THE man who walked through the door was someone Lila thought she’d never see again. She remembered him as a jerk, a creep, and, damn it, a heartbreaker. He broke her heart, even though they never went on a single date.
Now Kirk Harris stood in her office, extending his hand to shake, one of three final candidates to design her business’s web page. She hadn’t given him more than a rat’s ass of a thought since they’d graduated high school together twelve years ago. Well, maybe she had a momentary relapse once or twice, but no more than that. Of the candidates she’d chosen for a final interview, Kirk’s work was the most promising, but never, absolutely never, did she connect that kind of talent with Kirk Harris from Central High. It just wasn’t possible.
Besides, she lived in Minneapolis, and their high school was in Baltimore. There must be dozens of people named Kirk Harris in Minnesota and maybe hundreds of people by that name in the United States. But there he was, tall, muscular, dressed in a color-block polo shirt, khaki blazer, and gray pants, and probably as arrogant, pig-headed, and maddening as ever. All right, he hadn’t lost any of his handsomeness and had added a certain level of sexiness. Not that she was concerned with any of that.
Kirk waited, grinning, blue eyes sparkling. Lila could have sworn someone just dumped a bucket of ice water over her head, freezing her into place, slack-jawed from sheer surprise.
“You’re Kirk Harris?” she squeaked.
“Have been since my parents brought me home from the hospital. And I’m guessing you’re Lila Wolfe.”
Lila added sarcasm to his list of obnoxious traits. He advanced three or four steps. Her heart beat faster and her cheeks flushed, though there was no way in hell she could be attracted to him. She hated him, or, at least, had the last time she saw him.
She wanted to disappear or be transported anywhere else, immediately. She tried to recall that Captain Kirk thing her dad always said. Beam me up, Scotty? If she couldn’t vanish, then she wanted to send this Kirk far into outer space. Panic surged through her, then frustration, then a pang of self-admonishment for harboring either emotion in the first place. “Why didn’t you tell me it was you when you first sent your proposal?”
“I didn’t know Homeworks was your company when I first answered the ad. Once I realized the business was yours, I figured I’d wait to see if my work was a good fit for you.” He placed his laptop bag down on her desk, casually sliding his hands into his pockets.
For a fraction of a second, her gaze followed his hands, then she flashed up into his smiling, arrogant face. She couldn’t move, couldn’t take her eyes off him. Maybe it wasn’t him after all, and her eyes had tricked her into what she was seeing. Her brain emptied of anything close to a coherent word.
“And now I’m here for my interview,” he said, jolting her out of her trance.
She shook her head, jiggling her thoughts back into place. “Um, yes, of course. I knew you were coming. I mean, I knew Kirk Harris was coming. But…”
Her voice shrank as she exhaled the words. She had to think fast, but her thoughts collided from opposite directions. One recollection refreshed the memory of Kirk’s bullying high school personality.
In the span of a blink, she pictured him as he had been then—an oaf who'd bedded then dumped her best friend, who'd run against her for senior class president, winning with his sheer bawdiness, and who had everyone laughing at her when he'd mimicked her movements as drum major on the football field. Other than that, he had ignored her while flirting with every other girl in her class, or, at least, it seemed that way. He’d never even given Lila so much as a solicitous wink.
The other group of thoughts brought her back into the present, where she was an interior designer with a growing business and a need for a new web page.
“But—what are you doing here?” She pointed to the ground as if to illustrate. She stamped her foot the teeniest bit, hopefully not enough for Kirk to notice.
He leaned one hip against her desk, arms crossed, facing her. “What am I doing here, as in your office, which we’ve already gone over, or what am I doing here, as in the Twin Cities?”
His question was reasonable, but it infuriated her anyway. She planted her feet and stood as tall as she could, all five feet two inches of her, arms akimbo, her idea of being forceful. “Yes. No. I mean, how did you get here?”
Damn, what idiotic words are coming out of my mouth?
Instead of the self-confident, successful businessperson she hoped to display, she was acting like a shy and scared teenager.
This was so wrong.
He grinned. “I got in my car about an hour ago. Figured I wouldn’t hit traffic this time of day, but wanted to be sure I was on time. I got here about thirty minutes ago, but went down the street for a cup of coffee.”
