Authors: Elisabeth Staab
Tags: #enemies to lovers, #boardroom romance, #contemporary, #romance, #contemporary romance, #office romance, #series romance, #workplace
Maybe Michael Hale wasn’t such a bastard after all.
“No, you’re right. I am a bastard.”
She sucked in a breath.
“Didn’t realize that was your out-loud voice?” He grinned from across the table and tapped his fingers playfully on her forearm.
Elise’s nerve endings danced in response, even though she silently scolded them not to.
They’d snagged seats next to a big stone fireplace, and after being outside in the forty-degree weather, the fire had her never wanting to return to that conference room again. And forget the way the golden glow played up his scruffy stubble. Mother of suckers, his looks could have convinced Mother Teresa to sin. If only things between them were different.
“I....” What was there to say? She shrugged and flipped the paper napkin ring she’d been fiddling with onto the table. “Sorry. Sometimes I have no quality control between my brain and my mouth.”
He propped his head on his hand, looking worn out for the barest of moments before he sat up straight again. He opened his mouth like he might speak but then the waitress came, putting two dinner plates the size of Texas down in front of each of them.
“There you go guys, let me know if I can get you anything else.” The waitress, a perky blonde with a ponytail, gave Michael a friendly grin. Michael grinned back, and Elise realized her reaction exceeded the limits of acceptability when she squeezed her Guinness too tightly and nearly dropped the glass.
Jeez. It wasn’t any of Elise’s concern who Michael flirted with. But still.
“Actually,” Elise said to the waitress. “I can tell you already I’m going to need a to-go box. Please.”
“Sure.” Perky Waitress turned to Michael. “Anything for you?”
“I’m fine, thank you.”
After the waitress left, Michael said, “Everything okay? You seem tense.”
She forced a smile. “I’m great.”
“Good.” He pointed to her plate with his fork. “You’re going to love this. Best Shepherd’s Pie you’ll ever have.”
Elise laughed. “Okay that’ll be an easy contest. I’ve never had Shepherd’s Pie before. I’m not even sure how you talked me into ordering it, because I’m still feeling sketchy.”
“No, it’s delicious. Swear.” He took a bite of his onion ring. “Gotta at least taste.”
“If it’s such a culinary masterpiece why didn’t you order the damn pie?”
He pointed at his burger, which was roughly the size of a newborn cow. “I was in a sandwich mood. Sometimes you want something you can sink your fingers into. Here.” He grabbed his fork and stuck it into her food without preamble, then held it out for her to take a bite.
“Okay, good grief.” She closed her lips around the forkful of meat and veggies with savory sauce. Lo and behold it tasted great. “Mmm.” She chewed and licked her lips. “All right. You were right. It’s good.”
He smiled and leaned back as he took a sip of his beer, his arm rubbing hers in the process. It happened a time or two when they first arrived, and since then she’d tried to keep her movements to a minimum. Except that, somewhere along the way, she’d stopped trying. Once in awhile their legs shifted and brushed as well. Every slide of his suit pants along her calves made her heart bounce and her stomach flip.
“So.” Elise leaned forward, placing her forearms on the edge of the table so that they were again out of the danger zone. She took another small, fortifying sip of her own beer, to have something to do with her hands. “Can I ask you something?”
“Not to pry, but you’ve mentioned your mother more in the last couple of days than I ever heard you bring her up before. You said you lost touch before she died. I wondered why.”
He straightened in his chair and pulled his leg away, and her body went all chilly. “That sounds like the very definition of prying.”
Elise tried not to choke on another swallow of Guinness. Embarrassment engulfed her body in flames. “Curiosity, then.” She closed her eyes and took a breath, trying to regain some of her common sense. “You and I had all these great late night talks while we were working on that database implementation, but you always danced around discussing your family. And it seemed like something that bothered you.”
His face hardened. “Airing my family’s dirty laundry to an employee wouldn’t have been a wise move.”
But kissing me was okay?
She opened her mouth and snapped it closed just as fast. No way in hell was she bringing up that mess. She’d dug her own grave, there. And it wasn’t as if she went around showing off the skeletons in her family’s ramshackle closet.
