Strictly Business First 3 Chapters

Chapter 1

 

AVA

 

Why can’t people just be nice to each other?

I don’t understand it, because nice is good, right?

Nice means helping old people across the road and spending hours searching for a lost puppy. It’s holding the door open for somebody and getting rewarded with a smile from a stressed mother juggling kids and grocery bags. 

Yet people say it with a wrinkle on their nose, holding the vowel sound for a bit too long. 

We should bring nice back. We need it more than ever. 

I’m standing outside the brownstone building that houses my nice job, working for the funny and nice boss who’s been the chief editor at Smith and Carson publishing since the 1970s. I’ve worked here for thirteen years myself. It was my first job after finishing college and I took it with a plan to save up enough money to move to New York and rise up the publishing ladder.

And yet here I am, at the age of thirty-six, still working in the warm, leafy city of Charleston. Not even that Charleston. This one is in West Virginia. And I grew up here. 

It’s only when I walk through the heavy wooden front door, shuffling sideways so I don’t dent the box of donuts I’m carrying, that I realize something is slightly off. A grin pulls at my lips when I start to greet Sammy, the security guard come receptionist who’s worked here since… well, forever.

Except Sammy isn’t sitting behind the long glass reception desk that he’s always buffing to a shine. In his place is a thin, bespectacled young man who keeps tapping at the keyboard in front of him and huffing.

“Hi,” I say brightly because this little chink in my nice day is not going to spoil my post-vacation bliss. 

He looks up and his eyes flicker over me and the donut box before he looks back down at his computer. “We open at nine,” he says, his voice strangled. He’s still jabbing at a key like he’s trying to make a point.

“It’s okay, I work here,” I tell him. “Is Sammy all right? I was expecting to see him today.”

He looks up, brows pulled tight. “Sammy?”

“The security guard,” I say. “Security Sammy.” I smile because this guy’s bad mood isn’t going to defeat me. “I don’t think he’s ever taken a day off before.”

“I’ve no idea.” The man blinks. “It’s my first day. I was sent over by the agency. I don’t suppose you know how to book a meeting room, do you?”

I patiently lean across the counter to show him how to use our ancient booking system. It’s one of the many things I’ve nagged Richard – my boss – about. But he has an aversion to anything digital and an even bigger aversion to listening to me describe how much easier all our lives would be if we upgraded our systems. If he had his way, we’d still be using a calendar in the center of the office to bag the best rooms.

Not that I mind. He makes up for it in so many other ways. He’s a good boss. He lets all of us do our own things while standing up for us when we need it.

He’s one of the reasons I’m still working here rather than pursuing my original career plan.

“Thank you…” he trails off as I finish his booking for him.

“Ava,” I tell him helpfully. “Ava Quinn. I’m the Commissioning Editor at Smith and Carson.” And also the sometimes-assistant to the chief editor, the lead for technology integration, the event planner, and chief cheerer-upper. In a small children’s publisher like Smith and Carson, our roles tend to be completely different from our job descriptions. 

That’s why it’s so difficult to recruit the right person when somebody leaves. But also why people stay here so long. No day is ever the same, and you can build your job into whatever you want it to be.

“Matthew,” he mumbles. “Here for one day and then out of here, I hope.”

I nod sagely. “These systems aren’t for everybody. Do you know if Mr. Austin is in yet?” 

Matthew blinks. “Who’s he?”

“Richard Austin. The chief editor. The guy in charge.”

It’s interesting how the blood drains from Matthew’s face. “Oh him. Yes, he’s definitely in. He’s the one I’m booking the boardroom for.”

“Great.” I smile because even if Matthew is only here for one day, he still deserves to feel welcome. “Oh, would you like a donut?” 

I hold out the box. I picked the sweet breakfast treats from the Camelia Bakery, owned by my friend, Lauren. It’s on my way to work. Another reason I love living here – my pretty townhouse is a fifteen-minute walk from Smith and Carson. It’s in the historic district and I get to wave at Lauren and smell the sweet fragrance of the locust trees, their blooms hanging like white flowery grapes from their leafy boughs and casting dappled shadows on the sidewalk, as I make my way to the office.

