“Well, I think that’s all the questions I had today.”
Sitting at the expansive conference room table in Tony Blake’s Romanesque financial offices, Joan glances at her wristwatch and uncrosses her legs as subtly as she can. Although she and Tony have done a lot of business together over the past eight months, letting down her guard with him, even for a second, still seems awkward.
“Okay. So, there’s just one more thing.” Tony closes the folder containing their latest contract, noting the new investments she and Lane had discussed. He scratches the top of his hand before folding one palm over the other. His pallid face widens into a pained smile, emphasizing his round, sanguine cheeks and bulbous nose. “And I’ll be straight with you here. Joan, I’m not going to be representing your account anymore.”
She blinks at him, completely floored.
“Listen, it’s not you,” he says quickly. Which, of course, means that it is her, but she still doesn’t understand. What in god’s name has she ever done to offend him, or the other partners, or the board of directors? Why would he throw away a working relationship with no warning? “Carl is gonna do such a great job for you guys. I just—well, let’s just say it’s for personal reasons. That’s all.”
Before Joan’s better instincts can kick in, and before he can deliver the rest of this planned little breakup speech, she’s already streamrolling right over him.
“I’m sorry. Are you leaving the firm?”
“Then have I done something to offend you?”
“What? Oh, no, honey, of course not.”
“Don’t call me honey.”
“Crap.” The back of his neck suddenly glows so pink that he looks sunburned. “Sorry. I mean, that’s not what I meant at—”
“Is it because I took over the management of this account?”
Because he’d rather deal with Cooper? Or Lane? Another man, obviously?
“No!” He clears his throat. His eyes skitter away from hers. “Not exactly…”
“Tony, you listen to me. If you have a problem with the way I do business—” Joan has no idea where this is coming from, words are pouring out of her mouth like venom from a snake’s fangs as she rises smoothly to her feet “—then you can tell Carl he’s got one less customer to worry about. Why don’t you take that portfolio and shove it where the FDIC can’t—”
“Will you quit yelling?” he finally snaps. “I’m taking myself off the account because I like you. Okay?”
Joan’s mouth is still open, but no words are coming out. She quickly closes it.
He huffs out a bitter laugh as he hides his eyes behind one hand. “That’s why I gave Carl the account. I didn’t want you to think, you know, that it was anything unprofessional. Jesus. I was gonna be real smooth. Wait until you left today, and then call you up, and ask you to dinner. That way, even if you didn’t say yes, we didn’t have to—you wouldn’t have to worry about running into each other.”
The rest of her angry tirade deflates inside her chest like a popped Macy’s Thanksgiving Day balloon.
Very slowly, she lowers herself back down into her chair. God, she is such a moron. As the seconds tick by, Joan cannot fathom how she misread this situation so badly. She’s certain she hasn’t been this wrong about a man since her junior year in college, when the professor she was dating dumped her out of the blue, and turned out to be married with a wife and kids living twenty miles away.
Tony raises his head, and one glance shows that his face is almost fire engine red. “So, uh. Carl—he’s a nice guy.”
“Sure,” she says faintly. At that specific moment, she probably couldn’t pick Carl out of a police lineup.
“Listen, I don’t want you to think that I don’t respect you or the way you do business, because I do. Joan, you’re one hell of a woman. I’m not saying that just for cheap flattery. I really mean it.”
Joan actually grins, and when she glances back at Tony, his eyes have widened in a hopeful way.
“Least I got you to laugh.”
“Don’t count your chickens.” Despite her best efforts, her mouth twitches into another wide smile. “You did all of this because you have feelings for me?”
“Feelings.” He snorts out a breath. “If you want to put it that way, yeah. But I meant what I said before. I do like you. I think you’re amazing. And I just, uh, want to get to know you better.”
He gives her a stiff smile. “That’s it.”
Joan folds her hands on her lap, one over the other, tracing her thumb over a vein in her wrist as she considers what she wants to say first. When she glances up, she meets his eyes immediately and without hesitation.
