It’s three weeks into the hellish nightmare that is the merger between Bexley Books and Gamin Publishing when Josh gets a gift he didn’t even know he needed.
The door to Helene’s office is open and she and her overly perky assistant Lucinda are in there laughing about something. One would think they’d be more focused on doing their actual jobs since the whole point of this merger was to save their company, but what does Josh know? Gamins work in mysterious and annoying ways.
Lucinda suddenly cries out, “Oh! I almost forgot,” and then dashes out of the co-CEO's office and heads towards her desk, which is unfortunately situated directly across the room from his own. Today’s outfit on her is a doozy, a pale lavender knit dress that clings to her petite frame and ends at least an inch higher than their HR manual deems acceptable and a pair of nude heels that are so tall he can’t believe she can run in them. She flies past him without even looking his way which makes his jaw clench. He seems to find himself looking for her every time he enters a room. Clearly, she doesn’t have the same problem.
He glances away from her and eyes his computer screen. The fact that he’s constantly aware of her presence is uncomfortable and irritating and not at all helpful in terms of the situation with his girlfriend. Last night, alone in his bed, he hadn’t thought about Mindy. He’d thought about a smaller person with blue eyes. It did not bode well.
He shifts in his seat, and rolls his shoulders back. No matter how attractive Lucinda was, she had a tongue like a knife. To everyone else she was peaches and cream, but to him she was ice. He was grateful for it.
Out of the corner of his eye he can see her digging in her bag, but then she freezes as if she somehow knows he’s tracking her. She tosses her hair back and in the reflection of the ridiculously shiny walls of their new office he sees that she’s now watching him. A pulse of satisfaction beats through him and he tries to squash it down. He cannot be attracted to this woman. It's a matter of principle. He turns to face her. “Can I help you?” It isn’t a friendly offer.
She stares at him, which is something she does a lot. It’s fucking weird if you ask him and sometimes he swears she mimics his movements from across the room. He has no idea what any of it means. She’s gorgeous and smart as a whip, but she might have a couple of screws loose. If he’d known how odd she was, he would have pushed harder for her to be laid off during the merger. He had his hands full with Bexley, but he could have handled both CEOs.
She pulls her hand out of her bag to reveal a jar of red preserves. It’s a rustic looking canning jar, clearly not store bought. Everything about her is so preposterous that it wouldn't surprise him to find out she always had homemade jam in her purse. She cocks an eyebrow at him in a silent challenge and it is so unexpectedly hot that he has to swallow. Her lips curve up slightly and it feels to Josh like she’s won something in that moment. Like she's been playing a game without him knowing.
“What?” He stares back at her, but she doesn’t flinch. Instead she saunters away from her desk and towards him, which he admits is impressive for someone so short. He sits up straighter.
Her voice is soft enough to not carry into Helene’s office. That doesn’t make it any less lethal. “If you keep watching me like this, I’ll report you to HR, Joshua.”
Yeah, she’s definitely nuts. Clearly a psycho. He only stares at her when she stares at him. And today he hadn’t even done that- he’d actually spent a good portion of the afternoon ignoring the weight of her eyes on him. Frustration thrums in his veins. He’s never been reported to HR. If he was, it would be for something worthwhile, like threatening the lives of the entire accounting department. Not for something as innocent as this. Well, maybe not totally innocent, he’s had some less than PG thoughts about her, but she doesn’t know that. There’s a gruff voice in his head that tells him she’s going to mess this all up for him, that he’s going to get fired. It’d be karmic justice for his role in the merger layoffs. He can imagine how his father would gloat. Josh will never, ever let that happen.
Lucinda is standing there smirking and a streak of anger races through him, his eyes glancing down at the jar. The label says Sky Diamond… something on it – he can’t quite tell because her tiny fingers are covering the last word. “You make jam? How quaint. Must be nice to have so much free time.” He sneers at her.
