hand.” Leaning over the bench in the direction of her voice, he parted the bushes and could just make out Eve’s form in the darkness. The bushes lurched as she tugged at her dress.

“Don’t do that,” he warned, stretching out a hand, his fingertips brushing against the fabric. He leaned a little farther, trying to get a grip. “You’re going to make things worse. I think I can get it if I just—”

He moved forward one inch too far and tumbled headfirst into his uncle’s fragrant shrubbery. Matt rolled, spit out a mouthful of dirt, and spared a fleeting thought for the kind of mulch his uncle’s gardener might use. Whatever it was, he hoped a dry cleaner could get the smell off his suit.

Then, Eve burst into soft peals of laughter that made him forget all about Lena, the crowd, the threat of discovery, and even the prickly underbrush jabbing through his clothing.

She had the most incredible laugh. It wasn’t a polite little party laugh, either, the kind he was used to hearing from women. It came from deep inside her, too big for her tiny frame, like she’d explode if she didn’t let it out. It invited anyone who heard it to laugh along with her, and Matt felt every inch of his body respond to it.

She didn’t seem to care that her dress was most likely ruined or that her hair was a mess. And it was obvious she hadn’t given any thought as to how they were going to explain this to any of the other people present. Matt couldn’t help but be charmed, and maybe a little bit envious. Everything she did, she did with passion—he could tell that about her already. What would it be like to live life like that?

That was when the situation really struck him. He was rolling around in his uncle’s shrubbery with a sexy new colleague in a peekaboo dress. A company code of ethics didn’t quite have this one covered. He wasn’t too sure what to do about it—or when he’d become such an old man.

Because personally, he didn’t see how it would do any real harm.

The night was warm, and the air was heavy with the threat of approaching rain. If they didn’t move soon they’d be mud wrestling, too.

Still, he was no longer in any hurry to go anywhere. No one could see them even if they did come out on the patio. He figured this put them well past the first base of any relationship, professional or otherwise, and wondered if it would be inappropriate to kiss her.

“You’re in luck,” he said. “Here’s your chance to get to know me better.”

“I already know you suck at making excuses.” Laughter lingered in her voice. She caught his ribs with an elbow. “Who says ‘powder your nose’ anymore? What are you, ninety?”

“I panicked. Besides, there may be snow on the roof, but there’s plenty of fire in the furnace.” He edged closer. “Don’t move. I’ll unhook your dress.”

He pinned her down with the weight of one leg and reached across her, taking his time, enjoying the moment. She smelled a lot better than the mulch.

The moment stretched. Inside the house, he could hear muted conversation and the faint clatter of plates and glasses.

“We’re flattening your uncle’s forsythia,” Eve said.

“Consider it his punch in the nose.”

He finally got a finger under the piece of fabric on the prickly shrub, lifted it, and she was free. Again, he debated the wisdom of kissing her. Something pulled him to her like a magnet. He lowered his hand and ran a thumb across her lower lip.

She froze.

Not the reaction he’d been hoping for.

“I think my dress is untangled now,” she said, all the laughter gone, sounding uncertain in a way that only made him want to kiss her more, but for different reasons.

Disappointment mingled with temptation as Matt told himself to be a gentleman. She had hesitated. That meant the fun and games were over.

The sudden swish of the patio doors warned him they were no longer alone. Time dragged to a standstill. Then his uncle’s voice boomed from above.

“Mattie? You out here?”

The situation could still be saved as long as his uncle didn’t hear them. Matt leaned over, intending to whisper in her ear for Eve to be quiet, but in the process, accidentally pinched the soft flesh of her underarm beneath his elbow.

“Ouch!” she gasped, then clapped a hand to her mouth.

Matt, with an impending sense of doom, dropped his forehead to hers. It seemed there was a downside to a passionate lifestyle.

The outdoor floodlights flared, and the entire area lit up like an operating room. There was an awkward moment of silence.

“It’s a big house,” his uncle said slowly. “Couldn’t you two find a room?”

Eve’s fingers tightened on the steering wheel as her car hummed along the dark, empty streets. Her hair was a wreck, and Matt’s suit was covered in mulch. She had to give Bob credit for handling the situation well. He’d offered to tell people that Matt had been called away on business, giving them time to slink around the side of the house and slither off into the night.

