Her sigh echoed through the dryer her head was currently in, fingers reaching for the wire that was stuck in the tumbler. One of the head housekeepers, April, had done some personal laundry last night and had texted Ellie when she realized one of her bra’s was missing its underwire, begging her to find it and take it out before their boss found out. Ever a softie, Ellie had assured the woman that she would, and that’s how she found herself with half of her body in the large commercial dryer with someone asking for attention from the front desk.
This voice was different from the first one, and again Ellie sighed. She knew that tone of voice from years of working in customer service, and it now brought a shiver of disgust with it. If Ellie was a betting woman - she wasn’t- she would have bet that the woman even had the hairstyle that was typically associated with her type of person, long bangs and hair made to look like a literal chicken butt in the back.
“One second, please!” she retracted her body from the dryer long enough to call from the house laundry room, situated right behind the office. She’d just caught a glimpse of the aforementioned wire, and after assuring the guests she would be right with them, she leaned back in just in time to hear a melodramatic sigh come from the woman. Ignoring the woman, her fingers grasped the wire that would have caused the dryer to break down and with a hearty yank, it slipped free.
Now free of the dryer, Ellie tugged down the button-up uniform shirt and made sure her hair was decent before heading to the office, where the tell-tale sign of an impatient woman could be easily heard. Trying her hardest to ignore the pounding of her head that resonated with each fingernail tap, she pasted a bright smile on her face and pushed the office door open. Just as she expected, the woman leaning up against the counter was of the typical manager demanding type and as she caught sight of Ellie, the woman straightened up and started waving her arms and complaining about the terrible service, almost making it impossible for Ellie to catch sight of the man who was also waiting. Thankfully, he was talking on the phone, not looking the least bit perturbed at having to wait the minute she’d taken to help a friend.
Both Ellie and the man turned their gazes to the caterwauling woman when her voice rose in pitch, and the pressure headache Ellie had been fighting since she woke up throbbed in reply.
“I’m sorry for my delay.” Ellie knew she would have to pull out all the charm she possessed in her six foot body to either keep the lady from giving herself an aneurysm or giving the hotel a bad review. She’d been warned that she was one bad review away from getting fired, and when the woman scoffed at her apology, Ellie had the feeling that she would be job-hunting in the near future.
“Whatever. I need your best room.” the woman talked through her nose, the makeup caked into her pores not helping with the wrinkles Ellie could see.
Fighting down the wince and picturing herself sleeping in a cardboard box, Ellie shook her head.
“I’m sorry ma’am, our Presidential Suite is already taken.” she told the woman, and she could see the self-righteous fury building in her eyes.
“You’re kidding, right?” the woman then let out a high-pitched giggle before her face turned ugly.
“You don’t know who I am, do you?” she asked, and when Ellie answered in the negative, she scoffed and waved a manicured hand. “No matter, my lawyers will have you jobless and homeless soon enough. Now, what about your second best room? I can’t believe that I’m being forced to lower my standards.”
Knowing that her jobless-ness was inevitable now, Ellie sat down in her chair and rested her chin on a closed fist.
“We’re actually sold out.” she didn’t bother to apologize because she knew it would just make things worse. “If you’d like, I can look for hotels nearby with any vacancies.” she offered, hoping to get the woman out of the lobby before she drew a crowd with whatever scene she was about to create.
True to form, the woman howled in displeasure, threatening more lawyers each with a different thing she was going to sue for. The many bracelets that adorned the woman’s arms jangled as she threw her arms up in the air as she yelled. Calmly wiping the spittle that had hit her cheek, Ellie stood up.
“Unless you’d like me to call the police and have them escort you off property, I kindly suggest calming down and letting me help you find a room.” She crossed her arms over her chest, almost daring the woman to do something, but she must have caught the steely look in Ellie’s eyes because she simply huffed and pouted her way out the front door.
“That was fun.” Ellie muttered under her breath before turning her attention to the man. “I apologize for that, sir.”
Instead of answering, the man simply ended his call with a curt word and when he pushed off the wall he’d been leaning against, Ellie had to fight back the swoon she could feel in her bones. Sure, she’d seen her fair share of beautiful people, working at a high-end hotel had seen to that, but there was something about the man who was now standing in front of her that instantly drew her attention.