“You bring donuts in for everybody?” he asks, looking suspiciously at the box I’m holding open.

“Only today,” I tell him. “It’s my first day back from vacation.”

He quickly snatches a pink iced donut and puts it on the shelf under the counter. “You really work for him?” he asks, pointing at the ceiling.

“Yes.” I smile patiently. “He’s a nice man when you get to know him.”

“If you say so,” Matthew mutters. “Good luck up there.”

I take the antiquated elevator up to the fourth floor. It has a sliding black iron gate and whenever I step inside I feel like I’m taking my life into my own hands. It shudders and shakes on its way up, passing the architecture company that sublets the first floor and the management consultancy firm on the second. The third floor is empty –has been ever since we moved out last year in an effort to reduce our floor space and overhead. I try not to feel wistful when I think of my old office overlooking the Allegheny Mountains.

When it reaches the fourth floor, I balance the donuts in one hand and yank at the gate with the other, sending up a quick prayer to the gods of elevators as I escape unscathed. The open-plan office is quiet as I make my way down the hall. There is still forty minutes until the office opens and will be bustling with employees and noise, but I want to catch up on my emails before things start to get manic.

Setting the donuts on the side of my desk, I sit down in my worn office chair and fire up my laptop. It takes forever to boot up and is in dire need of replacing, like the rest of our technology. Last year, I put in a proposal to have all of our laptops and computers updated, ready to introduce some new systems, but it got lost in the mess of the takeover.

Ah, the takeover. For a few months, it was all we talked about. Whether we’d end up getting our marching orders or if we’d be transitioned into Mediatech, New York’s biggest and brashest media conglomerate. 

From the moment they bought us, all they wanted to talk about was our flagship series, Dandy the Lion. You’ve probably heard of it. There aren’t many kids in America who’ve made it to adolescence without reading at least one Dandy book. It was my first acquisition when I was promoted ten years ago, and Dandy took the children’s book world by storm.

Dandy’s an old-fashioned gentlemanly lion, written by the reclusive Naomi Acre. He’s funny and kind and unlike most of our other titles he makes a lot of money. 

We always knew he was the only reason Mediatech bought us. They’re a relative newcomer to the children’s publishing world, and although they have the shiny flagship office in New York along with the high-flying editors who don’t have time to buy donuts or do anything but frown at you, they don’t have the one thing that we have. Cachet.

Buying us gave them that. Within weeks of the acquisition there was talk of closing this office and moving all of our work to New York.

In the end, it turned out to be a storm in a teacup. Richard went to New York for a week-long business trip, then came back and called an all-staff meeting, waving a piece of paper in his hand as though he’d just won a major battle, promising us that nothing would change even though we were now part of a larger organization.

And he was right. Nothing has changed. It’s like we’re not part of Mediatech at all. And though Richard took the glory, I know it’s because I called Naomi and she called Jean-Baptiste Blanchet – the sixty-something owner of Mediatech – and told him that if we were moved to New York, she would take her Dandy franchise elsewhere.

One more reason why I love Naomi.

When my laptop notifies me that an update is urgently required, I click my mouse and sigh, because this is going to take some time. Richard’s office door is closed – unusual for him – so I choose his favorite chocolate vanilla donut, slide it onto a napkin, and carry it to his door. I can hear voices inside. A deep one and a lighter, more feminine one. The deep one doesn’t sound like Richard at all. It’s short and stilted and sounds pissed, which Richard never gets.

Unless… 

I swallow because I know his wife, Eleanor, was having tests at the hospital before I left for vacation. What if they came back bad? My heart starts to speed because I hate bad news. Richard and Eleanor are like the grandparents I never had.

Ignoring the foreboding feeling wrapping around my chest like a boa constrictor, I rap on his door and am rewarded with a terse, “Come in.”

And because I’m also the chief mood enhancer at Smith and Carson, I put a smile on my face as I open the door, and cheerily say, “Hola amigo. I’m back from Spain. And along with a tan and a new sense of optimism, I also bring you donuts.”