Eve slouched deeper in her seat. There must be a perverse little part of her subconscious that liked to see her humiliate herself. She’d really thought Matt was going to kiss her, and she’d panicked. That suggested it had been either way too long since she’d been kissed by a man, or not long enough. She wasn’t sure which.

Or maybe it was because that one phone call from Claude had set her confidence back a few years.

She made a mental note not to be so hard on the men at work the next time they whistled at women. After Lena’s performance—and her own—it was apparent that men weren’t the only ones who could make idiots of themselves over the opposite sex.

She wished Matt would say something now. Anything. He hadn’t spoken a word since they’d reached the car. It was the one punishment in life she found difficult to bear—the silent treatment.

“Look at us,” she said brightly, needing to break a silence that felt far too oppressive. “All dressed up, and no place to go.”

He grunted, his eyes glued on the road ahead.

“You have a leaf in your hair,” she ventured, ignoring the bird’s nest in her own.

He cranked open the window, plucked the offending leaf from his hair, and released it into the night.

“I’m sorry,” she tried again, willing to start the apologies rolling. “I should never have dodged Lena like that.”

“That wasn’t your finest moment,” he said.

The old, familiar anxiety slowly twisted her stomach in knots, and she resented it. Perhaps she could have handled things differently, but it wasn’t as if she’d planned for any of it to happen. She hadn’t been alone in those bushes.

“At least I covered for us nicely.”

“You told my uncle you lost an earring,” Matt said.

“Well, I did.” Her fingers strayed to her naked lobe. One of her favorites, too. She really needed to stop playing with them.

“That’s the second earring you’ve lost this week. You should consider using staples.” He looked directly at her for the first time since they’d crawled from the bushes and limped to the car. “No offense,” he continued, “but you come off a little scary sometimes.”

Eve slowed for a corner. “What do you mean?”

“You ordered my uncle to trim his hedge.”

“It was a ragged-looking.”

“Only because you’d crushed it.”

“I crushed it?” If they were going to cast stones about crushing things, she still had his hand imprint on one of her breasts.

“Hey,” Matt said. “The hedge was yours. I did the forsythia.”

“It’s nice of you to remember that I wasn’t alone.”

“Believe me, it’s not something I’m likely to forget.”

Eve, concentrating on her driving, missed the grin accompanying his words. All she heard was criticism.

Something inside her snapped. “This is so typical.” She swerved around a pothole in the street, narrowly missing the rear end of a parked car. “It’s always the woman’s fault, never the man’s.”

Matt shifted in his seat, turning toward her. “Wait a second. I never said—”

“You didn’t have to say anything. I know what you meant.”

“Eve, I think you’re being—”

“I know what I’m being,” she interrupted again. She was being an idiot. Her nerves had been wound too tight since Claude’s phone call, and now she was taking it out on Matt. She knew the whole disaster of an evening was her fault. Why didn’t he yell at her and be done with it? Why was he torturing her like this?

His voice gentled. “Stop the car, please.”

Eve could see the train wreck coming but was helpless to stop it. If Matt was about to become all sensitive and understanding, she was going to have him killed. She didn’t need sympathy right now. She felt tears welling behind her eyes, and that made her furious—with both him and herself. She hated to cry.

She pulled the car over and double-parked in front of a dark restaurant on a quiet street. Grabbing her handbag and holding it up to the dreary glow of a streetlight, Eve whipped out a twenty-dollar bill and slapped it into Matt’s palm.

“Maybe you should call yourself a cab,” she said.

Matt stared at the money in his hand, his expression unreadable. Then, he carefully placed the money on the dashboard and glanced into the back seat as if looking for something.

“What are you doing?” she snapped.

“Don’t you keep tissues in your car? Women always seem to keep tissues everywhere.”

Eve rolled her eyes. Why’d he have to be right all the time?

He reached into the back, and just as his fingers closed around the box, a car with flashing red-and-blue lights pulled up behind them. A few moments later, a stocky police officer rapped on Eve’s door. When she rolled down the window, he shone a flashlight into the car’s interior.

“What seems to be the trouble?” the officer asked.

“Just a little misunderstanding,” Matt said.

“A little misunderstanding, huh?”

