Read an Excerpt
A Friendly Engagement
By Christine Warner, Karen Grove
Entangled Publishing, LLCCopyright © 2015 Christine Warner
All rights reserved.
Omar Esterly stared out the bank of windows in the downstairs lobby of his office building. He took a large bite of the loaded hot dog he'd bought moments ago from the nearby vendor and chewed slowly as a throng of rowdy tourists overtook the sidewalk outside. Although he had no reason to stress, or complain for that matter, his insides were tied in knots. Since he'd taken over the company from his father six years ago, the financial planning firm had more than doubled in size. Clients were coming out of the woodwork in droves, but the one contract he'd worked toward for the last three years still eluded him. He'd kept his work on this contract under wraps from everyone but his assistant, hoping to surprise his father by securing the larger-than-life client on his own merit, making it his final goal in earning the old man's respect. Unfortunately, Leland Esterly had other plans. Affording to retire at an early age hadn't benefited him one bit. All the years he'd worked inhumane hours, indulged in greasy foods, and constantly toked on his beloved Cubans had taken their toll on his heart. He'd died before Omar could prove himself with the deal of the decade. Hard to believe almost a year had passed since they'd buried him.
He closed his eyes and tried to ease the tension knotted between his shoulders by rolling his head from side to side. If only he could figure out a way to score an invite to William Bartow's weeklong meet and greet that didn't include the man's main requirement.
Why had Bartow decided the next firm he worked with would be family oriented? What the hell did having a family have to do with business anyway?
Omar looked up through the open atrium of the building, past the numerous offices that were housed on the outer walls of the building, until he could see the evening sky littered with thousands of stars. He sent a silent salute to his idol. Alone, his old man had built Esterly Financial more than thirty years ago from hard work, determination, and sweat. He'd groomed Omar from birth to take over everything. His father had been the smartest man alive, and Omar missed strategizing with him. If anyone could've come up with an idea to help Omar get invited to the billionaire's oceanfront retreat, it'd have been his old man. Once there, Omar only had to show the man his plan and win the damn contract. But in order to do that, he first had to get an invite.
He rubbed the muscles banded along his neck and jumped when someone touched his arm. He turned to meet the piercing gray-blue eyes of his assistant, Devi. Their light color and unfailing concentration always gave him the eerie feeling she knew what he thought. Sometimes before he did.
She smiled as she brushed her fingers through her dark brown-black hair. The soft jingle of her bracelets dragged him away from his thoughts.
"Quitting time, Omar. I thought you'd already left so I locked up the office airtight."
"What are you still doing here?" He hadn't noticed her at the desk when he'd come down earlier, but then his mind had been on Bartow.
"More than likely the same thing you are. Working," she said in a deadpan voice, tilting her head to the side and tucking a strand of her shiny hair behind one ear.
Omar couldn't stop the smile spreading across his face. There were so many times he envied Devi. She had no inhibitions and always spoke her mind, even if she was talking to the boss. She'd taught him to speak his mind as well — at least when he was with her.
If only he could be more like her. Learn how to blend his personal life with his professional life. Over the years he'd lost some of his identity. All because he didn't dare show certain aspects of his personality — especially humor. His father had considered it a character flaw, a weakness.
But with Devi he had an outlet. She not only brought out his humor, but she never judged, no matter if it was good, bad, funny, or not so funny.
Devi peeled back a section of her own hot dog wrapper and took a healthy bite. She closed her eyes, her head swaying from side to side as she chewed.
"Extra mustard?" he asked.
"You know it. I don't know what drug Mack puts in these dogs, but they're the only vice I have outside of my organic diet."
Omar grinned. Devi liked healthy foods, mostly veggies and fruits with a few nuts tossed in, but she allowed herself one of Mack's hot dogs each week. Usually Friday night.
"Having his stand inside our office building instead of out in the land of the tourists keeps him one of North Carolina's best hidden secrets. Didn't you have plans tonight?" Omar asked.
"I do. Want to tag along? I'm fun, you know." She winked.
He shook his head. "Not tonight."
"Don't you want to help me celebrate?" She spoke around another bite of her hot dog, flicking her tongue along the corner of her mouth and catching a drop of mustard.
"What are you celebrating this time? Life in general?" As if she needed an excuse. Devi probably had one of the most interesting lives of anyone he knew, mainly because she took chances, made friends wherever she went, and jumped before she second-guessed herself. There didn't seem to be anything she refused to try.
If only I ...
Her laughter brought him back to the moment. Straight from the heart, loud, and husky, the sound always shook his senses.
"Um, who bought that sign on my desk? The one that clearly states 'Until Further Notice Celebrate Everything.'"