But when the door opens, Richard isn’t there at all. Instead, my gaze clashes with the bluest, angriest pair of eyes I think I’ve ever seen.

And suddenly I don’t feel very nice at all.

Chapter 2

 

AVA

 

I should probably tell you that I’ve seen those eyes before. Three times in person, not that I’m counting, and more times than I can remember on a computer screen when we have our monthly editorial board meetings. And let’s face it, they’re pretty eyes if you like that kind of thing. Which I don’t. 

Sure, I’ve seen some women go a little weak when he lands his gaze on them. And I’ve heard them talk about his old-fashioned movie star handsomeness. But I’ve checked and his nose has a bump, and his mouth is always pressed together like he disapproves of everybody and everything.

Beauty really is in the eye of the beholder, right?

He’s not wearing a tie, and the white of his shirt is almost blinding. It’s unbuttoned at the neck, and I can see just a hint of chest hair. 

On paper, Myles Salinger is my equal. He’s the commissioning editor for the children’s publishing department of Mediatech in New York, and I’m commissioning editor here at Smith and Carson. But everything about his demeanor tells me he thinks he’s way above me.

I first met him in New York about two months after the takeover when Richard and I flew in for a two-day meeting to discuss our future plans for Dandy. Once Jean-Baptiste accepted that Dandy the Lion was staying in Charleston with us, he wanted to know the direction we planned to take him in.

I had walked into the boardroom ahead of Richard, and in the corner were three men. Two of them were young, laughing about something. The third had his impressively broad back to me.

But it wasn’t the men that caught my eye so much as what they’d drawn on the whiteboard. An uncanny likeness of Dandy the Lion bent over and being… um… taken from behind by Mediatech’s biggest selling character, The Great Bear Endo.

We take great care with Dandy’s image at Smith and Carson. We’re not quite at Disney standards, but he’s beloved by children and their parents everywhere, and that’s not by accident. We don’t license him for things like cereals or snacks, and we don’t let his image be reproduced without our direct consent.

And we certainly don’t let our art team draw a picture of him being taken from behind on a whiteboard for all to see.

“What the hell is that?” I asked. Richard was far enough behind me that he hadn’t seen what I had. “If you don’t get that monstrosity off the board right now, I’ll be talking to your bosses.”

All three faces swung around to look at me. But only one of them looked as furious as I felt. One of the younger guys swallowed hard. “He is our boss,” he said tremulously, pointing at the tall man in the suit.

The one with the most striking eyes I’d ever seen.

“Then he should know better,” I told them. “It’s disgusting. If you don’t know how to protect your assets, you shouldn’t be working for a publishing company. Especially not a children’s publishing company.”

Pretty eyes said nothing. Just scowled at me. I scowled right back as I walked into the room and grabbed a bottle of water while they scrubbed the pornographic image off the whiteboard.

And that was that. Since then, Myles hasn’t stopped scowling at me. And I’ve been frowning right back. We tolerate each other, but we certainly don’t like each other. And no matter how much I try, I can’t be nice to him. 

He glances at his laptop screen. “I’ll call you back,” he says to whoever he’s on a video call with and hits the end key before looking back at me.

“Ava,” he says, sounding almost bored. “You’ve finally decided to grace us with your presence.”

“I’ve been on vacation.” He waves his hand like he’s not interested, so I change the subject. “Where’s Richard?”

“Richard no longer works for Mediatech.”

Oh.

OH!

My legs lose all the strength in them. I reach behind me to find a chair to sit down in, then realize I’m still standing in the doorway of the office and the only thing behind me is air. I stop reaching and curl my fingers around the door jamb. “What happened?” I ask. “Why doesn’t he work here anymore?”

“He and Jean-Baptiste agreed to part ways.” Myles stands and walks around to the front of the desk, his eyes still glued to mine. He’s even taller than I remember. At least six foot three. I’d feel intimidated if I wasn’t…

Okay, I feel intimidated. I have to crane my neck to look up at him.