The breadth of his chest and shoulders spoke of vigorous activity that was outside of the gym, and for the first time in her life, Ellie had to look up to meet his gaze. A thrill went through her body when her eyes locked with his mossy colored ones, and she was forced to put a hand on the desk to stabilize herself and not fall due to her knees turning to jelly.
“She was a cunt.”
Stifling a laugh at the unexpected response, Ellie fiddled with her favorite pen in nervousness as his direct gaze never wavered from hers. Clearing her throat, she broke eye contact and sat down, tapping at the space bar on the keyboard to wake up the computer monitor.
“She was.” Ellie agreed unabashedly. “But she may have just cost me my job.”
When the man just raised an eyebrow, Ellie shrugged. She’d been told that she was a little too honest sometimes, but she always thought that speaking what was on her mind with honesty wasn’t a bad thing. At least there was no judgement in the man’s eyes, which were trained on hers with vigilance.
“How can I help you?” she asked, falling behind her Customer Service mask to mask the nerves in her voice.
“I’m here to see my grandmother.” The man raked a hand through his hair, sending a few strands of the sandy brown hair falling into his eyes. “She’s in the Presidential Suite.”
As soon as those words fell from his lips, Ellie’s memory was jogged and she nodded her head, reaching for the key given to her by the wise old lady that had claimed their top room home for the last few months.
“Ah, yes! Madam Donahue told me her grandson would be by. I’ve got a key already prepared.” Holding out the old-fashioned key, Ellie nodded her head in the direction of the elevators. “She’s the only one of the 40th floor.”
“Thanks.” With the simple statement, the man grabbed the keys from her outstretched hand, pausing only for the briefest moment when his thumb brushed across the underside of her wrist. Then, he was gone, the faint smell of his cologne lingering.
Unable to help herself, Ellie took a deep breath, the scent of him burning into her memory. Shaking her head at her moment of silliness, she turned back to the computer and the tasks left to her by her boss. It was difficult to concentrate, and not five minutes had passed before she caught herself staring blankly at the screen, fingers running over the skin on her wrist.
“Damnit.” she muttered, getting up from her chair, accidentally pushing her chair back with so much force that it hit the wall behind her with an audible thud. Grabbing the little flip phone that served as the secondary phone for the main line, she shoved it into her slacks pocket and then reached for the insulated cup of coffee she hadn’t had time to finish. Patting her back pocket to make sure she still had the keyring with all the keys to the hotel, she left the office, heading for the employee exit to get some air.
It wouldn’t be the freshest air, seeing as she was in Downtown Houston and smack dab in the middle of the city, but it was better than breathing the recycled air of the office, where there was still a faint trace of the man’s cologne. Swiping a keycard, one second she was in the blissfully cool air conditioning and the next she was in the sweltering heat that made up the entirety of Texas summers. Unable to help it, her mind flashed back to the image of Madam D’s grandson leaning against the wall and she absently realized that there hadn’t been a single sweat stain on his suit. That meant that either he was immune to the heat, which was impossible considering it was nigh one hundred degrees at the moment, or that he’d been dropped off right by the door instead of halving to walk from the parking garage.
Which, now that she was actually thinking about it, made sense considering the fact that he was Madam D’s favorite grandson. A smile flitted across her lips as she recalled the feisty older lady who moved about as if she wasn’t slowly dying from her cancer riddled body. For her birthday a few months ago, seeing that Madam D had started wearing wigs, each more colorful than the last, she’d asked a friend who was very into drag where to get the best crazy wigs from, and had ended up spending more than she wanted. The wig was worth every penny, and the absolute mirth in the old lady’s eyes more than made up for the slight emotional scarring from some of the BDSM Drag she’d seen in the store. Madam D’s nurse - who didn’t really look like a nurse- had told Ellie that the wig she’d given her charge was her favorite, and that had made Ellie’s year.
