Authors: Maggie Wells
He refused to buy a pair for himself. Didn’t matter if the glasses helped him see that what he thought was a lower case ‘g’ was actually a ‘q’. Who the fuck uses ‘Iz’ in their password, anyway?
Greg Stark, that’s who. The guy was a freak for the details. He loved the kind of minutiae that made Will want to weep like a little girl. That was what made him a great partner. It also made him a fairly decent friend. Not that Will was one for saying as much out loud. They didn’t have that kind of relationship. But whether mushy words were spoken or not, their friendship had spanned the better part of four decades, so things seemed to be working.
Satisfied that the system was booting at last, Will turned and pushed the button on the single-cup coffee maker and strolled over to look out the window. He smirked as he watched some guy in a battered Saab nose and bump his way into a too-tight parking spot and decided he’d take a cab downtown rather than drive. Thank God Greg had insisted on rebuilding the dilapidated off-alley garage. It was much easier to play the parking game with a tiny import than a half-ton pickup truck.
The thought of another week stuck in the office was enough to make him crawl the walls, but he did like the space they’d carved out. The presently deserted reception area was once the tiny living room where he and Greg ate sugar cookies while they played with little green army men for hours. This office was once their dining room, and the barely-used office he called his own was once a bedroom. And though walls had been knocked down and the ancient linoleum floors ripped out, the place still held the warmth of friendship and good memories.
Converting the duplex Greg’s grandparents left him was one of the first projects they’d worked on together. At the time, Greg was still toiling for one of the big architectural firms downtown, and Will was site manager for old Bobby Mason’s construction company. In those days, young Bobby was fresh out of his stint in rehab and just starting to stick his nose into the business. They’d spent six weeks of evenings and weekends tearing the place down and building it back up, talking smack about striking out of their own, all the jobs they’d steal from the big guys, and the money they’d have. Not that they could just strike out on their own. Greg had been married with a young son, and he’d been living a life with a new woman every week with absolutely no thought or concern for anything as predictable as a tomorrow.
They’d just rented both sides of the duplex when Bobby Sr. passed away from a massive coronary and all hell broke loose.
Out from under his father’s thumb, Junior took over the business. With a vengeance. He’d fired Will within a week, but that wasn’t much of a surprise to anyone as they’d never gotten along. But a few months of sporadic unemployment ended up being nothing compared to the frustration of watching a guy take everything his old man had worked for all his life and flush it down the drain. Or snort it up his nose.
Will had found another job with another outfit, but this time he paid more attention when Greg rambled on about investments and savings. Using his childhood home as collateral, he secured loans through small business assistance programs and the local bank. The day before Mason Construction closed its office doors, he’d offered Junior’s wife cash for the equipment. Smart woman that she was, she took it, knowing he was paying more than she’d get at auction. Two years later, Greg took the leap and Tarrant and Stark Building and Design was born.
Will waved as their neighbor, Mrs. Walker, bustled past, dragging her battered two-wheeler behind her. The old woman’s trips to Taylor’s Market could be charted like the stars. Her routine hadn’t altered since he was a bag boy there. First, she’d disparage the selection in the bakery, then, she’d badger poor Mattie at the butcher counter into cutting and re-cutting her single chop until he’d achieved pork perfection. Once she laid waste to the snack aisle, she’d park herself at the register where she’d tussle with Mr. Taylor over the price of every can of beans and leaf of lettuce while plucking cheese curls from an open bag and eating them one by one. In the end, she’d pay the extra dollars for the fancy cat food because her cat, Purrsilla, showed a marked preference for it over the cheaper brands.
Like a lovesick teenager, Will had spent the last two days skulking around the neighborhood and checking for Betty nearly everywhere he went. The Pump wasn’t exactly a tourist trap. The fact that she’d walked into the gin joint of his choice meant she had to live nearby. And as big as Chicago could be, the neighborhood was very small. Which was why he couldn’t ask about her outright. Any questions would certainly be noted, reported, and dissected over coffee cake from Harter’s Bakery.
