New boss… Same heart-stopping crush!
Every day IT expert Evie rides the commuter train and fantasises about the handsome guy sitting opposite. But her daydreams clash with reality when she gets a new job – and finds he’s her boss! Guarded Frenchman Armand Debussey couldn’t be more different from open-hearted Evie. His daredevil past has left him in anguish, and even if it puts her own heart in jeopardy Evie’s determined to help him change that…
Real, relatable women, handsome powerful men. Be swept away by emotional, glamorous and uplifting romances with Mills & Boon Forever Romance….
“IT’S HIM. It has to be.”
Ignoring her friend’s imploring voice, Evie Croft let her body rock with the soothing motion of the morning train as it rumbled along the Frankston Line. Swiping through the ads in the Room Rent app, she tried really hard to feel enthused about exorbitant rent, alarming-sounding housemates, or both.
“Evie!” Zoe whispered, loudly enough that the schoolboys sitting across from them actually looked up from their phones. “You know who I mean. He’s nose-deep in a book the size of a house brick, so you can look. Look. Look now.”
Evie knew Zoe was talking about her “train boyfriend” and she had no intention of looking. She’d already accidentally made eye contact with Hot Stuff in the Swanky Suit today, and many more times since he’d started taking her train.
It was hard not to. With his overlong hair and rugged stubble, the man was a study in the kind of dark, broody countenance you just couldn’t fake.
“Stop looking at that stupid app,” said Zoe. “You are not moving out of my apartment just because Lance is moving in and that’s final.”
Evie gave her oldest friend a squeezy one-armed hug. “I love you because you truly believe it. You and Lance have been waiting for this moment since you were sixteen years old. He’s home from deployment next week and it’s finally happening.”
Zoe sat back, closed her eyes and sighed. “It really is, isn’t it?”
Either way, Evie gave up on looking for a new place to stay. Only half an hour out from the biggest job interview of her life—with Game Plan, no less, a coder’s Holy Grail—she instead practised answering interview questions in her head.
At least, she tried. Until Zoe leaned over, reaching for her phone. “Click back to that other app. No, the other one. Go back.”
“Gah!” Evie held her phone up high, out in front, then opened the neck of her top and slipped her phone between sternum and bra.
Zoe cocked an eyebrow. “You really think that’s going to stop me?”
Evie did not. With only a super-quick glance in the direction of Hot Stuff in the Swanky Suit to make sure he wasn’t watching, she dug beneath her vintage pea coat and warm winter top to fish out her phone, shivering as her chilly fingers grazed her skin. And rocking into the older man sardined in beside her. She sent him an apologetic smile. The barest flicker of his cheek was a tale of eternal sufferance.
The train commute took all sorts. The bored schoolkids, the frazzled mums with toddlers and prams in tow, women in piercings leaning on men with tattoos, creative office types with their smooth hair and manicured nails. It was a delicious microcosm of the city at large.
Evie had grown up in a small dairy community, just north of Echuca, and her favourite memory of her mother was listening to her wax lyrical about the short time she’d lived in Melbourne—the electric hum of creativity, the eclectic fashion, the epicurean delights. She remembered tracing the delicate “Adventure” tattoo etched into her mother’s fine wrist.
After her mum died Evie had promised herself she’d end up there one day too and have the life her mother had never had.
Though the past couple of weeks the city had been making her work for it.
“Seriously?” Evie cried when Zoe whipped her phone away with a delighted, “Aha! Now, let’s see what Hot Stuff in the Swanky Suit has to say.”
Zoe didn’t mean “in person”. For she and Hot Stuff had never had an actual conversation.
Well, unless you counted that first day. She’d made it to the train doors right as they’d pulled up to their city stop when the train had lurched to a halt. Shoved from behind, Evie had tripped and elbowed Hot Stuff in the gut.
Mortified, she’d crouched to pick up the book he’d dropped. The autobiography of Jonathon Montrose, the man behind Game Plan, no less. Cowboy tech investor, IT savant, Evie’s actual hero.
