Authors: Elisabeth Staab
Tags: #enemies to lovers, #boardroom romance, #contemporary, #romance, #contemporary romance, #office romance, #series romance, #workplace
“I hope you’re right.” The words left his mouth and immediately socked him in the chest. If she could rescue this project she’d be a miracle worker. She’d be his savior.
She’d be out of his life again.
y the time evening rolled around, Elise’s contact lenses had become one with her eyeballs. Her back and neck ached from staring at her laptop. Marathon work sessions were par for the course in her line of work, but she never quite got used to them.
She leaned back in her chair at the small conference room table they’d given her for work space, squeezing her eyelids tightly to clear her blurred vision. Twisting first to one side and then the other elicited a tension-relieving series of pops and cracks that cascaded down her spine.
“Ouch.” She opened her eyes at the sound of Michael’s—Mr. Hale’s—low voice, and turned the other way to find him closer behind her than was comfortable.
Shivers danced across her skin upon realizing his proximity. He’d lost the tie. Unbuttoned his top two buttons. Hair, even more mussed than earlier when he’d just come in from the windy outdoors.
One hand held the jacket he’d removed and slung over his shoulder. The other, a large brown paper bag. “I brought dinner.”
“Wow. Thanks. You didn’t have to go to the trouble. I would have stopped on my way home.” Deliberately, she placed her pen in front of her on the table.
He raised his eyebrows. “Which would be when?” He waved a hand at the papers spread across the small conference room table. “Looked to me like you’d settled in for the evening.” He kicked the door shut behind him then took a seat in the swivel chair immediately next to her. “Besides. I’m here to help. And I’m starving.”
She breathed a quiet laugh. “You’re....” When she’d asked for someone to help her out with the documentation she’d figured they’d give her some low on the ladder code-monkey. Maybe one of those fresh-faced guys from desktop support who were still busy practicing their goatee growing skills and learning how to crack the software in their smart phones. She’d felt bad enough about the idea of getting assigned a guy from senior management, but Michael? No.
He stopped in the middle of pulling Chinese containers from the bag. “Don’t sound so shocked. Tom’s right. I’d prefer word of this issue not spread through the employees until we have it well in hand. I appreciate your confidence about being able to get it resolved, I simply don’t want to call the game until the clock has run out.”
“But I thought you said Tom...?” She lost her voice when he handed her a rectangular container. Singapore-style rice noodles. Her favorite. How on earth could he have remembered?
“Tom had a family emergency this afternoon. As the last of my family was recently cremated, I am short of those at the moment.”
Elise swallowed hard, and focused with unnecessary care on venting the steam from her noodles. His face betrayed no emotions, his focus appeared to be one-hundred percent invested in emptying their dinner from the bag. Her heart ached for him anyway.
“What about...?” She didn’t remember any names, but she’d met a brother once upon a time, during her internship. No. Two brothers? They’d come to the annual employee barbecue. Not that it was any of her business. “I thought I remembered you had other family.”
“Well,” he said softly. “I lost touch with my mother long before she passed. And my brothers both walked away when the bastard Hale received control of the company in our father’s will.” He delivered the news casually, calmly, while fishing in the bag for a packet of dipping sauce.
The giant lump in her throat made swallowing even more difficult. “I’m sorry.” For a moment his hand lay near hers. In spite of her lingering hurt and anger toward him, a touch of her fingers on the backs of his knuckles struck her as the thing to do. “I liked your father. He was a good guy.”
He looked at her with sharp, dark eyes like she’d startled him, but didn’t move away. “He certainly tried to be. He made mistakes I suppose, but then again we all do.” With that a crease formed in the center of his forehead. He stared at her as if he was trying to figure something out while he licked his lips so....
“I suppose we do, yes.” Dammit. That had come out sounding all soft and breathy, and not at all the way Elise intended. She stopped herself from thunking her head on the table.
“Well. My father always said mistakes are necessary. They’re how we grow and learn.” With a breath, Michael straightened and handed her a pair of chopsticks. The shadows on his face disappeared. As he scanned the documents she’d spread across the table, he said, “So, we’ve got a mistake in front of us. Tell me what we have here.”
