“Just one more sec,” Phoebe mutters, eyes glued to her computer screen.
“Take your time.” I gaze around her massive office while she finishes up an email.
Invisible drool drips from my chin. In addition to being the head of an up and coming international publishing house, Phoebe is a killer decorator. Modern minimalism is the design theme of her office. Clean lines are everywhere, from the desk to the floor-to-ceiling windows to the black credenza near the door.
She finally looks up, a small smile on her face. “How are you liking things so far?”
“I absolutely love it.”
In past jobs, I’ve said these same words to bosses, but never meant it. But after three months at Off Shoot, I mean every word. This is the most fulfilling job I’ve ever had. I work independently from home most work days. The handful of times I’ve reported to the office in Chinatown have been for department meetings and collaborative projects. Those days are my favorite. Not just because I love working with the other designers, who are welcoming and open-minded about my ideas. But also because on those days, I get to see Rob in the flesh.
Ever since our naughty night out at Harris’ steakhouse, we’ve forged an impressive work and personal relationship. Under the Offshoot roof, we’re strictly business. Never have we ever slipped away to make out in the stairwell or bathroom. We’ve followed the boundaries we set up pretty damn well. It’s a giant surprise, given how quickly we rip each other’s clothes off the second we see each other outside of work.
My weekends are spent at Rob’s apartment in Nob Hill. Lucky bastard is subleasing a spacious studio from Phoebe’s cousin in a building with a two-year-long waiting list. It even counts as a one-bedroom due to a clouded glass room divider that’s built to slide along the roof and floor. He visits me two evenings a week in my Sacramento duplex. The mornings after, we wake each other up with morning sex. Then we work from home in comfortable silence in my converted garage before sharing dinner and more sex. Then Rob heads back to his apartment for the evening. The no-pressure arrangement we set up during our first morning after is coming scarily close to domestic bliss. And I love it. I can’t help but wonder if Rob loves it, too.
The smack of file folders against the desk pulls me back to the present.
“All the feedback I’ve received from Rob and the design team regarding your performance has been glowing. You’re leaving quite the mark, Layla.”
Warmth courses through my chest. The idea that I’m excelling at my dream job nearly has me in tears of joy.
She tugs at the lapel of her dove gray blazer. “You’re also leaving quite the impression on Rob.” The slight lift of her brow sends a chill through my spine. Shit. She knows about us. But how?
My mouth falls open to explain, to babble some sort of half-hearted excuse that she’ll probably see right through. After all the time we’ve spent in each other’s beds, why have Rob and I never thought of what to say if someone at work catches us?
Before I can utter a peep, Phoebe holds up her hand and laughs. “It’s okay, Layla. Rob and I are good friends who go way back. He set me up my wife five years ago. I didn’t mean to unsettle you by bringing this up. I just meant to say that I’m happy you two are hitting it off.”
I wipe the sweat on my palms against the tops of my thighs but stop when I remember that this pair of black cigarette pants are dry clean only.
“I appreciate you saying all that.” I clear my throat. “Sorry, but how do you know we’re hitting it off?”
This time her smile is more relaxed. “Rob let it slip the other night after we were wrapping up the quarterly earnings meeting. He’s been in such a great mood these past few months, happier than I’ve seen him since meeting him in college. He kept dodging my questions whenever I asked what was up. Then I asked how you were settling in, and he got this look in his eyes. I just knew.”
My heart free-falls into my lungs. Breathing is out of the question, but I don’t mind. If his joy was so overt that Phoebe was able to see it, maybe he’d be up for something more.
Phoebe’s expression softens. “I’ve never seen him this smitten before. You’ve got him wrapped around your finger.”
She winks and bids me a good weekend. I float out of her office, my head and my heart in the clouds. So it wasn’t just me. Rob’s feelings have grown, too.
My phone beeps with a text. My face aches with a smile when I see it’s Rob.
How was the meeting with Phoebe?
Looking up, I spot him staring at me from through the all-glass door to his office, across the hall from Phoebe’s. He stands with hands on his hips, both sleeves of his light blue dress shirt rolled to the elbows. I swallow back a moan at all that thick forearm muscle, those bulging veins. It’s a visual I’ve seen multiple times a week for the past three months, and it’s not even close to getting old.
I nod and flash a thumbs up. He replies with a beckoning hand gesture. Stepping inside, I shut the door behind me, but my cell phone rings before I can even say hello to him.
When I see it’s Naomi calling, I sigh. Even if I ignore her, she’ll just call back five minutes later, then repeat that pestering pattern until I finally cave. It’s what she always does when I avoid her calls this long.
“It’s my sister. Let me get rid of her.”
I dart to the far corner of Rob’s office. I don’t bother to disguise my annoyance when I answer.
“Sweetie! Finally!” Her sing-song voice gives me a headache. “So I’ve decided to host a welcome party for mom next Saturday.”
“Welcome party? She moved here three months ago. Don’t you think you missed the boat on that?”
She sighs. “Don’t you remember me mentioning throwing a party for mom when we were unpacking her stuff?”
There was no we that day. In reality, she stood over me chatting for a solid hour while I unpacked our mom’s belongings. The same annoyance that coursed through me then resurfaces. I swallow back a scoff, opting to say nothing so I can end this conversation sooner.
“It makes sense why you can’t remember.” She sighs. “You were in a bit of a mood, after all. That was quite an exit you made.”
In the three months since we moved my mom to Sacramento, I’ve managed to keep my visits and phone calls with my family to a minimum. I’ve stopped by my mom’s new place twice and answer her every five times she calls. I do the same when Naomi tries to get in touch. Luckily she was only there once when I visited mom, which meant that I only had to smile and nod through her condescending life advice the one time.
