Chapter 1 ~ The Cocky
I looked up to see his tall, almost lanky form standing in the doorway of my office, an envelope in his hand. I smiled at him and he took that as an invitation to enter.
"Another check?" I asked, alluding to that which he held in his hand.
"Yep. See? I only bring you money—never work."
"And that is why I love you." I smiled larger as he handed me the envelope.
Never mind that the checks that erroneously ended up in his department should be given to Janice, our Cash Application Specialist. He knew this. At the very least he knew the Director of the department didn't post payments, so why would he bring these things to me?
I knew very well why. And he knew that I knew.
He smirked and pulled one of the chairs away from the small conference table in my office, crossing an ankle over his knee as he sat down. He crossed his hands behind his head as he leaned back into them.
"Comfortable?" I asked, grinning. As he was apparently planning to stay for a bit, I turned my chair to face his, crossing my own legs. I was fully aware that, by my doing so, he was being treated to an eyeful of quite a bit of my thigh.
"How's your day going?"
"James, can I help you with something?" I enjoyed our little flirtatious games and James was fun to look at, but I had work to do.
He chuckled and looked at me with a definite glint in his eye. "Oh, there are many things you can help me with, Bella."
"While I have heard that you need help in those areas, James, I don't think I'm the woman for the job. But is there something business-related with which you need my assistance?"
He narrowed his eyes as he considered me across the table. "Have a drink with me, after work."
"A drink?" We both knew it wasn't a drink he wanted to have with me.
"For starters," he said.
I considered it, and not for the first time. Although he was significantly younger than I, James was quite good looking and undeniably sexy ... in a decidedly dirty way. And I had a hanker on for dirty lately. He'd been blatantly flirting with me since he started at the company, only just that past May—not even three months prior. The day he started as Con-Vert’s new Cost Accountant, he was introduced to the department heads he would be working most closely with. Upon meeting me, his eyes sparkled and he lewdly looked me up and down as I shook his hand.
"Bella," he'd said. "What a fitting name."
When he left my office, I wasn't sure if I wanted a shower or to shower with him. I immediately began to question my taste.
I once saw him in shorts and without a shirt on, during a company picnic in June. Some of the guys had decided on a spur-of-the-moment basketball game and my friend Angela and I sat on the adjacent grass to watch them play. Angela had to watch in show of support for her boyfriend, Ben. I just wanted to watch so I could view all the testosterone on parade.
James was not especially muscular, but he was long and lean and well built, with abs that practically begged me to run my tongue over them. He had muscular thighs and my mind reeled at the thought of the strength they held within them.
It may have been my imagination, but it seemed he was showing off a bit for me while he played. He even dunked a couple of times, once hanging on the rim like he was Shaquille O'Neal in his prime.
Angela and I openly mocked him for being such a ham, but secretly I watched with an inner-drool as the muscles of his chest rippled while he swung. He noticed me watching, too. As he ran by on his way to the other end of the court, he winked at me. Angela laughed at his brazen display and I softly chuckled along with her, even while I blushed under my sunglasses.
There was something about The Cocky that pulled me in, almost every time.
Swimming in the company pool was tricky business, though. I didn't exactly have a policy against it, but I knew it was not a very good idea. The potential to damage my reputation and even worse weighed heavily on my mind. If I decided to socialize with a man I worked with, I had better have a damn good reason. Otherwise, it was not worth playing in the mine field.
While James and I didn't exactly work in the same department, Accounting and Credit were related to one another and we did work with each other regularly, on several projects. We would be staring at each other across conference tables often. Plus, I didn't really know James well enough to know if I could trust him. The potential for catastrophe didn't seem worth the temporary thrill that a fling with him would bring me.
And it would only be a fling and it would most definitely be temporary. Because while James was hot as hell and I was sure we could do incredibly dirty and wonderful things to one another if given the chance, that was all I wanted from him. Even setting aside our age difference, James was not relationship material. There was just something about him that was a bit ... off. I couldn’t put my finger on it, but it often left me slightly unsettled in his presence.
Much of this flitted through my mind while I bit the end of my pen in thought. I watched as James' eyes darted between the pen at my mouth and my eyes, waiting for me to give him an answer. I adopted a half-smile and stretched out the moment of anticipation, making him wait and loving his obvious annoyance at having to do so.