“Is Eleanor all right?” I ask.

His brows furrow. “Who’s Eleanor?” 

“Richard’s wife.”

“I’m sure she’s fine, especially with the severance Jean-Baptiste gave him.” Myles looks at me carefully for a moment. “Maybe you can answer a question for me,” he suggests. There’s no ease to his tone. No kindness. My hackles rise.

“What kind of question?”

“You’re in charge of the IT system here, right?”

“Well, kind of. I liaise with the call center and sign off on the support contract.”

“And security? The firewall?” He doesn’t blink. Not once. That has to be painful, right?

“Yes,” I tell him. “I deal with that, too.”

He slowly nods. “So now we know who’s responsible for losing Mediatech a hundred thousand dollars.”

 

* * *

 

“It was mayhem,” Catherine tells me. She’s the head of production for Smith and Carson, and one of my closest friends in the office. “Richard clicked on a link in a phishing email and about an hour later everything went to shit.”

Ryan, the sales and marketing manager, and the biggest gossip in the office, continues, “The next day, Myles arrived with a huge entourage of people. They pushed all of us off our desks and started uploading a billion patches to update the security system. Then we all got called into the boardroom and told that Richard’s taking early retirement effective immediately. And while they search for a new chief editor, Myles will be working from this office.”

“Hasn’t he got better things to do?” I ask. He has his own books to publish, after all. And let’s face it, he doesn’t look at all happy to be here in Charleston. 

“I can think of a few better things he could do,” Catherine wiggles her eyebrows and Ryan laughs. I roll my eyes, because seriously?

“It should be you sitting in Richard’s office,” Ryan says, glancing over at the closed door. “Not him.”

“I wouldn’t want to,” I tell them. “Richard knew that.” Sure, I’m ambitious, but there’s too much going on in my life right now. Not that I have time to think about that at the moment. 

“So why didn’t any of you call me?” I ask, changing the subject. I’m kind of hurt that they didn’t. Or that Richard didn’t. We have a good working relationship. I’ve been to his house. I’ve played with his grandkids. I thought that meant something.

“Richard said we shouldn’t.” Catherine shrugs. “He insisted that you deserved a break and you were going to get one. There’s nothing you could have done anyway. As much as I hate to say it, Salinger has it all under control.”

“We’re getting MacBooks,” Ryan says, smiling happily. “Isn’t that cool?”

More people arrive and start to gather around my desk, helping themselves to the donuts I brought in. Eventually, somebody remembers to ask about my vacation and I’m in the middle of describing Gaudi’s La Sagrada Família church in Barcelona to them when the chief editor’s office door flies open and Myles Salinger is standing there, his huge frame taking up most of the doorway. His lips are pressed tightly together as he looks at my desk and all the people sitting around eating donuts on it.

“What’s going on?” He blinks.

“I was just…” I try not to roll my eyes. “Giving people donuts.”

I notice half of them have already slunk away. Traitors.

He glances at his watch, his shirt sleeve rising to reveal a strong forearm and an oversized silver Rolex. “Is my watch wrong?” he asks.

I have no idea, I want to tell him, but dammit, he’s not ruining my day. “What time does it say?” I ask sweetly.

He ignores me completely. “Does Mediatech pay you to sit around and eat donuts?”

“No.”

“Then maybe you should all get on with your work and leave the gossiping until after hours.”

He whips around and walks back into the office, slamming the door closed behind him. 

“Miserable asshole,” I mutter.

“Sexy miserable asshole,” Catherine corrects me.

“He is,” Luella, her assistant says, dreamily. “He can shout at me any time.”

 

* * *

 

MYLES

 

“They smell of what?” My brother, Liam, starts to laugh. 

“I’m not saying it again,” I tell him, my voice low and tired because it’s been a hell of a couple of weeks. I didn’t want to come here, I don’t want to still be here, and I don’t want to deal with the people in this office. But Jean-Baptiste insisted so here I am.

The sooner I get back to New York the better.

“Cum. You said they smell of cum.”

“They do,” I tell him. “Seriously.”

