Harley came very close to laughing, though she wasn’t sure if it was actual amusement or just plain nerves. George Michael’s voice crooned “Last Christmas” in her head. “Tell me, baby, do you recognize me?” It’s definitely been a year. Guess the answer’s no.
She managed to hold back the laughter. Barely. Nerves wouldn’t get the better of her any more than Damien Adams would. She refused to allow it. Squaring her shoulders, she ignored the fact that she felt like an idiot with her hand dangling out in front of her, waiting to shake, while she faced down the man who had taken the Atlanta bar scene by storm less than a year ago. In person he was more like a blizzard, slamming into her senses, whiting out everything, including her courage. She’d always been good at faking it, though.
Ignoring his obvious impatience, she tried again. “Harley Fisher.”
The jerk stared back silently, full lips pressed tight together, a dark brow cocked up in question.
Okay, she knew she’d interrupted him, but seriously… She raised her own brow, getting a little impatient herself and trying hard to control it. “We spoke on the phone. About the general manager’s position,” she reminded him carefully.
Damien looked at her still-extended hand; then, with casual deliberation, he crossed his arms over his wide, muscular chest. The silk of his shirt stretched to a fit that resembled plastic wrap. Pulling her gaze from the deep V of the open neck, she dropped her hand and refused to be intimidated. She needed this job, and she intended to have it.
A spark of recognition lit those river-brown eyes, and Harley swallowed hard against the heavy, dry lump in her throat until he said, “Right. You’re the one I thought was a guy.”
She caught her grimace before it could get out. Yes, her name was unusual. She was often mistaken for a man until someone saw her in person, after which they simply thought she was an airhead. Or a slut. Her youth and rocker-chick persona often worked against her in the “real” world, but it never took people—men—long to learn differently. Hopefully Mr. Slick here would be quick on the uptake.
From the look of it, she had a better chance of Santa coming down her nonexistent chimney.
Raising her voice slightly to be heard over the remixed Christmas song blaring from the speakers, she said, “Yes, that Harley.” Try a smile, she told herself. “We—”
An impatient shake of his head cut off her words. “I believe I told you we were looking for someone more”—his gaze slid slowly down her body and back up—“more.”
More what, for God’s sake? More ready to jump into bed with him? A strong urge to put her leather jacket back on, as if she were still out in the Atlanta winter cold, bit into her. And pissed her off. Maybe she’d made a mistake in coming here. Damien obviously wasn’t the man she’d thought he would be, the man she needed.
No, give it a chance. This is too important to be making rash decisions. He can afford to; you can’t.
She dug her fingernails deep into her palms and wished her soon-to-be boss wasn’t quite such an ass.
Or quite so sexy. Looking at him heated her body in a way that had nothing to do with the anger she was feeling. The reaction shook her. Of course, Sonny’d always had good taste in men.
Which was definitely not why Harley was here.
Pain tingling in her palms from the digging of her nails, she forced herself to hold his stare. “Mr. Adams, simply because I’m young—and female—doesn’t mean I’m not the right person for the job. If you could just take a look over my résumé one more time—”
“I’ve seen what I needed to see, Ms. Fisher,” he said, voice dropping to little more than a growl. “I own three very successful clubs in three cities hundreds of miles apart. Traveling between them means leaving someone else in charge, someone with the experience and expertise to work independently, wisely, and efficiently. It means I must trust that person implicitly with my livelihood and that of my employees. Being Thrice’s general manager requires more than a familiarity with the bar.” That insulting look returned to his eyes, implying various ways she might’ve gained such knowledge that had nothing to do with her brains.
Oh, he so did not go there.
“So what you’re saying is, a woman in her midtwenties, a former musician, covered in tattoos but looking reasonably attractive is by definition a lush? Or are you insinuating that I’m a whore?”
Damien stared, eyes wide with shock, as if he couldn’t believe the words that had left her mouth. Then a boyish grin transformed him from put-out businessman to dangerously naughty hunk, and the urge to let go of her anger sank its teeth deep. No way. She was not forgetting he was rude, egotistical, asinine, a dickhead…
He laughed before she could let a real hissy fit loose. The sound echoed, rich and full, blending and countering the music filling the room. It deflated the ball of emotion choking her, drew her in, made her want to mix her laugh with his. She held her breath, unable to decide if his reaction was a good or bad thing.