Funny. She’d forgotten that detail. Had that given her the seed of the idea to dare apply for a job with the great man himself? Huh.
Anyway, handing over the book to Hot Stuff, she’d apologised like crazy, while trying not to swoon in his glorious presence, until he’d taken her by both shoulders, strong hands holding her still. He was even bigger up close. And he’d smelled so good. When he’d looked down into her eyes, the stormy blue depths of his own holding her in their thrall, she’d forgotten how to breathe until he’d let her go and disappeared into the station with the bustling morning crowd.
Evie let out a soft sigh and glanced his way just as he ran a hand through his overlong dark hair, leaving finger tracks in its wake. All that indolent grace, the sexy stubble and those deeply intelligent-looking eyes—he really added an extra something to the daily commute.
Other commuters came and went, took different trains, adopted random seats, but Hot Stuff always chose the same spot: across the aisle and down three rows from hers. Evie had always been a fan of patterns. It was comforting to know she wasn’t the only creature of habit in their little train universe.
“How many apps do you have open at one time?” Zoe fussed, and she swiped them into oblivion. “How does your brain not scramble?”
“It’s called multitasking.”
Zoe snorted. Then found the Urban Rambler app. Developed by Game Plan, of course. His apps were seriously the best. Evie would be first in line to sign up to Game On—the revolutionary new mobile communication app everyone in the biz was excited about.
Zoe clicked on the Let’s Get Personal column, flipped the phone so the words were nice and readable and read out loud.
“‘Frankston Line.’ That’s us. ‘Carriage Three.’ Ditto us. ‘To the Bewitching Brunette in the Beauteous Beanies.’”
Zoe paused a moment for drama before lifting her gaze to Evie’s knitted beanie. One of the billion she’d knitted herself. For she really was a fan of patterns.
Today’s was silver, with a rainbow pom-pom on top. It didn’t exactly go with her interview outfit—pea coat over black top and slouchy black pants with fake zips and pockets—all belonging to fashion-plate Zoe, as even computer-nerd Evie wasn’t about to turn up to an interview in a Han Solo “I Know” T-shirt, boyfriend jeans and Converse boots—but it did the job.
Zoe said, “Now, hold on to your hat, my friend, because this is going to blow your mind. It says:
New to your orbit, I find myself struck
By your raven locks, your starlit eyes. What luck
That I find myself able to see you twice a day.
A beacon in a sea of strangers. I must say
Your sunshine smiles are my good morning.
Your evening sighs my goodnight.
If I had the courage I’d say hello.
Till then I remain alone in my delight.
From Your Appreciative Admirer
“Wow,” Evie mouthed.
“It’s you!” Zoe cried. “You are the Bewitching Brunette!”
The schoolboys looked up again, their eyes unglazing this time, enough to give Evie a second glance.
“Well, isn’t she?” Zoe asked the boys, waving her hands up and down as if Evie were the prize in a game show. “If this poem wasn’t written for you I’ll eat your beanie.”
Evie tugged off her beanie and shoved it under her butt cheek. Only to have to deal with long strands of dark hair now crackling with static as they stuck to her face.
So, she did have a thing for beanies. She ran naturally cold. Her mum had been the same, needing blankets all through summer. Calling Evie Froglet because of her constantly chilly feet. But it was her granddad who’d taught her how to knit. He’d also taught her how to tie her laces, fix a tractor, cook a perfect steak. To follow her curiosity wherever it might lead her.
Zoe went on. “Lance, for all his good points, is not a romantic man. Telling me my backside looks hot in certain dresses is about as schmaltzy as he gets, bless him. Keeping in mind Lance is a pretty good marker for the average guy, can you see any man on this train who does look capable of writing poetry?”
Together they looked. At the scruffy schoolboys now poking wet fingers into one another’s ears. The dour gang of goths hanging morosely near the door. The harried working dads with their crooked ties and tired eyes.
As one they turned to the dashing, Byronesque gentleman in the impeccable suit lounging in his seat, reading a book.
