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I hope my weird brain doesn’t file away her last filthy-sounding sentence.

“We are working out our differences.” I have no trace of lie in my voice.

“I’ll talk to Bexley at our four o’clock battle royale. What are your ideas?”

“I’ve found a corporate retreat that’s only fifteen minutes off the highway. It’s one of those places with whiteboards all over the walls.”

“Sounds expensive.” Helene makes a face, which I had already anticipated.

“I’ve run the numbers. We were under the training budget for this financial year.”

“So what will we do at this corporate love-in?”

“I’ve already come up with several team-building activities. We’ll do them in a round-robin style, rotating each group so teams get regularly mixed up. I’d like to be the facilitator for the day. I want to end this war between the Bexleys and Gamins.”

“People absolutely hate team activities,” Helene points out.

I can’t argue. It’s a corporate truth universally acknowledged that workers would rather eat rat skeletons than participate in group activities. I know I would. But until business team-building models make a significant advance, it’s all I’ve got.

“There’s a prize at the end for the participant who’s made the biggest effort and contributes the most.” I pause for effect. “A paid day off.”

“I like it,” she cackles.

“Joshua is planning something though,” I warn. She nods.

She enters the Colosseum at precisely four. As usual, I can hear them shouting at each other.

At five, Helene comes out of Mr. Bexley’s office and arrives at my desk in an irritated state. “Josh,” she tosses over her shoulder, her voice colored with dislike.

“Ms. Pascal, how are you?” A halo floats above his head.

She ignores him. “Darling, I’m sorry. I lost the coin toss. We’ve gone with Josh’s idea for team building. What is the thing called? Paintballs?”

Sweet baby Jesus, no. “That wasn’t the recommendation. I should know; I wrote it.”

Joshua nearly smiles. It shimmers like a holograph over his face. It vibrates out of him in waves. “I took the liberty of providing an alternative to Mr. Bexley. Paintballing. It’s been shown to be an effective team-building activity. Fresh air, physical activity . . .”

“Injuries and insurance claims,” Helene counters. “Cost.”

“People will pay twenty dollars of their own money to shoot their colleagues with paintballs,” he assures her, staring at me. “It won’t cost the company a cent. They’ll sign waivers. We’ll split into teams.”

“Darling, how does it help team building to separate people and give them paint guns?”

While they argue in fake-polite voices, I seethe. He’s hijacked my corporate initiative and taken it down to a juvenile, base level. Such a Bexley thing to do.

“Perhaps we’ll see some unlikely alliances form,” he tells Helene.

“In that case, I want to see you two paired together,” Helene says archly and I could hug her. He can’t paintball his own teammate.

“Like I said, unlikely alliances. Anyway, let’s not fluster Lucinda before her hot date.”

“Oh, really, Lucy?” Helene taps my desk. “A date. I expect a full report in the morning, darling. And come in late if you wish. You work too much. Live a little.”

Chapter 6

At six thirty P.M. my knee begins jiggling.

“Will you be late?”

“None of your business.” Goddamn it, will Joshua ever leave? He’s worked an eleven-hour day and still looks as fresh as a daisy. I want to lie facedown on my bed.

“Didn’t you say seven? How are you getting there?”

“Cab.”

“I’m headed there too. I’ll give you a ride. I insist.” Joshua’s face has been the picture of amusement throughout this little exchange. He’s waiting for me to fess up about lying. It feels good to know I have Danny as the ace up my sleeve.

“Fine. Whatever.” My fury over the team-building hijack has burned away, leaving a husk. Everything is spiraling slowly out of control.

I head to the ladies room, makeup bag in hand. My footsteps echo in the empty corridor. I haven’t had a date in a long time. I’m too busy. Between work, hating Joshua Templeman, and sleeping, I have no time for anything else.

Joshua cannot believe anyone would want to spend time in my company. To him I’m a repugnant little shrew. I carefully draw my eyeliner into a tiny cat’s-eye. I wipe off my lipstick until only the stain is left. I put a spray of perfume into my bra and give myself a little wink and a pep talk.

I have a dangly pair of earrings in the side pocket of my makeup bag and I hook them on. Office to evening, like those magazine articles. I’m tugging up my bra when I bump squarely into Joshua outside the bathroom. He is holding my coat and bag in hand. The shock of making contact with his body clashes through me.

He looks at me strangely. “Why’d you do all that?”

“Gee, thanks.” I hold my hand out and he hooks my bag onto it. He holds on to my coat and pushes the elevator button.