“You’re right, I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have asked.” She wiggled her fingers at her head. “I mentioned the brain-mouth filter thing.” He’d always seemed strangely haunted when conversations skated the line of discussing his mother and she’d remembered today, wondering what caused him so much pain. She couldn’t help wanting to know.
You damn well better. His personal life is not your concern.
Elise jumped when Michael captured her hand in his. “You did say something about a lack of quality control.” He shook his head. “I lived with dad since I was a kid. I hardly knew my mother because she wasn’t really stable enough to care for me. That’s all.”
His low-spoken words touched her deep in her core. “You don’t have to explain,” she said. “Really. I have my own family baggage. I apolog—”
She lost her breath when he threaded his fingers through hers, setting off little tingles in her fingertips. “You know, I’ve been feeling like I’m the one who owes you an apology. For being so harsh with you at that end of summer barbecue when you kissed me. I overreacted. I’ve never forgotten the look on your face.”
A fresh burst of heat rushed to Elise’s face. She definitely wasn’t drunk enough for a conversation about the kiss. She pulled her hand away with a jerk.
The pain, the embarrassment, everything came hurtling home. The memories lodged themselves in the center of her chest.
“Okay, first of all? It takes two to play tonsil hockey. I know it’s been awhile but I distinctly recall your tongue in my mouth. And second? If you think that’s the real reason I’m still angry, then you’ve got it all wrong.”
fter dinner, the walk from the restaurant to the car weighed heavy with tense silence, punctuated only by the clatter of Elise’s high-heeled shoes on the parking lot pavement.
Michael dropped the bag with their leftover food on the floor of his car and slammed the door shut. He rounded the back to confront Elise, who stood impatiently by his trunk with her arms crossed. No way in hell was he actually going to entertain her ridiculous request to let her walk back alone. Especially not at this time of night. “Are you crazy?”
So much for a sanity break.
The corner of her mouth lifted in a wicked smile. Standing there by his car, half in shadow and half in the light of a parking lot lamp, Elise appeared infuriating and sinful and delicious enough to consume as a dessert chaser to the meal they hardly touched. “I don’t think so, but it’s hard to say for sure. Maybe my memory’s just fuzzy. Lemme tell you what I recall from that kiss five years ago. Your lips were firm, you tasted like beer and mesquite sauce, and you made my fucking toes curl.”
“Jesus.” His body throbbed.
.” She charged forward, jabbing two fingers in his chest. “As magical as your tongue was, you’re a smart man. You can’t possibly think I’m holding on to a kiss. Not after all that time.”
Why the fuck not?
still held on. Not only the kiss. All those nights working late with Elise during her internship had been a monumental rookie mistake, and he’d gotten too close. If she hadn’t been so young that afternoon she’d been bold enough to kiss him, if she hadn’t been his employee, he would have wanted more.
Part of him still wanted more.
He’d never forgotten the look on her face when he’d put her hands on her shoulders and eased her off of him. Her look of surprise that changed to disappointment, and then anger before she walked away. The betrayal in her eyes that sank a knife deep into his gut every time he called up the memory.
Frustration made him want to grab her again now, grip her shoulders and dig in hard with his fingers. “If it wasn’t about the kiss, then educate me.”
She tipped her head and licked her lips. Goddamn. He should remind her that their time together sure as fuck had been worth something. “The letter.”
That fucking reference letter.
He looked away, watching two cars play out their road rage at the end of the strip of stores. While the vehicles gunned their engines and threatened to ram each other, Michael steeled himself against the dread gathering inside. He had hoped she’d never find out about the reference letter. In hindsight, that hope had been reckless. “I made the best decision I could at the time.” He turned back to face her, hating the clear assumption of betrayal in her eyes. “Scarborough told you?”
Her hand came to Michael’s jaw, and he half-wondered if she wasn’t gearing up to land a big smack on him. “If you didn’t think I had what it took to do that job, why didn’t you tell me to my face?”
“You know that wasn’t the case.”
