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By Diane Albert, Adrien-Luc Sanders
Entangled Publishing, LLCCopyright © 2013 Diane Alberts
All rights reserved.
This was it.
This was her moment. The moment when Stephanie Miller — occasional klutz at best, walking disaster at worst — would make or break her career. She stood before the projection screen, her neatly-arranged slides the only light in the darkened office. Her boss sat behind his huge oak desk, and underneath his perpetual calculating sneer, he actually looked interested. Maybe even impressed. He'd listened without a word for the past twenty minutes. If she'd held his interest this long, it was a good sign. Once she pulled this off, she'd be given the Weyland Project account and a chance to truly prove herself as the senior investment manager that Inner State Medical needed.
Or she would if she managed to get through the last few lines of her speech without tripping over her tongue, or sticking her foot in her mouth.
She clicked on the last PowerPoint slide and pasted on her most confident smile. She'd been practicing it in the mirror for days, and had finally managed to edge it somewhere away from "uncomfortable constipation" and a little closer to "coolly intelligent." Or at least "somewhat less awkward and dorky than normal."
Close enough for government work.
"As you can see," she said, "I've researched potential investors and narrowed it down to the top three, with proposed targeting strategies for reaching C-level executives and key influencers in the top tiers of their organizations." Key influencers. She liked that. It made her sound like she knew what she was doing, and she straightened her shoulders as she crossed the room to Mr. Rodgers' desk. "You'll find the full details in my proposal package. I think, if we follow this roadmap, we'll secure the high-profile investor the Weyland Project needs to succeed."
She thrust the file folder at him. Be assertive, her corporate etiquette books had said. Show them you're not afraid to play with the big boys. So she assertively offered him the folder.
And assertively bonked him right in the nose.
He didn't move. Didn't so much as twitch one bushy brow. His hair, waxed into place in a dirt-colored pompadour the envy of Donald Trump, didn't even move in the thin breeze from the air vents. His flat gray eyes watched her unblinkingly over his steepled fingers, and her smile suddenly felt more like a frozen grimace. She cleared her throat and gingerly set the folder down on the desk in front of him, then backed away. Out of reach, before she could cap this off by knocking over his pencil cup or spilling scalding hot coffee everywhere. It wouldn't be the first time.
After a measured silence — no doubt deliberately calculated to keep her off guard — he tapped his fingers together and sat back in his chair. He didn't so much as look at the proposal. "Why should I choose you? You've never taken lead on a project. You're a temp, and your contract is almost over. Why should I trust you with an account this large? Or at all?"
"I might not be as experienced as others," she took a steadying breath, "but you won't find anyone in this office more committed to this project than I am. Helping others matters to me, and this is just the first step. If — no, when I get an investor to sign a contract with Inner State Medical, I'll be able to —"
"Save the world?" Mr. Rodgers snorted. "We all set out to save the world at first. Then we realize the world revolves around money. Nothing happens without money. Lots of it."
Like the money that goes to pay your overstuffed six-figure salary? How many of the underprivileged does your beach house in Boca Raton help? Stephanie swallowed back her retort. Not the best way to get the job. "Yes, sir."
"You're angling for a full-time position."
"I won't deny a little job security would be nice, sir. But it's about more than that. This project is important to me."
He watched her shrewdly. She could practically time his silences at this point. Fifteen seconds meant he was trying to keep the advantage over a subordinate. Twenty seconds meant he was angry and making a point. Anything longer than that and he wasn't even listening. These games were exhausting, but she'd learned to wait him out.
Finally Rodgers said, "Do you know how I earned my position, Stephanie?" He didn't wait for her to answer. He usually didn't. "By trusting my gut. It's never steered me wrong. My gut is telling me you might be worth a chance. I'll give you one shot at the Weyland Project." He pinned her with a sharp look. "One."
Stephanie suppressed a grin. "Thank you, sir. I won't let you down."
He picked up the folder and leafed through it, then tossed it back onto the desk. "But your list of investors is useless. Mr. Wheeler from Wheeler Enterprises will be in to discuss investment opportunities this afternoon. Impress him, and you've got the job."
Stephanie curled her hands into fists before she did something unprofessional. Like trying to raise the roof. Or high-five her boss. She settled for a smile. "Of course, sir. I'll be at my best."
"See that you are." He handed the file back. "Or you'll be finding a new job sooner than you think."
"Y-Yes. Understood, sir." She grabbed the folder and offered her hand. "Thank you."
He shook her hand with a careful, almost dainty touch, then dug in his desk until he unearthed a bottle of hand sanitizer. She had to bite back a nervous laugh. Here she was in an impeccable Calvin Klein dress suit, and he was trying to scrub off her cooties after a simple handshake.
