Bossman

From New York Times, Wall Street Journal and USA Bestselling author Vi Keeland comes The Dirty Office Romance collection.

Book One: Boss Man

The first time I met Chase Parker, I didn’t exactly make a good impression. He found me hiding in the bathroom hallway of a restaurant, leaving a message for my best friend to save me from my awful date. But when the gorgeous stranger appeared at our table, my date suddenly went from boring to bizarrely exciting. When it was over and we parted ways, I thought about him more than I would ever admit, even though I knew I’d never see him again. What were the chances a month later he’d wind up being my new sexy boss?

Book Two: Egomaniac

Book Three: The Rivals

Age Rating: 18+

Note: This story can only be purchased with points.|This story is the author’s original version and does not have sound.

 

Bossman by Vi Keeland is now available to read on the Galatea app! Read the first two chapters below, or download Galatea for the full experience.

 


 

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Chapter 1

Summary

From New York Times, Wall Street Journal and USA Bestselling author Vi Keeland comes The Dirty Office Romance collection.

Book One: Bossman

Book Two: Egomaniac

Book Three: The Rivals

Age Rating: 18+

Note: This story can only be purchased with points.|

This story is the author’s original version and does not have sound.

Book One: Bossman

The first time I met Chase Parker, I didn’t exactly make a good impression. He found me hiding in the bathroom hallway of a restaurant, leaving a message for my best friend to save me from my awful date.

But when the gorgeous stranger appeared at our table, my date suddenly went from boring to bizarrely exciting. When it was over and we parted ways, I thought about him more than I would ever admit, even though I knew I’d never see him again.

What were the chances a month later he’d wind up being my new sexy boss?

If you want to know where your heart is, look where your mind goes when it wanders. – Unknown

Reese

What a waste of smooth, shaven legs.

“Jules? It’s Reese. Where the hell are you? I need you. This is the worst date I’ve ever been on. I’m literally falling asleep. I’ve considered smashing my head on the table a few times to keep awake.

“Unless you want me bloodied and bruised, I need you to call with a fake emergency. Call me back.

Please. ” Pressing end call, I blew out a frustrated breath as I stood outside the ladies’ room in the dark hallway at the back of the restaurant.

A deep voice from behind me caught me off guard. “Unless he’s also an idiot—in addition to being boring—he’s going to know.”

“Excuse me?” I turned to find a man leaning against the wall, his eyes pointed down as he texted away on his phone. He continued without looking up.

“It’s the oldest trick in the book…the emergency phone call. The least you can do is put in a little more effort.

“It takes two months to get a reservation at this place, and it’s not cheap, sweetheart.”

“Maybe he should be the one to put in more effort. His sports jacket has a giant hole under the arm, and he’s done nothing but talk about his mother all night.”

“Ever consider that your snobby attitude makes him nervous?”

My eyes nearly bulged out of my head. “You want to talk about snobby? You eavesdrop on my call and give me your unwelcome opinions, all while staring down at your phone.

“You haven’t even made eye contact with me while you’re speaking.”

The jerk’s fingers froze mid text.

Then I watched as his head rose, eyes following a leisurely path starting at my ankles, up over my bare legs, and lingering at the hemline of my skirt before continuing to trace their way over my hips, coming to rest briefly on my breasts before finally settling on my face.

“Yes, that’s right. Up here. These are my eyes.”

He pushed off the wall and stood tall, catching the lone ray that had been lighting the hallway. The streak illuminated his face, and I could see him clearly for the first time.

Really? Not what I was expecting. With that deep, raspy voice and attitude, I assumed I’d find someone older, probably dressed in a stuffy suit. But this guy was gorgeous. Young and gorgeous.

Dressed entirely in black—simple and sleek, yet there was an edge to the way he looked. Golden brown hair tousled in that sexy I don’t give a shit way, but still looked perfect.

Strong, masculine features—a square, rugged jaw coated with day-old stubble on sunkissed skin, a straight, prominent nose, and big, sexy, sleepy eyes the color of chocolate.

Those were now staring intently at me.

Without dropping my gaze, he lifted his arms from his sides, holding them up over his head. “You want to check me for rips before you decide if I’m worthy of speaking to?”

He was gorgeous all right, but definitely an asshole. “That’s not necessary. Your attitude has already decided that for me, and you’re not.”

Lowering his arms, he chuckled. “Suit yourself. Try to enjoy the rest of your evening, sweetheart.”

I huffed, but stole one last fleeting look at the beautiful jerk before I walked back to my date.

Martin was sitting with his hands folded when I returned to my seat at the table.

“Sorry,” I told him. “There was a line.”

