It was like being called to the principal’s office. Or worse, her father’s office. Penelope Lane had been summoned. Mr. Boss Man himself had called.
Penny smiled to herself as she sat in the plush, black velvet seats lining the reception area. The view from here beat the view from her desk three floors down, no contest. From here, she could see the bay, yachts bobbing in the breeze, a kid and his dad flying a handmade kite. From her desk, the only thing she saw was a brick wall.
“Ah, Miss Lane?” Andrea Grey’s voice brought her to her feet. “He’ll see you now.” She nodded with a pleasant smile.
With a deep breath, she set her shoulders back and held her chin high before making her way into the Big Kahuna’s office. The empty space hit her first, followed by the artwork lining the wall. Expensive. Exclusive. Exquisite. She couldn’t keep her eyes away.
A deep chuckle bounced off the walls. “My private collection,” he boasted. “I keep them here purely for the brag value.”
Penny turned her head and nearly stumbled when she saw how close he was. Bernard King was a man’s man—big, wide shoulders; round, proud chest; hair meticulously styled and coloured. At sixty-five, he stood as one of the most powerful and influential men in the city. And aside from her official Welcome to the team lunch, he’d never spoken directly to her.
Directing a company of this size, coordinating his one hundred and two employees, wining and dining with the country’s politicians, Bernard didn’t have time for social chitchat. Why he’d even called her to his office was a mystery.
It boiled down to two possibilities. Either he loved her work, or he hated it. The smile on his face could suggest he was pleased. Please let it be, she prayed silently.
“It’s an impressive collection, Mr. King.”
He chuckled. “Please, it’s Bernie. Care to take a seat?”
Suppressing a cheeky grin, she followed Bernie to his enormous Blackwood desk and took a seat in one of the leather wingbacks. He rounded the amazingly neat workstation and sat opposite.
“Penelope Lane.” He gave a nod. “May I call you Penny?”
Cotton-mouthed, she nodded.
“I’m glad you were able to come and see me. I’ve been taking a look at your employee record, and I’m knocked out by your dedication. Seems like you really enjoy working here.”
She nodded. “Yes, sir. The network is always buzzing with excitement. Never a dull moment.”
He laughed and nodded. “Yes, very true. I want to reward my hardworking employees, and I’d like your help.”
Her help? She barely swallowed the giggle of joy threatening to leap out. He’d singled her out for something unique, had looked at her clean record and decided she was the best for the job. “In what way?” she asked, sounding oh-so-calm.
“Christmas in July.”
He practically beamed like a lighthouse. Anyone would think he’d coined the phrase himself! Short of repeating the phrase, she didn’t know what to say. Rather, she stayed quiet and let him explain.
“I’d like to have an exchange of gifts, partner up the employees so they’ve got one other person to buy for. Nothing special, not too expensive. Say twenty dollars? Something to boost flagging spirits, to banish this dismal weather we’re having and to spur productivity for the next six months.”
“Until the real Christmas comes along.”
His hands came alive as he drummed the desktop and gave her two thumbs up. “That’s it. I have one other bonus to announce, and I’ll need your help with that, but the gift exchange is of utmost importance.”
Her eyes widened as reality dawned on her, her workload had just doubled. “You’d like me to match people up, make sure everyone has a secret Santa and that everyone has a gift.”
“Absolutely. Maybe for happy hour we can have a Christmas party, complete with eggnog. I’d even go so far as to spring for a snow machine. What do you say?”
Until now, she hadn’t thought he knew her name. Now he was asking her to run the whole thing? Lordy. She mentally wiped the sweat from her brow. Doubled? More like her workload just tripled.
“I like your idea,” he was saying. What idea? “My Secret Santa. That’s what we’ll call it. Excellent. You’ve got a creative little mind there, Penny.” He stood, smoothing down his barely crinkled suit jacket. “You’ll need to begin straight away; I’ll announce it tomorrow at Friday’s happy hour. You’re the go-to guy on this. Don’t let me down, you hear?”
