His Stand-In Holiday Girlfriend
Christmas in the City, Book 1
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.
Copyright © 2019 by Kasey Stockton Cover design by Blue Water Books
First print edition: October 2019
All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced or used in any manner without written permission of the copyright owner except for the use of quotations for the purpose of a book review.
Next in the Christmas in the City series
Also by Kasey Stockton
About the Author
Do not trip. You will not trip. You are walking in very tall heels along the brightly lit hallway in front of all your new coworkers on your very first day, Ellie, and you absolutely, positively will not fall flat on your face.
Balancing two drink trays with five coffees each—one safely nestled into each compartment with a fifth precariously shoved in the center—Ellie made her way down the row of desks toward the long, clear glass boardroom housing all seven executives and their two guests.
Perhaps she should have refrained from ordering that tenth drink, but after the mayhem in The Bean and the pushing and shoving she endured to get the executives and their guests the best coffee in all of San Francisco, the least they could do was buy her a tea for her troubles.
And it was peppermint, which was the perfect tea for the very first day of December.
Also known as the beginning of the Christmas season. Ellie’s absolute favorite holiday. Sure, that was common, but this was different. El; lie didn’t just enjoy Christmas. She really, really loved Christmas.
The clear glass walls showed the meeting already in session, and Ellie slipped into the room as her boss stood at the head of the table, going over the basic description the museum had supplied when they’d approached her firm about collaborating for a charity Christmas gala.
She scanned the idea boards and her stomach turned. These weren’t concepts for a Christmas party. They were concepts for a high-end fashion show or movie premiere celebration. If Ellie had the authority to decorate the gala on her own, she would successfully create a holiday party done right—Santa’s workshop, maybe. Or a winter wonderland.
Much like her own apartment was going to look. She’d gotten the most gorgeous tinsel garland from Target on clearance the year before and she was dying to get home from work and set it up.
A hand came up and snapped in her face, jarring Ellie from her daydreams of decorating the apartment. It would’ve been completed already, of course, if Kayla hadn’t forbid any decorations before December.
It really was the worst living with a scrooge, sometimes. Even if that scrooge was her best friend.
“Hello?” the male voice called, snapping his hand in her face once again. His salt-and-peppered hair was styled ridiculously high for an older man; he was clearly trying to make himself look younger with a hip style. Maybe someone should tell him he could shave years off his face if he dyed his hair instead.
“Coffee Girl,” he said, his voice as arrogant as his suit, “give me my cappuccino.”
“Right, sorry.” Ellie set the drink trays on the end of the glass table, spinning the cups to read their labels and pass them out accordingly. Her boss, the balding man who stood at the head of the table on the other side of the room waited, his fists balled and resting on the glass tabletop in a gorilla stance. He wore an expression of veiled irritation, but she persisted in handing out the coffee.
Why was he waiting? He could speak over her if he wished.
After stepping carefully around the table and setting a cardboard to-go cup in front of Mr. Gaines, the gorilla man, Ellie hurried to the other end of the table, stacked the drink carriers and tossed them into the trash can. Taking an unobtrusive seat in the corner at the far end of the room, Ellie cupped her tea with both hands and waited for the meeting to resume.
It was her first day, and it was not going as smoothly as she’d hoped. But Mr. Gaines had told her when he’d taken her on as an intern for Harver Allen Design that she was welcome to sit in on meetings and attend the gala preparations herself to learn.
So why was he giving her such an odd look right now?
He stood tall, sipping his coffee before slapping it down on the table. “We’ve got to step it up. The last two mockups were both mediocre and I think we are going entirely the wrong direction.” His gaze turned sharply to the man on the far end of the table who was evaluating the sticker on the side of his cup which gave the details of his chosen drink. “Garrison, that’s you. What is going on in your department?”
Ellie brought her own cup to her lips and blew softly into the drinking hole. Scalding her tongue was not on her list of things to do for the day.
The room really smelled like coffee. Ellie didn’t love the scent, but her peppermint was helping to mask it. It almost smelled like a peppermint mocha, and that made her want her tea even more. So she blew into the hole again.
Mr. Gaines didn’t wait for Garrison to respond but kept speaking. “I think I adequately portray the museum’s feelings when I remind everyone in the room that the museum is full of modern art. The decor for this event needs to be synonymous with the vibe of the museum. The vibes they’ve been feeling from your team’s mockups are not at all modern.”
“If I may?” a man asked. He was one of the visitors from the museum’s board, sitting beside a woman in a smart red suit. Her dark hair was pinned back in a flawless French twist and her intelligent gaze meant business.
The museum man continued after Mr. Gaines flicked a nod in his direction. “Our patrons expect something new and edgy when they step through our doors. The purpose of modern art is to draw out fresh emotions. The Christmas gala needs to mirror our ideals.”
Mr. Gaines nodded. “We want to avoid the typical, classical Christmas.”
The female museum correspondent stood, crossing the room to point at the mockups sitting on an easel at the front of the room. “Lose the fake snow completely; we live in San Francisco. Give us a young, hot Santa with a trimmed beard. Forget the reindeer and set up a team of Great Danes.”
Dogs? She wanted to replace Santa’s reindeer with dogs? And a trimmed beard? What was that about? Santa didn’t have time for that. He was too busy checking his list.
Ellie shook her head, disgusted. What would this woman suggest next, giving Santa a topknot and putting Mrs. Claus in a minidress?
Searching the table for the men’s reactions to this farce, Ellie stopped short on Garrison, the head of design. He watched her curiously through narrowed blue eyes, his fingers spinning his coffee cup slowly on the frosted glass table. Everyone else seemed intent on listening to Mr. Gaines and the couple from the museum bounce ideas back and forth, but Garrison was locked on her as though he was a biologist studying a new species—and Ellie was the species.
She wasn’t going to let the pointed attention slide unaddressed. Bringing her cup up to salute him, Ellie took a long sip, eager for the peppermint to hit her taste buds. But peppermint wasn’t all that filled her mouth. Laced with coffee and something else—chocolate?—she spat out the full mouth of liquid she’d sucked in, spraying the conference room floor and Garrison’s shoes, who sat closest to her at the end of the long table.
She stared wide-eyed at the mess she’d created, and the men and women in suits who watched her with expressions ranging from shock to humor.
“Um,” she said, standing, “I’ll fetch something to clean that up.”
Tossing the coffee into the trash can, she heard Garrison say from behind her, “If you want to give my drink to me…well, never mind now.”
She cringed, shooting an apologetic look over her shoulder. Was that why he had stared at her? Had their drinks been switched?
Pausing with the door open she contemplated asking for her tea. She could really use it right now. But the glare from Mr. Gaines spoke volumes and she scurried out of the room, leaving her tea behind.
Well, that could have gone better. Her very first meeting on her very first day, and she completely bungled it. Sighing, she hurried through the row of desks, slipping around the corner and stopping on the glass bridge. Leaning back against the wall and looking out over the wide, open space below, she wondered if a bridge made entirely of clear glass was structurally sound. There was a courtyard below with tables and a cafe, and the people looked sleek and chic and prepared to work in a grand, architecturally elite building.
Closing her eyes in an effort to block the horrible memory for a moment, she grunted. Stomping her foot in a very undignified manner, her heel rang out against the glass. If only there was a pillow nearby she could bury her face in and scream out her frustrations.
She was not making the best first impression. Spitting someone else’s coffee everywhere during a meeting with one of the firm’s largest clients was not a great way to start out.
“You okay?” a voice asked, startling Ellie into opening her eyes. She looked to her left and noticed a young, hipster guy leaning out of another glass conference room. His thick-rimmed glasses were sliding down his nose and she turned to glance over her shoulder.
Great. She hadn’t paused on just a hallway with a bridge overlook. She’d paused in front of another glass room. Only this time, it was full of young-looking professionals.
“Yeah,” she said, swallowing. “I’m fine. Sorry for the show.”
His chocolate-colored eyes watched her pityingly for a moment before she spun away. His concern was sweet, but it was more than she could bear at the moment.
Ellie crossed the bridge swiftly. Stopping at the front receptionist’s desk in the foyer, Ellie paused, slapping her hands on the counter. “I made a huge mess. Is there a guy I can call?”
The receptionist was petite with a blunt blonde hairstyle and large princess-like eyes. “A guy?” she repeated.
“Yeah, like a guy. You know?”
The receptionist’s huge blue eyes blinked at Ellie uncomprehendingly and she wondered if the woman was doing it on purpose.
“Like a janitor?” the receptionist finally asked.
“Yes,” Ellie responded. The lady wasn’t doing blondes a favor. “Someone to call to clean up the mess in Conference Room A.”
“Sure thing.” Picking up the phone, she dialed an extension and waited, shooting Ellie a perfunctory smile. “Hi. Yes, it’s me, Cassie. Can you send Harold to Conference Room A, please? There’s a mess.” Pausing, she put her hand over the receiver and glanced up. “What kind of mess?”
“Um…coffee. All over the floor.”
Cassie repeated it into the phone and hung up. “Harold will be right up,” she told Ellie.
Turning, Ellie walked back across the bridge and through the glass-lined hallway like she had only thirty minutes before, only this time without the ten extra drinks. She groaned softly, regretting ordering that extra peppermint tea.
There never would have been a mix-up between her own beverage and Garrison’s if she hadn’t had a beverage to begin with. The hipsters in the design room watched her walk by again with the solemn looks of those who pitied a lesser species and she picked up her pace to pass them quickly.
Ellie had not completed her bachelor’s degree at San Francisco State University simply to spit coffee all over the board room and then hide. She was here for real world experience. She needed to swallow her embarrassment and get back in there.
The sterile office with nothing but glass walls and modern, white, spinning chairs was not helping her Christmas spirit, though. And that was a feat, for Ellie had the ability to feel the magic of Christmas always. It was innate.
Coming around the corner, she paused before Conference Room A as she witnessed the attendees shaking one another’s hands and preparing to leave.
She’d missed the whole thing.
And to make matters even more awful, a man wearing a charcoal gray jumpsuit was currently mopping the mess Ellie had spewed all over the floor.
Some of the men in suits filed past her toward their own offices, leaving Mr. Gaines, Garrison and the man and woman from the museum in the conference room.
Drawing in a breath, Ellie straightened her shoulders. It was pointless to hover outside of the room. Pushing the glass door open, she stepped inside and scooted past the janitor, approaching the group on the other end of the room. Garrison glanced over his shoulder and held her gaze, raising his eyebrow. A small blush crept onto Ellie’s cheeks and she quickly looked away from him.
“I’ll have my team formulate the demos right away and forward them for approval,” Garrison said, his voice deeper and more business-like than Ellie had remembered.
The museum executive pulled out his phone, smoothing down his mustache with one hand while he stared at the screen. “I need things finalized within the next week. We are just swamped, so Monica will be working with you from here on out.”
“It won’t be a problem,” Mr. Gaines said. He snapped his fingers, garnering Ellie’s attention. “Natalie. Grab the schedule from Cassie and double check the gala has priority over every department.”
