Francesca Marcelli had only been pregnant for twenty minutes and already her back hurt.
"Talk about realistic," she muttered, adjusting the straps that held her fake eight-months-pregnant belly in place. The size was daunting enough -- she couldn't see her feet or find a comfortable sitting position -- but the weight was the real killer. Someone with a twisted sense of humor had decided to simulate what felt like the pressure of a baby elephant. The small of her back screamed out in protest, while unexpected pressure on her bladder made her want to duck into the nearest ladies' room.
"All for a good cause," she reminded herself.
Francesca shifted to ease the throbbing in her back and leaned against the heavy cart she'd maneuvered into the service elevator of the six-story bank building. When the doors opened, she shoved her overloaded cart into the main hallway. Stacks of boxes wobbled precariously and threatened to tumble onto the carpeted floor.
It was just after five on a Friday afternoon. All around her dozens of businesspeople headed for the main elevators to start their weekend. Francesca pushed up her glasses and paused to smooth down the front of the ugliest maternity dress she'd been able to find. The oversize collar dwarfed her shoulders and made her head look too small. The pinks and roses of the busy floral print sucked all the color from her pale olive skin. She'd brushed powder into her hair to lighten it to a mousy brown. The little makeup she'd put on had been applied to make her look tired, drawn, and unattractive.
She glanced at her watch, then squared her shoulders as she prepared to begin work.
"Show time," she said softly, not that anyone was listening.
Three men from the insurance office at the end of the hall walked past her without even giving her a nod. Francesca continued to push her pile of packages slowly against the flow of foot traffic. Two women in suits gave her a quick, sympathetic smile. A man and a woman, both carrying expensive-looking briefcases, followed. The woman looked, the man didn't.
Another corridor branched to the left. Francesca shifted her cart to make the turn. Several boxes went tumbling. A single man walked by without breaking his stride. A college-age girl stopped long enough to help Francesca pick up the boxes, then hurried toward the elevator with a call to "Wait for me!"
Five minutes later Francesca reached her destination -- an office she'd scouted out the previous week, chosen because the company had recently shut down. There she was, pregnant, lost, overloaded with more than a dozen boxes to be delivered, and no one to accept them. Had she been any sort of an actress, she might have been able to force out a tear or two.
The rules stipulated she was not allowed to directly ask for help. It had to be offered. She would wait for the required thirty minutes, mentally tallying who ignored her, who smiled, and who, if anyone, stopped to actually offer assistance.
This was a high-powered crowd with expensive tastes and busy lives. She didn't hold out much hope for rescue. In her experience --
"You look lost."
Francesca whirled around to see a tall man standing beside her cart. A tall, good-looking man in a dark blue power suit.
"Hi," she said before preparing to launch into her canned speech about needing to deliver packages to a nonexistent firm. Except she couldn't remember anything she was supposed to say.
The man waited patiently. He had dark blond hair and sort of tawny-colored eyes. There was an intensity to his expression that reminded her of predators watching prey. A shiver rippled through her as she thought of gazelles being brought down for the kill. Unfortunately in her current condition she was more water buffalo than gazelle.
He looked confident, important, and powerful. Not the sort of person who should be stopping to help an unattractive pregnant woman in trouble. Men like him sent assistants to take care of life's unpleasant details.
"Do you speak English?" he asked, enunciating each word clearly.
"What? Oh. Of course." She sucked in a breath, not sure what could be wrong with her. She would blame her sudden mental hiccup on food poisoning, only she hadn't eaten anything that day. "I'm, ah -- " Francesca cleared her throat. Brain function returned and she launched into her spiel.
"Hi. I'm Francesca. I'm supposed to be delivering these packages here -- " She motioned to the closed and locked office door. "But there seems to be a problem."
The man glanced first at the boxes, all carefully addressed to the defunct company, then to the door where a hand-lettered sign said that Malcolm and White Data Tech was no more.
"Bringing these here was the last thing my boss told me to do before he left town," she went on. "If I don't get them delivered, he's going to kill me."
In an effort to look terrified, Francesca thought about how little she had in her checking account and how that pesky electric bill was going to come due soon. Eventually she would reap the rewards of her postgraduate education, but until she could actually slap the letters Ph.D. after her name, she seemed destined to a life of poverty.
