"What do you think?" Hardy asked me as they pulled some sample pages from a book and laid them side by side. "Do you like the way this looks?"
As I moved next to him, I fell the gentle brush of his hand on my back. Heat raced along my spine, up to the base of my skull. "I do," I said. "I still object to the cowhide, however."
"It adds a touch of whimsy," Todd protested. "It'll work. Give it a chance."
"No cowhide if she doesn't like it," Hardy told him.
Todd arched his brow sardonically as he looked at me. "What about orange, Haven? Can we have orange, or is that too much for you to handle?"
I studied the palette and touched a sample of chocolate-colored velvet. "I like this brown, actually."
"I'm already using that for the chair," Todd argued.
"Then make the chair orange and the sofa brown."
Todd considered that and made some notes.
I heard the ring of a cell phone. Hardy glanced at both of us. "Excuse me. Do you mind if I take this one? I'll make it as fast as possible."
"Take your time," Todd said. "We're fine."
Hardy flipped it open, wandering to the next room for privacy. "Cates here." He paused while the person on the other end of the line spoke. "Make sure they drill slower when they go in sliding mode . . . and I want them to build that angle tight, got it? The equipment can handle it. Especially since we're not drilling deep, no more than medium radius . . . "
There was no business with more phallic terminology than the oil business. After being exposed to three minutes of conversation about drilling, holes, fluids, and pumping, even a Benedictine nun would have dirty thoughts. Todd and I were silent, listening avidly.
" . . . tell them we're going long and horizontal . . . "
"I'd like to go long and horizontal with him," Todd commented. I smothered a laugh. "I'll admit, he's cute."
"Cute? No. Sexy as hell. Unfortunately, also very straight, so . . . he's yours."
I shook my head. "It's too soon after the divorce. I don't want him. Besides, he can be a jerk, and I've had enough of that."
"You let him touch you," Todd observed idly.
My eyes widened. "I do not."
"Yes you do. Just little touches here and there. He puts his hand on your arm or back, he stands close to you, getting you used to him . . . it's a mating ritual. Like March of the Penguins."
"It has nothing to do with mating rituals. It's a Texas thing. People are touchy-feely here."
"Especially when they want to bone you into the middle of next week."
"Todd, shut up," I muttered, and he snickered.
We both looked hastily down at the sample book as Hardy came back into the room.
A few more minutes of discussion, and then Hardy glanced down at his watch. "I'm sorry to have to ask this . . . but would either of you mind if we cut this a few minutes short?"
"Not at all," Todd said. "I've got more than enough to start with."
"Thanks. I appreciate it." Hardy loosened his tie and unbuttoned his shirt collar. "Time to change out of the monkey suit. We're having some drilling issues with a deviated well, and I need to go on-site to check on it." He picked up a briefcase and a set of keys, and grinned at me. "So far it's a dry hole. But I have a feeling we've got a wildcat on our hands."
I didn't dare look at Todd. "Good luck," I said. "By the way, is it okay if Todd and I stay here a few minutes?"
"I'll lock up when we leave."
"Thank you." Hardy passed by me, his fingers brushing lightly over my hand as it rested on the counter. The warm touch caused a ripple of sensation to run up my arm. His gaze connected with mine in a flash of unholy blue. "Bye." The door closed behind him.
I lent my weight to the counter, trying to think straight. But my brain had evacuated the premises.
It was a good half minute before I looked over at Todd. His eyes were slightly foggy, like he was waking up — reluctantly — from a lascivious dream. "I didn't know they still made them like that," he said.
"Cool, tough, retro-manly. The kind who only cries if someone just ran over his dog. The big-chested guy we can indulge our pathetic daddy complexes with."
"I don't have a pathetic daddy complex."
"Oh? Tell me you haven't imagined sitting on his lap." Todd grinned as I flushed. "You know what it is you smell on him, Haven? Testosterone. It's leaking out of his pores."
I covered my ears with my hands, and he broke out laughing. He waited until I had taken my hands from my ears before he said in a more serious tone, "You need to be careful with him, sweetheart."
