Copyright © 2013 Serenity Woods
All rights reserved — a Samhain Publishing, Ltd. publication
“Sex,” Coco said. “And lots of it.”
She’d been looking out of the window as she spoke, but on glancing back at her friend, realised by Amy’s startled look that she must have spoken louder than she’d meant to, and her voice had carried across the small coffee shop. The young barista foaming the milk behind the counter giggled, and the man leaning on the bar waiting for his latte looked up from his iPad and raised an eyebrow.
Coco’s eyes widened with dismay. She’d spotted him as soon as she walked into Bella’s. Although he was dressed much the same as the other early morning office workers in a dark suit and a long black coat to ward off the cool New Zealand air, something about him made him stand out from his surroundings. Maybe it was his height—he must have been at least six two. Or perhaps it was his dark hair, short and sleek at the back, longer and falling over his forehead at the front in a style that declared “I’m a naughty boy beneath this demure image—deal with it.”
Yum, she’d thought as Amy had ushered her in out of the rain. Very tasty. But he hadn’t looked up, busy concentrating on his Financial Times app or whatever had captured his attention so completely, and she’d torn her gaze away, her mind too full of her own busy day to dwell on the guy, however hot he might be.
Now, though, his eyes met hers and one corner of his mouth curved up.
“Classy,” Amy said as they moved to the counter. She waved an apologetic hand at the man. “Sorry. I was asking her what she wanted for Christmas this year.”
The man chuckled, put down his iPad and accepted his latte from the barista. “Interesting request. Most women ask for perfume or jewellery.” His deep, gravelly voice made the hairs rise on the back of Coco’s neck.
She cleared her throat, mortified he’d overheard her words, and decided the only way out would be to make a joke of it. “Yes, well, that’s what springs to mind when you sit on Santa’s lap as a grown-up.”
Amy snorted and started relating their order to the amused girl behind the counter. Coco couldn’t tear her eyes away from the man’s, though. Deep brown and warm with amusement, they crinkled at the edges as he smiled. He leaned forward conspiratorially and said in a low voice, “What I want to know is…have you been naughty or nice this year?”
She caught her breath. He smelled enticing, a mixture of manly bodywash, hot muffins and coffee, a mouth-wateringly morning smell. A vision shot through her head of him getting dressed, buttoning up the white shirt over tanned skin, hair ruffled from a night of passionate lovemaking…
She blinked, shocked at her train of thought. What the hell? Get a grip, Coco. His smile spread as if he’d read her mind, and she dropped her gaze, searching for something to say, a way to escape the conversation without embarrassing herself further.
Luckily, her gaze fell on his iPad, and what she saw there made her laugh out loud. Not the Financial Times, in fact not any newspaper app.
“Angry Birds?” She raised her eyes to his again. “Really?”
“What?” He gave her a mock-affronted look and tucked the iPad under his arm. “I’m up to level ten. It’s addictive.”
“I’m sure it is.” She smiled. “Don’t worry, your secret’s safe with me.”
He laughed and turned to go. As he passed her, he bent and whispered in her ear. “I hope Santa brings you everything you want for Christmas.” His warm breath on her skin sent a shiver across her shoulder blades and down her back.
She watched him walk away, unable to stop her lips curving as he turned to push open the door and winked at her before letting it shut behind him.
“Yowza.” Amy’s wide eyes echoed her approval. “I wouldn’t be disappointed to find one of those in my stocking.”
Coco smiled wryly and accepted the cappuccino from the barista. “I wouldn’t let a man like that anywhere near your stockings, Amy dear. He’d devour you in one gulp.”
“One can only hope.”
They both laughed and headed for the doorway.
“Shame you didn’t find out where he worked,” Amy said. “He was interested in you.”
Coco opened the door and turned up the collar of her raincoat. It wasn’t raining, but she was determined to stop the notoriously brisk Wellington wind from sliding its fingers down the neck of her shirt. She glanced up the street—he’d vanished, no doubt heading for one of the financial institutions downtown. She’d probably never see him again.