"You're welcome. You may go now," Mr. Rodgers said.
He picked up his phone and started dialing. She'd been dismissed.
She left the room with as much calm dignity as she could manage, made her way to her tiny cubicle, then sank into her seat. She wanted to do a happy dance, but not with so many prying eyes around. She couldn't even call her brother to squeal in his ear — but that's what texts were for.
Aaron guess what I landed the project!!!! I'm meeting with an investor today!!!!!
Her phone buzzed within less than a minute.
It should be criminal for a grown woman to use that many exclamation points. We'll talk at lunch. The department head will skewer me for using FBI equipment for personal texts. Stop using this number.
She fought back a giggle. Giggling. God, she really was giddy.
If you'd answer your normal phone I wouldn't have to, Mr. Super Spy.
He didn't answer. She didn't expect him to, but she couldn't help grinning to herself as she stashed her phone in her purse and spun back to her laptop. Time to do a little digging. She only had a few hours to get as much intel on Mr. Wheeler as possible, and since she doubted Aaron would humor his little sister and fork over Wheeler's FBI file, Google would have to do. She couldn't afford to fail. Not for her own sake, or for the thousands of low-income Miami residents who couldn't afford decent healthcare. They needed access to doctors, vaccines, antibiotics.
And she would get it for them.
Her parents had been poor. They had struggled for years to care for her and her three brothers. They'd missed doctor's visits, sacrificed their personal lives, given up every minute of their lives and every single penny for their children — with not a cent to spare.
Yet they'd been happy. They'd always been happy, in their quiet little world that revolved around everything but Mr. Rodgers' all-important money.
Stephanie's brothers — with the exception of Ben, still in college — did everything they could to repay them. They sent back money. They bought their parents everything they might need. Easy enough for them, with steady jobs. Stephanie was the only one who hadn't been able to give back a single cent. She barely made enough to pay for food, work-appropriate clothing, and a tiny one-bedroom apartment in an area of town where walking home alone after dark could mean never making it home at all. She needed this job. To give back to her parents — and to the whole community.
Her phone buzzed. She picked it up and turned off the alarm. Twelve o'clock. Lunch time. She locked her computer, snagged her purse, and hurried down the hallway, past the elevator crowd and to the stairs. She hit the sidewalk running, but paused for a cautious glance up to the sky. Crap. Cloudy with a chance of pouring buckets. One day she'd learn the local weatherman was a filthy liar. She'd left her umbrella at home.
Her phone trilled the first few bars of "All the Single Ladies," and she pulled it out of her purse.
"I'm on my way now. About three and a half blocks away."
"I know. I'm tracking you on GPS."
Stephanie chuckled. "You never get tired of that joke, do you?"
"What's funny is you think I'm joking."
"You're a riot. Really. Not even going to congratulate me?"
"Don't need to. I already knew you could do it."
She could have burst with pride. This was the first time she was actually doing something on her own — without one of her overprotective, overbearing brothers helping her.
And she would succeed. She knew it.
A loud clap of thunder sounded, echoing in the phone. Stephanie practically jumped out of her skin and looked up at the sky again. "Either it's about to rain, or someone just broke the sound barrier."
"It's been thundering since before dawn. Don't tell me you didn't bring an umbrella."
"The weatherman said it wouldn't rain!"
"And you believed him." He laughed. "GPS says you're only seven minutes away. Maybe you can run it."
"You're bluffing. Your GPS doesn't say anything." A fat drop of rain splatted on her nose, and she swiped it away. "Except that I'm about to get drenched."
"Then you might want to get moving. And sis?"
"Hang up. The last time you tried walking and talking, you walked right into a wall."
The phone went dead before she could retort. She stared at it. He'd been away on one of his everso-classified assignments the week she'd been walking around with a swollen nose from slamming right into a revolving door.
Maybe he wasn't joking about that GPS thing.
Before she could stow the phone in her purse, it buzzed with a new text message.
By the way, almost forgot — we've got company for lunch. Old college friend is in town. He'd love to meet you.
She started to tap something back when a second message came in.
You're not running. Yes, I am watching.
She rolled her eyes and dropped her phone into her purse without answering. Sometimes, Aaron liked playing the creepy spy too much — right down to faking his little sister out.
He'd better be faking, at least, if he wanted to keep all his teeth.
And he'd better not be thinking about setting her up with this "old college friend."