“I’m sorry I yelled at you.”
“Yeah?” he asks.
“Yes.” Joan smiles at him this time. Jitters of anticipation buzz over her skin, and in a split second, she makes her decision. “You can take me to dinner, if you’d still like that.”
His round face lights up, and for a second, Joan feels the heady, familiar rush of excitement she used to get when a nice-looking man would ask her out.
“You mean it?”
“Why not?” she says, and offers him another, more genuine smile.
“Oh, that’s great. Okay.” He lets out a deep breath, and then another. Relief is pouring off of him in waves. “Well. Uh. Let’s set a date. And then I guess I’ll walk you over to Carl’s office.”
“Okay,” Joan says, and gets out her personal book.
When she gets back to the office, Joan pours a huge dram of brandy directly into the nearest glass. Just as she’s fumbling to replace the bottle cap, the back door opens, and standing in the throughway is Dawn, with a job file under one arm.
“Oh, Joan! I’m sorry, I thought you were at lunch.”
“No,” sighs Joan, but there must be some kind of shadow on her face, because Dawn narrows her eyes, glances down at the brandy bottle, and then back to Joan.
“You’re drinking this early in the morning?”
God, the judgment in her voice! After a second of thought, Joan pushes an empty glass in Dawn’s direction, and leans against her desk drawers so the secretary can get in and pour herself a drink without knocking over anything important. Dawn obviously gets the hint, because she pulls an intrigued face, shuts the door behind her, and sets the job file on the floor before crossing to the bar.
Joan decides to start talking while Dawn’s still got her back turned. For some reason, it’s easier to tell if she doesn’t have to see the surprise bloom over the other woman’s face like an open sunflower.
“Tony Blake asked me out to dinner.”
The crunch of ice cubes being scraped out of their bowl is obvious, especially once Dawn’s hand stills and the silence becomes potent. But the other girl still doesn’t comment, just starts scooping up ice again as if Joan didn’t say a word.
“He’ll take himself off the account, of course.” As if Joan wouldn’t have considered the offer otherwise. Ten years ago—maybe even five—she wouldn’t have given it a second thought before saying yes. “It was just unexpected.”
Dawn is obviously trying to keep her voice neutral. “But it’s a bad thing?”
“I don’t know,” says Joan, and truly, she doesn’t. She was excited in the moment, once they’d gotten past the misunderstandings, but after meeting Carl and during the long cab ride back to the office, the excitement had morphed into a slick anxiety, as if she were expecting an urgent phone call with bad news instead of looking forward to a pleasant evening out.
“Well. I guess it doesn’t really matter unless you like him.”
Joan doesn’t suppress her eyeroll this time. “Really?”
“I don’t mean to pry, of course.” Dawn turns around. Her glass has no liquor in it, and a miniature bottle of club soda now sits open next to the rest of the tall glass bottles. That girl is so strange.
Well, they’ve come this far. Joan might as well tell her the truth.
“He’s sweet. I could like him. That’s not the point.”
She’s spent almost an hour mulling this over. Tony is thoughtful and kind, if a little reserved. And although he’s not stylish or important, he’s nice-looking, and educated, and seems to appreciate her for more than her cup size. He’s certainly not someone worth writing off. Plenty of people don’t like each other right away. Sometimes it takes time to get to know them. And if the physical chemistry is there, there’s no reason to get amped up over whether she wants to doodle his name in a notebook from minute one.
“Isn’t it?” Dawn asks, with a suspicious look.
“Some of us are a little more adventurous than others,” Joan says crisply.
Dawn’s mouth tightens. Joan decides not to push the envelope much further. As much as she doesn’t like being condescended to, she does need to discuss this with someone. Even if, tragically, the conversation is with someone who doesn’t quite understand the bigger picture.
“Anyway, I’m not sure if it’s a good idea in this specific case,” Joan continues. “For the obvious reasons.”