Finally, his eyes stayed at mine and he leaned forward. "Bella…" His voice was teasing. "You and I both know you want this. And I won't keep asking forever."
And that was when The Cocky crossed some invisible and perhaps even subconscious line. There was something about the implied "now or never" of his statement that put me off. I made my decision.
"Hmm…" I pulled the pen away from my lips and turned my chair back toward my desk, looking down at some papers I had left there when he came in. "I can't James. Sorry if I missed my opportunity."
From the corner of my eye, I saw him rise from his chair and move toward me. I felt his fingers at my chin, lifting my face so that I was looking in his eyes. His close proximity made me nervous and my heart began to race.
His voice was breathy. "You should be sorry, beautiful Bella. Because what I have planned would make you scream my name and never want to leave my side."
I managed to chuckle as I pulled my face out of his hand, happy to have the opportunity to look away from his eyes and catch my breath. I hoped my demeanor remained confident and casual and did not betray my discomfort.
"Well, my not leaving your side would make things at work a tad inconvenient, wouldn't it?"
He straightened and put his hands in his pockets as he turned and headed slowly toward the door. When he reached it, instead of leaving my office, he closed the door and turned back toward me. I looked up from my desk.
"Why?" That was all he asked. When met with my blank expression in reply, he expanded. "Why do you always say no when I know you want to say yes?"
I set my pen down and looked at him in mock casualness. "You know I am much older than you, right?"
A shrug was his only reply and I continued.
"Well, besides … I don't shit where I eat, James."
It wasn't that I was necessarily averse to having a fling with someone ten years younger than I. Not at all. In actuality, lots of hot monkey sex with someone who had the stamina and the rebound abilities of … well, of a twenty-eight year old, held a significant amount of attraction for me. Really, the age difference was just a convenient excuse for not sleeping with James.
I was not yet officially divorced, although Jacob Black and I had been separated since I found him in a stereotypically compromising position with one of his graduate students three years ago—one who was stereotypically much younger than I. If I gauged her probable age correctly, she was about thirteen years younger than I, which would make her twenty-three years younger than Jake. I had met her once before. She attended a cocktail party we threw at our house for some of his select students and the grad students he advised. I had thought her sweet, if a little vapid, and cute.
I didn't find her so cute when I found her sitting on top of my husband wearing no clothes. In my bed.
The irony of losing my husband to one of his students was not lost on me, considering that's the same way we had met, some fifteen years prior. Of course, the situation had been slightly different, as he'd not been married when I met him, but really, that was just a technicality. When I thought about it, which I did frequently in the months that followed my discovery of their writhing and sweaty bodies, nothing about the situation surprised me at all. Jake's students—male and female—thought of him as a literary god. Even with his now rapidly graying hair, he was quite attractive and did not fit the stereotype of the dorky professor of American Literature. Rather, he was extremely tall and well-built. He was charming, intelligent, insightful and thoughtful—almost soulful. There was a charisma about him that was perfectly suited to the lecture hall.
And to twenty-something American Literature students.
There was no real reason for the delay in our actual divorce. We never talked about it. In fact, we never talked at all. He just never filed and I never got around to it, either. That is, until the cute but vapid girl ended up with, stereotypically, a bun in the oven.
All of which made me laugh for months. I could be at work, sitting in a boring meeting; in the grocery store picking out grapefruit; stuck in traffic; sitting in my dentist's office. I could be anywhere and all of a sudden, I would start to giggle. Because the prospect of Jacob Black as Daddy was the funniest thing ever to have happened in the history of the universe.
I knew he must be in misery, which made me infinitely happy. Jake hated kids like I hated brussel sprouts—he thought they were slimy and gross and smelled awful. Whenever we went out to dinner, he would become incredibly irate if we were seated next to children—especially babies. In Jake's eyes, parents who went to public places with crying babies were guilty of the worst of crimes. When approached by the children of our friends, he was incredibly uncomfortable and looked for the quickest getaway humanly possible.
Jake's hatred of children was actually one of the things that drew me to him, initially. And now here he was, almost fifty and a father for the first time. Father to a baby girl, at that.
