Alice squinted at the screen. Something was not right here. $200 for lunch? Then again, DC prices.
“What’s with the jumper cables?” Patty perched herself on the corner of Alice’s desk.
She waved her hand at her friend. ”Harry from marketing returned them. Finally bought his own, which is good because I’m tired of giving him a jump.” Tired of car issues altogether. Hers was still stuck on a snowy street, where a cascade of unfortunate events began.
She’d woken up that morning on a stranger’s couch under a tartan blanket with a pounding headache. It took a solid minute to remember how the hell she’d gotten there. Far less time to hightail it out once she remembered the Kiss a Ginger Guy.
She’d think about that all later.
She pointed at her computer. “Hey, you ever been to the Palm?”
“The restaurant? Yeah. Overpriced.”
Roger’s weekly expense report might be right then.
Patty leaned down closer. “Did you get a load of the Jamie Fraser that walked in this morning?”
Patty had three categories for men when she was interested in them. Dark-haired men were Zac Efron’s, Blonds were Daniel Craigs—“the young one”—and redheads were naturally Jamie Frasers. “The rarest unicorn of them all,” she’d sighed dramatically over margaritas one night.
Alice spun her chair around. “Thought you were going to make babies with the Zac Efron in the C suite?” Jerry Maxwell, the vice president of the manufacturing division, was cute with great hair—except he knew it.
“Not since I found out he still lives with his mother because he’s worried about their eighteen parrots. How they might miss him. Apparently, parrots bond with their humans. The Jamie I’m referring does not have parrots.” Her eyes grew distant. “He looks more like the he has Scottish terriers or Westies.”
Patty always did have an active imagination.
Alice spit a stray strand of hair out of her face. She didn’t have time to wash it this morning. Thank God for dry shampoo. “I made it a point not to see anyone this morning.”
After discovering her car was going nowhere, it took her twenty minutes to hail a cab, another forty minutes to get home and get changed. It was a miracle she was only an hour late to work. The snow would be a good excuse if anyone asked.
They wouldn’t. They knew who raked over through their expense reports with an eagle eye.
Patty pushed off the desk. “Well, I heard this guy is new. How do I look? Good enough for Jamie?” She ran her hands down her pencil skirt then adjusted her sparkly blue-framed glasses.
“Very sexy librarian. He’d be lucky as sin to nail you behind the historical romance section.” She grabbed her portfolio and a pen. “Come on. Monday staff meeting starts in two.”
“Oh, shit. I want the chair next to the back, the one with not-heinous lighting.”
When they entered the conference room, six other Edison Tech employees were seated around the large walnut table including Tricia and Stephanie who threw her yet another condescending glance. Great, they still thought she was heartbroken over Roger and her being Miss December. As far as she cared, Roger could have a woman for every month, national holiday and even the made up holidays. Like National Bobblehead Day.
Ginger Guy last night surely had made up that one.
“Good morning, team.” Roger rushed through the glass doors, clapped his hands together, rubbed them as if kindling firewood and took his place at the head of the table. He didn’t sit. “I hope everyone is well rested from the weekend. Good. Now let’s talk about this new year.”
“Let’s not,” mumbled Harry from marketing as he scrambled to take the vacant chair next to Alice. Patty sat on her other side.
Roger beamed over at everyone. He was entirely too happy this morning. Probably because he’d identified Miss January already. The way that petite blond, new to the management team, was gazing up at him, Alice would bet her life savings, he had.
Roger leaned down, knuckles on the table. “A new year means new beginnings. I’m not going to beat around the bushel here. We’re starting with assessing the team. Edison Tech hired a management firm to conduct a thorough evaluation of performance, redundancy and inefficiencies.”
A visible groan filled the room. Roger’s smile thinned. “Now, now. I know what you’re thinking. You are all valuable and this is merely to ensure everyone is giving their best work, headed to their best future for themselves and this company.” He knocked on the table once.
Harry leaned over. “He means protecting his future bonuses.”
Alice gave him a grimace in solidarity.