“It’s Ellie,” she clarified.
Mr. Gaines stared at her as though she’d sprouted an elf hat and a jingle to go with it. Names, apparently, were irrelevant to him.
By the time Garrison and the museum executives turned to stare, she said, “I’ll get to it right away.”
Scurrying from the conference room, she bent her head and used her arm to keep the design team from staring at her as she crossed the bridge toward the foyer once again.
“Hey Cassie,” Ellie said, approaching the front desk, “I need access to the schedule.”
“Yes, ma’am,” Cassie said. Her sleek, brown eyebrows rose on her forehead, proving the artificiality of the color of her hair.
Ellie sucked in a breath, leaning both elbows on the high countertop of the reception desk and dropping her face in her hands. “I’m sorry. I’m overwhelmed. It’s my first day.”
“I know,” she said. “I processed your paperwork.”
Peeking through her fingers, Ellie watched Cassie focus on her computer.
“Mr. Gaines,” Ellie began. “He mentioned in my interview that I could get involved in the projects but all I’ve been asked for so far is to fetch coffee and check schedules.” She stopped herself just in time before adding, Both of which are your jobs.
Cassie snapped her gum. “I emailed you access to the calendar so you shouldn’t need to come back here.”
Ellie was surprised by the curt attitude. They were both grunts, so shouldn’t they have some level of camaraderie? She’d tried to chat with the girl, but now Cassie was engrossed in her phone and Ellie had been summarily dismissed.
It would have been less annoying if Cassie had simply explained that she was busy or something. Well, this was work. Ellie told herself she didn’t need to make friends with everyone.
Or anyone, apparently, except for that hipster design guy who shot pitiful eyes out the window every time Ellie walked past it.
Training her eyes on the floor, she sped across the bridge, past the design room and ran straight into someone.
“Sorry!” Ellie said at once, grabbing the guy’s forearms to keep herself from falling over. When she glanced up and caught Garrison’s amused gaze, she wanted to fall into a hole.
Instead, she released him at once and took a healthy step back.
He shot his hand out. “Brady Garrison.”
She took his hand, careful to give him a firm handshake like her grandpa taught her to do. “Ellie Shaw.”
“Welcome to the firm, Ellie Shaw.”
“Oh, you could tell I was new?” she asked. “Was it the spitting coffee or the brilliant moment I tried to edge into a conversation between Mr. Gaines and the museum drones?”
Snapping her mouth closed, she regretted at once her impulsive nature and speaking her mind. It was unprofessional and petty to bring up her mistakes like that.
“Probably the moment you trashed my coffee,” he said, a smile turning up his lips. His dark eyebrows raised infinitesimally, signifying his amusement. “I have been suffering ever since.”
“You didn’t drink my tea?” she asked. “I’m guessing they were switched.”
He nodded, pulling a face. “The label was incorrect. It was definitely tea, and I don’t drink tea.”
Ellie scoffed slightly. Who didn’t drink tea? “It was herbal.”
“Which is gross,” Brady countered. “So now you owe me a coffee.”
She couldn’t help but smile. “And you owe me a tea.”
“Garrison,” Mr. Gaines shouted from across the room, “I want your best work on this one. This is a great networking opportunity.”
He turned and saluted the man in charge. Shooting Ellie a commiserating smile, Brady said, “Welcome to the company. Don’t worry, it really is a great place to work.”
“I’m sure,” she agreed. “I mean, at least I haven’t fallen flat on my face!”
Brady shot her a confused look and walked away, and Ellie did her very best not to literally hit her face with her palm.
Things were not getting off to the best start.
The worst way to begin a day at work was in a meeting with your ex-girlfriend.
The worst way to begin a project at work was learning your ex-girlfriend was the liaison from the museum you’re responsible for decorating for an important Christmas gala.
And, to make things even worse, Brady hadn’t had any caffeine yet today. At least the new intern provided a little entertainment to dull the blow he’d gotten from seeing Monica. Did she really have to show up at the meeting as though she’d had no idea they would be working side-by-side for the next few weeks?
Brady leaned back in his office chair, bringing his hands up to rest behind his neck. He surveyed the floor, noting his design team’s necks bent toward their desks, dutifully working up ideas for a new, fresh take on Christmas.
Because apparently, in the world of modern art, that was a thing.
He scoffed, rolling his eyes. It was one thing to spruce up Santa and his reindeer, but to replace them with Great Danes? Monica had fully lost it. What was she trying to prove, anyway?
They’d split a few months ago. If she was still holding out for him, she was going to be disappointed. What had she said when he walked away from her? Oh, right. One day you’ll come crawling back to me, and I’ll be waiting.
He scoffed out loud. Desperate, much?
He was pretty certain she was legitimately crazy.
Bringing his forehead down to rest on his folded arms on the desk, he squeezed his eyes shut. Who was he kidding? There was a reason she had said those things when he’d walked away from her. He’d gone back to her four other times already. What was it about the woman that drew him to her?
Of course, she was intelligent and gorgeous. But every time they got back together she would do something to remind him why they broke up in the first place. Every. Single. Time. Within twenty-four hours, usually. And more often than not, it involved his credit card.
“Hey, boss?” a timid-sounding man said.
Brady lifted his head to find one of his junior designers standing to the side of his desk, a handful of papers clutched in his nervous hand.
“Hey, Zane. What’s up?”
Zane cleared his throat. “I read over your notes from the meeting and drew up some concepts for the Santa stage.” He offered the stack of papers and Brady took them, flipping through them.
“Yeah, I’ll look these over.” They were basic ideas—things a ten-year-old could come up with. Brady wanted original ideas. He wanted to find a way to incorporate traditional Christmas into the sterile party Monica had asked for. He slapped the papers on his desk and leveled Zane with a look. “Keep working, okay? The right thing will come.”
Defeated, Zane smiled bravely and went back to his seat at the long brainstorming table. He’d been brave to approach Brady with such little ingenuity. Hopefully the rest of the team came up with something better.
A knock sounded against the glass door and Brady glanced up to find the new intern standing there. Ellie Shaw. She was cute, with her blonde hair waving loosely. She smiled widely at him and lifted a coffee cup, her eyebrows raising along with her hand.
Brady gestured for her to enter the room and she did, crossing the floor with a sudden look of apprehension, her gaze darting toward the collaboration table and back.
“You didn’t have to do that,” Brady said, accepting the warm to-go cup.
Ellie lifted one shoulder in a shrug. “I owed you. How are you going to design a fully modern Christmas party without any caffeine in your system?”
He offered her a perfunctory smile. “I guess that’s why I’ve got a whole team.”
“Oh, right.” She glanced back over at the table again and her cheeks went rosy. “I better get back to my desk.”
“What does Gaines have you working on?” Brady asked, watching her fidget. Something or someone in this room made her uncomfortable. Her hands played with the fringe on her sweater and though he was not entirely sure, he thought he saw reindeer painted on her fingernails.
“Nothing, yet.” Ellie quickly rallied, dropping her fringe and bringing her hands up in surrender. “I’m not complaining, though. I came to learn the business and I know that will take time.” She looked about the office as though seeing it for the first time. “What exactly does the design team do?”
“A lot of different components, and anything Gaines asks us for, really. But our main job is the literal architecture design. When we aren’t planning parties for snooty museums, of course.” He cleared his throat. “We headed up the Alta building last year. It’s won awards in Architects Today.”
He suddenly wished he hadn’t boasted. She looked suitably impressed, but he hadn’t been going for that. He’d merely been explaining the breadth of his team’s responsibilities.
Turning back toward his computer, he typed something in to try and look busy, and then picked up his cup and took a long swig. He needed to show her he wasn’t interested. The last thing he needed was another workplace relationship. Especially when he was going to be working so closely on this project with Monica.
“I’ll let you get back to it,” Ellie said.
Brady glanced up. “Thanks for the coffee. I guess we’re even now.”
She’d turned away and headed toward the door but paused and glanced back. “We’ll be even when I get my tea.”
Brady chuckled, taking another sip of his drink. It really was too bad he’d decided not to date coworkers anymore.
After going through concepts from his entire team that were all about the same, Brady was ready to bang his forehead against his desk. There was a reason this group of people designed buildings and not parties. But Gaines was cheap, and if he could get the gala done in-house, then he would.
Brady pulled a pad of paper and a pen from his drawer and set them on his desk. He really did his best thinking through ink.
Flipping the pad open, he sketched a few concepts exactly how Monica requested, with a hipster Santa and a team of Great Danes set up perfectly.
Really? It was ridiculous. He ripped the paper out of the sketch book, crumpled it and tossed it into the trash can.
He closed his eyes, lowering his pen onto the paper and imagining the museum. He’d spent a fair amount of time there walking the halls while he’d dated Monica, before she’d left the firm they’d both worked for prior to this job.
There was a nice, large room with tall, white walls and a tiled floor. It was going to be cleared of most of the art currently on display to make room for the gala.
They were hoping to add a charitable function to the event, as well, but Brady couldn’t get his brain to worry about that yet.
Tapping his pen against the paper, he opened his eyes and began to draw. He created the space on the page that he’d need to be working in, outlining the basic shape of the room. Filling in the necessary implements, Brady drew tall tables draped in cloth, with a dais in the center of the room and a Santa seated there, his arm raised as though he was waving. He drew in a few lounging dogs, because there was no way they would be able to get any animal to stand at attention the way reindeer did for Santa. And if he was being honest, the relaxed dogs with large, red collars covered in jingle bells were more fitting, anyway.
He surveyed the drawing, imagining the room and how he could fill it with an appropriately modern Christmas. He had a hard time wrapping his head around that though. What did that even mean?
A chat window popped up on his computer with an accompanying ding and Brady set the pen down, reading the message from Gaines’s secretary, Bridget.
BridgetHoward: Mr. Gaines would like to meet with you at 4:00 in his office. Bring your designs.
Brady really wanted to bang his head against his desk now. He replied quickly that he would be there and closed out the chat window.
He glanced over his sheet again, but nothing new came to mind. Monica wanted modern, and he got that. They needed to keep up with the image the museum already had. But weren’t the gala attendees all donors and socialites? They weren’t college kids and millennials.
Brady opened a group chat on his computer which involved everyone on his design team and typed.
BradyGarrison: We’ve got to throw together a killer idea by 3:45. I want your best work, people. Who’s got ideas?
Screenshots of concepts filled the chat one after another. Some were mediocre, others blah. He glanced around the room at the serious junior designers’ faces. He was probably having a difficult time focusing because he’d missed his morning coffee and not because he’d gone into a meeting and run straight into his ex.
He was about to shut down the chat when a photo popped up that caught his eye. He clicked it, enlarging the photo to fill his screen. Unlike the rest of the concepts he’d gotten, this one wasn’t hand-created with the company’s elite software. It was more like an idea board thrown together by a twelve-year-old. Only, it was perfect.