“That reminds me of a funny story. This one time, I was at a restaurant with my mother, and when she went to use the ladies’ room…”

His voice faded away while I stared at my phone, willing it to ring. Damn you, Jules. Where are you when I really need you?

Around the middle of the story—at least I think it was the middle—I noticed the jerk from the bathroom walking past our table.

He smirked at me after taking a look at my rambling date and my disinterested face. Curious, I followed his path to get a look at who he was here with.

Figures.

Dyed blonde, pretty in a slutty sort of way, with a heaping amount of boobage falling out of her low-cut dress. She made googly eyes at her date as he returned; I rolled mine.

Yet…I couldn’t help but glance over at their table from time to time.

When our salads arrived, Martin was talking about his mother’s recent appendectomy, and I grew particularly bored.

My eyes must have lingered a minute too long, because the guy from the bathroom caught me staring at him. Across the restaurant, he winked, arched an eyebrow, and tipped his glass in my direction.

Jerk.

Since I’d been caught, why bother to hide my watching him? He was certainly more interesting than my date. And he wasn’t shy about looking my way either.

When a waiter stopped by his table, I watched as beautiful bathroom guy pointed in my direction and spoke.

Martin was still telling some mommy-dearest story as I glanced behind me to see what the attractive jerk across the room could’ve been pointing to.

When I turned back, the jerk and his date were standing. Reading his lips, I could make out some of what he was saying…something about joining an old friend, I thought.

Then suddenly, they were walking right toward our table.

Is he going to say something to Martin about what he overheard?

“Reese. Is that you?”

What in the hell?

“Umm…yes.”

“Wow. It’s been a long time.” He patted his hand on his chest. “It’s me, Chase.” Before I knew what was happening, the jerk (who was apparently named Chase) reached down and gripped me in a bear hug.

While I was in his arms, he whispered, “Play along. Let’s make your night more exciting, sweetheart.”

Dumbfounded, I could only stare as he turned his attention to Martin, extending his hand.

“I’m Chase Parker. Reese and I go way back.”

“Martin Ward.” My date nodded.

“Martin, mind if we join you? It’s been years since Buttercup and I have seen each other. I’d love to catch up. You don’t mind, do you?”

Although he’d asked a question, Chase definitely didn’t wait for a response. Instead, he pulled out a chair for his date and introduced her.

“This is Bridget…” He looked to her for help, and she filled in the blank.

“McDermott. Bridget McDermott.” She smiled, undaunted by our new double date or Chase’s obvious inability to remember her last name.

Martin, on the other hand, looked disappointed that our twosome was now a foursome, although I was certain he would never voice it.

He looked to Chase as he sat. “Buttercup?”

“That’s what we used to call her. Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup. My favorite candy.”

Once Chase and Bridget were seated, there was a moment of awkwardness. Surprisingly, it was Martin who broke it. “So, how do you two know each other?”

Even though Martin asked the question looking at both of us, I wanted to make it clear to Chase that he was the one on the hot seat. This was his little game.

“I’ll let Chase tell you about the first time we met.

“It’s really a funny story, actually.” I propped my elbows on the table and rested my head on my folded hands, turning my full attention to Chase while batting my eyelashes with a sly grin.

He didn’t flinch, nor did he take more than a few seconds to come up with a story. “Well, it wasn’t really the first time we met that’s the funny story—more like what happened after we met.

“My parents split up when I was in eighth grade, and I had to transfer to a new school. I was pretty miserable until I met Reese here on the bus the first week.

“She was the off-limits pretty girl, but I figured I had no friends to bust my balls if I asked her on a date and she turned me down.

“So, even though she’s a year older than me, I asked her to the eighth-grade dance. Surprised the shit out of me when she agreed to go.

“Anyway, I was young, with a healthy dose of testosterone, and I got it into my head that she was going to be my first kiss.

“All of my buddies back at my old school had already gotten theirs, and I figured it was my time.

“So, when the dance was coming to an end, I tugged Buttercup out of the crappy crepe-paper-and-balloon-decorated gymnasium and into the hall for some privacy.

“Of course, since it was my first time, I had no idea what to expect. But I went for it—got right in there and started to suck her face.”

Chase paused and winked at me. “It was all good up until then, wasn’t it, Buttercup?”

I couldn’t even respond. I was so floored listening to his story. But again, my lack of response didn’t seem to bother him because he went right along, weaving his tall tale.

“Anyway, this is where the story gets good. Like I said, I didn’t have any experience, but I dove right in—lips, teeth, tongue, and all.

“After a minute, the kiss started to feel awfully wet, but I was into it, so I kept going and going, not wanting to be the first one to pull away.