Okay. Family discussion closed.
She scooted closer to avoid craning her sore neck and pointed with the yet unused chopsticks. “That first stack of papers is basically a template for what your security officer
have sent to your client. That second one is a list of everything you got spanked for missing on the validation. I spent the day going through and color coding them. Red for procedures you were supposedly never following.” She gave him a look of mock sympathy. “No password encryption? Really? Do you also have a wooly mammoth in the staff kitchen to help wash the dishes?”
“Elise.” He scowled.
Perhaps she should have left well enough alone. Her inner imp couldn’t help but try to get a rise out of him the way she always had when they used to work together. When they were more like friends than coworkers. The way his eyelids hung heavy and his full mouth was set with so much tension, she only wanted to make him relax a little.
“What about chisels and stone tablets for note-taking?”
Michael may have tried to hide it, but the corners of his mouth turned upward. The lines on his face eased. “Check the supply cabinet. You’ll probably find them near those highlighters you asked me about earlier. So to save time, we focus first on the red, yes?” He turned his attention back to the spreadsheet.
“Exactly.” Elise leaned sideways to flip pages. “And you’ll notice some of these are faster to answer than others. So we go through the spreadsheet, hit the straightforward ones first, and then we save the complicated ones for later. Sadly, this is one situation where quantity matters more than quality. I may be confident that I can finish this project before the deadline but I always like to hedge against unexpected speed bumps.”
It was impossible to ignore the lingering spices of his cologne when she stopped for breath. “Right now, let’s go ahead and skip anything so straightforward a chimp could answer. I got Tom to hook me up with a login to your development system so I can easily see with my own two eyes whether or not you actually
protect your passwords. No reason to waste the CEO’s valuable time on that stuff. How long do I have you for, anyway?”
When he lifted his head to answer her, their mouths were nearly close enough to practice buddy breathing. “As long as it takes.”
Suddenly Elise realized her lips were very dry. She wanted to lick them but there was no way in hell, because nuh-uh, no sir, no way was she going down that road again. Damned if the possibility didn’t make her throb all over, and she kind of hated herself for her body’s reaction.
You’re supposed to be mad at him, remember? He hurt you. He jeopardized your career.
She didn’t want to empathize about his difficult relationship with his family, or be grateful to him for bringing her dinner. To remember how much she used to enjoy his company. And yet, the conflict of emotions battled in her chest like a pair of Rock ‘Em Sock ‘Em Robots.
“That’s really....” She cleared her throat and backed away from the heat of his body so she could finally lick her lips. She took it a step further and dug around in her purse for lip balm. Placing an object in her lap gave her the flimsy illusion of an added barrier between them. “Thank you. For helping.”
“It’s my company. At the end of the day, it’s my ass on the line.” She’d never seen him so serious, his eyes so black.
Elise tried to make light as she smoothed on some cherry Chap Stick and dropped her purse to the floor. “Then again, if I fail and you complain to my boss or refuse to pay for the project, it’s my ass.”
It was one of those jokes that really wasn’t. He didn’t answer, but the heavy weight of his gaze lingered, resting on her. She turned and refused to face him, refused to acknowledge the doubt she’d seen written on his face earlier that day.
She’d faced forward to adjust her laptop when his hand landed on her arm. She turned again to find his eyes hard, like she’d never seen them before. “Michael—Mr. Hale.”
“You can fail at this project. I can call PermaSolv to complain. I can have you fired.” He leaned closer. “None of those save the jobs of thousands of employees or my father’s lifetime of hard work. Those are the things that are on the line. So you bet your ass that I will see this through personally.”
The place where his hand touched hers burned. “I understand,” she said.
“I hope so.”
Shivers raced up and down her spine. Elise shrugged her shoulder and tried to pretend the vent above the conference room table caused her chills. Funny, she remembered Michael as a confident but quiet presence. Easygoing, he had been the guy who managed the office interns probably because he was so great at coming across as everyone’s buddy. He’d taken her out to dinner many times, as a thank-you for working late.
