Advertising Diva, Laura Armstrong is after Imperial Cruise Lines, the biggest account of her career and the one that will lead to the next step in her Life Plan of becoming one of the most powerful women in advertising. That winning the account will also prove her father wrong is a bonus.
Sexy Southern Gentleman, Nathan Maxwell, is after that very same account, but for completely different reasons. Landing the account means a sizeable bonus just in time to save his family’s farm, and the only stable home his sister’s ever known, from foreclosure.
When the two end up on the same ship in the middle of the Mediterranean for a clandestine reconnaissance mission, Mt. Vesuvius isn’t the only thing that could erupt.
Will Nathan sink her ship of dreams before it ever leaves port, or will the way to love be smooth sailing?
Laura Armstrong strode toward the building housing the New York offices of Imperial Cruise Lines. Her stiletto heels clicked a staccato on the sidewalk as she tested the limits of her snug pencil skirt.
Tapping out a message on her smart phone, her mind five steps ahead, she nearly took a header when the heel of her shoe plunged into a sidewalk seam. The text message all but forgotten, she twisted and turned, unable to dislodge the stubborn heel.
Risking a tear in the cherry red patent leather of her sky-high Louboutin ankle-straps – the ones with the plunging vamp revealing her sexy toe cleavage – wasn’t an option. But between the ankle strap and her figure-hugging skirt, she couldn’t slip out of the shoe, nor could bend over and unfasten it either.
Perfect. She’d be late for her meeting with Imperial’s CEO.
Daddy Dearest thought Giddings-Rose couldn’t handle an account the size of Imperial. Check that. He thought she couldn’t win an account the size of Imperial.
Determined to prove her father wrong, she’d get the account and the corner office. That is if she could pry her heel out of the sidewalk.
Bustling New Yorkers in suits and skirts just stepped around her, dodging her like an out-of-place trashcan. “Well, sh–”
“Hold still, Sugar, or you’ll break the heel.” The masculine voice called to mind the mellow sweetness of the fine Kentucky Bourbon she’d once sipped at the Derby. Rich and mellifluous, with a hint of Southern graciousness. Even so, there was no denying the authoritative tone. “And that would be a damn shame.” The hand that wrapped around her ankle from behind was broad and masculine, but well-manicured, topped with an elegant Cartier watch.
Not her type. She preferred her men with a little more grit than polish. So why did tantalizing warmth spread up her leg?
With adept fingers, he unbuckled the ankle strap and lifted her foot from the still-lodged shoe. Having no other choice to avoid either resting her bare foot on the filthy Manhattan sidewalk or the humiliation of falling on her face, she reached back and grabbed his shoulder.
Hmm. No padding there. Nothing but muscle beneath that expensive tropical weight wool suit. She caught a glimpse of charcoal gray fabric, dark hair, and Italian shoes in rich mahogany leather.
But she’d yet to lay eyes on her rescuer’s face.
Nathan Maxwell took advantage of the up-close and personal view. Trim ankles met shapely, muscular calves, and judging from the fit of her skirt, a firm derriere topped off those swimsuit-model legs. Beneath his touch, soft skin beckoned further exploration. Long honey-blond hair hung almost to her waist in a sleek ponytail. The fragrance of her haute couture perfume drifted over him, reminding him of magnolia-scented summer nights.
Focusing on the task at hand, he gently pried the heel from the sidewalk seam and examined it. “No harm done.” He grasped her ankle and settled her foot back into the shoe and fastened the strap, but not before noticing the firecracker red nail polish. He laughed. “Here you go Cinderella.”
The warmth of his laugh slid over her, knocking her a little off balance even though she’d placed her foot firmly back on the ground. “Thank you, uh . . .” She turned and looked up into golden brown eyes the color of that same sweet Kentucky Bourbon.
“Nathan, Nathan Maxwell. My pleasure, ma’am.” He flashed a devastating grin, igniting gilded sparks in his eyes.
There was that Southern drawl again – subtle, like the peach undertones of a fine Pinot Gris. “You’re not from around here, are you?”
“My accent give me away?” Her sardonic smile weakened Nathan’s knees more than any toothy grin ever did.
“No, your courtesy.”
Nathan chuckled. “My grandmother would have expected nothing less.” Her eyes, cool blue like the May sky overhead, captured his and held. No shrinking violet, this one, he mused. A full, determined mouth painted to match the red of her toenails set off an arresting face with high cheekbones, a stubborn chin, and aquiline nose.
