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Falling for the CEO
By Audra North, Heather Howland, Tahra Seplowin
Entangled Publishing, LLCCopyright © 2013 Audra North
All rights reserved.
"I don't want to keep discussing this, Amanda."
Meredith Klaus was just rounding the corner, laptop clutched to her chest, when she heard Andrew's voice coming from his open office door. He sounded tense and tired. Oh, dear. She had no idea who Amanda was, but the conversation sounded like a personal one.
So instead of continuing forward and entering his office, as she had been en route to do, Meredith skidded to a stop. Should she hover nearby and wait for him to finish his call, or turn around and walk away?
"Frankly, I don't think this relationship is working."
Oh, goodness. Very personal. It was definitely time to walk away. But even though she turned to tiptoe back toward her own office, Meredith couldn't block out his voice, deep and carrying.
"No, it's not just because of the lack of sex."
Dear God, had the corridor always been this long? It felt like it was taking years to get back to her office. She was even tempted to clap her hands over her ears and sing, just to fight the flame in her cheeks at the feeling that she was doing something wrong.
At least no one else was here at this time of night, and not just because it was only a week until Christmas. Andrew was usually the only other one who worked past six thirty on a regular basis. The other executives had spouses, lively children, and frolicking pets to get home to.
While she had the Travel Channel, a massaging showerhead, and dust bunnies.
"No one insults my family. Ever. Consider us over."
At those words, Meredith stumbled, the toe of her low-heeled pumps catching on the carpet. Her arms instinctively flew wide, trying to brace herself against a fall. Except the only thing that managed to accomplish was for her laptop to drop directly onto her foot. "Oh, darndarndarn!" she gasped, trying to muffle her yelp as pain exploded in her toes, bright and wrenching. It would be beyond embarrassing if she screamed and her sexy, elegant boss were to rush out of his office, only to find that Klutzy Klaus had been her own downfall. Again.
She slid her glasses, which had fallen down to the end of her nose, back into place and hopped toward the nearest wall to slump against it. Despite the sturdy leather of her shoes and thick weave of her tights, it felt like someone had chopped her toes off with a dull blade and then sewn them back on crooked. She forced herself to take deep, calming breaths, some of the tension slowly leaving her body as the sharp, shocking pain faded to unpleasant throbbing.
No one insults my family. Andrew's words seemed to ricochet around her, though his voice had gone silent now. He must have ended the call with Amanda, which meant that Meredith could probably turn around again and go back to his office to show him the reports that had just come in today and deliver news that would surely get her fired. Or possibly even blacklisted from any other financial position in Manhattan.
There was also the matter of her toes, which still ached quite a bit. And ... she looked over at her laptop on the floor. There was a piece of something hanging off the back that she was certain hadn't been dangling like that before she'd dropped it. Clumsy fool, she chided herself.
She slipped off her shoes and stared down at the toes of her right foot, flexing them to assess the damage. No doubt they were red and a bit swollen under the fabric of her tights, but at least she could move them without too much pain now. They were probably just badly bruised. Along with her pride.
She squeezed her eyes shut against the sudden clenching in her heart. She should be used to this feeling by now and not having a hard time resisting the urge to curl up right there on the industrial-grade Berber in a little ball of despair, lamenting that even at thirty-one years old, Meredith Klaus was still more than deserving of her high school epithet.
Klutzy Klaus! Klutzy Klaus! She could still hear it being shouted in the hallways of her high school. At least it was better than "Little Orphan Annie." With her curly red hair and gangly limbs, the kids in the grade school where she'd been assigned after her parents died had wasted no time in renaming the shy new kid. At least she'd grown into her long legs and arms. But she'd never managed to find another family.
Let it go.
She had bigger things to think about right now. Like, how she was going to tell Andrew that thousands of charitable organizations chosen by Harbor employees were going to get proverbial coal in their stockings instead of fat, feel-good donations. Even though Harbor Technologies built superior products and delivered the best service in the industry, the company owed its success to the wild publicity around the Christmas Bonus Fund, from which each employee could draw five hundred dollars during the holiday season every year to donate to a charity of their choice. Without it, they were just another tech company.
She slipped off her glasses, held them in one hand, and applied the palm of the other to her head, trying to mash her growing headache into submission. Not working. She tried closing her eyes and shifting a bit, tipping up her chin and leaning her head back against the wall before moving her hand to her neck, but the awkward position of her arm only made her back arch and tense even more.