When our marriage met its necessary end, I kept the house and I kept our timeshare in Puerta Vallarta. I also got a new job—a step up for me and a change that meant a pay raise of twenty grand a year.
It's spelled J-U-S-T-I-C-E.
So now, I had been Director of Credit at Con-Vert for just under three years. It wasn't an exciting or a glamorous job, but I was good at it and I liked feeling I was good at my job. I was one of only two females at the Directors Meeting each Monday morning and I liked knowing I could go toe-to-toe with any of the fourteen men in the room and win my battle almost every time, but that I was also the first on everyone's list to work on special projects, teams and subcommittees. I had the feeling most of them thought of me as kind of an Ice Queen, but I also knew without a doubt that they all respected me as the smart woman and the hard worker that I was and that quite a few were intimidated by me. I loved it.
Plus, I got four weeks' paid vacation every year and that's what I really worked for. Since leaving Jacob, I had been to Italy, France, Hawaii, Alaska, Santa Fe, New York, Washington, DC and New Orleans, along with occasional weekend getaways within California.
Of course, while I had a blast on all of my trips and wouldn't change a bit about any of them, they were all taken with girlfriends, with a tour group or on my own. Because, while the rest of my life was working out extremely well, my love life was an entirely different matter.
It's not that I didn't date. I had dated several people in the past three years, in fact, just nobody who was worth forgoing a good book and a long, hot shower with my removable shower head. I found that if a man was single at my age, there was most likely a very good reason. The ones I liked were no good in bed. The ones who were good in bed were assholes or boring or, in one miraculous case, both.
Let's not even discuss the horrors of dealing with another woman's kids. At my age, it was rather difficult to avoid that particularly buzz-killing speed bump.
Lately, I hadn't even been trying. After an especially frustrating one night stand a few months back, after which I ended up getting myself off in the stranger's bathroom because he couldn't be bothered to help me out with the project himself, I just decided to stop the madness and hold out until I found somebody I really … what? Cared about? Had great chemistry with? Well, one of those two. I'd figure it out if and when I was confronted with either of those situations.
James had been my first real temptation since and, subsequently, my first decision along those lines. And I had just apparently decided that his particular brand of cocky wasn't worth the potential risk to my career.
Having denied James, I met Alice and Rosalie for drinks instead. I'd had a late meeting with our CFO and it ran long (as all meetings with our CFO tended to do), so they were already sitting at a table when I arrived at Newt's Bar & Serious 'Que, not exactly waiting for me. They had drinks in front of them that already needed refilling.
"Bella, Bella, Bella," Alice spoke as I dropped my purse into an empty chair and pulled another one out so I could sit in it. "How kind of you to join us."
"Believe me," I said. "If I could have gotten here any sooner, I would have. Man, that guy is a bag of wind."
"Doesn't he know it has officially been the weekend for," Rosalie looked at her watch, "ninety minutes? You are off the clock, girl."
"I'm never off the clock, Rose." I sighed as I sunk into my chair. "The problem is the guy understands nothing about credit, so I have to explain everything to him over and over, ad nauseam." I looked up at my friends. They wore politely interested expressions on their faces, but I knew I had broken the unspoken rule of our get-togethers: no whining about work. I changed the subject. "Do we have a waitress close by or shall I go to the bar?"
"We have a waitress, somewhere," Alice said.
I looked around, trying to spot our server. While scanning the room, my eyes stuttered and finally stopped when I saw the rather fine shapes of two men at the bar, one of whom looked familiar.
Rose chuckled, next to me. "Oh, we already saw them," she said.
"Oh, yes.” Alice giggled. “The Hotness."
I shook my head, as if coming out of a daze. "No, you don't get it. I mean, yes there is definite hotness, but I know one of those guys."
Alice gasped. "What? Which one?"
I narrowed my eyes as I tried to place him. "Well … at least I think I do. The one with the lighter hair."
Alice gasped again, her tiny body dancing in her seat. "Really?"
Rose chuckled. "Oh my God, Bella. Alice has been sitting here in a puddle since Mr. Kissable walked in."
I looked at my friends. "Mr. Kissable?"
Alice raised her chin, defiantly. "When you see his lips, you shall know whereof I speak."