There’s a flush on her cheeks and her eyes widen as if he’s landed a blow. He should feel satisfaction from it, but he doesn’t. The look on her face makes something in his chest tighten. Alarm bells ring in his head. This is so not good. He’s not supposed to care about this woman’s feelings and he’s not supposed to play into any of these weird games with her. They’re colleagues. Possibly nemeses. Most likely they’ll both be offered better jobs at other publishing houses in the next few months and he’ll never have to see her again. The tightness in his chest grows stronger with that thought and a jolt of adrenaline hits his system. Something is wrong with him. He’s hot and sweaty under her gaze and his pulse races. Her eyes give her an unfair advantage. They're a perfect blue. When she talks to people that aren't him, they sparkle.
He thinks of the first time he saw her, when she walked up to him with a smile so bright it made his stomach drop. He’d had to look out the window to regain his composure.
There’s no such smile today. Lucinda blinks and then scowls at him before flouncing back into Helene’s office. He takes a deep breath. Every interaction they've had since he met her has left him unsettled and he hasn’t been this flustered around a woman since, well, ever. He’s been on the back foot and he needs to turn it around. Not in an attempt to be friends. He doesn’t really do the friend thing and if he did, he doubts that sweet little Lucy would want to pal around with him. No, things need to change because of the nature of their jobs. If he's going to single handedly drag this company into fiscal responsibility he needs to have total authority. Plus, he's competitve.
Lucinda’s voice is sweet as honey in Helene’s office. “My mom made this for you.” It’s insane how she can change her attitude on a dime like that.
Helene coos at her assistant as if she’d walked in and presented her boss with bars of gold. “Oh, that’s so thoughtful of her, darling. So generous. How are things on the farm?”
The question seems harmless, but there’s a rapid click of too high heels on the tiled floor. His eyes dart towards Helene’s office just in time to see a beet faced Lucinda closing the door, her eyes flashing at him with a level of worry.
Well. Josh smiles a little. Clearly she didn't want him to hear that. He minimizes the financial report on his desktop and pulls up Google to search “Sky Diamond Farm.” 30 seconds later his smile grows wider as he clicks through some photos on a website. Lucinda grew up on a strawberry farm. Warmth rushes through him at the thought. He’s too caught up in looking at the pictures of her as a child to examine the feeling.
The door to Helene’s office remains shut for another half hour, giving Bexley the opportunity to sneak out without his new partner noticing. By the time Helene and Lucinda do emerge, Josh has read a week’s worth of the blog posts her mother, Annie, has written about life at Sky Diamond Strawberries. Honestly, it's fascinating. Helene pulls on her coat and then smiles at Josh as she belts it. “Goodnight, Joshua. It’s late, you should go home. I’ve told Lucy the same.” The lilt of her French accent makes her words sound sleepy and decadent. There’s a warmth to her that reminds him of his mother.
He nods, but there’s so much work that still needs to be done. He’s got hours to go and that suits him just fine. If he left now, he’d have to make up a reason to not meet Mindy for dinner. “Night, Helene.”
She walks away, the sounds of her heels far softer on the tile than those of her bulldog assistant. There’s the ding of an elevator arriving and then the sound of the doors sliding open and shut. The whir of machinery rises then fades.
Lucinda stands directly between their two desks, still staring off in the direction Helene left. Her arms are crossed over her stomach, but she seems relaxed, happy. It must be nice to work for someone you admire. Josh wouldn't know. He's had a distinct aversion to Bexley since the moment he met him.
Lucinda whirls around to him suddenly, as if she feels his eyes on her again and he’s disappointed to find he’s been staring. He’s got to stop looking at her. He has no idea why it keeps happening. He’s used to being in control, but for the past three weeks he’s had none around her. She’s annoying and tiny and her niceness is cloying. He’s already seen the way people take advantage of her kindness, although it doesn’t seem to register to her as such. If it did, she wouldn’t be so sweet to everyone.
She’s not sweet to him, though. Not anymore. He doesn’t blame her. Three weeks in his company will do that.
He wonders what it would take to see that smile again and then cuts the thought off immediately, burying it deep. He doesn’t like people. He definitely doesn’t like her. He tells himself that the way she needs everyone to like her so much is pathetic. He’d never let things slide the way she does just to gain approval. No wonder Gamin had been in so much trouble.
