Roger and Theodore glared at one another like two big horn sheep about to head butt. But she had a car to retrieve and men’s egos would have to take a backseat. Especially one of the big rams having just declared he and Alice were “involved”—what a crock—and the other who’d just kissed her lips until they were bruised.
She carefully took the outstretched flowers. “Thank you for these.” Though now she wondered how the hell he got here so fast. She’d texted him less than ten minutes ago.
“Are you okay, Alice?” Roger looked genuinely concerned. “I heard what happened. I was out at a meeting and came right over.”
Who the hell told him? “Um, Theodore graciously drove me home. I wasn’t feeling well. But he’s about to leave, and I need to go get my car. Then I’ll be back in the office.” Her voice had that fake lilt that she hated.
Technically all of that was true. She left out the part where Theodore was going to go with her to the impound lot.
She turned to Theodore. “You were about to call a rideshare, right?” Then turned to Roger. “See you soon?”
Roger’s chin lifted. “Need a ride back, Theo?”
Theodore bristled. “I have a few errands to run. See you back at Edison.”
Roger nodded once, then eyed Alice. “Take all the time you need, okay?” He then reached over to touch her arm and she bristled. He noticed, his eyes narrowing like he’d been slighted.
Men. But he finally left and she and Theodore were able to head to Galin and Son’s Impound Lot. At least that’s where the 800 number on the road sign said to go if one’s car ever went “missing.”
The Impound Lot was as she’d expected. Cars parked haphazardly inside a fenced-in yard. Chain link fencing standing at least twenty feet high to keep anyone out.
“Note to self. Don’t ever leave my car alone again,” she muttered toward Theodore.
A man in a flannel shirt and down jacket, a cigarette dangling out of one side of his mouth, gruffly puffed out, “That’ll be $675. Cash. ATM over there.” He jerked his head to a gray and black ATM machine wrapped in thick chains that stood to the side of the booth.
“How convenient,” Theodore sniffed.
“Yeah,” the guy’s face split into a grin. “She’s lucky. The Northwest lot ain’t got one.” He appeared quite proud of his little machine. Alice pushed her card in, began to tap the dirty screen. She would have to hose herself down after this field trip.
“She’s so lucky,” Theodore agreed. “I mean, stranded during a snow storm, car unable to move, no one else out and about. But just in case her car was in the way of, oh, I don’t know, a snowmobile that needed a park or Santa’s sleigh, you guys come along and liberate the spot no one in the city needed all for the bargain price of $675 dollars. You must be very proud of the work you do.”
What was this man doing? “Um, Theodore, let’s just go.” She slid the money across to the lot attendant.
His beefy hand immediately snatched it up. “The parking rules are the parking rules, your Royal Highness.” The guy grinned at him, turned away to watch whatever he was watching on his tiny TV screen.
It took them a full twenty minutes to find her car, but it didn’t look any worse for the wear. She cracked open the driver’s side. “Remind me to stay home when it snows again.”
“Still can’t get over he asked for almost $700 with a straight face. Whatever happened to fair warning where they merely leave a ticket on your windshield, adorned with a smiley face?” Theodore climbed into the passenger side.
The man had quite the optimistic streak. “Clearly, you’ve not parked on a snow emergency route. The snow plows take precedence.”
“No chivalry in that.”
Theodore was hung up on that notion for sure. Not that it was a bad thing. For instance, he hadn’t asked about Roger. She’d still have to bring it up. They needed to handle the gossip her boss—or anyone else– might have started back at the office. A few people there, like Tricia, were motormouths.
She clutched the steering wheel with both hands, faced forward and tried to forget the fact she was once again trapped inside a car with Theodore’s scent. He smelled like a man—wool and something else she couldn’t name but really, really wanted to. Even Theodore’s weird obsession with made-up holidays couldn’t dampen the odd pull she had toward him.
She would have got stark buck naked with him in a second if they hadn’t been interrupted. And that’s not something she did often, and certainly never with someone she didn’t know.
Get a grip, Alice. And keep it, she told herself. Their attraction had to be some strange concoction of pheromones. Something scientific, easily explained.
