People surrounded them as soon as they entered the ballroom. Daniel was well-known for his work raising money for cancer awareness and research. While most of the time he was content to talk with anyone about his involvement, at that moment, he simply wanted to be left alone with Julie.
But that wasn’t an option. So he greeted everyone warmly, and thanked them all for coming. She stayed by his side while he talked, looking at him every once in a while with a curious grin on her face. She looked so lovely, he wondered idly if he’d have so many people swarming around if it wasn’t for his date.
They eventually made their way to the head table, where, finally, he could hear himself think. They sat next to each other, and he let out a deep breath.
“That was certainly interesting. Do you always inspire such an entourage?” Julie asked.
“Only when the woman by my side is wearing a gown like the one you have on.”
He was pleased to see she could handle a compliment. It bugged him when a woman got all flustered just because someone said she looked nice. But Julie just smiled in recognition of his kind words. “There were a good number of women in that crowd. They definitely liked the way the man by my side looked in his tux.” Her eyes were dark.
He leaned close so he could smell her. She smelled of oranges. “What about you? How do you think he looks?”
“You look perfectly adequate.” She said it with a straight face, but her eyes were laughing at him.
“You’re a dangerous woman, Julie Masterson.”
She placed her napkin in her lap with the utmost care and attention. “If that’s not the pot calling the kettle black, I don’t know what is.”
“I’m just dangerous to my competitors.”
“Remind me to never get on your bad side.”
He had a feeling he didn’t have a bad side where she was concerned. He felt comfortable and easy around her. She was an intelligent self-made businesswoman. She made him laugh and she looked fantastic. And she was the sexiest woman he’d met in years.
“Tell me,” he said to her. “Why flowers?”
She shrugged. “My mom loved flowers. She had them all over the house and always said it was a travesty to save them for special occasions. I wanted to share her love and beliefs with everyone. Sasha and I found the shop a few years ago while walking through the historic district. We bought it and the Petal Pushers was born. Now it’s like I spend part of each day with my mom.”
“And yet you said you weren’t the flower type of girl.” Her body stilled. “You remember?”
He ran a finger across her hand, swirled a figure eight on the top. “I remember everything about you.”
For the briefest moment, when he looked into her eyes, it was as if the rest of the room disappeared and there was nothing in the world except the two of them. Her hand turned over on the table, so the palm faced up. He dragged his finger along the lines there before settling his hand over hers.
How simple it was to engulf her hand in his. He had an overwhelming desire to engulf her entirely. Surround her. Protect her.
Tease and tempt her.
They jumped apart when a waiter placed their salads in front of them. Daniel looked up to find their dinner companions watching them intently. He was almost embarrassed to realize they hadn’t even noticed when the other diners sat down. But the truth was, he didn’t care. He couldn’t when she was overwhelming him like this. Now their dinner companions all averted their eyes, obviously embarrassed on their own parts to be caught staring.
“It must be you,” Julie said all calm and cool. “People never stare at me like that.”
“Maybe it’s the combination of us together.”
The air between them pulsed. Surely she felt it, too. They would probably be a dangerous combination together. Even more so alone. He wanted to test that theory.
But the benefit wouldn’t be over for hours. He pressed the palms of his hands against his thighs. Refocused his attention on the three other couples sitting at the table. Before he’d asked Julie to be his date, he’d been looking forward to discussing several new oncology breakthroughs with those in attendance. At the moment, though, all he could muster was small talk. After a few minutes, the other couples were talking among themselves and he could finally turn back to Julie.
“What does your mom think of your business?” he asked.
“She passed before it opened.”
“I’m sorry to hear that.”
She took her time cutting her salad. She was very meticulous about it, cutting each piece into nearly identical sizes. “How about you? Why banking?”
Obviously, the conversation about her mother was over. He took a moment to follow her lead and cut his salad.
“It’s a family business. Something it was always assumed I’d do.”
“Is it what you really want to do?” Questioning eyes met his. “If you could do anything, what would it be?”
He chuckled. “What do I want to be when I grow up?” “Something like that.”
“Outside of the fact that I’m thirty- five, I suppose when I grow up, I just want to know I’ve changed the world for the better.”
She muttered something under her breath, but all he could make out was “no wonder” and “pants.”
“Nothing, just something Sasha said.”
Their conversation owed smoothly throughout dinner. Julie proved to be witty and warm, a delightful combination. But as she talked about what she’d done to reach her goals, and the obstacles she’d overcome, she also showed him a will of iron. Her father had left when her sister was born. After her mother died, she’d worked two jobs while going to school. Somehow, she and Sasha had secured a loan for the shop and turned it into a successful business. He had a strong desire to bend that will of hers to his own, to show her what it was like to have someone protect her and take care of what she needed.
Careful, he told himself.
He had succeeded in arranging for one of the leading oncologists in melanoma to speak at the bene t, and for months he had been looking forward to the event. But sit- ting next to Julie close enough to hear her breathing and smell her orange scent made listening as the speaker went on and on about biomarkers almost more than his patience could bear.
When the gentleman wrapped up his speech, Daniel joined the audience in a standing ovation, but the truth was he already couldn’t remember what had been said and he clapped only because the talk was over. Julie was up on her feet beside him. She leaned her head near his.
“What a fascinating speech,” she whispered.
“I only heard every third word.”
She laughed, but he lifted an eyebrow to let her know he wasn’t joking.
They sat back down and chatted with their table companions while the orchestra set up. The local hospital’s chief of staff was seated across from Julie and she quickly became deeply engaged in conversation with him about ongoing research at the hospital. He was so impressed by how relaxed she seemed, despite the heady dignitaries she spoke with. All her questions were intelligent, and her tone was confident and friendly. Apparently, making her own way in the world as she had was its own reward.
When the first notes sounded from the nearby violin, the executive excused himself and took his wife’s hand.
“She always insists on dancing the first dance,” he explained.
Daniel waited until the older couple made it to the dance floor. Then he stood and held out his hand to Julie. “Dance with me?”