A wistful part of her desperately wants to discuss this with Lane, but Joan quashes that thought immediately. You can’t tell him, so don’t bother.
But why can’t she tell him? The pulsing gut feeling that accompanies this idea is so insidiously uncomfortable that Joan isn’t even sure if she can voice it without sounding like a fool. Because it would make him upset. He’d be disappointed in her. She’s not tiptoeing around his feelings because of February; she just knows that’s the logical outcome. He doesn’t like when people mix business and pleasure; he sees it as irresponsible. Years ago, he didn’t like it when men in the office were supposedly looking at her instead of concentrating on their jobs.
I understand all men are dizzy and powerless to refuse you…
“So you said no.”
But you’re not people. You’re his friend, and he’s yours. Why can’t you tell him?
Joan shakes her head; the gesture is so minute her earrings barely sway from side to side. She quickly takes another drink.
“You said yes?”
“He was very thoughtful,” she says, defensively.
When she glances back at Dawn, the younger woman is studying her with narrowed eyes, as if she’s just figured out something important, but isn’t quite sure how to voice it.
“Have you made many friends since you and your husband…?”
Joan huffs out a stunned noise, and turns a warning glare on the other woman. Years ago, this kind of look would have sent even experienced secretaries running for the hills. Today, not even close. Dawn just lifts her chin and meets Joan’s imperious gaze without hesitation.
“Because I could understand why you’d be nervous, if that were the case.”
“For god’s sake, Dawn. I’m not a twelve-year old,” Joan hisses, too rankled to be anything but blunt. “This isn’t my first rodeo.”
The secretary actually grins. Suddenly, all the crackling tension in the air is gone. It feels less like Dawn is sizing Joan up and more like the girl’s just too prudish to say whatever’s really on her mind.
“No one said it was. You do look a little pale, though.”
“I can’t believe you actually asked me that.” Joan thinks she understands Dawn’s line of questioning now. Dawn thinks she’s spooked. Divorced and almost forty and scared to dip a toe back into the water, at least where it counts.
The other door opens; Joan almost jumps out of her skin when she cranes her neck to see who it is, and spies Lane standing in the doorway with a thin manila folder gripped in one hand.
“Oh.” He cocks an eyebrow at the two of them, plainly intrigued. “Sorry. Am I interrupting?”
“Hi, Mr. Pryce,” says Dawn with a gentle smile. “We’ll be just another minute.”
Dear god. Joan makes an apologetic face at him in lieu of explaining why Dawn’s here with a glass in her hand. He probably thinks they’re six sheets to the wind.
“I’ll come find you once we’re done,” she tells him.
“Well. There’s really no hurry. Whenever you’re finished.”
Lane’s practically twinkling as he closes the door, and for the millionth time today, Joan wonders why she’s so unwilling to tell him the truth. He’s going to want to know why she and Dawn are drinking at eleven A.M. For god’s sake, he’s definitely going to see that the account changed hands. What the hell is she supposed to tell Lane instead? That Tony just doesn’t like them? That he’s an idiot? That he’s quitting?
Joan stands up, drains her glass, and wipes the corners of her mouth with two fingers—careful not to muss her lipstick—before she sets her glass back onto the wooden bar cart.
“You should probably go. I have a meeting.”
“Okay,” Dawn sets her club soda onto the hardwood. The glass clicks gently against the polished surface. “Well, whatever you decide, I’m sure it’ll be just fine.”
Joan isn’t sure if this is meant to be a facetious thank you or if it’s actually sincere, but she doesn’t have time to dwell on the subtext, because Dawn says goodbye and slips out of the room before Joan can even get the rest of her scrambled brain back together.
Lane’s lying on the sofa in his office, facing the unlocked door, as Joan lies next to him. Smirking, she strokes one hand across the front of his open trousers, and quickly divests him of the rest of his layers. With one teasing finger, she traces up the underside of his bare, hot cock from root to tip, which makes him squirm against her touch.