Theodore glanced around. “Let’s have lunch. I could eat a cow. Fair warning, too, we’re going to talk business. Our interview after all, starting with why Roger showed up at your apartment.”
Oh, shit. He was going to force the issue after all. “I have no idea. We had a few dinners together. It was nothing. It was to talk about work but some people have an idea that he thinks it might have been more. But my job performance should not be evaluated on his delusions.”
“If he’s ever taken advantage of his position…”
“No. Pure consent. But ancient history.” She tittered a little. “Meant nothing. All is well. It’s over. Like a minor blip. Like … nothing.” Gah, she was rambling.
“Okay,” he sighed. “You don’t strike me as someone who gets easily bowled over, so I accept your answer.”
He looked over at her, brow furrowed. “Whatever you tell me, I’ll believe.”
His tone was so sincere, she believed him. “Good.” It was time to get down to business. “So, what’s our story going to be?”
“The one we need to tell Patty when we get back after us supposedly having a lunch interview. The one we’re going to make up about us because Roger has likely let it slip that he saw us in my apartment and people will assume we were… you know…” She was so over being considered gossip-worthy.
He nailed it. “Patty can start the counter gossip immediately. We have to neutralize this thing before the end of the day.”
He stared at her, blinking.
“What?” she asked. “This is important.”
He faced the windshield again. “True because I was magnificent. The best you ever had. I’ve ruined you for all other men.”
She choked out a laugh. This man was impossible. “You have it backwards. I am now the benchmark for which you assess all other women. I own your body and soul. Bella Hadid, Scarlett Johansson and Blake Lively could offer to do you at once and you’d refuse.”
“Truth,” he nodded. “But if you throw in Zendaya, I’d have a reconsider.”
She mock-gasped. “You’d cheat? On me?” She slapped her arm against his chest, and he grabbed it. The warmth of his hand sent a sizzle across her skin. Hello, hormones. He looked like he wanted to devour her.
She never felt like this—or talked like she did with him. But something about Theodore felt oddly safe and free at the same time. It had her slip into sexy banter at the drop of a hat. Maybe because his stay was temporary. Despite them saying they’d revisit their inconvenient chemistry “thing” on National BASE Day—whatever the hell that was—she knew the score. He was just a flirt. If they did make it to NBD as she was calling National BAE Day in her head, she’d go on a date with him. Something appropriately neutral. Normal.
He let her slip her arm free. She was driving after all.
“You just can’t stop touching me,” he said. ”But listen, Roger’s not going to say anything. His ego won’t allow admitting you weren’t bowled over by him. Trust me. I’m a guy.”
“I hadn’t noticed.”
He smirked at her remark. “Let me take you to lunch. You can tell me all about what it’s like at Edison Tech. Interview done, and then we go back to the office.”
Maybe she would let him interview her. If nothing else, to assure him her unwise out-of-the-office meetings with Roger had no bearing on her work.
She took him to Mrs. Meacham’s Kitchen, a little cute bistro-set up in Georgetown. They parked in a nearby garage, and given it was 1:45, they easily found a table near the big window overlooking M Street. It was casual and even better no one from the office knew about the place—she hoped.
They ordered lunch. He chose a ham and cheese croissant sandwich and a glass of water, no ice. She went with her usual: an all veggie salad and iced tea.
He tsked when the waitress put down her drink. “Again, the tea abomination continues.”
She pushed the wrapper off the straw. “You don’t have iced tea in England?”
“Wales. And no self-respecting place does. What did those tea leaves ever do to you to be treated so horribly?”
She snickered, dramatically dunked her straw into her iced tea and took a long draw. “Mmmm, iced cold tea.”
“My taste buds are dying as I sit here.” He lifted his water to his lips.
They sat in relative silence, sipping their drinks for a few minutes. His foot bumped hers and a jolt of electricity went through her whole body. They were going to need to talk about business—soon.
Alice put her elbows on the table and her hands on her chin. “Okay, so what do you want to know about my work?”
“Are you any good?”
She laughed. “Of course. But I’m sure all the girls tell you that.”