Evie swept a hand self-consciously over her hair. It crackled so loudly she quickly put her beanie back on. “Poetry or not, it doesn’t matter.”
“Why on earth not?”
Evie took her wallet out of her backpack, found a small, crinkled bit of paper and handed it over to Zoe.
“A fortune cookie fortune?” Zoe deadpanned. “From your birthday dinner last week?”
“And what does this have to do with Hot Stuff and his undying love for you?”
Zoe did. “‘Bad luck comes in threes. Monkeys, though, they come in trees.”’ After which she burst out laughing. “I…can’t…even…”
Evie plucked the piece of paper out of Zoe’s shaking fingers and shoved it into the coin compartment of her wallet. “Ever since I read that stupid fortune things have been weird.”
“Weird how?” Zoe asked, wiping her eyes.
“And the sudden losing thereof. The very next day.”
“The day after your birthday? You didn’t tell me for a week!”
“Because as I stood in the office watching the police take away the computers, you rang to tell me Lance was coming home. You were happy. And rightly so.”
Evie knew it was nonsensical, but it felt good to finally be talking about it. Hopefully it would relieve the persistent pressure that had been sitting on her chest since the night of her birthday.
“‘Bad luck comes in threes,”’ Zoe said, scratching her chin. “Losing your job was number one.”
“Having to move out is number two.”
“I told you, you don’t have to—”
Evie flapped a shut up hand at her friend.
Zoe buttoned her lips. Then promptly unbuttoned them. “There are rules to fortunes, you know. You have to have eaten the entire cookie, I think. You can’t tear the paper. And once you tell someone it no longer comes true!”
“Zoe, it can’t ‘come true’ because it’s a computer-generated missive stuck in a random dry cookie.” Evie slowly shook her head. “And yet, I feel like it would be remiss of me not to keep an eye out for falling pianos.”
Zoe nodded sagely.
Not that Evie was taking it lying down. No, sir. There was the Game Plan interview. One she would never have had the nerve to go for if she hadn’t been desperate for work. She was too young, too inexperienced, her only long-term tech job having been for a company who were under investigation for embezzlement and fraud.
Or more specifically Eric—the son of the managing director and her ex-boyfriend—who had pilfered her every last dollar before attempting to flee the country.
Zoe coughed. Then burst into laughter again.
The schoolboys squirmed and sank deeper into their seats, no doubt embarrassed by the loud twenty-somethings in their midst. One perked up enough to realise they were at their stop, and in a rush and flurry they gathered their huge, dirty, dishevelled bags and snaked their way to the doors right as the train lumbered to a halt.
While the carriage emptied and filled, the crowd a seething mass of elbows and wet shoes, of jostling and repositioning, a microcosm of Darwin’s survival of the fittest, Evie snuck a glance at Hot Stuff.
He’d glanced up, not at her but at the crowd. He did this every time there was a big shift in people, offering up his seat if he had the chance. Because he was beautiful, well-read and a gentleman.
Was it possible—even remotely—he had written her a lonely-hearts poem on an app?
The timing fit—morning and evening. The train line too. And there were other hints, clues she couldn’t ignore.
“New to your orbit.” They’d been catching the same train a couple of weeks at most.
“I find myself struck.” Was that a nod towards the time she’d winded him?
“Starlit eyes.” She did have an impressive collection of Star Wars, Star Trek, even Starman T-shirts.
She usually went for nice-looking men, with easy smiles and busy mid-level jobs. Men who had no hope of spinning her off course as her mother had been spun. She was only just finding her feet in this town after all. Quietly following her curiosity as her granddad had encouraged her to do.
Hot Stuff was fun to moon over because he was out of her league. The thought of him reciprocating—heck, the thought of him even knowing who she was—made her belly turn warm and wobbly.
“Now, hang on a second,” said Zoe. “What does this have to do with Hot Stuff and the poem? Ah, I get it. After home and work going up the spout, you don’t really think a falling piano is in your future. You believe the logical third spate of bad luck involves your love life. But that’s a good thing!”
