“A friend is always good to have,
But a lover’s kiss is better than angels down on me.”
“#40 (Always)” Dave Matthews Band
Apparently, Denny thought, forty-eight hours was long enough for Alessa to regroup and return to her original confident, cool, and unaffected persona. But he wasn’t hurt. He saw what the others did not: underneath her comely smile was a young woman drowning. On his way to his office, he took just a moment to appreciate her graceful appearance. She was dressed in a flowing, maroon, long-sleeve silk blouse tucked into a form-fitting, gray pencil skirt that hit just above her shapely knees. The waist was high and accentuated her amazing figure. Despite her height, she was wearing nude heels that made those amazing legs go on for an age.
Denny felt the burn low in his gut, anguish and desire broiling together. He continued on to his office and locked himself inside, burying himself in his work. Later that morning he finally received the information he had been waiting on. His hunch on the restoration trust fund case had proven correct, and though he was aware there would be no comfort in the interaction, he knew Alessa deserved to be informed of the development. He calculated the best way to speak with her would be with a directly-worded IM, knowing it would give her a moment to prepare herself.
Alessa’s heart pounded in her ears when she read the message she’d just received.
Development in Sloan trust case. My office ASAP.
She stood, all the knots in her stomach she thought she had managed to forget about now squeezing her insides with a new ferocity. She smoothed her appearance, but when she realized she was combing her fingers through her hair, she pulled her hand away tersely. With a mild glower she marched off to his office. Her temper at herself fell away somewhat as she approached his door, a returning dread taking its place. She simply pointed to his office to let Clare know she was to see him. His secretary smiled and nodded, and Alessa knocked lightly and stepped in.
“You wanted to see me?” she spoke into the extreme silence of the room.
When Denny lifted his eyes to her, she felt the shockwave through her, and had to force herself to stand tall and not stagger back. How could he do that to her?
“Yes. Have a seat.” He watched her approach warily, as if she thought he were a tiger behind the bars of a cage and could swipe out to claw her if she got too close. “I never told you Friday what I was thinking about the properties we saw. I began to suspect that the accounts that received payments were bogus claims of restoration, just fronts. I mean, clearly, all the places we saw were either being torn down or redeveloped. I just received information back on the owners of those contractor companies. I’m sure it won’t come as a surprise to hear they are all three owned by Jipps and Jones, LLC. And who would be the CEO of that company?”
Alessa smiled. “Arnold Sloan.”
“Very good. I think it’s becoming evident that he is taking money in the fund meant for restorations and using it for his own private redevelopment endeavors. In a way, according to the books, the fund is pretty much operating as it should, by paying out to various restoration jobs. But in reality, he’s using the trust to buy dilapidated properties to develop or just flat out sell for a significant profit. He then deposits a portion of that profit back into the fund so no one is the wiser, at least at a precursory look.”
“So, he’s been embezzling the money,” she stated thoughtfully. “But he’s been clever by not draining it, using it more like his personal loan account.”
“Something like that. I’m just about to call over to the D.A.’s office and let them know what we’ve found and to begin proceedings to get the fund frozen until a new manager can be appointed. I just wanted you to know, this is because of you. You did excellent work.”
Alessa held her cool and dispassionate expression, ignoring the racing tingles his approval sent through her stomach. She gave an accepting nod. “Thank you. And thank you for the opportunity to work on it. It has been a nice change of pace.”
“I’ll be informing the senior partners this morning on our status and on your contribution. You can expect many more changes in pace,” he promised, and she could have sworn his eyes warmed slightly. Just as apprehension was building that he was about to mention what had happened Friday night, he smiled and told her he would let her know if he needed her to do anything further for it. Again she nodded and then left.
Alessa was lost in her thoughts, unable to stop wondering what would have happened if she hadn’t refused him so much, when a slightly familiar voice pulled her to.
“And what are you concentrating so hard on?”
Alessa blinked and looked up to see Hyun-Joong standing before her desk. Before she checked the response, she smiled brightly up at him.
“Only the very tedious,” she answered. “What brings you in?”
He lifted a file. “Wanted Denny to look over some of my board’s ideas for a new branch of service. We’re hoping to get started in maybe six months, but I wanted my shadow king to look over it for me, make sure it will be more of an asset than a liability,” he answered with a large, charming grin.