"Mr. Kissable" looked to be about six foot tall, with square shoulders and sandy-colored, slightly curly hair that hung a bit long and slightly in his face. His back was to us, but when he would turn in conversation with the man to his right, I could glimpse his face. And what a lovely face it was, too, with a fine, chiseled jaw and high cheekbones. He was almost pretty, like an ancient Roman sculpture. He wore a vest, of all things, over a plain, white T-shirt and blue jeans. He had a leather necklace of some sort hanging down his chest and another leather strap wrapped around one of his wrists.
His companion had his back to us. He had shorter, coppery-brown hair that stuck up in numerous directions, as if he'd just rolled out of bed. He was slightly taller than Mr. Kissable, and his shoulders a tad narrower. He, too, wore blue jeans, topped with a plaid shirt, which hung open. I assumed he must have another T-shirt on underneath. And since it was essentially all I could judge of the man from such an angle, I noticed he had a particularly edible behind.
"Oh!" It suddenly occurred to me where I knew the guy from. "You guys, Mr. Kissable works with me!"
Alice gasped yet again and Rose's flat hand fell on top the table, making a loud thwack and causing the heads at several tables around us to turn our way. I gave her an annoyed look, although she was grinning, ear-to-ear.
"Well," I continued. "Not with me, with me, but he works at my company. He's in Marketing, I think. He might be our Graphic Designer."
When I heard another gasp, I seriously started to wonder if Alice was developing a respiratory problem.
"A Graphic Designer?" She fanned herself with her hand. "That is so hot."
Rose finished off the drink in front of her. "He draws pictures on his computer all day. This is hot?"
Alice continued to fan her face. "It is to me," she said. And it would be. Alice was all about what was aesthetically pleasing and served up with an artistic flair. In her work as an interior designer and in all things that surrounded her, she looked for and even craved beauty, but also artistic expression. She sought out what was unique—in her clothes,in her car, in the way she designed both her home and that of others.
The waitress came by then and I ordered what I considered to be God's nectar: "Grey Goose vodka on the rocks. With a straw. If you don't have Grey Goose, I'll take Belvedere."
Alice and Rose were both drinking one of Mike Newton's latest concoctions. Their drinks were light yellow in color and quite potent in taste, as I discovered when Rose insisted I try hers. The owner of the fine establishment, Mike Newton, had a special cocktail he created each week. This one was called "Les Deux Piss." Why anyone would choose to drink something with the word "piss" in its name was a mystery to me.
"Well," Rose rubbed her hands together. "We need to get that man's fine ass over here and on Alice's lap before she collapses from hyperventilation."
Alice looked down her nose at Rosalie. "I think there are a sufficient number of empty chairs in this room."
Rose waived a hand in the air. "Whatever. Bella, just go get him over here."
Sure, easy for her to say. Rose had no problem whatsoever simply walking up to strange men she'd never met. She knew what their reaction would be, after all.
"I can't just 'go get him over here'! I don't even know the guy."
She peered at me. "You just said he works with you."
"Well, yeah—he works for my company. So do about eight hundred other people, Rose. I'm sure he has no idea who I am."
"Um … I think you may be wrong about that..." Alice’s eyes widened and, as I looked at her, her voice dropped to a whisper. "They're coming over here." She squeaked a little at the end of that sentence.
Sometimes Alice's actions betrayed her young age. I think you stop squeaking in the face of cute boys after age thirty.
"Excuse me." I heard a deep voice speaking with a slight Southern drawl. "You work at Con-Vert, right? You run the credit department?"
I turned in my seat and looked up at him with a smile. At least, that was my intention. Instead, I looked up into the face of his friend and met the most beautiful green eyes I had ever seen, smiling down at me. My mouth opened as if to speak, but my words caught in my throat as my head spun and my vision narrowed, my periphery cloudy. I could feel my chest rise and fall with the newfound need to breathe and breathe rapidly.
Perhaps Alice wasn't the only one who needed to grow up a little.
Realizing that my mouth was about to catch flies, I cleared my throat and began to speak. "Um—yes, I-"
Thankfully, the waitress interrupted my incoherency, as she set our drinks in front of us.
"Well, damn." Green Eyes spoke—a mysterious and sensual sound.
Hairs stood up on the back of my neck as I looked down at my drink, internally reminding myself what it was and what I was supposed to do with it and willing myself not to blush.