“You live here?” she finally asked, her voice trilling upward. She knew she should have lowered her voice, making her words a statement, not a question. In turn, that would make Kirk think she was assertive, a trait she tried to convey even when she wasn’t. This was one of those times.
“Moved here four years ago. Came to work for Target, then decided to go into business for myself and,” he spread his arms wide, as if he were the one welcoming her to his office, “here I am. So, Lila, I’ll ask you the same thing. What are you doing here? It’s been, let’s see, twelve years since we left ol’ Central High?”
She had hated high school, and she hadn’t even attended her tenth class reunion. It had not been a pleasant experience, and Kirk had been part of that unpleasantness. With him in the room, high school could have been yesterday.
Give him a chance. People change, and he’s probably matured since graduation. Stay calm. Don’t judge.
She squared her shoulders, dropped her hands to her sides, and forced a smile. “I came to Minneapolis for a summer internship with Leslie Interior Designs. After graduation, Leslie hired me full time. Then,” she mimicked his words, “I decided to go into business for myself and,” she extended her arms, “here I am.”
Kirk applauded. “Bravo. You always did have spunk.”
The applause echoed around the room and then settled between her ears. She stepped behind her desk as if to escape the sound, but it continued to reverberate inside her head. As she turned, the scent of his aftershave tickled her nose. She wrinkled it in disgust.
Placing her fingertips on the smooth teak of her Danish modern desk, she blew out a cleansing breath and the last of Kirk’s applause. “Have a seat,” she offered, gesturing with a shaky palm.
I can do this and I can do it graciously. We’ll have a short interview, I’ll thank him, and then I won’t have to see him again. Ever.
Lila wasn’t sure what to do with her hands, having studied, but now forgotten, anything about body language. She clasped them behind her, but that felt awkward, so she brought them forward, steepling her fingers. Think, think, think.
While she debated the perfect hand position, Kirk relaxed in the ergonomically correct but standard office chair, crossing one ankle over the other knee, grinning like he could read her mind. Maybe it was a leer. He leaned back, tilting the chair, his fingers drumming a quick rhythm on its arms. She shivered as his appraising eyes took her in from the top down. Steady, girl, she admonished herself, straightening her spine and drawing back her shoulders in her best Tadasana pose. She realized, too late, that this only served to accentuate her bustline, a posture she was sure didn’t escape Kirk. Lila dropped into her own chair. Damn again, she wasn’t even sure how to sit. Should she force a military posture or slouch so her boobs were not a landing deck for his pupils?
“Well, you’ve certainly changed,” he said.
She knew her looks were a one-hundred-eighty-degree reversal from her high school days. Gone were the dark, baggy clothes and thick, wavy waist-length hair.
When she'd cut her hair after college in order to add a level of sophistication to her look, the curls had appeared, which, as her mother had told her, brought out her eyes. Lila replaced the sloppy, oversized clothes she used to wear with Chanel-style jackets, pencil skirts, and shoes with at least a two-inch heel, aiming for a look of sleek sophistication and simple lines. She looked expensively dressed but, as a fledgling entrepreneur, bought clothes and jewelry at consignment stores and end-of-season sales.
Now, she wished she were wearing a bag and a ski cap, just to put him off whatever track he was on. I should tell him to leave, now.
When Lila began the hunt for a designer to update her web page, she’d recognized Kirk’s name, but convinced herself it was no one she knew. After all, what was the likelihood of two people from the East Coast ending up in the same Midwestern city? Neither his resume nor his web page gave any indication of his roots. His references glowed, and Lila was impressed by the websites he completed for other customers. He hadn’t posted a photo of himself, but Lila didn’t consider that a deal breaker.
But, he had, indeed, been that Kirk Harris. Lila had an overwhelming impulse to slap her forehead and yell “doh” in Homer Simpson fashion.
The impetus for a new web page began earlier in the summer, when emails to Homeworks—Lila’s home office interior design business—had slowed to a trickle, as if engulfed by a black hole. While her existing customers emailed her directly, potential customers sometimes approached via the website’s email link—and now, none were. At first, Lila and her office assistant, Jessica, had thought it was an Internet service provider issue, but connections were fine at their end.