She gestured with both hands. “Do I? I trusted your opinion of my work. I would have taken it a hell of a lot better coming from you rather than getting a phone call from a potential boss saying they were turning me down because my former employer had declined their request for a reference.”
“Trust me, you didn’t want that job.” His chest tightened. “Scarborough was not a good employer—”
“It was project management experience, right out of college. I needed the money and I needed the title for my resume. I could have dealt with a crappy job for awhile to get that kind of gold star.”
He grabbed her wrists and pulled her close under the bright parking light. “Listen to me. You did
. Want. That. Job. The things I’ve heard about Scarborough? Suspicion of embezzlement. Sexual harassment complaints. You think maybe there’s a reason that company recently went under? Rumor has it a female manager filed a complaint against him for trying to force his way into her hotel room while they were on a business trip together. It only stayed out of the papers because he paid her enough money to send her kids and grandkids to Ivy League schools. I refused to write that letter because I wanted to protect you.”
Elise stepped back, wrenching out of his grasp with a shake of her head.
“You don’t believe me.”
“I wish you had told me.” She tipped her head, eyes wide. “I questioned everything I’d done while working for you. Had it been x, y, or z slip up? The weekends I couldn’t work overtime because my mother was ill? Because of something I said or was it because of that time I was stupid enough to kiss you?”
He pressed into her personal space and tucked a strand of her wild curls behind her ear. Her body seemed tense and ready to bolt, but she stayed still, letting him touch her, which calmed him inside and out. “I would never have jeopardized your future employment simply because you let me know you were attracted to me.”
He pressed against her then, making it clear exactly how well he remembered that kiss. “That feeling was very mutual.” Caught in the heat of the moment, he let his hands slide up her arms and over her shoulders. “If I’d been free to act on it then, I would have.”
Her breath hitched loud enough for him to hear. “You still could have said something.”
Michael held on tight when she tried to push away. “I couldn’t tell you I wanted you. You were too young, too innocent, and you worked for me. I couldn’t tell you about Scarborough because I didn’t know you’d applied until after you left HaleStorm. You hadn’t given me your personal number which, frankly, was probably for the best. Still, by the time I knew the situation, it was too late.”
“I see.” Elise looked down, and Michael wished to God he could see her face. Read what she was feeling.
Regret burned in his veins. “I hope you do. I hope you know how sorry I am for any hurt or confusion I caused.” He got bold and slid one hand upward, tangling his fingers in her curls. “I’m human, Elise. Sometimes I make bad decisions. But I’m trying now to make so many things right.”
She swept her gaze up and down. “I’m not so sure
is the right decision either. I do still work for you.” She swallowed and licked her lips. “Technically, anyway.”
Michael’s chest pounded. His arms around Elise now, tonight in the freezing fucking cold, felt a million times more perfect than they had on that sunny August afternoon at the end of the company cookout. Want sizzled through his body.
When he slid his hand down to her hip to show exactly how right an idea he thought the two of them could be, the sound of tire squeals and screamed obscenities came from too near for comfort. “Stupid assholes,” Michael ground out. “I saw them earlier. Figured they’d be leaving.”
Elise shivered, moving out of his grasp. “We should leave anyway. Like you said, it would be good for us both to get extra rest. I’ll come in early tomorrow morning to make up the time. Right now we’re on schedule. Can you just take me back to my loaner apartment so I can take a hot shower?”
Given that he’d been the one to instigate this tense discussion, agreeing to her request now was the least he could do. “Sure. You’re right. We could both use the rest.” Only looking at her now, he didn’t want to rest anymore.
He wanted so many things, like to take her back to that apartment and show her exactly how much interest in her he did have. How he’d pushed her away after that company picnic not because he hadn’t wanted her, because he’d wanted her with frightening intensity.
Five years ago he hadn’t been free to give himself away. Now that he was, the future of his company was riding on her. He couldn’t fuck that up with complication.
Michael tossed his keys and caught them again as Elise opened the door to get into the car. “Right,” he said. “Let’s both go get some rest.” He took in those long, gorgeous legs of hers as she slipped into the passenger side of his car.