Read Strapless Online

Authors: Leigh Riker

Strapless

Strapless
Darcie Elizabeth Baxter tries to get a handle…

ON MEN

I'm not asking for much—though Mr. Exactly Right would be nice. But do they
all
have to be Mr. So Unbelievably Wrong?

ON RELATIONSHIPS

Does it count if your only contact with him is a Monday-night rendezvous at the local Hyatt?

ON WORK

How can I possibly climb the corporate ladder with Greta Hinckley, a woman with Sabotage tattooed on one cheek and Revenge on the other (and I don't mean her face!), perched on the next rung?

ON FAMILY

Am I the only person alive who thinks that families are like men…can't live with 'em, can't live without 'em?

ON TRAVEL

Australia…jet lag…a mirrored closet wall in a fancy hotel…too much beer…too many sheep…and Dylan. Oh, God. What am I going to do?

Strapless
Leigh Riker

For Kristi Goldberg, who first urged me to tell this story—
and take a new direction. Your ongoing support
and encouragement mean so much.
Thanks, dear friend and fellow writer.

Chapter
One

“I
mean, it's just logical—stuff happens. Right?”

Like muttering to herself, Darcie Elizabeth Baxter thought, or trying to make sense of things, this was nothing new. Stuff happened, especially to a twenty-nine-year-old woman trying to figure out her life. Happiness. Men. Work. You name it.

So on a sleet-drizzled Monday morning in January, it didn't surprise Darcie to march into her cubicle at Wunderthings Lingerie International six floors above the Avenue of the Americas—and find Greta Hinckley rifling her desk. Again. Still, Darcie's heart stalled. Even her grandmother told her she could be too trustingly naive. Although Wunderthings was not a huge corporation on the order of Warner, Maidenform, or Victoria's Secret—the industry superstar—the smaller company had potential. Darcie wanted to be part of that, but she felt a sinking sensation. Had she left the draft of her proposal for this week's development meeting in plain view?

“Morning, Greta.”

The other woman jumped—not high enough for Darcie's taste—then whirled around, a sickly smile pasted on
her narrow mouth. It made Darcie feel lush, as if she'd sprung for those silicone lip injections like all the female news anchors on TV. Everything about Greta Hinckley seemed narrow. Her horsey face, her shoulders, her blade-slim body…her mind.

“Take anything that appeals to you.” Darcie set down her foam container of coffee, determined not to let her incipient PMS this morning send her over the edge. “Don't let me stop you.
Mi casa es su casa.
” She didn't know the Spanish word for desk. House would have to do. Greta wouldn't notice.

From the crinkle lines around her pale brown eyes, the faint gray streaks in her medium brown hair, Greta had passed her thirtieth milestone years ago. Still single, without a man in her life, according to the office grapevine, Greta lived alone in Riverdale and devoted her entire being to Wunderthings—and whenever she could, to stealing Darcie's creative output.

Too bad Darcie was the only person who knew that.

It was enough to make her yearn for a full bag of red licorice whips for comfort. Darcie didn't like confrontation, especially with Greta, and usually Greta's “borrowing” concerned lesser issues. A suggested design to showcase next season's bras or bustiers. An Un-Valentine's Day Sale. New, high-traffic quarters for a not-quite-profitable-enough branch store. Not this time. A glance at the pile of papers on Darcie's desk confirmed that her proposal for Wednesday was missing. Her global plan.

She opened her coffee, took a sip, and burned her tongue.
“Damn.”
She liked to think of herself as a controlled person, even today when she knew better. With difficulty she mellowed her tone. “If there's anything I can clarify, let me know.”

“Clarify?”

Darcie perched on the edge of her desk, crowding Greta. She hated the dumb act. As if this wasn't enough of a disaster, Darcie's mother was in town—the worst week she could pick for one of her surprise visits to check on Darcie's “decadent” lifestyle in the big city. If only a
fraction of
that
were true, Darcie thought, and struggled to remain calm. Maybe if she explained her position to Greta…

“We've done so well in the States, in Europe, blah, blah, as Walt Corwin said at last week's staff meeting, that the board has voted—as you know—to open up the Pacific Rim market. With the imminent recovery of the Japanese economy—let us pray—the decline of the Australian and New Zealand dollars, which gives us a growth opportunity at bargain prices, I'm suggesting…”

Greta straightened. “I have no idea what you're talking about.”

Darcie arched a brow. “Then may the best woman win.”

