“Have you seen Josh? He’s not anywhere. Everything’s falling apart and he’s gone.”
“He’s gone to get you coffee and donuts. You’ve been so busy. Promise you’ll act surprised.”
Mr. Bexley perks up, puffs, and grumbles all in one guttural sound. Then he looks at my dress and its contents with such a leisurely perusal I put my hands on my hips in annoyance. He doesn’t notice.
“You’re looking a little flustered, Miss Hutton. I don’t mind a young lady looking a bit pink in the cheeks. You should smile more, though.”
“Oops, my phone is ringing,” I say, even though it isn’t. “Remember, act surprised when Josh gets back.”
“I can be surprised,” he tells me and heads to the men’s bathrooms. He’s got a newspaper in one hand. Josh can take a leisurely meander downstairs now.
I keep my composure until I get back to my desk, but then I let myself do what I’ve desperately needed to: I pant for air. I huff like I’ve run a half marathon. Sweat is beading on the back of my neck and my face is dewy. My fingers are burning hot from touching the cotton covering his skin. I fog up half the shiny surfaces of the tenth floor before I am composed enough to even sit.
I’m so turned on I wish I could knock myself unconscious until it passes.
Joshua returns twenty minutes later, bearing donuts and coffee. He still beats Mr. Bexley back from the bathroom.
“Nice save,” Joshua tells me, putting a hot chocolate and a strawberry donut beside my mouse pad. “Impressive thinking on your feet.”
I stare at the gorgeous pink donut like we’ve fallen through a wormhole while he disappears into his boss’s office. In the space of twenty minutes self-doubt has begun to erode my confidence that I can handle the Or Something Game. He’s too big, too clever, and my body likes him way too much. I’m desperate to try to lay some kind of ground rules. When he sits at his desk and sips his coffee, it all comes out in a vulgar blurt.
“If the Or Something Game involves sex, it’ll be a one-time deal. Once. One meaningless time only.” I clap my hand over my mouth.
He narrows an eye cynically and begins eating the strawberries I gave him. It’s mesmerizing. I never see him eat anything.
“One.” I hold up one finger.
“Just once? You’re sure? Would you at least buy me dinner first?” He leans back in his chair, enjoying this exchange. He bites, chews, swallows, and I have to look away because frankly, it’s sexy as hell.
“Sure, we can hit the drive-thru for a Happy Meal.”
“Gee, thanks. A burger meal and toy before we went and did it. Once.” He sips at his coffee and looks at the ceiling. “Couldn’t you at least spring for a fancy Italian restaurant? Or do you want me feeling cheap?”
“Once.” I put several knuckles into my mouth and bite them until it hurts. Shut your mouth, Lucy.
“Can you define what one time would involve?” He rests his chin on his palm and closes his eyes, yawning. You’d think we were talking about a work presentation, not a naked, dirty game in my bed.
“Did your parents never give you the birds and bees talk?” I sip my hot chocolate.
“I’m trying to understand the rules upfront. You make up an awful lot as you go along. Could you email them to me?”
Mr. Bexley walks between us, breaking the moment, and makes an unconvincing sound of surprise when he sees his coffee and donuts on his desk.
“I’ll be in, one minute,” Joshua calls to him.
To me he says, “Once, huh? You’d restrain yourself?” I see the edge of his mouth lift in a little smile, and he begins to click on his computer screen.
“Don’t look so self-satisfied,” I hiss as quietly as I can. “It’s not a guarantee it’ll ever happen.”
“Don’t act like it’s only me who wants this. This isn’t some favor you’d be doing me. It’s the pretty big favor you’d be doing yourself.”
He doesn’t seem to be making a sleazy reference to what lies beneath his zipper, but I look there anyway. I can’t seem to stop talking.
“To kill off this weird sexual tension between us, then yes, it would be only once. Like I said, what does it matter?”
He blinks hard, opens his mouth to speak, then seems to reconsider. For a guy who’s just been told by a woman she’s considering having sex with him, he looks a little disappointed.
“Then I guess I’d better make it count, Shortcake.” A promise and a warning. I bite my donut nearly in half so I don’t have to reply.
I got the upper hand, defining the terms a little. He stands and picks up his coffee. It’s a signal of retreat. But then he slams the tennis ball back into my court, forcing the decision back onto me so squarely I have to admit, I’m impressed.