“Eventually, when we came up for air—literally since I’d almost sucked her face off—I realized why it had felt so wet.

“Reese had gotten a nosebleed in the middle of the kiss, and both of our faces were covered in smeared blood.”

Martin and Bridget laughed, but I was too stunned to react.

Chase reached out and touched my arm. “Come on, Buttercup. Don’t get embarrassed. Those were some good times we had. Remember?”

“How long were you two a couple?” Martin asked.

Just as Chase was about to respond, I reached over and touched his arm in the same patronizing way he’d touched mine. “Not too long. Right after the other incident, we broke up.”

Bridget clapped her hands and bopped up and down in her seat like an excited child. “I wanna hear about the other incident!”

“I’m not sure I should actually share it, now that I think about it,” I mused. “Is this your first date?”

Bridget nodded.

“Well, I don’t want you to assume Chase has the same problem anymore. Since our little incident was so long ago.” I leaned over to Bridget and whispered, “They gain better control as they grow older.

“Usually.”

Instead of being upset, Chase looked thoroughly pleased with my story. Proud, even. In fact, the rest of the evening went on pretty much the same way.

Chase told elaborate stories about our fake childhood, unafraid to embarrass himself in the process, and kept us all amused.

I sometimes added to his stories when my mouth wasn’t hanging open at the crap he’d made up.

I hated to admit it, but the jerk had started to grow on me, even while telling stories about my bloody nose and the “unfortunate bra-stuffing incident.” By the end of the evening, I was ordering coffee to stall the night’s end—a far cry from our exchange in the bathroom hallway.

Outside of the restaurant, Martin, Chase, and I all handed the valet our tickets. I preferred to be in control of when a first date started and ended, so I’d met Martin at the restaurant.

Of course Bridget had come in Chase’s car like a normal date. She was also practically rubbing up against his side as she clung to his arm while we waited for our cars.

When my shiny red Audi pulled up first, I wasn’t sure how to say goodbye to…well…anyone. I took the keys and lingered with the door open.

“Nice car, Buttercup.” Chase smiled. “Better than that hunk of junk you drove in high school, huh?”

I chuckled. “I suppose it is.”

Martin stepped forward. “It was nice seeing you, Reese. I hope we can do this again sometime.”

Rather than wait for him to attempt to kiss me, I went in for a hug. “Thank you for a nice dinner, Martin.”

As I stepped back, Chase stepped forward and pulled me into a hug. Unlike the friendly back-pat I’d given Martin, Chase plastered me against his body. God, it felt good.

Then he did the strangest thing… He wound my long hair around his hand a few times and closed it into a fist, using it to tug my head back.

His eyes lingered on my lips as I looked up at him, and for a brief second, I thought he might kiss me.

Then he leaned down and kissed my forehead. “See you at the reunion next year?”

I nodded, feeling almost off-kilter. “Umm…sure thing.” I glanced to Bridget after he released me. “Nice to meet you, Bridget.”

Reluctantly, I folded into my car. Feeling eyes on me, I looked up while putting my seat belt on. Chase watched me intently.

It looked like he wanted to say something, but after a few heartbeats, it felt strange to sit and wait any longer.

Taking a deep breath, I pulled away with one last wave, wondering why it felt like I was leaving something important behind.

 

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Chapter 2

Reese

Four weeks later

One hundred and thirty-eight, one hundred and thirty-nine, one hundred and forty. The last ceiling tile—the one all the way in the corner of my bedroom closest to the window—had cracked. That’s new.

I needed to call the super and get that replaced before it screwed up my daily count and started to cause me stress instead of helping alleviate it.

I was still lying on my bedroom floor after hanging up with Bryant, a guy I’d met at the supermarket last week (instead of the usual bar pick-up, which never seemed to pan out that great).

He’d called to tell me he was stuck at work and going to be an hour late for our second date, which was fine with me because I was tired and had no desire to get up anyway.

Taking a deep, cleansing breath, I shut my eyes and focused on the sound of my own breathing. In and out, in and out.

Eventually finding my calm, I hauled myself up off the carpet, freshened up my makeup, and poured a glass of wine before grabbing my laptop.

I browsed the New York marketing job posts on Monster.com for the sum total of five minutes before growing bored, and then I went on Facebook. As usual. Because job hunting sucks.

Scrolling through my friends’ posts, I saw the same old things—pictures of food, their kids, the lives they wanted us to believe they had. I sighed.

A picture of a guy I went to middle school with cradling his newborn son popped up in my feed, and my mind immediately went to the man I hadn’t gone to middle school with, Chase Parker.

