I wonder if anyone is having sex in it, Sophie thought when she found out that the elevator was not working. Her friend Alice had told her several stories about the exploits of some employees of the marketing agency on the fourteenth floor.
She snorted. That’s probably it.
Taking a long breath, she braved the many flights of stairs to the ground floor.
Can you say a staircase is heavy? That’s what it felt like for Sophie and, as a result, her legs were wobblier when she arrived at the lobby than they usually were after an hour of rigorous workout. Or perhaps it was the fact that she hadn’t visited the gym in months.
She stopped to catch her breath and was startled a few seconds later when the doors she’d just closed behind her were forcefully pushed out and she was knocked down.
Hitting the marble floor with a “humpf”, she heard the tearing of fabric and a crack. The pain on her behind barely made itself known before a smooth, sexy masculine voice let her know her humiliation was not her own to keep.
“Are you alright?”
There was an extended hand offering help, which Sophie took without a second thought. Standing on her one and a half feet – the crack had been one of her heels breaking off, she noticed morosely – she raised her eyes.
And kept raising them past an alluringly fit chest clad in Armani, a sexy slender neck and an even sexier jaw, with just a hint of stubble, before finally finding a pair of green orbs looking down at her. His hair was dark and unkempt and, had he come out of the elevator, Sophie would have bet the remains of her respectability that he’d been the one having kinky sex in it. As it was, he had come out of the stairs and stood there, looking at her expectantly.
If he wanted to go at it sometime, Sophie would be happy to oblige.
She still held his hand – his ringless hand, she noted – for balance while she pretended to be realigning her clothes when, in fact, she was looking for any tear that might cause further embarrassment. Finding none, she forced herself to speak.
“I–” she mumbled, and stopped. That’s all you can come up with, brain?
“I’m sorry,” he said, rubbing the back of his neck with his free hand. “I should’ve been more careful. Are you hurt?”
“I– I’m dandy.”
Dandy? Dandy? What does that even mean?
One of the corners of his mouth – his deliciously luscious mouth – turned up and he cocked his head.
Dear Aphrodite, help me. He has dimples!
Sophie disentangled her hand from his and tried to move away from that bubble of sexiness that was messing with her otherwise sharp tongue.
“I mean, I’m okay. Thank you. I have to, eh, go.”
She limped away through the glass door without looking back. Had she given herself the trouble, she would have seen that his head remained slightly tilted to the right and a raised eyebrow highlighted an expression of interest.
The smirk on his lips disappeared as soon as he felt a stirring in his pants, and he had to force himself to wait a few moments before following the driad beauty through the exit door.
It wouldn’t do to be confused with a sex offender.
Once outside, Sophie looked around the artificially-lit street to ascertain she was alone before she could scream in frustration. No suck luck. The streets of Manhattan were rarely devoid of a crowd.
She’d just been hit by a dazzling god; she made a fool of herself in the process, too. Unlike any man-god she’d known, however, he stopped and offered help, meaning she wasn’t completely invisible. She had to give him points for that. On the other hand, being invisible would have been a more preferable option. Sometimes, not being par to New York’s beauty standard also meant privacy and, in such cases as this, some dignity.
Dignity she would not mind losing completely if she had a chance to fall into bed with the man-god.
As a cool gust of air hit her, Sophie was plucked out of her dream world and tossed into reality. Leaving her lusty thoughts behind, she focused on her immediate problem.
What to do? What to do?
Limp about to the nearest subway station? No, one misstep and she could get a serious injury. Remove her other shoe and risk stepping on some gruesome unidentified substance discarded by a churlish somebody? Not that either. With luck such as she was having, that was a certainty. Take a taxi? No, a cab was out of the question. She couldn’t afford such luxury at the moment. Merlin only knew when she would be able to again.
Well, there’s nothing for it, then.
Taking her ruined shoes off and squeezing them into her ordinary non-designer purse, she set out at a quick pace. The noise coming from Jacob’s was louder than the ongoing traffic and caught her attention. A glimpse of her workmates inside told her they wouldn’t be coming in for overtime the following day.
Sophie was about to stagger on when a sleek town car slowed to a stop beside her. Being suspicious of everything, she prepared herself to dive into Jared’s at the smallest hint of danger. Her cautiousness must have been obvious for she heard a chuckle followed by what was clearly meant to be a joke.
“He’s got orders to grab redheads only, but Jim knows I have a thing for brunettes.”