"That'd be me. What was I thinking? Like you'd need a sign to remind you."
"I should've gotten you a sign reminding you of our five-year anniversary. Cause enough for celebrating?" One fine brow lifted to taunt him.
"Already. Another year has come and gone and you still can't remember my hire date. I might have to think about tattooing it on my forehead," she said dryly, shaking her head in mock annoyance. Her long silver earrings — a cascade of moons and stars — brushed against her neck. He had an urge to reach out and touch them, but instead shoved his hands deep into his trouser pockets.
Hard to believe she'd been with him that long. The main reason he'd hired her all those years ago was because she'd been everything he wasn't — and she'd made him laugh. The moment she'd walked into their interview with several bracelets lacing the length of her arm, her flowing skirt swirling around her legs, and her long, wavy hair streaming down her back, he'd been intrigued. He'd never met anyone like her.
Still hadn't. She had a style all her own — from her bohemian fashion sense to her throaty laugh, and a smile that could turn any bad day around.
But when she'd started their interview by sharing a knock-knock joke to alleviate some of the tension, he'd instantly made his decision to offer her the position. He needed that kind of energy in his firm.
As opposite as they were, he liked her on the spot, and more than anything he'd wished for some of her carefree attitude. She had business smarts, but in the same breath she'd conquered living her life to the fullest. His personal life and his work life were so intertwined they'd become one.
"Happy anniversary. Forget the tattoo, next time enter it on my calendar. I'd have taken you to lunch."
"No worries. I took the liberty of putting this delish dog on our company account. We're square." She wiggled her eyebrows, then popped the last tidbit of mustard-stained bun between her ruby red lips.
"Now I don't feel so guilty, but we'll still do lunch Monday."
She shrugged. "Better yet, why not come out with me tonight? Not only will you risk the chance of actually cracking a smile in public and enjoying yourself, but you'll get your mind off your troubles. I can tell you're still thinking about Bartow." She tossed her wrapper into the trash can as if she were a pro basketball player making a shot from across the court. "Score!"
"Maybe you're in the wrong profession." As soon as the words left his mouth he regretted them. He didn't want to give her any ideas about moving on. Not only was she the best damn assistant he'd ever worked with, but he respected her work ethic, smarts, and ability to see outside the box he'd confined himself to. If she left, he'd be lost.
"I'm too short to play professionally. And quit trying to change the subject." Devi poked him playfully in the chest, and then tugged his arm and pulled him through the glass doors and onto the sidewalk.
"What do you have planned? Dancing in the fountain, running barefoot through the streets, booking a last-minute flight to Vegas for the weekend to gamble away your paycheck?"
"If I thought I could ply you with enough liquor to get you to follow, I'd say yes to all the above." Her laughter caught the attention of several people standing nearby, and they looked over with smiles of their own. "Nothing so dramatic this weekend, though. I'm thinking a drink at one of the places by the pier, maybe some dancing. Meeting some new friends. Who knows?"
He slipped out of her grasp. "Maybe another time. I have work to do."
She covered her mouth with ring-laden fingers and faked a yawn. "Not a shocker. But let's forget work tonight. You have to admit it's impressive I've stuck it out for five years with a workaholic, slave-driving boss who forgets our anniversary every year." She took hold of his upper arm with a grip he didn't know she possessed and steered him past a twosome playing music on the sidewalk.
A blanket of twilight mixed with the subdued lighting from the various shops and streetlamps surrounding them. The cadence of all the sightseers, vendors, and locals filled every nook and cranny of the sidewalk and inside the bustling shops. Excitement vibrated across the cool night breeze. He breathed in the salty ocean air and relaxed for the first time all day. Funny that a lungful of clean air could loosen up his muscles in a way a neck rub couldn't.
"I can tell you're thinking about tagging along. Just go with it, enjoy a night out." Devi's voice buzzed with anticipation.
"I'm really not in the mood."
She stopped and frowned up at him. Her eyes sparkled with a challenge. "You've been telling me ever since your dad passed you'd slow down and relax. Prove it. It's a whole new world out here, one you haven't experienced in far too long."
"Should I start calling you Aladdin?"
* * *
Devi Boss loved working for Omar. Admired his business savvy and dedication. He'd endeared himself to her because of how opposite they were. She lived by the motto of live your life in the moment, and he subscribed to neat and exact — nothing out of place or unplanned.
He rarely did anything without thinking about it from twenty different angles. Knowing what she did now, she couldn't believe how he'd hired her on the spot at their interview. She'd been twenty and fresh out of college. That'd been five years ago, and she hadn't looked back.
Not even once.