“Any ideas?” Lila had asked Jessica.
“Not about the email, but your website could use a complete update.”
“I know,” Lila had replied. “It was put together by a college student when I was starting out. For a few years, I swore I would take a website design class, but never did.”
“Lila, I’ve got time to do some research on designers. You don’t even have a Twitter account linked to the current page.”
In the end, after sifting through three dozen applications, they'd nailed it down to three candidates. The “they” included Jessica, Andy—an ergonomics expert—and Dean, an intern. Dean was the most astute of all when it came to technology.
“I have a friend who is really good and just starting out, so he wouldn’t be as expensive as the others,” Dean had offered. “I’ll bring in a list of the websites he’s worked on, okay?”
Three web page design candidates, including Dean’s friend, had culled from the exhaustive list, and face-to-face interviews had been arranged. Each one had presented with requirements for the Homeworks website, and each candidate, in return, had developed a rough outline and pricing. Within a few weeks, Lila had scheduled interviews with Kirk Harris, Dorie Hills, and Steve Ackman, Dean’s friend.
Earlier that day, Jessica, Andy, Dean, and Lila had discussed the two candidates interviewed so far.
“Dorie and Steve are talented,” Lila began, “but there’s something missing from their sites. It’s as if they didn’t capture the essence of Homeworks.”
Dean jumped in with a comment, “I know Steve is my friend, but I am positive he can get the job done. If you tell him exactly what you want, he’ll do it perfectly.”
“The thing is, Dean, I’m not sure I know what I want. I’m depending on the web designer to help me with that.”
“Maybe Kirk Harris has something spectacular to show us this afternoon,” Jessica said.
Lila hadn’t mentioned she knew a Kirk Harris in high school since, in her mind, the chances of him moving halfway across the country were minimal. As far as she remembered, he didn’t have a creative bone in his body. Impossible, she'd concluded.
“Can’t wait to meet him,” she’d said, meaning it.
Now here he was, likely the most talented of the candidates, but no one Lila wanted to interact with for a millisecond. No, make that a nanosecond.
“Hey, Lila, you with me here?”
His words snapped her back to the moment. She watched as he twisted his head from side to side, eyeing everything in sight as if he were inspecting the place.
“Looks like we could be working together. I spent some time checking you out, and you’re pretty impressive.”
He spent time checking me out?
She wanted to be insulted that he'd dared to research her, but knew she expected no less from the other candidates. Any job-hunting college senior prepared himself or herself that way.
“Thank you,” she replied in a less than grateful voice. A little sneer threatened to curl her upper lip, but she bit the insides of her cheeks to keep that from happening. Instead, she crossed her arms across her chest, just in case his eyes wanted to settle at a point between her chin and her waist. “I’ll tell you this, though. It never crossed my mind that the Kirk Harris on my schedule was the famous king of Central High.”
He laughed, throwing his head back and then straightening to look steadily at her. “You mean it never crossed your mind that the Kirk Harris you knew would be smart enough to handle this kind of technology and talented enough to be artistic? Hate to disappoint you, but I made it through college and have been doing fine ever since.”
Lila squirmed, aware of the perspiration collecting under her arms despite a morning swipe of deodorant. What she wanted to do was grab hold of his chair and roll it out the door and into the street, with him in it, of course. Maybe even roll it into traffic.
Okay, Lila, pull yourself together. You’re not some unpopular geek. You’re a successful businessperson with a growing company. She removed her arms from their protective position.
She stared at him, her eyes going dry from the lack of blinking. He had been handsome in high school, but was even more so now. He had the lean look of a runner, paired with the ruggedness of an outdoorsman. Her lips parted as she envisioned kissing him. What? Where did that come from? That’s insane. She clenched her teeth in order to halt the horrendous thought.
She tried for another cleansing breath—five counts in, eight out. How many of these would it take until she regained her composure? She was going to be lightheaded if she took any more. Lila clipped her next words in a near monotone. “I suppose we need to give ourselves a fresh start. We’ve probably both changed, so let’s forget the past and continue the interview.” She may have hated Kirk in high school but, as much as she wanted to deny it, he was the most talented of the candidates, and the best looking.