Roger wasn’t through, however. “We’re starting from the rump up.”
Alice stifled a laugh. No one else held back, though. Snickers filled the room. Roger was constantly mixing up words and getting metaphors wrong.
What did she every see in this guy?
“I know whose rump I’d like to start with,” Harry whispered as he eyed Patty. He was fully bald in a sexy Rock-kind of way, and quite handsome. But Patty had a real thing for hair.
Roger theatrically swept his arm toward the conference room door. “Everyone, I’d like to introduce you to Theodore Gaston.”
Blood pounded in Alice’s ears, her neck, her head. The red-headed guy from last night’s snowmageddon walked through the door in a charcoal gray suit and blue tie. No way.
Patty almost audibly squealed and sat up straighter. Alice wanted to shrink into the upholstery of her chair.
Roger held out a handshake to Theodore. “Good to see you again.” He turned to the staff. “Many of you met him last night but given it was my birthday…”
Jesus, keep reminding us already.
“…I told him to stick to just getting to know you. No work talk.”
Theodore wrested his hand free, nodded once, and then scanned the room. Alice did her level best to hide behind Patty but since her friend was thin as a pencil, Theodore easily caught her gaze.
One side of his mouth lifted. The man was amused? She dipped her chin, assessed her manicure. God, she hated her life.
“Thank you, Mr. Rubenstein. Good day, Edison Tech,” he said in a far deeper voice than she recalled.
And Mr. Rubenstein? No one called Roger that.
A chorus of “hi’s” and “hello’s” sounded, mostly female. She risked a glance up. He still stared at her.
“As Mr. Rubenstein stated, I’m Theodore Gaston. And I want to start out by saying, I know I’m not your favorite person already.”
A few titters sounded.
Theodore began to walk around the conference table. “Mr. Rubenstein thought it best to keep everyone out of the loop until it was time.”
Oh, they’d been out of the loop alright. Though last night, she almost had been very, very much in the loop – the naked one.
“I’m not here to make your life miserable.” He stopped, stared at her once more. “I’m here to make it better.”
A few of the sales guys visibly shifted, uncomfortable. They were always the first to get put on the chopping block.
Theodore resumed his walk. “Now I’d like to set up appointments with each of you. Just a deeper, get-to-know-you meeting. No preparation needed.”
Three hands went up. All female again. Shocker. Because Theodore was a hottie now that she really looked at him.
He didn’t look like he only got 5 hours of sleep and drank too much. Oh, crap. She did, didn’t she? She hadn’t even put on make-up this morning, thinking it’d be an ordinary day of her computer screen seeing more of her than anything or anyone else.
Why should she care? Maybe because her entire future was at stake here.
She’d heard rumors that the higher-ups weren’t happy with the way things were going. Sales were down. Marketing costs were up. She never though they’d bring someone in to assess the entire staff, however. More like assess Roger. He’s the one who dictated everything down to when the plants were watered.
Theodore pointed at Tricia whose hand nearly touched the ceiling. “Yes, Miss…”
“Brown. Tricia Brown from HR.” The woman beamed at him, a huge grin on her face. “It was good to meet you last night, Mr. Gaston… Given I work in HR, perhaps I could help you navigate the team?”
By the way she eyed him, she’d like to navigate him alright. Straight into those very expensive-looking trousers. The suit was nice, cut well…
“Please, call me Theodore.” He almost circled to her side of the table now. “We’re going to do the interviews randomly. I think starting with…”
He looked over to her, which sent highly-inappropriate tingles down her whole body.
He moved to where she sat. “Miss Crawford? You’re in accounting, correct?”
Oh, really? “Correct. And it’s Alice. As you know.” She did not smile.
“Alice. I heard you had a bit of car trouble last night. Everything sorted?” he asked in that lilting British accent. His blue eyes sparkled. He was enjoying this.
“Sorted,” she said sharply. All eyes were on them now.
Everyone’s phones pinged and vibrated in the room.
“Right on time,” he said. “Meeting requests should have landed in your inbox right then.”
