Authors: Elisabeth Staab
Tags: #enemies to lovers, #boardroom romance, #contemporary, #romance, #contemporary romance, #office romance, #series romance, #workplace
“Thanks, honey. I don’t want to have to go home and grovel to those assholes.”
“Believe me, I can understand.” Put Elise on any therapist’s couch and as soon as her parents came up, the dollar signs would flash brightly enough to be seen from space. She certainly didn’t begrudge Jeff his family baggage.
Jeff stared morosely at his coffee for a moment, then he straightened in his chair. “Okay, change of subject.” His face brightened. “What’s up with you and Kenneth Cole?”
He gave her a look. “Don’t make me beat it out of you. The one who looked so very interested in the fact that your birthday is this weekend.”
“He was only being nice. He’s not interested. It’s nothing.”
“Then how come you’re blushing?”
He sucked in a dramatic breath and pointed at her as if she’d gotten caught with her skirt tucked into her underwear. “That’s the guy! The one who kissed you and you got all hung up on him and then he screwed you out of a job and you said you hoped you wouldn’t have to run into him if you came back to work here,
“Shh.” She looked around, careful that nobody she recognized from HaleStorm was in the small coffee shop.
“Come on.” He quickly packed up their stuff and took her hand in his. They walked out into the shopping center, all lit up elegantly with lights around all the stores, and wreaths hanging from each of the light posts. They huddled closer to each other when they left the warmth of the coffee shop. “Look around.”
She gave him a curious stare.
“Tomorrow is Thanksgiving, which of course means that everything is decked out for Christmas.” He poked her in the ribs. “You’re supposed to laugh.”
She managed a smile. “Sorry. Stressed.”
“You’re always stressed.”
She managed a smile. “I know.”
He shrugged back into his coat. “My point is, this is a beautiful time of year. It’s all about joy and remembering what we’re grateful for. I know you’ve got some big important project or whatever but....” He placed their cups on a nearby table and faced her, taking both hands in his. “Life isn’t all about how hard you work, babe.”
Her breath puffed into the air, and for a moment unexpected tears burned her eyes. The echo of old voices—her mother’s, her exes, all the people who’d called her stupid fought to be heard inside of her head. “I know,” she affirmed.
But it’s the only thing I know I can count on.
He leaned forward, placing a chaste kiss on her forehead. “No you don’t,” he said. “And that’s the problem.”
She thought back to the night before, when she’d allowed Michael to shampoo her hair. She’d relaxed into his arms and let the suds wash over her body, and for a few minutes she truly had let the rest of her fears go. “I’m working on it,” she said finally.
Jeff nudged Elise’s shoulder. “He’s hot, by the way. He was also looking at you like he’d appreciate having you to unwrap this holiday season.”
An unexpected chuckle burst out of her. “Well you’ve got the first part right, anyway.”
Cue a dramatic eye roll from Jeff. “You didn’t look so unhappy to see him, either. Have we forgiven him his egregious transgressions, then?”
Elise inhaled deeply, her body heating in spite of the cold, November air. She looked up into Jeff’s concerned face. “I guess. Yes? I still feel a little confused, but he explained things. Part of me is nervous about trusting but I have to tell you, everything I felt five years ago came back a hundred times stronger the day I walked back into that building. I didn’t know what to do except go with it.”
And hope to hell it didn’t bite her in the ass.
om threw a file on Michael’s desk. “What is it about holidays that always bring insanity out of the woodwork?”
Michael raised his eyebrows. “Grocery stores are already stocking eggnog?”
Tom pointed to the file. “For some strange reason, Microstrive made a bid for our CRI project out of nowhere.”
“Interesting.” Michael curled his fingers around his pen, breathing slowly to absorb the news.
Tom sat across from the desk. “You don’t sound concerned.”
“Oh, damn right I’m concerned. I’m wondering what would possess them to suddenly try to snake a project we’ve been doing requirements gathering on for months. Did another RFP go out?”
“No requests for proposals have been sent that I can find, unless they were sent privately.” Tom stood again, pacing the length of the office. “This seems off. We’re not in production yet. We’re not over budget. No complaints have been lodged. The project has been moving along fine.”
