“Excuse me?” Rory didn’t even bother to glance up. She was not known for her willingness to tolerate interruptions, particularly when under the gun for a deadline. The article before her wasn’t hers, but it was due today. The writer that penned it had been hired barely a month ago and had quit yesterday – after Rory had read the article and called it trite, banal, and insipid.
”I was just admiring your scarf. Very trendy.”
She finally looked up, peering over the wire rims of her glasses to study the intruder.
For a moment, she looked at the hand he presented, and then took it. Her grip was firmer then he expected, and she released after the proper two pumps of any professional handshake.
“Rory Cullers,” she said, giving her pen name.
She wasn’t making this easy for him, but from everything he’d heard, this was typical Rory. A few other staffers had been more than willing to tell him about the woman he was about to share space with.
She’s the office ice princess. Comes to work and goes right home. Don’t expect her to be social unless it’s work-related, and she can get something out of it.
Sorry to hear your desk is next to hers. She’s acerbic, to say the least, and she’ll tear your work to shreds. The problem is that she’s always right. Everything she touches turns to gold. Why the hell is she working here, anyway?
According to Jared, who made up American Faces’ entire advertising department and who was Cade’s “in” to getting the job, Rory was the star writer for editor and publisher Maggie Grant – and was as temperamental as they came. She didn’t tolerate games or suffer fools. She didn’t socialize often, and when she did, she had nothing to add to the perpetual gossip mill. There were a dozen stories of her sharp tongue and right-to-the-point remarks, and Jared had shared several of them since starting last year.
He had, however, failed to mention her appearance. Given Jared’s stories, Cade was sure that she’d be some harried, over-worked woman with unkempt hair and no make-up. Someone with a grudge against the world or something that would make her look like the bitchy female Jared had described. Not this. Hell, she looked like Audrey Hepburn’s little sister. Big blue eyes, dark brown hair, like someone who would actually eat breakfast at Tiffany’s. In jeans. And look like she belonged there. He wondered if she owned pearls.
She was openly studying him now, taking in his dark eyes and the laugh lines the surrounded them. He was six feet easily and was, without a doubt, well defined. To her, he looked like he spent sunny days on the greens and the rainy ones in the gym. He probably wintered at Seven Springs on the slopes.
Looks like another jock that majored in communications because it wouldn’t interfere with sports, she thought. Just what she needed.
“And you’re here because...?” He was taking too long to get to the point, and she had work to do.
“Seems that I’m your new desk-mate,” he said, tearing his eyes away from her and looking at the desks that were pushed head-to-head, suddenly wondering just what this job was going to bring. What the hell had he been thinking, hiring on to write full-time? He could have stayed right where he was, overseeing the advertising for his uncle’s construction business and freelancing. His ego got in the way, he knew. He wanted to prove that he was capable of more than a few flashy ads and occasional how-to articles for websites. Besides, he hated advertising. But now, on his first day, he was already off-balance and questioning his decision – all because of some antagonistic writer who had the reputation of a pit bull.
“Ms. Grant said you had a deadline to meet and thinks I can help you,” he said, smiling and trying to keep his thoughts focused on something other than her looks.
Great,Maggie hired eye candy again. The last thing she needed was a repeat of the previous writer. Let’s hope this one can string sentences together.
“Okay.” She tossed the article she’d been working on and her own notes onto the empty desk. “There’s your predecessor’s draft. It’s birdcage worthy. See if you can salvage it. There’s the angle Mags wants on that yellow sticky note. Make sure they mesh.”
“No problem,” he gave a small nod and went to his desk while she returned her attention to her work.
The chair scraped the floor, then creaked when he sat down. She heard him shuffle papers, open his laptop. She liked the fact that he was actually being serious and not instantly trying to impress her because of her title. John had done that. The fact that his fawning had never worked gave him even more reason to dislike her.
You’re such a bitch, Cullers. John’s words came back to her unwillingly as she tried to go back to writing and ignore the man who now sat across from her. It wasn’t her fault he couldn’t write. Probably hadn’t helped that she also told him his writing sucked. No wonder you don’t have any friends, he’d said as his parting shot. The remark hit home, reminding her of what she already knew. The silence that ensued, the silence that came when no one disagreed, hurt even more than the words.
“It is nice to meet you, Cayden,” she said, not knowing why, except that she liked how he didn’t try to charm her.
“The pleasure is mine.”
Glancing up at him over a row of plants on her desk, she again took in the dark hair and dark eyes, the laugh lines. He probably smiled constantly.