“How can trees smell like jizz?” he asks me, sounding interested. Liam is my younger brother by a year. He lives in New York too, and we spend a lot of time together there.

“I’ve no idea how they can smell like that. They just do.” And I have to walk past the damn things every day because there’s no parking lot for this damn office building. I just have to find a space on the road, no matter how far away it is, and park there. It’s like going back in time a few centuries coming to Charleston.

Strangers actually smile at you, and it isn’t a ruse to steal your wallet or phone. It’s disconcerting.

“Okay… well, according to Google it must be a Callery Pear tree,” Liam tells me. “It’s the blossom that smells. The good news is, you should only have to deal with it for a few more weeks.”

“Lucky me,” I say. But I don’t feel very lucky right now. Haven’t felt luck since Jean-Baptiste demanded that I come to Charleston to find out what the hell was going on at Smith and Carson. I’d asked how long it would take and he looked at me pointedly and said, “That’s up to you. I want a report on how we can turn things around there.”

Because the truth is, even with Dandy the Lion as their anchor series, Smith and Carson is bleeding money. It’s driving Jean-Baptiste crazy, and he wants to either turn things around or close the place down. And when he gets an idea in his head, there’s no dissuading him.

So I’ll sort it out quietly then go back to what I was doing. And if I have to smell cum every time I get out of my car, so be it. 

“So hey, isn’t this the day your nemesis is due back at work?” Liam changes the subject. It’s almost impossible to find a worse topic than jizz trees, yet he’s somehow managed it.

He should get a medal or something.

“Her name’s Ava. And yes, she’s back at work.” Completely unfunny story. Ava Quinn – the commissioning editor of Smith and Carson – absolutely hates me. Has since the day we first met. And yeah, I’m not her biggest fan either. She lectured two of our most talented art interns, and one of them almost quit on the spot. It took me an hour to persuade him otherwise.

I had it under control. I had been explaining to them why we don’t ever make lewd drawings of our characters, and she started shouting at them. There was no need for that, I had it handled. And it’s pissed me off that ever since she’s done nothing but been rude. Especially when everybody insists she’s the nicest person at Smith and Carson. Ha! I beg to differ.

She’s the main reason I didn’t want to come here. I knew she’d be a pain in my ass. It’s understandable. If she got brought in over me in New York I’d be pissed as hell.

“It’s okay,” Jean-Baptiste said when I pointed this out. “You won’t be above her. You’ll both work for me.”

“And how exactly is that going to work since I’ll be running the office?” I asked him.

He just shrugged. “You’ll make it work, Myles. You always do.”

And yes, I will, because he’s right. I don’t like to be defeated by anything, especially not by somebody who hates my guts. But the sooner we get a replacement for Richard and I can go back to New York, the better.

“Anyway, that’s not why I’m calling,” Liam says. “Dad says you’re not coming to his vow renewal.”

“That’s right, I don’t have time.” 

“But everybody’s going to be there. You have to go.” Liam sounds almost pouty. “Come on, man, we’ll have a blast. Play some football, go swimming in the lake. Dad’s talking about reinstating the Salinger Olympics.” He clears his throat. “Even mom’s going.”

“I’m busy,” I say in a tone that invites no response. Just because my mother, along with my father’s second wife, still thinks the sun shines out of his ass, doesn’t mean that I do.

“I need to go,” I tell him, softening my voice because Liam is the best kind of brother. “I have a business to run and so do you.”

He disconnects and I pull my laptop screen back up, trying to find the files for last month’s financial returns, but the document retention system in this place is about as good as its security. Sighing, I stand up and stride to the door, whipping it open and calling out to her.

“Ava Quinn, come to my office. Now.” 

Chapter 3

 

MYLES

 

“This isn’t going to work,” I tell Jean-Baptiste. It’s almost seven and I’m still in the office. Everybody else has left, including the bane of my existence.

“Of course it is. You’re the only one I trust to tell me what to do with the Charleston branch,” Jean-Baptiste says. I hear noises in the background. No doubt he’s out at a restaurant with a client or investor. He lives to schmooze and he’s very good at it. Unlike me.

