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Authors: Sandra Antonelli

Driving in Neutral

Driving in Neutral

Sandra Antonelli

www.escapepublishing.com.au

Driving in Neutral
Sandra Antonelli

A new, quick-witted, quip-heavy romance for grown-ups from Sandra Antonelli about facing your fears — because love is the greatest risk of all.

Levelheaded Olivia Regen walks away from her car-racing career and the wreckage of a bad marriage to take on new work that’s far removed from the twists of racetrack. Her new life is about control, calm and the good friends that she adores.

But her first task on her very first day involves getting up close and too personal with her claustrophobic boss, alone in a broken elevator. Her unconventional solution for restoring his equilibrium shocks them both and leaves Olivia shaken.

Determined to stick to her plan, Olivia drives headlong into work and planning her best friend’s wedding, leaving no room for kissing, elevators, or workplace relationships. But Emerson is not one to be out-manoeuvered. Can he convince Olivia that her fear of falling in love again is just another kind of claustrophobia – one that is destined to leave them both lonely?

About the Author

Sandra Antonelli grew up in Europe, but comes from the land Down Under. She loves peanut butter, drives a little Italian car, lives in a little house with a little peanut butter-loving dog, and is married to a big, bearded Sicilian. She doubles as a romance scholar and comes complete with a Masters and PhD in romance fiction. When she’s not studying, traveling or writing, Sandra can be found at the movies, drinking coffee, and eating cookies.

Acknowledgements

There are many I need to thank. My gratitude goes to Megan Whalen Turner for telling such great stories when we were kids and making me think I could too. My gratitude goes to Lisa Barry for being my constant champion, Rachel Bailey for reading this book in its infancy, Amy Andrews for believing in me every damn day, Vassiliki Veros who challenged me to include a fart scene (challenge accepted and, ahem, delivered), and Elle Gardner for always giving it to me straight. A massive thank you, Kate Cuthbert, for understanding the power of peanut butter and reading this story in all its various forms, at least ten times. I am grateful to my editor Julia Knapman for her ‘picky eyes’ and noticing that my cherry pie had magically turned into lemon meringue. Finally, this book would never have been possible without my Big Bearded Sicilian who loves me like no other.

For the real Mimi, who doesn’t jingle when she walks
.

Contents

About the Author

Acknowledgements

Bestselling Titles by Escape Publishing…

Chapter 1

A purse was a miserable substitute for an umbrella.

The skyscrapers in Chicago’s Loop created an enormous man-made wind tunnel. Sultry, overheated summer air rocketed through the crisscrossing streets and billowing gusts of heavy, grayish rain cascaded down. Olivia was drenched in seconds. Water sloshed in her peep-toe slingbacks as she shoved through the revolving door and into the historic building that housed Pete’s animation firm, E&P.

Soaked, sleeveless dress painted on, her hair plastered to her scalp, and her stockings…well, they were spattered with bits of dark sidewalk grit. Taking on this few months’ worth of translating was a favor for Pete, so he’d actually make it to his sister’s wedding, but favor or not, dribbling wet was a hell of a way to start a new job. Olivia considered stopping at the security desk to call Pete and tell him she’d start work Monday, except he’d seen her looking far worse than she did now, so what was a little dampness between old friends?

With a snort, she shook off the heaviest wetness, considerate enough to stay a few feet behind a guy with short dreadlocks. She caught the gaze of an attractive man in a dark suit. He wore a deep frown, but it vanished as his eyebrows arched while he looked her up and down. A twitching grin conveyed he’d just pictured her naked, or close to it. Then his countenance shifted like a flash of outside lightning. The frown returned, fiercer than before, and he raised a ringing cell phone to his ear.

A smattering of people stood in the lobby, watching nature’s tantrum. Ethereal sighs breathed up from the old elevator shafts. Thunder exploded outside in perfect synchronization with a brilliant flash of lightning. The grand chandelier in the foyer faltered like winking lights on a Christmas tree.

Icy air conditioning drifted over her. Olivia shivered, poked an elevator call button, and dripped all over a majestic marble floor. E&P took up the top five floors of a twenty-story structure that was squeezed between a mirrored monstrosity and the domed building that was once home to Al Capone’s Stratosphere Club. Pete told her the E&P offices had fantastic views across the Chicago River and north along Michigan Avenue. Thanks to the rain, the only clear view anyone would get today was of the lace cups of her white bra, the darker outline of her areolas, and the high-beam pertness of her nipples.
Everything
showed through the soggy, apple-green fabric of her dress.

No wonder guy-in-the-suit had given her such a debauched smirk.

She tried to smooth her hanging hair, tucking soggy strands behind her ears while she waited for the elevator. The door slid open and blasted her with even more glacial air. With a sneeze, she stepped inside the tiny wood-paneled car, selected her floor and shifted into the corner, facing the open door.

The solid oak panel began to slide shut, whisper-soft. A forearm clad in summer-weight indigo wool halted the movement. Then the rest of the dark suit came into view, along with the tall man wearing it. Limping, guy-in-the-suit shuffled against the door. He favored one leg, his back to her, and spoke into the cell phone, his tone brisk and gruff.