The officer’s light shone in her eyes. Eve plucked the box of tissues from Matt’s hand and helped herself, heartily blowing her nose. The light picked up the money on the dash, then the officer flashed the light back on Eve before returning it to Matt’s face. “Whatever you’re negotiating, do it someplace else. You’re double-parked and blocking traffic.”

Matt cleared his throat. “The money is for a cab.”

The officer’s ruddy face creased into a wide grin. “Whatever you say. Have a nice evening.”

Eve watched him walk back to his cruiser, then tucked the used tissue in her bag and tossed the box in the backseat. “I’ll drive you home.”

“You know what?” Matt’s voice turned thoughtful. “I think maybe I’d better take that cab.”

She watched as he got out of the car, wanting to tell him she was sorry, and that her ex-husband was the one she was angry with, not him. He was more like a civilian casualty.

Matt hesitated, then reached back in and grabbed the twenty off the dash. “I’m a little short on cash.” He gave her an exaggerated smile before he turned away from her.

He had a right to be angry, too. She should be relieved this was how he expressed it. Instead, it made her feel awful. There wasn’t much left for her to do other than leave him standing in the street, with the red-and-blue police lights pirouetting behind him. She drove off, a spittle of mist dampening her windshield, guilt and mortification eating at her conscience.

By the time she reached her neighborhood, the mist had graduated to streaming black rivers of rain. She wiped the steam off her windshield with the back of her hand, hoping Matt had his cellphone with him. Otherwise, he was going to have a long, wet walk back to his hotel, and she had enough to apologize for already.

The inky eyes of her house gaped at her as she cut the car engine. She groped for the door handle, wishing she’d thought to leave her front light on. Readying her house key, she made a mad dash through the downpour, fumbled with the deadbolt, then slammed the door shut behind her, shaking the water from her hair and face. The clock on the mantle in her living room chimed the hour, chasing a sudden chill up her backbone.

Her house felt…different.

Half turning, Eve noticed a daub of mud on the first step of the stairs leading to the second story. She tried to think of how that mud might have gotten there and couldn’t come up with anything comforting.

Someone had been in her house…and she had a good idea who it had been. But she didn’t know whether or not he was still there.

With adrenaline warping through her veins at lightning speed, she jerked open the door and fled back through the rain to her car. It wasn’t until she was six blocks from her home that she slowed down.

Pulling the car to the curb, she pressed her hot cheek against the steering wheel and considered her options. She wondered if she should call the police. Again. And be brushed off. Again. She could still hear the officer’s calm, reasoning voice that night years ago when she’d made the decision to leave Claude.

“In order to get a peace bond, you’ll have to prove the person poses a threat to your safety. If the person obeys the peace bond for a year, though, you won’t be able to get it renewed. Are you sure this is the route you want to go?”

She hadn’t bothered back then because he was leaving the country. Besides, she had punched him. He hadn’t hit her, he’d only threatened, as far as logistics were concerned. And she wasn’t going to the police now only to have them tell her that a phone call, a funny feeling, and a few specks of dirt weren’t enough by way of evidence to get her a peace bond this time.

She wasn’t going to run crying to her brothers, either. It was a little late to be telling them the truth about her marriage. That window of opportunity had closed a long time ago. She did have work boots and a pair of coveralls in her car, though, and plenty of work left to do at that volunteer project Bob had conned her into. She could spend the night shaving those doors down, then go back to her house when daylight came.

And if she worked hard enough, maybe she could forget for a while that she owed Matt an apology.

Matt’s long legs ate up the steep city sidewalk, the early morning sunshine warming the nape of his neck, a trickle of sweat dampening the back of his moisture-wicking running shirt.

He’d Googled Eve’s home address—not without difficulty—and decided to work it into his morning run. It felt sort of stalker-ish, but at the same time he wanted to make sure she was okay. He didn’t know her well, but even he knew something bigger was wrong. She’d been on edge since she’d picked him up at the hotel last night. He’d thought it was about the design, and maybe it was, but it certainly wasn’t the whole story.

It’s always the woman’s fault, never the man’s, Eve had said.

It still felt personal. But he no longer thought it was personal toward him.

He’d run by her house and at least make sure her car was in the driveway, he told himself.

