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Authors: Gwynne Forster

Just the Man She Needs

BOOK: Just the Man She Needs
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GWYNNE Forster
Just the Man She Needs
ACKNOWLEDGMENT

To my agent, Pattie Steel-Perkins, whose wisdom, guidance and support are invaluable to me. To Carole Smith, Mary Sheffield and Jeannetta Harris, whose kindness and thoughtfulness continue to amaze me; and to my beloved husband, who is my solid rock and comfort and never-failing support; and my thanks to Almighty God for my talent and for the opportunities to use it.

Chapter 1

F
elicia Parker stared at herself in the full-length mirror of her bathroom, dazzlingly seductive in the red-silk ball gown that she’d bought that morning at Saks Fifth Avenue. “Damned if I’m going by myself to the most fashionable event of the season, and in the Willard Hotel, no less.” Felicia lived and worked in New York City where she had more friends than she needed, but she didn’t want to ask any of her men friends to go to Washington, D.C., to escort her to a gala. She had learned the hard way not to obligate herself to a man. Men had a way of collecting debts. Too bad she couldn’t put a label on herself that read “reporter on duty” and go to the gala unescorted. She laughed at the thought. As one of the most popular society columnists, she could get away with it.

She twirled around before the mirror. “This dress deserves to go out in style,” she said, pulled it off, hung it up and put her mind to work. Minutes later, she sat in front of her computer, surfing the Internet. After an hour, she found what she wanted: Capitol Gentlemen, a male escort service on Connecticut Avenue in Washington, a service that promised gentlemen. She telephoned the service, spoke with a man whose voice and manners she liked, and placed her order.

“I want a tall, handsome, neat, intelligent and elegant man to escort me to the Sterling gala at the Willard Hotel.” In response to his question—which she thought a bit sarcastic—she told him, “I’m Felicia Parker.”

“The columnist?”

“Yes.”

“Give me an hour, Ms. Parker, and I’ll see if I have someone for you. I assume that’s the only service you need.”

She knew he had a right to ask that question, but she was miffed nonetheless. “You assume correctly.” She told him that she lived in New York, but would be staying at the Willard.

As he’d promised, the man called her back within the hour. “Ms. Parker, at eight forty-five, Friday night, Ashton Underwood will call for you at the Willard. Mr. Underwood’s references are impeccable. The service is five hundred dollars, and you should give the check to him.”

She thought that strange, but since she’d had no previous experience at hiring a man for personal service, she didn’t let her mind dwell on the matter.

Felicia arrived in the nation’s capital around noon that Friday in late March and went directly to the Willard Hotel. After hanging up her dress, she showered and took a nap. At seven o’clock, she ordered a light supper in her room, for she didn’t snack, and she didn’t expect that the food would be commendable. At eight-thirty, she finished her ablutions, sprayed her body with Fendi perfume, brushed her hair and slipped on the red ball gown. She added black-satin, elbow-length gloves, slipper sandals, and diamond studs decorated her ears.

“If he’s tall and knows how to acknowledge an introduction, maybe I shouldn’t expect more,” she said to herself as she took a last look in the mirror. The telephone rang and, with her heart racing, she rushed to answer it.

“Felicia Parker speaking.”

“Good evening, Ms. Parker. This is Ashton Underwood. I’m waiting for you by the registration desk.”

Good Lord, what a voice!
“Thank you, I’ll be right down.”

“May I ask what color you’re wearing?”

“Of course. Red.”

“And I’m wearing a red boutonniere.”

A few minutes later she stepped off the elevator, trained her gaze on the registration desk and nearly swallowed her tongue as Adonis himself moved away from the registration desk and headed directly toward her.
Get yourself together, girl. This guy is used to having women eat dirt when he shows up. Don’t fall on your face.

He had the most contagious smile, and it bloomed as he approached her, seemingly becoming increasingly spellbinding. She automatically smiled in return. And then he stood within inches of her, smiling down at her.

“I’m delighted to meet you,” he said.

“Thank you for agreeing to spend the evening with me,” she said. “Would you mind if we take care of the money right now, so we can enjoy the evening?” she asked him.

