I’d forgotten how much I loved happy hour. Jules and I used to do it every Thursday night when we first started at Fresh Look, but as time went by, one of us was always working late. We’d apologize and promise to do it the following week, but then the other person would be on deadline and not be able to go. Eventually, we just stopped even trying to make plans.
But the employees at Parker Industries made time for happy hour, and I’d managed to leave the office at a reasonable hour, too. Lindsey was another brand manager in the marketing department, and we’d hit it off on my first day. We were sitting at a bar, drinking Godiva chocolate martinis and enjoying the free appetizers as she filled me in on all the office gossip.
“And Karen in payroll is engaged to a guy who used to be in porn.”
“It was soft stuff. But if you want to see his dick, just Google John Summers.”
“It would be really weird to Google someone in the office’s fiancé to look at him naked.”
Lindsey crinkled up her nose. “It’s not circumcised. It’s really ugly. But it’s huge.” She held out her hands nearly twelve inches apart. “Like a baseball bat. Now every time I look at her, I can’t stop wondering how that thing fits. I mean, she’s so tiny.”
“You need to meet my friend Jules. It’s uncanny how much you remind me of her.”
Lindsey tossed back the rest of her martini and held the empty glass up for the bartender. “So tell me about you. Boyfriend, husband, sister-wife? What’s going on in your life?”
Answering should have been easier. “I’ve been on four dates with a guy who’s really sweet. We talk almost every day.”
“Really sweet, huh? Are you exclusive?”
Huh? Are we? “We haven’t really talked about it. But I haven’t been dating anyone else.”
The bartender came by with a shaker and refilled both our glasses. Lindsey eyed me over the top of hers as she sipped. “You’re not that into him.”
“What makes you say that?”
“You didn’t perk up when you talked about him, you described him as ‘sweet’, you aren’t sure if you’re exclusive, and it seems like thirty seconds ago was the first time you’d even considered the question. That means you don’t care if he isn’t.” She shrugged and said pointedly, “You’re not that into him.”
I exhaled a deep breath. “I think you’re right. He’s great—he really is. But there’s just something missing.”
“Can’t force it.”
She was right. Although the thought of breaking things off with a guy like Bryant—one who didn’t come along that often in New York City—was pretty depressing. I needed to think about something else.
“Tell me more gossip? What about Samantha?”
“She’s pretty much what you see. Been with the company about four years now, I think. Married, no kids that I’m aware of. She and Chase go way back. I heard a rumor that she was best friends with his girlfriend who died.”
“His girlfriend died?”
“Yep. Years ago. I think she was only twenty-one at the time.” Lindsey shook her head. “Tragic.”
“How did she die? Was she sick or something?”
“Some sort of an accident, I think. It was before I started. But I heard Chase was screwed up for a long time. It’s why he licensed all his products originally instead of distributing them himself. A lot of those licenses are expiring, and that’s why we’re marketing some of the products for the first time.”
“Yeah. He seems really good now, though. He’s usually in a good mood, anyway.” Lindsey grinned. “But I would be too if I got up every morning and looked at that face. The man is obscenely hot—if you’re into that sort of thing, that is.”
I laughed. “Not your type?”
“Apparently I like my men balding with a beer belly and propensity to be unemployed. I’ve been with Al since I was sixteen.”
“He’s gained some weight, huh?”
She snorted. “Actually, no. He’s pretty much always looked the same way. But the man thinks I walk on water for reasons I’ll never understand. Treats me like a princess.”
“Good for you.”
A couple of people from sales came into the bar and joined us, effectively ending my gossip session with Lindsey. After that, we mingled, and I got to meet a few new people. But I couldn’t stop thinking about what I’d learned about Chase. He’d lost someone. Something like that had to have a big impact on your life, no matter how smart and well-adjusted you were.
Even if it didn’t break you, it left cracks and tiny fissures that could never be repaired.
Although the bar had grown busier by nine, the office crowd had begun to thin out. Lindsey went home, and there was only one other person from marketing left. It was time to call it a night. I attempted to get the bartender’s attention, but she was swamped down at the other end of the bar.
A man who’d clearly been overserved squeezed in next to me and tried to strike up a conversation while standing too close.
“Is that your real hair color?” he asked.
“Don’t you know you’re never supposed to ask a woman her age, weight, or if she dyes her hair?”
“Didn’t know that.” He swayed back and forth. “So asking for a phone number is okay?”