“Tell me when it feels good,” she murmurs as she begins to stroke him in earnest, her playful sinuous voice curling and licking into every part of his body and sending shivers down his legs. It feels wonderful. All he can do is curl up into her side. His hands grip the blousy sleeves of her summer dress and his face is buried in her neck.
“It—it,” oh, god, he can barely speak, her caresses are so impossibly wicked. Her low, knowing voice, the sure touch of her hand—the fact that someone could walk in on them at any moment! “’S too much, ‘m gonna—”
Sweet perfume and clean shampoo and the sweat of her overwhelm the last of his senses. Without warning, he comes all over her hand with a bitten-back cry.
Seconds later, Lane snaps awake in the dark, facedown on the mattress with the top sheet knotted around his waist and a very obvious wet spot dampening his right hip. Oh, damn it.
This time, he’s less careful about stripping the bed, and throws everything into a messy pile a couple of feet away from the bedroom door: sheets, mattress cover, blankets, whatever. He skins off his pajamas on his way to the door, kicks them into the pile, and then picks everything up to take it to the wash.
He’s so annoyed he even leaves his robe untied during the walk over. If Lewis is awake, it’s his own fault for seeing things he shouldn’t.
Lane grumbles about his rotten luck all the way back to the machines, sets the water on hot, slings in a scoop of detergent and tosses the linens into the basket with a growl.
As he turns to leave, and ties his robe firmly around his middle, Lane realizes that there’s a light now blazing in the kitchen, illuminating the dining room table and the side of the long countertop.
He pads out of the laundry room and discovers his brother sitting at the head of the table in a thick red quilted robe. Lewis is rumpled and bleary-eyed, with pillow creases still lining one side of his face. He’s wearing his bifocals, which is shocking enough – thinks they make him look ancient – but what’s truly baffling is that he’s leafing through a jewelry catalog.
“You’re keeping very tidy,” Lewis says without looking up. A fresh mug of tea steeps at his right hand.
Lane flushes pink, and decides to tell a bit of a white lie.
“Oh. Erm. Couldn’t remember if I’d, er, washed them or not.”
Judging by Lewis’s raised eyebrow, his brother doesn’t seem to believe this, but doesn’t dispute it, just flips to the next page of the catalog. Lane peers more closely at the cover. As far as he can tell without his glasses, it appears to be the usual illustrations: various types of glamourous lipsticked women sporting colorful outfits and diamond accessories.
“Why on earth are you looking at that?”
“Very simple.” Lewis flips to the next page, and quickly folds down the corner, as if he’s seen something he likes. “Getting Mark a gift.”
“No, you aren’t,” Lane scoffs immediately, and waves one hand at the catalog’s cover, thankful that the joke is so obvious. If he really did have to talk about Lewis buying his flatmate some sort of expensive lover’s gift, he might well throw himself off the roof. “That’s all—ladies’ things.”
His brother makes a noncommital noise. “Nonsense. Plenty of chaps like a handsome diamond bracelet.”
Lane knows better to take the man seriously when he’s in such a sardonic mood, and goes to refill the kettle. Only once he replaces the kettle on the stove, and returns to the table, does Lewis even bother to look up. He peers at Lane over the wire rims of his bifocals and cocks one eyebrow in an amused way.
“Peeping out, aren’t we, darling?”
“What? Why didn’t you—?” Lane glances down in a panic before he realizes he’s perfectly decent, and snaps his head back up to glare at Lewis. “Oh, that is not funny, you—utter ass!”
“Can’t believe you fell for that one,” his brother says with a smirk. “Now tell me honestly, what do you think of this brooch? Too modern?”
“Oh, no one cares,” Lane huffs, and sinks into a nearby chair.
“Joanie, are you even listening to me?”
Joan snaps to attention, embarrassed to be caught daydreaming, and meets her mother’s inquisitive gaze across the breakfast table.
Her mother snorts out a laugh over the rim of her coffee mug. “Let me guess. It’s about a boy.”
Joan makes a disgusted face. “Mom.”