My brother tells me I have a resting asshole face. That whenever anybody looks at me they assume they’ve pissed me off. 

“Most of the branch won’t talk to me. And anyway, Ava’s back from vacation. She should be the one running the branch in Richard’s absence. She can report to you instead.”

“No.” Jean-Baptiste’s tone is firm. “I don’t trust her. Remember how they went behind our back with Naomi Acres?”

Yes, I do. And to be fair it was pretty spectacular. Jean-Baptiste was pissed for months.

“How long exactly do you want me to stay?” Sure I can handle juggling two jobs. But this isn’t a long term solution. I want to go back to New York, where I don’t have to walk into an office full of people glaring at me.

Especially Ava Quinn.

“As long as it takes. I’m still thinking through our options.”

Ah yes, our options. Either we close Smith and Carson down completely, and risk losing Naomi and Dandy, or we recruit a new chief editor and look into ways to save money. Either one of them is going to piss off the employees here. And I know exactly who’ll have to give them the news.

“Do you at least have some candidates for the chief editor job?” I ask.

“HR is working on it.”

“Good.”

“And in the meantime, stick close to Ava,” Jean-Baptiste tells me. “If she talks to Naomi I want to know. I’m not going to be taken by surprise this time,” Jean-Baptiste warns. His voice sounds strange, as though he’s eating and talking.

“Of course.” My stomach rumbles, reminding me I haven’t eaten since breakfast. I haven’t had time. In between Ava’s return kicking up a fuss and the rest of the staff going silent whenever I come out of my office, I’ve been trying to write this damn report for options going forward. 

“Great. I’ll speak to you later,” Jean-Baptiste says. “Have a good evening.”

He disconnects and I glance at my laptop, closing the lid but not shutting it down. I’ll go out and grab something from the takeout place down the road then get back to work.

Because the sooner we figure out how to make this place run on a profit, the sooner I can get out of here.

 

* * *

AVA

 

“Seriously, he just comes out and shouts at people, like he expects them to drop everything as soon as he opens his mouth,” I tell my friends as we sit in the juice bar outside of the yoga studio. Sophie surreptitiously twists the lid off of the flask she’s smuggled in and pours a healthy measure of vodka into each of our glasses.

We haven’t showered because the plumbing in this old building is unreliable at best. We’ll all shower in our own homes where we can luxuriate in hot water and not have to compare ourselves to the model-perfect yoga aficionados who think nothing of parading around the changing rooms butt naked for what seems like hours. 

So we’re sitting here sweaty with our workout gear still on, breaking the rules of the studio.

This is why everybody else in the class avoids us. They’re here to get fit and healthy and we’re here to…

I don’t know. Drink vodka-infused grass juices, I guess.

“Hmm,” Lauren says, scrolling through her phone. “Myles Salinger. Alumni of Stern Business School. Seven years’ experience in high finance. Ten years in publishing.”

“You’re looking at his LinkedIn profile?” I ask, alarmed. “Stop it. People can see when you’re stalking them on there. All he has to do is click on your profile and he’ll know you’re connected to me.”

“I’m in incognito mode,” Lauren says, ignoring my panic. “I check out everybody on there. Especially potential dates.”

“Why?” Sophie asks, interested.

“How many guys do you know who post statuses on Insta or Facebook?” Lauren asks.

Sophie shakes her head. “None?”

“Exactly,” Lauren says. “So you have to be sneaky to find out about them. A guy’s LinkedIn profile can tell you a lot. His commitment level for one.”

“How does it tell you that?” I question.

“If he flits from one job to another or has big gaps in his resume, you should avoid him,” Lauren says, sounding sure of herself. “But if he’s had a few jobs, where he stayed at them long term, he’s probably a good bet.”

“Seriously?” Sophie says. “You think that?”

“It hasn’t done me wrong so far,” Lauren says smugly.

“You’re single.” I point out the obvious.

“Yeah, because the guys I swipe right on have terrible career records. There’s more,” she tells us, and we lean in to listen. “If he replies to comments, he’ll probably reply to your texts. If he doesn’t reply or like anything, avoid him.”