There were images stolen from various online stores—he could tell because the prices were still on some of them—of different items they could use to decorate. Large, spiky golden and silver orbs, jewel-encrusted mirrors, white Christmas trees with an array of wood-carved ornaments. There were white porcelain statues of Great Danes that the designer had photoshopped Santa hats onto.
It was perfect.
He clicked out of the design and searched for the sender’s name. He was prepared to make whoever it was a senior designer from this alone.
But that was entirely impossible, because the sender of the photo was not a designer at all, she was an intern. Brady’s mouth dropped open as he read Ellie Shaw across the top of the image. How had she even gotten involved in the chat?
Opening up a separate window with her alone, he ignored the dings of other ideas coming in as he typed a message.
BradyGarrison: Not that I mind at all, but why are you in our group chat?
EllieShaw: No idea! Cassie must have added me to the wrong one.
Brady lifted his fingers, flexing them before typing again.
BradyGarrison: Well, you’re in luck. Your idea is the best I’ve seen today.
EllieShaw: Yes! I knew that design degree wasn’t for nothing.
BradyGarrison: Meet me in front of Gaines’s office at four. You just earned the right to pitch your idea to the boss.
Silence met him for a moment. No more dings could be heard and the little icon indicating the other person was typing was completely absent. He glanced up when another ding caught his attention.
EllieShaw: I’ll be there.
BradyGarrison: Don’t panic. He’s really nice under all those scowls.
EllieShaw: Laughing crying emoji.
Brady read the message again, his eyebrows rising. His lips formed a smile.
BradyGarrison: Did you really just type that out?
EllieShaw: I don’t see options for an emoji anywhere in this chat program.
And clearly an emoji was the only way for Ellie to explain to him what she was feeling. He closed out the chat and leaned back in his chair. Picking up the half-empty coffee cup, Brady downed the rest of the liquid and tossed the cup into the recycle bin not far from his desk.
For the first time since he had entered the conference room that morning and seen Monica’s intelligent, green eyes, Brady relaxed. The first hurdle was over. He was fairly sure he could convince Gaines to let him roll with this concept.
The hard part—figuring out a way to head this project without spending any time with Monica—was yet to come.
Don’t panic? Was that really his advice? Since when had that ever worked?
Oh, right. Never.
Ellie wanted to be seen by the people in charge. She wanted to learn and grow from the various components in the company and earn a place to be hired on as a legitimate employee and not just an intern, but this was her first day. And she’d begun it with a nice peppermint mocha spit-spray all over the conference room during an important meeting.
And she was ending it in the CEO’s office with the head of design brandishing her ideas?
This was bonkers.
She paced the bathroom, crossing from the stalls to the door and back, watching her own reflection through the mirrors in her peripheral vision.
She paused near the door, psyching herself up. She had five minutes to get there and didn’t want to make Brady wait for her. It was time.
She reached for the handle as the door swung open and Ellie leapt back just before getting smacked in the face by the swinging slab of wood. At least this part of the building wasn’t done in glass.
“Whoops, sorry!” Ellie said as the door opened and Cassie almost collided with her.
The secretary ran past her, her face stricken with tears and her breath coming in heaving sobs.
Ellie glanced to the door as it closed, then to the stall where Cassie had run. She reached for the door handle, but then dropped her arm. She couldn’t just leave now.
“Cassie?” she called hesitantly. The secretary didn’t respond, but sounds of weeping reached Ellie’s ears. “Can I get you anything?”
“Peace and quiet,” the woman snapped through the metal door.
Ellie stepped back immediately. “Okay, I’ll go.”
She left the bathroom, ignoring the ache in her chest that tugged her back toward the sad woman. Cassie clearly did not wish to be friends, but Ellie couldn’t help feeling sorry for the devastation she’d seen on Cassie’s face.
She made an internal commitment to check on Cassie later. She’d already delayed enough, she very well could be late.
Ellie’s feet throbbed as her heels clicked along the floor. She crossed the large, open room full of desks and unfamiliar faces and made it to the one office with frosted glass belonging to Mr. Gaines.
Brady stood outside the office door, chatting with the secretary, one hand slung casually in his pocket.
He glanced up and caught Ellie’s eyes. “Ready?”
“No,” she said, eliciting a chuckle from Brady.
“You’ll be fine. Just try not to spit everywhere.” He gave her a teasing, encouraging smile.
Ellie couldn’t help but laugh a little. The secretary gave her an odd look, and Ellie sent her a bright smile. The woman had bright red curls and a very festive green bow in her hair that didn’t necessarily jibe with the vibe in the architecture firm. But Ellie loved it.
The secretary picked up her phone and put it to her ear, casting a smile at Brady while she waited. “Mr. Garrison and Ms. Shaw are here to see you.” She set the phone back on the receiver and nodded. “You can go in now.”
Ellie followed Brady into the office, doing her best to feel worthy. She followed his lead by stepping up to the desk centered along the back window and taking a white cushioned seat in front of Mr. Gaines’s desk.
The man had large, round cheeks and a suit that probably cost more than Ellie’s entire wardrobe. He stared into his phone, typing furiously as he glared at the screen through thick-rimmed glasses. The sound of clicking keys on his phone cut through the silence and a minute passed by before Mr. Gaines sighed and dropped his phone on the glass tabletop, forcing Ellie to jump in her chair.
“You’ve brought it?” he asked gruffly, glancing up at Brady.
Brady placed a tablet on the table and slid it toward Gaines. “The original concept came from Ms. Shaw, but I took it upon myself to expand upon it. If you swipe right, you’ll see the trees and table settings my team designed.”
Mr. Gaines accepted the tablet and leaned back in his chair, crossing one ankle over the other. His mouth pinched in disapproval as he focused on the images, his pudgy finger swiping through them with speed.
Handing back the tablet, he looked Brady in the eye. “It’s good, Garrison. That is exactly what I meant when I said modern Christmas. We agreed to do this with the museum exactly for this purpose. I want new, hip and edgy. This might be a charity function, but more importantly, it’s an opportunity.”
“For what?” Ellie asked. She clamped her mouth shut when both Mr. Gaines and Brady turned to her in unison. She was supposed to be making herself look good, not inferior.
“Networking, building our reputation, gathering new clientele,” Brady rattled off. “The guest list on this gala is monstrous and it’s a prime chance to woo new clients.”
Ellie nodded sagely. “Of course. I wasn’t thinking.”
“You’re heading up this project,” Mr. Gaines said, his attention on Brady. “It’s an important collaboration if we want access to the museum’s main donor list. And we can’t afford to mess it up.”
Brady cleared his throat, rearranging his hands before gripping the arm rests on his chair. “I was hoping, actually, to focus more on the Allen project. What if Jared headed this up? It would be a great opportunity for him to showcase his abilities with the promotions coming up.”
“No,” Mr. Gaines said immediately. “We can’t afford any mistakes. I want you heading it, Garrison.” He turned his attention on Ellie with the heat of the sun. “And I want you to help.”
Ellie swallowed, nodding. She wanted attention and opportunity, but she didn’t anticipate this much, or this soon.
“Good. That’s settled.” The older man slapped his hands on the desk. “Now get to work. People are still talking about that stupid spring gala the Henderson Foundation threw. By Christmas, I want everyone to forget about the Henderson Foundation completely.”
“You got it,” Brady said, standing. Ellie followed his lead, jumping to her feet.
Mr. Gaines speared Ellie with a look. “I’m counting on you. Both of you. Don’t let me down.”
Trepidation settled in her stomach, but Ellie nodded, holding the man’s gaze. She wanted to ask why, on such little knowledge, the CEO would trust her with something this important, but she decided not to say anything which might make her seem even less worthy of the opportunity. At least, not until after they’d left the office.
When the door closed behind her, Ellie kept walking with Brady.
“Why?” she asked.
She paused and Brady halted beside her. “Why me?”
“Because you came up with the concept.”
Tilting her head to the side, Ellie narrowed her eyes in disbelief. “Has everyone forgotten that I’m just an intern? Or that it’s my first day?”
Brady’s worried lips broke into a soft smile. “Maybe it’s good you didn’t bring that up in there. But no, I don’t think anyone forgot. You aren’t like our typical employees.”
“I will try my best to find a compliment in that statement. Now where would you like to meet to go over the basic plans for the gala? I’m guessing we need to organize and begin to delegate.”
Brady laughed, throwing his head back as though Ellie had said the funniest thing in the world. She glanced about the room, noticing several confused faces dotted among the desks.
“You really just dive in, don’t you?” he finally said, his blue eyes watching her closely. His mouth formed a satisfied smile. “Good. This is good. We need more of this kind of eagerness in the office. Just shoot Cassie a message and she can send the schedule over.”
Ellie rolled her eyes. “It might be easier if I hack the system and send the schedule to myself.”
“You can hack?” he asked, impressed.
She deadpanned. “No.”
Enlightenment dawned in his eyes. Did he not realize the receptionist was testy? “Trouble with the receptionist?”
Ellie lifted her shoulder in a shrug. “She just doesn’t like me.”
Brady cupped her shoulder, giving her a friendly squeeze. She felt like a small child being comforted by her uncle—except this guy was one of her bosses. And totally hot—but that was beside the point. He smiled reassuringly. “Don’t worry; she’ll warm up to you. She’s probably just having an off day.”
She was definitely having an off day if her crying in the bathroom was any indication.
Brady began to walk away. “Keep working on that vision board,” he shot back over his shoulder. “I have a feeling we’ll need a little more material by the time we meet with Monica.”
Ellie nodded, but she had no idea who Monica was. Expelling a long sigh, she started toward the glass bridge.
Cassie was back at her desk and Ellie approached slowly. The poor girl’s eyes were red-rimmed and irritated. She looked like a sad model and even though she’d been nothing but snippy with Ellie all day, Ellie felt the desire to cheer her up.
“Hey,” she said. “Is everything all right?”
Cassie glanced up, her expression etched in stone. She looked back at her phone. “I’m fine. It’s nothing.”
Ellie waited another moment before clearing her throat. “Okay. Well, I need another calendar.”
“I gave you access already,” the secretary said without looking away from her computer screen.
“Right. The general calendar, I believe. But I need the meeting schedule for the gala planning committee.”
“That’s design,” Cassie said immediately. Ellie was impressed. For a secretary, this girl knew her stuff.
“Right,” Ellie said again. “But I’m on the project and Brady told me to ask you for it.”
Her head snapped up. “Brady Garrison?”
“Yes,” Ellie said, drawing the word out. “He’s head of design, right?”
Cassie cast her gaze to the ceiling in a dramatic eye roll. “And a complete catch. I can’t believe you’re working with him already. You’ve been here what, a day?”
Shaking her head, Cassie looked back at the computer, clicking and typing. “You know, he’s been single for a while now. And you’re cute. You should give it a try. How’d you land a position on his team?”
Ellie shrugged, ignoring the unprofessional comments. “I got lucky.”
Cassie scoffed. “For real.” Leaning closer, she snapped her gum and raised her eyebrows. “I heard he has to work with Monica Perry from the museum.”