But she worried about him. He needed to loosen up, live a little, and quit working so hard. Tweak his motto, even if by a hair's width. She'd probably had more fun in the last week than he'd had in his entire thirty years.
"Do I look like Aladdin?" She grabbed the side seam of her rainbow maxi skirt and swished the shimmery fabric from side to side. "I mean, I know my outfit doesn't show off every curve, but I think most people get the idea."
He shook his head. "Even a blind man can see you're all woman."
"A compliment from the bossman?" She tossed her head back and laughed, working her hands faster so that her skirt swished around her legs in a blur. The hem rose higher and higher, and she danced around Omar in a tight circle.
"Cha, cha, cha." The night air cooled the skin of her thighs. "See me dance. Join me tonight. This too could be you."
Her entire being glowed when he chuckled. She'd earned an original Omar smile topped off with a near laugh. Something he usually reserved for special occasions — like when he secured a new contract or the P & Ls came out.
"You gotta let your inhibitions go, O." Before she got accused of indecent exposure, she dropped her hands, and her skirt settled against her ankles with a swoosh. But not before she caught Omar checking out her legs. A warm tingle settled across her flesh. She liked the boost to her self-esteem. Long hours working with him sometimes left her craving a man's attention. Not that she had any fantasies as far as he was concerned — the main mistress in his life was his job — but his attention definitely made her feel all warm and feminine.
"Like I said, I can see you're a woman."
That tingle spread to fill her belly. They made eye contact, and he actually blushed. Well, maybe not a blush, but his color heightened. Devi enjoyed the power of being a woman. It wasn't often she got the one-up on Omar. "Why, thank you, kind sir." She chuckled and curtsied.
In all the years they'd worked together she'd never witnessed him this far out of his comfort zone. Was he embarrassed she'd caught him ogling her goods?
Not a man with his power and prowess. He'd dated so many women through the years she'd stopped trying to remember their names. Why bother? They never made more than a handful of appearances before being replaced with a new face — new name.
Plus, she'd worn shorter skirts to work hundreds of times. Tonight wasn't his first venture in seeing legs.
Then again, you're talking about Omar. He'd never look at you any other way than as his assistant.
Even though they were fast friends, more than likely it was the fact he'd overstepped the boss-employee line that had caused his discomfort. If nothing else Omar was a stickler about following protocol.
He shook his head, but her playful mood had a smile tugging at his lips. She dared to go one step further to lure him out for a night on the town.
Devi moved ahead of him and spun around. She grabbed his hands and tugged him down the tourist-filled sidewalk, past overcrowded restaurants and booked-to-the-hilt hotels. "I can show you the world," she sang in hushed tones. When he smiled, she raised her voice and kept singing, humming the parts of the song where she didn't know the words.
Omar chuckled again and pulled her to a stop with such force she collided with his hard pecs.
Hmm, looks like Omar's efforts at the gym are definitely paying off.
"Give me a break. You act like I'm a hermit."
She dropped his hands and pushed off his chest. "Sometimes you are."
"I go out. Hell, it wasn't that long ago I took Jessica — Jessie, whatever her name is — out for dinner."
"Wow. I'm almost convinced. Knowing you, it was probably a business dinner." She straightened her skirt, then looked up to meet his gaze. "No, if it were, you'd have remembered her name."
He rolled his eyes.
"And 'not long ago' was at least a month or two. Seems to me I remember her name from your calendar. Either way, you have to get over this obsession with work, work, work."
He lifted one arrogant brow. "It worked well for my father."
"Yeah, look where all that work got him." Devi's chest still ached whenever she thought about Leland Esterly dying of a massive heart attack at the age of fifty-seven. He'd barely had time to enjoy his retirement — if you could call working close to sixty plus hours a week as an accountant in a second career retirement. Either way, he'd been much too young.
Omar frowned. "I wouldn't be where I am today if I didn't work hard. Plus, unlike my father, I eat right and make sure to exercise."
"There's nothing wrong with hard work, as long as you know how to play hard, too. Come on, Omar. Take a break. Do up the town with me." She cocked her head and gave him what she hoped were her best puppy-dog eyes. One thing she'd learned about Omar over the years, he treasured his employees' happiness. And she'd use it against him for his own good.
"How about a rain check?" He brushed his fingers through his hair.
"I've heard that before. Five years, Omar. You can have one drink with me." Devi softened her tone as she ticked off each year on her fingers. She'd play the guilt card to the hilt if need be.
Excerpted from A Friendly Engagement by Christine Warner, Karen Grove. Copyright © 2015 Christine Warner. Excerpted by permission of Entangled Publishing, LLC.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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