"I got the sense that beneath that all-American, blue-eyed exterior, he's a little twisted."
I felt my eyes go as round as quarters. "Sick twisted?"
"No, twisty twisted. Like, bending-the-rules, foxy, conniving twisted."
"I don't agree at all. He's like Jack. Straightforward."
"No, that's what he wants you to think. But don't believe it for a minute. It's a front, that aw-shucks-I'm-just-a-redneck routine. He does it to set people up. And then he goes in for the kill."
"You're saying Hardy's some kind of master manipulator or something?" I asked skeptically. "He's from a trailer park, Todd."
"The only person I've ever seen who's almost as good at that kind of calculated underplaying . . . almost . . . is your father."
I gave a disbelieving laugh, but I felt a chill run down my back. "Do you think he's a bad guy?"
"No. But there's a lot going on under the surface. You watch his eyes. Even when he's doing his regular-guy routine, he's taking measure, learning, every damn second."
"You got all that from talking about sofas with him?"
Todd smiled. "People reveal a lot when discussing their personal taste. And I picked up a lot by watching him watch you. I think you're in for a time of it with him, sweetheart."
"Do you think I should stay away from him?" I asked in a scratchy voice.
Todd took a long time to answer. "My advice is, if you're inclined in that direction, go with your eyes open. It's okay to let someone play you, Haven, as long as you know what's going on."
"I don't want to be played."
"Oh, I don't know." A smile touched his lips. "With a guy like that . . . it could be fun."
When my lunch break was over, I returned to my cubicle and Vanessa's soft, crisp voice rose from my intercom pad. "Haven, come to my office, please."
I immediately reasoned that I hadn't done anything wrong, I couldn't possibly be in trouble, but each word pierced me like I'd been shot through the heart with a nail gun.
I was pretty sure Vanessa's romantic long weekend hadn't gone well, because she'd come back in a bitch of a mood. She wore the same serene mask as always, but when it was just the two of us in her office, she had "accidentally" knocked over her pencil holder and asked me to pick all of them up. And then she dropped a file folder, and asked me to collect the papers that had flown everywhere. I couldn't accuse her of doing it on purpose. After all, everyone had moments of clumsiness. But I knew it hadn't been accidental. And the sight of me on my hands and knees had definitely improved her mood. She seemed almost jovial by the time I'd finished putting the file back together.
I realized that in a very short period of time, I had acquired a new person in my life to be afraid of. "She does that same self-absorbed, grandiose, bullying thing that Nick does," I had told Susan during our last session. "Except she's sneakier about it. She's a stealth narcissist. God, how many of these jerks are out there?"
"Too many," Susan said ruefully. "I've heard varying statistics, but I could make an argument that three to live percent of the population has either strong tendencies or the full-blown disorder. And although I've read that three quarters of all narcissists are men, I personally think it runs about fifty fifty."
"Well, how do I stop being an N-magnet?" I had demanded, and Susan had smiled.
"You're not an N-magnet, Haven. None of us can escape having to deal with a narcissist now and then. But I'd say you're better equipped than most to handle it."
Yes . . . I knew how to handle a narcissist. You could never disagree with one. You had to look awed by everything they did, and miss no opportunity to flatter or praise them. Basically, you had to sell out in every conceivable way, until there was nothing left of your dignity, self-respect, or your soul.
Vanessa didn't bother looking up from her desk as I entered the open door to her office. "I'd like you to knock before coming in," she said, still concentrating on her computer screen.
"Oh. Sure." I went back to the doorway, knocked on the doorjamb, and waited for a response. Vanessa said nothing, only kept typing. I stood in the doorway and waited for a full two minutes until she finally paused to glance at me.
"Thank you," I said with exquisite politeness. "Have a seat."
I took the chair across from her desk and looked at her expectantly. It was unfair that someone so rotten on the inside could be so pretty. Her eyes were round and light in her oval face, and her hair was a perfect pale sweep across her shoulders.
"I'd like you to straighten the coffee area and clean out the machine," Vanessa said.