“I guess,” Ellie said, feeling completely out of the loop. “He mentioned meeting with Monica.”
She pulled back, her mouth forming a perfect O. “So, you don’t know, then?”
Ellie did her very best not to screech, because then she might not learn what Cassie was referring to. But, really? Of course she didn’t know the office gossip. It was her first day.
“Well, I better fill you in so you don’t show up tomorrow unprepared.” Lowering her voice, she leaned forward. “Monica and Brady have dated off and on for the last three years. They were crazy serious at one point, but then Brady broke it off a few months ago and they haven't seen one another in person until the meeting this morning. I’m sure she totally blindsided him.”
“That was her? The woman in the red suit?” The one who wanted Santa in a top knot with a team of dogs.
Cassie nodded, grinning at her like they were best friends. Well, evidently the way to win her over was through gossip.
“So that’s why Brady wanted someone else to run the project,” Ellie said.
Cassie gasped. “Seriously? He asked for that? This is like, a major honor.”
Sudden disloyalty at discussing Brady so blatantly ran through Ellie. But why, she didn’t know. She didn’t even know Brady, so clearly she owed him nothing.
But he had been nice to her earlier. Even after she threw away his coffee.
“I’m beginning to wish I wasn’t on this project.”
“Are you kidding?” Cassie asked, disturbed. “This is major. You have a front row seat to the best drama in the office.”
Turning away, Ellie said, “I guess we’ll see.”
“Make sure to come back and tell me everything!” Cassie called, and Ellie waved her hand in response as she walked away from the front desk. The woman had certainly cheered up quick.
Perhaps being an intern was going to be a lot more work than Ellie had anticipated. If it boiled down to relationship management, she was out. She’d done enough of that with her parents and she was not interested in carrying the job into her workplace.
Crossing the glass bridge, she searched the design room for the hipster who had checked on her earlier. He was sitting at a large table, focusing on a tablet. The poor guy looked downtrodden, and she suddenly wished to know what was wrong.
Instead, she headed back toward her desk in the big room, trying to keep her day straight. She sat at the computer and pulled up the schedule Cassie had recently sent, scanning the meetings and responsibilities associated with the gala project. Oh, dear. She certainly had her work cut out for her. Simply attending all these meetings was going to be a full-time job.
Sitting back in her chair, a small smile grew on her lips. This was exactly why she was here: opportunity, growth, and learning. And she was jumping in head-first with all of those things coming at her in droves.
Scanning the list again, she sighed. She really, really could use a peppermint tea right about now.
“You’ll never guess who I got saddled with on a work project,” Brady said, sliding into the bench seat at Patterson’s Sports Bar. Ben sat across from him, his crystal blue eyes glued to the screen above Brady’s head.
“Hmm?” Ben asked.
Ben’s attention snapped toward Brady. “You’re kidding me. I thought she worked at some fancy restaurant.”
“A museum. But yeah, Harver Allen Design is throwing their Christmas gala at the museum she works for and she’s gotten paired with us as the liaison. I have to work with her for the next three weeks on this project. If I survive.”
“You’ll survive. You just won’t be single by the end of it.”
Brady reached across the table and snagged a handful of fries from his friend’s plate, tossing them into his mouth.
“Get your own, man,” Ben said, his eyes never leaving the TV screen.
Brady ignored him, his mind wrapping around his dilemma. He didn’t have to be around Monica forever, just for a few weeks until the project was over. “I can do it. I can say no this time.”
Ben laughed. “Sure you can.”
Brady’s stomach hardened. He propped his elbows on the table and dropped his face in his hands. “What is it about her that makes me lose my mind? I don’t even get it. I just don’t know how to say no to her.”
“Those puppy dog eyes, maybe? Her irresistible smile?”
Brady peeked up over his hands. “Yes, definitely both of those.”
Ben’s nose screwed up in disgust. “I don’t see it. I was being sarcastic. I can picture the devil horns she hides under her hair, however.”
“I don’t know what I’m going to do, but I have to figure out something. I can’t work with her for three weeks. She’ll draw me back in. She always does.”
“Too bad you aren’t married,” Ben said, chuckling.
Brady glanced up. “That’s it. I’ll get married. Monica might be crazy, but she wouldn’t expect me to leave my wife for her.”
Ben lifted his eyebrow as though he expected Monica to do the exact opposite.
A waitress approached with a pad of paper and a pen. Her eyes were smudged with thick, black eyeliner and blue hair stuck out from a Santa hat slouched on her head. “What can I get you?”
“I’ll take a basket of buffalo wings and a basket of honey-barbecue wings.”
She wrote on her pad, tapped it with the edge of her pen, and then smiled down at Brady. “Anything else?”
The waitress hesitated a moment before spinning away.
“But who could I marry?” he asked at once, his mind working around the problem. He’d meant it as a joke, but now the idea was percolating and beginning to carry merit. But who? There were loads of women he knew, but none of them he’d want to spend the rest of his life with.
“You aren’t serious,” Ben said, his eyebrows drawing down in concern. “That’s really drastic.”
Brady shook his head. Ben didn’t realize the amount of effort it took simply to be around Monica, let alone reject her. She’d nearly depleted his bank account a few months ago planning a trip to Cabo. And that wasn’t taking into account the sheer amount of time she expected him to shop with her. “I can’t do it anymore. She drains me.”
“Yeah, she does. Your bank account. Your willpower. Your man-card.”
Brady speared his friend with a glare. “Exactly. So I should just find a wife and be done with it all.”
“She seems willing,” Ben said, nodding his head toward the waitress.
Brady turned to find the woman eyeing him, a suggestive smile on her lips. He shuddered. “No, thanks. Blue hair isn’t really my thing.”
Ben leaned in, resting his folded arms on the tabletop. “I know your problem, Brady. You need to be in a relationship so you can’t say yes to Monica, no matter what. But you don’t need a wife for that. You just need a girlfriend.”
He had a really valid point, but it still only made sense in theory. There was no way he would be able to get a girlfriend in under twenty-four hours. “Probably just as difficult to achieve.”
Ben lifted a finger, his cheeks rounding as his smile grew. “No, not a real girlfriend, a fake one.”
The room seemed to go still as Ben’s idea settled in Brady’s mind. It could actually work. He only needed to tell Monica he was dating someone else and she wouldn’t even try to get with him again. And if she did…well, Brady would have a concrete, valid reason to tell her no. “That’s brilliant.”
Ben sat back in the booth, his gaze drawing back to the screen behind Brady’s head. A satisfied smile played on his lips. “I know.”
Chuckling, Brady reached across the table and pilfered another handful of fries. He had to hand it to the man. The idea was flawless. Brady could invent any girl he wanted, give her a backstory, and be done with it.
His food arrived and he thanked the waitress before lifting his water glass for a toast.
“To keeping Monica off my back,” he said, tapping Ben’s glass with his own.
Ben chuckled, his eyes never leaving the TV screen. “Good luck, man. You’re gonna need it.”
After letting herself into her apartment, Ellie kicked off her shoes and closed her eyes, inhaling the delightful aroma of garam masala and lemon. Kayla must have cooked chicken tikka masala again and it smelled heavenly.
Blessed relief washed over her bare feet and Ellie leaned down to massage the heel of her foot. She’d been overzealous in her professional attire that day. She’d had no idea exactly how much walking she would be forced to do as an intern when she put on the gorgeous black heels. Of course, the coffee run was fine. But the second coffee run specifically for Brady’s drink was probably what did her in.
It had been worth it, though, just to see the look on his face when she’d handed him the to-go cup.
“Ellie, get in here and try this sauce,” Kayla called.
Dropping her bag on the sofa, Ellie turned into the small kitchen and leaned against the counter. Kayla stood at the stove, a wooden spoon resting in her hand. She blew softly on the spoonful of sauce she held and gave Ellie a quick once-over. “How’d it go?”
“Great. A little too great, maybe?”
Kayla’s black, frizzy hair was pulled up in a messy bun with a scarf rolled up and tied around it. Even in her messy housekeeping days when she wasn’t volunteering for Kids Afterschool—the program where Kayla and Ellie had originally met in elementary school—she was effortlessly cute. She passed the spoon over, lifting her eyebrows.
Ellie tasted the sauce and an explosion of spices and flavors met her tongue. “Yes,” she said, nodding, “this is amazing.”
Kayla’s face was a mixture of pride and delight as she accepted the spoon back and continued to stir. She moved to the side of the stove and lifted a linen towel to reveal perfect oblong naan and Ellie moaned. She turned toward the cabinets to pull down two plates and began setting the table.
Kayla filled a plate with naan. “So you’re telling me you didn’t trip at all?”
Ellie shook her head. “Not once. I did spray coffee all over the floor during a meeting, but that didn’t stop the head of design from choosing my concept for the Harver Allen Christmas Gala.”
Kayla looked impressed, plopping the last of the naan on the plate. “I don’t even know which question to ask first.”
“I’ll save you, then,” Ellie said, picking up the plate of naan and taking it to the table. She sat at her chair while Kayla plopped the pot of Indian food on the trivet and went back for the rice. “I was accidentally added to the wrong group chat, so when the head of design asked everyone to send their concepts for the Christmas gala, I sent one, too. I’d been bugged by this obnoxious drone during the meeting requesting a modern Christmas theme, so I challenged myself to figure something out that would appease the client and myself.”
“And they loved it.”
Ellie nodded, her eyes growing wide. “They loved it! So I met with the head of design and the CEO and now I’m on the project. The schedule is crazy for it, but I couldn’t ask for a better opportunity.”
Spooning rice onto both plates, Kayla shook her head. “Don’t mess up the chance to show them how valuable you are.”
“No pressure,” Ellie said, lifting her plate closer to the pot while Kayla filled it. “And I have to work with the head of design and the liaison from the museum who apparently have a history.” She eyed her friend closely. “Speaking of history, did I see a yellow Volkswagen turning down our street when I got home?”
Kayla trained her face on her food.
“You know I’m not stupid, right?” Ellie said.
“Just because you don’t want to see your mom doesn’t mean I have to ignore your mom,” Kayla said defensively. “I’m not going to be rude to the woman.”
Ellie groaned, dropping her forearm to rest on the table. “What did she want?”
Kayla’s gaze flicked to a paper on the counter. “To drop off your grandmother’s fruitcake recipe. She would love it if you could bring it to the family Christmas party.”
“I’m not going to the family Christmas party,” Ellie bit back with more edge than Kayla deserved. “It’s the same night as the gala. But even if I wasn’t working, I wouldn’t go. I don’t even know most of those people.” She dropped her fork and brought her fingers up to rub her eyes. “I’ve just started this brand-new position and things are going really well, and I am going to be swamped all month. I don’t have time to deal with my mom’s drama—let alone make a flipping fruitcake.”
Silence fell over them as neither woman ate their dinner. Ellie sucked in a breath, looking her best friend in the eyes. “I’m sorry. I don’t expect you to turn my mom away. You’re too good of a person for that anyway.”