With Greg’s wedding fresh in everyone’s mind, they’d be primed and pumped to relieve Will of his freedom. The past few months had been like reliving his twenties and thirties all over again. The minute Greg fell for Josie, every match-making mama with a divorcée daughter decided Will was ripe for reappraisal. Those few years when they’d written him off as irredeemable had flown by so quickly. One little wedding, and decades of ruthlessly flaunted bachelorhood were forgotten. His good buddy’s relentless need for home and hearth had put him squarely back on the block.
Thankfully, what happened at The Pump didn’t count. Bar behavior and bad behavior were expected. He didn’t earn his reputation as the neighborhood womanizer overnight. No, he’d notched every notch, leaving his lady friends satisfied, if not a little bewildered by his quick escapes. And he was careful. So damn careful. He hadn’t slept with a neighborhood girl in two decades. Hadn’t let himself be roped into anything remotely resembling a ‘plus one’ situation in nearly that long. He didn’t talk about the women he dated, and he never, ever brought them back to his place. One whisper of interest stretching beyond the bedroom and the banns would be published in the next church bulletin. Thanks to Sister Laurent, no doubt.
The coffee maker beeped just as the outer door to the office opened. The cavalry had arrived. He hoped this temp could at least work the phones.
Something in the woman’s tone made the fine hairs on the back of his neck ripple, but he dismissed it as a symptom of caffeine withdrawal. Needing to prove, if only to himself, that his priorities were in line, Will turned his back on the computer. He’d choose coffee. Every time.
“I hope you know how to work these programs,” he called over his shoulder. “The one they sent the other day barely knew how to turn the damn computer on.”
“I’m familiar with most business applications.”
The woman’s soft drawl climbed his spine like a vine. Gripping the handle on a coffee mug that proclaimed him to be a pothead, he straightened but kept his back to her as he administered the test he’d developed to pre-screen candidates before allowing his hopes to enter into the equation.
“Can you spell cat without using any numbers?”
“Last I checked, it was only C, A, and T.” She waited a beat before asking, “Is that it? Did I pass the test? Do I get the job? I have to say, you might wanna consider raising your standards just a teensy bit.”
The amusement in her tone was too much. He turned. Slowly. The last thing he wanted to do was startle her into running. He watched her smile fade and her eyes widen. Big, beautiful, and blue eyes flecked with a surprising amount of green. They were also cooling by the second.
He forced a smile, but it felt like a wince. She looked gorgeous. The wild waves of sunshine-colored hair were tamed into a smooth coil at her nape. She wore pink lipstick, but it was nowhere near the shade of her hideous coat, which, thankfully, was out of sight. Thank God Mother Nature received the memo on the calendar change. The jacket of her neat suit nipped in at her waist and flared over slim hips. She clutched a leather portfolio to her chest like a shield.
“Hello, Betty. Funny meeting you here.”
She bit down on her bottom lip, and he almost snapped the handle from the coffee cup. He wanted to bite it, too. Hard. Then lick it until she begged for more. Knowing she probably wouldn’t welcome such an assault, he chanced a tiny sip from the steaming mug. He needed it. Bad.
“So, uh….” he peered at her over the rim of the thick ceramic, “…yeah. You’re hired.”
* * * *
Heat—searing, painful, nuclear meltdown heat—flooded every millimeter of Betty’s skin. She wanted to press her hands to her flaming ears, but she couldn’t move. The wicked gleam in Will’s dark eyes paralyzed her. Shock turned her feet to clay. “You?”
He cocked his head, that lopsided smile spreading like lava. “I’d be the T in T-A-S,” he explained. “Will Tarrant.”
The last bit he added with an extra-helpful nod. As if she’d need reminding.
Did he think she engaged in heavy petting with every man she met in a bar?
Oh, my God.
This man’s hand had been in her pants. She glanced at the door, then Will, then gave in to the urge to scan the room for cameras. This had to be a set-up of some kind. What were the odds of walking into her first-ever temp job and finding this man? How was that possible in a city this size? She spotted nothing more than a few potted plants gasping for life, a dust-covered desk she assumed she was meant to occupy, and…this man. Will of the wicked smile, hot kisses, and stolen caresses that made her feel positively wanton. But no cameras. No possible reason why their paths might cross again. Well, no reason other than the one he’d so cheerfully latched onto in the bar the other night.
