ask Harley as she walks toward my open office door, obviously on her way back from lunch, judging by the takeout coffee she places down on my desk as she enters. She insists on bringing me one back every day, even though I told her The Songbird coffee suits me fine. What I haven’t told her is I’m in talks with the owner of the deli to open a branch in The Songbird’s east wing lobby, by the hotel boutiques. She isn’t just a diligent PA; she also knows her shit when it comes to coffee.
“Maria? You know she said you could call her Maria, remember?”
“Yes, I recall,” I huff out, shoving my hands into my pant pockets. “Maria. Where is she? Had enough of us already?”
Harley shakes her head at me. “Not likely. That woman is driven. She asked me to show her to the conference room early. She said she had some paperwork to go over.”
“I see.” I glance at the wall clock. There’s still twenty minutes before the meeting starts.
Harley follows my gaze. “I can hold your calls from now, if you like?”
I realize I’m grinding my teeth. Maria is merely a few doors down in the conference room, preparing for the meeting. Exactly what I’d hope she would do in readiness for her new role here. So, why the thought of her sitting down there in that red dress of hers bothers me; I’ve no clue.
“That won’t be necessary, thank you. Hold them from the time we previously agreed,” I tell Harley, turning to look out the window at Central Park as she leaves.
This is what I wanted. I headhunted Maria for the newly available role of Spa Manager after my parents couldn’t stop gushing over how incredible the spa she ran near LA is. Her achievements and awards meant I was ninety-nine percent convinced I was offering her the role before I met her face to face. That’s where the one percent came in. The one percent that has long, dark hair and sensual hazel eyes. The giant fucking one percent that had me beating one out in the shower this morning.
I’m not an idiot.
I won’t make the same fucking mistake twice.
I finish up with some calls in my office and drain the last of the takeout coffee before getting up and putting my suit jacket back on. The conference room looks empty as I walk past the window. It’s only when I enter through the open door that I see her. She has her back to me, laying out bound folders at each of the four places which have been set up—one each for me, her, and the two reps from the supply company who will be attending.
“I thought Harley already put the agendas out in here?”
Maria glances at me over her shoulder, not in the least surprised at my interruption. It’s like she already knew I was here.
“What are these, then?” I walk to the table and stop in front of a folder, scanning the fancy font underneath The Songbird’s emblem on the front cover.
“They’re the agendas, same as before. I just added a few items I’d like to discuss, that’s all,” Maria says as she leans over her notepad on the table and jots something down.
I take a slow breath in, fighting to maintain composure. “You made some changes?”
“I emailed them to you,” she continues, “but maybe you didn’t see them yet.”
“No. I was at a meeting all morning, and then on calls just now.” I scan the folders again, the hairs on the back of my neck pricking up.
“Oh.’ She looks up. “I’m sorry. I hope that isn’t a problem?”
I stare back into her eyes in silence. It should impress me that it’s only day one, and she’s already showing initiative, just as I expected her to. Yet, part of me wants to tell her that yes, there is a problem. A big fucking problem.
I don’t like things not to be run past me first.
“Of course not.” I smile in the way I’ve been told makes me look charming, but Maria has already turned away.
“Okay, great.” She picks up one of the bound files and comes to stand next to me. “Plus, I found some discrepancies in the reports I want to raise with the suppliers.” She flicks to a page in the file and points to some figures. “See?”
She turns her face to the side and looks up at me. Her hazel eyes are fanned by long, dark lashes as she waits for my reaction. Heat fires across my neck, underneath my collar, as the scent of her perfume reaches me. It’s sexy and elegant, and smells like a workplace sexual harassment claim waiting to happen.
I peel my eyes from hers and look at the page.
“Where, exactly?” I frown at the invoice. At a quick glance, the totals all add up.
“Here.” Maria points to the price our supplier is charging for a body scrub. “One of the key ingredients is coconut sugar. Yet, they’re charging us almost the same as the lotion with the pure rose oil in.” She looks up at me again, her eyes bright before continuing. “It made little sense, so I did some digging.” She turns to her bag, which she has placed on the chair, and pulls out some more documents. When she turns back to me, she’s even closer, and the bare skin of her arm brushes against my jacket sleeve.
“Look. This is what the grower in The Bahamas is charging our supplier for coconut sugar. Over double what I expected to see from last year’s prices with the same grower.”
She presents the accounts document to me and leans in, reading it at the same time as I do. The curve of her breast brushes my bicep and I clear my throat, taking a small step to one side, breaking contact.
