Nothing makes you rethink your life more than getting tackled by a nine-year-old with anger issues and a vendetta against cake. Or maybe an addiction to cake. Regardless, when I show up to my boss’s son’s birthday with the cake he conveniently forgot to pick up, I can see the madness in Dexter’s eyes only half a second before he lunges, which is absolutely not enough time to react before his shoulder is in my stomach and we’re both crashing to the ground with an entire cake landing on top of us. A few of the adults who have graced this party gasp, the other kids laugh, and Dexter the monster starts going ham, shoving as much cake into his mouth as he can fit.
Addiction, then. Okay. Something tells me his mom doesn’t generally allow him to eat sugar. From what I know about Grant’s soon-to-be-ex-wife, that wouldn’t surprise me.
“Price?” Grant appears above me, his eyebrows pulled low as always. I wouldn’t work for him if I didn’t have to, and I don’t appreciate the irritation in his gaze. It’s Sunday, for crying out loud. The one day I’m supposed to get to myself. “What happened?”
“I slipped,” I grumble, feeling lucky that I can breathe. Dexter may only be nine, but he has the ramming power of a mountain goat.
At my words, the kid pauses, meeting my gaze with shock in his eyes. He must have expected me to rat him out, but I know as well as anyone that Grant doesn’t take kindly to people stepping out of line.
“Dex, you’re not supposed to eat cake,” Grant says.
Then why did I drive half an hour one way to pick this stupid thing up?
“I didn’t eat any,” Dexter says with a mouth full of frosting.
Grant sighs. “Go change your shirt. You can take a shower after your party.”
The kid scrambles away, hands full of cake.
Narrowing his eyes at me, Grant waits until I sit up before he says anything else. “What are the guests supposed to eat?”
I bite back my response, though my eyes still jump to the table piled with snacks. I don’t get paid enough for this, but I can’t risk losing my position when I’m lucky Grant gave me a job in the first place.
“I’m sorry,” I say. Do I mean that? No. But I say it anyway. “I’ll get this cleaned up.”
He grunts, which is Grant Bradley-speak for, You’d better. Then he is all smiles, shuffling the adults away while the kids continue their strange backgammon tournament. Wait, are they really playing backgammon? Most of these kids look like fourth graders, and I highly doubt this is their idea of fun. But one glance at the adults gathered around the wet bar is all it takes to see the steely glares being thrown in the kids’ directions, and all of these people are dressed nicely enough that they clearly came from the neighborhood. AKA the richest part of Sun City, where everyone values bank accounts and trust funds over personalities or basic human kindness. These kids have probably never been allowed to be kids.
It doesn’t surprise me that Grant lives here. Or that his kid turns into a demon around sugar.
Scooping up as much of the cake as I can and piling it on top of the cardboard sheet it came on, I pretend I have no idea that a couple of the moms are watching me with hungry looks in their eyes. I’m no egomaniac, but I know I have enough of an appealing appearance to make me an object of interest. I used it all the time in my last job, and it served me well until it didn’t. These women may find me attractive, but that only goes as far as it takes for Grant to put me in my place and assure everyone he meets that I’m just his lowly assistant and not worth their time.
Honestly, I’m surprised he hasn’t already shut down the ladies; he has to have noticed them watching me as I head into the kitchen.
Dumping the cake into the trash, I unbutton my shirt and toss that in the trash as well because there’s no way the food coloring is coming out of that. Thank goodness I wore an undershirt, or the ladies would be getting a skin show as I grab a roll of paper towels and a bottle of all-purpose cleaner. Grant would probably fire me on the spot if I pulled a stunt like that.
I hate how tempting that is, just as much as I hate that I’m thirty-two and working as an assistant for a guy who is barely keeping his company afloat. Between his divorce and his partner leaving the company three months ago, Grant is one bit of bad news away from a breakdown, and the only reason his life hasn’t fallen apart is because he has me holding it together with lunch orders and a meticulous calendar.
