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Chapter Sixteen

Are you sure I look okay?" Emma asked for the fifth time.

"I promise, you look great." Russ took his eyes off the traffic long enough to glance over at her, his gaze running over her face and neckline. "More than great."

"It's not too sexy, is it? I don't want to look unprofessional."

"Relax, Emma. You look beautiful."

Emma nibbled at the inside of her lip and looked out the car window, trying to ignore the roiling of her gut. Her dress was a dark green satin underslip covered by a transparent black cheongsam; her shoes had three-and-a-half-inch heels meant to make her feel powerful and tall, although all she could think now was that they didn't fit perfectly and might cause her to stumble and embarrass herself.

The presentation of the finalists' plans for the train station was to take place at a convention center on the waterfront. It wasn't far from her apartment, but Russ had insisted that they drive so that she could arrive fresh. She wished they had walked so that her nervous energy had someplace to go, even though a hike down steep streets in high heels on a windy evening would have left her sweaty and disheveled.

"Oh God, I'm going to be sick," she moaned.

Russ hit the brakes. "Truly?"

She shook her head. "Keep going. I'll save it for the ladies' room."

"Are you really this nervous?"

"Yes! Don't you have any words of advice for me? Imagining people in their underwear, being myself, blah blah blah?"

"Would that help?"

"No. And I shouldn't have worn satin. My sweat is going to show. Big dark green patches of sweat."

He chuckled. "You're going to be fine."

"I don't know how to talk in front of people. I nearly passed out each time I had to present something in school."

"Do you like your design?"

Emma reviewed the plan in her head, trying to see it objectively but feeling instead a reburgeoning of the excitement that had consumed her when the concept first came to her. "It's the best thing I've ever done." Doubt stuck its finger into her joy: "But my best is light-years behind what the others will have done."

"Maybe. Maybe not. But so what? You're a finalist. You've already proven yourself. It doesn't matter what other people did: all that matters is that you communicate to the audience your own belief in your design, and your excitement about it. Explain it to them so they can see it through your own eyes. That's all you have to do, and the only thing worth worrying about."

Emma gnawed a hangnail. "That'll work?"

"If it doesn't, who cares? You've proven yourself, Emma. You don't need to try to impress anyone; you've done that already."

"Have I impressed you?"

He took his eyes off the road long enough to meet hers. "You know you have. I envy your talent. Looking at your design makes me wish I had that type of creative talent. For anything."

The compliment rested uncomfortably on Emma. "But you're creative. You built a whole company, for heaven's sake!"

He shook his head and turned into the parking garage for the conference center. "It's a different type of creativity. Regardless, you almost make me wish I was back at the beginning, trying to get it started. I know you're full of uncertainty, Emma, but that's part of the excitement. Don't fear uncertainty: see it at as the world of possibilities that it truly is. You have everything in front of you-enjoy the journey."

Emma stared at him, her concern for herself forgotten. "Jeez, Russ, you make it sound like you're too old to do something new yourself. You're only thirty-six! If you want to start a new company or try something different, why don't you? You've got enough money to take time off and do what you want, don't you?"

Russ parked the car, then sat silent, staring forward.

"Couldn't you do that?" Emma asked.

"Do you know, I've never seriously thought about it."

"Well, think about it!"

He reached over and grabbed her hand, giving it a squeeze. "Not tonight. Tonight is your night. Let's go show them who you are."

Emma grinned. "Hoo rah! Super Emma has entered the building!"

He raised a brow.

She laughed. "C'mon, coach. Game time."

Russ watched with pride and a strange sense of distance as Emma schmoozed with city officials, railroad reps, and architects. She'd given her presentation with only a few quavers of the voice, finding her footing once she started explaining her concept for the train station. Hers was not the flashiest, most expensive display, but in Russ's eyes it looked to be one of the best. There was a pleasing cohesive-ness to her design, each detail, angle, and curve feeling as if it was an inevitable choice that was meant to be. It was satisfying. It was right. It was probably more innovative than the city would go for, but genius shone through her design.

Emma met his eyes across the crowd of people. He smiled and gave her thumbs-up, encouraging her to keep schmoozing. She smiled back, her eyes sparkling, her cheeks flushed.

She was beautiful, full of confidence and joy, at long last stepping into the life she'd been seeking.

A stabbing sense of loss hit him, making him clench his jaw against the sudden, unexpected pain.

It was time to let her go.


Chapter Fifteen | The Erotic Secrets Of A French Maid | Chapter Seventeen