“You wouldn’t believe it.”
The waitress arrived, put her salad in front of her and his sandwich before Theodore. “Get you folks anything else?” Her eyes remained glued to him.
“We’re good, love. Thank you.” He smiled up at her, and Gloria, as her nametag announced, paused. She gave him a wide smile and flushed.
Women regularly fell at his feet, didn’t they? She wouldn’t. Couldn’t afford to.
She’d always been one to follow the rules, but he seemed to be a rule-breaker. That alone should have had her head for the hills. But it was impossible not to be a little charmed by the guy. There was something about a man with convictions and protective instincts that stirred warmth deep inside her.
She picked up her fork. “How did you get into this job anyway?”
Theodore dramatically snapped his napkin on his lap. “I got my MBA from University of Cambridge. Starting working for a manufacturing firm. Then, a tech firm. Turns out, in both places, I had a knack for ferreting out personnel problems. Discovering inefficiencies.”
“So.” She cleared her throat. “What do you do after you find these inefficiencies?”
“I report them to the higher-ups. They’re the ones who make the decisions about who stays and who goes.”
“And how does that make you feel?” God, she sounded like a psychologist.
He sighed, looking down at his hands. “Honestly? It’s a mixed bag. On the one hand, I feel like I’m doing good work, making things better for everyone. But on the other hand, I know that some of the people I report on are going to lose their jobs. It’s not easy.”
She forked a piece of carrot. “Is this the part where I should feel sorry for you?”
“You think I like being the most hated person in a room? Making people cry?”
She gasped. “You make people cry?”
“Only sometimes.” He waved his sandwich at her, then took a big bite.
“You could stop. Do something else.”
“I like my work. I help companies. Basically go in and show where things aren’t working. The inefficiencies are—”
She held up her hand to stop him. “God, such corporate speak.”
“Spoken by the accountant.” He took another huge bite of his sandwich. The man really was hungry—and entirely wrong about her. The mere thought of using any of that jargon raised her internal temperature a few degrees.
She stabbed at her salad, stuffed lettuce in her mouth not caring what she looked like. She was so sick of management types who didn’t have to actually do the work telling everyone how to get it done better.
“Ya know,” she said between chews. “It seems like the higher someone goes up the career ladder, their ability to see and know what’s real lowers.”
Like Roger. She remembered when he was a project manager. As soon as he was moved into the CEO position, his vague-speak went off the charts and suddenly he didn’t know how to do anything. Tricia, too. She started out as receptionist.
Yet, they all used the same words. Synergies. Inefficiencies. Redundancies. All words to make firing people more palpable. Roger, in particular, had been on a spree lately.
“Okay.” Theodore brushed crumbs off his fingers. “Truth time. I ferret out the lazy people, the toxic ones, the people who make it harder on everyone around them. The people who are nice but don’t really do anything. The people who are paid big money to basically show up to meetings and scroll through their phones while everyone else around them is making problems disappear. I make it possible for those lazy asses’ salaries to be redistributed to those who are doing the work.”
His vehement tone made her sit up. He clearly believed his words.
“It never happens that way, though,” she said.
The man couldn’t be this naïve. “But it doesn’t.”
“It at least has a chance,” he sighed. “Even if it’s hard trying to set things right.”
Furrows formed between his eyes. Pain—that’s what she saw in them. It must be hard to be the bearer of bad news. The need to kiss him again arose—explicably. Her mouth was watering remembering the way he tasted, knowledge she shouldn’t have at all. Snuggling up to a management consultant sent in to assess the staff—assess her? Yet, she hadn’t been able to push off him. In fact, her libido was still on fire around him. Even Roger’s sudden appearance hadn’t dampened a single, ignited hormone.
Get back to business, she reminded herself. “Am I going to lose my job?” She might as well go there. Besides the promised CFO position that Roger kept dangling in front of her had yet to materialize.
“Tell me why you want to keep it.”
She straightened up, feeling a sudden surge of determination. “Because my work at Edison makes a difference. I’ve been working hard to improve the company’s financial records, and I think I’ve made a real impact.”