I’d thought about my fake classmate more often than I cared to admit over the last month.

Odd little things made him pop into my mind—Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups on the impulse-buy shelf at the grocery store checkout (I bought them)

a picture of Josh Duhamel as I thumbed through People magazine in the waiting room at my dentist (Chase could easily pass for his brother—I might have torn out the page), my vibrator in my nightstand drawer

(I didn’t, but I thought about it.

I mean, I did have that page and all).

This time when the man leaped into my thoughts, before I knew it, I was typing Chase Parker into the Facebook search bar. My gasp was audible when his face popped up.

The flutter I felt in my chest was pathetic. God, he’s even more gorgeous than I remembered. I clicked to enlarge the photo.

He was dressed casually, wearing a white T-shirt, jeans with a rip at the knee, and black Chucks. It was a good look for him.

After spending a full minute appreciating his sexy face, I zoomed in and noticed the emblem on his T-shirt: Iron Horse Gym. There was one on the same block as the restaurant where we’d met.

I wondered if he lived nearby.

Unfortunately, I wouldn’t find out. None of his bio was set to public. In fact, the only picture I could see was that one profile picture.

I’d need to send him a friend request and have him accept if I wanted to see more. Although tempted, I decided against it.

He would probably think I was nuts sending a friend request to a guy who thought I was a bitch (and told me as much), who I’d met while we were both on dates with other people, and after a full month had passed.

But that didn’t stop me from screenshotting his photo so I could look at it again later. After several more minutes of daydreaming about the man, I gave myself an adult pep talk.

You need to find a job. You need to find a job. You have only one week of work left after this one. Get your ass off of Facebook.

It worked, and for the next fifty minutes I scoured the help wanted ads for something—anything—that sounded remotely cosmetics-marketing related, or even just remotely interesting.

I knew I shouldn’t bank on just the two interviews I had scheduled so far, but there wasn’t much out there.

By the time my doorbell buzzed, I felt deflated about ever finding a job to replace the one I’d held for the last seven years and, until recently, loved.

Bryant’s kiss when I opened the door definitely went a long way toward changing my mood. It was only our second date, but he certainly had potential.

“Well, that was a nice hello,” I breathed.

“I’ve been thinking about doing that all day.”

I smiled up at him. “Come on in. I’m almost ready. I just need to grab my bag and get my phone from the charger.”

He pointed to the front door after closing it behind him. “Did you have a break-in or something? What’s with all the extra locks?”

My front door had a regular lock and three deadbolts. Normally, I would answer honestly and explain that I felt safer with an extra lock or two and leave it at that. But Bryant wasn’t most dates.

He was really trying to get to know me, and if he pried further—as I worried he might—I’d be forced to open up about some things I wasn’t ready to yet.

So I lied. “The building manager is big on security.”

He nodded. “Well, that’s good.”

As I was clasping on a necklace in my bedroom, I yelled out to Bryant, “There’s wine in the fridge, if you want.”

“I’m fine, thanks.”

When I came out from the bedroom, he was sitting on the couch. My laptop was still open next to him from my job search.

I spoke as I fastened my earrings. “So what are we going to see?”

“I figured we could decide when we get there. There’s a Vin Diesel flick I want to see. But since I’m an hour late, I won’t argue if you aren’t a fan.”

I smiled. “Good, because I’m not. I was thinking more along the lines of that new Nicholas Sparks movie.”

“Pretty steep punishment for being late. It was only an hour, not three days,” he teased.

“That’ll teach you.”

Bryant stood as I walked over to shut my laptop. “By the way, who’s the guy in your background?”

My brow furrowed. “What guy?”

He shrugged. “Tall. Messy hair that would like stupid on me. I’m hoping it isn’t an ex-boyfriend you’re secretly hung up on. Looks like he belongs on an Abercrombie bag.”

Not having a clue what he was talking about, I opened my laptop back up to take a look. Shit. Chase Parker greeted me.

When I’d saved his picture from Facebook, I must have inadvertently also set it as my screen background. Seeing that gorgeous face again, I grew flustered. Yet Bryant was waiting for an answer.

“Umm… That’s my cousin.”

It was the first thing that popped into my head. After I said it, I realized it was a little bizarre to have a picture of your male cousin set as your background.

So I attempted to fix it with more lies—something out of character for me.

“He’s a model. My aunt sent me some of his recent headshots and asked for an opinion on which I liked best, so I downloaded them to my laptop.

“My friend Jules was drooling over them and set one as my background. I’m so low-tech, I don’t even know how to change it.”

Bryant chuckled and seemed to accept what I’d said.