“Forgive me,” Damien said. A wheeze interrupted the last word, and he had to pause to get his mirth under control. “You’re right. That was uncalled for.” Like an old-world aristocrat, he bowed from the waist. His shirt draped away from his chest, giving her a glimpse of smooth, tan skin all the way to his navel. “My apologies.”
Did he plan to kiss her hand next? The man had throwing people off down to an art. And why didn’t he look ridiculous with his shirt unbuttoned down to a lick-worthy six-pack? Reminding herself of her purpose, she said warily, “Accepted. I think.”
His grin said if that was the best he could get, he’d take it. “Ms. Fisher, I appreciate your candor—and that you are willing to forgive my rudeness. But—”
She barely refrained from rolling her eyes. There always has to be a but.
“—the fact remains that a certain level of experience is necessary for this position. I’m sorry.”
He turned to leave, and panic took over, pushing her to close the distance between them. Instinctively her hand shot out, and then she was gripping the heavy muscle of his biceps. Desperation firmed her hold when the shock of physical contact shot up her arm like a lightning bolt. He felt hot. Masculine. This close, he smelled of spice and alcohol, and she found herself breathing heavier just to take in more.
Don’t be a damn fool, Harley! Get your act together.
Before he could blast her for detaining him, Harley firmed both her courage and her voice. “Thrice has been open how long, Mr. Adams?” When he refused to answer, she did it for him. “Six months. I’ve been involved in the Atlanta music scene for fifteen years, the last seven of which I spent not only as a musician but as an event organizer and PR rep for my band and several others.”
That got him to face her fully. “You are either older than you look, or that’s a big stretch of the truth.”
She let a smirk sneak onto her lips. “And you are more unfamiliar with your new market than I would have given you credit for. My mother rotated out of every club in town, dragging me along with her from the time I was ten so she could sing her heart out. At fifteen I became involved with the indie music scene, and three years later formed and managed my own band, Aftershock.”
At the name, Damien’s brows shot up. So much for actually reading my résumé. Anyone with even a basic knowledge of indie music had heard of Aftershock; they were one of the foremost bands in the business, not just because they were damn good musicians, but because Harley had as good of instincts in management as she did with a bass guitar. If her private life hadn’t blown all to hell, she would still be with them.
She could tell he didn’t like admitting he was wrong, but at least the playboy charm was darkening into something more serious, more thoughtful, without the annoyed edge he’d shown at first. Time to close the deal. “You know the national scene, no doubt about it. You know what needs to be done to make things happen in LA or Colorado. You gained that know-how through study, experience, and local help.” She fought to keep the quaver of desperation out of her words. “I can give you that here, Mr. Adams, and with far more depth and speed and with lower cost than anyone else you could hire. I know Atlanta. I know the people here. I know the nightlife and the music and the contacts to make it all happen.” She pulled in a heavy lungful of air to ease her aching chest. “I am the person for this job.”
When the last word left her lips, she knew every ounce of her passion and determination went with it. Her lungs deflated like a balloon with a slow leak, refusing to refill as she waited for his verdict. Thinking of everything that was at stake, she willed him to listen, to see all that she could offer.
“You’re not gonna give an inch, are you?” he finally asked.
Harley narrowed her eyes. “No, and you wouldn’t want me to. It’s exactly what you need.”
Damien’s gaze dropped to the hand still clutching his arm. Harley slowly released him, the burn of embarrassment firing her cheeks. When his mouth, that sinfully full mouth, opened to speak, she braced herself for rejection.
Wh-what? The single word hit like a brick wall she’d never seen coming. “Okay?” she parroted.
“Okay, let’s talk.” Glancing down, he surveyed the thick black watch encircling his wrist. “I have a couple of things to settle first, but if you’re willing to hang around, I’ll take the time to speak with you.”
Clenching the muscles in her thighs to keep herself from slumping to the floor in relief, she forced calm into her voice. “Yes. Absolutely.”
Damien stared down at her for a long moment, something dark and unreadable in his eyes. Knowing she had to get used to him watching her, judging her, she let him look. Whether he found what he was looking for or not, she didn’t know. He turned to a passing employee, asked the man to escort her to a table in the bar, and nodded before making his way down a nearby hall.