The hardest part is he knows it. He knows he would be dead in the water without me, and yet he refuses to acknowledge my necessity. He could make me a partner and let me take over the aspects of the business that he can’t handle on his own, but instead he sends me to pick up his dry cleaning and reschedule meetings with his divorce attorney.
One of these days I’ll find a way to prove to him that I’m more valuable to him than a gofer. I won’t hold my breath for that day to come anytime soon.
“You know,” a sickly sweet voice says soon after I crouch to wipe up the smeared frosting on the floor, “you don’t have to break your back doing Bradley’s dirty work.”
Whoever she is, I know she isn’t saying this for my benefit. She probably owns some fancy high-brow company that does similar business to Grant, making them competitors, and wants to try to get me to turn traitor so he’ll sink faster.
Again, tempting, but any background check she does would send her running for the hills.
I keep my focus on the floor, determined to erase any signs of the cake while being fully aware that my hair is covered in it. “I do whatever Mr. Bradley needs me to do.”
“You could come work for me.” She steps closer so her shoes are in my sightline, probably without realizing that she just stepped in a glob of frosting with her Jimmy Choos. I suppose she wanted me to see her shapely ankles, not realizing there’s nothing scandalous about flashing an ankle anymore. Especially when the slit in one’s skirt rises far beyond an appropriate level for a nine-year-old’s birthday party.
Fingers stroke the hair behind my ear, and I freeze, a chill running through me.
“Pretty thing like you could be cleaning a real house. My husband is always off on business trips, and I get so lonely.”
I shoot to my feet so fast that the bottle of cleaner slips from my frosting-covered fingers, landing with a thud between us. “I have a job,” I croak, and for the first time since I started with Grant, it actually sounds more appealing than a different offer. I clear my throat, forcing away the panic that came from her touch and taking a step back. The space helps, especially when I can take a breath that isn’t full of her heady perfume. “And I am not that kind of man. Excuse me.”
I dart back to the kitchen and immediately turn on the tap, turning it as hot as it will go as I let the water run over my palms, bright blue and green washing away in the stream. I shouldn’t have let her get to me. She barely did anything surprising, though I expected more of a job offer than an invitation to be a maid and escort, and yet my skin is crawling. That one small touch shouldn’t have been enough to get to me, but I still feel her fingers running through my hair.
I jump, turning to find Grant leaning against the granite counter with his arms folded. “I’m almost done,” I mutter.
“You okay? I’m surprised you turned Shannon down when her offer was so full of…perks.” There’s a bit of a smile on his face, which almost reminds me why I turned to Grant in the first place when I had nowhere else to go. He can be a decent guy if he tries. When he pays attention. That has happened less and less lately.
I turn the water off, curling my fingers up against my palms and frowning at how red my skin is. I hadn’t even noticed the water getting that hot—I was so focused on washing away the woman’s touch. I roll my eyes. “Is she always so—”
“Predatory? Yeah. But her kid is friends with Dex, so…”
Swallowing, I try to understand why this interaction is happening. Why Grant is suddenly treating me like a human when he usually doesn’t. “Uh, is there anything else you need today?”
He frowns, and I can practically see the wheels turning in his head. Something tells me he didn’t even realize today was Sunday, which means his grasp of time is slipping more than ever. “Oh. No. I guess you can go.”
I take a step but stop myself. He showed uncommon concern just now when he brought up Shannon, and while his commiseration may not have been much, it’s a lot for him. And I don’t know how to repay that outside of doing my job on a day I don’t need to. “Remember we—you—have that meeting with the new event planners tomorrow for the Greenwood reopening. I scheduled a car to pick you up at eight.”
“Ah, right.” He stuffs his hands in his pockets, his frown only growing deeper. It’s because the Greenwood Lodge—a decades-old lodge a couple of hours away and an old favorite destination for a lot of people before it fell into disrepair—is his last hope of keeping his company alive, which means we have to make sure this event planning company is worth their crazy prices. I did a lot of research, and supposedly Ember Events is the best in the state. I’ll make sure they are, or Grant won’t be the only one who loses everything.
I don’t have a lot to begin with, so this job is something I will fight for with everything I’ve got. No matter how much I hate it.