“In what universe?”
“You can cross messed-up love life off the list. You’ve already had the worst luck there. Eric was a douche. Dumping you. Using you. Framing you—”
“Yep, okay. I hereby concede that point to the prosecution.” Evie shook her head. “It doesn’t count. He doesn’t count. We’ve been kaput for months. ‘Bad luck comes in threes’ means it has to happen after I opened the cookie.”
“You’ve arbitrarily decided a man who looks like Byron’s hotter descendant is off-limits because a fortune cookie says it will turn to crap.”
Evie looked over at Bryon’s hotter descendant. She couldn’t help it. Heck, at that very moment the train rounded a bend and a slash of sunlight lit him up like something out of an old film.
“He’s dreamy, Evie,” said Zoe, though Evie hadn’t said a word. “And he wrote you a lonely heart.”
Evie blinked, only to find she’d been staring too long as a pair of stormy blue eyes caught on hers. Her breath lodged in her throat. Her cheeks burned as her very blood went haywire.
Look away, her subconscious begged. Look. Away. Now!
Instead habit overcame instinct, and she smiled.
Growing up in a country town, she’d been smiling at strangers since she’d learned how. Saying hello to anyone who made eye contact. Waving in thanks to cars that stopped to let her cross the street. It was simple good manners.
Now, on a packed train hurtling towards the big city, she felt like an utter fool, her smile frozen into place as those fiercely blue eyes stuck on hers and didn’t let up.
Then a small miracle happened. The man blinked, as if coming to from a faraway place. The corner of his mouth kicking north into what could only be a return smile. And then he nodded. Nodded! Sending her a private hello from across the way.
She felt the train concertina as everything beyond the tunnel between their gazes turned fuzzy and out of focus. And then those eyes slid north, pausing at the top of her head. Catching on her beanie, the wool suddenly itching like crazy against her scalp, the bob of the pom-pom like a pulse at the top of her head.
He blinked again, then those stormy eyes slid away.
“Oh, my ever-loving gods,” Zoe said. “Did you see that?”
Hell, yeah, she had.
“He couldn’t take his eyes off you. Proof he’s your Appreciative Admirer!”
Heart kicking against her ribs, Evie let herself follow the possibility of Hot Stuff in the Swanky Suit having a secret crush on her to its logical conclusion.
By the look of him he’d eat in fine restaurants, read and understand prize-winning literature, know the actual difference between bottles of wine. From the feel of him when she’d elbowed him then checked him for injury he also wrestled crocodiles, chopped wood for fun and rescued newborn puppies from warehouse fires.
While she lived on cheap cold pizza, spending all weekend in the same holey PJs obliterating strangers gaming online, and she currently slept on an ancient lumpy futon in her best friend’s lounge room.
She didn’t need a fortune cookie to tell her it would all end in tears.
She looked down at the phone she was spinning over and over in her cold hands.
Her granddad had always insisted her flair for coding was a result of her mum’s creative mind. But she’d inherited his practicality too.
Working for Game Plan would be a dream job. Even getting an interview was akin to finding a unicorn in your cornflakes. Especially when no one else would even take her call. She might have been cleared by the feds, but her connection to the embarrassment at her last job made her untouchable.
She couldn’t go into that room with thoughts of Hot Stuff filling her head with cotton wool.
Evie glanced up at the electronic readout denoting which stop was next. Real or imagined, the fortune was messing with her head and she had two more stops to put an end to it once and for all.
“You know what I think?” said Evie.
“If there is even the slightest chance the fortune is real, and I am to be hit with a third blast of bad luck, and it is linked to my love life, wouldn’t the smart thing be to get it over and done with?”
Zoe grinned. “Only one way to find out.”
Which was why, before she had even hatched any kind of plan, Evie pressed herself to her feet and excused herself as she squeezed past the others in her row. Buoyed by Zoe’s, “Atta girl!” as she made her way down the carriage.
* * *
Armand breathed in deep.