“Well, duh,” Kayla said, taking a bite of her naan.
“I’ve seen the woman once a year, if I was lucky, for most of my life. She can’t expect me to just drop everything now and build a relationship from scratch. She lost her chance of that when she turned me into a marriage counselor between her and my dad.” Ellie scoffed. “And they were never even married. Now can we hurry up and eat? We’ve got a lot to do tonight.”
Kayla let the conversation change without a fight. She’d been around during high school when Ellie’s mom first made an effort with her, and then when Ellie discovered that her mom was really only interested to hear about what was going on in her dad’s life—even though Ellie didn’t have a real connection with him, either. Kayla sighed dramatically. “Let me guess. You’re planning to blast some Mariah Carey and force me to hang twinkle lights?”
“No,” Ellie said, chewing a large bite. She pointed her fork at her friend. “I’m going to blast WHAM! while you dig the ornaments out and I place them on the tree.”
Kayla laughed, shaking her head. “It’s a good thing I love you so much or your OCD would drive me up the wall.”
Ellie raised one eyebrow. It wasn’t OCD. Or, maybe it was, but she’d never been diagnosed. “It’s called attention to detail. And it’s what landed me this amazing opportunity with the design team at Harver Allen. Now, come on and eat. It’s December first and I get to decorate.”
The morning was crisp and cool with a thick layer of fog hovering low on the earth. Ellie sped-walked down the sidewalk with a steaming cup of peppermint tea in her hands. Her skin felt damp from the moisture in the air and she was glad she’d thrown her hair into a ballerina bun or it would be frizzy and flat by now.
Turning the corner to the front doors of her office building—it felt so cool to consider it her office building—Ellie nearly ran into a man standing still in the center of the sidewalk.
She jumped to the side just in time to avoid a collision, but her drink flew from her hands. Arcing through the air, the cardboard to-go cup fell onto the concrete with a splat and Ellie’s shoulders sunk accordingly. It was so hot and fresh, she hadn’t even had one sip yet.
She blew out a sigh as she bent to retrieve the cup and tossed it into the trash can, avoiding the tea pooling on the sidewalk.
“I guess I owe you two drinks now.”
Glancing over her shoulder, Ellie caught Brady’s eye. “You most certainly do owe me two drinks,” she said, turning to face him.
He offered her a wan smile before glancing back at the building.
She stepped closer. Why was he standing in the center of the sidewalk? “We’ve got a meeting in fifteen minutes, I believe,” she said diplomatically.
“Yes, we do,” Brady agreed, his eyes never leaving the building.
“And, it’s in the office up there,” she said, pointing up the side of the tall building.
Brady nodded, swallowing visibly. “Yes, it is.”
He looked nervous, his eyebrows pulled together in concern. He’d slung his hands casually in his pockets as though he hadn’t a care in the world, but the expression on his face plainly said otherwise. Perhaps he only needed a minute to gather himself together.
“Well, I’ll see you up there, boss,” Ellie said, offering him a smile. She wanted to joke about her drink again with the hope that he’d use this contemplation time to go order her a new one from The Bean around the corner, but he looked so distracted. She opted to keep her mouth shut.
“Wait,” he said, bringing his gaze down to rest on her. People passed them on the sidewalk, but Brady’s gaze was so intense, Ellie felt completely isolated within it. Now it was her turn to feel nervous under the weight of his attention.
“I wonder…” Brady regarded her closely, his eyes narrowing slightly as he took a miniscule step closer. “How old are you?”
Ellie’s eyebrows shot up on her forehead. She hadn’t known what to expect, but that certainly wasn’t it. Did he worry about her capability of helping with the project? “I don’t know how young I look, Mr. Garrison, but I graduated from SFSU with a bachelor’s in design and I am perfectly capable of handling a meeting with Monica Perry. They’re my ideas, after all.” And she’d spent hours the evening before developing a presentation after all of the decorations were up in her apartment. She was ready.
Brady cringed. “No, I didn’t mean…that is, I wanted to make sure—honestly, just forget it.” He shook his head, taking a step back, and Ellie found that she didn’t like his retreat very much.
“I’m twenty-four. I took a few extra years in school to figure out what I wanted to do, so I didn’t graduate right away. And I am willing to do whatever I need to make this project go as smoothly as I can.”
He stilled. “Anything?”
“Of course,” she said, sympathetically. She realized this was probably really difficult for him, working with an ex-girlfriend. Ellie didn’t mind taking on extra work if she needed to in order to ease his burdens.
He sucked in a breath and asked, “How do you feel about being my girlfriend?”
Shock rippled through her. Had she heard him correctly? She wanted to ask him to repeat himself, but she couldn’t speak. Did her face reflect how freaked out she felt?
He stepped closer, lifting one hand. “I better rephrase. I don’t mean for real. I mean pretend. How would you feel about pretending to be my girlfriend?”
He could not be serious. Of course, the guy was hot. But Ellie wasn’t that desperate for a relationship. “I really don’t think Harver Allen would look kindly on such a personal relationship between employees.”
“Of course not—no, I’m not hitting on you,” he said, stepping closer. “I really mean fake girlfriend. I have to meet with my ex-girlfriend up there and she just—” He ran a hand through his hair and sighed. “No, you’re right. It wouldn’t work. The company would fry us. And I’m sure you’ve got a boyfriend already. I don’t know what I was thinking.”
“That’s all right,” Ellie said, a little worried about the mental state of her boss. A fake relationship just to avoid an ex? Now that was desperate. “I better get up there though. I can get the meeting started. Take your time.”
She scurried into the building, eager to get into the office. Chills ran down her arms as she recalled the desperation on Brady’s face. She felt for him. It couldn’t be easy working that closely with an ex. But, really. A fake girlfriend? That was too much.
The elevator ride felt quick and the metal doors slid open facing Cassie’s desk. The perky blonde glanced up and grinned at once, her eyes widening.
“She’s here already,” Cassie whisper-yelled as Ellie approached. “I put her in Conference Room B and told her you’d be in shortly. You better hurry.”
“Who?” Ellie asked. “Monica Perry?”
“Yes,” Cassie said gravely. “And she looks good.”
What was that supposed to mean? Why did that even matter? “Thanks, Cassie,” Ellie said, tapping the counter with her hand before turning away. She paused, turning back. “Does the office put any decorations up for the holidays?”
Cassie shrugged. “Not that I know of.”
“Bummer. It could really cheer up the entrance here.” Ellie turned away. The office was so sterile already with glass walls and modern desks. Everything was so bright and clean, but not in a good way. The elevator music playing in the lobby could easily be changed to something more festive, which would alter the feeling in the entrance drastically.
There were only twenty-three days left until Christmas, after all.
Dropping her bag in the large drawer of her desk, Ellie retrieved her company tablet and sketch book and tucked them between her folded arms and her chest.
She’d been reasonable that morning when she’d gotten dressed and wore a solid pair of wedged booties with her pixie-cut pants. She felt secure today, and much more comfortable in her ankle-high reindeer socks that no one else could see than she had in her heels the day before.
“Excuse me,” Ellie said, leaning toward a busy looking man at a nearby desk. He glanced up and she realized it was the man who’d snapped his fingers at her during the meeting. “Where can I find Conference Room B?”
“Just on the other side of the break room,” he said quickly, eyeing her with irritation.
Nice. So there was a break room. Why had no one given her a solid tour of the facilities the day before? “And where’s the break room?”
The man quit typing and looked at Ellie. “Down that hall,” he said, pointing to a hallway behind the large, glass-enclosed conference room where she’d spat her drink the day before.
Checking her phone for the time, Ellie slid it into her pocket and hurried down the hall, past a room with a few tables and a refrigerator, and directly into a smaller conference room than the one they’d met in the day before.
“Hello,” she said, coming into the room quickly and holding her head up as though she had every right to be there.
Which, she did.
Monica Perry sat on a swiveling, plastic chair, her crossed legs visible under the clear glass table. Her pinched mouth and perfectly drawn-on eyebrows indicated extreme irritation, enough to rival even Cassie; two festive to-go cups sat on the table near her.
“You aren’t Brady.” She sounded as annoyed as she looked, and immediately picked up her phone, swiping it on and tapping furiously into it as though Ellie was not there.
“I am not Brady,” Ellie agreed, coming into the room. She lifted her chin. She was on the project, designated for the position by the CEO of Harver Allen himself. She had every right to be in that meeting, and she was not going to back down to this cow. “I’m Ellie Shaw and I’m looking forward to working with you on this project, Ms. Perry.”
Ellie stuck out her hand and gazed down at Monica with all of the confidence in the world.
Monica stared at her hand before reaching forward and giving her a quick, impatient shake.
“Good morning, ladies,” Brady said, sweeping into the room with a dazzling smile. He carried his own tablet and skirted the room, pulling out a chair opposite Monica at the table. He’d lost the nervous, vacant look he’d worn outside just minutes before, but Ellie wondered if he was overcompensating with enthusiasm.
“Good morning, Brady. I could really go for one of those raspberry pastries,” Monica said, lowering her voice as though she was sharing a secret with him. “We could send your assistant down for one. I really miss this building sometimes.”
Brady’s smile grew tight. “Sure thing, Monica.” He glanced up and caught Ellie’s eye. His own were hard and unrelenting. No way. Ellie was an intern, yes, but she was not put on this project to fetch pastries. She stood beside Monica, clutching her tablet with white knuckles and breath abated. The way Brady treated her now would set the tone for her role in the company for the next three weeks.
Perhaps she should have agreed to his ludicrous idea. As his girlfriend she would certainly not be fetching pastries.
“Ellie, could you send a message to Cassie and request those pastries? My assistant is out for the day but I’m sure Cassie can coordinate the request.”
Ellie’s shoulders relaxed and she nodded, pulling out a chair beside Monica and lowering herself into the seat. He hadn’t asked her to go.
Turning on her tablet, she pulled up the chat window and already had a conversation bar flashing with Cassie’s name across the top.
CassieJones: Warning! Brady is on his way! I repeat: Brady has just passed my desk and he’s headed for you now.
CassieJones: Hello? Did you get my warning??
CassieJones: Ack! He must be there by now! How’s it going? Has Monica jumped on him yet?
Ellie did her best to swallow her smile.
EllieShaw: We haven’t even started yet. Brady wants you to get some raspberry pastries for the meeting. From downstairs, I’m guessing?
CassieJones: I WILL BE THERE IN FIVE MINUTES.
Closing out the chat window, Ellie pulled up the files she’d been working on the night before. After the holiday music and Christmas tree decorating had been completed, Kayla had gone out for her night job waitressing at Pepper, and Ellie had crashed on the couch with The Grinch playing in the background. She’d compiled a better group of photos and organized them into a presentation.
“Shall we begin?” Brady asked.
Ellie started to angle her tablet so both Brady and Monica could see the screen. “I was hoping to show you—”
“I want to go over my notes from the meeting,” Monica said, looking at Brady with immense focus and a smile too playful to be considered business appropriate.
