Authors: DeeAnna Galbraith
Copyright © 2015 by DeeAnna Galbraith
All rights reserved
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Many thanks to my critique group. Sisters of the past and present: Darcy Carson, Lisa Wanttaja, Marcella Burnard, Melinda Haynes and Lori Pollard
And to my sisters of the same mother: Barbara St. John and Sheila Smith
I also owe thanks to my wonderful BETA readers, Stacey Baker and Judy Tritz
Glory Danvers scowled at the
numbers that could mean the loss of her home. She’d taken out the loan, with a balloon payment, when she’d had a better paying job and her mother’s illness had yet to be diagnosed. That job was gone, as was her mother. The breast cancer had been aggressive and fatal.
An impulse trek through Peru to Machu Picchu had used all her savings and eased none of her heartbreak. A smart woman would’ve canceled it, but Glory hoped it would help and knew it would have to last her travel itch for a while. Plus, it generated lots of topics for her popular blog, so she’d gone. Now, she’d have to figure out how to pay the piper.
She slipped the paper with scribbled figures in her purse and looked up, surprised to see the man who’d arrived several minutes ago still waiting. When he’d stepped off the elevator and sat down without notifying Catherine Winters, the other executive assistant, or her, that he had an appointment, she’d assumed he’d been called to participate at the meeting in progress. But he just sat there, now staring directly at her. He wasn’t wearing a company badge, which meant he’d checked in with the guard desk downstairs in the lobby in order to access the elevators. Then where was his visitor’s badge and why was he here?
Glory stood and crossed the expanse of carpet to stop in front of him. “May I help you?”
He blinked and smiled, rubbing his palms on jeans-clad legs. “I think this was a mistake.”
She took a step back and swallowed, sparing a quick look at the large semi-circle that comprised the three offices of the executive suites. Catherine’s desk was on one side and her desk on the other. The beautifully appointed area that housed Kingston Limited’s president, CFO, and vice president of marketing and sales was her and Catherine’s charge.
“I’m sorry. If you don’t have an appointment or a reason for being here, I’ll have to ask you to leave or have Security escort you out.”
He stood and turned toward the elevator, smiling. “Not necessary. I have a back-up plan.”
Goosebumps rose on her arms. What did
After he got on the elevator, she walked to her desk and pressed an intra-office phone code. Catherine answered.
“Did you see that strange guy in the reception area?” Glory asked. “He was sitting there for several minutes.”
Catherine tilted her head and squinted at the remaining two men.
“What’s wrong with your eyes?” Glory asked.
“Lost a contact.”
Glory pulled in her lips. “He’s gone now, but he was sitting close to the Jackson Pollack.”
Catherine hummed. “Imagine what you could do with the money you’d make by selling that one painting.”
“Focus, please. Did you see him?”
Catherine squinted again. “No, sorry. Thought I had a spare pair of contacts in my desk. I must’ve been looking while he was here. Why?”
Glory told her about the odd exchange.
“Wow. Did he sound threatening?”
“No. Just unnerving.”
“What did he look like?” Catherine asked.
Frustration bunched and came out as a sigh. “Nice, a little preoccupied, but nice. And, this is odd, but he smelled like herbs or spices. Not like in a cologne, but fresh. It’s hard to describe.” She shook her head. “Anyway, he was tallish, with glasses and medium brown hair that sort of stuck up. He wasn’t wearing a company or visitor’s badge, and he had on jeans and a blue work shirt.”
“Sounds like a geek from the third floor computer lab who lost his way. Maybe he was hoping to grab a few minute’s time with one of the officers.” She blinked her naked eye. “Blue is a very sincere color, though. Much more so than brown. I rarely date men who wear a lot of brown. Anyway, don’t worry about it. Even if he wasn’t acting crazy it’s better to be safe than sorry.”
“Thanks. Didn’t mean to freak.”
“No big. Hey, I have to go down to the garage. I know I have a spare pair of contacts in my car. Can you back me up?”
Catherine stood and walked toward the elevators carefully, with one eye closed. This did not, however, stop her from garnering admiring glances from the two well-dressed men still occupying the reception area. It was no wonder. Her best friend was tall and slender, with a gorgeous face and long dark brown hair.
Catherine hadn’t been gone more than two minutes when Glory’s line rang. The number belonged to Shelly, the manager of administrative services.
“Mr. Kingston would like to see you in his office.”