He laughed again, nullifying her determined stare. “Sounds good to me. Just give me a few seconds to set everything up.” He opened his laptop. “Kind of ran low on battery. Can I plug this in?”
She pointed to an outlet and quietly watched as his fingers flew over the keyboard. He chatted amiably as he brought the correct pages up and drew papers from his bag. As he worked, she remembered scenes she’d long forgotten. In her mind, she saw him, pushing his way in front of her as she'd reached the cafeteria serving line. She saw him jostle a classmate carrying a load of books, laughing as the student lost hold of them. He had been homecoming king, and king and tyrant of her class. No one had questioned his authority, even Lila. At the time, she longed to tell him off, but had been too insecure to act on her thoughts.
As the incidents raced through her mind, Lila pictured herself during those years. She'd been a straight-A student, first chair clarinet, and the star of the Debate Club, qualities that had alienated her from all but a few classmates. Though she now realized the thought was immature, she had considered herself smarter and more mature than the entire Central High student body. While everyone else had discussed parties, shopping, and school sports, she had read sociology and psychology books and joined an environmental activist group. Her parents called her a fiery spirit and were not at all surprised when she elected to go to a large state university. They'd thought it had been because she needed such a wide variety of course and organizational offerings. Lila knew it was an opportunity to get lost in the crowd and a chance to be independent. She’d confused independence with withdrawal, erecting a wall of protection from those who thought her too different. It had taken ten years for the wall to begin to crack.
“Lila? Yoo-hoo. Are you there?”
She jumped as the sound of his voice brought her back to the present. His words, innocent enough, irritated her beyond belief.
“Sorry. Can I get you a cup of coffee?” She needed a few moments to shake the past before resuming the interview. She stood and walked out the door before he could voice an answer.
Lila returned with two mugs, handing him black coffee. She hadn’t asked if he took cream or sugar, preferring to see him gulp the purist brew. That was, if she didn’t dump it in his lap first. Despite her quick initial vow to herself moments ago to keep him as distant as possible, she wondered how he'd ended up in Minnesota.
“You’re a long way from home,” she finally managed. If he says anything about liking the people in the Midwest, I think I’ll scream. Although, to tell the truth, that’s why Lila was here. She fell in love with the Midwest’s changing seasons and the way its residents were open and friendly. Lila knew better than to stereotype, but she couldn’t help but think of Midwesterners as more down-to-earth than people in other parts of the country. She disliked the south’s heat and minimal season changes. The west coast was uninviting, as well—full of people following the fad of the moment. After her internship, she'd concentrated on finding a job in the country’s middle, positive she’d made the right choice.
“If you’re talking about Baltimore, I haven’t called it home for a long time, and I don’t think I miss it at all. Minneapolis is a city full of energy, but the people are neighborly and welcoming. Out in the suburbs, they do things like say ‘hello’ when you’re walking down the street. And the area is great for winter sports.”
“Well, I miss it,” she stated defensively, lying to herself. Though she missed her family, she found her adopted city a perfect fit. Lila realized she could have spoken the very same words as Kirk. When she'd first decided to work in the Twin Cities, she worried that she’d miss the sophistication of the east coast, but she found plenty of sophistication right outside her door. Theater, art, music, great consignment stores—they were all right there.
She picked up a pen, nervously tapping it against her desk surface. When she opened her mouth to speak, she couldn’t think of a thing to say. Could he have her that flustered? Lila needed a plan, but her mind was a blank.
You’re not in high school, she reminded herself for the second time, hoping there wouldn’t be a third. The left side of her brain tried to reason it out. This guy is not only your equal, but he could be a potential colleague. What if he turns out to be the best one for the job? Come on, girl, you’re an adult. High school’s been over for a long time.
The right side of her brain joined in the argument. But he was a real jerk. He’s just hiding it well.
The left brain tried again. On paper, he’s the most talented of the web designers in your price range. Stick it out.
Her right brain, sensing victory, closed the argument. And he developed into a very good-looking guy. She briefly slid a finger over each ear, trying to drown out her bickering brain.