Squashing the answering ripple of disappointment, she frowned at Amy. “Don’t exaggerate. I barely said two words to the man.”
“Yes but one of those words was ‘sex’. His eyes lit up like the patient’s nose in the game Operation.”
She couldn’t deny that—his eyes had definitely glimmered with interest. But it didn’t make any difference. “That may be, but you know I’m not looking for anyone. Far too much on my mind at the moment.”
Amy sent her a remonstrative look as they walked along the pavement. “You’ve always got too much on your mind. When was the last time you actually went on a date?”
“2010. But that’s not the point. It’s an important day today. I need to have my wits about me.” And I need to stop thinking about those brown eyes and that quirky smile.
“True, this is probably the most important day of your life.” Amy slurped her coffee. “So far, anyway. I hope you’re prepared.”
“Thanks. No pressure or anything.” Coco’s stomach continued to churn the way it had since she’d awoken that morning. Luckily she had the coffee to settle it. Thanks, Amy. Way to go to calm me down.
Her best friend seemed oblivious to her nerves. “Absolutely there’s pressure.” She fell into step beside Coco as she started walking along Lambton Quay to their place of work. “It’s not every day you get to become Queen of the Revolting Peasants at McAllister Dell.”
“That’s not my actual job title, you know.”
“It should be. It suits you.”
Coco sent her an amused look and followed it with an involuntary shiver. It was mid-December and they should really be heading toward a sultry New Zealand summer, but in Wellington, the capital city, it felt distinctly like early spring, and the fact that the sun hadn’t yet woken up didn’t help. The streets were shrouded in twilight and the wet roads smelled of petrol and damp leaves. “Jeez, it’s cold.”
“Well, you would insist on getting to work at the crack of dawn instead of rolling in at five to nine like normal people.”
“You didn’t have to come in with me.” Coco stepped carefully around the puddles in her high heels. The last thing she needed today was to slip, fall on her butt and start the morning off looking like she was auditioning for Singing in the Rain.
“Oh, I’m not going to miss out on a chance to see Miss Stark at work. Especially when there’s a new shipload of minions arriving today. I enjoy watching her cracking the whip, and I’m not going to get much chance over the next week.” Amy was going on holiday the next day to visit her father up in the Bay of Islands.
“You know it freaks me out when you talk about me in the third person like that.”
Amy shrugged. “Well, it’s like you’re two different people. I like Coco, she’s warm, funny and friendly. She’s my best friend and I’d do anything for her. Veronica Stark—not so much. I’m glad I work in HR and don’t have to deal with her. She scares the crap out of me.”
Coco laughed and sipped her coffee. “You make her sound like a right old dragon.”
“You know that’s your nickname at the firm, right?”
Coco grinned. “Yeah. I kind of like it.”
Amy rolled her eyes. “The crew arriving today doesn’t know what’s going to hit them. How many are coming again?”
“Not sure exactly. Half a dozen legal execs, several lawyers and, of course, Mr. Hotshot Fancy Pants himself.”
“I hope you’re not going to call him that to his face.”
“Only if he annoys me.” Which he had already, thought Coco, and he hadn’t even set foot in the office yet.
“You should give him at least five minutes before you decide you’re not going to like him,” Amy scolded.
Coco said nothing. A sweep of uneasiness made her stomach flip again, and she wished she’d gone with her initial instinct and refused breakfast. But her mother had practically forced her to have a slice of toast, saying she needed to keep her strength up on such an important day.
“What’s his real name again?” Amy asked.
“Felix Wilkinson. A.k.a. Fancy Pants.”
Amy giggled. “What don’t you like about him?”
“I’ve never met him. But he sounds like one of the young, flash, arrogant lawyers that are so annoying.”
“Is he single?”