"You'll have to risk his fury," the man said calmly. "These boxes aren't going anywhere today. That company closed the door about ten days ago. From what I've heard, the main players skipped town with the last few dollars left, leaving several employees with lots of angry customers and no paychecks. What's your name again?"
He smiled at her. A genuine, happy-to-meet-you smile that made the corners of his eyes crinkle and caused her palms to suddenly start to sweat. This was the most fun she'd had in days.
Her rescuer introduced himself as Sam Reese.
"Let's get you out of this hallway, and we'll figure out what we're going to do next."
We? They were a we?
Sam took charge of the cart, wheeling it down the hallway with an ease that made her envious. Of course, he didn't have to worry about a pregnant belly getting in the way of his actions. She trailed after him, wondering what the next step would be. How far was Sam willing to take things? In situations like this -- a nonemergency -- people generally stopped at the point of inconvenience.
"Just through there," he said, pointing to a set of double glass doors.
Before Francesca could read the name of the company, one of the doors opened and a huge man stepped into the hallway. She involuntarily came to a stop to stare.
The man had to be at least six feet seven. He was built like a mountain with a massive neck and shoulders broad enough to support a couple of trailer homes. Dark-skinned, with penetrating eyes and a firm, unsmiling mouth, he looked both dangerous and more than a little scary.
"Sam," the man said, glancing between her rescuer and herself. "Is there a problem?"
"I think there might be." Sam looked back at her. "Ms. Marcelli was trying to make a delivery to Malcolm and White."
"They split last week."
"As I explained to Ms. Marcelli." He motioned to the cart. "Take this inside, Jason. Store it in one of the conference rooms." He turned his attention back to her. "If your employer's expecting payment for a delivery, that isn't going to happen. At least not right now. Come on inside and we'll get this situation straightened out."
Francesca found herself being ushered into a plush office with a gray and burgundy waiting area. An attractive woman in her early forties manned the front desk. She spoke over a headset as they walked by, pausing only to nod at Sam.
"I can search out Malcolm and White," Sam said as they moved down a long corridor decorated with elegant prints and the occasional slim table pushed up against a wall. "I've been looking for an excuse to track them down."
He sounded fierce as he spoke, as if he had a personal beef with the missing businessmen. Francesca trailed after him, torn between wondering why Sam Reese would care if a company in his building closed and trying to figure out what she'd gotten herself into. They passed several large conference rooms, what looked like classrooms, and a few offices containing large desks, computers, and file cabinets. All generic stuff that didn't hint at the kind of business done here.
At the end of the hall they made a left, then a quick right before stopping in front of an open foyer containing a large desk and computer setup manned by a well-dressed young man wearing a sport coat.
"Jack, this is Ms. Marcelli."
The young man, probably around twenty-five and built like a football player, rose to his feet. "Nice to meet you, ma'am."
Francesca walked to the desk to shake hands. As she did so, her purse slipped down her arm and plopped onto the ground before she could catch it.
"Oops," she said, bending down to pick it up.
As she straightened, all the blood rushed from her head, causing the room to spin and her body to sway. For a split second she thought she was going down.
Less than a heartbeat later a strong arm encircled her, holding her in place. "Ms. Marcelli? Are you all right? Is it the baby?"
Baby? What...oh, the baby.
Francesca shook her head slightly. Her sense of equilibrium returned enough for her to realize she was standing amazingly close to Sam. Close enough to see the surprisingly dark lashes framing his eyes. Speaking of which -- she stared more intently -- seen from such a close range, his eyes were the most unusual color. Light brown, shot with gold. Otherworldly eyes. Cat eyes.
Cat eyes on a powerful man. She felt both the heat of him and the strength. Somehow she'd always assumed that executives in expensive suits were sort of wimpy under all that designer wool. She had been seriously wrong.
Tension filled his voice. She shook her head again and tried to shrug free of his hold. When he didn't release her, she gave him a quick smile.
"You nearly fainted."
"I know. I haven't eaten today. I do that sometimes. Work distracts me. Then I get low blood sugar."
"That can't be good for the child."
As there was no child, his concern made her feel a little guilty.
"I'm fine," she repeated. "Really."
He slowly removed his arm from around her waist. "Jack, bring Ms. Marcelli some herb tea. There's a selection in the coffee room. Nothing with caffeine. Also, check to see if there are any sandwiches left from the lunch meeting."
