Chapter 1 Preview
Just one kiss.
It was a soft kiss and a bit wet. Elliot licked his plump lips before he adjusted his glasses and then moved in cautiously to plant a soft smooch on my mouth.
That was twelve years ago and I’m still thinking about it—the one kiss. It was his reward and it was all he got for saving my life.
I sometimes wish I’d given him more. I fantasize about it. I’m fantasizing about it right now as I hustle through city streets to get some coffee before my first day on the job. I’m wondering again what Elliot might’ve looked like under those geeky glasses and preppy clothes. His eyes were pretty enough—a light brown like creamy milk chocolate. I wonder if they sparkled more than most brown eyes because of the glasses. I didn’t wonder much about the rest of him, although I’m sure he would’ve shown it all to me if I’d asked him.
But he was a geek back then so it would not have been cool because that was twelve years ago and that was high school.
I remember the day Elliot saved me like it was yesterday. He and his two geeky friends, along with the rich boy, came busting in through the ceiling of my second story bedroom to help my three friends and me from being burned alive.
My house was on fire. It was my senior year and I decided to throw a party since my parents were out of town. The fire department declared it was the moonshine and burning cigarettes that caused the fire. By the time my girlfriends and I smelled smoke, flames had already come through the hall upstairs and we ran to my bedroom. We were screaming for help with no way out the window, as it was blocked by safety bars my dad installed when I was little to keep me from falling out.
Smoke filled the air and the four of us huddled at the window as heat loomed on our backs. We were screaming, pushing on each other hoping to break free of the imprisoned room when we noticed Elliot and his friends with a jackhammer, a rope, and a ladder. They extended the ladder from Elliot’s house to mine and crawled like firefighters from one attic window to the next.
Elliot was my neighbor. We played together when we were little. He liked to show me his bugs. I liked to show him my braids. But as we grew older, my body matured while Elliot hardly did at all. He grew tall, but he was skinny—skinnier than most boys, even skinnier than me. His thin frame and high, round cheekbones under fair skin made him look like a starved baby and he knew it. So, he never shaved, but he hardly had any hair around his jaw. It was splotchy. I always wished I’d told him he should shave. He probably would’ve looked better and not like he was trying so hard to look manly.
I didn’t have to try hard at all to look womanly. I was lucky to have blonde hair that I could grow long to match my long legs because I developed boobs early—nice ones, too.
When we got to high school we both got a lot of attention. I got popular with the in crowd. Elliot, on the other hand, became a popular pick for being bullied by the in crowd.
I never participated in any of the bullyings, of course, but I did tease him. I liked the way Elliot would glance at me from his bedroom window straight across from mine. Occasionally, I’d walk past my open bedroom window wearing only my underwear and the poor guy would break a pencil or choke on his milk, spitting it out all over himself. Elliot studied a lot at his desk, which was angled in his room so all he had to do was look up to see me.
Interestingly, I’d never seen Elliot without his glasses. I can’t help but think he kept them on—always, just in case I was ever in view.
Looking back, I think I liked Elliot. I liked the way he was always spying to get a glimpse of me. Sometimes, I wished we had stayed friends, but the bugs!
Ugh, the bugs. I could never understand how he never grew out of that interest. Elliot’s predilection for creepy crawlers seemed to impede his chances of ever having friends until…
Nick. Nick was Elliot’s “rich boy” best friend who moved to town during freshman year and became the presumed leader of the geek squad known as NIM.
Nick was hot, smooth, and a definite bad boy, but it was obvious he didn’t fit in with most crowds—too much of a rebel and, like his geeky friends, he was really smart. Not intelligence, but street smarts. Nick plucked each geek like he handpicked them out of Lonerville, and they all became their own little squadron of rebels—avoiding anything that had to do with high school except being present in class.
NIM hung out a lot at Elliot’s house. For the most part, they were curiously quiet except when they were conducting their science experiments and blowing stuff up with a bang.
I always felt they were up to no good. It’s not surprising Nick, Elliot, and the other two geeks now own a billion-dollar drug corporation, which they also named NIM, the Neuro Institute of Medicine.
I heard the geek squad lives lavishly nowadays. Rich Nick invested all his father’s inheritance into furthering the education of his three geeky friends. Elliot became a biologist, Jax, a chemist, and Don—apparently, he’s a sex therapist with multiple degrees in psychology. But it’s my understanding they all have multiple doctorate degrees, although no one from back home has seen them since graduation.
Thinking back to the night of the fire, after four years of those boys being picked on in high school and us girls never stepping in to do anything about it, the last people I ever thought would come and save us from being burned alive would be Elliot and his team of geeks.