That was odd. “Mr. Kingston is in the executive conference room with the marketing staff and a customer. Does he want me to take notes?”
“Not William Kingston,” Shelly said. “Talbot Kingston. His office is in Research and Development on sub-level two.”
Glory’s gaze went to Catherine’s empty desk. She couldn’t leave the reception area unoccupied. “Catherine has stepped out for a few minutes. Can it wait until she returns?”
Shelly sighed. “I’ll sit in. You shouldn’t keep Mr. Kingston waiting.”
Glory hung up and slipped a copy of the company org chart from her lap drawer. She’d been at Kingston Limited for only six weeks and was still learning the names of company personnel. She scanned the chart. Nope. No other Mr. Kingston listed. And why would he want to see her? Strange morning. Well, she’d find out soon enough.
She tidied her work surface and pulled the schedules of the officers she and Catherine supported up on her computer screen.
Shelly arrived and shooed her off.
Glory grabbed the tablet that linked to her system and headed downstairs.
Delicious smells of cinnamon and vanilla permeated the elevator even before the doors opened onto an entirely different world. She’d been here one other time when given a short tour after being hired. Glory looked longingly at the restricted area of test kitchens to her left and turned instead to the hallway of doors to her right. None of which were labeled with names. Her stomach growled.
She occasionally allowed herself the pricey gourmet food made by Kingston Limited and it was worth every penny. Especially the bourbon chocolate sauce. Unfortunately, her diet would have to include lots of Ramen noodles until she figured out how to get that balloon payment.
Glory stopped an employee dressed in protective clothing and asked which office was Mr. Kingston’s. The woman pointed to a door with a sign that read “Don’t Knock.” Did that mean come right in or go away? Didn’t matter. He had asked to see her, so she turned the knob.
The door opened into a large room crammed with boxes, papers, and plastic bags. When her brain got over the shock, she looked at the lone occupant and sucked in a short breath. Standing with his back to her, writing on a white board, was the man she’d threatened to have escorted out. Great. Either he belonged here, or he’d slipped past Security twice.
She stayed close to the door. “Hello.”
The man turned and smiled. “Hi. I wanted to thank you.”
He had a nice voice. “You’re welcome. Thank me for what?”
“Come in,” he said. “Let me explain.”
Nothing he’d said so far had convinced her she’d been wrong the first time. And he still wasn’t wearing a badge. She nodded. “I’m looking for Mr. Kingston. Have you seen him?”
The man blinked, then grinned and stepped to the desk to start shuffling papers. “It’s here somewhere.”
After a half minute, he pulled out a badge and waved it. “This should help.” He left it on the corner of the desk.
Glory felt like a fool, but moved cautiously to the desk and picked up the badge. The picture was a poor likeness of the man in front of her. The name read Talbot Kingston.
She laid his badge back down. “I’m sorry. I’m new and I was trained on a strict protocol. You didn’t look like …”
He finished for her. “Like I belonged upstairs?”
Glory shook her head, her face growing warm.
He laughed. “Admit it. You thought I was going to whip out my aluminum foil hat and wait for the mother ship.”
She couldn’t help smiling. “Not nearly that bad.”
“My fault,” he said. “I don’t wear my badge because I forget to take it off the protective coveralls. And I almost never go to the rarified executive floor. The thank you is for following that company protocol.” He offered his hand. “Truce?”
His handshake was warm and confident, his smile sincere.
Glory relaxed. “Truce, Mr. Kingston.”
“Call me Tal.”
“All right, Tal. I’m Glory.”
Most of the uncertainty had
left her eyes. They were pretty too, Tal thought. The deep blue at the center of a laboratory flame.
She cleared her throat and looked at him expectantly.
“I don’t usually ask for command appearances,” he said, snapping back to his subject. “But I wasted time upstairs. I’d intended discussing a business proposition with you, and had come to the conclusion that was a bad choice of location, when you asked me why I was there.”
A flash of surprise crossed her face when he mentioned business proposition. Not the best choice of words. He continued, “So, here we are. Make yourself comfortable.”
Her glance at the two chairs facing his desk registered skepticism. Both contained sacks of herbs stuffed into boxes. He rushed to move one of the stacks. “My bad.”
She sat and tugged at the hem of her suit skirt, inching it toward attractive knees. The rest of her was attractive too, he decided. Shiny, chin length reddish blonde hair accentuated those pretty eyes and flawless skin. Her figure, even in the pale green suit she wore, looked slender and graceful.