“So I get to see your car.” I try to break the silence. That thought is more nerve-racking than seeing Danny. It’s such an enclosed space. Have Joshua and I ever even sat next to each other before? I doubt it.

“I’ve been imagining it for so long. I’ve been thinking it’s a Volkswagen beetle. A rusty white one, like Herbie.”

“Guess again.” He is hugging my coat idly. His fingers twiddle the cuff. Against his body it looks like a kid’s jacket. I feel sorry for this poor coat. I hold my hand out but he ignores me.

“MINI Cooper, early 1980s. Kermit green. The seat won’t go back so your knees are on either side of the steering wheel.”

“Your imagination is quite vivid. You drive a 2003 Honda Accord. Silver. Filthy messy inside. Chronic gearbox issues. If it were a horse, you’d shoot it.” The elevator arrives and I step in cautiously.

“You’re a way better stalker than I am.” I feel a chill of fear when I see his big thumb push the B button. He looks down at me, his eyes dark and intense. He’s clearly deliberating something.

Maybe he’ll murder me down there. I’ll end up dead in a Dumpster. The investigators will see my fishnets and heavy eye makeup and assume I’m a hooker. They’ll follow all the wrong leads. Meanwhile, Joshua will be calmly bleaching all my DNA off his shoes and making himself a sandwich.

“Serial killer eyes.” I wish I didn’t sound so scared. He looks over my shoulder at his reflection in the shiny wall of the elevator.

“I see what you mean. You’ve got your horny eyes on.” He spirals his finger dramatically over the elevator button panel.

“Nope, these are my serial killer eyes too.”

He lets out a deep breath and pushes the emergency stop button and we judder to a halt.

“Please don’t kill me. There’s probably a camera.” I take a step backward in fright.

“I doubt it.” He looms over me. He raises his hands and I start to lift my arms to shield my face like I’m in some awful schlocky drive-in horror movie. This is it. He’s going to strangle me. He’s lost his sanity.

He scoops me off the floor by my waist and balances my ass on the handrail I’ve never noticed before. My arms drop to his shoulders and my dress slides to the top of my thighs. When he glances down he lets out a rough breath which sounds like I’m strangling him.

“Put me down. This isn’t funny.” My feet make little ineffectual spirals. This isn’t the first time a big kid’s thrown his weight around with me. Marcus DuShay in third grade once slung me onto the hood of the principal’s car and ran off laughing. The plight of the little humans. There is no dignity for us in this oversize world.

“Visit me up here for a sec.”

“What on earth for?” I try to slide down but he spans his hands on my waist and presses me against the wall. I squeeze his shoulders until I come to the informed conclusion that his body is extravagant muscle under these Clark Kent shirts.

“Holy shit.” His collarbone is like a crowbar under my palms. I say the only idiotic thing I can think of. “Muscles. Bones.”

“Thanks.”

We are both desperately out of breath. When I press my leg against him for balance, his hand wraps around my calf.

When he puts one hand on my jaw and tilts my head back, I wait for the squeeze to start. At any moment, his warm palm will snap tight and I’ll begin to die. Nose to nose. Breath against breath. One of his fingertips is behind my earlobe and I shiver when it slides.

“Shortcake.”

The sweet little word dissolves and I swallow.

“I’m not going to kill you. You’re so dramatic.” Then he presses his mouth lightly against mine.

Neither of us closes our eyes. We stare at each other like always, closer than we’ve ever been. His irises are ringed blue-black. His eyelashes lower and he looks at me with an expression like resentment.

His teeth catch my bottom lip in a faint bite, and goose bumps spread. My nipples pinch. My toes curl in my shoes. I accidentally touch him with my tongue when I check for damage, although it didn’t hurt. It was too soft, too careful. My brain is whirring hopelessly with explanations of what is happening, and my body begins to better its grip.

When he leans in again and begins to move his mouth against mine, softly plying it open, the penny drops.

Joshua. Templeman. Is. Kissing. Me.

For a few seconds I’m frozen solid. It seems I’ve forgotten how to kiss; it’s been so long since it’s been a daily activity. Not seeming to mind, he explains the rules with his mouth.

The Kissing Game goes like this, Shortcake. Press, retreat, tilt, breathe, repeat. Use your hands to angle just right. Loosen up until it’s a slow, wet slide. Hear the drum of blood in your own ears? Survive on tiny puffs of air. Do not stop. Don’t even think about it. Shudder a sigh, pull back, let your opponent catch you with lips or teeth and ease you back into something even deeper. Wetter. Feel your nerve endings crackle to life with each touch of tongue. Feel a new heaviness between your legs.

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