He did not come across as friendly and easygoing now. “I understand, Mr. Hale.” Very much the opposite
Was this due to his father’s death?
This is none of your business, Elise
. “It’ll get done.”
“I hope you’re right.”
“I’m always right.” She forced a laugh and tried to pull her hand away from his, intent on eating her food and returning to her work. She needed him to stop looking at her with those dark-amber eyes. Somehow they were chipping away at her grudge.
And of course, she hadn’t always been right. Five years ago she’d been very, very wrong. Maybe she was still wrong, because she swore she’d never face Michael Hale again unless it was to knee him in his manly bits. Here she sat all the same, her chest tight with something that felt disturbingly like sympathy.
She smiled and held up her chopsticks. “Thank you again for dinner. I can’t believe you remembered my order.”
He leaned back in his chair and sucked hot mustard from his thumb. “I remember quite a bit, Elise.”
hen the conference room clock showed the hour hand passed two in the morning and Elise had done the same maddening catlike stretch in her chair for the umpteenth time, Michael decided they’d had enough.
had enough. The cells on the spreadsheet in front of him blurred and swam. In a contest between his fingers and eyelids for “most twitchy,” no clear winner could be established.
“Let’s pick this up in the morning,” he said.
She groaned and rolled her neck around. “I think I’ll stay,” she murmured. “But you go. I’m sure this transition and losing your father has taken its toll.” She gave a small, tired smile, and for the first time since she’d walked back through the front doors it seemed like she might actually think he was an okay guy. “You look like you could use the rest.”
“Mm, hmm.” He put his hand on the lid of her laptop and pushed it closed.
“Hey.” She reached for her computer.
He stopped her by putting his hands over hers. He noted that she wore no ring, and at that moment the absence of his own affirmed the rightness of handing that envelope of divorce papers to Becca. He’d removed the ring before moving into his own place, and now he was even more comfortable with his decision. “You can’t do your best work for me if you’re hungry and exhausted. I’ve seen too many employees try to run on fumes and fail.”
Her fingers drummed on the table. “I’ll be fine. I still have a little energy left, and if I get hungry I think I spotted some leftover bagels in the break room.”
For the first time in weeks, he laughed. “It’s Monday. At least it was when you first got here. Bagel day was Friday. You’d do better to use those things to hammer nails. Or to throw them at my office manager for not having already chucked them in the trash.”
She sighed and pulled one hand away to rub her eyes. She didn’t seem to notice, and Michael didn’t mention, that their other two hands remained touching on the warm lid of her closed computer. “Okay, here’s the thing: First, better I front-load the work and get done early than the other way around. Better safe than sorry. Anyway....”
She pulled her hand off the laptop to sweep her wavy red hair from her face, and Michael’s skin turned cold from the loss. “There’s no point in my leaving, as late as it is now. I’ll only have to come back crazy early and my apartment is a good half hour drive from here. My roommate is a studly go-go dancer, he’ll be getting home around the same time I do, and probably not alone. I guarantee you, I won’t get any rest anyway.”
“Hmm.” Michael pressed his lips together. “What did you plan to do about a change of clothes if you stayed?”
“I have an overnight bag in my car,” she said absently as she reopened her laptop.
He put his hand on hers and closed the damned machine again. “Can you hang the hell on for a second?”
“Do you act this way with all your employees?” She stared hard. “Why do you care where I sleep?”
“I don’t act this way with my employees because they know to listen the first time. Maybe it’s a contractor thing. I certainly recall you being a much better listener when you were an intern.”
She swiveled her chair to face him fully. A challenge burned in her gray eyes. “Yeah, well. A lot has changed.”
Perhaps exhaustion had removed his professional mask. Although ill-advised, Michael allowed himself to do a full visual sweep. All that twisting in her chair to pop her back had worked loose the top button on her blouse, serving up an enticing hint of cleavage. Those long, toned, stocking-free legs of hers showed a teasing hint of a morning glory vine on the back of one calf. “Yes,” he said. “I can see how much is different.”