Maybe she was too pretty. He’d only seen her briefly a couple of times. Up close, she presented more of a distraction than he bargained for.
Tal was great at work assignments, delegating, and coming up with winning recipes for Kingston. But getting up the nerve to state his bizarre case was something else. Pushing out a puff of air, Tal sat in his old oak university chair. “Glory, I have a rather odd request. If you would just hear me out, I’d appreciate it.”
One of her finely arched eyebrows edged upward.
He continued. “I have this close friend, who recently got married. Well, within this last year and … Actually, I’d like to do the same,” he blurted.
Her look of polite interest faded. In its place was one reserved for eccentrics confined to an attic or basement. His gaze cut to his surroundings. Sub-level Two certainly qualified as a basement.
Tal tried again. “I’m doing this poorly, aren’t I?”
She leaned back and tipped her head in agreement.
“Let me try again,” he said. “I believe in approaching goals logically. I’ve reached a time in my life where I need companionship, and if that works, a family in a year or two.” He slipped a spreadsheet in front of her and pointed to the lower right corner. “I’ve factored in minimum requirements, allowances for personal habits, and likes and dislikes it would be nice to have in common. All the necessary categories.”
Glory didn’t even glance at it. She looked at him with unblinking eyes. “Is, is this an interview?”
Now they were getting somewhere
. “Not exactly an interview,” he said. “I chose you because I think you’re the best woman for the job.”
Her blue eyes widened and she popped up, almost dropping her tablet. “I’m really not interested. I mean you seem nice and I’m flattered, but I want to be in love when I get married.” Her face turned pink. “Um, this won’t affect my job standing or anything, will it? I mean, I think it could be termed harassment if I said no.”
It struck him then, what she was thinking, and he was embarrassed to the core. “Uh, please, no. Your job was never in jeopardy. I’ll be glad to put it in writing that the whole thing is my idea and will only take your time outside business hours.” He clamped his mouth shut, willing the right words to come. “I mean, of course not, and don’t take this the wrong way, but I didn’t ask you here because I’d chosen you to marry. I’m asking you to help me win the woman I
Her blush turned crimson. “I don’t understand. How could
possibly help you?”
He’d stood when she did. This had gone down much better in his head. He pointed at her chair with his hand. “Please. I’m almost there.”
She sat on the edge, poised for flight.
“You know Dorey Johnsen?”
Her frown of concern morphed into bewilderment. “Yes. She and I used to work together. What does she have to do with this?”
Tal leaned forward, willing her to understand. “She’s married to the friend I told you about. Nate and I play handball three times a week. They’re very happy from what he tells me.”
She nodded. “Dorey and Nate are a great couple.”
He smiled, relieved. “Exactly. That’s where you come in. Nate told me how shy Dorey is and how you helped her get past it long enough to accept a date with him, then held her hand until the engagement.”
Confusion remained on her features. “Something like that, but the help I gave Dorey consisted of simple, common sense advice. Nothing special about it.”
Tal smoothed his fingers across his forehead. He really wanted to sell this plan. “I’m coming to you because of Dorey, and because you work with the woman I’m interested in.”
His gaze landed on the wall over her left shoulder. The spot on which he’d practiced his speech. “It’s also been pointed out to me that I don’t have many social skills.”
That might be, Glory thought, but his request was unlike anything she’d ever heard. Even discounting that, she concentrated on the part about her working with the person he was interested in. He’d set his sights on Catherine.
“Listen,” she said, trying to break it to him easy. “The woman we’re discussing has some very particular standards for the men she dates.” Meaning that for Catherine, money was one, two, and three on her list. Even though he had his own office, Tal was probably a shirttail relative of the president of Kingston Limited, William Kingston. Which meant he wouldn’t meet Catherine’s criteria.
He leaned toward her, resting his forearms on the desk and tapping his index fingers there. “See. I knew you could help. Let’s say we contract for one month at two thousand dollars. I’ll take your lead on how she likes men to dress, what kinds of restaurants and gifts she likes, information I need to impress her in a social situation, that sort of thing. At the end of a month, win or lose, we call it good. What do you say?”
Two thousand dollars? This guy can’t be for real, Glory thought, clutching her chair’s armrests in order to keep from jumping up and saying yes.