* * * *
Thursday night out on the town. Yeah, that’s what I’m talking about. Jesse hurried through the wintry night, weaving his way through the bumper-to-bumper traffic to cross the road. Leaping up the steps three at a time, he ducked under the front stoop of Dante’s Peak. The beefy security guard smiled at him, nodded his head in recognition.
“Evening, Mr. Fox.”
Out of the drizzle, he could shrug off his coat. “Hey, man, busy night?”
The guard nodded and let him through. Handing over the full-length CK coat to the check in, Jesse scanned the diners. The place was packed, as was usually the case. Michael Dante, or Mickey D to his mates, ran the hottest new restaurant in town. Jesse was glad to see the band hadn’t started up yet, almost as much as he was relieved to see she hadn’t arrived yet.
Phew. He was late, but at least he hadn’t kept her waiting.
Drawing his gaze across the room, Jesse grinned when he saw the host. His lifelong buddy had finally made the big time. Watching the tall, dashing jock meet and greet the myriad celebrities gracing the tables in this hip place, Jesse felt brotherly pride puff out his chest.
Yep, he knew The Man. Mickey D. Had known him since he was The Boy, too.
Back then, they all believed he’d go pro and play league football. Loaded with talent, he could run rings around Jesse. Until a wayward skateboard accident ended that career. Mick had never really gotten back on his feet. When they toyed with the restaurant idea twelve months ago, it’d been a booze-induced, testosterone-smothered, pie-in-the-sky dream.
Jesse grinned and waved when Mick laid eyes on him. The Man waved back, just as Rory Calhoun stepped behind the microphone. His eyes grew big on seeing Jesse, and the two thumbs up and the dimple-faced grin made Jesse chuckle.
The third musketeer of the group, Rory, loved his music. So much so, Jesse had to help him move house a month ago, right out of Jesse’s apartment. Finding the rocker a new abode hadn’t been easy, especially in the city. While it was cool to live right in the heart of Melbourne and hip to earn a living as a pub rocker, it wasn’t cool or hip to be crashing about on guitars and drums until three in the morning.
The warehouse by the waterfront had done the trick. Lots of open space, sound proofing and very few neighbours. Now Rory could make as much noise as he needed. It doubled as their boys’ night venue, too, and when they got together … Jesse grinned to himself. Yep, the Brotherhood was still going strong.
“Jesse, man!” Mick slapped his shoulder. “Good to see you. She’s not here yet.”
“So I see,” he nodded, noticing too many of his colleagues dining amongst the crowd. Damn, he should’ve kept quiet about the place. Now everyone would know. “Can you get us a booth?”
“Mate.” Mick dragged the word out, hanging on the ‘a.’ Seemed like he’d already done the favour. “You need to ask? I think I’m offended.”
As Mick led him to the rear of the restaurant, Jesse avoided all eye contact with familiar faces. It wasn’t that he didn’t want anyone to see him with a woman, or see what kind of woman he went out with. Quite the contrary. Rather, he didn’t want anyone to see him with this woman.
Candy Lake. Yes, her real name. Little miss-sugar-and-spice-and-all-things-nice was quite a catch. A pedigreed, groomed debutante like her looked damned good on his arm. She was just the right height, not too tall, not too short. Physically, she matched him perfectly. In and out of bed. And despite her name, she wasn’t some powder-puff airhead.
She had brains, knew what was what in their world. Understood the finer art of discretion and the delectable treats a man expected. He didn’t care so much about her job, she was so-so at what she did. Did the research, put together newsworthy stories, that kind of thing. Whether she wanted more had never been a part of their conversations.
Conversations? Like they really had any.
“Here you go, buddy.” Mick gestured at the couple’s booth. Criss-cross lattice work divided each booth from its neighbours, complete with real frangipani vines. In bloom, they filled the restaurant with a sweet, sensual aroma fit for kings and queens. They came courtesy of Mick’s mother’s magical touch.
The entry to each booth was shielded by drawn curtains. Thick, chocolaty velvet drapes, each pulled to opposite sides to create a cozy, private dining experience.
Jesse knew the booths were usually booked solid. He loved being a friend to the host.