Everyone, including Alice, lifted their phones to see a calendar request showing their time slot with Theodore. Chit-Chat with Theodore, it read. Ridiculous.
Tricia’s mouth twisted, clearly unhappy with her time slot.
Harry waved his phone. “And if we have a conflict? Have to move it?”
Roger held up his hand “There is no greater priority than this.”
Theodore had finally moved out of her space, made his way to the head of the table. “If you have an emergency or really need to change your time, just let me know.”
Roger’s face fell, his eyes darkening a little. She recognized that look. One-upping the guy who is writing his management fee checks? Not very smart.
Theodore didn’t seem to notice what he’d just done. Just stood there in his beautifully cut suit, smiling, basking in the gaze of every person around the table.
She didn’t recall him being arrogant last night. He was fun.
But he also wasn’t honest with her. Time to remind him he should tread carefully in case he got any notions of yielding power over her. What he’d done last night had to have broken some ethical rules somewhere.
She cleared her throat, raised her hand.
Theodore pointed at her. “Oh, no need to do that. Just ask away,”
“Just Theodore is fine.”
The women gave each other sidelong glances, like secret messages being handed in 7th grade. Every single one of them was already into him. By the look of confidence on his face, he was probably used to this kind of attention.
Alice laid a hand delicately on her breastbone. “Don’t you mean Theodore Gaston the Fourth?”
Patty gasped a little. “Is he famous or something?” she whispered out of the side of her mouth. “Dibs on him.”
A lazy smile broke out on his face. “So my mum and dad say. You have a question?”
“I have a conflict.” Alice laid her phone face down on the table. “I can’t make it at 11.” Or ever.
“No problem. We’ll talk right after this meeting.”
Roger looked at him and then at her. “Excellent. Now, meeting adjourned. Have a…”
She didn’t hear the rest of his words. She was out of her chair like a shot and left the conference room from the back exit. She hightailed it back to her office, closed the door.
Think. Think. Think.
A knock on her door sounded. She didn’t need to open the door to know it was him.
A muffled male voice chuckled on the other side of the door. “Didn’t take you for someone who ran away.”
Before she could think, she yanked the door open. “You have some nerve…”
She walked backwards as he advanced on her. Closed the door behind him.
No words came to her mind. It was because he was too close. He smelled good, which is not something she normally thought about with men.
“About last night,” he said.
She crossed her arms. “It was highly unethical of you.”
“Luring me to your place. Kissing me.”
“It was Kiss a Ginger Day,” he said under his lashes. “And for the record, you jumped me.”
She gasped, dropped her arms. “I did not.”
“Oh, yes, you did. Climbed right aboard.” He pointed to his crotch. “Straddled my goods. In fact, I feel incredibly used.” He batted his eyelashes up at the ceiling.
She wanted to smack that smirk off his face. She settled for slapping his pec. Oh, hard muscle. She quickly brought her hand back, clasped to her belly. “I could get you fired.”
He chuckled. “You could. Then again, I did help you find your car.”
“Ah, but you didn’t help me push it out.” Jamie Frasier would have.
“And mess up my chances to spend more time with you? Not on your life.”
“You think you had a chance? Not on your life.” The nerve of this guy. Like she’d be interested in him after hiding who he really was? She circled to the safety of her desk, putting it between Theodore and herself. “You should have told me last night what you did for a living.”
He shoved his hands into his pockets. “I didn’t lie to you last night.”
“You didn’t tell the truth either.” A realization hit her. “You were spying last night.” Crap, and fuzzy memories swam up to the surface where she did launch herself at him last night.
“I was an observer. You can tell a lot about how happy people are by observing their social interactions.” His gaze raked over her. “You were quite friendly.”
She pointed at him. “See? Unethical.” If this guy thought he could blackmail her because they’d had an interaction, he was smoking something.
“That’s not what I meant. I mean, you were friendly…” he scrubbed his hair. “Listen. I enjoyed getting to know you. Nothing ultimately happened and—”
“And that’s the way it’s staying.” She nodded her chin sharply. Period. End of statement. “We will be strictly business. I’m very serious about my job.”
