With all sorts of wicked thoughts swimming in his gaze, he’d smiled, and she’d involuntarily put a hand to her heart as her pulse leapt.
In turn, his smile had widened and she’d melted on the spot. Clearly, he was a bit of a rebel, a bad boy, which meant he was a man after her own heart, and therein lay the problem.
She didn’t like a man after her heart. She didn’t like anyone to get that close, to get beneath her carefully polished façade. But truth be told, if anyone could have, it would have been one sexy, sharp, smart-mouthed Kevin McKnight.
Oh, she knew his name. First and last. And if she was being honest, she’d never forgotten it.
But this morning, only an hour after she’d left his bed, his bike was gone.
Just as well. After the things she’d said to him, he wouldn’t be smiling at her again, wicked or otherwise. Stinky feet. Snoring.
She’d been really frazzled to lose it so completely if that was the best she could come up with. She really wished he’d just kicked her out at two in the morning when he’d finished with her. And anyway, why hadn’t he been happy she wanted to get away? Weren’t men supposed to like that sort of woman, one who didn’t cling and carry on about relationships?
What was wrong with him?
With a sigh, she drove the freeway with the precision of an air force bomber pilot. The skill was required in LA, especially at nine in the morning in rush-hour traffic. She thought about work and crossed her fingers for the day ahead, as she’d been working her ass off to get the new Anderson account, a hot new national beverage corporation, and she wanted it so bad she could taste it. She’d designed the campaign from start to finish, with the help of a great creative team, of course, and could already see the media and public scooping up everything she dished out.
As the air was already getting warm, she turned on the AC. She listened to traffic and news as she transitioned to the 5 south, and when she got downtown she pulled onto Sixth and into her building’s parking structure.
By the time she entered the thirty-five-story glass-and-steel building that housed the advertising firm where she worked, she was ready. And when she stepped out onto the top floor, she smiled.
Oh, yeah, she had it all: a fabulous career, an office overlooking all of downtown, a beautiful house in the hills—absolutely everything she’d ever dreamed of as “Apple,” sitting in a single-wide and looking out at the neighbors fighting on their porch while her mother and Sugar made plans to devour some man or another.
No one in her life from that time would recognize the woman she’d so carefully become. Sophisticated, elegant. Cool, calm ice.
Just as she’d always wanted.
Gen, the receptionist, waved at her. All around, the office buzzed. Phones rang; people moved, talked, wheeled, and dealed. Mia knew there’d been rumors of layoffs, that the powers-that-be wanted to downsize, but she loved the place this big and crazy and hoped it stayed that way. She strode toward her department. Assistant Tess Reis sat at her cubicle in front of the three offices of ad executives she worked for, her fingers pounding her keyboard, either for the slimeball Ted or the more even-keeled but insanely competitive Margot—Mia’s equals.
Unlike Mia, Tess wasn’t average height. Tess wasn’t average anything. She was a tall, willowy, creamy-skinned twenty-seven-year-old who resembled one hell of an expensive collectable porcelain doll. She could have been a model, should have been a model, except for one thing.
She didn’t like to be the center of attention.
What she did like was organization, a fact that Mia was thankful for every single day of her life since Tess had come into it.
At every turn Tess mothered, bossed, and stuck her nose where it didn’t belong. “Listen,” she said before Mia could even open her mouth. “It’s a good news, bad news sort of day.”
As they were good friends as well as coworkers, Mia trusted Tess as much as she trusted anyone. “Good first.”
At that moment Margot walked up to the desk, sleek and professional in her smart black Chanel suit and blond chignon. Never one to pull punches, she eyeballed Mia while handing Tess a stack of files.
Mia lifted a brow.
“Bee-yotch,” Margot said.
Adrenaline suddenly pumped through Mia. “I got the Anderson account?”
“I’m assuming so, by the huge delivery that came for you this morning.” Margot shook her head. “Damn it. I’ll congratulate you when I can say it without spitting.”
She was so excited she couldn’t hear. “Delivery?”
“A big-ass plant, which I’m sure you’ll kill pronto like all the others.” Turning on her heels, she walked away.
Huh. The world kept spinning on its axis. Behind them a trio of assistants, all twenty-something and young and silly, were tittering over a computer screen. Fifties jazz came out of the sound system, fitting right in with the art deco theme of the office. The office had the scent of hip success and coffee, Mia’s favorite combination.
She felt like yelling Woo hoo! but that seemed rather high school, so she settled for a shit-eating grin instead.
Tess bent down out of sight and came back up with a huge, lush green plant in a beautifully hand-painted clay pot. “Well, now you know the good news. Do you think I should keep the plant out here? You know, to protect it?”
Yeah, yeah, so she’d killed every single plant she’d ever had, not to mention every goldfish…
She’d gotten the Anderson account. Everyone in the free advertising world wanted the Anderson account. She’d fought long and hard—and she’d won.
All around her the carefully controlled chaos continued, and though she’d have liked to burst into song and do the happy dance, she just continued to grin. “This is definitely good,” she said in grand understatement.
Tess laughed and set down the plant to hug Mia.
“Does everyone know?” Mia asked.
Tess’s grin widened as she pulled back. “Oh, yeah.” She shifted close. “It’s said that Dick actually smiled at the news that it landed in-house.”
Dick Sterling was Mia’s boss. “So give me the bad news,” Mia told her. “Not that anything can be bad today.”
Tess’s smile faded. “You’re not going to like it.”
“Never start out with that sentence.”
“Ted is waiting for you in your office.”
Mia’s eye twitched. “What does he want?”
“There’s no telling.”
“Why don’t you tell him that at the moment I’m out of my mind, but he can feel free to leave a message.”