“It really must be Fate.”
Closing her eyes, Betty shook her head in fierce denial. “This is not possible. You should not be here.”
His nostrils flared and his mouth twitched. She can tell he was fighting back a smile, and that only added fuel to her fire. She opened her mouth to speak, then promptly closed it. What the hell was one supposed to say in this situation?
“There are articles of incorporation with my name on them around here somewhere,” he said blandly. “But we can sort all of that stuff out later. I have more urgent needs at the moment.”
Mortification washed over her. It was one thing to come face to face with a questionable choice. It was another thing entirely when that choice held all the cards. A fairly irrational but utterly feminine spark of indignation flared. She stared down her nose at him with exactly the same double dose of disdain her mama used to use on her daddy. “Is this some kind of revenge? Did you arrange this little…unhappy circumstance?”
He blinked. “Unhappy circumstance? I’m very happy to see you.”
The simple declaration went a long way toward squelching her indignation, but not quite far enough. “I don’t appreciate having my time wasted—”
His jaw tensed as he set the coffee mug aside. When he looked up, his dark eyes were as cold as obsidian. “I don’t appreciate a cock tease, but I can promise you I didn’t arrange anything more than some temporary office help.”
Just like that, the starch went out of her. “I’m sorry. It’s just….” She took a steadying gulp of air. “I don’t do what I did that night.”
much of anything. At least, nothing more than any teenagers do on their parents’ couch.”
True. She knew that was true, but that didn’t make her behavior in the bar any less disconcerting. “We weren’t on a couch. And we’re not teenagers, are we?”
“Thank God,” he said with undue reverence. Those bottomless eyes warmed and a hint of a smile teased the corners of his mouth. “I am happy to see you. You walking in here today saves me a whole lot of embarrassment.”
“I’m glad it saves one of us some.”
Will laughed and gestured for her to take a seat. “I was going to have to shake the grapevine to see what information I could score.”
His obvious pleasure in seeing her was a boost to her equilibrium. At least, that was what she told herself. In truth, he made her feel just as off-balance as he had at the bar, but the sensation wasn’t entirely unpleasant. She’d returned to her tiny apartment that night chilled on the outside but raging fire-hot on the inside. A part of her wanted to thank him for backing her up against that bar and waking something inside her. Something she was afraid might be comatose after all these years. She’d been completely unlike herself that night. And she liked it a little too much.
Eyeing him curiously, she asked, “Information about me?”
“Of course. You took off on me.” The gruff reminder was paired with a piercing glare, but the effect was shattered when that irrepressible smile broke through again. Dropping into the other guest chair, he held his hands out in a gesture of helpless futility. “Just disappeared. One minute I had you, the next you were dashing out the door muttering under your breath like the white rabbit.”
“The white rabbit?” She laughed, wondering if this man with the devilish smile and too sharp eyes could be for real. “You’re not going to invite me to tea, are you?”
“That was the Mad Hatter,” he said, in all seriousness.
“I can’t believe any of this is happening. Maybe I did fall down the rabbit hole.”
His solemn expression melted away. Those dark eyes sparkled. “You’re the rabbit.”
Since she seemed to have ditched all hope of dignity in her dealings with him the minute he’d kissed her senseless, she tried to muster up some good old-fashioned Southern sass. “I’m nobody’s bunny.”
“I’m happy to see you,” he repeated, staring straight into her eyes.
Ducking her head, she broke from his hypnotic gaze. His fingers twitched. This time he followed through with the caress. He tucked her hair behind her ear, the pads of his fingertips lingering as they grazed the tender skin, leaving a sizzling trail of sensation in their wake.
“I knew I should have slept with you when I had the chance.”
He blinked in surprise, then a deep, throaty chuckle wound around her like smoke. He took the leather folder from her hand but otherwise completely ignored it. “I wish you hadn’t bolted on me the other night.”
“I was embarrassed.”
“You were magnificent.” Their gazes locked. “And you can have as many chances as you want.”
“Ah, but now I can’t. You’ve offered me a job.” A rueful laugh escaped her. “Just when you think there’s nothing more awkward than getting caught by a nun making out in a bar with a stranger…I can’t very well risk shagging the boss.”