“What about you?” Jesse paused before sliding in to the darkened coven. “How’s…” he clicked his fingers, cursing his wayward memory. “Tracey?”
“Eden!” Mick slapped him upside the head. “And we’re done.”
“Done?” Jesse blinked.
Like himself, Mick was a bona fide bachelor. They liked their encounters short and sweet, a clean end, if possible. Rory on the other hand, he was a bloody romantic. He swooned over every single female on two legs.
Years ago, Jesse had made a secret pact with Mick. Whatever it took, they’d save Rory from himself and keep the man footloose and fancy free. He’d thank them for it in the end. Especially Mr. Rockstar himself.
“Yeah. Done. As in over. You know how it goes.” Mick’s victorious grin suggested he’d had his fill of the pleasant woman and was ready to move on.
That’s how it always went. The man ended it. Before the woman got too attached.
Jesse knew he was one of a dying breed. His mother and every woman at work told him so. But he would live his own life whichever damn way he chose. The idea of giving up his no-strings-attached lifestyle, his perfectly positioned apartment with unobscured bay views and his king-sized bed to a woman was not an option.
“Well, good on you,” Jesse shook his hand. “Keep it up, ol’ boy.”
Looking up as he released Mick’s hand, Jesse’s heart lurched. Candy had arrived. She never failed to elicit a response from his body. Her luscious curves, full, red lips and deep green eyes knew just how to get him going.
Kissing her demurely on the cheek, he ushered her into the booth and then slid into her space.
“Settle,” she whispered, her hand on his chest. Not that she was actually holding him back. “I’m hungry.”
“I surrender,” he laughed, pulling back and lifting a menu.
Dante’s Peak served only the finest the sparkling ocean had to offer. He was about to announce he’d have the lobster when Candy squeaked. “We need to talk.”
She turned those panda eyes up to him and batted her thick black eyelashes. Why did she have to wear so much makeup? “I’ve been thinking.”
“Thinking?” Dangerous. Very, very dangerous.
Candy squirmed. “Look, we’ve had a good time, haven’t we?”
That was true.
“And it’s not like we were expecting it to last, right?”
Wait. She was dumping him? Jesse nearly laughed. He couldn’t remember the last time a woman left him. It was hilarious. She was right. They were just out for a good time, and hell would freeze over before he sold out to romance.
But she was dumping him? He swallowed the laugh hammering to get out. Make a clean break, he told himself. Laughing at her would just infuriate her and if there was one thing he knew about women, it was to never humiliate one.
Hell hath no fury and all that.
“Right,” he finally said on a sigh. “I’m surprised.”
She smiled sheepishly. “I’m sorry, you’re probably not used to this. But it’s time to move on.”
Move on, he thought. Move on to where? She wasn’t quitting her job, didn’t have a better job at a rival network lined up, so where was she going? Mulling over it for a moment or two, Jesse wanted to smack himself. It wasn’t about where she was going, but about who she was moving on to.
He wanted to congratulate her. He’d never attributed cunning to her list of virtues, but she was as sly as they came. A mental list of the men ranked above him popped into his curious mind.
As a field reporter, Jesse was nowhere near the top of the tree. But there were others, men who could help Candy climb the corporate ladder. Damn. She was good, and he was man enough to accept her decision. After all, she wasn’t the first to use him as a ladder rung, and she probably wouldn’t be the last.
He was happy with his lot. Roving reporter, digging around in the dirt to come up with the goods. Hell, he loved getting his hands dirty, and he wouldn’t trade it for a five-ten broad in stilettos. Not this side of purgatory, anyway.
“Jesse?” Her hand on his forearm was soft, concerned almost.
“Well, we knew what we were getting into, right? No hard feelings, then?”
Candy smiled a broad and delicious smile. The girl knew how to turn a man on. “You’re a doll,” she squealed, reaching up to peck him on the cheek. She’d never been so restrained around him before. “Now shuffle out of the way.”
“You’re going? Now?”
“Yes. Sorry. Things to do.”
He clambered out of the booth and watched her slide gracefully to her feet. Victory shone brightly in her eyes. He couldn’t help himself. “Who is he?”