Olivia watched his broad back as he stuffed rolled-up papers into the pocket inside his jacket before he balanced on his uninjured leg, and glared down at the small puddle of water he’d just slipped through.

Hesitating, his annoyance plain, he sighed harshly and hobbled backward into the doorway, one hand against the frame to keep the door from sliding shut. His conversation was loud, his speech peppered with profanities; his harsh voice reverberated off the back of the elevator.

Purse beneath an elbow, Olivia pressed fingers against an ear to stop the ringing.

“Yeah, I know I’m late,” the man grumbled, “and he only told me about the other thing on the way in this morning, which means I’ve known about it for twenty minutes longer than you. So now he’s going to hang out in the lobby until this piece of amazing shows. Okay, Shelly, give me Finn.” He took a deep breath before growling into his cell phone again, “Finn? It’s Maxwell. Meet me on eighteen. I’m getting in the elevator. Yes, I said
elevator
!”

Olivia watched the slanting line of Maxwell’s jaw clench as he pressed the phone to his ear. A shadow of beard growth gave him a slightly scruffy appearance. It didn’t quite blend with the Zegna suit that fit him perfectly everywhere, especially across his back. It was too bad his heavy-handed manners overshadowed the flattering cut.

Engrossed in his business, or mesmerized by the sound of his own resonating voice, he hadn’t given her a glance. He hadn’t turned around or acknowledged her presence in any way. Regardless, she felt self-conscious. She set her bag beside her feet and crossed her arms to hide the nipples peeking through her translucent dress.

He went on with his overbearing tirade. “Put me on the speaker for Josh and Timmons. I want to talk to those two jokers together before the phone loses its signal in this box… Boys, if I’m not mistaken your lunch hour is sixty minutes, not seventy-five, right?” He huffed into his phone as he shuffled sideways and struck a black button on the control panel with irritated force. The door closed with barely a sigh while he barked, “Well, you aren’t paid to eat!”

Maxwell did not feel at all like himself and was aware he was a little…testy. Normally, he considered himself a pretty nice man. He was a surrogate uncle to his ex-wife’s daughters, a real uncle to his sister’s, and he loved playing mentor to neophytes with talent. People told him he was a great guy and a great boss, even when he had little patience for inefficiency and the few inept members of his staff. They knew,
he
knew, when he lost his temper his ire radiated outward and things, or people, felt the blast concussion. Quick to realize he’d crossed a line, he also had no problem when it came to apologizing for his behavior. However, this precise moment was prior to the apology stage. He was conscious his bullet spitting was due to Josh and Timmons screwing up the Ingrassia formatting—again. A crappy job reflected poorly on the company, but most of all, it made him look bad.

Maxwell hated looking bad.

Thanks to his stupid injury, he’d lost mobility, which meant somebody had to take him to and from work, so he’d started the day with points down. Low-grade annoyance over his screaming knee combined with the sloppiness of Timmons and Josh and his temper rose. Not being able to use the stairs kicked his ill humor into overdrive. Having to ride in this…
thing
, this apparatus for transporting people between floors, transformed him into a snarling, irrational jerk.

Josh groveling in his ear further supplemented his frustration. Maxwell took a deep breath and growled as the elevator began to climb, “Finn’s under the impression you clearly articulate your thoughts, Josh. Should I tell him he’s wrong?”

Although the muscle relaxant the doctor had prescribed knocked him out for eight hours, and left him groggy for another three, Maxwell wished he’d taken one since it would have mellowed him enough to forget he was inside a wood-paneled box. Hell, if he’d had any sense he would’ve taken two.

Get a grip; it’s thirty seconds. You can do thirty seconds you pansy-assed milquetoast. Focus. Focus on the lazy little weevils on the other end of the line
.

Maxwell inhaled and rumbled into his phone, “Quit pretending the call’s dropped out. I know you hear me, Josh, because I can hear your pissy asthmatic wheezing… That’s right Timmons, none of you think. None of you know
how
to think. Listen, no one here is going to hold your hand or wipe your ass for you! Ingrassia is your account and it’s your responsibility to look after… Don’t you dare
but Maxwell
me!”

Olivia looked at the back of his short-cropped, wavy black hair and picked out threads of pewter against the shiny ebony. While his sartorial choice said Lamborghini Diablo, the raging timbre of his voice said 1982 Datsun 210 with a rusted, holey muffler. She pressed fingers over both ears, elbows moving off her breasts.

The elevator stopped on the ninth floor with a jerking motion. As the door swished open to an empty hallway, her skin prickled with goose bumps. The car remained motionless for a minute, waiting and creaking slightly, the wild thunderstorm outside audible even over surly Maxwell.

Olivia glanced at her watch just as the door began to slide across to shut. Her body temperature dropped lower.
Is it possible to develop hypothermia or die of exposure due to air conditioning?

Maxwell planted his fingers on the open button and the door drew back with a soft, rolling squeak. He stretched out an arm, hand against the frame of the entryway, and he leaned forward to poke his head into the hall. He inhaled deeply a few times. Hanging half-in, half-out of the elevator, he hissed through his teeth, “Shit. Finn, can you hear me over the buzzing? No it’s your landline, not my cell… Did you boy scouts have any idea what you were doing? I’m out for two days and the place goes to hell… Oh you better believe you will, and don’t le—”

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