Brady glanced to Ellie and she could see the strain in his eyes. His lips formed a tight smile and he said, “Very well. We can begin there. I want to nail down our exact designs so the invitations can go out by the end of the week.”
Monica nodded. “We’ve got to finalize the guest list, too. Since the museum is putting their name on this, I’ve brought a list of heavy hitters who can’t be forgotten.”
Heavy hitters? “What charity is benefitting from the gala?” Ellie asked, opening a new document on her tablet to take notes.
“I don’t know,” Monica said, brushing her off with a flick of her Tiffany bracelet-endowed wrist. “We’ll figure that out later.” She turned toward Brady. “I was thinking further on the dog situation, and I can’t help but feel that live dogs in the museum might be a handful.
Brady nodded. “My team has already addressed the issue. In fact, we’ve found something better.” He lifted his eyebrows, giving Ellie a loaded look.
She tried to return his widened eyes with her own, but he didn’t seem to be reading her message. She understood that he was trying to hand the conversation off to her, but what was the point of speaking when every time she opened her mouth, Monica cut her off?
He didn’t get the message. “Ellie here actually found some great ideas and created a vision board which I think you’ll like. If you’d like to pull it up, Ellie” —Brady gestured toward her tablet with seemingly flailing patience— “I’m sure Monica would be thrilled to see it.”
How could she argue with that? “Of course. It’s right—”
“Knock, knock!” Cassie said loudly, barging into the room and dropping a paper bag with oil seeping through the bottom edges on the table near Ellie’s elbow. “I’ve brought pastries. They didn’t have the raspberry so I picked up a selection instead. And there are a few muffins in there, too, if you’d prefer those.”
“Thanks, Cassie,” Ellie said, eyeing the bag. The woman stood beside her chair, grinning as she glanced between Monica and Brady.
“It was my pleasure. Anything else I can get you? Oh!” she exclaimed, glancing over Ellie’s shoulder. “Are those the ideas for the gala? That’s gorgeous.”
Ellie cleared her throat. “These are just a few vague ideas. We’ve still got to nail down the logistics.” If we get the chance. She glanced up and caught Brady’s amused eye. Her tablet buzzed and she clicked on the blinking chat bar headed with BradyGarrison.
BradyGarrison: I don’t think this meeting is going to be productive at all.
Cassie had turned her attention on Monica, asking what exactly she did for the museum and how she played a role within the planning of the gala. Ellie turned her tablet slightly so she could type without them seeing her message.
EllieShaw: It definitely won’t be productive if I can’t get a full sentence out. Maybe the meeting should be in chat form so no one will interrupt me.
BradyGarrison: Salty much?
Ellie glanced up and swallowed a smile when her gaze rested on Brady’s amused expression. A smile played on his lips in a most attractive way. Too bad the offer he’d made her that morning wasn’t to be his real girlfriend. Really, the guy was hot.
But then again, that would be weird. And as her boss, also inappropriate in the workplace.
“Hey Cassie,” Brady said, leaning back in his chair. “Who’s answering the phones right now?”
She shot him a saucy smile. “The machine.”
His eyebrows rose and she rolled her eyes. But she got the hint. “It was nice to meet you, Monica. I hope I see you around.”
Monica looked at Brady. “I think you’ll be seeing quite a bit of me in the future.”
Well, if that wasn’t a direct insinuation, then Ellie was Mrs. Claus.
And Cassie’s pleased smile indicated her understanding. She was like a moth to a flame when it came to this drama.
Ellie pulled up her presentation again and set it between her and Monica. “We are thinking of a totally wooden theme, with green and brass thrown in for a chic take on classic Christmas—”
“Do you want to run down and grab me a coffee to go with these pastries?” Monica asked, finally looking Ellie in the eye. The woman had a gaze which seared like a hot iron when she leveled it on Ellie.
But Ellie was not about to leave the meeting. Not for such a paltry excuse. She couldn’t help but look to the two to-go cups which sat near Monica’s elbow and had remained untouched for the duration of the meeting.
Monica followed her gaze. “Those are cold now. I could use a hot drink.”
“Monica, Ellie is part of the team,” Brady said. “You can’t send her to run your errands.”
“But we are such a fantastic team,” she replied, her voice going low and silky. “We don’t need anyone else.” The suggestion in her voice was mirrored in her expression and Ellie wanted to leave the room. This woman was so blatant it was nauseating.
If this was how she acted with another person in the room, how badly would she come on to Brady if they were left alone? Well, it wasn’t really Ellie’s problem. And she couldn’t help but think that if she just gave them a moment together, Monica could get it out of her system—whatever it was—and then they would be able to get to work.
Pushing back her chair, Ellie rose. Monica looked pleased for the first time that morning and Ellie shot her a tight smile. “What can I get you?”
“Just a coffee. Black.”
“Great. And you?” she turned to Brady and paused. He looked worried. His eyes were wide and panicked as he swallowed audibly.
“Peppermint Mocha?” she asked.
He widened his gaze further. “You can send Cassie,” he offered. “This isn’t part of your job.”
Ellie lifted an eyebrow. “It isn’t really Cassie’s, either.”
“Actually,” Brady said, standing. “I will go and get the drinks. You stay and explain the design elements to Monica.”
“What is going on here?” Monica asked, her voice going hard and irritation slithering into the set of her shoulders. “It’s almost as if you are trying to avoid me, Brady. Send the intern for the coffee. We have a lot to catch up on.”
The panic in his eyes was enough to confirm to Ellie that he desperately wished to avoid that very scenario. She shouldn’t have been so quick to dismiss his plea down on the sidewalk earlier that morning. The man was in distress, and this woman was the cause. One small, idle meeting had already caused him alarm to a ridiculous degree.
And they were going to be forced to work together closely for the next three weeks.
“Actually, I’m not sure I’m comfortable with this anymore,” Ellie said, turning back toward Monica. The woman’s dark eyebrow arched up in confusion and Ellie found she couldn’t look at Monica while she lied. She turned her attention to Brady instead and hoped she wasn’t making a horrible mistake. “I know we’re supposed to keep this out of the office, but I’m not sure I like you spending alone time with your ex.”
Brady stood across the clear glass table from her, his face a work of stone. “You don’t?” he asked slowly, his words coming out as though he was trying to figure out what they meant while he was saying them.
“No,” Ellie said. “I know it was my idea to keep things quiet, but it’s probably just easier if we come clean now.”
Brady’s gaze flicked to Monica and back. If he’d caught on to what Ellie was trying to do, he surely wasn’t helping it along.
Ellie clasped her hands together in front of herself and turned toward Monica. “I know this can’t be comfortable for you to hear, but for the welfare of this project I feel it is prudent to inform you that Brady and I are dating.”
Monica’s face went white. Her hands gripped one another on her lap and she turned a strained face toward Brady. “Is this true?”
A slow smile spread over his lips as he nodded slowly, his eyes never leaving Ellie’s. She could get used to him looking at her with such appreciation. “We promised Mr. Gaines we would leave the romance out of the office, so we haven’t told many people.”
The room was pregnant with silence. Ellie lowered herself into her chair and turned on her tablet, pleased to see a message from Brady which simply read, “Thank you.”
Taking advantage of Monica’s stunned silence, Ellie pulled up her vision board for the gala, cleared her throat, and began.
Monica had watched him closely after the sudden announcement during the meeting, and Brady had felt thoroughly under investigation by her gaze. But it had been worth it. The meeting had finally progressed, Ellie had delivered a perfect presentation, and decisions were discussed and finalized regarding the theme, guest list, and invitations.
Brady stood shoulder to shoulder with Ellie on the bridge walkway outside of the design room and watched Monica sashay toward the elevators.
She cast a final, curious glance over her shoulder before stepping through the metal doors and Brady held his breath until the elevator slid shut and the woman was gone from sight.
Sighing, he pivoted toward Ellie. “I don’t know how I can ever thank you for agreeing—”
“Not so fast,” Ellie said, facing him and lifting a finger. “I’ve got a few stipulations to go over first.”
He swallowed. Women were so complicated. What was there to discuss? She’d pretend to date him during the meetings, and they could go about their normal lives otherwise.
“This is purely for Monica,” she said, lifting her honey-colored eyebrows. “Otherwise it’s business as usual.”
“Agreed,” he said.
“And I’m feeling charitable right now, which is the only reason I agreed to this. But it stops with Christmas. After that, you’re on your own.”
“I can agree to that,” he said.
“And no kissing,” she added, her finger still raised as though she was berating a small child. “I’m sure HR would flip if they learned about this. But to protect ourselves, let’s just keep the physical contact out of the equation.”
“That will be easy, since we’re trying to appease our boss anyway.”
The corner of her mouth lifted in an amused smile, her eyes sparkling. “Yeah, that was quick thinking. If Monica thinks Gaines is okay with you dating an intern, then it’s a lot more believable.”
Brady began walking toward his office and Ellie fell into step beside him. He turned to look at her and noticed she had a scar on her temple. Drawing his eyebrows in, he indicated it with a flick of his chin and asked, “How did that scar get there?”
Her cheeks went beet red and she dipped her head. It was cute. He’d seen her embarrassed when she spit his coffee all over the board room, but he hadn’t seen her shy like this yet.
Clearing her throat, she delivered a bashful smile. “I fell while dancing. In high school.” Gesturing toward her tablet, she nodded her head toward her own desk down the hall. “I better get on these invitations.”
He watched her start to walk away. Calling after her, he waited for her to make eye contact. “We’re just meeting at the museum in the morning. Would you want to meet here and ride over together?”
“That might be more believable,” Ellie agreed. “I’ll see you here at eight.”
Something tugged at his stomach to follow her, but that was absurd. He had work to do and a team to manage and they were all in the design room just behind him. The intern with a bouncy step and tacky Christmas themed earrings had her own tasks to manage.
Shaking out his head like a wet hound dog, Brady pushed the door open into the design room and dropped onto his chair.
Zane crossed the floor and paused in front of his desk, and Brady lifted his eyebrows.
“I just wanted to ask if you’ve looked over the file I sent you yesterday about my designs for the new Bear Mobile building.”
“Sorry, Zane. There’s been too much going on with this gala project. I’ll have a look sometime today.”
Zane’s face fell, but he managed a brave nod and Brady offered him a tight smile, waiting for him to retreat to his own desk. The guy hadn’t been overly inventive thus far and Brady was hesitant to give his ideas any stock. He hated letting the guy down, but this was business.
After Ellie’s presentation showcasing the delicate balance between a modern Christmas and traditional components, Brady had been feeling more festive than usual. Which was a feat since he absolutely hated the holidays.
But what was there to like? It was one of the few times his family all got together and much like the rest of America, it always ended in fighting and gloom. Christmas never felt good. Christmas was a chore.