“How did you get this?” I skim my eyes over the figures. She’s correct. The grower is charging our product supplier two point three times as much as they charged last year.
“I couldn’t fall asleep last night. So, I went online and did some research. I have some contacts in The Bahamas from my spa in Hope Cove. And I’m familiar with this grower. I met him once, years ago.”
I raise a brow, closing the folder and placing it back on the table.
“This is certainly interesting. Maybe I should cancel the team who are booked to add some insulation to the apartment next to yours. It seems the noise may aid you in your work.”
Her eyes widen, and her lips part at my suggestion, as though I’ve spoken out of turn. She takes a moment before responding.
”As thoughtful as that suggestion is. I would rather my neighbor”—she looks at me pointedly—”maintain his privacy, along with my peace, if you don’t mind.”
She turns and busies herself with some more papers in her bag. If I weren’t so drawn to looking at her whenever I’m near her, then I wouldn’t notice the subtle tensing in her shoulders.
But for some unfathomable reason, I am. And so, it seems my mind is intent on noticing every single thing about her.
Like the tense muscle in her cheek as she frowns.
Something has bothered her.
“Was there something else?” My question comes out like an accusation despite not intending it to.
“No. Just coconuts. Round, firm fruit,” she mutters under her breath, her cheek tensing again.
Great. I’ve hired someone who is bat-shit crazy.
There’s a knock at the door.
“Mr. Parker, Maria? Todd and Serena are here,” Harley announces brightly from the doorway.
I drag my gaze away from Maria, who hasn’t looked at me since my comment about the insulation.
“Thank you. Show them in, please.”
After the initial pleasantries and introductions, the four of us take our seats at the large conference table. Maria and I on one side, Todd and Serena on the other. The Songbird spa has been using them for several years now to supply the products. I’ve never had a problem with either of them before today, but the way Todd’s eyes keep dropping to Maria’s chest when he thinks she won’t notice doesn’t escape my attention, and I find myself scowling at him over across the table, my jaw clenched tight.
“I see what you mean, Maria,” he says. Chest glance. “I can’t believe we never picked it up.” Chest glance. “You’ve got a good eye.” Chest glance.
If you’re not careful, Todd, you’re about to lose both of yours.
He looks up at me with uncertainty as he studies the discrepancies Maria has found. Serena takes notes next to him, marking up the accounts with a red pen until it looks like a scene from a horror film.
“I’ll cancel the contract with the grower. We’ll get someone else.” Todd rubs his hand over his chin.
Maria shifts in her seat next to me. “No. If you don’t mind, I would like to talk to the grower first. I met him once a few years ago. I never bought from him as he couldn’t source what I needed. But he put me in touch with someone who could. He didn’t strike me as a dishonest man. I’d like to see what he has to say before we rule him out.”
Todd turns and smiles at her, his eyes glowing. “That’s very understanding of you, Maria. Let me give you my business and personal cell numbers, and we can set something up.” Chest glance.
I swear his pretty-boy blond curls are taunting me to smack him square in the jaw.
I stretch my fingers out on top of my legs beneath the table as I suck in a sharp breath.
“Thank you. That would be great.” She smiles back. “Mr. Parker, is that okay with you?” She turns to me, and I swear there’s a challenge in her eyes. It’s almost like she wants me to disagree with her.
I purse my lips and nod. “Of course. You’re the manager. If you want to get to the bottom of it with the grower, then please be my guest.” My hands tighten into fists, dragging over the material of my suit pants.
“Why don’t I call you tomorrow, Maria? And we can discuss it some more.” Todd looks like Christmas came early as he stands and shakes Maria’s hand. “I think it’s going to be wonderful working together. I can see you’re going to be an asset to The Songbird.” Chest glance.
“Todd.” I swear my blood has almost reached boiling point as I take his hand. The corners of his eyes twitch as I squeeze tighter than usual, picturing crushing his hand to dust inside my own. I smile before I release him.
“Good to see you again, Serena,” I add as I shake her hand too.
“Well, they seem nice,” Maria says after they leave.
“Mmm,” I grunt.
“Have you worked with their company for long?”
Too long, I’m thinking.
“A few years,” I answer, not wanting to waste another second’s thought on Todd and his ‘I’ll give you my personal cell shit’.
“His hair is amazing,” Maria says, more to herself as she gathers her things together to leave. “I wonder what product he uses.”
I bristle, then straighten my shoulders immediately.