“I’ve been trying to get a hold of you so we can talk about throwing something together for mom. You’ve been a headache about answering your phone, though. As usual.”
I swallow back the fire on my tongue. Maybe if she and my mom didn’t fixate on my personal and professional shortcomings every time they saw or called me, I’d make more of an effort. I start to explain exactly that, but Naomi interrupts to lecture me on the etiquette of returning a call in a timely fashion.
“You’re always welcome to leave a voicemail, Naomi.”
She scoffs. “As if you’d call me back. Anyway, enough of that unpleasantness. I just wanted to let you know about the party and ask if you were planning to bring a date because I need a head count for the caterer.”
There’s pinch at the back of my neck. A tell-tale sign that I’m biting down way too hard.
“I’m not sure.”
“How can you not be sure? Either you’re dating someone or you’re not.”
The way she phrases it makes me want to spit. It took a few minutes, but I know exactly what Naomi is trying to do. If I say no date, she’ll try to set me up. If I bring a date, she’ll spend the entire time scrutinizing him silently before interrogating him about his work and personal life.
“Oh, sweetie,” she says after seconds of silence. The unchecked pity of her tone makes me want to rip out my hair. I can’t take another lecture about the importance of meeting someone and settling down. “Don’t even worry. Darren’s partners will be at the party. They’re all very attractive with excellent jobs.”
I swallow back a curse. Naomi’s husband Darren is a total square who shares my sister’s habit of harshly judging anyone without an advanced degree or six-figure salary. I’d rather watch paint dry than chat with anyone he considers a friend.
“That’s a nice offer, Naomi, but I don’t have time for your games, and I sure as hell don’t need to be set up by you. I’m not coming to the party.”
I hang up the phone before she can utter another word, then toss my phone on the empty chair in front of Rob’s desk. With wide eyes, he glances at me, stack of papers in one hand. Crossing my arms against my chest, I gaze out the floor-to-ceiling window to the street below. I don’t want to look at Rob right now, to let him see the frustration on my face.
“Sorry,” I mutter. Moments ago I was enjoying the best afternoon of my professional and personal life. Two minutes later and that bliss is long gone.
“Hey.” Rob rests a hand on my shoulder. The warmth, the feel is instant comfort. “What’s wrong?”
He scoops my hand in his. “Try again.”
I huff out a breath before doling out a summary of the conversation with my sister.
“The party will just be another opportunity for them to disapprove of me, only this time in front of my extended family,” I say.
“What if I go with you?”
I spin to him, nearly losing my balance on my heels. “What?”
Sincerity laces his stare. “If I’m there, you’ll have an ally. They won’t be able to comment about your job or your relationship. I can defend you on both counts.”
That killer smile flashes across his face. I’d agree to anything for that dashing grin. But to ask him to meet my family this soon? It could derail the bliss bubble we’ve cultivated these past few months. Once he gets a taste of how biting and judgmental my mom and sister can be, it could change how he sees me, what he feels for me.
The gentle almost loving grip of his hand makes me swoon.
“Look, I know what it feels like to be hounded at family gatherings because you haven’t settled down yet.” His eyebrows knit. “My mum has been on my case to get married since I was twenty. That’s eleven years of nagging comments, disappointed stares, blind date offers. If I can spare you from it, I’ll count it as my good deed for the year.”
Curiosity bubbles from the back of my mind. His mom may be a bit intrusive in her execution, but I can’t help share in her wonderment. How a guy as handsome, successful, and sweet as Rob has managed to remain unattached this long is a mystery.
Another puzzle? Why he seems to have broken his streak for me.
“I think your mom may be onto something. Why exactly have you been single all this time?”
He rolls in eyes in such a playful way, I nearly moan. “Not you too.”
“If I’m going to introduce to my family as the guy I’m dating, I think I should know,” I tease.
A flustered smile spreads across his face. “I’ve always traveled a ton for work. Not many women care to carry on a relationship with a lad whose permanent address changes every few months. Any long distance setup I’ve tried always ends in disaster.”
He runs a hand through his thick black locks. “But then I met you. I’m settled in San Francisco for the foreseeable future, and I want to give us a shot. Meeting the family is part of that, don’t you think?”
A starburst hits my chest. When I try to speak, spills out a jumbled flustered mess. Phoebe was right.
He frowns. “You okay?”
“No…yeah…it’s just…Phoebe let it slip that you seemed pretty into me.”
Inhaling, I gather my wits about me. I’m displaying as much composure as a middle schooler admitting to a crush. But this is what Rob does to me. We’re more than heat and physicality. We’re deep feelings and connection. His words prove it, and it’s almost too much for me to process.
“It’s just…hearing you say it makes us feel real.” I shake my head. “I mean, we’re already real, what I mean is…”
His cheeks flush. His smile is back. “Good to know my friend and business partner has sold me out.” He clasps my hand once more. “But every word of it’s true.”
In our locked gaze, we’re stripped down, our feelings bare. I adore it.
He steps closer to pull me into a hug, but I back away. “Professionalism, remember? No romantic stuff at work. We’re already towing the line with all this hand-holding.”
The mock-disappointment on his face sets a fit of giggles through me.
I pat his shoulder. “Can you wait a few more hours until tonight when we’re at your place? Then you can have me any way you want me.”
A wicked smirk fills his face. “I’ll hold you to that.”
“It’s the least I can do before I throw you to the wolf pack that is the Soberano clan.”
He winks. “I’m ready.”