She couldn’t resist a final glance in his direction as she was led across the room. Step one down. They were on their way.
He needed to stop looking at her. Every few minutes his gaze strayed toward the corner table in the bar where Harley Fisher sat, sipping a drink with red and silver sprinkles rimming the glass, chatting with every employee who passed. The Christmas lights illuminating the area glinted in her eyes, and he couldn’t keep his fucking gaze off her. Which was bad, because he didn’t do employees—ever. And he wanted to do her, no doubt about it.
Pretending to listen to Brad give him a rundown of the night’s tally, he took in the picture she made. She fit, which was what had made him wary at first. Too young, too hip. From the top of her candy-red-and-cream-striped hair to the toes of her knee-high stiletto boots, she looked like one of his customers—the ones he occasionally slept with—not a manager. She had slipped her tight leather jacket onto the chair back, revealing a silky silver tank that showcased a full-sleeve tattoo along one slender, toned arm. Those muscles came from holding a guitar, he now knew. A musician. Wasn’t that just further reason to be panting after the woman? It was a wonder he hadn’t been forced to roll his tongue back into his mouth like the cartoon characters he remembered from childhood.
Brad’s voice pulled him back to business, and Damien turned, removing Harley from his line of sight. Tonight’s private Christmas party for Keane Industry’s Atlanta office had been well attended, the bar busy all night. Brad needed his attention, as did a million additional things, both here and at his other two clubs. He needed a general manager for Thrice. Once, his club in LA, and Twice, the Denver nightclub, were both hugely successful, but he wasn’t the kind of owner who could open a place and then leave it in someone else’s hands entirely. He stayed in constant contact with both managers, flying out frequently to each location, this month in particular. The series of charity events planned for the holidays would benefit hundreds of families in the three cities where he ran clubs, but they added more strain to his already overfull schedule.
He and Brad were finishing up the details for tomorrow’s order when Ryan strolled over to lean against the bar.
“Sounds good, Brad,” Damien told the bartender. “Finalize those numbers and have Malik get that order in ASAP tomorrow morning.”
Brad immediately pulled out his phone to shoot the day supervisor a reminder, which was one reason the man had become such a trusted employee so quick. He got things done and done fast. Damien needed all the help he could get. Fifty e-mails waited on his phone for his attention, and that didn’t include the things Ryan, as his assistant, handled on his own, or the things Ryan couldn’t handle when he and Brad took over Thrice while Damien was away. Both men worked hard, but neither had the know-how or experience to run the club without constant input from Damien, not yet. The need for a seasoned day-to-day manager here at Thrice neared desperation level at this point. No one he’d interviewed had felt right for such an important position, though. No one had even come close, not until Harley.
“Remind him about contacting that wholesaler while you’re at it,” Ryan put in. “See what the guy has to offer us.”
Brad nodded, fingers flying, then hit a final button and looked up. “Anything else?”
“No, you’re good,” Damien told him, meaning it.
“Does that mean I get an extra-special Christmas bonus this year?” the bartender asked with a grin.
“I don’t know. Ryan?”
Brad groaned. “You did not put Wonder Boy in charge of our bonuses, did you?”
“I’ll remember that,” Ryan warned.
Brad laughed as he headed toward the other end of the bar, which spanned the length of the club area, to finish supervising the night’s cleanup.
Ryan leaned a little closer, brows up almost to his hairline, and smiled slyly. “So, who’s the girl?”
In the four years Ryan had worked for him, Damien had come to love his young assistant like a little brother, so he didn’t resist the urge to smack the little pissant upside the back of his head.
“Hey, man, don’t mess with the hair!” Ryan smoothed the ruffled strands at his nape, but his smile widened despite the whine in his voice.
“Keep your tongue on a leash,” Damien warned, his words lacking heat. Without his consent, his gaze traveled toward Harley, watching as one of the waiters approached her table to offer a refill. Harley shook her head; then something the man said made her laugh. A twinge of pain shot through his jaw as Damien ground his teeth together. “That,” he told Ryan, “is Harley Fisher.”
