Read One Week (HaleStorm) Online

Authors: Elisabeth Staab

Tags: #enemies to lovers, #boardroom romance, #contemporary, #romance, #contemporary romance, #office romance, #series romance, #workplace

One Week (HaleStorm) (2 page)

BOOK: One Week (HaleStorm)
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Michael.

No, Mr. Hale. HaleStorm CEO. She ought to get used to calling him Mr. Hale.

Everything from her lips down went numb and tingly when she laid eyes on the man she’d spent the last five years convincing herself she hated more than hate itself. He looked tall, defined, and handsomely stoic in a charcoal suit and silvery tie. She’d never seen him so formal. Or so disheveled, with his overgrown stubble and hair tousled from the wind. She couldn’t believe he stood in front of her now. The lines and shadows on his face spoke volumes.

“Elise.”

Her lips parted. What should she say?  Do? The movie-style slap she’d fantasized over all this time no longer seemed appropriate. “Michael.”

Good reply, Elise. Smooth.

He cleared his throat. “I’m told you’re here to assist with the security validation issue.” He held out a hand. “Thank you.”

Okay. Formal. She could do formal. “I’m thrilled to help.”
Barely through the door and I’m lying through my teeth right and left. This is probably going to be awkward as almighty hell, but that’s cool.

He kept his fingers wrapped firmly around hers. She bit the inside of her cheek to keep her mouth closed. The scent of the same Gucci cologne he’d always worn filled her nostrils, and with it came the extreme urge to yank her hand back away from his grasp. But he was the CEO, he was grieving, and it seemed only polite to—

“Michael.”

They dropped hands. Elise turned to see a pale-skinned and dark-haired figure weaving toward them through the lobby traffic in stilettos. With her bobbed hair and expensive Burberry coat, she reminded Elise of those pricey Italian dogs that paraded around at shows. A ring flashed on her finger as she reached toward Michael, and Elise stepped away.

“I believe you accidentally grabbed my keys when you left breakfast in such a hurry.”

Ah, yes. The wife. Elise remembered seeing an announcement in the Post about a year after she’d left the company. Becca something? A big snazzy shindig at The Mandarin. Must have been some wedding. Involuntarily, a shiver zoomed up Elise’s back and tried to burrow into her brain.

Before the woman could grab Michael—Mr. Hale’s—hand, he stuffed them into his pockets with a jerk of his chin. “Give us a moment, would you?”

The wife’s pale skin went practically ghostly and she took a step back. Spinning on one narrow heel, she did the worst job ever of pretending interest in the tarted-up trees by the door.

“Look,” Michael said to Elise. “I have a meeting.” He checked his watch and then nodded toward Penny’s retreating figure. “And I’m sure you need to go take care of paperwork. Do me a favor and see me before you go to lunch.” He leaned in and his warm breath touched a spot in Elise’s memory she didn’t like. Not with the man’s wife standing nearby. Particularly not considering she’d mentally relegated him to the “asshole” file years ago. “I’m considering this project a top priority.”

She nodded, wanting to look anywhere except his eyes, and finding her gaze trapped. “Absolutely. Of course.” Water. She needed water. A cough drop. What was with all the dry air in this building?

Before she could think it over much, he’d turned to head for the door. Hands still in his pockets, his eager wife gripping his arm in a display of ownership as she clickety-clacked alongside.

Well, dammit.
I’m considering this project a top priority
. Lord have mercy. So much for staying off his radar. The sooner she got this thing resolved, the faster she could get herself gone.

She turned to retrieve her security badge and to follow Penny’s path toward human resources. Damned if day one of her new contract job wasn’t off to a kick-ass start.

Chapter 2

M
ichael slapped the resume on his desk. “You’re sure about this, Tom?”

Tom Courtland straightened from a lean against the bookcases that lined what used to be Michael’s father’s office. “How many times do you need to ask?” He swigged a Diet Coke and shrugged. “PermaSolv assured me she’s one of their best. I interviewed her over the phone myself. Either she’s got the chops or she spins one hell of a story.”

“I keep asking because we have to be right. We only have three weeks to turn those validation results around,” Michael said. He pressed his knuckles into the epicenter of his throbbing temple, knowing his friend and contract manager didn’t deserve this kind of interrogation. Elise had always been smart and capable, and Tom knew his shit.