He’d been trying to read a tome on Australian patent law all morning, knowing there was something—some key, some clue—that would unlock the problem he’d been hired to unearth, but the tattooed youth to his left bumped him yet again. He couldn’t care less about the piercings and symbols carved into the kid’s hair, if only he’d damn well sit still.
Armand willed himself to focus. It was why he’d agreed to uproot himself after all. A challenge, a mystery to sink his teeth into, to deflect his thoughts from hurtling down darker, more twisty paths until it became harder and harder to find his way back.
When the words on the page blurred back at him he gave up. Rubbed his eyes. Looked up.
People watching, he had told Jonathon when his oldest friend had asked, expression pained, why he insisted on taking public transport instead of the car and driver he could well afford. A childhood hobby, it had been a useful survival skill once he was an adult.
Armand glanced around the cabin as it rocked gently along the tracks.
There was the Schoolgirl Who Sniffs. Behind her the Man Who Has Not Heard of Deodorant. The Women Who Talked About Everyone They’d Ever Met. The Man Who Carried an Umbrella Even When It Had Not Been Raining.
Now he could add the Boy Who Could Not Sit Still.
A glance out the window showed Armand he was nearing town. Frustrated with his lack of progress, he picked up the book again, opening it just as a shadow poured over the pages.
Armand glanced up, past black jeans tucked into knee-high black boots. Black-painted fingernails on a hand gripping the handle of the backpack slung over a shoulder. Long dark hair pouring over the shoulders of a jacket. Wind-pinked cheeks. And a heavy silver knitted cap with a huge rainbow pom-pom atop, bobbing in time with the swaying of the train.
Fingers lifted off the strap of the bag in a quick wave as the owner of the hat said, “Hi.”
“You’re French?” She glanced sideways, and out of the side of her mouth said, “Of course he’s French.”
Armand looked past her, but no. She was talking to herself.
When he looked back, she tugged the knitted hat further back on her head and he recognised her as the Girl Who Sang to Herself.
A regular, she often sat deeper back in the carriage with her loud, fair-haired friend. On the days she rode alone she wore big white headphones, mouth moving as she hummed, even giving in to the occasional shoulder wiggle or hand movement.
With her wide, dark eyes and uptilted mouth, she had one of those faces that always smiled, even in repose. Add the headphones and she was practically asking to have her bag stolen. No wonder he’d felt the need to keep an eye on her. He’d seen all too often misfortune descending on those who deserved it least.
When his gaze once more connected with hers it was to find she was watching him still.
“You like to read?” she asked.
Armand blinked. He’d been riding the train for a little over two weeks and it was the first time anyone had tried to strike up a conversation with him. Another reason he’d enjoyed the ride.
Her dark gaze slid over his hair, down the arm of his jacket, towards the cover of his book. He turned it over and covered the spine. One didn’t become head of an international security firm for nothing.
Armand checked the sign above. With relief he saw his stop was next. She followed his gaze, her mouth twitching before her eyes darted back to his. “How about writing?” she asked, the pace of her words speeding up. “Do you like to write?”
When he didn’t leap in with an instant answer, she nibbled on her lip a moment before saying, “I guess there is writing and then there is writing. Texting is wildly different from a thousand-page novel. Or to-do lists compared with…”
As she continued to list the multiple kinds of writing the train slowed and the screech of metal on metal filled his ears, cutting out every other word. The sound dissipating into a hiss as she said, “Or, of course, poetry.”
She swallowed. Nodded. Her eyes wide. Expectant.
Was he meant to respond in some way? It hadn’t felt like a question. In fact, it felt as if he’d stumbled into the middle of someone else’s conversation.
And suddenly the singing, the constant smile, the talking to herself, the novelty backpack, his persistent urge to keep an eye on her—it all made sense.
She was a Van Gogh short of a gallery.
He felt his shoulders relax just a little.
“Are you asking if I like poetry?”
“The greats can make you laugh, cry, think, ache, but it depends on the poet. You?”
“I’ve never really thought about it. I appreciate the skill it must take. Finding words that rhyme. Creating patterns in sound and cadence.”