I attempted to be polite. “I suppose, if she isn’t married and seems interested.”
Feeling the need to escape, I tried again to get the bartender’s attention so I could close my tab. She held up her hand to let me know she’d seen me, but she was still busy making drinks at the other end of the bar. They really needed another bartender with this crowd.
Since I was stuck standing there, drunk guy assumed that meant I was interested. “What’s your name, red?” He reached out and touched my hair.
“Please don’t touch me.”
He raised his hands in mock surrender. “You like women or something?”
This guy was amusing. For the first time since he’d walked over, I finally gave him my full attention, turning my body to face him before answering. “You assume I like women, just because I don’t want you to touch me?”
He ignored me. “Let me buy you a drink, pretty girl.”
He leaned in closer, wobbling as he spoke. “You’re feisty. I like that. The red hair must be real.”
A voice from behind me caught me by surprise.
“Go stand somewhere else.” Chase’s voice was low but stern. He took a step and partially inserted himself between us, facing the drunk.
“I saw her first,” the man whined.
“I don’t think so, buddy. I sucked her face in middle school. Take a hike.”
The drunk grumbled something, but staggered away. Chase turned to face me, standing in his place. Wow. Much better view.
“Thank you. Polite wasn’t working.”
Of course, as soon as the drunk was no longer a problem, the bartender came to settle my tab. “What can I get you, Chase?” Or maybe not.
“I’ll take a Sam Adams.”
She turned to me. “You want me to close out your tab, right?”
“You’re leaving? I just got here. You have to have one drink with me.”
I wanted to. I really wanted to. But I knew I should probably go. Chase read the hesitation on my face.
“Close her tab. Bring another of whatever she’s drinking, and put it on my tab. We’re going to move to a table where it’s quieter.”
The bartender took his direction, and I shook my head, even though I was smiling.
“No one ever says no to you, do they?” I asked.
“Not if I have anything to say about it.”
A minute later, Chase had both of our drinks in one hand and used the other to guide me toward a quiet table in the back. Once settled, he sipped his beer, watching me over the bottle. “Thanks for the invite tonight, by the way.”
I stopped with my drink mid-way to my lips. “I didn’t even know everyone went out on Thursday nights. I’m the new girl. You could have told me about it.”
“Tried to. Came by your office, but you were already gone.”
I’d actually sat at my desk and thought about stopping by Chase’s office to mention everyone was going for drinks. But in my head, it had felt like I would be asking him for more than just joining a group for happy hour.
“Well…we’re both here now,” I said. “You worked pretty late tonight.”
“I had dinner plans, actually.”
His answer made me feel anxious…and maybe a teeny bit jealous. “Oh.”
I felt him staring at me, yet avoided his eyes as I stirred my drink. When I finally looked up, his eyes searched for something in mine.
“With my sister, not a date. It’s a regular weekly thing.”
“I wasn’t asking.”
“No. You didn’t ask. But you were disappointed when I said I had dinner plans.”
“I was not.”
“Looked that way to me.”
“I think your conceitedness clouds your judgment of what you see sometimes.”
“Is that so?”
“So it wouldn’t stir any feelings inside of you if I told you I was late because I was busy fucking someone?”
My jaw clenched, but I forced a mask onto my face and shrugged. “Not at all. Why would it bother me? You’re my boss, not my boyfriend.”
Surprising me, Chase dropped it and changed the subject. “So how do you like it so far at Parker Industries?”
“I love it, actually. It reminds me a lot of when I first started at Fresh Look. Everyone is so open-minded and in touch with the people who actually use the products. Even though Fresh Look is a smaller company than Parker, it took on investors over the years, and they began to control more and more of how Fresh Look marketed. Eventually, management started to lose sight of who we were marketing to—the board of directors or the women who used the cosmetics.”
Chase nodded like he understood. “There’s definitely a trade-off when you go outside for money. Control isn’t something I ever want to give up again. It would drive me crazy to have to answer to a bunch of suits who didn’t have a clue about what’s important to the women who buy my products. Is that why you left? Because you lost your ability to market the way you believed it needed to be done?”
“I wish I could say it was. But I honestly didn’t realize how restrained I’d felt until this week with Josh and his team.”
Chase stared at me for several seconds. “Sometimes you don’t know what you’re missing until you find it.”
I knew, by the way my body reacted to watching his Adam’s apple bob up and down, that I was in trouble if I didn’t redirect our conversation. I cleared my throat and blinked to disconnect my eyes from his neck.