“I a boy!” Kevin interrupts brightly, before Joan can say another word. His tiny, still-clumsy fingers wrap around each Cheerio with laser-like determination as he brings fistfuls of dry cereal up to his mouth. Although he only ends up eating about a quarter of the Cheerios on his tray, his coordination is improving every day. God, he’s getting so big. Where did her tiny little baby go?
“Yes, you are a boy.” Joan scrunches up her nose and leans in to kiss his hair with a playful growl. Kevin squeals and gurgles in wordless delight. “You’re my favorite boy. And Mama is going to eat that yummy cereal right up.”
“Noooooo, Mama. Mine!”
Kevin immediately goes back to his breakfast.
Mom waits until Joan takes another sip of tea before she resumes her line of questioning. “So what’s wrong with him?”
“It’s not about—” Joan bites her lip, and cuts herself off. Mentally, she’s halfway into the explanation before she realizes she doesn’t have the right words. “Nothing’s wrong with him. He’s very thoughtful.”
Her heart speeds up every time she even thinks about breaking the news to Lane. Joan doesn’t understand why she’s making it so goddamn difficult for herself. Telling Lane about this kind of thing should be very straightforward. Tony is kind and smart, he and Lane already get along, and honestly, it’s just one date, not a shotgun wedding.
It might not even go well. She might not even want to see him again. Maybe she should wait until they go out more than once before breaking the news?
“Is he ugly?” her mother asks.
“No, he’s not ugly.” Joan taps short red nails against the table before clarifying, for everyone’s benefit. “It’s probably just—” she glances right, and lowers her voice “—I don’t think one night is worth upsetting anyone over.”
Her mother frowns at her. “Who the hell would it upset?”
“No one,” Joan sighs. “Jesus. I’m just overthinking things.”
“Heehus,” Kevin echoes through a mouthful of dry cereal, then giggles when he sees their surprised expressions, flailing his arms like this is the best joke in the world. Soggy Cheerios spray across his tray.
Joan winces, and reaches out with her napkin to wipe cereal mush off of one of his hands.
“Well, if you don’t want to sleep with the man, then don’t bother going,” her mother says archly. One of her plastic curlers unrolls out of her hair and falls onto the lineoleum with a plink! “You know and I know there’s no use forcing it.”
“Thanks for the free advice,” Joan says flatly. She glances over at the clock. Almost seven thirty. “I should get dressed.”
“What does this say? Eleven?”
Joan peers across the desk at the invoice Lane’s waving at her. Right Guard, September, and there’s a strange brown spot next to the top of the subtotal column, which has warped the paper near the right corner, just beside the last two invoice numbers.
“Yes,” she says after a minute, “but I think it’s smudged, so don’t feel bad.”
“Oh, is it?” He squints at the pages, then shakes his head, and puts them aside, reaching for his legal pad to write down some kind of notation. “Didn’t notice.”
“You need to get your eyes checked,” she says with a snort.
Lane grins. It’s another one of their inside jokes. She’d forgotten her own glasses, one day, and had made a fairly egregious typo on one of the spreadsheets as a result. Naturally, he’d made some deadpan remark, and she’d laughed so hard she snorted water out of her nose.
“Don’t think so. Obviously, I’ve got perfect vision.”
Someone knocks, and the door opens within seconds; standing there is Scarlett, with a puzzled expression on her face.
“Sorry to interrupt. Mr. Blake wants to speak with you.”
Joan’s heart drops into her stomach.
“Oh. Well, I—I’ll call back in a little while. We’re just finishing invoices.”
“No, he’s not on the phone,” Scarlett says slowly, and glances back over her left shoulder. Before Joan can react, she hears footsteps moving toward them, and after another second, Tony peers around the doorway.
“Thought I’d drop by, say hello. I was just at lunch in the St. Regis.”
“My goodness.” Lane’s voice booms with excitement. The butterflies in Joan’s stomach turn into a swarm as Tony steps into the room and the two men shake hands. “Well, you’re always very welcome.”