Ryan shot to attention at his side. “The Harley Fisher? From Aftershock? Hot damn!” His tongue practically hung out as he stared across the room, and Damien started to wonder if he was going to have to wipe up drool. “I didn’t recognize her offstage. Is this my Christmas gift? Say yes. Please?” The last word definitely approached a whine.
Ryan was much closer to the indie scene than Damien, obviously, but it wasn’t as if Damien had no clue who the woman was. Aftershock was one of those bands that even adamant anti-indie listeners knew and enjoyed. He kept up with their music, if not all the band members’ names. What he did know was the venues they played—good ones, events that took finesse to get, especially for a band without the solid backing of a major record company. If Harley acted as their manager, she knew what the hell she was doing. So why leave that behind to work for him?
Ryan’s gushing made the pain in Damien’s jaw worse. “Down, boy. She’s applied for the general manager’s position.”
“No kidding?” A thoughtful look crossed Ryan’s boyish face. “I’d heard she was on hiatus. Maybe it was more serious than the rumor mill let on.”
Something to think about. She certainly seemed the best choice overall, given her background. And if he was honest, the main thing holding him back at this point was the attraction he felt for her. He liked her spunk. He liked that she didn’t take his shit without calling him on it. Damn it, he liked her, wanted her, and therein lay the problem. She was trouble waiting to happen. With a capital T.
A soft, feminine hand on his arm interrupted his thoughts. “Damien? Is everything all right?”
Mia. Another problem squeezing herself onto his overflowing plate. When he said he didn’t do employees, he meant it, but Mia refused to get the picture.
He straightened. “Fine, Mia,” he said, shifting as subtly as possible away from the petite waitress. Petite but strong, barracuda strong. She, like Harley, was young, maybe twenty-three. She’d been waitressing at Thrice for three months, and if things didn’t change soon, he would be forced to let her go. Being ambushed every time he came in the door of his own club was unacceptable—and unavoidable. She’d made it so.
“Would you like me to gather the staff for the meeting?” she asked, swaying her shoulders side to side in an incongruously little-girl move that emphasized her generous breasts in the low-cut shirt she wore. Damien knew better than to look down. They were nice breasts—he’d noticed; he was a breast man, after all—but a single glance and he’d end up with a permanent attachment to his hip that would take a crowbar to remove.
Keeping his eyes firmly locked with her exotic, almond-shaped ones, he said, “Valentine will let you know when we’re ready.” He glanced over to see his waitstaff supervisor at the far end of the room, pointing two waiters in the direction of a section that had not been taken care of yet. He nodded in Valentine’s direction. “Don’t you have cleanup to get through?”
Mia’s full lips pouted prettily. “I just wanted to help, Damien. I’m sorry.”
Instead of rolling his eyes, he nudged his chin toward the opposite end of the room. “Finish up, please.”
“That is a mess waiting to happen,” Ryan murmured, barely waiting until Mia stepped out of earshot.
“I agree.” He jammed both fists against the bar, arms rigid, and rolled his shoulders to release the tension that had settled there. “One you can take care of while I’m away.”
“Thanks,” Ryan mocked. “I get to cover your ass while you gallivant all over the country, and handle the horny waitress.”
Damien smirked at the disdain dripping from Ryan’s last word. “It’s a dirty job, but at least I don’t have to do it.” Especially not at Christmas. Damien hated letting anyone go, but the young woman had been warned strongly and repeatedly. Knowing what had to be done didn’t mean it depressed him less.
Damien motioned for Brad and Valentine to gather their crews for the “family meeting,” the staff meeting held nightly to go over issues from the shift or things that needed to be addressed for upcoming ones. By the time they finished, Harley had been waiting more than an hour for his attention, but she didn’t act impatient. She’d watched him handle the staff, those green eyes alight with interest. Now those same eyes narrowed on him as he walked toward her table, leaving Brad and Ryan to lock up.
Damien felt the pull of that look, right down to his groin. And that hair. Jesus. Her hair reminded him of those Life Savers strawberries-and-cream lollipops he used to love as a kid, a swirled mix of sharp tang and sweet, creamy goodness. It made him wonder where else on Harley he could taste creamy goodness. When his dick filled at the thought, he groaned. He needed her as a manager, not a good lay. He could get sex anytime; someone to fill the empty slot in his business was far harder to come by.