“Walter will decide—” Instantly, with their boss's name, Darcie noticed Greta's expression soften. “We'll know then, depending on the board's input, who will become his new Assistant to the Manager of Global Expansion. With my experience—”

“Your brilliance,” Darcie supplied, her astonishment growing. Did she only imagine it, or did Greta's tone turn to maple syrup when she mentioned Walter? Interesting.

“Morning, ladies.”

As if Darcie had cued her, Walt Corwin's administrative assistant swept along the aisle between cubicles, dispensing her usual brand of daily cheer and memos. Greta beamed. If nothing more, Greta was a political barracuda, but Darcie, shaking over this latest intrusion into her space, into her
mind,
could only smile weakly in response. And wonder if Greta really had a yen for their boss, the least of her problems.

This reminded Darcie of her own precarious hormonal state. Tonight, she would see the man in her life—a loose term to be sure—for their weekly “get together.” With luck, those few hours between the sheets might help her forget Greta and her own mother.

As she passed by, Nancy Braddock brushed the edge of Greta's desk across the way. The in-basket wobbled and a
sheaf of papers that had been sticking out slid onto the floor. In the midst of her morning parade, Nancy paused.

“Sorry, Greta.”

Deliberately, she picked up the stack, tamped the pages into precise order—for Nancy, everything had to be in order, a habit Darcie admired—and started to set them back on the desk. Then she stopped again, glancing up with an intent frown in Greta's direction, the most expression the unflappable Nancy ever showed.

After a brief inspection, she handed the papers to Darcie then walked on.

Darcie stared down at them.
My proposal.
How long would it have taken Greta to scan the document, change the author's name, then print out a fresh copy for Walter Corwin—and even more important, for the Board of Directors?

Darcie nudged Greta away from her desk. “Excuse me. This has to be in Walt's office by ten today and I need to make a few additions. I can't imagine how it ended up on your desk, Hinckley.”

The words didn't satisfy. She couldn't seem to blast Greta, except in her mind, and mentally Darcie stiffened her spine. She would let the proposal speak for itself. Damned if she would go under without a fight.

 

“If my hormones weren't on a total rampage, I'd just leave.”

Ever since Greta that morning, Darcie's day had gone downhill. Muttering to herself that night, she stared into the mirror of the usual room at the Grand Hyatt Hotel and shuddered at the sight. She always cringed at this time of the month, so that was certainly nothing new. She had a dozen friends who felt the same way about their appearance—
miserable fat slut no one could love
—twelve times each year. Darcie was in her own puffer fish phase: four extra pounds, cheeks too full, breasts engorged and aching, belly out to here…

PMS Psycho.

Unfortunately, she also felt horny.

Darcie caught Merrick Lowell's reflection in the glass and frowned. Only moments ago he'd plied her with kisses, soft and hard, a caress or two of her tender nipples, before he abandoned foreplay, and her, for the telephone.

“I mean, go. As in, ‘I'm outta here.' Let Mary Thumb and her four daughters ‘handle' his problem.”

The selfish thought couldn't be avoided. What about
her
problem? Why stand less than six feet away from a man who obviously wanted her only one night a week? Darcie considered moving straight toward the door, into the hall, down in the elevator and out onto Forty-Second Street. Since she'd begun to think of chain saw murder, tonight no longer held the promise of passion. She'd just grab the shuttle to the ferry, then cross the Hudson for home. Merrick seemed more interested in checking his voice mail—again—than in making love.

When Darcie turned away from the mirror into the room, he held up a finger.
Wait a minute. Then we'll screw.
And her resolve tightened.

Lovely. She
should
leave him.

Her friend Claire told her so, repeatedly.

Give up,
Claire said. Darcie's relationship with Merrick—Darcie couldn't even call it that—wouldn't go anywhere. And when Darcie, who prided herself on logic, began to believe the same thing…

As if he knew what she was thinking, Merrick put down the phone with a smile that could melt granite.

“Sorry.”

And that fast, her mood lifted. No more holdover from this morning with Greta Hinckley. No more chain saws. No more PMS. Again, she was a normal person, sort of, with regular moods instead of periodic plumpness, a human being with a job at risk, Darcie admitted, a woman who needed a man.
Now.

“No problem,” she murmured.

She reminded herself that Merrick liked schedules, which Darcie—since her migration from Cincinnati—was trying to despise, a minor glitch in their quasi-affair. So what? Marriage wasn't her top priority—even if Merrick
would be her parents' Catch of the Day—and one reason Darcie had come to New York.

