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Huge Deal
Author: Lauren Layne





Tuesday, March 26

“Okay, so where are we with the ice sculpture?”

Kate Henley let the question hang in the air unanswered for about seven seconds longer than comfortable, hoping that the asker would hear the ridiculousness of the question and retract it.

Claudia Palmer merely blinked at Kate with eyelashes that may or may not have been real and waited for Kate’s response.

Kate let out a tiny internal sigh. She’d mastered it over the years. It was the kind of sigh nobody else knew was happening, but it allowed Kate a moment of silent acknowledgment that she was right, even if the other person didn’t realize it. Yet.

If Kate had learned anything in her twenty-seven years, it was that there was a certain power in being underestimated. And at five foot one, with boring brown hair, boring brown eyes, and a penchant for prim clothing, Kate was the queen of flying under the radar when she needed to. Other times, being underestimated wasn’t powerful so much as supremely annoying.

Times like now.

“Still working on it,” Kate finally replied. “General consensus is that a six-foot ice sculpture in a warmer-than-usual spring is going to be a pricey endeavor.”

The other woman gave a practiced, dramatic wave of her hand. “Please. If Givenchy can pull it off in Milan in August, we can do it in Manhattan in April.”

Kate surreptitiously checked the time on her iPad: 2:14 p.m. Cue the slow clap for Claudia. Her boss’s girlfriend had made it fourteen minutes into their meeting before name-dropping one of her famous designer contacts. A new record.

“Okay, so you’ll take care of that,” Claudia said, looking back down at her tiny spiral notebook. “I’m still undecided on who we should have supply the oysters. I’ve heard good things about Oysters XO. Have you worked with them?”

“Sure, several times,” Kate said. “But—”

“Okay, maybe I’ll hand off this task to you as well,” Claudia said, tapping her lip with a perfectly manicured red nail. “I’m thinking a mix of East and West Coast. What do you think?”

“I’m thinking Kennedy’s allergic to shellfish,” Kate said.

Claudia didn’t even glance up. “So? He won’t be the only one at this party.”

Um. “But it’s his birthday party.”

Claudia apparently hadn’t mastered the silent sigh, because hers was audible and annoyed. “Kennedy will understand that other people like oysters, even if he can’t indulge. There’ll be other food for him to eat.”

And chances are he’ll be so horrified by the ice-sculpture statue in his likeness that he won’t even notice the shellfish he can’t eat, the Maroon 5 cover band he can’t stand, the guest list of people he doesn’t know . . .

Kate was on the verge of letting Claudia know exactly what she thought of her party plan when the other woman reached across the conference room table and touched her arm. “Thanks again for helping me with this. His mother kept offering, but it’s important to me to show Diane that I can do this on my own. That I care about her son as much as she does.”

Kate forced a smile in response, even as she privately doubted that someone who’d been dating Kennedy Dawson for all of two months could possibly care about the man as much as his own mother. Not to mention, Claudia was hardly doing this “on her own.” Kate should have known better when Claudia had asked if she could “run a few ideas” by Kate for a small surprise get-together for Kennedy.

In reality, Kate was spending nearly as much time on this damn party as she was her actual job as Kennedy’s assistant, and she was pretty sure she was ending up with the majority of the work for what was turning into a freaking circus.

“I’m sure he’ll appreciate it,” Kate said noncommittally. “Though if you’re open to suggestions—”

“Claudia? What are you doing here?”

Kate went still for just a half second, the way she always did when she heard his voice, the gesture as frequent, and nearly as imperceptible, as her internal sighs.

Claudia immediately stood, all graceful movement and long legs, as she slid her notebook across the table to Kate.

Since Claudia’s and Kennedy’s focus was entirely on each other, Kate allowed herself the gratification of an eye roll at Claudia’s hasty handoff. As if Kennedy were really going to make a beeline for a tiny, impractical little notebook that had—Kate flipped through it—maybe twenty pages.

Most of the pages were filled with over-the-top party ideas. One simply said Doves.

Kate smiled a little at that. It would serve Kennedy right to have doves at his party. In fact, if Claudia asked Kate’s opinion on the doves, Kate was happy to lie her little heart out.

Absolutely! Kennedy would love to see a bunch of creepy birds at the birthday party he doesn’t know is happening and probably doesn’t want, because he hates surprises even more than he hates parties . . .

Kate gathered her iPad and Claudia’s mini notebook, then turned, which she immediately regretted, because she’d moved too fast and saw Claudia pressing her lips to Kennedy’s.

Claudia didn’t have to go on her toes, Kate noticed. Even without the heels, Claudia Palmer probably never had to go on her toes to kiss a man. The former model was five foot eleven. Kate knew, because she’d looked it up. Was she proud of her online stalking? Not particularly. But she’d learned over the years that doing a little up-front research on her three bosses’ latest lovers came in handy if things took a turn toward the dramatic, which was often the case. And who handled the drama? Spoiler alert: not the guys. Kate was the one who dealt with the fallout of her bosses’ ill-fated romantic endeavors.

Of course, she didn’t have to worry about Ian or Matt anymore. Two of her guys had settled down quite nicely and had become another woman’s problem. There was just one left . . .

Kennedy’s gaze found Kate’s within seconds of his lips leaving Claudia’s, and though she’d withstood the force of that glare nearly every day for six years, the effect never failed to jolt her, just a little.

Kennedy Dawson was almost brutally attractive, in the upper-class, authoritative way of the Kennedys he’d been named after. His hair was somewhere between dark and medium brown, with a shiny thickness that rivaled the duchess of Cambridge. His eyes were golden brown and fringed with long lashes she’d once dared to comment on and gotten a growl in return. Everything about him was serious. His thick brows frequently tilted down into a frown; he had an unsmiling mouth, a sharp jawline that was tense more often than not.

Sort of like now.

She gave him a mocking smile in response to his impenetrable stare, sensing from the way his eyes narrowed that he’d seen both her eye roll and her smirk.

“What are you two up to?” he asked, the question directed at Kate and not the woman pressed to his side.

“Just girl talk!” Claudia chirped. “Getting to know each other. I stopped by to see you, but you weren’t around, so I chatted with Kate instead.”

He looked back at Claudia and frowned. Always with the frowning. “I’m around. I’ve been in my office. Something my assistant would know. She could have told you to come on in.” He cut an irritated gaze at Kate.

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