“Correction,” Elise said from the doorway.

Michael’s head snapped up.

Nudging the door closed with one shiny black high heel, she strode in with a crisp efficiency she sure as fuck hadn’t possessed five years ago as a college intern. Head high, she held out a file, then dropped it in front of him as she sat in the chair across from Michael’s desk. One hand brushed a cascade of red curls off her shoulder. She’d always pulled her hair back before.

He looked carefully from Elise to Tom and back again, trying to hide his surprise at the way she’d simply marched herself through the doorway. At her boldness and confidence clashing with his memory of a friendly but innocent twenty-one year old intern from Ohio.

She’d worn long skirts or long pants back then. No makeup. Now? Pencil skirt. High heels. Hair down. And the barest hint of colored stain gave life to her lips and cheeks.

She appeared so professional, so put together.
So different.

Michael cleared his throat. “I believe I said to see me at lunchtime.”

She tapped a neatly trimmed, unpolished fingernail on the folder. “You have one week to submit new security documents to DOJ. One.”

Michael raised his eyebrows. “You’re fucking kidding.” He slid open the folder and scanned its contents: email messages addressed to the security officer he’d canned shortly before his father’s death. Never answered.

The final message delivered an ultimatum: produce up-to-date proof that HaleStorm had the security measures in place to safely handle the intended project data, or the entire endeavor would be killed.

“I convinced one of the desktop support guys to give me access to your former security officer’s email.” Elise sat back in her chair. “This system will be holding classified data once it goes live, am I right?”

“You are.” Frustration and regret made his reply come out so low and rough it dragged across the carpet.

“Okay.” Elise crossed and uncrossed her legs. “So if HaleStorm gets rejected for this project’s security clearance, you’re on shaky ground. You risk losing not only a six figure contract but any other clients who hear the good word that your software security isn’t up to their stringent standards.” She narrowed her gray eyes right at Michael.

Tom stood straighter. “Jesus Christ.”

“Calm down, Tom.” Tom, a full decade older than Elise, wouldn’t take kindly to her getting pushy. And Michael couldn’t tell if she was making things personal because of lingering hurts or just laying out facts with a lot of attitude. Michael himself didn’t much like someone younger—someone he used to mentor for fuck’s sake—taking him to school.

This was the shit hand they’d been dealt though, so they might as well play it. “Look, we already know this is bad. Let’s figure out how to deal with the situation.” A muscle twitched in Michael’s jaw.

To Elise, he said, “Our software and hardware all exceed standards. The agency sent an independent third-party investigator to watch us do every fucking thing except piss. All of our processes got scribbled onto that lady’s clipboard. More flying colors than a pride parade.”

Elise flattened a hand. “If that were the case, I wouldn’t be here. If the investigator gave you a pass, why did you fail you on the validation?”

“When it came time to hand over our supporting documentation, it turned out everything had been out of date for years. Some sections had been left blank and never filled-in. The individual responsible had been too busy giving himself liver damage and the clap,” Tom chimed in.

Her turn to do a double take. “You’ve been operating this entire time without any security documentation in place?”

Michael leaned forward and interlaced his fingers. “My father trusted people he shouldn’t have. Are you someone I can trust, Elise? Because I intend to see this fixed.” Given the way they’d left things all those years ago, he had his doubts. After that kiss, she’d stormed away and hadn’t spoken to him again. The risks, the potential “Hell hath no fury,” made him uneasy. Which was the real reason he’d grilled Tom.

They stared. Elise’s gaze narrowed again faintly. Across the room Tom shifted, probably uncomfortable and not sure why.

Elise licked her lips and Michael blinked, clearing his throat. He took the blame for any lingering discord between them. Still, he needed to know she could put aside her issues and that she could actually handle the task at which his now-fired security chief had failed.

In one goddamn week.

He raised his eyebrows. She hadn’t answered.

Elise lifted a shoulder. “This isn’t a case of simply revising some out-of-date manuals. Things have evolved too much since your documentation was created. Even if I could, your client has sent over a specialized questionnaire. Everything’s gonna have to be redone from scratch.”

“Of course.” That muscle in Michael’s jaw went ahead and piped up again. He took a slow breath and pressed his fingers together. “Are you telling me you’re not up to the challenge?”