The voice did not come from the car but from the direction of the building she had just left. It was not a scary voice either, even though it shook her to the core. Sophie turned around slowly and there was the man-god once again in front of her.
Flashing him a forced weak smile, she turned to go on her way. The car door opened and closed behind her.
On any ordinary day, that would be the end of it and Sophie would bear her journey home trying to laugh at the events of the last minutes. There was no reason to feel humiliated, after all. It was unlikely she’d ever see those sparkling green eyes again.
Whatever deity was on duty that Friday had a wicked sense of humor, though, and it was at her expense. She’d taken less than five steps when something slippery placed itself strategically under her right foot and she lost her balance. And down to the ground she went for the second time in ten minutes.
Hadn’t she predicted this?
Sophie closed her eyes and wished Earth would open up a chasm and swallow her.
She heard the sound of a car door being reopened, followed by hurried steps and silence. She counted to ten, then twenty. Still silence. Maybe she was alone, after all.
Slowly, she opened her eyes. Her vision seemed blurred at first, but soon she recognized there was a face too close to her own to be seen clearly.
“Good thing you haven’t passed out,” he said and moved back a little.
Sophie just groaned. Let’s not talk about adding insult and all that jazz.
He chuckled before adding, “It’s one of those days, isn’t it?”
What was it with him and his chuckles?
Rather than feeling angry or even more humiliated, Sophie saw the humor in the situation and let out a soft peal of laughter.
“Yes, you could say that,” she answered before trying to get up. She felt one of his hands on her elbow, the other soon meeting her hips, and she nearly fell down again. Those were large, sexy hands. How had she not noticed them before? “Thank you,” she muttered when she was sure her balance wouldn’t fail her again.
“Are you hurt? May I offer you a ride to the hospital?”
“I’m alright. Pretty embarrassed but unhurt.”
“A ride home, then?” he insisted.
Of course, she had to refuse, didn’t she? Sophie was in such a conundrum, however, that riding the subway home was as dangerous as accepting a handsome stranger’s help, right? Besides, there was the driver. And neither of them were sending out serial-killer vibes, as some people she had met in the Big Apple did.
Refusing rides and candies from strangers was one of the first things she learned in life. There was also her number one rule since last winter: never trust a handsome face. Ever. And there she was, aware that she might regret it bitterly later, but about to say ‘No, thank you’, when someone coming out of Jacob’s bumped into her, sending her flying into the man-god’s arms.
That seemed to be the drop that caused her self-contained emotions to overflow and Sophie turned to berate the culprit only to come face to face with her bosses. And they were being quite demonstrative of their affections, given the amount of alcohol likely coursing through their veins.
Sophie was shocked. Wheeler and Staton’s relationship was no secret. For the short time she had been working for them, she had heard rumors galore, some painting them in a good light, others not, but they had one thing in common: the bosses were portrayed as nothing short of circumspect and reserved. She soon realized that her surprise was dim in comparison to the astonished man-god standing so close behind her that she could feel his chest moving with every breath he took.
She looked again – who could resist? He was frowning now, alright, but it was a strange kind of frown, as though he was fighting to keep a serious face instead of bursting out laughing, which he did as soon as he closed the car door behind them.
Sophie blinked, then she blinked again. How was she inside the car with the man? She didn’t recall moving at all. She was about to panic – was it that easy to be kidnapped? – when she looked up and met the driver’s kind eyes in the rearview mirror. They silently told her she would be fine. He nodded a sympathetic greeting and started the engine.
The fact that she had no words to drill an explanation out of the stranger was irrelevant because she wouldn’t be heard anyway. The man-god beside her only stopped laughing about two blocks later. Wiping the tears from his face, he looked at her.
“You must excuse me,” he said. “I’d never seen those two in such a state before. I should’ve taken a picture, or shot a video. It would make for good teasing material.”
She was about to reprimand him for manhandling her when her brain registered what he had just said.
“Do you know them?” she asked.
“Yeah,” he still laughed a little. “Those were my uncle and his husband of,” he looked at his watch, “four hours.”
“Mr. Wheeler and Mr. Staton eloped?”
“Ah, I see you know them, too.”
“I work for them,” she blurted without thinking and then something terrifying crossed her mind. “Which one is your uncle?”
But Sophie had already sunk her face into her hands and suppressed a scream. Forget the humiliation of falling down in front of a man-god twice. Having to meet the man again, as her future boss nonetheless, was raising that humiliation to the nth power. And let’s not forget that she lusted after him for a while there, maybe even drooled a little bit.
