“Fire me?” Gabe Madison came to a halt in the center of the carpet. Disbelief warred with outrage on his hard face. “You can’t fire me. I’m a client. You don’t fire clients.”
“I do.” Lillian Harte sat very stiffly behind her sleek, Euro-style desk, her hands clasped firmly atop the polished glass surface. She struggled to hold on to what was left of her temper. “I’ve been downsizing for the past few months.”
“Downsizing is for getting rid of employees, not customers. What’s the matter with you? You’re supposed to be running a matchmaking business here.” Gabe swept out a hand to indicate the expensively furnished office and the skyline of the city of Portland, Oregon, beyond. “You need clients. You want clients. You don’t fire them.”
“Some clients are more trouble than they’re worth.”
He narrowed dangerously green eyes. “And I’m one of them, is that it?”
“I’m afraid so.” She unclasped her hands and leaned back in her chair. “Look, I’m sorry about this. Really.”
“Oh, yeah, I can see that.” His smile was cold.
“This was a mistake, Gabe. I told you that when you talked me into letting you sign on with Private Arrangements. I explained that it probably wouldn’t work out well. But you refused to take no for an answer.”
Which was hardly a major shock, she thought. It was a good bet that Gabe had not overcome his wild Madison family legacy to build Madison Commercial, a very successful venture capital firm, by taking no for an answer. Only a Harte, such as herself, could fully appreciate the magnitude of his accomplishment. Only a Harte knew just how far Gabe had had to go in order to live down three generations of spectacularly failed potential to rebuild an empire.
Her father had frequently speculated that Gabe had been successful because he had mastered the art of self-
discipline, a rare accomplishment for a Madison. But in the few weeks that he had been a Private Arrangements client she had begun to suspect that Gabe had done more than merely learn how to control the notoriously hot blood that ran in his veins. He had subdued it with such ruthlessness that she suspected he had also crushed a lot of perfectly normal emotions along with it. As far as she could tell, he did not allow himself any strong feelings. She was convinced that he had paid a far higher price for his personal triumphs than anyone had realized.
Gabe smiled with relative ease, but he didn’t laugh out loud. He didn’t seem to know how to have fun. She had seen him annoyed, as he was now, but she had never seen him lose his temper. Her feminine intuition told her that he was very definitely attracted to women, but she was pretty sure that he did not permit himself to cross the line that separated physical satisfaction from mind-spinning passion. She was willing to bet that Gabe Madison had never allowed himself to take the risk of falling in love.
And he had expected her to find him a wife? Not a chance.
“It wasn’t a mistake on my part,” Gabe said. “I knew exactly what I was doing and what I wanted when I signed on with you. You’re the one who made the mistakes. Five of them, so far.”
“The fact that all five of the dates that I arranged for you went bad, should tell both of us something,” she said, trying for a soothing note.
“It tells me something, all right. It tells me that you screwed up five times.”
She had known that this would be a difficult conversation but she had not expected him to be quite so rigid about the matter. After all, it was obvious that the project had not been a success. One would have thought that he would have been content with merely demanding that his money be refunded.
His icy determination not to be dismissed from her client roster was starting to make her a little uneasy. Belatedly it occurred to her that Gabe was accustomed to fighting for what he wanted. She should have known that he would not abandon a goal without a battle.
She propped her elbows on the desk and balanced a capped pen between her forefingers, buying herself a little time to compose her arguments. Nothing was ever simple between a Madison and a Harte, she reminded herself. The younger members of the two families liked to pretend that the old feud that had erupted between their grandfathers and destroyed a thriving business empire all those years ago didn’t affect them. But they were wrong. The fallout had echoed down through three generations. Gabe was living proof that the past had the power to haunt.
“I feel I have lived up to my part of the arrangement,” she said. “I have sent you out on five dates in the past three weeks.”
“Big deal. Five dates. I paid for six.”
“You have complained about all five dates. In my opinion a sixth date would be a total waste of everyone’s time.”
“Those five bad dates were your fault.” His jaw tightened. “Or maybe the fault of your computer program. Doesn’t matter. The point is, they weren’t good matches.”