She didn’t miss his quick shrug. “Not at all. Make it to Habitat for Humanity.”

She stared at him. “Are you sure? I mean—”

He interrupted her. “Very sure. It’s my favorite charity.”

She didn’t bother to hide her bemusement, which he ignored the way a small child ignores a parent that it doesn’t intend to obey. “Excuse me for a minute, please,” she said, went to the ladies’ room, wrote out the check and went back to him.

“That was fast and very considerate,” he said when she handed him the folded check. He put it into his pocket without glancing at it, and it occurred to her that he was either very good at pretense or wasn’t much concerned about money. She doubted the latter. He was an escort, wasn’t he?

“Let’s get this one thing straight,” he said, staring down into her face, his own unreadable. “You want me to accompany you to some social events, and nothing more?”

Miffed and not bothering to hide it, she raised her head with as much haughtiness as she dared and said, “Nothing else occurs to me, nor is anything else likely to.” He shrugged with such nonchalance that she would have enjoyed smacking him. It didn’t require genius to know he was telling her that, although she’d paid for his services, she hadn’t purchased him. Tension crackled between them like sparks from green logs on hot coals. But he immediately dispersed it with a smile that nearly made her lose her balance.

As they walked up the stairs to the grand ballroom, she stole glances at him and thought,
This is the man they had in mind when they invented tuxedos.
Somewhere near six-feet-four inches tall, she guessed, and with long-and-silky-lashed large, dark brown eyes. Sleepy eyes. She felt like fanning. He’s an escort, she repeated to herself, hoping that fact would burn itself into her brain.

In the anteroom, couples milled about with drinks and hors d’oeuvres. She didn’t want the snacks and figured that with such powerful temptation close to her side, she’d better not drink.

“Would you care for a drink and whatever else it is that they’re serving?” she asked him.

He declined, saying that he didn’t eat hors d’oeuvres and wouldn’t drink unless she did. A point in his favor.

In the ballroom, the band struck up one of her favorites, and she itched to dance.

“My feet don’t like to remain still when I hear Duke Ellington’s ‘Satin Doll,’” she told him. “Do you dance?”

Both of his eyebrows shot up. “Of course I dance. May I have the honor?” With his finger at her elbow, he led her into the ballroom, held out his hands and let her decide how close to him she would move.

“This is not as easy as I thought it would be,” she said to herself as she moved into his arms. And the brother could move his feet. There wasn’t anything stiff about his hips, either. “This was a mistake,” she told herself.

At the end of the dance, he splayed his fingers at her back and guided her off the dance floor. She had asked for elegance and manners, and by damn, that’s what they sent her. All evening, he didn’t ask her a single question about herself, yet she wanted to know everything about him, and not as a reporter but as a woman. In her endeavors, she had many male acquaintances, but none was more self-assured than Ashton Underwood and not one carried himself with such grace. She began to wonder why he took the assignment and whether the fee she paid was so small compared to what he received from rich women that he could afford to give it to charity.

At the end of the evening, she had enough material for three columns, but more importantly, she’d spent five hours with a man who’d spun her around as if she were a top. He’d poleaxed her, but had showed no interest in her, merely exhibited the grace and charm that she imagined one should expect of an escort.

“I’ve enjoyed the evening and your company,” she told him, standing at her door.

Looking her in the eye, he thanked her and added, “Would you like…anything else?”

She knew her face registered her surprise, but he didn’t react. “No, thank you.” His question disappointed her, and she let her tone of voice tell him that.

“Great!” he said. “It’s been a genuine pleasure, Ms. Parker. Good night.”

Ashton got on the elevator, inserted his card key in the penthouse slot, got off at the twelfth floor and went to his suite. It could have been worse. Much worse. He went straight to the bar, selected a miniature bottle of scotch whiskey, poured it over a glass of ice, shook it and drank every drop. He was forty years old, a father, and the survivor of a rotten marriage, and he should know better than to let a woman in a tush-hugging red ball gown poleax him. But that was precisely what she’d done, and there was no other way to describe it. With his libido primed to rear its ugly head, he stripped, hung up his tuxedo and slid into bed. Thanks to the whiskey and his empty stomach, sleep claimed him immediately.