What is it with Chase Parker and made-up stories?

***

On Thursday, I had an interview in the morning and a second scheduled for the afternoon. The subway was jam-packed, and the air conditioning wasn’t working.

So, of course, that also meant the only train running was a local, not an express.

Beads of sweat trickled down my back as I stood sandwiched between other sweating commuters. The large guy to my right wore a T-shirt with cut-off sleeves and held on to the pole above him.

My face was perfectly aligned with his hairy armpit, and his deodorant wasn’t working. My left side wasn’t exactly all sunshine and roses either.

While I was pretty sure the woman didn’t smell as bad, she was sneezing and coughing without covering her mouth.

I need to get off this train.

Fortunately, I arrived at my interview a few minutes early and could make a quick stop in the ladies’ room to fix myself up.

The sweat and humidity had smeared my makeup, and my hair was a frizzy mess. July in New York City. It seemed like the heat got stuck between all the tall buildings.

Digging into my pocketbook, I fished out some hairpins and a brush and was able to pull my auburn locks back into a neat twist.

The makeup would have to do with only a baby wipe as cleanup since I hadn’t thought to bring any eyeliner. I took off my suit jacket and realized I’d sweated through my silk shirt.

Shit.

I’d have to keep the hot jacket on for the entire interview.

A woman walked in while I was arm-deep inside my shirt with a damp paper towel, wiping sweat from my body. She caught what I was doing in the mirror.

“Sorry. It was so hot on the subway, and I have an interview,” I offered as explanation. “I don’t want to be a sweaty, smelly mess.”

She smiled. “Been there. Gotta break down and take a cab in July when it’s this humid and you have an interview for a job you really want.”

“Yeah. I’m definitely going to do that for my afternoon interview. It’s across town, and that’s the job I really want, so I might go all out—even stop in at Duane Reade for some deodorant, too.”

After I rushed to clean myself up, my morning appointment left me sitting in the lobby for over an hour before calling me in for the interview.

It gave me some time to fully cool down and also check out their latest product catalogs. They were definitely in need of a new marketing campaign.

I jotted down some notes on what I would change, in case the opportunity presented itself.

“Ms. Annesley?” a smiling woman called from the door leading to the inner office. I slipped on my suit jacket and followed her inside. “Sorry to keep you waiting.

“We had a small emergency this morning with one of our biggest vendors, and it had to be dealt with right away.” She stepped aside as we arrived at a large corner office. “Have a seat.

“Ms. Donnelly will be right in.”

“Oh. Okay. Thank you.” I had thought she was my interviewer.

A few minutes later the vice president of Flora Cosmetics walked in. It was the woman from the hallway bathroom—the one who’d seen me washing my armpits.

Great.

I was glad I’d at least done it without unbuttoning my shirt. I tried to recall what we’d spoken about, other than the weather. I didn’t think there was much.

“I see you’ve cooled off.” Her tone was very business-like, not at all friendly like it had been in the bathroom.

“Yes. Sorry about that. The heat really hit me hard today.”

She shuffled some papers on her desk into a pile and fired off her first question without any further small talk. “So, Ms. Annesley, why are you in search of a new job?

“It says here you’re currently employed.”

“I am. I’ve been with Fresh Look Cosmetics for seven years. I started there right out of college, actually. I worked my way up from marketing intern to director of marketing during that time.

“I’ll be honest, I’ve been happy there for my entire career. But I feel like I’ve hit a ceiling at Fresh Look, and it’s time I started to look for other opportunities.”

“A ceiling? How so?”

“Well, Fresh Look is still a family-owned company,

and although I admire and respect Scott Eikman, the founder and president, most of the executive-level positions are taken by members of the Eikman family—

one of whom, Derek Eikman, was just promoted over me to vice president.”

Saying it out loud still left a bitter taste in my mouth.

“So, people less deserving than you are promoted because of kinship? And that’s why you’re leaving?”

“I suppose that’s a big part of it, yes. But it’s also just time for me to move on.”

“Isn’t it possible that members of the Eikman family know the business better, having grown up in that world? Perhaps they are actually more qualified than other employees?”

What’s the bug up this woman’s ass? None of this nepotism is new. Hell, half of the Walmart execs are still blood-related to Sam Walton, and he’s been gone for two decades.

It was definitely not the time to add that I’d had too much to drink at last year’s company holiday party and slept with the then-director of sales, Derek Eikman.

It was a one-time thing, a drunken mistake with a co-worker after a year-long dry spell. I’d known it was a mistake ten minutes after it was over.

