GABI TAPPED HER foot impatiently as she waited for the elevator to stop on her floor. “Come on, come on!” She whispered urgently and impatiently, glancing at her watch to see just how late she was. Her huge curly mane was sticking to the sides of her face and the back of her neck due to the sweat that had accumulated as she ran from the parking lot on that hot and humid Texas summer day. She cursed herself, wishing that she had had enough foresight to put her hair up today. She pulled at the collar of her blouse, hoping to circulate some air before she passed out from the heat. Her pantyhose were bunching underneath her pencil skirt and she was sliding around in her heels because of her profusely sweaty feet. Her caramel brown skin was flushed and she was overall miserable.
The doors finally slid open and Gabi rushed forward, slamming directly into a tall, dark-haired man and knocking his coffee and briefcase out of his hand. His briefcase opened as it hit the floor and papers scattered everywhere. The coffee spilled all over her white blouse and slightly burned the skin beneath.
“Mierda! Oh shit!” she exclaimed, reaching down to pick up the papers. “I am so sorry sir, I’m very late and a bit all over the place this morning.”
He joined her on the ground, picking up the remaining papers and chuckling lightly. “Don’t worry about it, Miss...?”
Gabi stood back up and extended her hand. “Perez. Gabriella Perez. Pleasure to meet you.”
The gentlemen returned her handshake with a smirk. “The pleasure’s all mine, Miss Perez. My name is Ryan Cole.”
Gabi felt all the blood drain from her face as she realized who this man was. “Oh! Mr. Cole! I am so sorry!”
He nodded and beckoned her to follow him. “Mr. Cole’s my father, call me Ryan.” He glanced down at her as her heels click-clacked on the marble floor and she struggled to keep up with him.
“I am so sorry that I’m late Mr. Cole! My sister’s car broke down this morning and I had to help her get her kids to school and then--”
“I’m not interested in your excuses Miss Perez. Just don’t make it a habit,” he said with a terse smile. He nodded at the security guard and the double doors slid open to reveal a sleek reception area. Ryan walked over to the smiling middle-aged receptionist sat at the front desk and gestured toward Gabi.
Gabi smoothed the front of her skirt down and regained her composure as best she could given the circumstances. She was mildly aware of Ryan introducing her to the receptionist, Molly something or other.
Molly led them down the hallway into a large office before leaving them alone.
“Have a seat Miss Perez,” Ryan stated, taking the seat behind the desk for himself.
She sat opposite him, her eyes cast down to her lap and waited for the verbal punishment she knew she deserved. To her great surprise, it never came. She looked up and saw deep brown eyes studying her.
“I’ll be honest with you Ms. Perez,” he said, leaning back in his chair. “I have many doubts about your capability and qualifications for this position. You’ve only recently completed your degree and this will be your first job in the industry. You’re still a bit wet behind the ears if you catch my drift.”
She frowned and crossed her arms indignantly across her chest. “What are you getting at Mr. Cole?”
The smile faded from his face and he stared sternly at her, clasping his hands together on the desktop. “I’m saying, that you’re on a short leash at the moment. My father hired you against my advice and I’ll be keeping a close eye on you.”
Ryan rose from the seat and strode to the door, turning back to her before he walked out. “This is your office by the way. My office is just across the hallway if you need anything. Although I suspect you won’t since you’re so qualified to be here.” He flashed her one last toothy grin and slammed the door behind him.
Gabi jumped when the door closed and stared at it for a few moments before she got her bearings again. She scoffed and walked around the desk to take her seat. “Ryan Cole,” she mumbled to herself. “What a pretentious dick.”
Molly something or other walked into her office a few minutes later pulling a cart with the boxes that Gabi had sent over the week before. Gabi made a mental note to find a discreet way to figure out Molly’s surname. She spent the next hour fixing up her office with her belongings. She placed a few frames with photos of her family and a few with her two best friends Angela Park and Elizabeth Matthews on her desk. The last two things in the box were her diplomas. She hung the first one up and stood back to admire it.
Gabriella Marie Perez de Leon B.B.A. in Marketing and Communications, Prairie View A&M University. She was so proud of her degree from the illustrious historically black university about an hour north of her new job in Houston. It was where she had met Angela and Elizabeth and where she had her first love...and first heartbreak.