“Thanks.” Tony grins at Lane, and then at Joan; his eyes soften noticeably as she meets his gaze. “Got a minute to talk?”
“Of course.” Lane seems oblivious. “Would you like anything to drink?”
Joan glances over, takes in Lane’s broad grin and his carefree demeanor with mounting panic as he gets up and walks over to the credenza. How is she going to explain this? How is she going to tell him?
“What? Oh, no, thanks. Full up from lunch.” Tony winks at Joan, who almost flushes red under the attention.
“Ah! That can be a problem, yes.” Lane doesn’t seem to have noticed the tension in the room. He returns to his seat, still as chipper as before. “Now. We weren’t scheduled to meet today, were we?”
“No, no,” Tony assures him. “I just came by to chat about some restaurants.” He clears his throat, and turns to Joan again, with a more expectant look. “Joan, do you have a little time now?”
“I can make time, if that’s all right,” Joan says helplessly, as she casts an apologetic look back at Lane. His brow is furrowed in confusion; she can practically see the gears turning in his head as he glances back and forth between them. Oh, god. Please don’t ask any questions. Please don’t say anything stupid. She clears her throat, and turns back to Tony. “Why don’t you have Scarlett show you to my office? We can talk there.”
“Sorry. Hang on. This isn’t—you mean you’re not—talking about the portfolio?”
A light of understanding has dawned in Tony’s face.
“No.” He clears his throat. “I, uh, actually gave up the account. Um. Joan, if you don’t mind, I think I will have your girl take me over.”
“Sure,” Joan says faintly, waving one hand in the vague direction of her office. By the time she hears the door across the hall open and close, she’s already on her feet, smoothing what feels like a nonexistent wrinkle out of her dress. She can’t even meet Lane’s eyes.
“I’ll be back in a little—”
“What does he mean, you’ll—you’re going to chat about restaurants?”
Oh, shit. Joan has to refrain from putting one hand to her abdomen. Her stomach is roiling with nerves; she’s so anxious she thinks she might puke if she doesn’t get the words out correctly. It’s as if they’re stuck in her throat.
“I mean, if you’re giving him personalized recommendations, he really ought to be more considerate of your—”
“He asked me out,” Joan says in a rush. “And I said yes.”
Lane stops talking. All the air seems to rush out of the room as he stares back at her, mouth open, and his eyes blinking soundlessly behind his thick glasses.
“I was going to tell you about it once the account officially changed hands,” a lie, a lie, Jesus Christ, why is she such a liar, “but now you know. So. That’s it. We—Carl’s the new manager. He’ll meet with us again early next month.”
Lane still hasn’t said anything. Joan’s heart pounds so quickly against her chest that she feels lightheaded. Oh, god. He’s furious. He’ll scream at her, or accuse her of being unprofessional, and if he does any of that, she honestly doesn’t know how she’ll respond. Her nerves are practically raw and her stomach is still in knots and she honestly feels a little like crying.
“Right.” Lane’s voice is very clipped. Her heart sinks when she finally gets the courage to meet his gaze, and sees the taut pinch of anger in his thin mouth. “Well. That’s different, then.”
“Lane,” she rushes to say.
“No.” He’s shaking his head. “It’s—you really needn’t explain.”
She doesn’t understand why this answer upsets her so much. “But I—”
“Joan, for god’s sake. Just do whatever you like. Go out with him, if you fancy the man so much. It really doesn’t matter what I think, obviously.”
It’s like being doused in cold water. She feels stupid and small and so very, very frustrated that she can’t even think straight.
“Fine,” is all she says before she turns to leave.
As she steps into the hallway and closes Lane’s door behind her, she lets out a deep breath, and tries to put on her best face. Tony’s excited to see her, and she should be excited to see him, and she needs to stop pouting already.
Wasn’t this what you wanted, to get everything out in the open?
She walks into her office, through the open door, and the relieved smile she summons up when Tony beams at her is only half-faked.