He writes something on a blue Post-it note. His spiky black letters swoop and slash; ink spreading a little into the veins of paper.
He writes down something I never dreamed I’d ever know. I have no idea if it’s for the purpose of picking him up before the wedding, or something. I can’t ask because my mouth is so full.
He sticks it onto my computer screen. His home address.
I keep half expecting your big brother to storm in here any moment, and haul you off. You’re out on a school night and all,” Danny says as I slush my spoon halfheartedly in lemon gelato.
“I’m sure he’s idling his car out front, ready to run you over.” It only comes out half like a joke. The waitress comes to check on us. Again, we reassure her of how delicious everything is. Everything’s flippin’ perfect. Checked tablecloth and candles. Romantic music and me cleaned up nicely in a red dress and lipstick. The only thing keeping me from dozing off is the little sharp nervous feeling in my stomach when I think of the near-inevitable kiss tonight.
“I need to ask. Are you . . . single? Available? I’m getting a vibe. You and he aren’t . . . ?”
“Yes, no. No! No vibe. Absolutely no vibe. I’m single.” Then I repeat it a couple more times. Danny’s expression is doubtful. The lady doth protest way, way too much.
A slice of panic opens in my gut. If anyone suspected me and Josh of being involved in any way, there’d be repercussions. Reputation-wise. HR-wise. Dignity-wise. I remember the amused looks and nudges at the post-paintball meeting and cringe to think the horse may have bolted.
“There’s been heaps of office hookups. Samantha and Glen. Phew, that was a disaster.” Danny grins. He’s a gossip, I can tell. He raises his eyebrows, hoping I’ll have my own juicy scandal to share, but I shake my head.
“No one talks to me at work. They think I’ll snitch.”
“Is it true Josh completed first-year medical school?”
“I don’t know. His parents and brother are doctors, though.”
“We always lived in hope he’d quit Bexley Books and go be a proctologist or whatever.”
I have to laugh.
“So, did you have a bad breakup in the past or something?” Danny looks genuinely curious. “I guess I’m trying to work out why you’re single.”
“I haven’t had any time to date and I haven’t put in enough effort to make new friends after losing touch with people from Gamin after the merger. My job has taken over my life. Working for a CEO isn’t your typical nine-to-five.”
“So, what was that rose on your desk?” He raises his eyebrows expectantly.
“It was a joke.”
He waits for me to elaborate but when I don’t, he gives up and changes the subject. “Did you get your application in for the new exec position?”
“It’s in. Interviews are next week.”
“Is there a big field?”
“The shortlist for interviews is just me, a couple of externals, and my good buddy Joshua Templeman. Four applicants in total.”
“You’ve been waiting a long time for this,” Danny surmises. Maybe I’ve got my crazy-intense eyes on again.
“Helene has been big on developing me. When we were Gamin Publishing, I was earmarked to transfer into the editorial team after a year of working for her.” I hear how bitter my voice is.
Danny considers. “It’s not uncommon to get into publishing any way you can. Even if it means taking an admin role. Half the people here didn’t start out in their dream job. It was smart to jump on any opening you could.”
“No, that’s not my issue. I really am glad I’ve moved into a business role.”
“But then the merger happened.”
“Yes. So many people lost jobs; I was lucky to keep mine. Even if it’s meant staying in the same role. I lost my best friend.” I make it sound like she’s dead now.
“Chief of operations will look pretty impressive on your CV, especially at your age.”
“Yes.” I breathe, imagining it in Arial font. Then I imagine it on Joshua’s CV, and the delicious daydream turns sour. “I’m preparing a presentation for the interview. It’s something I’ve been thinking about for a long time. I haven’t been in the position to be as influential as I’d like. The timing’s always been off. I want to set up a formal project to get the backlist into ebook format. Repackaging the whole book, covers, the works. I think getting this new role will give me the leverage I’ve been lacking.”
“Sounds like you’ll be needing lots of support in terms of cover design. Keep me in mind,” Danny says. He rummages in his pocket and gives me his new business card. A lady at the next table looks at him sideways like, What a douche.
He signals for the check and hands over his credit card.
“Oh, thank you,” I squeak awkwardly and he smiles.
We walk to my car. “Sorry I talked so much about work.”
“It’s no problem. I used to work there, remember. So. This is it. Your car.” Danny stops, frames his hands around the car. “It’s incredible.”
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