Tess smiled tightly. “He says he has a beef with you, but we both know he really has a beef for you.”
Mia wrinkled her nose. “Don’t, I just ate breakfast.”
“You don’t eat breakfast.”
“Yeah. Damn.” She inhaled deeply and concentrated on the Anderson account. “All right. I can handle him.”
“Like you handled—what’s that guy’s name on twenty-five?”
“Phil.” Mia had gone out with tall and hunky Phil one night after they’d met at a mutual friend’s birthday party. But he’d been a piss-poor kisser, not a promising sign. “I told you, that didn’t work out.”
Tess sighed. An eternal optimist always looking for “the one,” she worried that Mia had commitment issues.
“Speaking of things working out. Did your sweet little old lady neighbor enjoy the cookies I baked yesterday?”
“Uh huh.” Mia reached for her stack of phone messages.
Tess nabbed them first, holding them out of reach.
Mia, knowing what was coming, sighed. “What?”
“Talk to me.”
“Yes, thank you, the cookies worked wonders. Look, I just got the news of the year. Trying to remain excited here.”
“Do you think I can’t tell when you’re lying through your teeth?”
“I am excited.”
“The cookies, Mia.”
“Fine. The cookies were a huge hit,” Mia said with great exaggeration, waggling her fingers for the messages.
“By—let me guess now—a man.”
“Does it matter that they weren’t for the exact neighbor you thought?”
“No, except I would have charged you double if I’d known you were going to use them as a seducing technique.”
“Why? Because I made them thinking you were being kind to old ladies. Because I made them so you’d remember to give me a raise next month when I’m due for review. But, damn it, all that’s really going on here is you’re getting laid and I am not.”
“I’m always kind to old ladies, and you know I’m going to recommend you for a raise. It’s well deserved. Except, of course, when you hassle me. And FYI, to get laid, you have to stop waiting for your prince and date.”
“Fine change of subject.” Tess let out a long breath. “Just lay low on any destroying of hearts at the moment, okay? Especially with this impending Ted disaster.”
“It won’t be a disaster.”
“Says Hurricane Heartbreaker Mia Appleby.”
Unconcerned, Mia eyed her messages. “I have a creative team meeting, and then a research review for that last campaign we did for Sorvenson Foods. Busy day, as you know all too well. Can I have my messages now?”
But Tess continued to hold the messages hostage. “Was he cute?”
“Whoever gave you that glow.”
Though Mia appreciated men, she did not sleep with them that often. She had her standards, after all, and besides, being a serial one-night-stander was simply too dangerous in this day and age. Last night had been her first…break, as she thought of it, in a while. “He was gorgeous.” Again she reached for the messages.
“Are you going to see him again? Wait a minute, why would I ask such a stupid question?” Tess smacked her head. “Of course you’re not. You don’t repeat.”
“Unlike some people who shall not be named. I’m not looking for a husband.”
“Good, because you’re not going to find him in the sack.”
“I’ll have you know, Kevin was quite amazing in the sack.”
“Kevin.” Tess nodded. “I’m impressed. You got his name.”
Mia tried to snatch her messages, but Tess hugged them tight. “I’m just worried about you. You never attach. It’s not good for you.”
“I’m attached to you. Though I’d be more attached if you gave me my messages.”
“I’m talking about the person you’re going to grow old with. Get gray hair with. Sit on the porch swing and tell stories about the good old days with.”
“I’m never going to get gray hair, thank you very much. And I don’t like swings. Messages?”
“How could you not like swings? Tell me the truth. You’re not human, right? You grew up in a pod and were placed here on earth when you were twenty-two. Fine. Take your damn messages.” She slapped them into Mia’s hand.
Mia looked at her, amused. “Grew up in a pod?”
“Well, that’s just a guess since you won’t talk about yourself before college. It’s all a big mystery.”
Some of her amusement vanished. “Nothing before matters.”
“Mia.” Now Tess gave her one of those patented maternal expressions, full of worry and concern and, damn it, affection. “Of course it matters, it—”
“Stop. Okay? Just stop. You worry far too much. Thanks for the messages.” Mia grabbed the plant.
“Don’t punish the poor plant!”
Mia just shook her head and headed for her office door, passing by the cubicles of the four members of her creative team, Janice, Tami, Steven, and Dillon. They were all at work on various projects, so she waved and moved on. So she didn’t want to talk about her humble beginnings. So what? No reason to feel that twinge of guilt—no reason at all—just because Tess gave everything of herself, no holding back, whatever Mia needed at all times, including cookies.
Damn it, Ted Stokes was in her office, lounging in her chair as a matter of annoying fact, leaning back, feet up as if he owned the place. Luckily, or maybe unluckily, he’d been blessed with a face that women everywhere thought of as California beautiful. He was strong and tan, and when he smiled he flashed baby blue eyes and a dimple, melting hearts and dampening panties everywhere.
But Mia wasn’t fooled by him. Beneath that fun-loving exterior beat a cold, purposeful heart. She set down the plant and gathered her bitchiness around her like a Gucci coat.
He smiled at her, that I’m-an-asshole smile, which really bit into her superiority over getting the Anderson account.
“Ah, a new plant to kill,” he noted.
She smiled through her teeth. She was going to keep the damn plant alive if it was the last thing she did. “I hope you brought coffee to this unexpected party.”
Ted lifted a steaming mug. His own, of course.
“What do you want, Ted?”
“Interesting question.” He smiled again, batting those long lashes over his baby blues.
She did not smile back.
“You’re a tough nut, Mia. I’m trying to flirt with you, in case you didn’t notice. And don’t say you don’t flirt, because—”
“I don’t flirt in the office. With coworkers.”
“We could be more than coworkers. What do you say?”
“How about never? Does never work for you?”