Lucinda’s eyes are cool, but they round with panic when they land on his computer screen. She gasps. “That’s my mom’s blog!“
He nods, actually intending to tell her that her mother is a talented writer, but Lucinda’s eyes have grown absolutely wild and she’s the one who’s swallowing hard now. This is the first time she’s looked as flustered as he feels.
He watches as she steels herself. “Stalker much?”
There’s a flicker of something in his gut. It’s not anger- it’s more like a thrill. She really didn’t want him to know. Finding out a secret of hers feels like it’s tipping the scales. He’s winning now. “You said last week I should get to know people. Maybe I want to get to know you.”
She looks from him to the computer and then back, weighing if there’s any sincerity in his statement. He’s not sure himself.
She’s on the back foot now. That’s twice in one day that he’s bested her. He could get used to it. “Sky Diamond Strawberries. I had no idea you grew up on a farm. Fitting, since you look like you were grown in a cabbage patch.”
Her cheeks positively flame. Her little red mouth pursing and her eyes flashing hot. She’s mad and it almost wrecks him to get a rise out of her like that. He feels like throwing his arms over his head in victory.
Most people back down from him after a snide remark, but she’s still standing firm. While he’s indulged her weird little staring competition for the past three weeks, he hasn’t really said much to her. Silence has always been his weapon of choice. Whenever she started taunting him, he ignored her, but this is much more fun. He watches her, wondering what she'll say. When she stays quiet there’s a flicker of disappointment in him. She should fight more for herself.
He leans back in his chair, hands comfortably resting on his stomach. “What’s wrong, Shortcake? Cat got your tongue?”
He might as well have waved a red flag at a bull. She takes two noisy, angry steps to his desk and presses her fingers against the glass top as she leans over to look down on him. She looks like an Amazon. “What did you call me?”
He has to think for a second. He almost smiles when he remembers. “Shortcake.”
She points a finger at him. “Never call me that again.” A shock of lust rushes through him at seeing her like this, eyes on fire and focus narrowed to him. She’s passionate and infuriating and her being feisty scratches an itch he didn’t even know that he had.
Her face relaxes a little and she starts to lean back as if he’s actually bowed to her command. He finds himself rising from his chair and copying her position. He leans forward, balancing on his own fingertips and towering over her. He doesn’t always use his size against other people, but he likes the way she has to tip her head back to meet his stare. “Why not?” His eyes flick over her lazily as if she has no effect on him at all. “It suits you.”
She glances at his mouth and the air shifts. He’s aware of the silence around them, the feel of his heart erratically beating in his own chest. Her eyes grow darker and his eyes are purposeful this time as they search her face to figure out why. She takes a quick, raspy breath, her cheeks flushing gently and he stills. The moment is full of possibility.
He thinks about leaning over and claiming her rose red mouth, sliding his lips over that perfect pout and then grabbing her by the waist to lift her over his desk. She weighs less than he lifts at the gym, it would be so easy to bring her across the glass until he's holding her against him. He could press her to the wall behind him, wrap her legs around his waist so she could feel how crazy she’s been making him. The thought stirs something dark inside him, something possessive and angry. He’s never felt this raw in his life. His hands flex as if he can feel her body being held by them. What would she do if he did that? He leans down as she lifts her chin further up. Their timing is perfect.
His cell phone rings on his desk. The moment breaks.
When he glances down, the screen is flashing Mindy’s name. His hand slides over to grasp the phone, but he makes no move to answer.
Lucinda’s eyes no longer smolder, having taken on a hint of unease, but she hasn’t budged an inch. “You gonna get that?”
He shakes his head and then watches as she does the same. His nostrils flair and he exhales sharply. A moment later she mimics the action. He leans back, rising up from the desk and she follows suit before turning. She walks to her own desk and flicks on her computer. With eyes locked they sit in their chairs at the exact same time. Finally they both look away.