A shrill ring coming from her hip had Ellie rolling her eyes and reaching for the phone that was forever attached to her. Answering it with the customary greeting, she answered the persons questions, most of which were all answered on the hotel’s website, but that hardly mattered to the clientele her manager wanted. Hanging up the call, she slouched and lent against the wall, the heels of her palms digging into her eyes, not caring that the little mascare she’d been able to throw on in her rush to the office would be smudged. As a bead of sweat trickled down her temple, she took in a big breath, squared her shoulders and turned to the door. As much as she wanted to stay outside and enjoy the clear blue sky, work was calling her name. That, and if she stayed any longer, she was going to have sweat marks under her arms.
The rest of the day went much like her morning had, and by the time she had half an hour left, the sun had long since set. Since she normally didn’t work the double - or triple, really- shift, she was exhausted. Ellie really hoped that her assistant manager got over whatever stomach virus she was claiming this time, because she needed some down time.
Frowning as her stomach growled, Ellie realized that she hadn’t eaten yet, and it was way too late to take a lunch break. Reaching for her purse, she dug a hand in and rooted around, feeling for the crinkly wrapper of the protein bar she’d shoved in this morning in her mad dash to work. Mentally cheering when her fingers found what they sought, she tossed her purse back down and used her teeth to tear open the wrapper. Just as she sank her teeth into the snack, the sound of someone clearing their throat echoed through the empty lobby, the sound echoing off the marble-esque floors. Instantly Ellie felt her face flush and she slowly chewed the large bite in her mouth for a second or two before lifting her eyes to confirm her worst fear.
Madam D’s grandson was leaning against the counter, suit jacket off and the sleeves of his shirt were rolled up over some impressive forearms, revealing a full tattoo sleeved right arm with the left bare. There was a grin twitching in the corner of his mouth as he waited for her to finish chewing.
She took the few seconds it took to fully eat the massive bite to look over the man in front of her. There was something different about him, something that wasn’t there when she first saw him that morning. Then, after a glance at his face, she figured it out. This was T.J Donahue at his most relaxed. She knew from the stories that his grandmother doted on him, and he on her. In fact, T.J was the one who was paying for his grandmothers medical bills and the lavish hotel suite. That in itself earned him some respect in her eyes. Seeing him like this, the flecks of brown and gold in his green eyes dancing with amusement, the deadly half grin and the drool-worthy forearms, Ellie knew she was going to have to take a cold shower or two when she got home.
“Sorry you caught that.” She cleared her throat and turned her body to fully face his.
“You’re hungry.” he commented and she couldn’t help but laugh when her stomach chose that exact moment to imitate a dying whale. “I guess I have my answer.” T.J chuckled and Ellie promised herself that she would find a way to record that, for prosperity’s sake.
“It’s been pretty busy all day. I didn’t have a chance to stop and take a lunch break.” Ellie admitted, reaching for the cash drawer under the counter. She was almost done with the evening shut-down procedure, and she had just enough time left to do the final task before she was due to clock out. Typically, she avoided counting the cash in the drawer in front of people, but she knew T.J was absolutely loaded, so the chances of him trying to steal some were slim to none.
“What time do you clock out?” T.J’s voice was closer and Ellie glanced up. He was leaning on his forearms, fingers absently twisting the gold ring on his left pinky and his eyes were trained on her face.
“Why do you want to know?” Ellie asked by way of reply and T.J chuckled, straightening up and shoving his hands in his pockets. Already finding it hard to not stare, Ellie forced herself to focus on the money in her hands.
“You’re hungry. I’m hungry. Figured we could kill two birds with one stone.”
That was certainly not the answer she was expecting and before she could stop herself, she was staring slack-jawed at the man with the laughing eyes. With a shake of her head and a cough to clear her throat, Ellie forced out a laugh.
“You don’t want to go to dinner with me.” she stated with conviction. She knew the type of woman he went for: skinny, vivacious and rich. She was none of the above.
T.J was silent as he studied her face, and she could almost feel his gaze sweeping over his skin almost as though he was actually touching her. When he spoke again, the laughter was gone from his voice, and she once again couldn’t help but glance up at him.
“Think of it as a thank you for being so kind to my grandmother.”
Raising an eyebrow, Ellie ran her eyes over his face, checking for any sign of insincerity. The tabloids were full of this man’s escapades with various models and actresses, and here he was asking a normal Front Desk Attendant to dinner. She was about to say no when her stomach growled again, and she remembered that she was almost absolutely broke.