A frustrated whimper escaped her. Maybe it would help if she imagined that these were someone else's hands. Big. Long-fingered. Skimming over her skin, rolled-up cuffs baring his arms to the elbow as sexy brown eyes watched her squirm —
"What are you still doing here?"
She started as the very voice from her fantasy sounded in the hallway, and before she could think to stop it, his name pushed past her lips on a breathy sigh.
Who are you, and what have you done with my CFO? For a moment, all that Andrew Stanton could do was stare.
It was as though this evening was playing a horrible joke on him. First, having to break things off with Amanda the night before the big Myerberg gala. Then, coming out of his office to find the normally nervous, buttoned-up Meredith with her hair coming out of its usual tight bun, glasses off, barefoot, and arching sensually against a wall in the corridor.
Although that particular surprise hadn't been horrible. At all. The way she'd said his name ...it made him want to slide a hand between the buttons of her conservative gray oxford shirt and push that ugly skirt up around her waist before laying her down on the rough carpet and —
Damn it. He coughed and shifted his laptop bag to cover the evidence of his arousal. "Everything okay?" he asked. Thank God his voice hadn't cracked like a preadolescent boy's.
She snapped herself upright, grinning at him almost maniacally. "Oh! Yes. Of course." But when she jammed her feet into her shoes, he didn't miss her slight wince.
"You're hurt." He frowned, his momentary attraction to her forgotten. He walked to her and offered his arm. "Let me help you into your office so you can sit down."
Her cheeks went pink and she gave a nervous laugh. "N-no, I'm okay. I just —" She broke off with a sigh. "I dropped my computer on my foot. It's only a little sore now."
He finally noticed the laptop lying on the floor. "Oh, hey. That had to hurt." He stooped to pick up the computer and tucked it under one arm before he turned back to her, trying not to shake his head at what had happened. It was no surprise that she'd managed to do some kind of harm to herself.
When he'd interviewed Meredith for the Chief Financial Officer position, he'd noticed right away that she was a nice-looking woman behind her shapeless clothes and too-tight hairstyle, but they hadn't spent more than five minutes together before she'd accidentally ripped her résumé in half by mistaking it for a page from her notepad, knocked over her coffee cup, and then stumbled when she'd jumped out of her chair to stop the spill from spreading. She was a walking disaster. Hardly like any of the women he was used to dating.
Not that he had any thoughts about dating her, of course. Above all else, she was his employee and a financial wizard. Far too valuable to the company.
Still, he couldn't help but look at her from time to time and wonder if she was much more coordinated in the bedroom than she was in the boardroom. And if he might have imagined her naked, panting, and sliding up and down his hard cock, well ...he always pushed those thoughts away immediately.
He offered his arm again. "I insist."
She blushed again, but this time she slipped her hand into the crook of his elbow. His heart raced as though she were draping her body flush against his. That was unexpected. Apart from the handshake they'd shared in her interview, they'd never touched. Certainly not like this, with the heat of her body so close to his that he could smell the faint flowery scent of her shampoo.
She felt good.
He shook it off. Probably it was just the effect of the stress of breaking up with his girlfriend the night before a big event. Not that he minded the loss of Amanda all that much, especially after she'd called his family just another one of his charity cases. Since when was it charity to spend time with one's family at Christmas? That had been enough to make him end it over the phone right then.
Too bad it also meant that he was now dateless for an event where he was supposed to be the keynote speaker, delivering a speech that would hopefully put his new idea in motion. In a situation like this, he wanted — needed, really — someone by his side to make his message more appealing.
They turned into Meredith's office. "Have a seat," he said, guiding her to one of the modern, cube-like upholstered chairs set around a small round table that she liked to use for smaller meetings. He stayed next to her, ready to catch her if she stumbled as she was sitting down. With her, anything was possible.
She settled on the cushion and looked down at her hands. "Thank you. You really didn't have to do that."
"Yes, I did," he answered forcefully, not liking the way she'd said it, cringing and apologetic. He was startled when she looked up at him, green eyes wide with surprise. She had removed her usual big-framed glasses, and he could clearly see every feature of her heart-shaped face.
Damn. She wasn't just nice-looking. She was quite pretty, actually. Not to mention brilliant. Though she'd only been working at the company for a couple of months, she knew almost as much about the company as he did.
She would make a great date for the gala tomorrow.
She nodded shakily, and for a moment he wondered if he'd spoken aloud. But then she took a deep breath and looked at him almost pleadingly. "You mean, so I wouldn't sue you for workplace injury, of course. But I would never do something like that. It was my own fault. Really, I cannot begin to tell you how —"
"What?" Andrew couldn't keep himself from interrupting. "Sue me? God, no." He scowled down at her, wondering where in the world she would get the idea that he only helped her for mercenary reasons. "Hasn't anyone ever done something for you just because you're a human being? You know, simple kindness?"