She shook away the negative thoughts as she pulled her second degree out of the box and hung it up above the bachelor’s degree.
Gabriella Marie Perez de Leon M.S. in Marketing, University of Texas at Austin McCombs School of Business. This degree was newer; She had just finished the program a month ago and had just received the printed degree a week prior to her start date. Ryan Cole was right about one thing; She really was new to the industry. However, her young age did not mean she was unqualified to lead the marketing department at the new Houston branch of Cole Industries. Her fresh outlook and perspective was precisely the reason Jack Cole had hired her in the first place.
After her office was set up to her liking, she sat down at her computer and pulled up her schedule for the week. She pulled out her Erin Condren life planner and got to work putting her work schedule to paper. While doing this, she realized that she had a meeting at 11:00 with her immediate superior and lunch with them immediately after. She wondered what her immediate superior would be like; Mr. Cole, Jack that is, had spoken very highly of whoever it was.
At 10:50, she walked out of her office, pulling her blazer tightly across her chest in hopes of covering the coffee stains. Molly showed her to the conference room, where she took a seat and waited for her boss to arrive.
Ryan Cole strode into the room at 10:59 with a small, portly man with glasses too big for his face, following closely behind him. Gabi stood to greet the man, sticking out her hand for a handshake. “Good morning, my name is Gabriella Perez. I’m the new marketing director, but of course, you already know that,” she said, flashing him a bright smile.
The man pushed his glasses up on his nose before returning the gesture. “Hello, Miss Perez. I’m Cornelius Smith, director of HR. I’m here to give you your orientation.”
She frowned and turned to Ryan who had a smug grin on his face. “I take it you’re my immediate superior then?”
“Tsk, tsk Miss Perez. I thought you would have been intuitive enough to realize that, given our encounter this morning. I guess you’re not as bright as my father thinks you are.” He took out a small notebook and scribbled something in it before taking a seat at the head of the table.
Gabi said nothing, but returned to her seat and scowled at Ryan. She gave him a once over as she pulled out her notebook to take notes on the meeting. He was very tall, at least 6′5" she guessed. His dark, curly hair was lightly gelled and he was wearing a slim fit dark blue suit with brown shoes. His tortoiseshell glasses reflected the light streaming in through the window and the smug look on his face took nothing away from his attractiveness.
They spent the next hour going over her responsibilities that included hiring an entire marketing department from nil, being responsible for all forms of marketing for the southern region including but not limited to print and commercial ads. Her pen hardly stopped moving the entire time as she furiously jotted down Ryan and Cornelius’ words. When Ryan finally halted and asked if she had any questions, she shook her head, relieved that the hour was over. She was astonished at how much work she had to do but was very excited to get started.
“Well then,” Ryan said, clasping his hands together and smiling at her. “Ready for lunch?”
Gabi blushed under his gaze but she nodded and stood, gathering her things and following him out of the door. She placed her belongings in her office and grabbed her bag before she walked back out of her office and jumped, seeing Ryan leaning against the wall outside her door with his eyes closed. She took the opportunity to study him further, her eyes taking in his muscular form and admiring the casual confidence he exuded, even when his guard was down. His skin was one or two shades darker than her own, a beautiful combination of his father’s chocolate brown skin and his mother’s pale white skin she presumed. She had seen a picture of his late mother in his father’s office when she interviewed at the company’s national headquarters in New York City.
“It’s impolite to stare Miss Perez,” Ryan said, with his eyes still closed and a smirk on his face.
Gabi’s cheeks warmed and she cleared her throat. “You may call me Gabriella.”
He opened an eye and glanced at her. “Gabby?”
“No. Gabriella,” she said with finality.
“Okay Gabriella,” he said teasingly, rolling the r much longer than he needed to. “We only have an hour for lunch so let’s get going.
They took the elevator downstairs and walked out of the building to Gabi’s surprise. She had thought they would just be visiting the cafeteria that was located on the first floor of the building, but evidently, Ryan had other plans.
When they arrived at his car, a sensible but beautiful Mercedes Benz, he opened the passenger door for her before walking around and climbing into the driver’s seat.