“Fine.” she agreed begrudgingly, holding up a finger when she caught sight of a grin appearing on the edges of his mouth. “Nothing fancy or over the top. I’m not changing from this.” she warned, motioning to her work uniform.
“I can work with that.” he agreed, then glanced down at the watch on his wrist. “What time are you off?” he asked again.
“As soon as my Night Audit person comes in, which should be in five minutes.” she answered, looking away from the oddly intoxicating man to concentrate on the numbers she was plugging into the calculator. If she got the last drawer count wrong, it would throw off the entire night audit.
“Perfect.” T.J announced pushing away from the counter, where he had been leaning against it with a hip. “I’ll meet you at the front entrance in five minutes.”
Glancing up as he walked away, Ellie was rewarded with a perfect view of his entire back, and she could just make out an outline of a tattoo on his back. Clearing her throat once again, she forced her eyes back to the task at hand, finishing up just as a harried Paulo rushed in, suit jacket askew.
“Please tell me I’m not late.” he gasped, collapsing into the chair next to Ellie, long legs stretching out as he fanned his face.
“You’re right on time.” Ellie assured him, reaching out to pat his knee.
“Thank god.” Paulo said with a sigh of relief. “Christian ran into traffic on his way home so I left later than I wanted. This whole only having one car thing really sucks.”
Packing up her few belongings that she always carried with her, Ellie glanced at her co-worker, knowing the struggles he and his husband were going through. Christian had recently lost his job and was attending one job fair after the other, with no luck. They’d had to return his car, unable to keep up with the payments, in order to keep their home, and things were still tight.
“I’m sorry, my friend.” she could sympathize with them both. She had only recently gotten her car back in working order, but was still driving around with no A/C.
“It’s all good, sweet thing.” Paulo replied with fond smile, patting her hand before standing up and stretching. “Now you get on and go home to your adorable puppy.” he chided with a swat to her shoulder, and Ellie grimaced, remembering what she’d agreed to, all thanks to her overactive hormones and hungry belly.
“I’m actually going out.” she admitted, studiously ignoring the gasp from her over dramatic friend.
“With who? And please tell me you’re not going in that work shirt.” Paulo demanded as Ellie pulled her bag over her shoulder, reaching up to redo the ponytail she’d haphazardly thrown together.
“A man, and yes, I’m going in the work shirt.” Ellie replied, avoiding any details. If Paulo knew who she was going to be eating dinner with, he’d blow a gasket and would demand to give her a make-over.
“You’re so difficult.” Paulo grouched and Ellie laughed, blowing a kiss to her now moping friend.
“It’s why you love me!” she said in a sing-song voice as she blew his a kiss over her shoulder, walking out of the office without waiting for a reply.
Making sure to make a wide circle around the Front Desk as she left, Ellie was relieved to see that Paulo’s attention was being commandeered by a guest who was known to be difficult and was soon pushing the front door of the hotel open. Pausing for a second, she couldn’t help the slight gape of her mouth when she saw T.J waiting for her, arms crossed over his broad chest, suit jacket still off and sleeves still rolled up. He wasn’t paying attention to the entrance, instead looking off the side, and she was able to see the his jaw muscle jumping as if he was clenching and unclenching his jaw. Ellie hated to admit it, but the sight was mesmerizing and she shook herself out of her daze just as he realized she was there.
“That was more than five minutes.” he said, not moving from where he was perched against the side of the car.
“By like one minute, calm yourself.” Ellie returned with a roll of her eyes and was confused when he did nothing but laugh before moving to open the car door.
“After you.” was all he said as he waved a hand at the open car door, and with a shake of her head, Ellie clambered in, feeling a little self-conscious with her lack of grace when T.J slid smoothly in. She had to remind herself that he was used to this, had probably been since birth, while this was only her second time in a limousine, the first and only time having been for a friends wedding.
They sat in silence as the driver pulled away from the hotel and maneuvered the busy city streets with ease. Being this close to him, Ellie found herself fascinated by the tattoo’s she could see from under the edge of his rolled up sleeve. She wondered if they meant anything to him other than decoration, as hers did. She’d chosen very carefully the few she had, and always thought that people’s tattoo choices were a glimpse into how they thought and loved.