She shook her head, partly because he’d offered her money she could really use, but mostly in denial. “I’d say I would be taking advantage. You could find out those things simply by asking her.”
He raked a hand through his hair. “That’s the beauty of this arrangement. I’d have an edge by knowing in advance.” He smiled again. “There’s an ancient Chinese Proverb: ‘To know the road ahead, ask those who have traveled it.’ You’ve already helped Dorey and Nate. Why not me?”
Glory rubbed the tips of her fingers together, frustration making them itch. The balloon payment was due in six weeks and she was a thousand dollars short. She believed in fate, too, but that didn’t mean this man had a chance in hell of winning and keeping Catherine’s attention. She gave in to her better nature. “Before we talk about what you’d expect from me,” she said. “I have to tell you it wouldn’t work. You’d be wasting your time and money. If you have two thousand dollars to invest in this, uh, venture, you could hire a personal image consultant.”
He smiled again, and Glory decided Talbot Kingston was wrong about not having any social skills. That smile was killer. His mouth alone made her lean forward and listen. And there it was; the source of the herbs and spice fragrance she’d noted upstairs. It was nice and somehow matched him.
“I enjoy a challenge,” he continued. “Knowing the odds are against me heightens the stakes. I’ve spent my adult life mixing ingredients so they complement and enhance each other. Once I get her attention, with your help, the rest should be easy.”
She sighed. Catherine would have a lot to say about Glory helping a guy in the basement pursue her. “Catherine is lovely and sweet and would make a wonderful wife, but I’m afraid she’s only interested in men with lots of money. I’m sorry, but that’s the way it is and I don’t see it changing.”
Hazel eyes regarded her in confusion. “Who’s Catherine?”
Glory’s surprise was complete. There was no other woman she worked closely with. “Catherine is the beautiful brunette executive assistant I work with upstairs. Isn’t she who we’re talking about?”
Tal shook his head. “I’m sure she’s great, but I’m interested in a relationship with Alyssia Hartford.”
Glory stared dumbfounded, but couldn’t help it. Her stomach clenched. Alyssia Hartford, ladder climbing, ice queen, vice president of marketing and sales?
Alyssia Hartford? She would not wish that woman on her worst enemy, let alone the neophyte sitting across from her. She picked up her tablet, then backed toward the door. “Sorry. All bets are off.”
Tal jumped, the backs of his legs shoving his chair to bounce against the wall behind him. “Wait. Why?”
She’d only known this guy for five minutes, but Glory sensed he deserved the truth. “Look, Tal. I think you’re nice, and the money would’ve come in handy. However, I can’t bring myself to subject you to the humiliation that would come your way if I helped you pursue Alyssia Hartford. I won’t do it.”
Something in his demeanor changed. The expression in his eyes sharpened, overriding his casual, low-key persona. Glory re-evaluated the man in front of her and found more substance than she’d originally thought.
“I understand Alyssia is hard to get to know,” he said. “But she’s always been nice to me and a lot of people who are hard to get to know are worth the effort. Don’t you agree?”
Glory considered his assumption for about two seconds, then tried again. “It isn’t that. You came to me because I work with Alyssia and know what kind of person she is.” Glory straightened her spine. “Frankly, Ms. Hartford would have you for breakfast and not think twice.”
He laughed. “As I said before, I enjoy a challenge. Why not leave the difficult part to me? Say you’ll at least think about it.”
Persistent and a blind spot as big as a Mack truck, Glory thought. She eyed the spreadsheet and smiled back. “Would you mind if I discussed your request with someone else? I won’t use your name.”
He gave her a strange appraisal. “I don’t mind. Can you come down for coffee tomorrow morning? Give me your answer?”
That was fair, but he hadn’t brought up a key factor. “One more thing,” she said. “Catherine and I both support Alyssia, but Catherine is her primary. Why didn’t you ask her to help you?”
Tal shuffled papers on his desk, not meeting her gaze. “Truth? I considered it, but your back-up, Catherine, you said? She’s, well, the couple of times I’ve interacted with her … Let me put it this way, you seem more approachable. Less intimidating.”
Glory turned to the door to hide her smile. He thought Catherine was intimidating? He had no idea when it came to intimidation and Alyssia Hartford. It was a shame he was determined to be fodder for the Hartford paving machine. If, that is, Alyssia even noticed he was in front of her. It would be better for him if she didn’t.