Alessa only gave a tight-lipped smile and nodded her head understandingly. “Good luck,” she offered.
Hyun-Joong turned to leave, but paused when he was only a step away. Alessa was already looking back down at her desk, but when he spoke her name, she looked up. “Yes?”
She could see he was struggling with something until he at last broke out into a disarming smile. “I don’t suppose when I’m done meeting with him you’d consider allowing me to take you to lunch?”
She was caught momentarily, her brain frozen as to what she actually did want to do. Before she could speak, he continued. “It’s just I have some time this afternoon that I need to fill and I think scouting out possible talent is always a good way to spend free time.”
Alessa was silent, wrestling with both the desire to network with the ideal client, but also the discomfort of not knowing how to interpret his outgoing and interested manner. Her ambition won out and with a forced smile and conceding nod, she agreed: if he had time she would have coffee with him, explaining she had brought her lunch.
His smile was genuine as he said, “Great! Then we’ll go down to that coffee shop. They let you bring outside food in, and I can order a sandwich there. Not the four star restaurant I was thinking, but anything will do if you agree.”
Alessa hated the way her heart beat, hated even more that her reaction somehow felt like a betrayal to Denny. When he had gone on his way, she forced herself back to work like mad and to make up for her time day-dreaming about Denny. It was just over an hour later when Hyun-Joong came back to collect her, and together the two walked down the street for coffee.
She ate her salad and drank her skinny latte while Hyun-Joong did most of the talking in between bites of his tomato and mozzarella sandwich. In the past, when she had been in any situation with a man that flirted with her the way Huyn-Joong was, Alessa spent the majority of her time thinking silently to herself how to turn the guy down, what she was going to say when he asked her for an official date.
It was the third time he had made her genuinely, heartily laugh, that he said, “You know, you’re very beautiful when you laugh at my jokes.”
Her face instantly flushed and she wiggled in her seat. “Then I will be certain to look out for whenever you decide to make one,” she replied with a sassy smile.
“Oh, my heart!”
“What?” she asked chuckling at his dramatics of throwing his head back and clasping his hands over his chest.
“You’ve mortally wounded me with your barbed tongue.”
“More painful than being turned into stone from a glimpse of Medusa?”
“Much,” he replied smiling warmly, “though as this death contains a last view of you, I’d much prefer it,” he admitted.
Again, Alessa’s cheeks warmed and so she turned her focus on the last of her latte. Her lunch hour was almost at an end and so she focused on rounding out any questions she had for him regarding his company and the offices in Seoul.
When it was at last time for her to return to the office, he stood and offered to walk with her. She had no valid reason to decline and so gave a smile and nod. They were outside on the busy street when Hyun-Joong spoke.
“Please forgive me if I misinterpreted anything, but would you say yes if I asked you out on a date?”
And here it was, the moment she always dreaded in any relationship she ever had with a guy who wasn’t already attached or gay. But unlike most of the times before, her words flowed easily, honestly.
“Hyun-Joong, as much as I might find you attractive, I firstly don’t think it’s wise to date clients of the firm and secondly, I really don’t know you enough to feel comfortable dating. Today was pleasant, but only because it was just us, you know? Just two people having coffee.”
“So, maybe in the future? If you get to know me more and decide you like what you know?”
“Yes,” she heard herself agreeing, “maybe in the future. Provided it isn’t against company protocol,” she amended.
He nodded as he thought. “What about the fundraiser? Will you be attending that?”
“Yes. We’re all encouraged to go. Are you going?”
“I had planned on it, and if I know you’ll be there, I’ll make the effort. It would be nice to see you again…outside of work.”
“Right. Well, if you see me there, you can say hello,” she conceded. They stood at the doors to her building. She turned and gave him a quick flirting smile. As she walked into the lobby alone, she rolled her eyes, wondering what in God’s-green-earth had gotten into her. Despite her unusual lunch, she returned to the office in a slightly elevated mood from when she had left and was able to concentrate on her work for the remainder of the day.
Denny, however, was not faring as well. All Sunday he had plagued himself with figuring out how to convince Alessa to agree to give him a chance while giving Max’s warning due consideration by contemplating if the endurance to pursue her was within him. But just seeing her that morning had ignited his determination, and though the plan was yet unseen, he would not give up until he found it.