"We were going to offer to buy you all a drink,” he said
"Well, no need, as you can see." Rosalie saved me from my ineptitude. "But would you gentlemen care to pull up a chair?"
I was finally able to look at Mr. Kissable as he pulled up a chair next to Alice, to my right. His friend with the green eyes sat at my other side, settling between Rose and me. I figured as much. Guys were always crossing rooms to sit next to Rosalie. I was acutely aware of the heat from his body, next to mine. His arm was almost close enough to brush against me.
I smiled in the direction of Mr. Kissable, trying to adeptly recover from my temporary insanity. "Hi. And yes, we do work together and I do run the credit department. I'm Bella Swan." I held my hand out to him, and he took it in a handshake, smiling back at me.
All of a sudden, the nickname he had been given prior to my arrival made perfect sense. His lips were full and perfectly formed. They looked incredibly soft and the first thing that came to mind upon looking at them was the urge to suck them in between mine.
"Nice to meet you, officially. I'm Jasper Whitlock."
"Graphic Designer, yes?"
"Yes." His friendly smile was large as he answered my question. He pulled his hand from mine and motioned toward Green Eyes. "This is Edward Masen. He's starting at Con-Vert on Monday, so it’s good we all ran into each other."
I assumed I would have to look his way if I planned on being even remotely polite. I tried to be subtle about taking a deep breath before I did so and I plastered a meek smile on my now-hot face as I looked again into those deadly green eyes. "On Monday?"
Edward smiled and began to speak, reaching out his hand to shake mine. At the touch of our hands, I felt it. A little burst of electricity passed between us. At the spark, his eyebrows flew up and he pulled his hand away.
"Well, hey!" he said, startled.
I looked down at my hand. "Wow. Must be my electric personality."
And Rose cleared her throat, clearly agitated.
"Oh! Gosh, I'm so rude." I looked back to Jasper. "These are my friends, Rosalie and Alice."
Jasper shook Rosalie's hand first and then turned to Alice. When he did, there was a slight change to his smile. It was almost imperceptible, but I saw it. What he said to her sounded ordinary — "Hello. Jasper Whitlock. It's a pleasure to meet you." — the way he said it, however, was anything but.
Alice blushed when she shook his hand and said her name with a soft smile. This only seemed to make him smile more.
Damn. This was going to be fun.
I turned my head, expecting a similar lust-fest to be occurring on the other side of the table.
Rosalie Hale was, in a nut shell, the most beautiful woman I had ever seen in person. Five years younger than I and wrinkle-free, she had long, blonde hair that flowed down her back in soft, thick curls. Her lips were red and full. Her body was probably what guys noticed first and most often, though. She stood at five feet ten inches in her bare feet and had a form voluptuous enough to rival Marilyn's. And she was not at all shy about flaunting the gifts that good genes had given her and using them to her full advantage.
It was a common occurrence for guys to hit on my beautiful friend. Seeing as Edward was her male equivalent as far as appearances went, I also assumed she would be receptive to his inevitable advances.
When I looked over at them, though, there was no such attraction vibing through their section of the table. Rose was taking nibbles from a pile of peanuts she had put into her hand, and looking around the room as if somewhat bored. Edward…
Edward was looking at me.
"Um…" I could feel the blood rushing to my face at his unexpected gaze. I swallowed and tried to look him in the eye. One glance at the heat of that green, however, and I knew I couldn't do it. My gaze settled somewhere on the bridge of his nose.
"So what will you be doing for Con-Vert?" I finally asked. "Will you be in Marketing, as well?"
He smiled and leaned back in his seat a bit, shaking his head. He absentmindedly drew lines in the condensation on his beer glass with his fingers. I saw that they were long and graceful. A pianist's fingers.
"Nah, Jasper and I knew each other in college. I'm your new Director of Sales." He took a drink of his beer and I watched as his tongue peeked out to catch the bit of foam that remained on his upper lip.
What the hell was wrong with me? You'd think I'd never met an attractive man before. Plus, I wasn't sure how old Jasper was, but there was no way he was over thirty. Edward's age was harder to peg, but if they went to school together, that meant he was eight to ten years younger than I. He had a youthful face and no wrinkles or any other telltale signs of age, but he had a hard line, a maturity to his face not usually found in someone so young. No matter his appearance, however, if he went to college with Jasper, he was still essentially a kid. An extremely handsome and sexy kid, but a kid nonetheless.