Coco sent her an exasperated look. Amy was desperate to get married, settle down and have babies. Her job was just a convenient way for her to earn money to buy things to make herself prettier so she could attract a guy and achieve her dream. Coco didn’t resent her for that, but a little part of her envied her best friend. What must it be like not to have the responsibilities piled on Coco’s sometimes too-narrow shoulders?
She sighed, not wanting to think about the pressures and strains of life outside the office when such an important day loomed. Amy was right. She shouldn’t judge Mr. Hotshot until she’d met him. But she couldn’t shake the feeling that she was almost certainly going to hate his guts.
Part of it, she was sure, was the age-old competition between the Auckland and Wellington branches of McAllister Dell. The Wellington branch was the oldest and most prestigious, but for some reason Auckland had a tendency to grab the best young lawyers. Felix Wilkinson already had a reputation throughout the company of being a fantastic family lawyer, and it rankled amongst most of the Wellington partners that the Auckland branch had nabbed him. It did make sense that the person to be chosen to investigate the recent sexual harassment claim against one of the Wellington partners was from a different branch, but still, they could have got someone in from Christchurch or Dunedin, somewhere that didn’t have the same rivalry.
But if she was honest with herself, that wasn’t the main reason she was angry. The case was dredging up old memories and feelings about the accused partner—Peter Dell—she’d thought long buried. The guilt that had lain at the bottom of her stomach like sand on a riverbed was stirring up inside her, and nausea kept threatening to rise, together with uncharacteristic flutters of nerves.
She had to stomp on that before she walked through the doors. Veronica Stark did not get nervous. Veronica Stark did not have nerves. Or a heart, for that matter. She was a medical marvel. And the sooner she adopted her alter ego’s persona, Coco thought as she took another swallow of coffee, the better.
“Poor Coco,” Amy said, reaching out to squeeze her arm, obviously realising Coco couldn’t put her resentment into words. “It’s a shame you have to deal with Mr. Hotshot on the day you take over the office.”
Coco sighed. “Well I have practically been doing the job for three months, so it’s no big deal really. It’s kind of a relief that Mrs. Ingram’s retired. At least I’ll get paid for doing the job now.”
“Youngest officer manager the firm’s ever had,” said Amy, shaking her head. “Who’d have thought it? I’m so proud of you.”
“Yeah. Me too.” Coco smiled.
“Why didn’t they make you start on Monday?” Amy wondered.
Coco shrugged. “Something to do with the pay cycle starting on Fridays, plus yesterday was Mrs. Ingram’s official last day. I wasn’t going to argue—I was just pleased to be asked at all.”
It was only another hundred yards or so until they reached the door to McAllister Dell, so she stopped in front of a shop window to check her appearance. There was no need to be nervous, she told herself as she took out her lipstick. This was just another day doing a job she loved. Still, her hand shook a little as she smoothed the lipstick over her lips. She always felt better once the lipstick was on.
Amy tried to coax her curly brown hair back into its clip and frowned as Coco ran a hand along the blonde locks that remained rolled into a tight bun.
“How come you don’t have a hair out of place in this wind?” Amy asked resentfully.
“A shedload of hairspray.”
“I know for a fact you don’t use hairspray. I don’t think Veronica’s hair dare misbehave.”
“Damn straight.” Coco pulled her glasses out of her pocket and slid them onto her nose. She only needed them for reading, but she liked the professorial look they afforded her and tended to wear them most of the time in the office. “There. I hope they’re ready for Miss Stark, because she’s more than ready for them.”
“Strength and honour,” said Amy, putting her fist on her chest in a grand impersonation of Russell Crowe’s Maximus.
“Don’t make me laugh. You know Miss Stark doesn’t smile.”
“Oh yeah. I forgot.”
Coco lifted her chin as they walked toward the large glass doors that marked the entrance to McAllister Dell’s lobby. I’m Veronica Stark, she thought. I run this office. And I’m not going to let Peter Dell and Mr. Felix Fancy Pants ruin my special moment. No matter what the day threw at her, she’d take everything in her stride, the same as she usually did.