But Ellie clearly did not agree with him if her little snowman earrings or subtle pushes for more traditional components were any clue. One large Christmas tree as a centerpiece at the gala with an enormous star and an invitation for guests to bring one ornament to place upon it was as traditional as it gets. Making it more enjoyable by allowing each guest to select a different ornament to take home with them was brilliant.
It was a high-end white elephant gift exchange. A smile lit his lips as he imagined Ellie giving the presentation. She might be fresh from college, but she knew what she was about. And she had excelled during that meeting earlier.
Opening his laptop, Brady pushed the intern from his mind and focused on work. Except after multiple attempts to organize his thoughts, he was still stuck on Ellie’s long blonde hair and the winning smile she’d given him when she had glanced from Brady to Monica at the close of her presentation and realized that she had done it successfully.
Although, that triumph could have been due to the fact that Ellie was able to deliver the entire thing without further interruptions from Monica. But Brady had a feeling she had been proud of herself too.
Leaning back in his chair, he ran a hand through his hair and blew out an exasperated breath.
Sitting forward in his chair, Brady pulled up his email and got to work catching up after the meeting. It was time to separate his business and personal lives mentally.
The staff room was nicer than her kitchen at home, and Ellie found that if she waited until later in the afternoon, most everyone else had already come and gone. She sat at the small white table in the corner and pulled out her phone, scanning through posts on social media and mindlessly eating her peanut butter and jelly sandwich.
“You are the worst sort of confidante,” Cassie said, crashing into the room. She pulled out the chair opposite Ellie and sat down, plopping a clear take-out box full of salad on the table. Crossing her arms over her chest she leveled Ellie with a look. “What happened this morning? And don’t tell me nothing, because I saw how disappointed Monica looked when she stalked out of here.”
“Nothing,” Ellie said around a bite of her sandwich. She offered a closed-lipped smile and picked up her water bottle for a sip.
Rolling her eyes, Cassie opened the salad and began moving lettuce around with a fork. “What did Brady say to her?”
“I know this will be a disappointment, but Brady didn’t say anything.” Ellie took another bite of her sandwich and looked the receptionist in the eye. It was not a lie, exactly. Brady didn’t tell Monica he was dating Ellie. Ellie did.
And she wasn’t quite sure yet if Cassie was the right person to trust with this secret.
Cassie’s exaggerated frown was interrupted with chewing as she took a bite of her salad. “Bummer. I wonder if they texted each other then. The woman came in looking so smug and top-lofty I was rooting for someone to knock her down a peg.”
Ellie shrugged. “So, who’s answering phones right now?”
Cassie shot her a sly smile. “The machine. I never step away for long but I’ve been instructed not to eat at the desk anymore. So they’ll have to deal with waiting a half-hour for their messages.”
“That seems reasonable.”
“What’s not reasonable is Mr. Harvey taking all of the popcorn from the office. I’m sure he did it after everyone left for the day. He’s been complained about the smell for weeks like it’s a bad thing to smell popcorn. Can you even?”
“No, I can’t even,” Ellie responded, drinking more of her water. She didn’t care if there was or wasn’t popcorn in the kitchen.
“I know. And did you hear about Mandy from the legal department? She was caught sleeping at her desk last week. More than once.” Cassie lifted her eyebrows.
Ellie waited for her to continue.
“You know what that means, right?”
“I’m sure you can tell me,” Ellie said, amused. She had made the right choice in keeping her secret to herself. Evidently, Cassie didn’t know how to not share information.
“Obviously there’s trouble at home or she wouldn’t be staying so late she falls asleep. Harver Allen is spotless. Legal doesn’t have that much work to do to keep her that late.”
Chair legs scraped against the cool tile floor as Ellie pushed back from the table and rose. “I’ve got to get back to work.”
Cassie watched her through narrowed, disbelieving eyes. “Right. Let me know if anything happens at your meeting tomorrow.”
“Sure thing,” Ellie called over her shoulder before tossing her garbage in the trash can and heading back toward her desk. Cassie was difficult to predict; her moods seemed to change as frequently as Monica had interrupted during that morning’s meeting.
Which was a lot.
Turning down the hallway, Ellie bumped shoulders with someone coming the opposite direction and jumped out of the way. A tablet fell to the floor and skittered against the wall with a resounding thud.
“Shoot!” Ellie said, reaching for the tablet. “I’m so sorry. I didn’t even see you.” She glanced at the screen and was immensely relieved to find it unbroken. Lifting her gaze, she met the eyes of the hipster guy who’d checked on her outside of the design room the day before.
“Oh, hi,” she said.
He reached forward. “I’m Zane.”
“I’m Ellie.” She shook his hand and laughed. “It seems like we can’t meet under normal circumstances.”
His returning laugh was polite and he indicated the tablet. Ellie’s cheeks went warm as she handed it to him. Had he been reaching for it earlier and not trying to shake her hand?
“Welcome to the company,” he said politely. “It’s a great place to work for the most part.”
“Thanks,” Ellie said. There was an awkward moment of silence when Zane looked around like he didn’t know what to say. “Well I guess I’ll see you around,” she said, turning to go. It was a good thing she already had a best friend at home, because work did not appear to be the place she was going to make lasting relationships.
Ellie arrived at the office at eight sharp and waited in front of the building for Brady. The museum wasn’t too far away, but it was enough of a distance that they’d likely grab a cab.
“You’re early,” Brady said, hurrying toward her with two to-go cups in his hands.
She glanced at her watch. “Actually, I was on time. You are late.”
He gave her a once over before handing her one of the cups and turning back the way he came. “We should decide how we want to explain our romance to Monica.”
“And good morning to you, too,” Ellie said, pulling the straps of her bag higher on her shoulder. She smelled the tea. It was peppermint. “Thanks.”
“No problem. I’m a little anxious,” he said with a bashful smile. “Monica makes me crazy.”
Brady paused on the sidewalk, pulling on Ellie’s sleeve until she turned to face him. “Listen, I realize this whole thing is kind of crazy, but I really appreciate you helping me out. Monica has got this ability to make me come back to her every time we break up. And I don’t know how she does it, but I always find myself back in a toxic relationship with her, willing to give it another shot. This” —he indicated to himself and Ellie with a hand gesture— “will keep her from even trying.”
“I don’t know about that. But it’s worth a shot.”
“And that is why I appreciate you,” he said.
Ellie turned back toward the street and waited for Brady to wave down a cab. Climbing into the smelly back seat, she waited for Brady to give the driver their direction and then said, “So as far as our office romance is concerned, we can say that it was love at first meeting. I mean, we do have a cute intro story with the spitting coffee in the boardroom.”
Brady lifted an eyebrow. “I’m not sure that qualifies as cute.”
Ellie scoffed. “Come on, be a gentleman. At least pretend you found it cute. As my boyfriend, you know, you totally would.”
He gave her a heart-melting smile. “Well as your boyfriend I can pretend, I guess.”
The taxi came to a stop and they stepped onto the busy sidewalk before climbing the pristine white, marble steps to the museum entrance.
The entrance to the museum was large and spacious, studded with white painted columns throughout the room, with vast vaulted ceilings overhead. There were various art pieces on display, but Ellie could see how perfectly the main floor would work for the gala when they were removed.
Heel steps clicked, echoing throughout the room.
“Good morning,” Monica said, coming toward them with her hair slicked back into a sleek ponytail. She wore a black pencil skirt, offset with a crisp, white shirt. Her cheerful smile was belied by the strain in the slight wrinkles around her eyes. “Shall we begin with a tour?”
“That would be great,” Ellie said.
“Well this is our main foyer. As you can see by the desk and our fabulous Julianne here,” Monica said, sweeping her hand to indicate the front desk and ticket sales information behind a short, curly-haired employee, “we have a coat check room just beyond that door over there and will station security guards around the entrance here.”
“And employees to accept invitations?” Ellie added. “With the high-value art contained in this building, we should probably do our best to ensure that only invited members enter through these doors.”
“Precisely,” Monica said crisply. “Moving along, we’ve got a lot of open space to set up.”
Ellie stepped away from the group, walking around the room and envisioning the gala how she had designed it in her mind. She came upon an art piece in the very center of the room and stopped, surveying the room from that vantage point. It was precisely in the center and from there it was clear that the pillars were designed in a loose circle around the very middle of the room. Artfully done, of course, because it was unclear that they were meant to be a circle until Ellie stood in that very place.
“What do you think?” Brady asked, approaching her with a casual step.
Ellie glanced over his shoulder to Monica, who was following close behind him. “Will this piece be moved before the gala? This is the perfect place for the gifting tree.”
“The gifting tree,” Brady said. “I like that.”
“Yes. This will be moved to a separate floor next week.”
“Fantastic,” Ellie said. “The tree can go here. We can put cocktail tables around the main floor for mingling, and then set up tables over there in front of the steps for the ceremony.”
The other two were quiet as Ellie finished speaking and she glanced between them, suddenly acutely aware of her own low status within the company she represented. She turned to Brady. “If you think that would be wise, of course.”
He nodded, impressed. “I think that would be perfect. I’m not sure I’d be able to come up with anything better.” He turned to Monica. “What do you think?”
“It’s fine, I guess. Should we go to my office and discuss the charity details?”
Brady looked to Ellie and she agreed. “Let’s.”
They reached the elevator when Monica stopped suddenly and offered Brady a sweet smile. “Would you be a doll and fetch us some of those delicious pastries? I’m sure we’ll all be famished by the time we are finished hammering out these details.”
It was a job so beneath Brady that Ellie wanted to sink into the floor from embarrassment. Was Monica playing her status here or did she have another reason to get him to leave? “I can run out for something,” Ellie said quickly. Brady was protected by their relationship now, anyway. “I’m the intern, after all.”
“No, I’ll go,” Brady said.
“Just have Julianne get you up to the right floor when you return,” Monica said.
He spun for the door and disappeared from sight right away.
Why did Monica constantly want pastries?
The elevator door dinged and opened, and Monica clicked her way inside before sliding a card into the panel and clicking a button. The elevator doors closed, shutting Ellie in with her fake boyfriend’s ex-girlfriend. She swallowed, then shot Monica a fleeting smile.
“How long have you been together?” Monica asked suddenly, her voice as serious as her gaze.
Ellie paused, surprised by Monica’s directness. “I’m not sure it’s appropriate to discuss while we’re working. We try really hard to keep everything above reproach.”
Monica’s gaze narrowed, her dark ponytail had flipped over her shoulder and she was playing with the ends of it. “Is it serious?” she asked, ignoring Ellie’s previous request completely.
“That is less appropriate than the last question,” Ellie countered.
“Forgive my curiosity,” Monica said as the elevator doors opened to reveal a hallway lined with doors. “I only dated the man off and on for years. And all of a sudden, he’s got this brand new girlfriend that I’ve heard nothing about. Neither have any of his friends,” she added with a sidelong glance before stepping into the hall.
Ellie was grateful for the walk down the hall to gather her wits. When Monica let her into her office Ellie stepped inside and took a seat. “Well that’s probably because we’ve kept everything low key. Brady didn’t want to announce anything until he was sure it was going to work with Harver Allen. And I don’t blame him, really. I’m just an intern. I wanted to be cautious as well.”