He smiled at her now.
Stop it, she told herself, looking away before she smiled back. Just stop it. She pulled out her MP3 player in and flipped to her hard rock playlist. It would be perfect, she decided, untangling the ear buds. It would keep her mind off… it would keep her focused on her work.
“What say we get a drink and a bite to eat?”
“No,” she said, shrugging into her coat.
“Here, let me,” Cade reached over and untwisted the hood, noticing her flinch slightly. “I’m just going to follow and sit with you when you go next door for dinner, so you may as well say yes,” he grinned at her scowl. “Hey, don’t blame me. Maddie said you were going to mentor me.”
She checked her watch and finished buttoning her coat while she decided. Paul was working late and wouldn’t know whether she was eating alone, as she’d told him, or with a coworker. “You don’t have to listen to my phone conversations, you know.”
“You sit three feet from me.”
Another scowl was her answer. “Fine. Come on. I only have an hour, and I don’t want to have to rush.”
Next door at the Rusty Anchor, she waved to the bartender, told him they’d seat themselves, and ordered her usual – a club sandwich and bottle of beer – all before they sat down. “He’ll order once he looks at the menu,” she said, jerking her thumb towards Cade.
“I take it you’re a regular?”
“Pretty much. This place is cheap, and the food is good. That pretty much fills all requirements for me.”
When the bartender brought her beer, Cade ordered the same. “I like club sandwiches, too,” he said when she raised her eyebrow. “Seriously. By the way, I didn’t mean to get started with you like that today. That must have sounded like a cheap pick-up line. The truth is that I like scarves around a woman’s neck. There’s something very 1950s about it.”
Rory picked up her beer and drank straight from the bottle, saying nothing.
“You don’t say much, do you?”
She considered and drank again before she replied, “When I have something to say, Cayden, I’ll say it.”
“Cade. So I’ve heard.”
“Oh? What’s that? No, let me guess,” she said taking another drink straight from the bottle and deciding to meet it head-on. “They told you that I’m the cranky curmudgeon-in-training who hates everyone. Right? Anyone tell you that I drove the previous guy to quit in just under a month?” In training? An understatement for sure. You’re such a bitch, Cullers. Why couldn’t she let it go? John wasn’t the first to call her that. Hell, she’d laughed when he did.
Original. Very original. Want to find an epithet that might work right now? Sarcasm always worked well from all angles. It shut the kid up, at least. Then he quit.
“You certainly get to the point, don’t you? Yeah, I heard something like that about you. And a few other things,” Cade chuckled, rolling up his shirtsleeves. Rory found herself staring at his bare arms as he performed what was probably a very unconscious act.
She started slightly, pulled back from her thoughts. “I’m sorry. I must be more tired than I thought,” she lied.
He only nodded, his turn to be quiet. She didn’t ask him what else he knew about her, which surprised him. Usually the slightest hint at knowing secrets made women mad with curiosity. This one, though, was clearly not usual. Of course, the women he usually dated wouldn’t be caught dead in a place like this either, with its ancient red vinyl seats and dusty neon bar signs. He also liked the way she drank from the bottle and didn’t bother with the pretense of a glass just because he was new to her.
“I have a habit of being blunt,” she said after a moment. “But I suspect you know that. I heard Jared was your reference to get in.”
“You did your research.”
She shrugged and took another drink.
Their sandwiches arrived, and conversation turned to food. How she liked the bread, how he enjoyed the fact that the restaurant used real mayonnaise rather than spread. He didn’t flirt with her, and she didn’t feel the need to make small talk for the sake of maintaining conversation. Mostly, they were silent while they ate, which Rory found rather pleasant. He didn’t talk her ear off about work. Had Maggie not pulled her aside that afternoon and made it clear that Rory was not going to duplicate the apparently infamous scene where she told John he was useless, she never would have consented to Cade’s joining her and simply gone home to leftovers. You two will have a professional, working relationship, Cullers. No excuses. No discussion. If you have a problem with him, you talk to me. You do not air it in public the way you did with that last one. Do I make myself clear?
“So tell me about your writing,” Cade said when he finished his sandwich. “What else do you write besides magazine articles?”
“Nothing, really. This is more than enough for me.”
He wasn’t buying it, particularly since she couldn’t meet his eyes as she fed him the line. “You can’t tell me that writing is just a hobby for you. You aren’t some aspiring CEO, and you’d likely stop breathing if you had to stop writing. You probably have a novel tucked away that you’re working on in your spare time.”