“I take it you’ve found someone higher up the food chain to nibble on, right?”
Candy rolled her eyes. “You make it sound so sleazy. We live in a cutthroat world, Jesse. You know that better than anyone I know.”
He frowned, frustrated by her avoidance. “Just tell me his position.”
She took one step when he caught her arm gently and urged her with his eyes. With an exaggerated sigh, she said, “Mason Buckingham.” And then she disappeared.
He blinked, feeling a little dazed. Mason Buckingham? The anchorman? Damn, the woman knew what she was doing.
* * * *
Penny watched the pencil-thin Candy Lake stride out of the restaurant as if nothing had happened. She was sure her jaw had hit the floor, certain her eyes were just about popping out of her head. Who in their right mind, would walk away from Jesse Fox?
The guy was … sigh … heaven on earth … meals on wheels.
“Penelope, what’s wrong?”
Her mouth snapped closed, her eyeballs springing back into their sockets as she whipped her head around and smiled on cue. “Sorry, Dad.”
Councillor Benjamin Lane glanced around the restaurant before resting his confused expression on his daughter. Penny felt her shoulders sag under the pressure. For all intents and purposes, Ben Lane doted on his only child. Nothing was ever too much trouble, no favour too much to ask. And yet, she felt smothered.
In his presence, Penny couldn’t shake the responsibility his position on City Council had saddled her with. She had a duty, she was accountable. If he caught her staring at the sexy news reporter she’d been drooling over for the last six months, he’d skin her alive.
Well, maybe not. But the punishment was akin to eating chopped liver. Penny suppressed a shudder.
“Who were you looking at?”
“Oh,” she said casually. “Just a waiter who stumbled.”
Her father smiled and patted her hand. “You’re too easily distracted, my dear.”
Distracted? Yes. Enraged? Oh, yeah.
Didn’t Candy know what a stud Jesse was? Could she not see the charming prince under the cavalier exterior? How dare she treat him so poorly? Using him for his position to further her piddly career. The woman clearly had no idea what she’d just given up.
Penny had half a mind to race after her, grab her by her free-flowing silk scarf and strangle some sense into her. The woman was callous. Plain and simple.
While she wanted to turn her attention to Jesse, she felt her father’s intense stare on her. The man could be ruthless in his quest for information. Whether it was about her personal or professional life, Ben rarely gave up. And all too often, she caved in.
Ever since her mother walked out on them, Penny made it her life’s mission to please her father. One woman had left him, she wasn’t about to strike the same colossal blow. He was a good man, if a little extreme at times, and he deserved a loyal family. It was just a pity she was all he had left.
“I’m sorry,” she smiled. “It’s been a long day at work. I can’t wait for this week to be over.”
He nodded. “I understand. You do remember the Governor’s Ball on Saturday, don’t you?”
She wanted to groan. Didn’t she have to wash her hair or something? Saturday, her favourite night of the week. Long, hot bubble bath, Vivaldi, candlelight, frangipani and her Jesse-inspired fantasy. She sighed. Yes.
Oops. Mental shake. “Sorry.”
He chuckled affectionately. “I think I should get you home. You need some sleep.”
Allowing her father to lead her toward the exit by the elbow, Penny stole a secret glance at Jesse. He stood forlornly at the bar, a stein of beer in one hand, the maître d’ consoling him. A firm expression took hold of her features and an idea blossomed in her head.
Don’t you worry, Jesse, I’ll show you how a woman should feel about you. When I’m done with you, you’ll feel like a king, you’ll see.
* * * *
The only good thing about Friday was happy hour. But that wasn’t until five o’clock. And when Jesse checked his watch, again, it had barely gone ten.
He groaned and dragged a hand over his stubbly chin. For the first time in months, he hadn’t shaved. Gone commando, so to speak. By all accounts, it was working. Every woman in the place had eyed him off at least once. Still, he had work to do and getting dumped wasn’t a reason to slack off.
If anything, now he had to work harder. Whether she’d meant to or not, Candy ended it in a public venue. Not even he sunk that low. There was no escaping the fact that people he worked with witnessed what went on. Of course, Mick wanted to announce it publicly and throw a party because he was single again.