He leaned back in his chair, studying her. “But that doesn’t tell me why you want this job. What does it do for you?”
She hesitated, unsure how to answer. But his direct gaze urged her to be truthful. “I can make a difference. I have ideas for how we can improve our processes, if someone would just listen.”
“I’m listening.” He picked up his sandwich and and took another huge bite.
She started talking. If they made everyone submit their expense reports electronically with receipts attached, the new financial system she’d been eyeing would reconcile the two. Then, there was the matter of actually investing some of their cash flow instead of just letting it sit in the corporate checking account. That last one was such a no-brainer she was shocked the company had never done it before. But Roger liked things to stay “liquid.”
Theodore listened to her ideas intently, his gaze only breaking now and again to glance down at his rapidly disappearing lunch. He nodded and made little hmming noises as if he was actually taking in what she said. Her mind cleared even more, ideas popping in with gusto.
Like how buying the building that housed Edison Tech, then leasing out unused parking spaces, could raise money that could be reinvested into Research & Development and marketing.
She waved her fork. “R&D and marketing really needed a team building something-or-other because they are at each other’s throats all the time.”
“God, I hate those things.” He chuckled. “Falling backwards into people arms. Rappelling down mountainsides on anchors and carabineers that your colleagues put in. Though I suppose that is one way of getting rid of someone.”
She nearly choked on her iced tea. “I would never let anyone at Edison be in charge of my anchors.”
“Ah, and there’s the truth.” He pointed a finger at her. “The fact you can’t rely on them tells me everything. I can tell you this. I wouldn’t let Roger near my rappelling gear. I’d end up pancaked on the canyon floor.”
“But he hired you.” Roger had to think Theodore was the right man for the job.
“I came highly recommended by the owners. He had no choice. And that was before he heard me kissing you into oblivion. You, moaning out my name.”
She flattened herself against her chair back. “I did not. I distinctly heard Alice… Alice… Oh, Alice.” She fluttered her eyelashes.
“Can’t blame a guy for that. Like I said, your kiss is …” His gaze fell to her mouth.
She was far too interested in him finishing that sentence. My, how they reverted to the flirting so quickly. And so often.
She threw down her napkin. “We need to get back to the office.”
“You took the day off, remember?” His feet slid alongside one of hers, capturing it. She didn’t pull back.
“I feel fine now, and I have a pile of work to do. Grab a cab or something so we arrive separately?”
“The office saw me carry you out.”
Strong arms, his scent, all crashed back to her mind, and heat grew stronger between her thighs. “Don’t remind me.”
“They’re expecting us to go back together. Besides, we have nothing to hide. Right?” He fixed his blue eyes on hers. “At least not until National BAE Day.”
She grasped her bottom lip between her teeth. Ah, their deal to be professionals until June 10.
“What is National BAE Day anyway?” she asked.
“BAE stands for ‘before anyone else.’ So, that day is an opportunity to show your lover they are truly number one in your life.”
“Oh.” Being number one. What’s that like? “You celebrate every year?”
“Never have. Been wanting to, though.”
Doesn’t everyone want to find their one and only love? “It would be… nice.”
Another one of his cocky smirks formed on his face. “Nice? Oh, we’d be far better than that, Alice.”
Shit, her panties were wet. “How do you know? This could be just pure chemistry. Nothing more.”
“That’s what we’re going to disprove.”
She swallowed. “By waiting until this made-up holiday.”
“Not made up but yeah,” he said quietly.
They were going to have trouble delaying, weren’t they? His foot still captured hers. Her entire body was one giant vat of dancing hormones screaming at her. She had taken the day off. Would be a shame to waste it on something like laundry.
“Can I get you all anything else?” Gloria had magically appeared. She looked to Alice, then to Theodore and then back to Alice again. “Some pie, perhaps? It’s National Pie Day somewhere today.”
Alice sucked in a long breath, her eyes locked on Theodore. He didn’t take his gaze from her face, either. “No, thanks, Gloria. Just the check please.”
As soon as Gloria scooted away, Theodore leaned forward. “Alice. Do you believe in signs?”