Michael slid the file over and opened it up, reading off the proposal from his primary competitor. Microstrive was still a young company, started up the year Michael graduated from Tech. The owner struck him as arrogant, cocky, and willing to do anything to win. Even....
“This is a lowball offer.”
Tom stopped mid-pace. “I noticed. Way too low. We’ve taken a loss to win a bid before, but that amount is ridiculous.”
Michael tapped the page. “They want us to match this?”
Tom shook his head. “They haven’t asked.”
“So where did you get this?”
“They wanted us to know they’re dropping the contract.”
For a cheaper offer that conveniently came unsolicited from nowhere. “Dammit.” Michael’s eyelids grew heavy with the weight of the news and his own exhaustion.
Fuck, he needed a good night’s rest. Those few amazing hours wrapped up in a warm bed next to Elise had been the first decent stretch of sleep he’d had since his father’s health took a turn. The mere memory relaxed his shoulders. Still, showing his body what he’d been missing only made him crave more. More of Elise. More everything.
“You doing okay?” Tom tipped his head to the side.
Michael straightened, tapping his fingers on the edge of his desk. “Well. I have a client threatening to cancel a contract in a few short days over missing security documents and another that just pulled the plug over a lower competing offer. Almost a million in next year’s revenue between the two. You tell me.”
Tom whistled quietly.
“Okay. Do me a favor, please.” Michael rubbed at a throb in his right temple. “Check the contract for this deal, see if there’s a way to work this out before they bail. My father used to put thirty days’ notice in there or something. I don’t know how on-the-ball your predecessor was. Also, find out who’s in charge of sales over there, I need to set up a meeting. If you have to, go one level higher.”
Tom pointed a finger. “You need to get a secretary.”
Michael shook his head. He’d had to fire his father’s secretary. “This is a call better made by senior management. Anyway, I’m leery of hiring a new secretary. I know I have to eventually, but it’s like worrying about a hangnail when we’re dodging bullets. Frankly, given the number of people who were screwing Dad over I don’t know how this place stayed afloat.”
“Unfortunately, corruption happens high up in companies sometimes. Absolute power and all that jazz.”
Michael shook his head, looking at the bid again. He flicked his finger at the paper in front of him. “Hmm. I wonder if it’s a loss-leader.”
Tom stepped forward. “I’m sorry?”
“Like when the grocery store marks one product down to almost nothing and puts it on the front of the sale flier so you’ll come in and buy a ton of other shit.”
Tom smiled slightly. “Michael Hale, bargain shopper?”
“Quiet, you.” He squinted, willing his brain to cough up more puzzle pieces. “Do me a favor and see if you can find any other projects for the same agency Microstrive might have bid on. Maybe they’re trying to roll this one into the deal.”
Tom rapped his knuckles on the doorframe. “Will do. Oh.” He turned back. “Elise came looking for you earlier. I think I answered her questions, but I’m letting you know to be certain. Also, Becca came in pretending to be concerned about your mental state.”
“Shit.” Michael clunked his head on the back of his chair. “What did Becca say?”
“You might not be making good decisions now, blah, blah. I gave her a friendly ear and sent her away. Told her to sign the papers and move on.”
“Great.” Mike shook his head. “God willing, she listened this time. Thanks for your help, man.”
Michael was halfway to the conference room to find Elise when he remembered she’d been on her way to have coffee with her friend when he last saw her. He pressed down the burst of irritation and disquiet that reared its ugly head. She probably wouldn’t be back yet, but her confident presence would be appreciated right now.
Instead of tracking down Elise, he pulled out his phone to determine himself who he could meet with at Microstrive. He would not lie down and let someone steal his company’s hard-earned work.
n Elise’s walk back from having coffee, snow began to fall in those fat flakes that loved to get all up in her hair. She ducked into HaleStorm’s lobby bathroom to get herself together, renewed by her break with Jeff. Hopeful.
Tomorrow the building would empty for Thanksgiving. As far as she knew Michael had no plans to leave town, which could prove tricky. A little distance might have saved them both from things being uncomfortable. They’d agreed to leave their one night together as only that, and the trouble was Elise had found herself revisiting the experience over and over throughout the day. Harder to forget Michael’s hands on her in the light of day than she’d convinced herself it would be the night before. Hard not to look at him and remember all the heat between them.
