Excerpt from TEASE

Los Angeles, California …

No point packing the vibrator. Tess Wakefield had zero interest in sex. She’d been doing without it for the better part of a year, and that year had been better, thank you. No more bikini waxing unless she felt like it, no more inspecting her backside for unsightly blemishes or plucking the odd hair from the knuckle of her big toe, which hurt like hell.

She’d sworn off penises and everything that was attached to them. Men were high maintenance. Well, most of them anyway. They needed all that ego-stroking and fawning, and they didn’t even care if you lied about how wonderful they were. They’d rather you fake orgasms than admit to not having them. Think about it.

And they were wimps, too, when it came to the important things of life. Squeamish about a little honest emotion. Terrified of giving up their freedom. They weren’t looking for partners in life they wanted sports groupies. Wannabe NFL stars, all of them, in search of an adoring audience. And all that pretending to love football when you were freezing to death and had to pee, but didn’t want to risk hepatitis in the event bathroom.

Well, this groupie had turned in her season tickets.

She tossed the vibrator into one of the boxes that would go into temporary storage and turned back to the array of clothing on her bed that still had to be sorted and packed. Thank goodness her new employer, Pratt-Summers, was handling most of the move to New York for her, which included the generous offer to use one of their corporate apartments until she could find a place of her own.

She’d been offered the prestigious creative director position, and she had to look professional. That meant black, and lots of it. On the other hand, this was an advertising agency and they tended to be casual. It was also February, which meant jeans and sweaters, except for client visitation days when everybody wore suits like big boys and girls.

Tess knew a little something about ad agency protocol. She’d been with Renaissance Marketing in L.A. for the past eight years, doing everything from answering the phones to running the creative department to pitching and winning multi-million dollar campaigns. Now, finally, it felt like all the hard work and long hours had paid off. She’d given it her all, and maybe too much, considering how everything else in her life was withering from neglect.

She picked up her off-the-shoulder jersey sheath, briefly tempted by the thought of the New York club scene, then relegated it to the storage box. The dress was too red, too tight. It shouted take me off—and a couple other things that ended with off.

Her conversion to celibacy had come immediately after the break up with Dillon, her let’s-wait-until-the-perfect-moment-to-announce-our-engagement fiancé. That perfect moment was never, of course. Too late Tess had discovered that Dillon was involved with another woman, his mother. She steamed the wrinkles from his boxer shorts and enzymatically cleaned his contact lenses for him, while Tess could barely handle the instructions on a box of laundry detergent. The fact that Dillon had made his mother break off the engagement with Tess confirmed her suspicions about him. He was high-maintenance and a commitment phobe.

That had seemed obvious to Tess, but her always brutally frank friend, Meredith, had disagreed. "You’re the CP," she’d told Tess, who’d protested, "How could I be the commitment phobe? I’m the one getting dumped." And then it had hit her. Maybe she was choosing CPs so that she didn’t have to commit.

She knelt to pull the plug on her clock radio and saw the time. "Ten? It can’t be." She’d been up since six a.m.. How did it get that late?

Pratt-Summers had arranged for a car to take her to the airport, and a moving van to pick up the last of her boxes. The van was due in thirty minutes, and not only did she have to finish packing, she had to get the apartment presentable. She was subletting her one-bedroom place furnished, and the tenant had agreed to a month-by-month arrangement, just in case Tess found herself packing for a flight back.

Not that Tess expected anything to go wrong. She was eminently qualified for the job, according to Erica Summers, the CEO at Pratt-Summers, who’d interviewed her personally just three weeks ago. But how often did a creative directorship of a large Madison Avenue ad agency come along?

"To most thirty-two year old ad execs? Never," she said, aware of the flutter in her voice. God, she was nervous.

This job was huge. New York City was huge.

Maybe she wanted to miss the flight. She couldn’t even seem to make up her mind what clothes to take with her, and there was no time to call her brutally frank friend to discuss it. Meredith, voice of clarity in a jumbled world, steadfast shoulder, mother-confessor, and occasional scolding conscience. Were there any Merediths in New York?

Tess’s spirits sank with her shoulders. She looked around the place, marveling at the chaos. It could have been declared a disaster area. Fortunately, she saw the problem immediately.

She wasn’t dealing with Bank of America’s automated voice mail system. She only had three options to worry about. Get rid of the crotchless Day of the Week panties that Dillon gave her, obviously without his mother’s knowledge. Toss out anything else that brought the word hot to mind. Pack the rest and go.