He drops his phone back onto the desk. What had just happened? He needs to talk to Bexley about moving to another floor. Or about a partition wall. Three weeks ago, he’d been a mostly normal, albeit pessimistic, person living a mostly normal life. Now he was having fantasies about a pocket sized girl scout who was in dire need of psychiatric help. He'd been a heartbeat away from cheating on his girlfriend. He takes a steadying breath. He wouldn't really have done it. That’s not the kind of man he is.
He’s been under stress and Lucinda seems to delight in pressing his buttons. It was nothing more than that. It’s been a while since he and Mindy have slept together and that was just his sexual and work frustration wires getting crossed. When he was done working tonight he would hit the gym. Weights and some extra cardio would set him right. He goes to pull up the finance report, but his eyes are drawn back to Annie’s latest entry on the farm’s website. He can see Lucinda in the reflective walls glancing over at him nervously so he decides to keep reading. He likes knowing this is driving her crazy. Likes knowing that this is the thing that finally gives him some power. He knows something real about her. He wins today.
He blatantly clicks through the site, looking at the photos of the farm and then some suggestions for things to do and bed and breakfasts to stay at when visiting the area. His pulse begins to slow and he feels calmer just contemplating it. A trip to Sky Diamond Strawberries. It seems like an idyllic spot, like a place where nothing bad ever happens, and he briefly wonders if he and Mindy should go there. It might fix the way things are between them right now. He imagines Mindy picking strawberries and the jolt of wrongness that runs through him is so strong his heart skips. He looks at a picture of the farmhouse, the red and green fields in the background, and knows with certainty that he’ll never take Mindy there.
He's not sure he wants to take Mindy anywhere.
Guilt washes over him. Mindy is beautiful and kind and his mother adores her. She and his brother Patrick have gotten close, too. It often feels like she’s more a part of his family than he is. He exhales sharply. He’s going to try harder. Be nicer. He’s been overworked and he’s taken that out on her for months. It wasn’t fair and things needed to change. As if she’d sensed his thoughts, his phone's screen lights up with a text message from her. I know you’re busy, but I really need to see you tonight. He types a reply telling her that he’s finishing up and can be there in a half hour. Bubbles pop up on the screen but he waits a long time for her answer. Patrick is here too. Josh frowns, wondering why. Maybe something is happening with his father. He hopes everything is okay with his mother.
He glances up at Lucinda who is shutting her computer down with a somewhat shaky hand. He copies her action. The finance report can wait until morning. Their computer screens flicker out at the exact same time. She rises and so does he, matching her movements perfectly. They both grab their coats, eyes fixated on each other as their arms slide into heavier wool sleeves. His black. Hers a bright kelly green. It reminds him of the fields in the photos he’d been looking at. He walks towards her and just as he's about to pass by, she turns and falls in beside him. They make their way towards the elevator bank. In the spirit of playing fair, he shortens his longer stride. Their steps sync up instantly.
They turn a corner and take a few more steps before he reaches out and presses the call button. She does the same on the opposite wall. They stand, staring at each other in a stalemate. His elevator had better come first.
The sharp ring of an office phone breaks the silence this time and Lucinda startles, wobbling slightly in those heels. He almost reaches out to steady her.
She stares at him as if she can will him to walk back and answer the call. He shakes his head. “It’s not my phone. I forwarded everything to voice mail.”
Her eyes widen as she realizes her mistake. He mentally adds a point to his tally. Whatever game they’re playing, he’s definitely ahead. To add insult to her injury, the elevator behind him dings and the doors slide open. He walks in and then turns back to face her, shrugging his shoulders to silently tell her that he's just that good. She lets out a little groan of frustration and then stomps back towards her desk. He pushes the button for the garage.
He hears her answer her phone. “Lucy Hutton, how can I help you?”
He’d have picked up the receiver and then dropped it back down. This girl is too nice for her own good. “Night, Shortcake,” he mocks quietly. The word hangs in the air around him, light and sweet. He huffs out a laugh. It really does suit her. He gives himself another point for being so damn clever.
The elevator doors glide shut and he finds himself smiling, already strategizing. He's going to win again tomorrow.