“Why don’t you ask him? When the two of you speak on his personal cell,” I bark, smoothing my hand down over my tie. “Now, if you’ll excuse me.” I turn and leave the room before she has time to answer and stride down the hall toward my office.
I glimpse at my profile reflected in a mirror that I pass—short, dark hair.
I snap my eyes away, swallowing down the bubbling anger burning inside my gut.
Fucking pretty boy with his blond curls.
“Hey, what’s up with you? You’ve got a face like a whipped ass.”
“Jerk,” I mutter as I slap Reed on the shoulder and walk past him into the apartment.
He chuckles as he closes the door and follows me.
“What exactly were you up to last night, anyway?” I ask, casting my eyes around the apartment, expecting to see his guitar, or another source of the noise Maria referred to.
“Why? Who’s been talking?” Reed looks at me warily, his eyes darkening.
I shake my head. “Nothing like that, don’t worry.”
He runs a hand back through his deep brown hair. “Thank fuck. Now is not the time for the press to go chewing on bones.”
I smirk as he heads to the fridge and passes me a beer. “There never is a time with you. That’s what you get for wanting to run for Mayor—everyone watching your every move.”
“Bloody media and their fucking circuses,” he curses as he takes a swig from his bottle. “Still, it’s nice to take a little break from California for a few days. Relax, make new friends, you know?” He shrugs a shoulder as the corners of his lips curl.
“How many new friends are we talking about?” I sink back into his couch, kicking off my shoes and putting my feet up on the coffee table. I use my free hand to loosen my tie. I like to relax after work. And after today, I feel like I’ve earned it.
“Two new friends. Underwear models.” Reed grins, dropping onto the couch next to me.
“Really?” I raise my brows. “What were their names?”
Reed shrugs. “Baby… and… Babe.”
“Figures.” I snort, knocking back a mouthful of cool beer.
Reed is one of those guys who always has different female company. None of whom he cares to ask the names of. It seems to suit him. He comes across as happy as a pig in shit when we get the chance to catch up. It’s not as often as we used to. Not since he moved to LA to run for Mayor. But in politics, anything can change. I know for a fact he has his sights set on the New York Mayor’s office. And after my meeting there this morning to discuss some planning I’m applying for downtown, I’d say he’s in with a shot. The entire staff there seemed on tenterhooks. Hushed conversations, worried glances. There is definitely a shake-up on the horizon.
“You know you have a neighbor as of last night?”
Reed stops drinking his beer.
“Seriously? On that side?” He tips his bottle toward the wall that connects to Maria’s apartment.
“Yeah. The new spa manager.”
He tips his head back and blows out a breath. “Shit. We may have given her a show last night. It got loud.”
“When doesn’t it with you?” I smirk, remembering many nights in our shared college dorm. We had a code. If a tie was on the door, then one of us had company.
If the tie’s hanging, inside we’re banging.
Crass, I know. But we were testosterone-fueled young men with freedom and seemingly unlimited energy… and we knew exactly how to put it to use.
“What can I say? I’m on a mini break, blowing off steam, catching up with my buddy.” Reed looks at me, amusement dancing in his eyes.
“Yeah, well. Expect some guys around tomorrow to improve the insulation. It should help muffle the noise next time you choose to entertain.”
Reed chuckles. “Look, I’m sorry. I didn’t know. I thought I had the floor to myself.”
That was the original plan. Although he’s on a break, he has work-related meetings going on in New York. The two advisors traveling with him are staying on the floor below. And the floor above—where Maria should be—had a leak in the master bathroom the day before she arrived. Harley set up the apartment next to Reed’s at the last minute.
“Yeah, well, you know now.” I rub a hand over my eyes as I lean my head back against the couch and let out a sigh, my shoulders loosening as tension slowly drops from them.
“Tough day?” Reed asks.
“Nothing major. Just issues with a supplier. Maria thinks a grower in The Bahamas is overcharging them for an ingredient for one of the spa products, and they’re passing the increase onto us.”
“Maria?” Reed’s ears prick up. I swear he’s like a fucking blood hound at the sound of any new female name he hasn’t heard me mention before.
“Yes. The new spa manager.” I take my hand away from my eyes and catch the glint in his.
“I work with her. And I will be for at least the next six months of her initial contract.”
“You didn’t answer my question.” Reed takes one look at my unimpressed expression and chuckles. “That’s a yes, then. What are we talking? Hot, but you can ignore it? Or hot, all you can think about is what she looks like naked every time you see her?”