* * * * * 

Manhattan
One week later …

Tess clicked down the hall in her high-heel boots, pencil skirt and black velvet Edwardian jacket. It was five-fifteen, and she had forty-five minutes before the limo was scheduled to pick her up for Pratt-Summer’s reception in her honor, so she’d decided to change into her dinner outfit and let Danny Gabriel, her co-creative director, get a look at what he’d be missing by canceling out. She’d even managed to get the kinks out of her blond hair with a special spray that relaxed and de-frizzed. It had loosened her curls, and now they were bouncing all over her head. Extra-large silver hoops in her earlobes and a kiss-my-ass attitude rounded out the look.

She’d also had two cups of Mitzi’s exotic herbal tea. No one could say Tess Wakefield didn’t live dangerously.

Check her out, Gabe, baby. This is the lady you kicked to the curb. Maybe you should watch your shins. She’s wearing boots.

Tess had never felt so tricked-out and sexy. It was almost fun. She figured it was the PMS or the tea, but either way, she had a few choice words for her co-director. He was too busy to attend her welcome dinner? She wouldn’t have said a word if there’d been a death in his family, but too busy? She’d called the agency’s receptionist for directions to his office, which had turned out to be quite simple. He was on the opposite end of the building from her, in his own corner office.

The twenty-eighth floor was now a ghost town. Tess didn’t see another soul as she crossed the building. Everyone had gone for the weekend, but if Gabriel really had a deadline, he might still be around.

His office door was open when she got there, but she found no one inside. The room was mostly windows and traditional in style, which surprised her. She’d expected to find a dark, artsy lair, with décor that might even be mystical. One of the many rumors about him was that he had Native American blood. Instead, everything was mahogany, beautifully carved with reflecting pool surfaces and damask upholstery. It reminded her of a federal court, except for the two walls of posters that appeared to be his ads.

Tess took a moment to check them out. He was very good, but she knew that. What struck her as odd was the way the ads were displayed. On one side of the room, they were bright and upbeat, with vibrant colors and attractive models. On the other side, the ads had a dark edginess that was almost sinister. But, even more perplexing, on the abutting wall hung just one poster—a misty pastel of a child in a swing, rising toward the setting sun. It almost looked as if she were going to slip off the seat and fly away.

What a strange juxtaposition, Tess thought. It was enough to make you wonder if Gabriel was bipolar. Mitzi had said he had a secret. Tess was curious whether the ads might have something to do with that, but there wasn’t time to explore. She turned and saw a set of double doors that led to what looked like a conference room. The doors were partially open, and she could see movement inside. Maybe he was in there, preparing for his deadline.

Tess peeked through the doors and saw Gabriel bent over a storyboard, probably checking out the sketches for a client’s television spot. "Am I interrupting?" she asked, opening the doors.

He glanced up at her and did a double take. She couldn’t help but notice the way his eyes narrowed. Whether it was appreciation or appraisal, she couldn’t tell, but his gaze was riveting.

"You’re perfect," he said. "Come in."

"What?"

"You’re wearing boots, a skirt. It’s perfect." He beckoned her over to him. "Come on in."

Tess didn’t move from the doorway.

He took a chair from the conference table and rolled it to within a few feet of where she stood. She had no idea what he was doing as he positioned the chair perpendicular to the doors.

"Right here," he said. "Come over and sit down, please. I have something to show you."

The please did the trick. She couldn’t resist conviction.

She walked to the chair, aware of him standing there with his hands on the leather back, as if he were about to give her a ride. And she would just bet he could!

"Are you going to tell me why I’m doing this?" she asked, wondering what would happen to her very skinny skirt when she sat. Surely, he wasn’t angling for that, a leg shot.

"All will be explained," he assured her, "but not yet. That would ruin it."

He stopped her before she could sit down. "Let’s fix that skirt first," he said. "Here."

He actually came around the chair and turned her toward him, then spun her skirt until the slit in the back was running up the side of her leg. With any encouragement at all, the opening would now reveal an eyeful of caramel thigh. Thank God, for liquid stockings.

"Mm, yes, that way. Perfect."

It was almost erotic the way he said that word, perfect. Like a man whispering something dirty in a woman’s ear.

He sat her in the chair and knelt in front of her, apparently to do some more adjusting of her person.

She pulled back as his hand grazed her leg. "What are you doing?"

"Relax," he said, "trust me, please, this is important."