“Well, thank you, Nathan.” Maybe she should add suave polished men with a hint of Rhett Butler to her menu, Laura thought. Her phone, all but forgotten in her hand, buzzed. “I, uh, I’ve got to go. Thanks again, Nathan Maxwell.” Something about the way his name rolled off her tongue. She answered the phone as she walked away, “This is Laura.”
Nathan watched as she strode down the sidewalk, hips swaying to some inherent rhythm. “Come on, Laura, glance back.” She turned and gave him what he wanted, another look at that bold, beautiful face.
“It’s going to be a great day.” Glancing at his watch, satisfied with the outcome of the errand that brought him to this part of Manhattan in the first place, he hailed a cab back to his office.
Giving herself a mental snap-out-of-it slap to shake the charming Rhett Butler from her thoughts and focus on the goal, Laura briefed Katie, the head of the Giddings-Rose research team, on her latest project.
“I’m going to need the demographics on Imperial Cruise Lines, and its three closest competitors, ASAP.”
“We’re going after Imperial? What happened to Kendall-Monroe?”
“Fired. And use your street team to find out the inside scoop on Kendall-Monroe and Hawk Media. I’m on my way to meet with the CEO of Imperial now.”
“Damn, woman, you work fast.”
“Jackson Jefferies is a long-time friend of the family, so getting a sit down was easy. Convincing him to listen to someone besides my father is a different story.” Jackson Jeffries was the CEO of the cruise line, one of her father’s closest friends . . . and one of her father’s best customers. Her family’s shipbuilding business built Imperial’s liners, and Jackson relied heavily on her father’s counsel.
While at her best friend’s wedding over the weekend, Laura’s father had received an email from Jackson saying they’d fired their advertising agency. Since her irksome father had already given a competitor agency a heads-up that Imperial was in the market, time was of the essence.
“If anyone can convince him, it’s you. You could sell moonshine to a teetotaler.”
“Thanks. I think. Anyway, wish me luck.”
“Good luck. And call me when you’re done.”
Laura stashed her phone and entered the cool two-story lobby, walking directly to the security desk. After signing in, she took the elevators to the top floor for one of the most important meetings of her career.
A full-service advertising agency, Giddings-Rose had made a name for itself creating ad campaigns for traditional Fortune 500 companies, including insurance companies, department stores, banks, airlines, and manufacturers. But Laura’s goal was to drag Giddings-Rose kicking and screaming into the twenty-first century, with accounts who wanted rich media campaigns, digital brand development, interactive marketing and communications strategy, and pay-per-click campaign management. The future of advertising.
When she’d first approached Curt, the agency’s VP of Business Development, about Imperial and its needs he’d been skeptical, but the agency couldn’t count a cruise line among its accounts, and having one would look good in its portfolio. And on his resume.
“What do you want, Laura?” Curt had asked.
She’d used her tough-minded skills on him. “I want your job, but I bring you Imperial, I’ll take the VP of Client Management that’s coming open.”
“You bring me Imperial, and we’ll talk about it.”
“No.” She approached his desk. “I’ve reeled in some big fish for this agency. It’s time I reaped the rewards of all that hard work. Dammit, Curt, you know I deserve it.”
Curt had held her gaze. “I know. Look, I’ll go to bat for you, but I can’t promise anything.”
“That’s all I’m asking. Thanks, Curt.”
The elevator doors opened on the lobby of Imperial Cruise Lines bringing Laura back to the present. She took a deep breath and stepped onto the polished marble floor with all the determination of a gladiator stepping into the Roman Colosseum. “Showtime.”
Nathan sat down at his desk, as his assistant followed him in with phone messages and meeting requests. He’d only been at Hawk Media a week and already had a full schedule.
“Mr. McCutcheon would like to see you when you get a moment, and I need you to sign these forms for your corporate credit card.” Cassie placed the stack of messages on the desk and handed him the forms.
“Thanks, Cassie. This credit card can’t come soon enough. I need you to book a trip for me. Here’s all the information.” Nathan handed her a brochure with the ship circled. He didn’t care what itinerary, as long as he got on that ship. He’d already completed the company’s travel profile so Cassie would know his preferences. “And I need it booked first thing.”
Cassie took the brochure, lifting a brow. “Is this business or pleasure?”
“Oh, this is business, but who says they’re mutually exclusive?” He gave her a wink as he rounded his desk.
The corridors of Hawk Media were hushed, the plush carpeting lending a soft touch to the otherwise glass and brushed chrome ultra-modern office space. The account executives whose offices lined the halls were hard at work, studying spreadsheets, talking on phones, tapping out emails, or meeting with members of their teams. A group stood in front of an oversized digital white board in what served as the agency’s idea space, throwing suggestions up on the board.