“The Lauren Daniels Guide to Dating,” Sophie says. “It’s a whole new world.”

“You know what’s interesting about Myles?” Lauren says, still scrolling. “He left an amazing job in finance for children’s publishing.”

“I already knew that.” 

“You knew that he left something that paid him around a million a year for a job that probably pays a tenth of that?”

I blink. Even a tenth of a million is more than I earn. “He used to earn millions?”

“With bonuses and commission, almost certainly,” Lauren says. “I wonder why he left?”

“They probably couldn’t put up with his grouchiness,” I tell her. 

“Holy hell,” Sophie says, leaning over Lauren’s phone. “Is that him?”

“Does he look like Satan?” I ask them.

Lauren and Sophie exchange glances. They’re not used to me being so annoyed. Nothing and nobody usually ruins my Zen.

“Myles Rupert Salinger,” Lauren reads out, presumably on his Wiki page now. “Born November Twenty-Second Nineteen seventy-eight. That makes him, what?” She frowns and runs her finger over her chin. She can make a perfect batch of a hundred brioches without having to measure anything out but give her a simple math problem and she’s stumped.

“Forty-three,” Sophie says.

“Graduated from Stern Business School. Went straight to work as a venture capitalist. No wives, no kids.” Lauren looks up at me. “This guy is a unicorn.”

“He probably has no time for wives,” I mutter. “Or he’s stashed all their bodies in a dungeon somewhere. Can we talk about something other than work?” I ask, because really, I’ve had enough of it. Even an hour of yoga hasn’t been enough to relax me. I’m considering taking Sophie’s flask and downing some neat vodka.

“What shall we…” Lauren’s eyes widened. “Oh my God, in all this excitement I forgot to ask. Did you make a decision?”

Sophie leans forward, her eyes wide. “Did you?” she asks me, breathless.

I nod. “I did. And I’m going for it.”

“Yes!” Lauren claps her hands. “I’m so excited.”

Sophie snatches my half-drunk juice out of my hand. “You can’t drink this,” she mutters. “It has alcohol in it.”

“She’s not pregnant yet, dummy,” Lauren says.

This was one of the main reasons I went on vacation for two weeks. Not just because I hadn’t had time off in two years, nor because I’d always dreamed of seeing Spain. But because I had a lot to think about.

I’m thirty-six years old. My gynecologist has told me that the clock isn’t just ticking, it’s racing, and if I want to have a baby I need to do it sooner rather than later.

So I’m going to do it alone.

“I’ve made an appointment at the clinic,” I tell them. “To confirm what I want to do and how to go about it.”

“But you don’t want to freeze your eggs, right?”

“No.” The fertility specialist said it would take more than one cycle to freeze them. And honestly, if I freeze them, what am I freezing them for? To wait for Mr. Right to ride in on his white steed? 

We all know that’s a fairytale.

I don’t want to base my life choices around the possibility of a man coming into my life at the right time. I’m financially independent, I have a stable home and a lot of friends – like Sophie and Lauren – who will help. I have guy friends who are willing to provide the male role model any child would need.

And I don’t want to wait anymore. I feel like it’s the right time.

Or it was when I made the decision last week on vacation. Now there’s this little blip of Richard retiring and Myles Salinger scowling his way around the office, but he won’t stay here forever. Mediatech will recruit a new chief editor and Myles will go back to New York where he belongs and life will go on.

“I’m so proud of you,” Sophie says, her eyes watery. “You’ll make such a great mom.”

“Have you told your mom yet?” Lauren asks me.

I grimace. “No. I’m not telling her anything unless it works.” My mom is a very… interesting person. I love her to death and I’d do anything for her, but she’s also very enthusiastic about everything. The weird thing is, she wouldn’t disapprove at all. She’s been a huge proponent of women’s rights ever since I can remember.

But I’m still getting used to this decision. She can stay on a need-to-know basis for now.

“She’ll probably be planning your birth ritual,” Lauren says, grinning. “I can picture it now. You naked in her yard, surrounded by all the women from the village.”