Except, the unexpected freedom didn’t mean a whole lot given the enormous load of editing he had to do before he could enjoy happy hour. Investigative reporting had its downside. Hours and hours cooped up in a cramped, dark editing suite was no picnic in Jesse’s opinion. Whatever ignoramus came up with the term editing suite needed a kick up the backside. There was nothing sweet about it.
Running through the reams of tape, cutting a bunch of mindless, bone-numbing nothing here and there, splicing together the shots that evoked the desired emotional response; Jesse barely noticed the time tick by.
In his element, working with the footage and piecing together a shock-worthy tale of mistreatment and misery, Jesse was happy. It was art on video. Divinity at its best. Well, as good as it got with battery hens anyway. But cracking this story would earn him gold stars again.
Everybody loved “Chicken-Lickin’ Good” poultry products. From fresh eggs to frozen hens, the company raked in hundreds of thousands of dollars. But what Jesse knew, and what the rest of the country was about to find out, was that they were breaking every rule.
Hens cooped up in twelve-inch cages with no room to move, steroid-loaded feed super-sizing the chickens for slaughter, maggot-infested pens … the list went on. And he, Jesse Fox, would save the day.
The press he was likely to receive brought a grin to his lips, pushed Candy Lake right out of his thoughts and enticed him to think of what might lay ahead tonight. Anything could happen at happy hour, abso-bloody-lutely anything. He couldn’t wait.
* * * *
The party atmosphere filled the entire building. Drinks all round. Party hats and balloon popping.
Not that it was new. Every Friday, come five o’clock, work stopped. It was the biggest treat any boss could allow. A weekly office party. Of course, there were provisos, like there wouldn’t be! But Jesse wasn’t complaining.
Anything for a party.
With his editing complete, his story submitted and his weekend clear, he was ready to let down his hair. The first beer tasted good, the second great and the third, well, third time was always the charmer.
Now with a warm, fuzzy feeling, his belly full of pretzels and chips and nuts, his heated blood whizzing through his veins, Jesse could finally relax. Any sorrows he felt about Candy dumping him had been drowned in his ten-second whine. Mick listened for the full ten seconds. Just as they always did. No point pining over a lost bed-buddy.
The one resolution he’d settled on was to avoid another workplace fling. At least until the rumour mill burned itself out and the dust settled. He should also make sure there were no more incriminating photocopies left lining wastepaper baskets. Through with Candy, he wanted a clean start.
So tonight was all about moving on.
His private celebration, however, was interrupted when the elevator doors pinged and the king himself appeared. Jesse had never seen the place so quiet. Everyone turned to stare. It wasn’t like the man made an appearance every day.
Jesse tried to gather enough memory cells to conjure the details of their last meeting. Long, long time ago. So long, in fact, he couldn’t remember. He chuckled, though no one paid him any attention.
“Good evening, everyone!” Bernard King waved and scanned the office floor.
Before him stood a gaggle of reporters, Jesse included. Some roved the field, like him, others preferred to drive their careers from behind their desks. Whatever their method, they were highly revered in their field. That was King’s trademark. Jesse himself had been poached from a rival investigative outfit, Bernard King making the phone calls personally.
It was mostly the same for everyone else in the room. Some were recruited prior to their graduation from journalism courses around the country, two from overseas. All because King had the means and the method. Scrupulous and fiercely competitive, he insisted on working with the best.
“Thought I’d drop by and let you in on a little bit of good news. Beginning Monday, we’re having Christmas in July. A week of Christmas celebrations to ward off the winter chill.”
A cheer went around the room, champagne and beer glasses held high in a show of universal approval.
“Excellent.” King laughed jovially. “And you’re all invited to join in the gift exchange. My Secret Santa. Penny Lane from administration will be running it. If you choose not to participate, then that’s your choice, but you’ll need to let her know.”
Jesse grimaced. A gimmick. The kind that didn’t appeal to him. Nothing more. Why the boss insisted on them, Jesse didn’t know. He’d need to inform this Penny person soon that he would have no part of it. But all he saw was a skinny, pale white arm poking up from behind King waving vigorously. If that was Penny, he had no idea what she looked like.