She shrugged and finished her beer. “I don’t have much time to write for myself.”
“Humor me,” he said, settling back in his seat.
“No. What about you? Why’d you come to work for Mags?”
Grinning at the way she didn’t hesitate to deny him, he complied. “I needed a change and the opportunity was there. Not particularly dramatic, I know. Jared did tell me about John’s rather abrupt departure.”
“You really called him out in front of everyone?”
Another shrug. “Weren’t we talking about you?”
“I hope this isn’t your usual interviewing technique. Shrugging and dodging questions can’t be very effective.”
For a moment, she just looked at him, then gave in and smiled. He smiled back. “What else do you want to know about me?”
“Tell me about your novel,” she said, turning his words on him. “The one you have tucked away and are working on in your spare time.”
Cade fulfilled her request and briefly told his story, one about a man seeking revenge for his wife’s murder. When he finished, she shook her head. “I have no sympathy for Lee. He needs to get on with his life and find someone who won’t take him for granted. It’s not like he loved her, anyway.” When Cade argued that Lee loved his wife, Rory gave a short laugh. “Forget it. Even Lee’s dog hates her. There’s no reason for Lee to seek vengeance for a woman no one liked. She sounds like a manipulative, nasty witch, and it sounds like the mobster did him a favor by killing her. She’s vain, she’s insecure, and she’s probably having an affair with the mailman.”
At that, Cade laughed, telling Rory that she was impressively passionate. Her mind still on the character, Rory said the first thing that came to her mind: “She’s frigid. You said so yourself.”
He laughed harder. “Not her, you! About writing.”
“Has to come out somewhere.” Cade looked at her, but she changed the subject and didn’t give him a chance to pursue her words. “Your rewrite of John’s article wasn’t too bad. Just a little rough, but mainly because you need to get used to the magazine’s voice.”
She tried, but couldn’t hear the sarcasm. He was sincere, and it shook her. Since when were men sincere? You get accustomed to certain things, Rory thought as she finished her fries. Those six words had launched her blog, taking it from a vain little hobby to one with readers who numbered in the thousands. She wondered if he knew she was Primer’s author, Paxton Robel. Few did. Certainly not Paul.
“I imagine that you need to get home.”
“I suppose,” Rory replied, getting her wallet out. She didn’t want to leave. She wanted to keep talking to him.
“Husband waiting for you?”
“Wife waiting for you?”
“Nope. No girlfriend either. Just Kier, the dog. Put your money away. My treat this time.” He cut Rory’s argument short with a wave of his hand.
“No,” she said, tossing her twenty on the table.
“You like that word, don’t you? I won’t argue. We’ll duke it out next time,” he picked up the twenty and walked to the bar before she could answer.
Next time? Well, let him dream, she decided. Not like this could become a habit. He might not have anyone to go home to, but she did. It was a shame really, she decided, studying Cade as he paid for their meals over at the bar. If he was always this pleasant, they could be friends. She wondered if he really did want to read her work. For a moment, she imagined them working together on a manuscript, no doubt arguing over a character now and again, but in the end… her cell phone rang.
“Where are you?”
So much for the writing fantasy.
“I’m at the Rusty Anchor. Remember? I told you I was stopping since you were working late.” She held a finger up to her lips as Cade walked back, indicating for him to be quiet. He sat down quietly, sliding her change towards her and making no attempt to pretend that he wasn’t listening to her conversation. “Alone. Yes. Fine. I’m leaving now. Yes. Fine. Bye.” She tucked her phone away and smiled at Cade apologetically. “Sorry about that.”
“No problem, Rory.”
She liked the way he said her name. And he’s not married. The unexpected thought shocked her a bit, and she decided not to drink this early in the evening again.
“Can I drive you home?”
She was watching him shrug into his trench coat, and it took a moment to register that he’d said something. “I’ve got a car,” she said at last, digging in her purse for the keys and trying to stop blushing. Yeah, she needed to cut the beer out completely.
“You’ve had a bit to drink. Your face is flushed.”
“No it’s not. Besides, I had one. You had two.”
“Touché, and yes it is.”
“I’ll see you tomorrow.” With what she hoped was a friendly smile, Rory turned away and hurried to her vehicle in the lot across the street – feeling a bit like Cinderella, but hoping that he wouldn’t give chase.
Don’t mess this up, pal, Cade warned himself, watching her leave.