It was nearing four when Macrae entered, knocking on the door but walking in without pause. She wore her black, rectangle reading glasses, and slid them on top of her head as she said, “Denny, I’m finalizing our list for the staff date auction.”
“Yeah?” he asked disinterested. “How can I help?”
“Well, Schecter had two specific ideas, but I wanted to run one of them by you,” she began slowly, sitting down and looking up from her list. Denny gave her an expression of ‘let’s hear it.’ “Apparently, he’s been very taken with…Alessa. He thinks she’s probably the best new associate we’ve hired in years. And now with this latest case you emailed the senior partners about this morning, he’s quite giddy with parading her out, showing off our talent.”
Macrae watched him carefully, noting the nearly imperceptible tightening of his features, the mild drain of humor from his face. She continued to prompt him into speaking. “I wondered if you thought she would be willing to do it. I don’t want to offer it to her if you think she’d rather refuse. I have a feeling she would feel obliged, and for the sake of her career, would do something she was extremely uncomfortable with,” she explained, still watching him. It was his quick change in demeanor, as if he finally understood the great, unexplained mysteries of Ancient Egypt that marked a change in his interest in her question.
Denny finally knew how he was going to get Alessa to agree to give him a chance, to force her to listen until she relented. He quickly formed his plan and then answered Macrae who was waiting with growing intrigue.
“Actually, she might be a little averse to it, but I think ultimately she would appreciate the opportunity to network. Why don’t you give me her contract and I’ll discuss it with her and talk her into it so she feels more comfortable. How does that sound? You can tell Schecter she’s on board,” he instructed with a civil smile.
Macrae was silent, trying to figure out what he was about, but eventually only nodded and said she’d have a contract sent to him when she’d finalized it. The contracts the staff members signed to guarantee their fulfillment of requirements on the date didn’t change much from year to year, but it was always prudent to clean it up and modify it based on any issue that arose from the year prior.
“I need her contract by Friday so we can have her name and bio printed on the auction listing.” She thanked him for his help and left.
Quickly, Denny pulled up his laptop and began sketching a rough idea of his plans, amazed and eternally grateful for the sudden release of ideas that poured effortlessly forth. He filled the rest of his afternoon quite pleasurably, though not turning his mind to his job. Now, just to convince her to agree to participate in the auction and pull off the scheme of the century.
It was Thursday evening, and Alessa, having returned from her run not thirty minutes ago, found herself in the quiet and dimly lit copy room of the law firm’s library. Over the past week her nerves had become more frazzled than she was aware, and when the copier jammed for the third time, she shouted, “Damn! Damn! Damn!” in rapid succession and then slammed her right foot into it.
“Tsk, tsk, tsk,” Denny chided from the doorway.
Alessa turned murderous eyes on him. He was relaxed, leaning against the doorjamb, a manila folder in one hand and a cup of coffee in the other. His ease only made her more infuriated.
“Stay out of it,” she growled, before turning to the machine, opening one of its many doors, and tearing the crumpled paper out. “The damn thing is broken.”
“Hm, I can’t imagine why, Sweetheart. Electronic machinery always performs better when treated with such abuse,” he snided, putting down the items in his hands on the table and then stepping in to give her his aid.
Alessa stood back, her hands fists at her side, her jaw clenched in irritation at both his seeming condescension and his mere ease of mind in the face of her quickly down-spiraling state. “I didn’t ask for your help,” she bit out.
“No, but you need it all the same,” he replied with gentleness, and then reached his arm deep into the machine and gave a tug, pulling free yet another piece of destroyed paper. “Here, I think I’ve found your problem. It was just so buried, you couldn’t see it,” he explained, standing up, closing the little door and resetting the copier. When he hit ‘start’ and the machine purred happily, he turned a smiling face towards Alessa.
“I can see your education was wasted on you. Clearly you should have just been a repair man,” she grumbled meanly as she went back to stand in front of the copier to continue on with her work.
But Denny only gave a sharp laugh, before crowding in on her space one iota more. “I’m good at a lot of things, Sweetheart, including fixing things that are broken,” he murmured.
Alessa looked up to stare blindly at the wall before her, her eyes not seeing the many notices on the little bulletin board above the copy machine. She could feel his breath on her neck made visible by the ponytail she wore. Her stomach was boiling as she closed her eyes to calm her rapidly accelerating desire.