I just didn’t how big of a mistake until two days later, when the asshole announced his engagement to his girlfriend of seven years. He’d told me he was single and unattached.

When I’d marched into his office and told him off, he’d explained that we could still fuck even though he was engaged.

The man was a sleazebag, and there was no way I could work for him now that he’d been promoted to vice president. Aside from being a cheating pig, he also knew nothing about marketing.

“In my case, I’m relatively confident that I was the better candidate.”

She gave me a completely fake smile and folded her hands on her desk. Did I say something to upset her in the bathroom earlier? I didn’t think so… But her next question certainly jogged my memory.

“So tell me, what is it about your afternoon interview that makes the company seem superior? I mean, as a marketing expert, they must be doing something right to make you consider paying for a cab?”

Oh. Shit. I’d completely forgotten that I’d told her I was going to take a cab to my next interview—since that was the job I really wanted.

There was no digging myself out of the hole I was in after that. Even though, in spite of things, I thought I handled myself professionally, I could tell her mind was made up about me.

Just as the interview was coming to an end, an older gentleman popped his head into her office. “Sweetheart, are you coming for dinner tomorrow night?

“Your mother has been bugging me to get you to commit.”

“Dad, umm…Daniel, I’m in the middle of an interview. Can we talk about it later?”

“Sure, sure. Sorry. Stop by my office later.” He smiled politely at me and knocked on the door jamb as his goodbye before walking away.

My mouth hung open as I turned back to my interviewer. I already knew the answer, but asked anyway. “Daniel…Donnelly, the president of Flora Cosmetics, is your father?”

“Yes. And I’d like to think I earned the SVP of marketing job because of my qualifications, not because I’m his daughter.”

Yeah, right. Since I’d inserted my foot into my mouth twice today, I saw no point in prolonging the pain.

I stood. “Thank you for your time, Ms. Donnelly.”

My afternoon only got better after that. I’d just stepped out of my air-conditioned cab in front of the building where my two o’clock interview was scheduled when my phone started buzzing.

The company I’d been excited about interviewing with—the company I’d essentially ruined my first interview over—was calling to cancel my interview and let me know the position had been filled already.

Great. Just great.

Shortly after that, I received a kiss-off email from Flora, thanking me for taking the time to interview but letting me know they were going a different direction in their hiring.

And it isn’t even two o’clock yet.

After a quick shower, my plan was to attempt to wait until closer to five o’clock and then get shitfaced. Big plans. I’d wasted a day off during my last weeks of work for this crap.

Might as well enjoy myself.

I was lying on my bedroom floor in the middle of my counting routine when my cell rang. Reaching up to the bed, I patted the mattress until my hand landed on my phone.

Seeing Bryant’s name flash on the screen, I almost didn’t answer because of my mood, but then decided to pick it up on the last ring.

“Hey. How did your interviews go?” he asked.

“I stopped on the way home and picked up two extra bottles of wine. Take a guess.”

“Not good, huh?”

“You could say that.”

“Well, you know what we should do about that?”

“Definitely. Get drunk.”

He laughed as if I was joking. “I was thinking more along the lines of working out.”

“Exercising?”

“Yeah. It helps to get stress out.”

“So does wine.”

“Yes, but with exercise, you feel great the day after.”

“But with wine, I don’t remember the day before.”

He laughed. (Again, I wasn’t joking.) “If you change your mind, I’m on my way to Iron Horse Gym.”

“Iron Horse?”

“It’s on 72nd. I’m a member there. I have guest passes you can use.”

It had been more than a month since my bizarre encounter with Chase Parker, yet suddenly I found myself rethinking alcohol vs. exercise because the man wore an Iron Horse Gym T-shirt in his Facebook photo.

“You know what? You’re right. I should exercise to help me relax. After all, I can get shitfaced later if it doesn’t work.”

“Now you’re talking.”

“I’ll meet you there. How does an hour sound?”

“See you then.”

I seriously should’ve had my head examined.

I blowdried my hair and put on my sexiest exercise gear to go work out with a great guy I’d recently started dating, yet none of my efforts were really for him.

Instead, I had far-fetched hopes of seeing a guy who owned a T-shirt with the gym name on it—

a guy who thought I was a bitch and dated statuesque blondes with excessive cleavage, not five-foot-one, B-cup women with hips, even if I did have a tiny waist.

Forty minutes on the elliptical, and I was totally regretting my drinking-vs.-exercise choice.

Bryant was lifting weights on the other side of the gym, and I should have been happy that a nice guy had invited me to come work out. Instead, I was out of breath, disappointed, and thirsty.

Glad I chilled two bottles of wine.