I say nothing. I’ve learned with Reed, that’s usually the wisest choice in situations like this. He forgets nothing. He’s like some ridiculous Mensa genius, with an IQ of 156. It doesn’t stop him from saying or doing stupid shit sometimes, though.
His chuckle morphs into a full-blown laugh as he slaps his hand against his leg.
“Yeah, yeah. Ha-the-fuck-ha!” I grumble, waiting for his laugh to die down before continuing. “I work with her. She’s going to be great for The Songbird. That’s it.”
My thoughts turn to how she found all the discrepancies for today’s meeting. I was right about hunting her out. She will be an asset to the hotel.
“She’s had an impressive first day. Made an impression on Todd from the supply company.” I scowl, remembering the prick’s roaming eyes.
“That guy? Does he still look like he should be on the Johnson’s no tears shampoo commercial?” Reed grins.
Despite being halfway through imagining wringing the curly-haired fucker’s neck—and smiling to myself at the mental image—I turn my attention to Reed and nod.
“Sure does. Although, he’s not so baby-faced now. Harley even said she thinks he’s handsome.”
“Harley did, did she?” The grin drops off Reed’s face.
I’ve noticed recently that whenever her name comes up, he does this—looks like a sulking kid with his brows drawn low and his lips curled down with a hint of a pout. He swears I’m seeing things and point-blank refuses to engage any further. As far as I’m aware, they’ve only met in passing when he’s visited me at the office.
Whatever it is about her that riles him, it’s obviously something he doesn’t want to share.
“Just as well you don’t dip your pen in the company ink then, eh, Griff? Looks like Tiny Tears Todd might give you a run for your money.” He blows out a breath, and his expression turns back to one of amusement as he turns the conversation back to Maria.
“Did that once. Got the stain to prove it,” I mutter.
I still don’t know whether my ex, Gwen, was responsible for the signature product formulations going missing or not. But that wasn’t what ended it. Our relationship was on the rocks long before, doomed from the start. She was good at her job, but nowhere near as dedicated and insightful as I needed her to be.
Not like Maria.
I rub my eyes again, stifling a yawn.
“Age getting the better of you?” Reed asks.
“Fuck off. I’m barely three months older than you.” I sit forward and drain the rest of my beer. “I have an early start, though. And I want to get a run in first. You still up for breakfast after?”
“Sure am,” Reed answers as I get up and head toward the door to let myself out.
“All right then.” I lift a hand and give him a wave, then step out into the hallway, closing the door behind me.
I take a second to process the voice as I turn.
Maria is at her apartment door, key poised, about to unlock it. She’s changed out of her red dress, thank fuck. That was the kind of dress that made me need a cold shower after seeing her in it. Now she’s wearing workout gear, like she’s just been for a run. Her face is flushed, beads of sweat running down her smooth, exposed skin toward her breasts. I tear my eyes away as a stirring in my groin fires up.
The red dress suddenly seems the safer option.
I give her a friendly smile, despite the muscles in my shoulders going rigid beneath my suit jacket.
“Maria. I hope you’re enjoying your evening?”
“I am, thank you. I thought I’d try out the residence’s gym.”
I fight to keep my eyes on her face, and not let them drop over the curves of her body in the skin-tight outfit.
Skintight and hugging every ample feminine curve.
“Wonderful. It’s there for you to use as you please. If you need anything else, you only need to ask.”
She gives me a polite smile, her eyes darting to Reed’s closed door behind me. “Going out tonight?”
She thinks this is my apartment. Technically, it is. They all are. I own the entire building.
I roll my lips as she waits for my answer. “Just visiting a friend.”
“Oh, I see.” She flicks her long, dark ponytail over her shoulder, eyeing me a second longer, before dropping her gaze to the keys in her hand.
I fight to keep the amusement from my face. She heard Reed doing God knows what last night and thinks it was me.
“Well, don’t let me keep you. Good night,” she says quickly, opening her door and disappearing inside before I can correct her.
“Good night to you, too,” I say to the closed door.
I head back to my apartment with one thing stuck firmly in my mind—the flash of annoyance in her eyes when she thought it was me who she’s been hearing through the wall these last few nights.
The same fiery annoyance that caused her eyes to darken as she looked at me, setting a whole host of images coursing through my imagination.
All of which keep wickedly thrusting and spilling into every inch of my mind, firing me into a stupor.
Images that keep me company that night in bed.
And are still there when I shower the next morning.