Darcie wouldn't want a big home in some fancy suburban development facing a golf course. She wasn't ready for Janet Baxter's statistical two point four children—how could you manage that?—and a new gas-guzzling SUV in the three-car garage. Or the adoring husband who would come home every night to do half the chores and parenting. Ha. Darcie's father never helped around the house, and Janet Baxter hadn't worked outside their home in thirty-four years.

Darcie didn't want a husband yet. Someday she might, assuming marriage improved her lot, but until then Merrick Lowell turned her on—every Monday night. Sex wasn't everything either, she admitted, but theirs was a pragmatic arrangement. At the moment, like an opportunity to climb the company ladder right over Greta Hinckley, it suited Darcie.

She even smiled. “Oh, suck it up.”

Merrick was undoing his shirt, not looking at her. Instead, Darcie looked at him. Button by button, inch by inch of bared male skin, she felt her heart beat quicken.
Hurry.

“What?” he finally said.

She cocked her head. “I'm admiring the view.”

“Well, come over here. I like your admiration hands-on.”

So he could be a little egocentric. Merrick had his faults, but he also looked gorgeous, which made up for a lot where her wayward hormones were concerned. Not that she wanted to seem shallow. Not that he was, really, her type.

His thick, honey-blond hair, in contrast to Darcie's fine, straight but often unruly dark bob, didn't bother her. Lighter hairs even sprinkled the backs of his hands, redeeming him as a too-pretty boy in her mind, strong hands that could make Darcie moan. Soon, she hoped. Important point in his favor. He had deep-blue eyes to her own bland hazel gaze, a sexy mouth that made Darcie feel positively
thin-lipped without those silicone shots. But of course he dressed like a
GQ
model—
Ick
—and had a too-cool name, when hers was just a name, and he came from old Connecticut money while she sprang from middle-class Ohio. He made Darcie, a product of public schools, feel she didn't have the inside track somehow. His education— Choate and Yale—reeked of class and privilege and had, naturally, led straight to his job on Wall Street where, without a Greta Hinckley in his path, he made tons of money…as he kept telling Darcie.

So he was a jerk.

Holding her smile, she started across the room. And felt a swift kick of anticipation when Merrick didn't smile back. He didn't seem distracted now. His eyes had taken on that darker, intent male look that meant business, and heat streaked along Darcie's spine. Sexual business.

He said, “You're sure taking your time.”

“I'm meditating. On your sheer physical perfection.”

“Jesus, Darce, will you just get over here before I lose my hard-on?”

Despite her own practical mood, a flutter of disappointment slowed her steps.

“That's romantic,” she murmured.

He frowned. “I don't have time for romance. It's not like we only met, or something. I have to get up at 5:00 a.m.”

Slightly peeved again, Darcie reached out to help him unfasten his French cuffs. Those gold-and-onyx links must have cost a fortune. Well, he had one to spare. Another thing they didn't have in common. Sex would have to do. She peeled off his shirt, dropped it to the carpet, then moved in close to run her fingers over his warm, naked chest, down to his belt buckle. She purred in his ear.

“I thought you were already up.”
Big Boy.

“Ha-ha. You know, comedy in the bedroom isn't the biggest turn-on.”

Darcie made a pouty face. “Gee, now I'm losing my hard-on.”

Merrick didn't respond. Apparently tired of talk, he
hauled her tight against his chest and kissed her. Darcie felt his teeth push hard at her lips, then his tongue entered her mouth and she went limp in his arms. She was such an easy mark tonight, it was pathetic.

Her knees weakened. Her thighs loosened. Desire oozed from every pore.

When Merrick started breathing fast, so did Darcie. His hands were all over her now, pulling up her sweater, then with one deft flick of a finger, opening her bra. Darcie's breasts spilled free. Or so she liked to think. They weren't really big enough to spill or jiggle with any degree of success.

With a growl he palmed her breasts, and another streak of fire flashed through Darcie so fast she thought she'd eaten too big a wad of the
wasabi
—Japanese horseradish—that Merrick always encouraged her to try. It sure opened the sinuses. His touch, his mouth on her, did the same now to every orifice of her frustrated body.

Darcie fumbled at his belt. If only she didn't have these reservations, and she didn't mean about the hotel room they were in. She pushed away her misgivings but couldn't manage to deal with Merrick's fly.

“Move a little. I can't unzip your pants.”

He eased back. “Do it quick.”

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