She stopped at a traffic light and waited for the little walking man to tell her she could do a little walking, too. At her side, a rather imposingly tall man withdrew an umbrella from his laptop bag. She glanced at him enviously. Of course he'd had the foresight to bring an umbrella. In his crisp, expensive suit and with his glossy black hair meticulously groomed, he looked like the kind of guy who had enough common sense to pack an umbrella, look before walking into revolving doors, and use this scary thing called depth perception to keep from smashing a folder into his boss's nose.
The umbrella hid his face when he snapped it open, and she started to look away — until he tipped it back, and she caught a glimpse of the bluest eyes she'd ever seen. He was dark, almost swarthy, exotically tan, and a picture-perfect portrait of devastatingly tall, dark and handsome.
Seriously, Steph, you have to stop reading romance novels before bed.
She felt a little too warm. It had to be pushing ninety out, and he was probably sweating in that suit. It looked like it cost more than the rent on her apartment, and he was probably soaking stains into the armpits of his finely tailored shirt. Did men who looked like that even sweat? Or would he only sweat when he was conveniently shirtless, glistening and —
He caught her eye. Crap. She was staring. He raised both brows; her face went hot, and she looked away quickly, lifting her chin with as much dignity as she could muster. She was calm. She was cool. She was in control.
She was soaking wet.
The sky opened up like a cup tipped on its side. Yep. She was cool and still standing there like an idiot with her chin thrust out and her shoulders square and her feet glued to the ground while everyone else tumbled off the sidewalk and into the street. The little walking man said go, and Stephanie just stood there, because that was what Stephanie did.
Christ, she was a walking disaster.
The rain cut off as quickly as it started. She glanced up, but the sky was as black as ... ...as black as the umbrella the blue-eyed man was holding over her.
She stared up at the umbrella spokes, then at him. "Uh."
One corner of his mouth twitched. Was it from a smile or a frown? She couldn't tell. "You missed the light."
"Um. I did. Yes. The little man was — not. Moving, I mean."
His brows knit. "... the little man." He had a soft hint of an accent she couldn't quite place, but it made every word sound lustrous and strange, as if he were tasting it before letting it roll off his tongue.
"On the light, I — oh God." She buried her face in her hands. "I'm sorry. I wasn't expecting to get caught out and I'm a little ... I say stupid things."
She expected him to laugh at her. But he only curled a rough, large hand against her upper arm. Even through her drenched suit jacket she could feel the warmth of him.
"Come. Before the little man stops moving again."
Was he making fun of her? She shot him a look, but his stern, elegant face was grave, somber, his eyes trained ahead as he drew her out into the street. The crossing signal had switched to a flashing red hand, warning them that the light was about to change. A few drivers honked their horns, but he moved with an unhurried, relaxed stride, as if he could command the entire street to wait for him if he wished.
He'd somehow managed to command Stephanie, at least. She hadn't even realized she was moving, skittering along and nearly tripping over her heels, until they were almost on the opposite sidewalk.
"Um," she said. "Thanks."
"It was nothing." He scanned the length of the street, eyes distant, preoccupied. "Would you like me to call you a cab?"
"No, I —" She'd started to say she couldn't afford a cab, but flushed and bit her tongue.
"I'm meeting someone. For lunch. Near here. I can run. I can't get any wetter than I already am."
His gaze returned to her. He didn't say a word. He didn't need to. His eyes said it all, dipping down her body and lingering on the way the thin linen suit clung to her chest.
Maybe I should just crawl into a hole and die right now.
"I mean — I — damn it." She couldn't help but laugh helplessly. "This is karma. It has to be. I got through a whole presentation without tripping over my tongue. Had to balance it out somehow."
Again that twitch of his lips. Did he not know how to smile? "Sounds perfectly logical."
"It sounds crazy. You don't have to humor me." She smiled sheepishly. "Thanks for the rescue, but I'm heading this way." She wiggled her fingers in the direction of the restaurant and ducked out from under the umbrella, pulling her arm from his grasp. Not the most graceful exit, backing away with raindrops plopping on her head and dripping down her nose, but better than standing there and finding out just how far she could shove a Manolo heel down her throat.
She turned her back on him and walked away as quickly as she could. A soft scuff of footsteps warned her just before he fell into stride with her again, and the rain stopped once more. She nearly tripped over her toes and stumbled to a halt, eyes wide.
"Look, it's really nice of you to play the gentleman, but ..."
"... but I am already going this way." He shrugged one broad shoulder. "But if you enjoy pneumonia ..."
Excerpted from Faking It by Diane Albert, Adrien-Luc Sanders. Copyright © 2013 Diane Alberts. Excerpted by permission of Entangled Publishing, LLC.
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