When he was done, Bryant came over and asked if I wanted to go for a swim. I hadn’t brought a suit, but I told him I’d keep him company in the pool area.

While he went to change and rinse off, I walked on the treadmill to cool down. The slow speed allowed me to catch up on a backlog of emails on my phone.

One of them was from a recruiting firm indicating that they’d found me the perfect job overseas—in the Middle East—and asking if I was interested in doing a video conference with the company.

I thought the email was funny because there were so many misspelled words and grammar errors.

After Bryant changed, we walked to the pool area together. I read him the email as he opened the door.

“It actually says in the qualification requirements, ‘Must be sober, sane, and not overly dramatic’.

“Think they have a PMS problem in Yemen?” Looking down at my phone as I walked, I crashed straight into someone.

“Sorry, I wasn’t looking where—”

I froze.

The sight of Chase standing there was almost enough to knock me over. I’d secretly hoped to see him, yet never thought I actually would. What are the chances?

I did a double take, sure I was seeing things. But it was him all right, in the flesh. And what flesh it is.

Standing there shirtless and wet—wearing nothing but a pair of low-slung swim trunks—he had me stuttering. Literally.

“Ch…Ch…Ch—” I couldn’t get the word out.

Of course, Chase didn’t miss a beat. He smirked and leaned in. “You do a cute train impression, Buttercup.”

He remembers me.

I shook my head, attempting to snap myself out of it. But it was no use. He was so tall, and I was so short, I had no choice but to stare at his body. Water trickled down his abs.

I was mesmerized watching it speed up and slow down as it crossed the rippled lines of his six-pack. Damn.

I cleared my throat and finally spoke. “Chase.”

I was pretty freaking proud of myself for getting that much out. He had a towel slung around his neck and lifted it to dry off his dripping hair, revealing even more flesh.

His pectoral muscles were carved and perfect. And—oh, my God…is that… Holy shit. It is. His nipples were cold and erect, and one of them was….was…pierced.

“Good to see you, Reese. We don’t see each other for ten years, and now we’ve run into each other twice in a month’s time.”

It took me a minute to realize he was referring to our fake middle school years. His wit snapped me out of my haze.

“Yes. Aren’t I lucky?”

“I know you,” Bryant said.

I’d completely forgotten he was standing next to me. Hell, I’d forgotten anyone else on Earth existed for a minute. I furrowed my brow. Did the two of them actually know each other?

“You’re Reese’s cousin. The model.”

Shit! Shit! Shit! I wanted to crawl into a hole and die.

However, Chase (being Chase) went right along with it. He looked at me curiously as he spoke to Bryant. “That’s right. I’m cousin Chase. Aunt Bea’s youngest nephew. And you are?”

Bryant extended his hand, and Chase clasped it. “Bryant Chesney.” Then he turned to me. “I thought your mom’s name was Rosemarie? Same as my mom’s.”

Chase cut in smoothly. “It is. But some of us call her Bea. Nickname. She’s allergic to bees. Got stung at a family barbecue once. Her face swelled up, and the kids all called her Bea after that.”

Seriously, the man has to be a professional liar. He was so damn good at it, and he seemed to be turning me into one, too.

Bryant nodded like it all made sense. “Well, nice to meet you. I’ll let you two catch up while I get in a few laps.”

Just as Bryant began to walk away, Chase stopped him. “How did you know I was Chase? Aunt Bea showing off my pictures again?”

“Nah. Haven’t met any of Reese’s family yet. Saw your picture on her laptop.”

“My picture?”

“It’s Reese’s background on her MacBook.”

Forget the hole I wanted to crawl in to hide a minute ago. Now I closed my eyes and prayed for the Earth to swallow me up and never spit me back out.

Or for the superpower of turning the Earth backward so time could rewind. I stood completely still and counted to thirty with my eyes tightly shut.

When my time was up, I opened one eye, peeking to see if Chase had disappeared.

“Still here.” He smirked.

I covered my face with my hands. “I’m so embarrassed.”

“Don’t be. We’re not blood cousins, so it’s not too weird for you to be dreaming about me at night.”

“I was not dreaming about you at night!”

“So it’s only during the day while you stare at my picture on your laptop, then?”

“It was an accident. I didn’t mean to set it as my background.”

He folded his arms over his chest. “Okay. I’ll buy that.”

“Good, because it’s true.”

“But how, exactly, did the picture get on your laptop in the first place? I don’t remember you snapping a pic during our double date.”

I snorted. “Double date?”

“Speaking of which, what happened to Oedipus? Kicked to the curb so soon? I gotta admit, even though you went about trying to get out of your date all wrong, you weren’t wrong about that guy.