The nimble mid-size company had only been around a little over ten years, but they were making a splash in the ad biz, especially after they’d snatched the Kensington hotel chain right out from under Concept Advertising.
They’d done the same thing with him.
Hawk Media had wooed his biggest account away from him, but while the CEO preferred the New York-based agency’s philosophy, he’d told Hawk that Nathan was part of the package. So after almost ten years with the same boutique agency in Atlanta, first as an account coordinator, before working his way up to senior account executive, Hawk had come calling. And Nathan had listened. In the immortal words of Don Corleone, “they’d made him an offer he couldn’t refuse.”
Though it broke his heart to leave behind his Buckhead home and the proximity to his sister, the siren song of the Big Apple couldn’t be ignored, and the position, Vice President of Business Development, the salary, and the bonuses were too good to pass up. Especially now when he needed the money.
He’d make a name for himself in the big city. Not bad for a boy from the hills of North Georgia who’d once been told he’d never be more than a whore’s bastard.
First order of business – get the Imperial Cruise Lines account.
“You needed to see me?”
Hawk looked up from his sleek computer, “Yes. Have a seat.”
At only forty-six, Hawk McCutcheon was on a high-speed trajectory to success. His blond locks lent him a devil-may-care surfer look, but those who judged the book by its cover did so at their own peril. A former All-American quarterback, he played by the rules, but that didn’t mean he didn’t play a tough game. And while he had an easy smile and a generous nature, he expected one-hundred-ten-percent from his employees.
Family photos ranged the credenza behind his immaculate Lucite desk, including one of him and his father, U.S. Senator Mitchell McCutheon, at the President’s inauguration ball. Star-studded lifestyle notwithstanding, according to his employees, Hawk was a tried and true family man.
“Where are we on Imperial Cruise Lines?” Hawk eyed him over a pair of reading glasses.
“Cassie’s booking my trip as we speak – on the Nave dei Sogni – the first availability. Research team is pulling demographics, financials, and current marketing collateral, and the same information on Imperial’s three closest competitors. Word on the street is Imperial is looking to lower its age demographic, attract younger, more dynamic clientele, with lots of sports and entertainment dollars to spend. And they’re building a smaller liner with an eye toward uncompromising quality and an even higher staff-to-guest ratio to do it.
“We already have the data on the spending habits of this demographic,” Nathan continued, “we just need to do some number crunching. Imperial is looking for interactive marketing services for the digital space. They fired Kendall-Monroe because the agency’s ideas were … ‘antediluvian,’ to use the Junior Jeffries’ term.”
“Well, we’ll deliver fresh, innovative ideas that will blow any competition out of the water. Pun intended,” Hawk finished with a grin. His expression grew determined as he tapped the desk with his finger, “I want this account and you’re just the man to get it for me.”
Jackson’s assistant escorted Laura into a modest-sized, but well-appointed office. Behind the mahogany desk sat a man, that although her father’s contemporary, looked years younger. His thick pewter and silver hair, tanned, clean-shaven face, and ready smile gave Jackson Jeffries the appearance of a well-aged movie star.
He rose as she approached his desk, his gray eyes alight with approval as he appraised her. “Little Laura Armstrong has grown into a beautiful, poised young lady. How did that happen? Last I saw you you were headed off to college.”
She smiled at the compliment. “That was a decade ago.”
“Has it been that long?” He indicated a group of chairs around a beautifully-restored leather steamer trunk that served as a coffee table. Models of Imperial’s ships, old and new, ranged the office on their own wood pedestals, down-lighting illuminating every detail. Photos of dignitaries from around the world covered the walls.
It was a comfortable office. A well-lived-in office. Not the showplace she’d expected from the CEO of one of the world’s most prestigious ultra-luxury cruise lines. But then again, she had memories of Jackson as a kind, unassuming man. One who actually loved his wife and children and didn’t put the importance of the bottom line ahead of his family.
“And now you’re with an advertising agency, and you’d like to talk to me about Imperial’s business.” He leaned forward, propping his elbows on his knees.
“Yes.” Despite his humble demeanor, he always could cut to the chase.
“All right. I’m game. Tell me about your agency.”
Before she could start her pitch, the office door opened and a tall, good looking younger version of Jackson entered the room. Same thick hair, but light brown with hints of pre-mature gray at the temples, same gray eyes, same ready smile. The apple didn’t fall far from the tree.