“Look closer. You’ll find it’s never about a cat who sat on a mat,” he said as he pulled himself to his feet.
The woman gripped harder to her backpack strap as she looked up, up, up into his eyes. Her pupils all but disappearing into the edges of her dark irises.
“What is it about?” she asked.
He leaned in a fraction and said, “Wooing.”
“Wooing?” she said, her voice a little rough. Her fingers gripping the strap of her bag. “Right. But the thing is, I’m in a transitional period. My life is kind of in upheaval right now. No room for wooing.”
“Then my advice would be to stay away from poetry.”
The train bumped to a halt, putting an end to the exchange either way. He slid his book into his briefcase.
But she didn’t budge an inch.
He angled his chin towards the door. “This is my stop.”
“I know.” Blink. “I mean, right, okay.”
She looked as if she had more to say, but the words were locked behind whatever traps and mazes had befallen her afflicted mind.
A frown flickered over her forehead as the occupants of the carriage swarmed towards the door. Gripping tightly onto the loop hanging from the bar above kept her from smacking bodily against him, but not from stamping down on his foot with the heel of her boot.
He winced, sucking in a sharp breath as pain lanced his toes.
She spun, grabbed him by the arm and said, “Oh, no! Oh, sorry! Sorry, sorry, sorry!”
Then he remembered.
They had spoken once before. His first day on the train she’d elbowed him right in the solar plexus.
If he’d been a man who looked for signs he’d have taken it to mean he’d made a grave error in travelling halfway across the earth in the hopes of being led out of his fugue.
“The Girl with the Perfect Aim,” Armand muttered.
The doors opened, bringing with them a burst of light and chill, rain-scented air. Armand put a hand on the girl’s elbow as he squeezed around her, joining the river of people heading out the train doors.
Strange young woman, he thought. Yet, he conceded, compelling enough to distract him with alacrity no book or challenge or mystery had yet managed.
He felt those burnished eyes on him long after he’d left the darkness of the station and headed into the grey light of the chilly Melbourne winter’s day.
EVIE GOT LOST—twice—while trying to find the front door to the Game Plan offices.
For starters, she’d stayed on the train till the next station. No way was she about to follow Hot Stuff in the Swanky Suit. If he’d seen her and was smart—and he certainly appeared to be—he’d have called the police. For oh, how she’d bungled that conversation royally.
Once she’d found the funky, arty little alleyway listed on the Game Plan website, she walked to the end and back without finding the door.
Not her fault. She blamed those stormy blue eyes. That accent. The scent—mysterious, masculine, drinkable. The serious don’t-poke-the-bear vibes rippling off the man like a mirage. Wondered if the ten-day stubble sweeping over his hard jaw was rough or soft. How could she make thoughts when he’d held her by the elbow and her nerves had been replaced by fireworks?
Every second of the encounter had been cringeworthy and it had all been for naught.
Born with a talent for seeing patterns in numbers, in lines of text, in architecture and nature, Evie did not have the same gift for reading people—a theory backed up by her choice of boyfriends in the past. But she had no doubt Hot Stuff believed her a chip short of a motherboard.
As to whether—or not—he’d written the poem… Who knew?
Stupid fortune cookie. Whether its powers were mystical or merely persuasive, she hadn’t been the same since she’d set eyes on it. The sooner she put the whole thing behind her and got on with her life the better.
She stopped in the middle of the alley, looked up into the overcast sky and breathed. “Get it together, kid. And fast.”
When she looked back down she found herself in front of a white door tucked into the white brick wall. It had to be the place.
“Okay. You can do this. You want this. You need this.”
She’d only just started making a name for herself, working on government contracts, really intricate work. She was most proud of finding and fixing a fissure in the Federal Reserve’s security system. One they hadn’t even known was there.
But after the way things went downhill in her last job she was tainted by association. Most of her contacts wouldn’t take her calls. Those who did wished her luck and got off the phone. Fast.
She had to convince Game Plan to give her a chance by sheer force of personality alone.