“So…how was dinner with your sister?”
“She’s very pregnant. All she talked about was hemorrhoids and leaking breasts. I lost my appetite.”
I laughed. “Is this her first?”
“Pretty sure she thinks it’s the world’s first baby being born. I could see the pain in her husband’s eyes as she talked tonight.”
“I’m sure she isn’t that bad.”
“Over dinner, she yelled at him for breathing too loud. Breathing. He also wasn’t allowed to order sushi at the Japanese restaurant we went to because she can’t have it.”
“I can’t tell if you’re making that up or not, considering your propensity for telling random stories.”
“Sadly enough for my brother-in-law, I’m telling the truth.”
“Does your sister live here in the city?”
“Upper East Side. Moved from downtown near her husband’s job last year to be closer to her job at the Guggenheim. Now she can walk to the museum in three minutes, and her husband’s commute is three times as long as it was. So of course, she quit her job as soon as she found out she was pregnant.”
“You’re being hard on her.”
“She sure as shit makes it easy.” He finished the rest of his beer. “I’m going to grab another one. You ready for a refill?”
“I probably shouldn’t.”
He grinned. “One refill coming right up.”
While he was off getting our drinks, I sat pondering who, exactly, Chase Parker was. I’d never met a man quite like him before. He was someone I couldn’t put my finger on…he didn’t seem to fit into any one box. A businessman who ran a massively successful company—yet he looked more like a rock star with his shaggy hair and frequent five o’clock shadow. Custom-tailored, conservative suits covered a carved body and pierced nipple. He dated buxom blondes and joined strangers for dinner, yet had a standing weekly date with his sister. Even without factoring in what I’d learned tonight from Lindsey, the man was a complex package.
He returned a few minutes later with drinks in hand. “Miss me?”
Yes. “Were you gone?”
“So where is Becker tonight?”
“Bryant. And I’m not sure. We didn’t have plans. I suppose he’s home.”
“Tell me about him?”
“I don’t know. I’m curious, I guess. I’m wondering what kind of a man you’re interested in.”
You. “What do you want to know?”
“What does he do for a living?”
“He’s in financial services. Manages mutual funds and stuff.”
“What’s his favorite movie?”
“I have no idea. We haven’t been seeing each other that long.”
“Does he snore?” He tried to hide his sneaky grin.
“Does Bridget?” I countered.
“I wouldn’t know. She hasn’t been in my bed. Then again, I’m sure I wouldn’t know if you snored even if you were in my bed.”
“Why is that? You’re a sound sleeper or something?”
“You wouldn’t be sleeping.”
I laughed. “I walked right into that, didn’t I?”
“You should get rid of Baxter and walk right into my bedroom.”
Why was I laughing when he’d just told me to dump the guy I was dating and hop in his bed? This man made me lose all sense of judgment.
“So…any other siblings, besides your pregnant one?” I asked.
“If you’re trying to cool me off, that’s one way to do it. Mention Anna.”
I sipped my drink. “Good to know.”
“It’s just me and preggo. How about you? Any brothers or sisters?”
“Just one. Owen. He’s a year older. Lives in Connecticut, not too far from my parents.”
“You two close?”
“We don’t get to have dinner once a week, but yes, I like to think we’re close. Owen’s deaf, so it’s not as easy as picking up the phone to actually talk, but we text all the time. And we do FaceConnect where we can type and see each other. When we were younger, we were inseparable.”
“Wow. Do you know sign language or anything?”
“Not really. Owen lost his hearing at ten from…an injury. He took to reading lips faster than signing. I’m pretty good at reading lips. I used to put in earplugs and pretend to be deaf like him.”
“Really? What I am saying?”
Chase mouthed something. I caught it on the first try, but screwed with him a bit. “Hmmm…not sure. Do it again.”
Again his lips moved. This time, he’d over-accentuated each word, but he’d mouthed You should come home with me clear as day.
“Sorry. Guess I’m rusty.” I smirked.
Chase bent his head back in laughter, and his throat vibrated.
God, that Adam’s apple really works for me. The damn thing was taunting me, jumping around, showing off. I needed to get the hell out of the bar before I did something I’d regret for a multitude of reasons.
Finishing my drink, I stood. “I should get going. It’s late. And I like to get to the office early to make a good impression with the boss.”
“Pretty sure you’ve already done that.”