Who did he think he was kidding? He thrived on being rude. She imagined him in college dangling some poor computer geek out a dorm window or laughing in the face of a weeping, possibly pregnant, girlfriend. She sat straighter in the chair, trying to project confidence. 'I'm Annabelle Granger from Perfect for You.'

'The matchmaker.' His fingers tapped away.

'I think of myself as a marriage facilitator.'

'Do you now?' He drilled her again with those money-hard eyes. 'Molly told me your company was called something like Myrna the Matchmaker.'

Too late, she remembered that she'd overlooked that particular point in her conversations with Molly. 'Marriages by Myrna was started by my grandmother in the seventies. She died three months ago. I've been modernizing since then, and I've also given the company a new name to reflect our philosophy of personalized service for the discriminating executive.' Forgive me, Nana, but it had to be done.

'Exactly how large is this company of yours?'

One phone, one computer, Nana's dusty old file cabinet, and herself. 'It's a manageable size. I believe the key to flexibility is staying lean.' She hurried on. 'Although this was my grandmother's company, I'm well qualified to take over.' Her qualifications included a B.A. in theater from Northwestern that she'd never officially used, a short- lived stint at a dot-com that went bankrupt, partnership in a failed gift shop, and, more recently, a position at an employment agency that had fallen victim to the economy.

He leaned back in his chair. 'I'm going to cut to the chase and save us both time. I'm already under contract with Portia Powers.'

Annabelle was prepared for this. Portia Powers, of Power Matches, ran the most exclusive matchmaking firm in Chicago. Powers had built her business around serving the city's top executives, discriminating men too busy to find the trophy wives they desired and rich enough to pay her exorbitant fees. Powers was well connected, aggressive, and reputed to be ruthless, although that opinion came from her competitors and could be based on professional jealousy. Since Annabelle had never met her, she was withholding judgment.

'I know about your contract, but that doesn't mean you can't also use Perfect for You.'

He glanced toward the flashing buttons on his phone, a vertical slash of irritation bisecting his forehead. 'Why would I bother?'

'Because I'll work harder for you than you can imagine. And because I'll introduce you to a group of women with brains and accomplishments, women who won't bore you after the newness wears off.'

He lifted an eyebrow. 'You know me that well, do you?'

'Mr. Champion'-Surely that wasn't his real name?-'you're obviously accustomed to being around beautiful women, and I'm certain you've had more opportunities than you can count to marry one of them. But you haven't. That tells me that you want something more multifaceted than simply a beautiful wife.'

'And you don't think I can find that through Portia Powers.'

She didn't believe in trashing the competition, even though she knew fashion models and socialites were exactly the sort of women Powers would be introducing him to. 'I only know what Perfect for You has to offer, and I think you'll be impressed.'

'I barely have time to deal with Power Matches, let alone adding anybody else to the mix.' He uncoiled from his chair. He was tall, so it took a while.

She'd already noted the wide shoulders. Now she took in the rest of him. He had a lean-muscled athlete's body. If you liked your men swimming in testosterone and your sex life dangerous, he'd be number one on your automatic dial. Not that Annabelle was thinking about her sex life. Or at least she hadn't been until he stood up.

He stepped around the corner of his desk and extended his hand. 'Good effort, Annabelle. Thanks for your time.'

He wasn't going to give her a chance. He'd never intended to do more than go through the motions so he could pacify Molly. Annabelle thought of the energy she'd expended to get here, the twenty bucks it would cost to bail Sherman out of the parking garage, the effort she'd put into learning everything she could about the thirty-four- year-old overachieving country boy standing before her. She thought of her hopes for this meeting, her dreams of making Perfect for You unique and successful. Years of frustration boiled inside her, fueled by crappy judgment, bad luck, and missed opportunities.

Ignoring his hand, she shot to her feet. He was more than a head taller, and she had to tilt her neck to meet his eyes. 'Do you still remember what it was like to be the underdog, Mr. Champion, or was that too long ago? Do you remember when you were so hungry to close a deal that you'd do anything to make it happen? You'd drive across the country without sleep just to meet a Heisman candidate for breakfast? You'd spend hours hanging around the parking lot outside the Bears' practice field, trying to catch the attention of one of the veterans? Or what about the time you hauled yourself out of bed with a raging fever so you could bail another agent's client out of jail?'

'You've done your homework.' He cast an impatient eye at the blinking phone buttons, but he didn't throw her out, so she kept going.

'When you started in business, players like Kevin Tucker wouldn't give you the time of day. Do you remember what that was like? Do you remember when reporters weren't calling you for quotes? When you weren't on first- name terms with everybody in the NFL?'

'If I say I remember, will you leave?' He reached for the executive headset that lay next to the telephone console.

She curled her hands into fists, hoping she sounded passionate instead of loony. 'All I want is a chance. The same chance you got when Kevin fired his old agent and put his faith in a fast-talking, sports-savvy guy who made his way from an armpit town in southern Illinois to Harvard Law.'

He coiled back into his chair, one dark eyebrow angling upward.

'A blue-collar kid who played college football for the scholarship, but counted on his brains to get ahead. A guy with nothing more than big dreams and a strong work ethic to recommend him. A guy who-'

'Stop before you make me cry,' he said dryly.

'Just give me a chance. Let me set up one introduction. Just one. If you don't like the woman I choose, I'll never bother you again. Please. I'll do anything.'

That caught his attention. He pushed aside the headset, tilted back in his chair, and rubbed the corner of his mouth with his thumb. 'Anything?'

She didn't flinch from his assessing gaze. 'Whatever it takes.'

His eyes made a calculated journey from her rumpled russet hair to her mouth, down along her throat to her breasts. 'Well… I haven't gotten laid for a while.'

Her constricted throat muscles relaxed. The Python was toying with her. 'Then why don't we do something about that on a permanent basis?' She grabbed her fake leather tote and whipped out the folder of material she'd finished preparing at five o'clock that morning. 'This will tell you a little more about Perfect for You. I've included our mission statement, a timetable, and our fee structure.'

Now that he'd had his fun, he was all business. 'I'm interested in results, not mission statements.'

'And results are what I'll give you.'

'We'll see.'

She drew an unsteady breath. 'Does that mean…'

He picked up the telephone headset and hooked it around his neck, leaving the cord dangling down his shirtfront in a serpentine tail. 'You've got one chance. Tomorrow night. Hit me with your best candidate.'

'Really?' Her knees went weak. 'Yes… Fantastic! But… I need to clarify exactly what you're looking for.'

'Let's see how good you are.' He flipped up the headset.

'Nine o'clock at Sienna's on Clark Street. Make the introduction but don't plan on leaving. Stay at the table and keep the conversation going. I work hard at what I do. I don't intend to work hard at this, too.'

'You want me to stay?'

'Twenty minutes exactly. Then take her away.'

'Twenty minutes? Don't you think she'll find that a little… demeaning?'

'Not if she's the right woman.' He gave her his country boy's smile. 'And do you know why, Miss Granger? Because the right woman will be too damned sweet to take offense. Now get the hell out of here while you're ahead.'

She did.

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