Taking a deep breath, she lifted a finger to press the buzzer when the door opened. Of course, they had video surveillance. This was Game Plan. Meaning somewhere some security dude had seen her talking to herself.
Her heart played a staccato against her ribs as she stepped into a waiting area with white walls, bright fluorescent lighting, potted plants. Needless to say, her jaw dropped an inch when instead of an HR clone an invisible door finally opened to reveal Jonathon Montrose, Mr Game Plan himself.
He looked exactly like he did on the jacket of his autobiography. Rugged. Imposing. Tall. Not as tall as Hot Stuff in the Swanky Suit, mind you.
Really? You want to go there now?
No, I don’t!
Evie whipped her beanie off her head, and once more felt the static turn her into a human generator. Madly patting her hair back down, she walked to the man and held out a hand.
“Mr Montrose, I’m Evie Croft. It’s an honour. Your Code of Ethics textbook is my bible.” Evie imagined Zoe holding out both hands, urging her to pace herself.
“From what I hear you can also tear apart code like a demon.”
Evie’s heart whumped, wondering who he’d heard it from. Her ex-boss? Her ex? The federal police? No way was she getting the job. Nevertheless, she said, “You hear right.”
“Shall we?” Montrose held out a hand, ushering her through another door. “Welcome to the Bullpen.”
And, while she would have liked to appear even slightly cool, her feet ground to a halt a metre inside the room and she gawped at the sight before her.
Despite the modest entry, the place was gargantuan. Two storeys of glass-walled offices circled the outer rim of the floors above, while the ground floor looked as if it had been hit with a paintball explosion. White walls and floors were splattered with brightly coloured beanbags, cubicles, desks, couches, exercise balls, computers, TVs and in between slouched dozens of guys in jeans, T-shirts and baseball caps, laughing, arguing, creating.
When she found her feet again, Evie followed Montrose along a wall of nooks filled with gaming rooms, VR rigs, darts, pinball machines. One room had rows of bunk beds like a camp dorm.
“When can I move in?”
Montrose laughed. While Evie took it all in—every rivet, every light fitting, every gumball machine, in case she never saw its like again.
Right when Evie felt as if she’d hit sensory overload, Montrose led her up a set of stairs to a huge but relatively subdued office on the second floor, tinted windows looking over the Bullpen below. When he shut the door, everything went quiet.
Evie breathed out in relief when the first woman she’d seen in the place popped her head into Montrose’s office and said, “I’m grabbing a coffee. Can I get you guys anything?”
Evie shook her head, frantically gentling her mind. “No, thanks, I’m fine.”
“Nothing for me. Thanks, Imogen,” said Montrose, and the woman walked back out the door, leaving them alone.
Montrose motioned to a leather tub chair. Evie slid her backpack to the floor and sat.
Montrose sat on the edge of his desk—very much in the power position—crossed his feet at the ankles and began. “Tell me, Evie, why did you leave your last job?”
Evie opened her mouth to give the sensible answer Zoe had forced her to rehearse. Something along the lines of, After several years of loyal service, I felt I’d achieved all I could and needed a new challenge.
But she’d always been sensible. Taken small, considered steps. Choosing work she could do with her eyes closed, saving her pennies by sleeping on Zoe’s futon. And it had all come crashing down around her ears anyway.
Because luck was out of her hands. Just ask the fortune cookie.
Hang on a second. If losing her last job ticked off the career part of her fortune’s portent of “bad luck”, this opportunity was uncontaminated. Clean. A fresh start.
And if she truly wanted to make an impression on the likes of Jonathon Montrose, playing it safe wasn’t going to work this time.
Forgoing baby steps for a blind leap off a tall cliff, she looked her idol in the eye and jumped.
“You already know why I left, Mr Montrose.”
The edge of his mouth twerked. She hoped it was a good sign.
He said, “Indulge me.”