"I cleaned the machine yesterday," I said.
"I'm afraid you need to clean it again. The coffee doesn't taste right." Her brows lifted. "Unless you feel it's beneath you? I don't want you to do anything that makes you uncomfortable, Haven."
"No, it's fine." I gave her a shallow, innocuous smile. "No trouble. Anything else?"
"Yes. About your lunch hour activities."
I didn't reply, only stared at her innocently.
"You were doing something with the new tenant in his apartment this afternoon."
"I introduced him to an interior decorator," I said. "He asked me to."
"You didn't clear it with me."
"I didn't realize I had to," I said slowly. "It was more of a personal favor."
"Well, I have a rule that I should have explained before, Haven. There is no 'getting personal' with any of the tenants in this building. It can lead to trouble, and it can get in the way of doing your job effectively."
"Believe me, I wouldn't — " I stopped, completely thrown off guard. "There is absolutely nothing going on between me and Mr. Cates."
Some of my genuine consternation must have gotten through to Vanessa, because it was obvious she was pleased. Her face softened with the kind concern of an older sister. "I'm glad to hear that. Because someone with your history of failed relationships could make a huge mess of things."
"I . . . " My history of failed relationships? I'd only had one. One failed marriage. I burned with the desire to remind Vanessa that she'd been through a divorce too, and she was hardly one to talk. But somehow I managed to keep my mouth shut, while my face flooded with red.
"So," Vanessa said with a gentle smile, "no more private meetings with Mr. Cates, right?"
I looked into those clear eyes, at her smooth, tranquil face. "Right," I half whispered. "Anything else?"
"As a matter of fact . . . I noticed one of the vending machines near the conference room wasn't working. I'd like you to read the service number on the machine and call for it to be fixed."
"I'll do it right away." I forced my lips into a smile and stood. "Okay if I go now?"
I left her office and went to clean the coffee machine, thinking grimly that anything Vanessa Flint could dish out, I could take.
Vanessa's warning about staying away from the tenants hadn't been necessary. I had already decided to take Todd's assessment of Hardy to heart. I wasn't going anywhere near him. My rebound guy, when and if I found one, was not going to be manipulative or twisty twisted. He was going to be someone I could handle, someone who wouldn't overwhelm me. And although Hardy was only about seven or eight years older than me, he'd had infinitely more experience in just about every way. As far as sex was concerned, he'd gone "around the sugar bowl," as Aunt Gretchen would have put it, just a few too many times.But the day after Hardy had moved into 1800 Main, I found a wrapped package on my desk, tied with a neat red ribbon. Since it wasn't my birthday or any gift-giving holiday I could think of, I was mystified.
Kimmie stood at the entryway of my cubicle. "It was dropped off a few minutes ago," she said, "by one of the cutest guys I've ever seen. All blue eyes and bronzy muscles."
"I think it was the new tenant," I said, approaching the package like it might contain a bomb "Mr. Cates."
"If that's the kind of tenant we're attracting," Kimmie said, "I will work here forever. For no pay."
"I'd steer clear of him if I were you." I sat at my desk. "He's no respecter of women."
"One can only hope so," she said.
I shot her a distracted glance. "Did Vanessa see him bring it in? Did she meet him?"
Kimmie grinned. "Not only did she meet him, she was smacking her lips over him, like Samantha and I were. And she tried her best to find out what was in that package, but he wouldn't tell her."
Great, I thought, and repressed a sigh. It didn't take a genius to figure out I'd be cleaning the coffee machine at least ten times that day.
"Well . . . aren't you going to open it?"
"Later," I said. God knew what was in that box — I was going to wait until I could unwrap it in private.
"Haven . . . you're crazy if you think you can take that present out of the office without letting Vanessa know what it is." Although Kimmie seemed to like our boss, it was common knowledge that no detail of what went on in the office escaped Vanessa's notice.
I set the wrapped box on the floor. It was heavy, with a metallic rattle coming from inside. Was it an appliance of some kind? God, please let it not be some bizarre sex toy. "I don't have to let her pry into the details of my private life."