Francesca thought about protesting again, but before she could figure out what to say without blowing her cover, she found herself being ushered into an office the size of Utah.
Floor-to-ceiling windows offered a view of Santa Barbara and mountains from one wall and Santa Barbara and a hint of ocean from the other. Tasteful paintings decorated the remaining walls. Two large leather sofas formed a conversational area in a corner. Between them and the desk was enough room to hold a kickboxing class.
Sam settled her on the sofa, then sat next to her. Before she knew what was going on, he had her hand resting in his and his fingers on the inside of her wrist.
"Your pulse is rapid. Would you like me to call your doctor?"
She generally went to student health services whenever she needed a checkup. Somehow she didn't think her friendly chitchat with the nurse practitioner qualified as having a doctor of her own.
Although she would have to admit that having her hand cradled by a handsome man held a certain thrill. He was warm, solid, and plenty sexy. Had she looked slightly more appealing than something gacked up by a stray cat, she might have tried smiling, flirting, and witty conversation. Not that she could think of anything witty right at the moment.
"No doctor calling," she insisted, reluctantly drawing her hand free of his. "There's nothing wrong with me. Although I have been taking up too much of your time."
She started to rise. Sam kept her in her seat with nothing more than a steady gaze.
"Have some tea," he said. "You'll feel better."
Both were an order.
Before she could protest, Jack appeared carrying a tray. There was a steaming mug of tea, along with a wrapped deli sandwich.
"We only have turkey left," the young man said apologetically as he set the tray on the glass coffee table.
The small amount of guilt she'd felt before doubled in size. "Look. You're being really nice -- both of you. But there's no need to fuss."
The men ignored her. "Get on the computer," Sam told his assistant. "See if you can track down either Malcolm or White. You'll find a file in the usual place." He turned his considerable attention back to her. "You said your boss had left for the day. How do you get in touch with him? I want to let him know that the boxes can't be delivered. I'll also make arrangements for them to be returned to him." His fierce expression softened slightly. "He should never have left you to take care of them yourself."
"I didn't mind," she said weakly, feeling the floor beneath her crumbling into quicksand. In a matter of seconds she was going to sink so deep, no one would ever find her. "And you can't get in touch with him. He's, um, heading for the airport. To, ah, get on a plane."
She mentally winced. Lying had never come easily to her. Heading to the airport to get on a plane? Why else did people go to the airport?
Francesca sighed. Somehow this experiment had gotten out of hand. According to her research, Sam shouldn't have stopped to help her, and he should never have taken things this far. The man was messing with her data.
"What airline? What flight?" He pulled a small leather-covered notebook from his jacket pocket.
Francesca didn't know what to say. "You won't be able to track him down."
Uh-oh. She was in way over her head. She gave Jack a frantic "rescue me" look which he either didn't get or chose to ignore. Jason, the big and strong, poked his head in the office to inform them that he'd put the boxes in Conference Room 2. Jack disappeared with Jason, closing the door behind them. Leaving her very much alone with a man obviously capable of ruling the universe.
"So, Ms. Marcelli, your boss's flight? His name would help, as well."
"Please call me Francesca," she said and reached for the tea. Her stomach growled, but she refused to touch the sandwich. Not while she was here under false pretenses. "Can you really get in contact with someone on a plane?"
"If I have to. It would be easier to reach him before he left. Is he driving down to Los Angeles, or taking a corporate flight out of Santa Barbara."
Francesca thought of all the times she'd created situations to find out if strangers would take the trouble to stop and help her. She'd had nice old ladies offer her rides, friendly couples give her directions, even the odd schoolkid help her find a lost dog. But never had anyone taken things as far as Sam Reese.
She drew in a deep breath. "You've been great," she said. "Really terrific. I don't know how to thank you."
His tawny gaze settled on her face. She regretted her dull-colored hair and oversize glasses, not to mention the deliberately unflattering makeup. Successful, gorgeous men like him didn't much inhabit her grad-school world. Why couldn't she have put on her sexy biker-girl disguise today instead of ugly-pregnant-woman?
Sam waited patiently. As if he had all the time in the world. As if he was used to people being reluctant to give up information.
"If you don't want me to track down your boss, that's your decision," he said. "At least eat something. For the baby, if not for yourself."