As he ran, he tried to take note of the different architectural styles he saw. While it was true that the city had a certain period feel to it, as he moved away from the downtown business district, he saw more and more examples of multicultural influences. For centuries, people from all over the world had immigrated to Canada through this port city, and those who’d settled here had left their marks. He had no doubt he could design the perfect City Hall to reflect the city’s diverse history, yet still give his uncle a modern, trademark Matt Brison building.

Eve’s tidy little two-story house was located in an aging neighborhood of starter homes for young, upwardly mobile professional couples. Station wagons and minivans speckled the driveways of its steep, winding streets. Lattice-work fences, intertwined with creeping vines and scrubby underbrush, divided property lots. Ash, maple, poplar, and juniper sprouted in rocky, grass-retardant backyards.

And Eve, dressed in a pair of coveralls, with what appeared to be wood shavings in her ponytailed hair, was standing in a flowerbed at the side of her house, staring up at a window. It seemed she was an early riser, too.

He mopped at his forehead with the crease of his elbow, glad that the morning was cool and he wasn’t sweating too much. The breeze off the harbor kept the temperature down.

“Lose another earring?” he called to her from the safety of the sidewalk. He didn’t want to take her by surprise—not until he’d found out what kind of self-defense lessons her brother had given her and how warm she was feeling toward him that morning.

Eve spun around, and Matt blinked. Her coveralls were layered in a thick coating of sawdust and drywall spatters, and the dark circles under her eyes were big enough to cut the glare of a supernova.

He was doubly glad he hadn’t crept up on her. At this point, he doubted her nerves could survive it.

Eve didn’t answer his question. Instead, she scrambled over the clematis and cut him off at the corner of the house, as if there were something she was trying to keep him from seeing. Before he had time to wonder about that though, she’d tilted her chin upward and pinned him with those deep, dark-lashed eyes.

“I am really sorry about last night,” she said, looking so angelic that Matt might have been fooled if he didn’t have reason to know better. He was learning more about her all the time, and while she might be cute, she was definitely no angel. “I have no idea why I behaved the way I did.”

He thought that she did but didn’t want to explain it. And he thought it best not to pry.

“I came to apologize to you, too,” he said. “Oh, yeah,” he added, patting at the side pocket of his running shorts, “and to return your twenty dollars.”

“You don’t have to do either. I deserve to pay your cab fare after ditching you like that in the dark and the rain.”

The blaze of Eve’s smile left Matt bordering on tongue-tied. She really was cute.

He tried to shake it off with a joke. “In that case, you owe me money. Twenty dollars didn’t quite cover it.”

“I’ll have to write you a check.” Eve bounced her house keys in the palm of her hand, indecision etched all over her face. There was a palpable moment of awkward silence. “Or would you settle for a cup of coffee instead?”

Matt resisted the urge to reach over and pick the wood shavings from her hair, only because he didn’t want her to withdraw that offer of coffee. Her hesitation suggested she wasn’t enthusiastic about it, but he was suddenly very curious about how the inside of her home would look.

“Coffee sounds good,” he said, and followed her across the lawn, up her front steps, and into a small entryway.

She closed the door behind them, bent over and unlaced her steel-toed work boots, then dropped them in a corner.

“I’ll just put the coffee pot on,” she said. “Why don’t you have a seat in the living room?”

The living room was off the foyer to the left, a comfortable room filled with overstuffed antique furniture. Photos of family littered the tables and walls. It was a woman’s room, and not at all what Matt had expected. He thought of his own sparse condo, with its geometric furniture and early Ellsworth Kelly original artwork. Eve’s tastes couldn’t be more different than his if she’d made a deliberate effort to make them so. Yet, despite Eve’s busy work schedule, her house managed to look like a home, while Matt’s condo looked like…

Like it had been designed by an architect. One who spent most of his time at the office.

An open scrapbook displayed on the coffee table caught his eye, and he picked it up. He could hear Eve rattling around in the kitchen. She returned a few moments later, pausing between the yawning double glass doors.

“The coffee will be ready in a minute. I’m just going to run up and change my clothes.”

Matt’s eyes followed her up the stairwell. Even in coveralls and a layer of sawdust, there was no mistaking that Eve was a beautiful woman. He shook his head. Despite her little idiosyncrasies, he was definitely attracted to her.

Physically, it made sense. It was healthy and normal. What he couldn’t quite figure out was what she intended to do with the baseball bat she was clutching in a white-knuckled hand.