Never one to shirk her duty, or shy away from a task, however unpleasant, if it served her purpose or was the right thing to do, Sharon was back in the office and sitting in front of Meacham’s desk five minutes before the new client was due. In truth she was hoping if she sat there staring at the old man, he’d give her a clue as to the nature of the project before they walked in the door, so she could mentally prepare herself.
Clearly he had other ideas. He also had no problem sitting stoically examine briefs while she sat across from him trying not to squirm. Thankfully, the receptionist knocked and showed them in right on time.
A middle-aged woman entered, and Sharon stood to greet her while her mind quickly took in pertinent details. As it was a pro-bono case, she hadn’t been expecting anyone fancy. But this woman was extremely down-to-earth, in an inexpensive sweater tunic over black leggings and practical grey running shoes. Her salt-and-pepper hair was cut short like a man’s, her smooth square brown face unadorned by makeup, though she wore a pair of wire-rimmed glasses over her crinkled sharp black eyes that gave her a professorial air.
Meacham stood as well, and his stern old face lit up with a genuine smile. Obviously the woman was an old friend and that’s why he’d taken on her case.
“Karen, come in!” he boomed, clasping her hand between his. “Sit down. It’s good to see you.”
“Hello Arthur,” she said. “It’s you who’s being good, as ever. Thanks for doing this.”
“Anything for you, my dear. Anything to help you in your ambitious work.”
Sharon’s curiosity piqued, she offered her hand to the woman and introduced herself.
“I’m giving you Sharon for the duration, and I know she’ll do right by you and your organization, Karen. She’ll leave no stone unturned. I trust her completely, and so can you.”
That was news to Sharon, but she kept her editorial thoughts to herself. She was about to take her seat again as Karen sat when she noticed a tall young urban lumberjack in a hoody step silently in behind her.
She flinched and caught her breath. “Oh! Hello!”
“This is Kent Sawyer,” Karen said. “He works for me, and he’s been spearheading the project, so Sharon will work extensively with him when I’m busy with the kids, which is most of the time. I haven’t the time to devote to the project that I would wish and still keep the operation running. But Kent is on top of everything.”
Sharon stepped behind Karen’s chair and offered her hand to shake, looking up, way up at him, but the sullen man merely inclined his head with a jerk of his chin and a bare grunt of acknowledgement, not even removing the hands thrust into the front pockets of his tan chinos. She frowned in confusion and withdrew her hand. She’d be liaising with him?
He didn’t look old enough to have a position of responsibility, never mind run a project. Was he some kind of student trainee? His hood shadowed his eyes, though she caught a glint of white, so all she could really see was his scowling mouth and scruffy brown beard. For whatever reason, he was really profoundly unhappy to be here. Irritation radiated off of him in waves.
Sharon cleared her throat and slipped past him to drag a third chair over from the side of Meacham’s expansive office, turning it and offering it to him. Kent. Kent Sawyer.
He mumbled his thanks, grabbing the chair from her to adjust its position before sitting, his long-fingers momentarily brushing hers before she could withdraw them from the chair’s back.
His fleeting touch sent a jolt of electricity shooting up her arm, and she jerked her hand back, glowering at her knuckles in confusion, as though she’d been burnt. The jolt had not been mere static electricity, but something organic, cosmic and far more powerful, zinging through her nervous system and shaking her down to the soles of her feet. Her gaze dropped, taking in his long legs to see that he wore an extremely beat-up pair of brown leather Blundstone boots. They looked like he’d worn them every day for a hundred years.
Her breath came fast and shallow. Her pulse raced. Her thoughts scattered.
How could the mere touch of a man, such an inappropriate, unattractive man at that, stir such violent excitement in her, instantly liquifying all her lady parts? He wasn’t in any way the kind of man she was attracted to. He wasn’t wearing a designer suit, for one. In fact he was poorly groomed. Maybe even unclean by the look of him. He had horrible manners and no discernible communication skills. And as if all that wasn’t enough, he was probably a decade younger than her. She hadn’t even got a good look at his face. She’d admired many a man in her day, crushed on a few, but never had she encountered one that rendered her speechless with pure unadulterated lust.
No. Just no!
She had standards, for one thing. And he didn’t even come close.
Blinking, she glanced up at him to find his gaze also riveted on her face, staring back at her, just as confused. She met his intense dark brown eyes and saw both maturity and intelligence, as well as confusion that matched her own, for a split second his angry scowl gone. This time the zing of connection hit her through their linked gazes. In that suspended moment, Sharon thought she knew him from somewhere, he felt so familiar. But instantly the scowl returned, his Adam’s apple bobbed, he nodded curtly and turned away to sit down.
Well, at least he wasn’t quite as young or as dull-witted as she’d originally thought. But who or what was he, exactly?
She sat, mentally shaking herself to bring her focus back to the meeting. Karen was already talking to Meacham and Sharon couldn’t afford to miss a single nuanced detail if she was going to do this right.
Even if she had to work with him!
What the hell was that?
Kent sat quietly, staring at the floor, while Karen explained who they were, and what they did.
He couldn’t look up. He couldn’t look at that woman. His heart was still beating too fast. He’d come here with Karen reluctantly despite their strong difference of opinion about the wisdom of this course of action. He didn’t expect to be gutted by an encounter with a woman who knocked his socks clean off. A woman who represented everything he despised.
Except–his body was screaming at him–in bed.
The universe was cruel.
He had to reign in his sexual fantasies and get his mind back on track, because that was one fantasy that was never, ever going to come true. However much she might match his dream girl in form, she was the crack cocaine of his destruction in every other way. She was completely off limits. She was one temptation to which he would never yield.
The old man sat sternly listening while Karen went on about their inadequate temporary facilities in the downtown East Side and the desperate need for shelter space to feed and house the youth who sometimes didn’t show up for counselling or school, or even meals, because life on the street took so much out of them.
Sometimes it even killed them.
Kent peeked at her. The blonde. Despite her ice princess looks and proper, stiff demeanour, she leaned forward ever so slightly and listened intently to what Karen was saying as if she were frozen to the spot, her blue eyes wide and rapidly blinking, as though she was in shock. She was beautiful. But definitely not in a sexy way. No way.
“This is about property development?” she said, her voice faint, turning to question the old man with her eyes.
“Our operating budget is small and always at risk. As long as we continue to get good results, the province and the feds give us enough to get by. And we have donors who top that up. But the money isn’t consistent or even reliable.”
As her protegé, of sorts, he’d heard her present the mandate and mission a million times. Every time they needed licensing or funding from some bureaucratic organization or other, they had to do the same dog and pony show.
“If we’re able to build a dedicated facility, it will come with an operating budget, which gives our school and counselling services a stable base to work from in addition to everything else it adds,” she added.
“Construction?” the princess said, faintly.
Not that he’d ever be stepping into her shoes. She was a teacher and a counselling psychologist and a tribal healer. He was a mere social worker. But the hands-on work he did casting a wide net, working with the kids on the street, and making sure they were able to show up for Karen’s programs was an integral part of how their organization worked. With kids like these, you couldn’t just hang out a shingle and expect them to saunter in the door and say, Hey, I’d like to get off the street! Can you help?
He knew it, and she knew it too. She needed him. But that didn’t mean he had the vision she had, nor her communication skills or patience with bureaucracy. He’d never been able to fully direct his drive and desire to make a difference until he’d found Karen and her society
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