Monica clearly had a hard time swallowing the story Ellie was feeding her. She knew something was up or she wouldn’t have questioned Brady’s friends.
“In fact, we planned to tell everyone for Christmas,” Ellie said. They wouldn’t still be together by Christmas anyway. “It was going to be a surprise.”
Monica’s eyebrows lifted. “At the Garrison family party? That’s bold.”
“Well, why not announce it with a splash?”
“You haven’t met the Garrisons,” Monica said with a smug smile.
The door opened and Brady stepped inside, taking a seat beside Ellie and dropping a paper bag on the desk. Monica finally lowered herself in the chair on the other side of the desk, leaning back and crossing one leg over the other knee.
“I was just hearing all about the big announcement,” Monica said sweetly, reaching into the bag for a pastry. She lifted out a muffin and arched an eyebrow at him.
“It’s what they had,” Brady said unrepentantly. “What big announcement? Did you settle on a charity?”
“No, the big announcement you’re planning to do at your family Christmas party.”
Brady turned confused eyes on Ellie and she tried to convey her apologies through her own gaze, but she had a feeling he wasn’t reading her mind.
This was her fault, so she had to find a way to get them out of it. “You know, about us,” Ellie said smoothly. “I mean, I know it wasn’t meant to come out yet, but Monica won’t tell anyone.”
“Of course I won’t,” Monica added.
“Right,” Brady said. “Except that I thought we decided not to discuss our relationship during work hours. HR and all that.”
“Exactly,” Monica said. “Let’s get started on this charity. We are simultaneously raising money to go toward…”
“Kids Afterschool,” Ellie said at once.
“Kids after school what?” Monica asked.
“It’s a program in the San Francisco school system that helps kids who are less fortunate have more exposure to the arts. They put together plays and have a special library program,” Ellie explained. “And they assist children who have English as a second language learn to read faster.”
“That sounds worthy to me,” Brady said, shrugging.
“And our patrons love those sorts of things. It always makes them feel like they’ve accomplished something,” Monica said with no tact.
Ellie was tempted to tell Monica that she had spent quite a few years in Kids Afterschool while her grandparents were both working. She wasn’t ashamed of her less privileged upbringing, but she bit back the comment. “Then let’s give them plenty of opportunities to spend their money.”
“Agreed,” Brady said, shooting Ellie an amused smile. “Now is that all we had to discuss? We better get back to the office. I assume we can leave the coordinating between Kids Afterschool and the museum to you?”
“Absolutely,” Monica said. “I’ll be sure to find their lead board members and issue them invitations as well.”
“Wonderful,” Brady said, rising.
Ellie looked between them, certain her list of things to discuss was a mile long. But Brady seemed eager to go, so she got up and followed him out. The farewells were awkward, but they made it outside where Brady let out a breath, like he’d been unable to breathe regularly indoors.
“So what exactly was all that about?” he asked the moment they left the building.
Neither Monica nor Brady had seemed to care about the charitable component to the gala, but Ellie did. And why not give back to a foundation which had helped her immensely as a child? “I figured it was wise to choose a charity that really could use the money,” she defended.
“No, not that. Yes, that sounds great. I am wholly in agreeance with you on that. I meant the big announcement.”
“Oh, that,” Ellie said, rolling her eyes. “Monica questioned your friends about me and wanted to know why you hadn’t said anything about our relationship. She asked how serious we are and how long we’ve been dating… so I told her we were saving the news to make sure it was going to work out first.”
“But my family party?” he asked, his face pained.
“That was her. I just kind of agreed.”
He scrubbed a hand over his face and sighed. “It’s not possible. We can’t do it.”
Ellie reached forward and grasped his arm. “She doesn’t have to know that. I wasn’t actually intending on going to your family party and making a big announcement. We only have to pull this off until Christmas Eve anyway and the gala is over.”
He leveled her with a look. “Except that my family party is next week.”
“And Monica is probably going,” he added.
“Oh.” Ellie dropped her arm.
“Yeah,” Brady said. He turned for the street and flagged down a cab. “She’s really tight with my sister, who lives in Seattle. So every time Becky comes back to the bay to visit, we see a lot of Monica.”
A cab stopped and Brady slid in first this time, leaving the door open for Ellie. He gave the office address to the driver and leveled her with a look. “So what are we going to do?”
“I guess I’m coming to your family Christmas party.”
Pepper was busier than usual that evening and Brady slid into a booth as soon as another woman and her friend vacated it, despite the mess of drinks they’d left behind. Ben was supposed to meet him in another half-hour but he had work to do and could use a minute alone to gather his bearings. A man stepped up to his table to clear away the dishes and a woman stopped by really quickly, saying, “I’ll be right with you!” before she disappeared again.
He settled into his seat, glancing around the busy restaurant for any faces he might recognize.
His gaze landed on Zane at the bar and he turned away before the guy noticed him and they made eye contact. Brady was not in the mood to socialize with coworkers at present. Instead, he pulled out his phone and began sifting through emails he hadn’t had time to reply to during work earlier that day.
A few minutes went by before the waitress returned. She had a bright smile and frizzy black hair pulled up high on her head. “What can I get for you?”
Brady ordered some dinner and went back to his phone after explaining that another man would be joining him shortly.
His group family chat had been blowing up all day with everyone discussing the family Christmas party. He should tell them he was bringing a woman with him, but he just didn’t know how to word it. Besides, they were all arguing between Mexican and Italian for dinner like they did every year, and soon they would settle on Italian, like they did every year. He just needed to give them time to come to that conclusion again.
When his food arrived, Ben followed shortly behind it.
“Are you coming to our gala?” Brady asked as his friend took a seat.
“I don’t know, maybe. But you are not distracting me that easily, man,” he said, a wide grin showcasing his perfect teeth. “I heard you got yourself a girlfriend.”
Ben shrugged. “Word gets around. Monica’s been asking questions.”
Brady blew out a breath through his teeth. “She works fast.”
“So?” Ben asked, leaving the question hanging.
“I took your advice,” Brady said, shrugging. He winced. “And I may have asked an intern to step in for a few short weeks.”
Ben’s eyes bulged. “That has to be against company policy.”
“I’m breaking all the ethical rules these days. But I didn’t know what else to do. And you know what?” he added, smiling. “It worked.”
The waitress returned and Ben ordered his own dinner before they were left in privacy again. “Really?” Ben said, picking up where they left off.
“Yeah. I wish I’d thought of this scheme last year when we got back together and I had to buy her that Prada bag as my apology gift.”
Ben just laughed.
Brady gave a self-deprecating shake of his head. “I’ve learned.”
“And now you’ve got an intern girlfriend protecting you.”
Arching his eyebrow, Brady picked up his fork. “Hey, it could be worse.”
Stepping into Pepper, Ellie was hit with the aroma of sizzling steak and too many people. She grazed the bar for a single open seat and caught one at the far end. Beelining her way toward the chair, she caught Kayla’s attention across the floor and sent a little wave.
Kayla was obviously swamped, but she would probably still manage a discount for Ellie. She was the best.
Settling herself onto the bar chair, Ellie hung her purse on the back of the chair and turned to face forward, ordering a Coke and a steak—her favorite meal.
“Hey there,” a man said to her left, and Ellie turned, surprised to find that she’d sat directly next to Zane from work.
Her cheeks warmed. “I didn’t see you there. I’ve been distracted,” she said with an awkward laugh.
Zane flicked his wrist to shove aside her apology. “It’s fine. How was your second day?”
“Better,” she said. “I didn’t stomp my foot like a five-year-old in front of the entire design team, if that’s what you mean.”
Zane’s smile was understanding. “It can be overwhelming starting a new job. It’s overwhelming for me and I’ve been there for over a year.”
“Yikes,” Ellie said. “That’s not what I want to hear.”
“I’m sure it won’t be the same for you. I just don’t get much opportunity to show my abilities, so I’m always stuck on the menial jobs.”
She gazed into his dark brown eyes and read the resignation there. “Have you tried to find a way to show them that you’re capable of more than they are giving you?”
“Yes,” he said immediately. “But it doesn’t mean much if the boss isn’t willing to give you a chance.”
“Oh.” That was odd. Brady didn’t seem like the sort of man to stunt a coworker’s growth intentionally. Unless there was a reason for it…
Ellie asked, “Do you have access to any of your designs now? I’d love to see them.”
“Sure thing,” Zane said. He pulled out his phone and swiped around for a moment before placing it on the bar in front of her. Ellie pulled it closer and swiped through the photos.
Mockups for a large skyscraper with edgy, modern shapes and rows upon rows of shiny windows filled the screen. There was a center courtyard that was tastefully done, and a beautiful archway that led to the foyer. She was suitably impressed. “Wow. This is amazing.”
“Tell that to Brady,” Zane said under his breath.
She turned to face him. “Why don’t you?”
“I’ve tried,” he said, taking his phone back. He swiped through the photos as he spoke. “I wanted to try and get this in the running for the new Bear Mobile building we’ve bid for and he keeps putting off looking at it. I don’t know why.”
The waiter slid a steaming plate in front of her on the bar, but Ellie ignored it, turning toward Zane and making her face as stern as she was able while she waited for him to slide his phone back in his pocket. “Try one more time. That project deserves to be looked at. I don’t know how they go about making decisions at Harver Allen, but your design deserves a shot.”
Kayla sidled up between them right then, leaning on Ellie. “We are so packed tonight,” she said, never-ending enthusiasm pouring from her. Ellie would hate working at such a busy steakhouse, but Kayla thrived off of it.
“Kayla, this is my friend Zane. We work together.”
Kayla turned toward him, her eyebrows raised in interest. “Hi, Zane. You enjoying your steak?”
“Yes. It’s one of the best cuts I’ve ever had.”
“I’ll pass that on to the chefs.” She gestured between Zane and Ellie. “Did you two come together, then?”
Zane shot Ellie a smile and she laughed. “No, actually. It was just a funny coincidence.” She turned to Kayla. “Hey, when are you off? Want to watch The Holiday tonight?”
“Eleven and yes.” Kayla turned to Zane. “I gotta run. Nice to meet you.”
Kayla spun away before Zane could respond. “She’s fiery,” he said, his eyes trailing Kayla as she checked on some tables along the far wall.
“And she’s single,” Ellie said.
Zane’s dark skin reddened with a blush and Ellie turned back toward her plate. Cutting into her steak, she gave Zane a moment to cool down.
They chatted about the people around the office and the quirky receptionist.
“She’s hot and cold,” Zane said. “You have to figure out which side she’s on that day and then you’ll know how much she’s willing to do for you.”
“Weird,” Ellie said, finishing off her steak. “I think I’ve gotten hot and cold from her in the same day. With crying in the middle.”
“Pretty normal,” Zane said, swigging his drink.
“Zane and Ellie?” a voice said from behind them. The