“What’s the matter, Sweetheart? Cat got your tongue?” he murmured in her ear.
Alessa turned abruptly on him, sharp violence in her eyes. “Stop calling me that,” she hissed.
“It’s fitting,” he answered unfazed and unmoving.
“It’s an endearment,” he replied, his eyes sweeping caressingly over her face. She felt herself light up, hating what he could do to her with just one look. “And I find you very endearing.”
Her mouth tightened. “I thought you were going to leave me alone.”
“When did I ever say that?” he purred a moment before his mouth descended upon hers.
She stiffened immediately, but his hands pressed her into him regardless. His mouth was moving against hers, almost soothingly, and though she knew it was a mistake, she couldn’t help but to respond, to move in return. And when his tongue swept against her lips, her mouth parted automatically to allow him the very access she had so long tried to deny.
When Denny felt her body relax into his hold and her hands come to rest against his chest, he struggled with following through with his plan and not seducing her right then and there. But his reward wasn’t a short term, one-score encounter. He was after her heart, and it would require more wooing than a quick fumble in the copy room. His hands ran down the length of her arms until he clasped her hands in his, bringing them to his face. He peeled his mouth from hers, only to turn into her open palms and place reverent, but erotic, kisses in them.
Alessa was trembling, and she couldn’t seem to stop. Denny’s kisses were like the breath of life, invading every cell in her body and causing them to hum just for him.
“You have no idea how tempting you are, do you?” he murmured tenderly. “I could spend eternity kissing you.” His gaze dropped to her lips again before looking back up. “But I can’t,” he stated almost flatly, before releasing her hands and stepping back. He didn’t stop moving until he was leaning against the table he had set his things upon. “I actually came looking for you because I have something to tell you.”
Rattled by his sudden withdraw, Alessa brought a shaky hand up to her mouth to wipe it and turned back to her copies. “Really?” she asked in a quivering voice she couldn’t hide, attempting, but failing, to act as if he hadn’t just stolen her sanity.
Denny felt guilty for her shaken state, but reminded himself it was all part of his plan. “Yes. At the risk of dangerously inflating your ego, I’m here to tell you you’ve made quite a name for yourself so far. And with this latest bit of…Perry Mason-ry,” he said with a teasing smile, referring to their expedition to scour the status of the supposed renovation properties, “you have been selected as one of several to represent the firm at the date auction at the fundraiser next week.”
Alessa turned around at that, her eyes wide with horror. “How can my good work possible have earned me such a punishment?” she demanded to know.
Denny understood her trepidation, her proclivities of the introverted, but refused to give her an ounce of pity. “It’s simple. The entire fundraiser serves many purposes. One of the more subtle, yet nevertheless pervasive is the goal of networking. Those who get chosen to represent the firm in the date auction are very lucky as they get to privately mingle with our clients in a relaxed venue that would otherwise be unavailable to them. Think of it as the mortar around the paving stones of advancement.”
Alessa could feel herself recoiling inside. The thought of being paraded out like a show pony was beyond mortifying. But Denny was correct. Her talents and her value to the firm would be highlighted, even if through slightly tawdry means, and though she hated ‘mingling,’ she would have the best opportunity to do just as he suggested.
“What are the parameters of this date?” she asked with suspicion.
“Nothing so sinister.” He reached around and opened the folder and pulled out the top sheet. “Here is the contract with all the stipulations.” But then he pulled it back and gave her a questioning look. “But perhaps you just want me to tell you and you can sign without having to read it?”
Alessa snatched the paper from him and glared, knowing by his infuriating smile he knew he was being offensive by suggesting she was a sloppy lawyer who didn’t know how to read a contract. Or worse, she was just lazy. “I wouldn’t trust you,” she informed him grimly.
“That’s probably best,” he intoned with a wicked smile.
She walked about the room as she read the short, single-page document. She quickly analyzed the general rules of the date, which were that anyone could bid on any person; the person bid on was contracted to the bidder for three hours to begin at a reasonable place and time of the bidder’s choosing; that all expenses of the date were to be covered by said bidder; and there was no obligation to the bidder beyond conversation. Alessa’s brow furrowed when she read that if the person bid on failed to appear without a reasonable excuse or failed to comply with a reasonable rescheduling for the date, or failed to fulfill the three-hour stipulation, she would be required to indemnify the firm against the refund of the full bid to the bidder. She didn’t know how much the bids usually ran for, but all her money was budgeted away for other purposes, and spending it on repaying the firm was not for what she had designated its use.