And there was no reason I should be intimidated by a kid.
I nodded. I had heard they'd finally found someone to head the sales department, after months of looking. "Finally," I said. "We've been looking to fill that position forever."
"Well, I must be something special, then." He grinned and winked in Jasper's direction and took a drink of his beer.
Oddly, his cockiness emboldened me and enabled me to look him in the eye. "That or it's taken so long that now we're just desperate." I said.
I took a drink of my vodka and heard Rose chuckling. Edward chuckled along with her.
This was the stuff I was good at: verbal sparring, dancing around issues and flirting with subtext. Sarcasm and deflection were my forte. I felt I was back in my comfort zone, my inexplicably flustered behavior apparently, and thankfully, a temporary condition.
"Maybe. But I am very good at what I do." Edward looked at me, pointedly, and took another sip of his beer. I was suddenly certain he was good at many things.
"Good," I said. "I hope so. We're going to be working together a lot, you know."
He nodded. "That was my hope, yes."
"Your hope?" I raised an eyebrow at him.
I was treated to a crooked grin that I knew had surely broken many hearts. It only served to strengthen my resolve.
"Well, I'm only human,” he said. “If I am going to be in close contact with somebody every day, I'd rather it be someone I don't mind looking at over the desk."
"Ah, what a sweet-talker." I picked up my drink again and, realizing I was going through it quickly, made a mental note to slow down. I hadn't eaten since breakfast that morning, more than twelve hours prior. "You don't think you'll mind looking at me? What a compliment." I snickered.
Edward chuckled and, with a hand on the seat of his chair between his legs, he turned it slightly toward me. I glanced down at his thighs as he did so.
That might have been a mistake.
He leaned toward me, as if wanting to keep our conversation between the two of us. Speaking huskily into my ear, he made the hairs of my arm stand on end.
"Bella, I don't think I'd mind looking at you always. Twenty-four hours a day. Most especially, I don't think I'd mind looking at you first thing in the morning."
I gasped slightly, but it was loud enough that he heard me. He chuckled softly, the cocky half-grin back on his face as he looked in my eyes. Embarrassed at another lapse in my composure and eager to regain the upper hand, I leaned in to speak in his ear.
If he was paying attention, and something told me he was, he might have been granted an extra glimpse down my blouse as I leaned in.
"Since you haven't officially started at Con-Vert, I’ll assume you haven't yet been through our mandatory Sexual Harassment training." I said into his ear.
He turned his head slightly to look again in my eye, never losing his grin. "Am I harassing you? I thought I was complimenting you."
"Sure. That's what all harassers say when they're questioned about it." I leaned back into my chair and reached again for my drink. Being that close to Edward's magnetic lips was making my head spin.
I wondered briefly if the girls had labeled the wrong guy as "Mr. Kissable."
Jasper cleared his throat and it became apparent that what I thought had been a quiet, one-on-one exchange between Edward and I had been overheard with some amusement. I looked at Jasper and noticed he was trying to cover a smirk by drinking his beer. Rose didn’t even try to hide the fact that she had been eavesdropping the entire time, nor the fact that she was getting a kick out of our conversation. I'm not sure Alice heard anything, though. She was far too focused on Jasper to pay much attention to anything else.
I picked up my drink again and finished it, embarrassed and more than a little turned on by my brief verbal jitterbug with Edward. As I set my empty glass on the table, I made an announcement. "Well, ladies, if we're going to continue drinking I will need to eat something. Otherwise, things could get ugly."
"Oh, well great," Jasper said with a big smile.
I noticed Alice was smiling too, at the back of his head. She was a complete goner.
"Edward and I were going to grab a bite here in a bit anyway,” he continued. “If you haven't eaten here, take my word for it—they have great barbecue. Would you all join us?" He looked at Alice as he asked.
Edward looked at me. "You can't argue with a Texan when it comes to barbecue." He nodded toward Jasper. That explained the accent.
"I think some folks in Memphis may argue with you on that issue," I said.
But we moved into the dining room to have dinner anyway.