Damn. He sighed. He could just imagine who he’d get in the draw. Random or not, odds were on Jesse to be matched up with the hardest person to find a gift for.
“Otherwise, you’re all included. You’ll receive an internal email on Monday outlining who you’ll buy for and any other pertinent details. You get to play Santa.”
Another cheer. Another round of clinking glasses.
“Oh, and one more thing. Because you’ve all worked so incredibly hard this last year, I have a gift for you all. In two weeks, you each have one weekend of exclusive, all expenses paid access to Victoria’s finest ski resort. I hear the snow’s fantastic this year.”
Anything else King had to say was drowned out by the resultant roar of the workers. Another ping signalled that the king had left the floor, and the party rolled on.
Jesse slumped back on someone’s desk. Damn. He had to buy a gift for someone? That meant he would have to actually go shopping. Not a strength. Certainly not a desire. If he had his wits about him, he’d go searching for the coordinator of the damned gimmick right now, but his groggy brain couldn’t string together the directions to her desk.
It’d have to wait ’til Monday. Who was she again? Jude? Eleanor? Linda? He couldn’t remember, but he knew it had something to do with the Beatles.
* * * *
The scent of frangipani hung in the air, as the soft amber glow of candlelight danced on the pale peach wall. Vivaldi’s Four Seasons played in the background, the volume turned down so she could still hear the gentle pop of the bubbles.
With her hair piled on top of her head, her body soaking in a steaming bath, Penny closed her eyes. She’d moved her Saturday night ritual forward a night, both so she could continue to indulge in the fantasy, but also to wash away the stress fraying her nerves. Who knew Secret Santa could stir up a hornet’s nest in her belly?
Penny breathed deeply, counting slowly as she inhaled the sweet fragrances.
She saw him then, his chiselled chest bronzed by firelight. Those big, round, smoky-grey eyes travelled from her flushed face, down over her bubble-covered breasts, across to her feet.
Poking out at the end of the bath, her toes practically quivered under his gaze. He didn’t need to touch her to make her pinkies curl, he could do it with the heat of his gaze.
A low, rumbling growl filled the air when she lifted her leg up and out of the water. Flexed in the exactly right way, every one of her calf muscles appeared under the wet skin. Soapy bubbles slowly slid down the limb, drawing his intense scrutiny first, his hands second.
Even imagined, the initial touch sparked her desire. The following caresses fanned the flames burning deep within her until she could remain still no longer. He never dipped below her knee, staying with her foot, gently rubbing in-between each of her toes.
His palms cupped the muscles of her calf, squeezed and kneaded. Penny flexed and twirled her foot in approval. In one smooth motion, he drained the tension from her body and replaced it with need. The limb grew a mind of its own, her foot flattening against his chest and slowly creeping upwards.
His eyes twinkled. Wicked deeds were devoured by the anticipation that gripped her, but when he sucked her big toe between his lips, she was lost. The strong tongue lavished her sensitive digit over and over, eliciting deep reverberations in her womb.
He liked her legs, told her every time her eyes fluttered shut. Liked their slender shape, the way he imagined them naked and intertwined with his. She cherished that image, took it to bed with her every night, fleshing out the details until morning came all too soon.
With his long, mussed hair, his finely tuned physique and his deft, skilled fingers, he was the man of her dreams. Each time he stepped from her fantasies back into real life, she held tight to the knowledge he’d been with her the night before.
Jesse Fox. The same man she’d watched get dumped twenty-four hours ago. The little devil on her shoulder urged her forward, encouraged her timid heart to take a chance on him. And she wanted to, oh, she’d give anything to see Jesse back to his confident, sexy self. The plan was right there, within her grasp. All she had to do was hold on and enjoy the ride.
For now though, Penny wanted to live the fantasy one last time.
Adjusting her position in the tub to invite her dream guy in, her hand slipped on an oily spot, and she was dunked unceremoniously in the water. When she came up for air, he was gone and she was alone.
Alas, at least Vivaldi would keep her company tonight.
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