He had meant it to be flippant, but the answering look in her eyes said everything.
But she didn't actually voice the word. Instead, she looked back down at her lap and laughed nervously, smoothing her hands over that ugly skirt. "Ha, oh, of course. Yes. I was just joking with you. Ha ha."
Was that really the kind of life she lived?
He felt a tug of pity, but shook off the thought quickly and forced a small smile. Better to pretend he believed that she'd only been kidding around. Meredith's personal life — past or present — was none of his business.
Except — maybe that's what would make her the perfect date to the gala. They got along well enough and certainly respected each other professionally. There was nothing personal between them to distract him from his business goals for tomorrow night, and it would be an excellent time to introduce her to Jon Myerberg, the founder of the nation's largest philanthropic foundation.
He nodded to himself. Taking Meredith was the perfect solution. Now he just needed to ask her. Which was easier said than done. But he cleared his throat and forged ahead, because this was much more important than a little temporary awkwardness. "Ah, Meredith?"
She jerked her head up and looked at him in alarm like he'd caught her doing something wrong. "Yes?"
Andrew frowned. Why did she sound so nervous? Did she know what he was about to ask her? He blew out a breath. May as well find out.
"I know this is somewhat short notice, but I'm unexpectedly on my own for the Myerberg Foundation Gala tomorrow night. I'm supposed to be giving a talk about the Christmas Bonus Fund. I'd usually go alone, but in this case, I'd have more influence on how organizations look at philanthropy if I had someone by my side to tacitly endorse that message." He grimaced at his own clinical words and eyed her, looking for offense, but found none. Was she really so used to being spoken to that way? Or had she never been asked on a date before and didn't realize what he was trying to get at?
Either option was remarkably depressing.
"Yes, well. One of my sisters is in Chicago right now for work, and the other is too young for me to take her to something like this. All of my female friends are married. Their husbands wouldn't appreciate my asking them to accompany me to a black-tie dinner ..." He trailed off, surprised, when she gave a single nod.
"Does that mean you'll go with me?" he asked, venturing a smile.
She hesitated for a moment, her body tensing in a way that seemed to reverberate throughout the room. "Oh, my gosh!" she gasped. "Are you asking me to be your — your —" she wiggled her fingers at him, as though the word "date" was simply too scandalous to say aloud.
He raised an eyebrow. "I thought that's why you were nodding."
She blushed, this time bringing her hands up to her cheeks. "Goodness. I'm such an idiot," she whispered, but then she squared her shoulders, dropped her hands, and cleared her throat. "I wasn't nodding to say yes. I was merely agreeing that your friends' husbands would have a problem with you taking their wives to a fancy event. As to whether or not I'll attend with you ..." She cut her eyes away from him then and stared at some point just beyond his elbow before continuing. "I learned a long time ago that it's better to wait until someone actually asks before assuming enough to say yes."
At that, Andrew laughed. Unless he'd mistaken her meaning, for the first time since she'd started working for him, she was reprimanding him for something.
He kind of liked it.
"I was kind of rambling, wasn't I?"
She gave another single nod, and then did something unexpected. She laughed. She had never laughed like this in front of him, full and loud and without any inhibition, much less had the nerve to laugh at him.
Correction: he really liked it. He grinned back at her, pushing his hands into his pockets and rocking back on his heels with delight.
Employee, man. She's your employee. Remember?
Right. And he didn't miss how she was still avoiding his eyes. Damn it. Did she think he was coming on to her? Maybe she just felt awkward that they were the only two people left in the quiet office. She had been acting strangely ever since he came upon her in the hallway. Either way, something was making her nervous, and he didn't like the thought that it might be him.
He yanked his hands from his pockets. "I want you to understand that this is all aboveboard. I'm happy to put something in writing about this having nothing to do with your position at the company. You wouldn't have to pretend anything. I'll introduce you as Harbor's CFO, or as Ms. Klaus. Whichever way you'd prefer. Though with this year's theme being 'Magic at the North Pole,' your last name, coupled with my ridiculous 'Santa CEO' nickname, might invite a few more jokes than you're willing to hear all night."
Excerpted from Falling for the CEO by Audra North, Heather Howland, Tahra Seplowin. Copyright © 2013 Audra North. Excerpted by permission of Entangled Publishing, LLC.
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