“Boring as shit.”

“He was.”

“So who’s this new dope you’re with?”

“Dope? You don’t even know him.”

“Left me standing here with his girl. Dope.”

“He thinks we’re cousins!”

“I told you, we’re not blood-related.”

“Yes, but—” I laughed. “You’re bizarre, you know that?”

“Not any more bizarre than a woman who somehow took a photo of a perfect stranger and has it on her MacBook for her boyfriend to see.”

“He’s not my boyfriend.” I had no idea why I said that. It was sort of true, but sort of not. “Well, we’ve gone out twice.”

“Ah…so you haven’t slept with him yet.”

I hadn’t, but how would he know that? “What makes you say that?”

“Because you’re not the type of girl who sleeps with guys on the first or second date.”

“How would you know?”

“I just do.”

“What exactly is the type of girl who sleeps with a guy on a first date?”

“She sends signals—dresses a certain way, makes body contact. You know the type. I know you do.”

“Like Bridget?” That woman had been pawing him by the end of the night.

He said nothing.

I thought it was oddly gentlemanly that he didn’t agree about Bridget or confirm what I suspected happened after their date.

“So how did you get a picture of me anyway?” he asked instead.

I told the truth. Well, mostly. “I searched for you on Facebook after that night in the restaurant. I wanted to say thank you for saving me and making the evening fun.”

“You sent me a message?”

“No. I never did. It sort of…felt creepy that I’d stalked you, so I changed my mind.”

“And you liked my picture so much that you kept it?”

“I went to bookmark the page in case I changed my mind about sending you that note, and instead I saved the picture.” I felt the blush creeping up my face. I’d always been a terrible liar.

My mom used to say I was easier to read than a book.

Surprisingly, Chase nodded. I hadn’t expected him to let me off the hook that easily. “Is this your regular gym? I haven’t seen you here before.”

“No. It’s Bryant’s gym. He invited me. I had a bad day and planned to wine away my stresses. But he suggested I come work them off at the gym instead.”

“Told ya. Dope. Definitely not what I would have suggested to alleviate stress if I was Brandon.”

“Bryant.”

“Whatever.”

“So what would you have suggested?”

“Nothing.” He changed subjects. “So why was your day so bad, anyway?”

“Two job interviews. The first one I blew before I even walked into the office, and the second one blew me off just as I pulled up to their building.”

“You’re out of work?”

“Not yet. But I will be as of next Friday. Probably wasn’t the smartest move to give notice in this economy before I found another job.”

“What do you do?”

“Marketing. I was the director of marketing for Fresh Look Cosmetics.”

“Small world. I’m friendly with Scott Eikman, the president of Fresh Look. We play golf together sometimes.”

“Eight and a half million people in our little city, and my fake middle school boyfriend slash non-blood-related cousin golfs with the head of my company? That is bizarre.”

Chase laughed. “Scott’s retiring next year, right?”

“Yep. Moving to Florida and all. He has two sons who will probably take over.” Ugh. Derek. I wished he was moving to Florida. Or Siberia.

Chase and I had been standing just in front of the pool door since we bumped into each other. A guy knocked on the glass and flashed a Dr. Pepper, dangling it in the air.

Chase held up two fingers in response, then explained. “We made a bet. I kicked his ass in lap times. That’s my prize.”

I arched a brow. “A Dr. Pepper?”

“It’s good stuff. Don’t knock it or I won’t bring it to the next family barbecue.”

After another minute, his friend banged again. This time, he waved his hand to Chase as if to say, what the hell is taking you so long?

Chase nodded. “I gotta run. We have a dinner meeting in a half hour, and I need to shower.”

I tried to hide my disappointment. “Well, it was nice running into you, cuz.”

Our eyes locked for a minute. Just like the end of the night at the restaurant, Chase looked like he wanted to say something.

But instead, he glanced back over his shoulder to where Bryant was swimming, and then pulled me in for a hug, wrapping my ponytail around his fist and tugging my head back to look up at him.

His eyes lingered on my lips before he kissed my forehead. “Later, cuz.”

He took a few steps toward the locker room door before stopping and turning back. “I have a friend who’s a bulldog recruiter. Why don’t I put you in touch with her?

“Maybe she can help find you something?”

“Sure, I’d love that. I’m not having much luck by myself. Thank you.”

I handed him my cell, and he programmed in his number then sent a text to his own phone so we’d have each other’s contact information. Then he was gone. Immediately, I felt longing.

The odds of running into him a second time in this tremendous city were probably as long as being struck by lightning.

It would be less than a week before I found out sometimes lightning strikes twice.

 

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