She remembered Jackson Junior, or Jack, from dinners at the Country Club, golf outings, parties at her parents’ house, and high school. She’d tried her sixteen-year-old girl’s wiles on him. Four years older, he hadn’t been impressed, having eyes only for Miss New York and his girlfriend at the time, Stephanie Smallwood. They’d married after college, only to get divorced five years later.
“Jack, you remember Milt’s daughter, Laura.”
“Yes.” His eyes lit up. “Of course.”
Laura was about to tell me a little about her agency–”
“Giddings-Rose,” she supplied.
“Giddings-Rose?” Jack interjected. “Laura, I should tell you, we aren’t looking for a traditional Madison Avenue agency. We already fired Kendall-Moore. We want to move into the digital age, freshen our brand and broaden our consumer base, with a focus on a younger demographic.”
“You’re speaking my language.” Laura said with a grin.
Jackson beamed at his son. “Jack is our Vice President of Customer Relations and he’s been pushing for Imperial to enter the age of social media.” He chuckled. “What I know about social media could fit in a thimble.”
Laura jumped in with both feet. “Imperial has catered to the older wealthy client, but with that clientele dying off, the line needs to refocus its brand on a younger demographic, people my age, with copious discretionary income.”
Jackson Senior and Junior eyed one another.
Jackson spoke first, “We had that in mind when we designed the newest ship–”
“The Nave dei Sogni,” Laura interjected.
“That’s right,” Jackson said, “and its itineraries, shore excursions and onboard activities, but we haven’t been able to reach that client. Now we’re building a new, smaller four-hundred-fifty passenger liner – the ultimate boutique ship–”
Jack spoke up, “Which will offer unstructured cruises that give passengers the feel that they are truly on a personal yacht. This won’t be your grandparent’s cruise. Most passengers on the Sogni have been our usual clientele, perplexed by the offerings. The only people your age we get on the ship are there because it’s their parents’ or grandparents’ anniversary or birthday.”
“Forget what you think you know about Giddings-Rose,” Laura started. “We have the finest creative team in the business, with two Webbys, five Addys, and one Mosaic, and fifty years of experience combined, the media buying power of the large agency we are, but with the digital savvy of an interactive agency. We give you the best of both worlds. Strategic planning, web design and development, search engine marketing, digital lead generation, digital brand development, rich media campaigns, interactive marketing and communications strategy, data mining and ROI assessment.” She took a breath.
“You don’t have a cruise line in your client roster,” Jack pointed out.
“No, we don’t, but we do have an international airline and a five-star hotel chain on our books, plus one of the world’s top travel companies, so we have experience in the high-end travel and hospitality industry.”
Jackson glanced at his son, nodded. “Okay. We’ll give Giddings-Rose a shot.”
“But your initial research and creative is on spec,” Jack added. “We’ll expect your pitch the end of July, but we’ll have a pre-pitch meeting with both agencies before that. We’ll be in touch to set that up.”
Laura stuck her hand out to Jackson. “Thank you.”
“It’s a pleasure to see you again,” Jackson covered their clasped hands with his other hand. “You truly have grown into a beautiful woman.”
“Thank you, Jackson.”
“I’ll walk you out.” Jack guided Laura through the door. “How did we not know you worked for an ad agency?”
She raised an eyebrow, “Have you met my father?”
Jack laughed. “Right. Then how did you find out we were looking?”
“My father blurted it out, forgetting his daughter was in the business.” If he even knew in the first place.
“Maybe that’s a good thing. A little competition never hurt anyone, and Imperial can only benefit.”
They’d arrived at the elevators. “My father was right,” Jack said, his face earnest.
“About what?” Laura turned to face him.
“That you’ve grown into a beautiful woman.”
Alrighty then. “Flattery will get you everywhere, Jack, but I think I’m the one who should be sucking up to you.”
“Then you can start sucking up by having dinner with me.”
She tilted her head as the elevator dinged. “Perhaps.” She stepped into the elevator and turned around. Just before the doors closed, she said, “Call me.”
Rebecca Heflin is an award-winning author who has dreamed of writing romantic fiction since she was fifteen and her older sister snuck a copy of Kathleen Woodiwiss’ Shanna to her and told her to read it. Rebecca writes women’s fiction and contemporary romance. When not passionately pursuing her dream, Rebecca is busy with her day-job as a practicing attorney.
Rebecca is a member of Romance Writers of America (RWA), Florida Romance Writers, RWA Contemporary Romance, and Florida Writers Association. She and her mountain-climbing husband live at sea level in sunny Florida.