Gabi was so confused by Ryan; She felt so nervous around him. Men didn’t normally have this effect on her. After her last relationship had ended disastrously, she swore off men romantically and professionally. She was determined to successfully climb to the top of the career pyramid and would be only satisfied when she answered to no one, male or female. Since that tragic experience, she had worked for several different powerful men in internship positions. She had learned so much from her experiences but never once had she felt nervous or lacked confidence when dealing with these men. In less than three hours, Ryan Cole had all but shattered her defenses with that endearing, lopsided smile of his. Sure, she could tell he was a prick but there was something about him that gave her pause.
Ryan was as equally phased by Gabi as she was by him. He studied her intently while they had lunch at his favorite restaurant in Houston: the Tex-Mex joint, Gringos. She was a beautiful girl, truly. Her wild curly hair framed her small face perfectly and she had bright, observant brown eyes. Her smile was infectious when she allowed him to see it briefly after he had made a corny Harry Potter joke. The way her face lit up as she laughed, made him want to make her laugh again. He made it a goal of his to make her laugh at least once a day. She vehemently refused to allow him to pay but eventually, and reluctantly, caved when he explained that the company was footing the bill. That was a lie, but he wanted to treat her on her first day.
They returned to the office and she politely thanked him in the lobby and returned to her office to get started on her work. He watched her walk away, admiring her curvaceous figure much to the amusement of Molly who giggled at him.
Ryan walked over to her desk and grinned down at her. “Something funny Aunt Molly?” He looked back down the hallway and saw that Gabriella had gone into her office.
She gave him a reproachful glance with a hint of a smile on her lips. “Oh, nothing Ry-Ry. It’s just...I never saw you look at Suzette that way.”
His eyes jerked back to hers, all trace of humor gone from them. “First of all,” he said, leaning down toward her and trying to sound intimidating. “Don’t call me Ry-Ry at work Aunt Molly! What if someone hears you?” He hissed at his maternal aunt. “And secondly, I have no idea what you are talking about. Gabriella is an employee of mine and a representative of the company. I have absolutely no interest in her aside from her employment.”
Molly smirked at her nephew as he stalked down the hallway and slammed the door of his office. “Who are you trying to convince Ryan? You or me?” She said quietly and returned to her work.
“Mami, I’m here!” Gabi walked into her mother’s home and threw her keys on the counter before opening the refrigerator and searching for a snack.
“Oye! Chica, you’re late. Mami ya se fue. She left an hour ago.”
Gabi closed the refrigerator door and scowled at her sister who was balancing one of her toddlers on her hip while she fixed a bottle for her infant.
“Here can you take her please?” Marisol handed the toddler to Gabi.
“Hey, Mari. Have you heard from Jason? Where is he now?” Gabi asked, sitting down at the table with her niece.
“Don’t know, don’t really care. Don’t ask questions, just help me.” Two more of Marisol’s kids came running through the kitchen screaming at each other and nearly knocking their mother over.
“Marco, Elisa! Stop running!”
Gabi looked over at her sister sadly. Marisol had been a beautiful girl once. Not that she wasn’t pretty anymore, but six kids and an abusive, alcoholic husband certainly can age you. She had had her first child at the tender age of sixteen and hadn’t slowed down. Marco was the oldest followed by the twins, Elise and Elisa, then Luisa, Joseph and baby Joy. Marisol was two years younger than Gabi but looked at least ten years older than her. Right now, Marisol and her kids were staying with Gabi’s mother because Marisol was finally sick of Jason’s abuse and had filed for divorce. As a stay at home mom with no education and no income, her options were pretty limited.
Gabi busied herself around the kitchen, helping her sister prepare dinner for the kids. “Where’s she gone tonight?” Gabi asked, grabbing the twins and pushing them into chairs.
“Same place she always goes, La Puerta Roja. With her boo thang. Mister moneybags.”
“The Red Door? Is that place still open? And Mari his name is Mr. Mone.”
“Yeah, yeah, whatever. You’d better come back in the morning. She said she would be out late.”
Gabi sighed. “You sure you don’t want me to stay and help out with the kids?”
Marisol snorted. “So you can sit here and look down your pretty little nose at me, judging my life decisions? No, Gabi, I’m good. I can manage on my own.” She walked out of the kitchen without another word.