Elise grinned then, those brick-colored lips curling so delightfully Michael was sure the fake money plant on his desk turned toward her for attention. “I can get it done. Even better, when I’m finished you can use what I’ve put together as a baseline to hand over to other clients. If you think about it, maybe DOJ has done you a favor. You’ll finally have everything done correctly.”

Would he, now? That’d be a nice fucking change of pace.

“Maybe you’re right.” He smiled slightly at Elise. An urge to say things he shouldn’t burned in his center. Maybe when this week ended he’d have the opportunity to sit down with her and put to rest a few issues that lay unresolved between them. “At any rate, you’re here. And we certainly appreciate your help.”

Surprise flashed in Elise’s eyes, and Michael admitted a secret thrill to himself that he’d thrown her off guard.  A flush of color crept up her chest, her neck, and added to the gentle stain on her cheeks. “Absolutely.” She slapped her palms on the desk as she stood. “Well, I’d better get to work.”

He opened his mouth to respond just as Tom made a noise off to the side. “I’m nervous about the fact that they’ve shortened our timeline. You think they’re setting us up for failure?”

“Your former security guy wasn’t responding so they moved up the deadline to ensure they get what they want. Maybe also to make you sweat.” She shrugged. “So you’re sweating. Mission accomplished. The good news is we’re going into the holidays. Thanksgiving is this Thursday. The chances are excellent most of your clients’ team will be out of the office all week. It gives us extra time to pull the paperwork together without anybody calling to interrupt on their end.”

Jesus, were the holidays really bearing down on them? Michael had been so busy dealing with his father’s passing and getting his shit together lately. Staying focused on anything proved difficult.

Without meaning to, Michael found himself tracking the curve of Elise’s legs as she walked toward the door. Had they always been so long? When he glanced up he met with her direct stare. Busted.

The blush on her cheeks deepened.

Michael’s heart pounded, slow but firm. He cleared his throat again. “Do you have everything you need?”

“If you could spare an employee who went through the validation walkthrough with that third party consultant that would be great. The more expediently I capture your processes, the better.”

Tom spoke up from the back. “Wait a minute. The entire point of bringing in an outside consultant is to save time and avoid alerting our employees that the company is at risk. The last thing we need is a morale issue on top of everything. The fewer employees we loop in, the better.”

Michael gripped the arm of his chair. He’d been the one to put the screws to Tom about Elise’s qualifications which no doubt pushed Tom to be extra tough on Elise now. All the same, Michael had to hold himself back from coming to her defense. As much as he might want to, he couldn’t go soft on her with his company at stake. Shit, he wished he’d known in advance whom Tom had hired.

Elise sat again. Calmly, she turned toward Tom while Michael took a slow, calming breath. “Understood,” she said. “However. Thanks to the negligence of your previous employee I am starting from information that is more out of date than my mother at a boy band concert. I’m good but I am not psychic. So either I need to pretend I’m another one of those consultants and have people walk me through your processes or you give me a single person to pull aside and bleed for information.” She grinned, folding her hands in her lap. “My way is faster.”

God damn, with her legs crossed and her spine and neck all spiraled upward that way, she looked so assured and graceful.  Hard to remember the shy college student who’d discussed work-flow with Michael over hibachi and diet sodas.

His pulse rushed, remembering all those late work nights with Elise. Another throat clear, followed by a swig from the water bottle on his desk and a fervent hope he still had a good poker face. “She’s right,” Michael admitted.

And damned if she didn’t look shocked again that he’d just backed her up. Well, he’d call that one a point in his favor.

Tom looked like he might argue, but Michael slashed his hand through the air. “No. Listen. If you don’t want to pull someone, then do the walk-through with her yourself.” He threw up a hand. “We’ll work something out.” He turned back to Elise. “Anything more?”

Her eyes crinkled with humor. “I could use some highlighters.”

He smiled. “I assume you remember how to find the supply closet. If you don’t find the color you’re looking for have Penny order them for you.”

Michael saw a slight curve to her lips. He remembered her favorite color and her quirky habit of hoarding purple office supplies. Highlighters, binder clips. She’d even had a violet stapler. “Please.” She stood. “I’ll have this project put to bed before any new highlighters have time arrive.”

BOOK: One Week (HaleStorm)
8.58Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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