Other than that concern, the rules seemed fair and straightforward, and none of them were beyond what Alessa would feel comfortable binding herself to. She only mulled it over an extra minute, taking a small amount of gratification in the fact that being asked to stand in as a date was an honor in the firm, even if it somehow felt like she was being reduced to the equivalent of a prize cow. She also took a small amount of hope that someone would bid on her and make Denny green with envy. Perhaps Hyun-Joong.
“Fine. I’ll sign,” she relented and walked back to him.
“Here, Sweetheart,” he offered holding out a pen.
She scribbled her name quickly. When she finished, she slammed his pen down, and looking up to glower at him, she demanded, “Stop calling me sweetheart and stop kissing me.”
Denny only looked at her frowning mouth that was within reach. His hand went up to caress her neck and then her jaw before he looked into her startled, rabbit-like eyes. “I would if I could, Sweetheart.” Mesmerized as she was by the delicious sensation of his fingertips on her skin and the look of tenderness in his eyes, she didn’t pull back when he leant forward and gave her a warm, but gentle and chaste kiss on her mouth.
Again she was shaken. Again, she was unnerved. She turned to get her copies to flee, but then Denny cursed loudly.
“Damn!” he hissed.
When she turned around, she saw that his coffee had spilt and was flooded across her contract.
She reacted to the immediacy of his voice and stepped closer to him, looking at his hands. “Did you burn yourself?” she asked with concern evident in her voice.
“No. Why? Worried about me?” he asked with an exasperating, cocky smile.
She straightened herself back, her alarmed and caring expression melting into shuttered indifference that he was instantly sorry for. Alessa looked down at the pool of coffee on her contract.
“It’s ruined,” she stated flatly. “My name’s blurred out. Aren’t you supposed to use indelible ink?” she muttered, aching to leave, but now being caught to lag behind.
“Sorry. Clumsy. I guess a kiss can do that,” he admitted with no amount of shame. She scowled at him while he opened the dry folder and pulled out a clean contract. “Don’t worry. I have more copies. Just sign it again.”
Sighing, she took the pen from him, inked her name quickly. She grabbed the book and her copies from the machine and fled, not even saying goodbye.
Denny watched her flee, and then lifted the newly signed contract to skim over it, a smug look of triumph glittering in his eyes.
A rattled Alessa marched off to her desk where she unceremoniously dumped the several large volumes and numerous copies before dashing to the ladies’ room. Flinging the door wide, she nearly collided with a person leaving.
“Fuck!” she hissed, startled in her already upset state. When she realized it was a senior partner, furthermore the head of personnel, her hand snapped up to her gaping mouth.
“Oh, Ms. Macrae! I am so sorry. You frightened me,” she rushed to explain.
Macrae wore her typical cat smile as she took in Alessa’s distressed state.
“No worries. No harm done. Besides, I like the occasional ‘fuck’ myself,” she replied coolly, meaningfully, her swaggering smile growing.
Alessa gave out a breathy laugh of relief and nodded, the former weights of her mind coming back quickly. She mumbled an ‘excuse me’ as she stepped past Jude and walked into the bathroom. Her heels clacked on the black tile floor, sounding dense and hollow at the same time. She stopped in front of the sink and began running the cold water. She splashed some on her face, and then wiped away the stress.
“What’s wrong with you?” Macrae asked bluntly as she came back to stand by Alessa.
“Nothing,” Alessa assured, frowning as she shook her head. “I’m just…”
“Stressed?” Macrae asked, lifting an eyebrow.
“What? No, of course not. I’m fine. Absolutely fine,” she continued shaking her head, a silent denial to what her words were proclaiming. “I can handle anything,” she firmly stated, looking Macrae’s reflection in the eyes.
Despite the bravado Alessa attempted, Macrae knew the truth. “Come on, then-grab your coat.”
“What?” Alessa could only ask confused.
“Your coat. It’s still raining out. You’ll need it. I’m taking you for a drink.”