Match Me if You Can(3)By: Susan Elizabeth Phillips
Usually when she got upset about her appearance—which even her own mother described only as “nice”—she reminded herself to be grateful for her good features: a pair of very nice honey-colored eyes, thick lashes, and—give or take a few dozen freckles—a creamy complexion. But no amount of positive thinking could make the image that stared back at her from the elevator mirror anything but horrifying. She scrambled to tuck a few curls behind her ears and smooth her skirt, but the elevator doors opened before she could repair much of the damage.
In front of her, she saw a glass wall imprinted with gold letters. CHAMPION SPORTS MANAGEMENT. She hurried across the carpeted hallway and entered through a door with a curved metal handle. The reception area held a leather couch and matching chairs, framed sports memorabilia, and a big-screen TV muted on a baseball game. The receptionist had short, steel gray hair and a thin-lipped mouth. She took in Annabelle’s disheveled appearance over the top of half glasses with blue metal frames. “May I help you?”
“Annabelle Granger. I have an appointment with the Py—with Mr. Champion.”
“I’m afraid you’re too late, Miss Granger.”
“Only ten minutes.”
“Ten minutes was all the time Mr. Champion had available in his schedule to see you.”
Her suspicions were confirmed. He’d only agreed to see her because Molly had insisted, and he didn’t want to upset his top client’s wife. She glanced in desperation at the wall clock. “I’m really only nine minutes late. I have one minute left.”
“Sorry.” The receptionist turned back to her computer and began tapping away.
“One minute,” Annabelle pleaded. “That’s all I ask.”
“There’s nothing I can do.”
Annabelle needed this meeting, and she needed it now. Pivoting on her heels, she rushed toward the paneled door at the far end of the reception area.
Annabelle dashed into an open hallway with a pair of offices on each side, one of them occupied by two buff young men in dress shirts and neckties. Ignoring them, she headed for an imposing mahogany door set into the center of the back wall and turned the knob.
The Python’s office was the color of money: lacquered jade walls, thick moss carpet, and furniture upholstered in varying shades of green accented with bloodred pillows. An assortment of news photos and sports memorabilia hung behind the couch along with a rust-streaked white metal sign with faded black block letters that said BEAU VISTA. Appropriate, considering the sweeping wall of windows overlooking Lake Michigan in the distance. The Python himself sat behind a sleek, U-shaped desk, his high-backed chair turned toward the water view. She took in a state-of-the-art desktop computer, a small laptop, a BlackBerry, and a sophisticated black telephone console with enough buttons to land a jumbo jet. An executive headset lay abandoned next to it as the Python spoke directly into the receiver.
“The third-year money is good, but not if they cut you early,” he said in a voice that was deeply resonant, crisp, and midwestern. “I know it’s a gamble, but if you sign for one year, we can play the free agent market.” She glimpsed a strong tanned wrist, a rugged watch, and long tapered fingers curled around the receiver. “Ultimately, it’s your decision, Jamal. All I can do is advise you.”
The door burst open behind her, and the receptionist flew in, feathers ruffled like an offended parakeet. “I’m sorry, Heath. She got past me.”
The Python turned slowly in his chair, and Annabelle felt as if she’d been punched in the stomach.
He was square-jawed and tough, everything about him proclaiming a brash, self-made man—a roughneck who’d flunked charm school the first couple of times around but finally gotten it right on the third pass. His hair was thick and crisp, its rich color a cross between a leather portfolio and a bottle of Bud. He had a straight, confident nose and bold dark eyebrows, one of which was bisected near the end with a thin pale scar. The firm set of his well-molded mouth proclaimed a low tolerance for fools, a passion for hard work that bordered on obsession, and possibly—although this might be her imagination—a determination to own a small chalet near St. Tropez before he was fifty. If it weren’t for a vague irregularity to his features, he would have been unbearably gorgeous. Instead, he was merely drop-dead good-looking. What did a man like this need with a matchmaker?