Martha rummaged around in her purse for a fiver, ready to nip down to the street to grab a caffeine infusion when her assistant bashed the door open and practically stumbled into the room.
“Holy crap, Martha,” Jane said in a breathless voice, “you’re not going to believe this. Tony Branch just waltzed into the office, and he insists on seeing you right now.”
Martha’s jaw hit the deck. “What?” she asked stupidly.
Jane nodded so vigorously that her high ponytail bounced on her shoulders. “It’s true. Branch is here. I told him to wait in the outer office because you were tied up at the moment.” She frowned. “I probably should have said you were out of town, shouldn’t I?”
Incipient panic made it hard to breathe. What the hell was wrong with the man? She’d blown him off yesterday, and now he shows up unannounced at her office door?
Martha sucked in a few huge breaths, ordering her racing heart to calm down. But what followed on the heels of her diminishing panic was an uptick in anger. What colossal nerve the man had! He must think his charm so irresistible that she’d fall into his arms in gratitude for his mere presence, if not for his money.
“No, you did right, hon. That man has so many spies he’d probably know you were lying.” She forced herself to relax her clenched fists. “I’ll see him all right, and he’s going to wish he hadn’t wasted all that jet fuel.”
Jane was turning to leave when inspiration struck Martha. “Hold on a sec,” she said, raising a hand. “Let’s make Mr. Branch cool his heels for a while. Maybe that’ll ratchet down his arrogance a notch or two. Ply him with coffee, and even throw in some of that special bourbon you keep on hand for emergencies, if he’ll go for it. That should loosen him up a bit.”
Jane shot her a wry grin. “Well, take all the time you want, then, because I can’t say as I mind looking at the dude. He’s even sexier than his pictures. The Brit accent is to die for, too.”
Martha narrowed her eyes at her friend’s uncharacteristic gushing. “You better make sure all you do is look, hon. That sucker is primetime dangerous.”
Jane got a little tilt to her head, the one that signaled she was on to Martha. “Well, you’ve always liked them a little dangerous,” she said in knowing tone.
Hell’s bells. Martha did not need that reminder.
“Not when they’re trying to steal my damn team.” She worked her jaw, trying to ease the tension. If she had a stick in her mouth, it would snap in half like a toothpick. Why the hell was she so nervous? It didn’t matter to her what the man offered. She’d made a promise to her father and she was damned well going to keep it or die trying.
Yeah, keep telling yourself it’s all about business.
The fact that she knew, deep down, that her anxiety was due to how she might react to Branch’s charm and raw sexual power was no reassurance at all, especially considering the stakes.
Forcing her mind away from the ticking bomb waiting in her outer office, she spent several minutes trying to scan the bank presentation yet again. And then gave up when she couldn’t absorb a word of it.
Martha leaned her forehead on her desk, groaning. She was the one who needed a shot from Jane’s bourbon stash. Since her nerves were getting jumpier by the moment, it didn’t make sense to prolong the agony simply to try to punish Tony Branch for his unbridled masculine arrogance.
Yanking open her top desk drawer, she pulled out a compact and did a quick check of her teeth to make sure there were no poppy seeds from her breakfast muffin lurking in sight, and slicked on some lip gloss. Then she took in a fortifying breath and picked up her phone.
“You might as well send him in now, hon.”
“He stepped out to the rest room. You sure you’re ready?”
“Ready as I’ll ever be,” Martha replied with false bravado. “I’ve got my six-shooter taped to the underside of my desktop if he tries anything. And I’ll keep my finger on the trigger.”
Jane chuckled. “Here he comes now. I’ll show him in.”
Martha stood up. She smoothed her hair back and tucked a few stray strands behind her ear. She was glad she’d worn the black tailored suit that made her look like a kick-ass businesswoman. Most days she dressed pretty casually when she planned to spend the whole day in the office, but this morning something had prompted her to gear up in full armor.
Which struck her as decidedly weird.
As soon as Jane opened the door, Tony Branch strode through, a wide smile plastered on his ruggedly handsome mug. He nodded to Martha then turned to Jane. “Thanks for that excellent coffee, love,” he said with a sly wink. “Southern hospitality is legendary, but your welcome was simply outstanding.”
To Martha’s annoyance, a blush pinked up Jane’s creamy complexion. When Jane—normally impervious to the most blatant come-on—batted her eyelashes at Branch as she backed out the door, it was all Martha could do to hold back a groan.
Brimming with an overdose of testosterone-fueled confidence, Branch strode forward and extended a hand as he gave her an engaging smile. Martha shook it, gripping as strongly as she could manage, which was usually hard enough to make most men widen their eyes. But Branch matched her grip strength evenly. When he tried to let the shake linger, Martha was forced to pull her hand away.
Damn the big, arrogant gorilla.
Even if he was a gorgeous gorilla.