Gabi pinched her nose and closed her eyes in frustration. She picked her keys up and walked out the back door, slamming it behind her. “Five minutes. She can’t even be civil for five minutes,” Gabi mumbled to herself on the walk back to her 1992 Toyota Camry. “Little brat didn’t even thank me for taking her snot-nosed kids to school this morning.”
She got into the car and dialed her best friend Angela as she pulled out of the driveway to head home.
“Gabi! I was just about to call you!”
Gabi instantly relaxed and smiled, hearing her friend’s voice. “Hey, Angela.”
“What’s wrong? Did you have a bad first day?”
“No, work was fine. How could you tell something was wrong?”
Gabi sighed. “I’m leaving my mom’s house.”
“Marisol being obnoxious again?”
“Always,” Gabi replied as she merged onto the highway. “I asked about Jason and she got mad.”
“Is she okay?”
“As okay as one could be in her situation.”
“Oh. Okay. Well, tell me all about your first day! I’ve been waiting to hear about it since I got home.”
“Whatever Ang, you just want an excuse to not study for your MCAT,” Gabi said with a grin.
“So? What’s your point?” she laughed. “Oh shit! Nico’s home, I have to go. Call me tomorrow?”
“Sure, where’s he taking you tonight?”
“No idea! But the way he looks in the suit I may just take him...to the bedroom.”
“Gross! That’s literally my brother! I’m hanging up now, bye Angela!”
Angela and Gabi’s older brother Nicolas had met in college where they were both pre-med students. Nico was now a fourth-year medical student and Angela was finally applying now that their son was old enough for daycare.
Gabi turned onto the street where her apartment was and parked. She turned the car off and sat for a moment before turning it back on and pulling away again. She arrived at her favorite bar five minutes later.
She took a seat at the bar and put her head down. She smiled when she heard a drink being set in front of her.
“Thank you Jake!” she said to the bartender as he winked at her.
She was happily sipping her mojito when a strangely familiar voice spoke, startling her and making her spill some of her drink on her already coffee stained blouse. “How did you get service so quickly? I’ve been standing here for like twenty minutes.”
“Mr. Cole?! What are you doing here?” She asked as he handed her a napkin.
“Same as you. Trying to get a drink. Geez Gabriella, do you like having a see-through shirt? And I thought I told you to call me Ryan.” He flashed that bright smile at her again and she blinked up at him in disbelief.
She shook her head. “Sorry! I’m just surprised to see you in a place like this.” Jake’s Pub wasn’t exactly a high-class joint. Gabi had worked weekends there since her senior year of high school so Jake was like family. She wasn’t about to tell Ryan that though.
Ryan shrugged. “It’s around the corner from my apartment and the music sounded good from outside. So how do you get a drink around here?”
Against her better judgment, Gabi decided to help him. “Ayo Jake! I’m getting slim here a drink!”
Jake nodded and slid an empty glass her way. Gabi reached over the bar and scooped some ice into the glass. She turned to Ryan. “Scotch on the rocks okay?” She filled the glass before he could respond and handed it to him.
“Wow. You must come here often.”
She snorted into her drink. “You could say that.”
He slipped into the seat next to her and raised his glass to her in thanks. “So do you live around here too?”
Gabi nodded and refilled her glass. “Yeah on Montrose near Allen Parkway.”
“Same here! I wonder if it’s the same complex. We should carpool to work, you know to save the environment and all that.”
Gabi blushed. “Maybe.”
“Loosen up a bit Gabriella,” he said nudging her with his shoulder. “I’m not asking to move in with you.” He checked his watch. “I should get going though; Got a ton of paperwork to go over.” He downed the rest of his drink, placed a twenty on the counter and smiled at her. “Thanks for the drink, see you tomorrow.”
With one last glance in her direction, he was gone. Gabi stared at the door he had walked through. Jake walked over and smirked at her.
“Haven’t seen you shaken by a guy in a while Gabs,”
She whipped her head around to face him and frowned. “He did not ‘shake me’ Jake. Just surprised me is all.”
“Whatever, I’m just saying. He looked like he wanted to take you home with him.”
Gabi gasped. “Oh my God no he didn’t! Jake, that was my boss!”
He shrugged. “Doesn’t change how he was looking at you.”