She really wished he would stop mentioning the pregnancy. Okay, so in all the years she'd been doing this sort of thing, she'd never once been put in a position of coming clean, but hey, this wasn't her fault. She was being overwhelmed by guilt. Well, guilt and a more-than-mild attraction to a handsome guy.
"I'm not pregnant," she said.
His gaze never left her face. One point for his side. She pulled off her glasses and tossed them on the table. It was a small gesture of vanity, but under the circumstance -- wearing the world's ugliest dress, sensible shoes, and an unflattering hairstyle -- it was the best she could do.
"I'm a grad student studying social psychology. I observe how people react under different circumstances. In my work I'm trying to see if social standing, appearance, or gender influence behavior."
Sam tucked his notepad back into his jacket pocket. One eyebrow rose slightly. "Will busy people eager to get home on a Friday afternoon stop and help a pregnant woman?"
His eyes narrowed as he studied her face. She wanted to say something stupid, like she cleaned up real well, but held back.
"What's in the boxes?"
She cleared her throat. "Mixed paper recycling."
"You deliberately chose to address them to a company that had recently closed?"
This time his gaze dropped to her protruding stomach. "And that?"
"A medical condition."
His eyes widened.
She laughed softly. "Just kidding. It's a device to simulate pregnancy. I borrowed it from a maternity store. Women use it to see how clothes will look as the baby gets bigger."
He picked up the glasses and glanced through the lenses. "Clear."
He smiled. A slow, sexy smile that made her long to trade in her black sensible shoes for a pair of red strappy sandals.
"I'm not an easy man to fool, Francesca," he told her. "In fact, I can't think of the last time someone did. You're impressive. The fainting was a nice touch."
She shrugged. "Actually that part was real. I haven't eaten all day and that messes with my blood sugar."
He motioned to her protruding belly. "You spend your day like this in the name of scientific research?"
"I don't always dress up with a pregnancy belly. Sometimes I go out in a wheelchair, or tattoos and black leather."
He leaned back against the sofa. "That would stop traffic."
She smiled. "That depends on where I am." She reached for the tea. "There have been dozens of studies done about the effect of appearance on behavior. Do you know that more people will stop to help an attractive person than an unattractive one?"
"Men are visual creatures."
"But it's not just men. Women do it, too. I'm studying -- " She stopped and put down her tea. "Sorry. I get on a roll. My studies fascinate me."
"I can see why. Who are you going to be tomorrow? If your costume involves black leather, feel free to stop by."
She laughed. "Actually I'm supposed to be done with the research phase. My project for the summer is to write my dissertation. But the thought of spending all that time at the computer makes my skin crawl, so I've been putting it off."
"What do you want me to do with the boxes?"
"Oh. I can take them with me. I need to return the cart, too. I borrowed it from the building maintenance guy."
"So he gets full points for helping out the pregnant lady?"
"What about me?"
Sam had a great voice, Francesca thought as a shiver rippled through her. Deep, rich, seductive.
"You get bonus points," she told him.
"Good to know." He angled toward her. "How about I let you keep the points and in return you join me for dinner tonight?"
Under normal circumstances Francesca never would have accepted the invitation. She didn't know Sam Reese from a rock. Yes, he was plenty appealing, but in the scheme of things, did that really matter?
"Dumb question," she murmured as she maneuvered her truck through the early evening Santa Barbara traffic. It was early June, with the tourist season in full swing. Sidewalks were crowded, restaurants full, and traffic moved at a crawl down State Street.
So did those cat eyes, the tempting smile, and easy conversation. But the real reason she'd said yes was she needed to have sex. After all, a promise was a promise.
Francesca grinned as she thought of Sam's reaction if she'd told him that particular truth. Would he have bolted for safety or started unbuttoning his shirt? She liked to think it would be the latter, but she'd taken a good look at herself when she'd gone home to change and her out-loud shriek hadn't been from pleasure. Nope, the man would have run for his life.
One shower with three shampoos to get the powder out of her hair, a quick change of clothes, and a light dusting of makeup later, she was ready to if not dazzle, then at least intrigue. She figured with as bad as she'd looked before, anything would be an improvement.
So she was off to dazzle Sam Reese and see what she could do about keeping her promise...the one she'd made to have sex with the next attractive, single man to cross her path.
Copyright © 2003 by Susan Macias Redmond