“Really?” She gave him a small, brightly polished smile. “I can’t imagine how they could have been anything but perfect matches. According to my computer analysis the women I paired you with met over eighty-five percent of your requirements.”
“Only eighty-five percent? Well, there’s your problem.” He grinned humorlessly. “The real issue here is that you and your computer aren’t doing a very good job. You haven’t found me any one hundred percent matches.”
“Get real, Gabe.” She put the pen down very precisely using both fingers. “There is no such thing as a one hundred percent perfect match. I use a computer program, not a magic wand.”
“So, go for ninety-five.” He spread his hands. “I’m flexible.”
“Flexible?” She stared at him, completely nonplussed for two or three seconds, and then she swallowed a laugh. “No offense, but you’re about as flexible as one of those steel beams they use in high-rise construction projects.”
And just as tough, she thought. His hallmark uniform—expensive steel-gray suits, charcoal-gray shirts, silver-and-onyx cuff links, and striped silver-and-black ties—had taken on near-legendary status in the Northwest business community, which tended toward a more relaxed look. But the classy attire was poor camouflage for an iron will that had been forged in a strong fire.
The evidence of that will was plain to see. At least, it was obvious to her. It was there in the way he moved with the unconscious grace of a natural hunter. It was clear in the way he held himself and in the cool, remote, watchful expression in his eyes. Always on the alert, even when he appeared to be relaxed. There was a centered quality to him that was so strong it formed an invisible aura around him. This was a man who did nothing on impulse. A man in control.
What worried her the most, she admitted silently, was that she found him both compelling and fascinating.
In one sense she had known Gabe all of her life. He hailed from Eclipse Bay on the coast of Oregon where her family had always maintained a summer and vacation home. Growing up she had encountered him from time to time in the small town—but he was a Madison. Everyone knew that Madison males were trouble. Nice girls might indulge a few fantasies, but they didn’t date Madisons. That, coupled with their complicated family history and the fact that he was five years older than she, had formed a huge barrier. The stone wall had not been breached until the wedding of her sister, Hannah, to his brother, Rafe, a few months ago. The event had shocked and delighted the entire town, leading to much speculation about whether or not the infamous Harte-Madison feud had finally ended. The question was still unanswered in most quarters.
Meeting Gabe at the reception had left her unsettled and unaccountably restless. She had told herself she would get over it. But when he had walked into her office a few weeks later she had realized that, on some level, she had been waiting for him. She could not explain her anticipation but it had come as a cold shock to learn that he was there on business. His only goal had been to sign up as a client.
Still, she had allowed herself a few interesting daydreams.
Then, of course, he had filled out the lengthy questionnaire she used to feed client data into her program and she had realized just how hopeless it all was. No arty types. It was, she reflected, one of the few places on the form where she was pretty certain he had been completely candid in his responses.
“It’s not my fault you picked five bad matches in a row,” he said.
“I picked five excellent matches.” She raised one hand, fingers bunched into a loose fist. “They were all college-educated.” She extended one finger. “They were all within the age span that you specified.” She extended a second finger. “They all had successful careers and were financially independent.” Another finger. “They were all comfortable with the idea of helping you entertain your business clients.” A fourth finger went up. “And, as you stipulated, not one of them could even remotely be described as the arty type.”
“All five made less than subtle inquiries about my portfolio.”
“Why shouldn’t they have shown an interest in it? You certainly showed great interest in their financial status. You made a huge deal about it, in fact. You wanted someone who was clearly financially well-situated.”
“Only because I don’t want to be married for my money.” He turned and started to prowl the room. “Another thing, all five acted offended when I brought up the subject of a prenuptial contract.”
“You should have known better than to bring up a subject like that on a first date, for heaven’s sake.”
He ignored that. “All five talked about extended vacations in the south of France and second homes on Maui. I don’t take monthlong vacations.”
“Do you take any vacations?”
“I’ve got a company to run, damn it.”
“Uh-huh.” No vacations. A real fun guy. But she refrained from voicing that observation aloud.
“And another thing.” He turned back around to face her. “All five of those women looked very high-
maintenance to me.”
“And you’re not high-maintenance?”
He appeared genuinely startled that she would even suggest such a possibility. His expression darkened. “Of course not. I just told you, I’m a very flexible man.”