One in particular caught her eye, set right above his wrist bone on the outside of his arm. Three nails, or swords, she really couldn’t tell from the angle she was at, met at their points, creating a single line which was enclosed in a circle. The others, done in the same exquisite detail as the swords, were covered up, but she could still see the outline of a thick black line circling his bicep and trailing down to his forearm.
True to form, as soon as the car merged on to the highway, the traffic forced them to come to a complete stop, and T.J sighed, glancing once again at his watch. Ellie, very much used to the Houston traffic, sat back in her seat and clasped her hands, fingers automatically reaching for the small silver ring she wore on her right hand middle finger. When no one spoke for a few minutes, she decided to test the waters with her very limited conversational skills.
“How many tattoos do you have?” she asked, gesturing to the one she could see with a small wave.
There was a small snort from the man in the driver’s seat, to which T.J shot a glare and pressed a button that caused a blacked out window to roll up from the back of the driver’s seat. Eyes flickering between the rolled up window to the man who was watching her, Ellie got the feeling that she was being tested, on what she didn’t know, but she didn’t like the sudden drop in temperature.
“Why do you want to know?” he asked, voice a cool tone that she hadn’t heard from him yet, and she suddenly realized that she didn’t know much about the man that currently had her in his car.
Sure, she knew what his grandmother told her, but who tells their grandmother anything but what they want them to know. For all Ellie knew, and it sent her heart pounding, the man who was waiting for her answer could very well be a killer.
Swallowing down the sudden lump in her throat, Ellie started to roll up her left sleeve, revealing the half sleeve she had been working on for the past 3 years. The lion’s head was the only thing she hadn’t gotten colored in yet, and it made the magnolia flowers and cherry blossoms that surrounded it all the more vibrant. While it wasn’t her biggest piece, that one was on her right thigh, it was one of her favorites.
“I like tattoos?” she hated the way the simple sentence came out as a question, and with a swipe of her tongue on her thumb, she rubbed away the heavy duty concealer on the underside of her right wrist to reveal the black and white origami swan she’d gotten as her first tattoo. “If it helps you answer the question, I have 6.”
When T.J simply smirked and held up both hands, all fingers outstretched, Ellie fought back the urge to roll her eyes yet again. She was starting to realize how often she did it in T.J’s company, and even if he didn’t notice, she didn’t want to take the risk of him thinking it was anything other than her being her usual sarcastic self.
“You sure like being mysterious, don’t you?” Ellie found herself saying and if a hole had opened itself up right beneath her feet at that very moment, she would have jumped in with no hesitation. She really needed to get the filter between her brain and her mouth fixed before it got her into some serious trouble.
“I thought women like men that have an air of mystery around them.” was the reply and she didn’t bother to stop the scoff that escaped.
“It’s called an aura of mystery, dude.” she pointed out, ignoring the obvious laughter coming from the driver. How he heard her, she had no clue, but she could hear him, even if it was muffled. “And you may have too much of it. It’s slightly suffocating.” Ellie added on, holding up a hand with her finger and forefinger held a millimeter apart to demonstrate.
At that, T.J laughed outright, a hand reaching up to grab at his chest, head thrown back on the headrest. Ellie crossed her arms over her chest and waited for the fit to stop, not really finding the humor in what she’d just told him, but she let him laugh. It was better than the chilling tone and blank stare he’d given her earlier. Plus, listening to him laugh was like hearing a choir of male angels singing the highest of praise.
“You really are bluntly honest, aren’t you?” he asked once he’d gotten his laughter under control and Ellie shrugged.
“It may have gotten me into trouble a time or two.” she admitted, leaving out the part where she had somehow managed to get herself out of the hole she’d dug for herself both times. If he was going to play the mysterious card, she was too. A grin threatened to break out as she realized just how much fun this was going to get, if he didn’t pull over and shoot her on the spot when she kept an answer vague.
On second thought, Ellie paused to reconsider, maybe leave the mystery act to the man who seemed to have it mastered. She really wanted to make it home to cuddle with her puppy.