She hoped nobody noticed.
On the upside, she’d completed more than half the work, and now a long holiday weekend lay ahead. She’d hunker down in peace with or without Michael here to help, hand over everything he needed to present to the client, and be out the door.
Walking away might sting a little, but she’d do it with her dignity still intact. This time.
Elise was about to exit the bathroom stall when the outer door creaked and the crack of stilettos marched across the floor. “Supposedly he was in meetings. I’m still his wife, you’d think he’d have the time to step out to speak to me, you know? Take a break, you’re in charge of the company for fuck’s sake.” Something like a sniff and a rustling of paper towels. “Yeah. I waited around in HR for awhile, but they suggested I try back later.”
Elise stopped with her hand on the door latch. Was that...? She moved to peer through the door. It was. Michael’s ex. Damn. Damn, damn, damn. She put her hand over her mouth. What the hell should she do? Leave? Eavesdrop? Okay, she should leave.
The sink turned on. “Yeah, he gave me the papers. I haven’t signed.” A pause. Heavy breathing. “I don’t know. I’ll come up with something.”
Holy shit! What did that mean?
Elise flushed the toilet for the sake of a sporting warning, waited a few seconds, and opened the door. She walked out and washed her hands, pretending no notice of the Burberry clad snake-lady standing at the sink next to her.
Elise couldn’t be sure, but that bit of conversation sounded awfully mercenary. Did Michael have any idea that this woman was scheming behind his back? Was this kind of thing why they were getting divorced? Elise found herself wanting to do some very un-classy things to this lady’s eyes with a roller ball pen.
Snake-lady spoke first. “You were in my husband’s office earlier.”
. God. Elise’s neck muscles went painfully rigid. Had she been a cat her tail would have gone all puffy at those two little words. “I’m working on a contract project for him. I needed some information before I’m gone next week.” Those last four little words felt important to say.
I’m not a threat to you, I’m merely a lowly contractor, and I won’t blab to Michael about what I just heard.
Would she though? Should she? On one hand, Elise owed it to Michael to let him know his soon-to-be ex appeared to have something up her designer sleeve, and intended
to be his soon-to-be ex after all. On the other hand, in light of last night’s horizontal events, such warnings coming from Elise could come across as having an ulterior motive—vindictive or needy maybe—and that was the last way Elise wanted Michael to think of her.
Had she misunderstood something? Maybe Michael wanted to work things out with his ex after all. She didn’t think so, but she could have heard what she wanted to.
Elise grabbed for a paper towel, anxious to get away from the current scenario. Burberry Lady dabbed at her eyes and had that painful expression women got when they might burst into tears at any moment.
Okay, time to blow this keg stand. Elise could not be party to comforting the wife of the man she’d wanted since college.
Then the sputtering started. The tears. Oh, hell. Elise moved quickly to grab a hunk of toilet paper from the stall. “Here.”
She grabbed her purse and tried to escape with a sympathetic smile and a nod, but the not-yet-former Mrs. Hale turned to her with wet eyes. “It’s hard being with such a powerful man, you know?”
Elise froze, about two-thirds of the way to the door. So close. “I’m sure it must be.” Staying
from Michael was the hard part.
Sniffles now. “He comes home late. Some nights not at all. All the stress. The yelling and screaming.” She blew her nose daintily and folded the tissue. “Oh, I know I could have been better. God knows I made mistakes, but I tried. And he could be so demanding. You know?”
Elise coughed. She sort of had an idea about the demanding part. Just maybe in a naughtier way than Lady Stiletto meant.
She took a lap through her mental history of working for Michael the summer of her internship. He’d so been friendly and warm, which was probably the reason Elise found it hard to stop her growing attraction. She couldn’t imagine him yelling and screaming. “I’m not sure I’d want to stay with a man like that,” she muttered. Truly.
The Mrs. Almost Ex looked up, smiling sadly at Elise. “I’m so sorry. TMI, I’m sure.”
Elise’s tried to manage a smile, pulling her bag higher onto her shoulder. “I’m very sorry.” That much certainly was true. “Good luck.” With that, she pushed through the door and headed for the elevators, chewing on the most uncomfortable conversation she’d ever had.