“Your body painted with war stripes,” Sophie joins in. They’ve both known my mom since we roomed together during college. Like me, they adore her and also fear her madcap plans. 

When we finish our vodka and wheatgrass cocktails, we grab our bags and leave the studio. It’s gotten dark since we came in here, but the air outside is still warm. I don’t bother to put on my hoodie because it’s a short walk to my townhouse. Lauren and Sophie both parked their cars outside the old brownstone building so they can walk me home, even though this neighborhood is perfectly safe.

“Can you smell that?” Lauren asks. “Don’t those lotus trees smell beautiful?”

They do. Fragrant and lovely and so spring-like it makes me smile.

“Better than the Callery Pear trees,” Sophie agrees.

“Hey, that’s the closest some of us have come to male bodily fluid in a long time,” Lauren protests. “Although I guess Ava will be coming into contact with some real soon. Just without the guy.”

I wrinkle my nose because I don’t want to talk about disembodied semen right now. Especially as we’re walking past my office. The lights in the building are mostly out, though there are still a few shining brightly on the fourth floor. I frown as I look up because everybody knows how I feel about wasting energy. 

Then I slam into a brick wall and the air is forced out of my lungs.

“Fuck.” Two hands circle my waist, palms directly against my skin because there’s a gap between my crop top and workout shorts. 

And there are those eyes again. Piercing blue, angry, and staring right at my still sweaty, red face, and pulled back hair. I gasp for air and his big, warm hands practically lift my feet off the sidewalk and over to the wall of the Smith and Carson building so I have something to lean on.

“Ava, are you okay?” Myles asks. If he was human, I’d swear there was concern in his gaze, mixed with that constant unending fury.

“What are you made of?” I manage to mutter. “Titanium?”

He ignores me. “Can you breathe? I didn’t see you coming. I was on my phone.” I look down at the sidewalk, sure enough, there’s his phone and a paper bag that almost certainly contains takeout. He must have put them down when he decided to go all hero on me.

“I can breathe.” Or I will be able to, just as soon as he stops touching me. “Sorry, I’d been looking up. I was wondering who left the lights on.”

His lips twitch. “That would be me. I’m still working.”

“You okay, sweetie?” Sophie asks. Her voice sounds weird. Too sugary. I look over at her and Lauren and realize they’re simpering like Victorian maids at a summer ball. Lauren is patting her hair and smiling at Myles.

He doesn’t smile back. I get a grim sense of satisfaction from that. If he was nice to everybody but me I’d take it personally, but he seems to hate the world and that’s okay.

Slowly he releases his hold on my waist and a rush of cold air hits my skin. He glances at my clothes, and I realize just how much I look like Julia Roberts at the beginning of Pretty Woman. Before she gets the glow up.

“What are you wearing?” he asks. There’s a grittiness to his voice that makes my body do weird things. Like clenching my thigh muscles and feeling a deep need inside of me.

“Maybe you should look where you’re going,” I say, ignoring his question. 

“Maybe I should.” He scans me again with those all-seeing eyes. “Or maybe you should think twice about walking through the city in underwear.”

I hate the way this man gets my hackles up. 

“Come on, honey,” Lauren urges. “Let’s get you home. I’ll make you some sweet tea to get over the shock.”

“Good idea.” Myles nods, his jaw tight. “I’ll see you in the morning, Ava.”

“If she’s gotten over her concussion,” Sophie adds, helpfully.

He doesn’t say another word. Just picks up his phone and bag of takeout before walking toward the office door. Sophie and Lauren walk over to stand by my side, and I swear I hear them both sigh.

“Wow,” Sophie says. “I think my ovaries just exploded.”

“You have to work with him?” Lauren says. “I swear I’d combust in my office chair every time he came into the room.”

“You wouldn’t need to combust,” I mutter. “He can incinerate you with one icy stare.”

It’s only when he pauses for a moment before pushing the door open that I realize he can hear us. Shit

“Come on,” I sigh. “Let’s go home.”

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