“Please have a seat, Mr. Branch,” she said, trying not to sound flustered. “This is a surprise, to say the least.”
He nodded and took the seat opposite her desk, crossing his legs. For a pretty big guy he was incredibly graceful, which spoke to his athletic background. His clothes fit him beautifully, too. Expensive but casual—a tan sports jacket, summer weight slacks and brown leather loafers that looked Italian and luxurious. His blue dress shirt, opened at the neck, revealed a little glimpse of a brawny chest and crisp, black hair. She figured he’d look good in anything, including a pair of ripped up jeans or even soccer gear, especially with the luscious tan that bronzed his skin to a dark golden hue.
He’d look even better naked, her treacherous mind whispered. Martha clamped down hard on the distracting image.
As she took her seat, Branch studied her with a calm intensity that belied his jovial manner with Jane. “Martha, I must again insist you call me Tony.”
Then a flash of that disarming smile again, sending her further off balance. She truly needed to be on her guard with the man, drat him.
“And I’m afraid you must think I’m a lunatic,” he continued in an easy tone.
Martha pulled out her best Southern Belle smile. “Don’t flatter yourself,” she said sweetly.
He laughed, and the deep sound of it slithered through her veins like hot sugar syrup.
“You think I’m even worse than a lunatic? I see I have my work cut out for me.”
Martha’s posture was always consciously upright, but she made very sure she sat ramrod straight, her hands folded in front of her and resting on top of her desk. Her palms were damp with perspiration, and she had to resist the temptation to rub them against each other, or on her suit.
“You do if you came all the way over here just to pitch me after I told you flat out I wasn’t selling my team.”
He gave her a lopsided little grin that probably had women handing him their panties. Strike that. Throwing him their panties by the truckload.
“I don’t suppose you’d believe me if I said I just happened to be in the neighborhood?”
“Tony,” she said with emphasis, “do I look like I just fell out of the back of a turnip truck?” She smiled in a way that probably looked like she was baring her teeth in a pit bull growl. “That’s a turnip lorry in Brit-speak, I suppose.”
He studied her again for a few seconds, his dark eyes heating with amusement. And something else, if she didn’t miss her guess.
“I wouldn’t have thought it possible, but you look even lovelier than when we last met, Martha. And you looked damn lovely then.”
She had to fight against the ridiculous warm glow that prickled in her belly and slowly spread outward. One flattering comment and she was already in danger of succumbing.
Bastard. He’d pulled out the big guns and they were barely getting started.
“I doubt you even remember that little old minute or two of conversation. I barely do,” she said with all the false sincerity she could conjure up.
He gave her a knowing smile, obviously not buying it for a second. “Trust me. I’d never forget a face like yours. Or anything else about you for that matter, Martha. Mere time couldn’t possibly change that.”
Okay, this was getting to be a bit much, even for her. Still, Branch had never called her after Wimbledon, which had surprised her a little given the open, hungry way he’d scanned her from head to toe that night. In fact, he’d only called after he’d found out her team was on the skids. And for some insane, stupidly girlish reason, that thought incensed her even more.
“Look, Tony, let’s not waste each other’s time. Please watch my lips,” she said, tapping them with a forefinger. She ignored the way his hot gaze dropped to her mouth. “I’m. Not. Selling. The. Thunder. Not to you, not to anybody. So, you can hop on that private jet of yours and go back to your own business.”
He knitted his dark brows in a frown, looking slightly uncomfortable. “Do I really look like some kind of tycoon? Why would you assume I’ve got a private jet?”
Martha arched her eyebrows in patent disbelief. “Oh, I don’t know. Maybe because you own one of the most successful football teams in England, plus a couple of profitable lesser lights. Not to mention the fact that you were one of the highest-paid players in the Premier League for many seasons. People like you don’t fly commercial.”
“I don’t own a jet,” he said coolly. “I don’t waste money on toys. Or on anything, for that matter.”
That surprised her. Branch was not only seriously rich, as far as she could tell he had a high media profile. People like him valued both the privacy and convenience of personal air travel. She shook her head a little, enough to loosen the recalcitrant strands of hair her nervous fingers kept tucking back, and opened her mouth to apologize.
He cut her off. “I rent the private jet,” he said politely. “Time-sharing is great.”
Then he shot her an easy grin that had her staring at him, dumbfounded.
Before she could respond to that bit of mischief, he turned serious again. The way he could change moods on a dime—and take control of the conversation—was seriously beginning to annoy her, if for no other reason than she’d always been a master of the same type of tactics herself.
“I’ll leave soon enough, Martha,” he said. “But not before saying this. If you would just sit down with me and my colleague, Rex Daltry, and lay out your true, current situation for us to review in depth—and I’m talking about full disclosure—then I would very likely end up making you an offer you might find compelling. Perhaps even irresistible.”
It was all she could do to keep her jaw from dropping like some idiot. Again.
An irresistible offer. What did that mean?