Okay then. “I worked for Binary Logistics until my ex-boss’s son, Eric—who also happens to be my ex-boyfriend—embezzled from the company. That company is now under investigation by every federal agency there is and, considering my position, my access level, my connection to the guilty party, I was a suspect for co-conspiracy. Thankfully they caught Eric at the airport and he confessed to everything, their forensic decoders followed his trail with ease and I was cleared. But mud like that sticks. Which means you are the only person who has taken my call, much less asked me in for an interview.”
She would love to have made it to the end without swallowing but if she didn’t wet her dry throat she’d probably pass out.
“And why do you think I would do that?” he asked.
“You’re a risk-taker, Mr Montrose. You actually like that I am marginalised. Perhaps I wouldn’t have piqued your interest otherwise. You like that it has made me hungry and desperate, because I’ll push to prove myself. Qualities you value within yourself.”
A muscle flickered at the corner of his mouth. “Maybe. Or maybe I appreciated the gumption it took to even try to get an interview with me, knowing what I know.”
Evie’s laugh was a little shaky. “Every bit of gumption I have.”
From there the interview took a turn into the normal, with Montrose asking about her family—her beloved granddad who’d moved into a retirement village, leaving his farming days behind him—and hobbies—gaming, knitting, hanging with Zoe.
And suddenly it was all over.
Montrose stood and so did she. Grabbing her backpack. And popping her beanie back on her head.
He blinked at the rainbow pom-pom but to his credit said nothing about it. Though he did say, “You are clearly a very bright young woman, Evie. Someone whose name has appeared on my radar more than once. I’ve heard men with far greater experience gasp over the work you’ve done, without knowing whose it was.”
Evie held her breath.
“Unfortunately, though, I don’t have anything for you at this time. I’d suggest you see this career break as an opportunity to look up and out. Read a book, travel, get your hands dirty. In the meantime, we will certainly keep you in mind for future work.”
What? Wait. No. No!
Evie opened her mouth to state her case. To ask to be given a chance. To drop to her knees and beg if that was what it took. Because, having taken the leap, she could feel the wind in her hair and she wanted more.
But Jonathon was already distracted, and old habits were hard to break. Evie stood, put her beanie back on, grabbed her backpack and—
White noise from downstairs burst into the room as the office door was opened and a voice said, “Do you have a second? I need you to look at…”
The voice came to an abrupt halt.
But it was too late. The accent, the gravel in the tone, the huge amount of air that had been displaced—Evie knew who she’d find when she spun on her heel.
A small noise left her throat as she found herself staring down Hot Stuff in the Swanky Suit. He filled the doorway, the light from below tracing his broad shoulders, his wide stance, his mussed hair.
But gone was the bare hint of that smile he’d given as she’d babbled on about poetry and wooing. The one that had scrambled her brain, making it impossible for her to work out what was real and what wasn’t.
Instead his entire body was taut as he glared as if he’d found her in his kitchen boiling his bunny.
“You,” Hot Stuff accused, his voice deep and rumbling.
Feeling like a squished bug under the microscope of a stranger’s unflattering glare, Evie was finally overcome by the dire reality of her situation and something snapped. “Oh, my God, did you follow me here?”
“I believe that is a question I should be asking.”
“Pfft. Why would I follow you?”
The self-assurance in his gaze made her knees go a little weak. And fine, he had a point. But still!
“Excuse me,” said Evie. “I made it perfectly clear I’m not interested in your…” She flapped a hand at him, taking in his tousled hair, his arresting face, his slick suit, before blurting, “Your poetry.”
Perhaps “perfectly clear” was pushing it, but it had been her intention, which had to count for something.
Yet the man glowered at her, Why me? written all over his face.
Seeing him with Montrose’s book might have given her the idea to apply for a job with Game Plan. And, come to think of it, had she seen him reading a file with the Game Plan logo on the front? Either way, it didn’t seem like admitting it would help her cause in that moment, so she kept her mouth shut.
She saw something move out of the corner of her eye, and was reminded that they weren’t alone. She slowly turned to find Jonathon leaning against his desk, looking as if he was enjoying himself immensely.
“I take it you two know one another?” Montrose asked.