“I’m Matt, by the way,” he continued as if Sophie wasn’t affected by his previous words. It was easier to pretend she wasn’t. Dealing with a woman’s emotions, or whatever triggered them, was as mysterious to him as it was for any other normal male.
That didn’t prevent him from swallowing a self-satisfied smile. She worked at Wheeler & Staton. That was a lucky break since it meant he wouldn’t have to move heaven and earth to see her again.
Back to the problem at hand, however, he had a distinct feeling he was the cause of her distress, so Matthew grabbed onto something that could relax her a little.
“Then you probably heard the rumors that my uncle’s moving to Denver and the evil tales concocted about the useless nephew? I mean, you got the memo about Tom and Joe leaving for a while to take care of the new branch, right?”
Her only response was a groan, which Matthew ignored at first. But as he continued to tell her about his uncle’s impromptu wedding forcing him to start at the office two weeks sooner than expected, and she still didn’t respond, he felt he had to take a dive into the unknown or continue to present himself as an insensitive jerk.
“Are you sure you’re OK? Did you get hurt when you fell that second time?” She still didn’t answer, so he touched her shoulder. She flinched and moved away.
That can’t be good.
“Jim, take us to a hospital, please.”
That prompted her to look up, eyes bulged as though he had suggested something obscene. He noticed that behind that scared look, those beautiful eyes were soulful but lacked sparkle. It tugged at his heartstrings.
“No, please. Just take me home.”
She gave her address to the driver and sank back into the comfort of the leather seat, although her gaze remained focused on her fidgeting hands.
Matthew took the opportunity to study her. She was pretty in that girl-next-door way, exuding innocence and, more predominately, vulnerability. He felt a primitive urge to protect her from the horrors life could throw on her path when she least expected it. Amazing how certain instincts overcame reason so easily.
He shook his head. Focus, man.
What was wrong with him? He didn’t even know the woman’s name so it was kind of presumptions to assume she couldn’t take care of herself. Or was it because he had a weakness for that damsel-in-distress scenario? Hadn’t he learned anything from Fabienne?
New York wasn’t L.A., though. Sure, there were people who would be out to get you anywhere. Contrary to the City of Plastic Angels, viciousness and deceit came with the competitive business territory in the Big Apple. It was not just a hobby. Or so he hoped.
Then there was that turbulence in his pants. It wasn’t right to feel that way when the woman had been sprawled on the floor for reasons that did not encompass any horizontal dance.
Convincing himself he was looking for signs of injury, he let his eyes roam over her body slowly. Although he couldn’t discern any bruises at first, he looked again, more thoroughly. When he finally studied her face, he noticed she wore an expression of pain. His lower self deflated quickly.
“Maybe we should go to a hospital after all,” he stated firmly. “You don’t look well.”
“It’s just the mortification of it all,” she murmured, her eyes remained cast down. “I’m fine. Truly.”
Matthew’s relief was followed by an urge to chuckle. Somehow, her tone of voice reminded him of an old lady who had lived a couple of blocks down from his childhood home. All it was lacking was a “dearie” and a pat on his head.
The driver made a left turn into a well-illuminated but nearly empty street. Buildings no higher than five or six floors lined both sides. Most of them hosted businesses, some of which Matthew deduced to be family-owned. The driver stopped in front of a flower shop.
She moved to get out of the car and Matthew hurried to assist her, just in case.
“There’s no reason to feel embarrassed, you know,” he said in an attempt to assuage her feelings, something his life so far taught him he sucked at. “Whoever claims they never had a bad day is bold-facedly lying.”
“It’s very kind of you to say that, Mr. Wheeler,” she sounded resigned. She rummaged in her bag for her keys and turned to an inconspicuous green door by the shop’s entrance. “Thank you very much for the ride.”
Matthew didn’t even notice she addressed him by his uncle’s name. He was struggling with his confused brain, which was begging him to do something so that this reprieve with her wouldn’t end just yet.
“Good night,” she said.
And then she was gone too soon for him to come up with something to delay the inevitable farewell. He stood there a minute longer, staring at the closed paneled door and berating his dull-witted parting response. Or lack thereof.
“Let’s go home, Jim,” he told his uncle’s driver after getting back into the car. “But add this place to your mental address book, please.”
That was just a precaution. She said she worked for his uncle, which was great because he could easily find her in the office on Monday.
Just to check on her well-being, he told himself.
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