He rocked back on his heels, peered down at her with those sparkly blue eyes. “Good.” He kept studying her.
“You’re pretty. Especially when pissed.”
Did this guy have any boundaries? “Go charm one of your admirers out there.” She waved her hand to her door and hallway beyond. She sent a hand to her stomach, feeling a little queasy.
“Admirers already? I’ve been in the building for less than hour. But I see what’s happening here.”
Nothing was happening here. “Oh, really?”
“Playing hard to get.” He tapped a finger on his lips. “I like it. A woman like you should.”
“Theodore.” She said slowly, putting her palms together.
He leaned closer, bringing his woodsy scent closer to her. “Alice.”
She blinked. She forgot what she was going to say. It was because she was hungover and sleep-deprived. That’s all.
“Did you get your car unstuck?” he asked. “I thought I saw it this morning on Porter.”
“You live on Ordway.”
He cocked his head back and forth. “I went and checked on it.”
Oh. That was nice of him. “Uh, thanks. Not sure it’s still there. Probably towed by now.” Which was yet another problem she was going to have to solve.
“You left your car to make sure you got to work? Dedicated.”
His face grew serious. “There’s nothing about you that’s stupid.”
“Oh?” She waved both hands up and down. “Straddling your goods last night? That was—”
“Highlight of my life.”
She crossed her arms, all anger melted away. “Well then you need to get a better life.” Her hands slapped to her sides. “Is this part of the interview? Talking like this about goods straddling, my car.”
He peered around her desk at her feet. “You going to retrieve it in those heels? Shame to kill another pair.”
“Maybe. Yes. I don’t know.” Her head was pounding anew. She waved her hand at him. “I need coffee.” And maybe a new job.
She rounded her desk, yanked open her door. Tricia, Stephanie, and Patty jerked upright. They’d been listening.
Patty gave her a weak wave, Stephanie giggled, and Tricia adopted her disapproving frown. “We were just seeing if Alice was free for lunch,” Patty said.
“Sadly not,” Theodore answered for her. “We have a lunch. Our first interview.”
“Ooo, a date,” mouthed Patty at her and slowly nodded.
Roger came up behind them. “Ladies. Call a meeting or something?” He always hated it when the women gathered, probably because he didn’t want any of them to compare notes on him.
Tricia slowly turned toward him, her grimace. “Seems Alice and Theodore are having a date.”
Alice almost corrected her, because no way was she going on a date with Kiss a Ginger guy. But then Roger stepped closer. “Date? Is that appropriate?”
Nothing about the last twenty-four hours had been inappropriate. But, even if Roger was her boss, she’d be damned if she’d think he could pull that stunt. The guy dated half the office. If anyone was wrong, it was him.
You know what? It would help to have a guy with her if she had to go to a place where they towed cars. They were usually located in not the safest areas of DC.
She swiveled her head to gaze at Theodore. “You ever been to the Palm? I hear it’s a great place for a job-related lunch.” She then looked right at Roger who flushed red with anger.
When she got back, she was going to take a closer look at his expense reports. After she got her car, of course, and had a serious talk with Theodore about boundaries.
“No, I haven’t,” Theodore said. “Lead the way.” He gestured for her to bypass the crowd.
She did and marched straight to the elevator. She wasn’t feeling great so maybe a little food would help. That’s what she told herself anyway.
The door opened immediately. She stepped inside, leaned against the railing feeling a little dizzy. Theodore followed her inside and the doors shut them inside together—and alone.
He immediately stepped closer, bringing his scent into her space again. “You sure you want to go to the Palm?”
His eyes really were otherworldly blue. And he smelled really good.
“No, I don’t, I’d like to…” Her words were stopped because, his arm circled her waist and yanked her flush to him. Oh, strong. He brought his face closer to hers. He also had nice lips.
“I do, huh?”
She said that aloud? And then she promptly fainted in his arms.