But days after graduation, my house and my party went up in flames and just when I thought I was going to die, NIM came. Three geeks and the rich boy rescued me and my girlfriends—Sue, Nancy, and Loulah. Loulah was Nancy’s younger sister. She was a geek herself, but we kept her around kind of like a mascot. She ran our errands, did our hair, performed every dumb dare we nearly forced her to do, and pretty much just took all our shit.
I regret it a little bit. Loulah was a good girl and we treated her like crap. She had an infatuation with Nick. It was fitting for her that it was Nick who pulled her out of the fire, except she became his bitch after that day and no longer ours.
Loulah works for Nick now. She’s always worked for Nick and, according to her sister Nancy, Loulah doesn’t have any time to do anything else. She barely speaks for a minute on the phone—always consumed with the work Nick has for her.
As I walk through the city, I debate if this is really a good idea. Loulah called me. Over the last dozen years, I’ve bounced from job to job—nothing ever serious and most often getting fired for reasons I could never quite figure out. Layoffs. Budget cuts. Whatever. And I could never seem to keep a boyfriend. Anytime I got close to someone and things started going well, the guy would dump me.
It was embarrassing to return home a month ago to my suburban town as the ex-prom queen with no job and no husband at thirty years old. I had to move in with my parents, but that’s not the worst of it. To see all my classmates happily married and with kids? I just feel worthless, like a loser, like high school was the best thing to ever happen to me, even though it was fake. It was all fake because I was a fake back then.
When Loulah called, I assumed her call was also a fake. I thought she was pranking me, trying to get back at me for all the shitty dares I made her do as a teenager. But she was serious. She offered me a job at NIM saying Nick needed more than just one assistant and she thought it would be nice to have a friend to work with. I was surprised Loulah would call me, but then again Loulah never had friends other than us so I guess she didn’t know what a real friend was and, I admit, I was a horrible friend.
I was hesitant at first to accept the job. I wasn’t sure I wanted to face the geek squad knowing they all work there, especially since I didn’t even thank most of them for saving our lives. Plus, the idea I might have to face Elliot, who probably lives in a mansion with his gorgeous wife and beautiful kids, makes me a little ill. But anything is better than living with mom and dad who remind me every day how I cost us our home, not to mention I need to stop making excuses, grow up, and keep a job. I swear it just feels like the world is against me, like something keeps kicking me down on purpose.
As I skip through the crosswalk in my beige heels and a fitted, yet conservative, knee-length navy blue skirt with a cream button-up blouse among masses of other city slickers, I can see NIM.
It’s a rather dark building—all glass with nearly black tinted windows. It reminds me of Nick. He was the one with dark hair and dark eyes—the dark lord of the geek squad; I figure since he was the guy with all the money, it’s no surprise the building would reflect his persona.
My stomach churns as I approach the coffeehouse across the street from NIM. Facing people back home was hard, but I have no doubt facing these people—the people of NIM, the people of my past, will be harder. I tell myself that perhaps this is fate. This is my chance to start over, to be a good friend to Loulah, and to thank the people who saved my friends and me by being of service to them as an efficient office assistant.
As I reach to grip the silver handles to the large glass doors of the coffeehouse, I notice my hands are trembling. Retracting them, I take a look—I’m shaking so badly though I don’t know why I’m so nervous. I stand there for a minute reconsidering whether I should get a coffee and croissant. The coffee might make me jitter more and the croissant could cramp my stomach. On the other hand, if I skip it I might faint later having used all my stored energy due to my anxiety. The last thing I want is to pass out on my first day of work.
“Let me get that for you,” says a man with a nice melody in his voice.
I glance up to see an older gentleman, Asian, with faded jeans and a gray sports coat. He pulls the door open.
“Oh, thank you,” I nod and hop into the coffeehouse, falling to the back of a very long line.
It seems like an eternity by the time I get to the front of the line and I’m about to open my mouth to give the barista my drink order when his attention gets diverted.
“Hey, Mr. Nine! The usual today?” he shouts to the back of the coffeehouse.
I turn to see the dark silhouette of a tall man against the bright morning light beaming in behind him through the glass. As he comes closer, I notice he’s brawny and dressed all in black—a turtleneck with black slacks that is decorated with coordinated leather accessories—shoes and a belt that boasts shiny gold buckles.
The line moves to the side as he enters. They are clearing a path for him like he commanded them to move with the pure will of his presence. I gulp as he comes into view under the coffeehouse lights. His face is strong, tan, and bristled with a trimmed short beard that is as black as the slick side-parted hair on his head and the clothes he is wearing.
He cuts right in front of me; I know I should say something as he starts to place his order, but his smell—expensive and woodsy, makes my tongue hang. Literally, my tongue is hanging out of my mouth as he and the barista inquire about one another until they are joking. I am officially panting when he flashes a brilliant smile.
He glances my way, still smiling, and now I know I need to eat something because I already feel like I could pass out.
“Hi!” he says with unexpected enthusiasm, turning his whole body to me.