She wasn’t as taken with his conviction this time, but she was very curious.

"Unbend your knee. Here, like this." He inched her left leg forward a little and then propped her sleek laced boot on its spiky heel, with the tip pointing in the air.

"Good," he said, rising to look at her. He nodded, murmuring something about how perfect this was under his breath.

Interesting that she had to focus on what he said. It was entirely possible he was doing that on purpose, making her listen. He had a reputation as a persuasive pitchman, a closer, as they said in sales, but there was nothing overtly aggressive about him. Even now, he came across as supremely laid back, and yet he radiated energy. It was like droplets sizzling on his skin.

She’d heard all the rumors, that Danny Gabriel was deadly smart and blindingly handsome, almost his own species. She’d heard them. She just hadn’t wanted to believe them. No wonder they needed someone to corral this guy.

He studied her, his features knit in concentration.

"Lean back," he said, giving her direction as if they were on a photo shoot. "Good. Now support yourself on the arms of the chair. Can you give me a little more bend? Try to relax and arch your spine."

Tess drew herself up and felt the chair move. "The wheels are going to roll out from under me."

"Here, I’ll steady you." He moved behind her and gripped the chair. "Try it again," he said, "lean into the arch. Yes, there, extend yourself. Now, tilt your head back. God, yes, that’s great."

Tess’s spine bowed with tension, locking her in place. At that moment, all she could see were the edges of him, a blur. But when his head came into her line of sight, and he looked down at her, she suddenly felt vulnerable.

She started to sit up.

"No, wait," he said. "This is important. Look at me. Look at me, Tess."

She held onto the chair, steadying herself. As she tilted back and gazed up at him, she could feel her jacket fall open and her skirt creep up. She was balancing herself with the heel of one boot. Her other foot had lifted off the floor.

What must she look like? What did he want?

"How much longer?" she asked. "I can’t hold this."

"Just a few more seconds." He pulled the chair back toward him. "We’re almost there, and you look hotter than hell. Don’t think about anything but that—how hot you look. Amazing. "

His voice dropped low and sexy. He was still murmuring as he bent down and fitted his mouth to hers in weightless kiss. Tess’s arms tightened. Her whole body quivered as she struggled to get up, but there was no way possible. All of the laws of gravity and physics were against her, and with his mouth locked to hers, she couldn’t move.

"Perfect," he whispered against her lips.

Tess’s body reacted before her mind had a chance to register what was happening. Maybe it was the extreme vulnerability of her position, but her flesh felt as if it had caught fire. Her nipples zinged to life, hardening instantly, and the cotton crotch of her panties should have been steaming they were so damp. What was happening? She could feel herself lubricating down there, blushing with shock and excitement.

He broke the kiss, freeing her, and Tess sat up too quickly. Dizziness washed over her. She’d been upside down so long the blood had left her head.

"What kind of stunt was that?" she asked, fighting to get her bearings.

"No stunt," he said.

"You kissed me."

"Yeah."

"Yeah? What do you mean yeah? This is an office. We’re co-workers. You had no right!"

"True, but let me show you why I did it."

Before she could catch her breath, he was standing in front of her. Tess stole a glance at his crotch—and hated herself for it. Did she really care whether or not he’d been as turned on as she had? There was no frigging hope for her.

"Look at that," he said, pointing to her legs. "It’s perfect."

The man was a broken record. "What’s perfect?"

"What you did when I kissed you." He knelt next to her. "Look at how you’re sitting—the way you raised your right leg and hooked your toe under the left."

Tess saw that the tip of one boot was tucked under her other calf. "So what?" she said. "I was trying not to fall over."

She settled both feet on the floor, still too dizzy to stand.

Gabriel rose and went to the double doors, drawing them together, but not closing them. He left an opening about six inches wide, and then he came back to her.

"When I saw you in those boots it gave me an idea for an ad," he said.

"An ad? Why didn’t you just say that?"

"It wouldn’t have worked. I had to catch you off guard to see what your legs would do. Can you imagine what a shot that would be for your Cavalli ad? Think print campaign, maybe even billboards."

He gestured toward her chair and the door, setting the scene. "You’re sitting there, like that, but the camera’s outside the doors, which are open just enough to show your legs levitating."

She sat forward. "What are you talking about?"

"Imagine someone standing outside these doors, looking in. What would they see through that opening? Your legs, right? Your boots, Cavalli boots. It’s the perfect tease."