Harley was it, but neither he nor his cock were jumping for joy over the decision.
“Mr. Adams.” Harley smiled as he sat across from her.
He dived right in. “Why do you want to work for me?”
A V formed between Harley’s brows. “What?”
“Why me? Why Thrice? I know Aftershock’s success, and I know the position I’m offering. I just can’t figure out why you would go from that”—he cupped one hand, then the other—“to this.”
A rosy flush crept up Harley’s neck. She hesitated for so long he thought she might refuse to answer, but finally she spoke. “I left Aftershock six months ago.”
“Were you fired?”
“No!” The indignation in her eyes convinced him quickly. “Some things happened…” Harley nabbed the swizzle stick from her nearly empty drink and twirled it, pausing a long moment before raising her eyes to meet his. “My sister died. I decided…” She shrugged. “I decided I needed a change. To be in one place, not a new one every weekend. Life’s too short.” A frown tugged one side of her mouth down. “I loved the band. I did. But it wasn’t what I needed anymore.”
Damien stared for a long moment before nodding. “Okay, I can accept that.” There was no doubting the sincerity in her eyes. Not that he wouldn’t verify her story—he’d already directed Ryan to run a background check.
“Thank you,” Harley said. She met him look for look, seeming to drill a hole right through him. “You will not regret it if you hire me, Mr. Adams. I guarantee it.”
He bet she would. And his every instinct screamed that he would regret it if he didn’t hire her. The whole attraction thing, he’d simply have to ignore. “Call me Damien. We’re going to be working together, after all.”
Eyes lighting up, Harley leaned forward. “We are?”
“Yes, we are.” Damien took his phone from his pocket and pulled up his calendar. “If you’ll agree to a trial period, we’ll see how it goes. Can you start Monday morning?” That left him tomorrow to get his libido under control, though it would probably be an ongoing process.
He forced a grin back, forced himself to stay focused on business even though his new potential manager practically bounced in her seat. Enthusiasm was good, if he could ignore what the movement was doing to her breasts. Trying to bring them both back to earth, he started in on his spiel about businesslike behavior. More than one employee had assumed because they worked in a club, the standards of professionalism would be lax. He didn’t fear such a thing happening with Harley, who must have worked with managers in venues and nightclubs across the country, but the reminder of her purpose there—which wasn’t to get in his pants—was something he needed.
Nearing the end of his speech, his attention caught on Harley’s hair as she ran her hand through the messy locks. The sight of the damn stuff practically had him salivating, a reaction that absolutely had to stop.
“You need to dye your hair.”
The words were out of his mouth before he knew what he was saying. Every part of him rebelled at the idea, which, perversely, made it even more necessary.
Harley frowned. Apparently she liked the idea about as much as he did. “It is dyed.”
“It’s not professional.” And he was all about professional, wasn’t he? Even if the heat in his gut said otherwise.
“It is in this business.” Harley leaned forward on her elbows, almost nose to nose with him across the small cocktail table. “Look, I’ll do a lot of things for you, but unless you want my hair purple when I walk into your office Monday morning, you won’t insist on this.”
“You wouldn’t.” Oh yes, she would.
Propping her chin on one hand, she shot him a mischievous grin that confirmed his suspicions. “I wouldn’t?”
Shit. It wasn’t like he could say, Your hair makes me want to lick you all over. Maybe he needed to hunt down some of those suckers and keep them in his office—or get out of town as soon as possible. The latter seemed the best alternative.
“Fine,” he said, more than aware of his surly-ass tone. “No purple.” Knowing his luck, he’d get a sudden craving for grape Tootsie Pops.
Harley stood, satisfaction radiating off her. “No purple, I promise.” She winked—actually winked—at him, and he had to fight back a groan. The next few weeks were going to be hell; he just knew it.
Holding out a hand, Harley waited. Remembering his refusal to shake with her earlier, Damien reached out, knowing it was a mistake, knowing he should avoid touching her at all costs, and grasped her slender hand in his. The power of the contact shocked him—and her, if the gasp that escaped was anything to go by. For a single moment, their eyes met, and he saw his own overpowering attraction reflected back at him. Then Harley blinked and the moment was gone.
“Good night, Damien. I’ll see you Monday morning—without the purple hair.”