“Hi,” I smile and realize I’m slouching so I stand up straight.
He looks me up and down, which is very odd and perhaps rude, but honestly, I don’t mind he’s looking, except I can feel the line of people behind me are gawking at us or maybe him for cutting.
“You know you cut in line, right?” I inquire. Surely, he knows but I just have to ask. I don’t care how gorgeous he thinks he is.
He smiles, but before he can open his mouth, the barista is talking.
“This is one of the Mr. Nine’s coffee shops.”
“Mr. Nine?” I ask.
“What’s the matter?” asks Mr. Nine. “You don’t like the name?” He cocks a brow as he chuckles and I swear to God, the cocky bastard is the sexiest thing I’ve ever seen since…since…ever.
“Hey,” he tells the barista and points his thumb at me, “get her whatever she wants.”
“Oh no, that’s okay,” I fumble to say. “I can pay for myself.”
“I insist,” he says with a low, gruff tone that quickly changes to a higher and strangely familiar pitch. “Do you want to sit down and chat? I don’t know where you’re headed, but—”
My cheeks flush. I drop my hand as I realize I’m fanning my own cheeks to cool off. “I probably shouldn’t. It’s my first day today.”
“At NIM. Do you know of the corporation across the street?”
Mr. Nine’s brows furrow. His demeanor changes as I notice his Adam’s apple bob beneath his turtleneck while he takes a gulp of air. He looks almost angry, angry with the mention of NIM and he turns to take the steaming hot coffee from the barista.
He blows the steam away with softly pursed lips before taking a sip and then turns back to stare wide-eyed at me with stark green eyes and a most serious face. “I work there,” he growls, taking me by the elbow to lead me out of the line. “Who hired you?”
“An old friend of mine works there—Taloulah Berkeley.”
“Hmm,” he growls. “I should escort you.”
It’s unusual—his tone and the way he just handled me, so I grin. “I’m fine.”
He takes another sip before asking, “So, you must know Elliot Crowe as well?”
The mere mention sparks a tingle in my chest and I shudder as I speak. “Yes, I know Elliot. I haven’t seen him in a long time. Does he still work at NIM?”
“Oh yeah, he’s one of the managing partners and a fantastic scientist, quite brilliant actually.”
I can feel the corners of my mouth reach my ears. “I’m sure Elliot, or Mr. Crowe, is an exceptional scientist and probably more. He’s really quite special.”
“Is he now?”
I gulp as I nod.
Mr. Nine’s eyes get beady. “Do you mean that or are you being facetious?”
I take a breath. I have no idea who this man is other than he works at NIM and owns the coffeehouse, but by the look of him, I have no doubt he’s someone important.
I didn’t have an interview and I couldn’t take the time out to research the company. I had one day to pack, fly out here, and find the hotel, which NIM is paying for until I get my own place. So for all I know, this guy could be another one of the managing partners and I’m about to get fired because I’m behaving suspiciously before I even start.
I stand up straight and smile boldly. “Mr. Nine, I don’t mean to be rude, but I really should get going. I don’t want to be late on my first day and please, believe me, I have nothing but the utmost respect for all of the scientists and partners at NIM.”
“Then you should let me escort you there. In fact, I’ll take you exactly where you need to go.”
Mr. Nine takes another sip of his coffee and puts his elbow out to me. When I first took sight of him, I do believe I would’ve dropped my panties if he’d asked me, but right now, I’m reluctant to grab his arm, which I do anyway because he says he knows Elliot.
He leads me out of the coffeehouse, passed the line of gawking women, without responding to the barista who shouts, “Goodbye.”
When we hit the sidewalk, my head tilts back to get a good view of the NIM building across the street and Mr. Nine takes my hand. It’s awkward, but I let him squeeze my palm and lead me to play leapfrog through the street where there’s no crosswalk between vehicles zipping by.
I try not to grip too tightly onto the man I just met, though he’s gripping me like I’m his kid and he doesn’t want me to wander off. I figure maybe it’s a man thing and he keeps holding my hand as we cross the sidewalk to enter the sliding glass doors of NIM.
Inside is as dark as the outside. The décor is smooth, polished black marble. Business people are staring at us—like we are a couple holding hands inappropriately in a place of business and I try to pull my hand free, but Mr. Nine grips tighter.
“This way,” he says and leads us towards the elevators where he finally lets go to click on a few buttons at a small computer kiosk that controls six elevators. One set of doors open and Mr. Nine reaches to take my hand again, but I tuck my arm behind my back.
I don’t mean to be standoffish and I don’t really care he’s being so forward or that anyone notices us holding hands. But I do care that one person might see us. For whatever reason, the last thing I want is to be seen holding another gentleman’s hand if I should run into my old neighbor and friend, Elliot Crowe.
*End of Chapter 1*
by Dani Stowe