He awoke at six o’clock as he usually did, showered, dressed and made a cup of coffee in the Mr. Coffee machine in his room. A glance at his watch told him that it was only a quarter of seven, and he’d have to wait a little longer. He ran his hands over his tight curls and drew a long breath. What he wouldn’t give to wake up and discover that the previous night had been a dream. He could see no place in his life for a glamorous, newspaper society columnist. He shrugged. What the hell! He was moving too fast; she hadn’t shown an iota of interest in him as a man.

It gave him considerable satisfaction that he’d shocked her when, as they’d stood in front of her room door, he’d asked her if she needed anything else.
An escort would do that, wouldn’t he?
Thank God, she’d said no. He laughed out loud at the thought of himself making love with a woman for a stated sum.

Seven o’clock arrived, and he dialed his brother’s phone number. “Hello, there,” he said when Damon answered. “Listen here, brother, you’re in my debt, and I mean big-time.”

“What?” Damon’s voice had the sound of one slowly regaining consciousness. “Considering what she required in a date, I’d have thought she’d be…well…very special.”

Ashton rubbed his chin as a smile altered the contours of his face. “Oh, she was special, all right. A knockout. She’s also a famous society columnist for a chain of newspapers.”

“I know. Was that bad?”

Damon could be dense when it suited him. He operated on the principal that if your adversary thought you didn’t understand what was going on, you wouldn’t be drawn into the fray. Damon soiled his hands only when doing so netted him a proper return.

“She was a perfect lady,” Ashton said, “and I owe you five hundred.”

“Why? Didn’t she give you a check?”

“I told her to make it out to Habitat for Humanity. Damned if I was going to let that woman pay me to spend the evening with her.”

He heard Damon grumble under his breath. “Like that, huh?”

“Yeah. Next time you need that kind of favor, call Cade or take the job yourself.”

“Me call Cade for that? You’re joking.”

“Oh, he’d complain like hell, but he’d do it rather than see you lose business,” Ashton said of their brother. “Can’t you get some of your university pals or frat brothers to step in occasionally?”

“You can’t be sure about those guys, Ashton. I have a dozen men who’ll be and do whatever the woman wants, excluding sexual favors, but they’re not for women like Felicia Parker. As for the frat boys, sophisticated women can’t stand college jocks.”

“No. I suppose not. Why didn’t you take the job?”

“I had a class that I couldn’t afford to miss, but I also don’t want to be seen as competition for my employees. One more semester, and I’ll sell this business. I can’t wait to try my first case.”

“You really want to be a trial lawyer?” Ashton asked his youngest brother.

“It’s one of my options. Corporate law is the other.”

“I’m getting the nine-thirty shuttle back to New York, so I’d better get out of here. I’ll send you the check tomorrow. Keep the faith.”

“Right on. You do the same,” Damon replied.

Once seated on the plane, he opened the
Wall Street Journal,
checked his companies’ stocks on the New York Stock Exchange, opened his briefcase and jotted down the order of his day. At eleven o’clock he put his key into his front door, and as he opened the door, his ears welcomed the sound he most adored—the noise of four-year-old Teddy bounding down the stairs. His son had adopted the habit of meeting him at the door, and he had to find a way to circumvent the likelihood that Teddy would manage to open the door for the wrong person. Ashton held out his arms to his son as he knelt to enjoy the child’s warm and excited embrace.

“What did you do in Washington, Daddy?”

He never got used to the miracle of his son in his arms. He held the boy close for a minute. “I went to a very nice party.”

“Did they have any children at the party?”

“It was an adult party. If it had been a party for children, I would have taken you with me.”

Teddy kissed his cheek. “Why do adults need so many parties? Miss Eartha said all some women do is shop and go to parties. How does she know that, Daddy?”

“Beats me. Why didn’t you ask her?”

BOOK: Just the Man She Needs
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