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Hot buttered rum standal.., p.10
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       Hot Buttered Rum: Standalone Romance (Silk Stocking Inn Book 4), p.10

           Tess Oliver
 

  She waved off my sarcasm. “Fine, don’t believe me, but I get a lot of pertinent information while I’m filling up my water bottle.”

  “Right. Isn’t the water cooler the source of the conspiracy theory that Mindy the Muffin Lady was actually an undercover boss, taping a reality television show to uncover just how her employees were feeling about the company? Only it turned out she was just a nice, little woman who baked muffins. And incredible ones at that. After that terrible lunch, I could go for a banana walnut.”

  “That’s right, make fun.” Cara turned to leave.

  “How long until the meeting?” I asked.

  “Twenty minutes. I’ll buzz you when it’s time.” She winked at me over her shoulder. “In case you drift back into one of those daydreams.”

  Chapter 2

  I shooed Cara out of my office and clicked the mouse to wake up my computer. As it sprang to life, a scent drifted off the tiny static charges. It wasn’t a fragrance I could pinpoint like grilled onions or peppermint. Instead, it was a mix of things—fresh cut wood, cinnamon mixed with something indistinguishable—sweat, maybe. But a good manly sweat, not a trapped in the elevator on a sweltering hot day with the neighbor who doesn’t believe in deodorant kind of sweat. It was the kind of rugged scent that made that same blush from earlier warm my cheeks.

  Daydreaming about sex in the lunch room and breathing in imaginary man scents—coming from my computer, no less. Cara was right. I needed a man in my life. It had been two months since I’d asked Randy to pack up his stuff and move out. I hadn’t thought once about him, mostly because there just wasn’t anything about the man that was memorable. Even the sex had been so vanilla and mundane that I’d found myself thinking about work and shopping while he was on top of me.

  I needed to focus back on my work day. I set about pulling up the current sales reports for the meeting. As my hand covered the mouse and the cursor flew across the monitor, a website popped up. Silk Stocking Inn was emblazoned across the top of the site. A picture of a somewhat dilapidated Victorian house that was being nearly overrun by climbing roses popped up in the corner of the page along with a prompt that said ‘click here to make your match’. A pink and gold banner across the top of the page read ‘Silk Stocking Inn—where every heart’s desire is filled . . . and then some’.

  I picked up the phone and pressed the button for Cara.

  “Yes?”

  “Cara, have you been on my computer?”

  “Why would I be on your computer?”

  The prompt started blinking at me. It was an obvious spam site. “Never mind.” I hung up and clicked the X to close the window. The site stayed. Five minutes later, after trying every trick in my limited technology knowledge tool belt, I was still staring at the Silk Stocking Inn. And the prompt was nagging at me like my mom did whenever she was in the mood to call and lecture me about my life mistakes, like going after a career instead of a husband.

  I had to finally resort to drastic measures. I reached around and held the power button until the computer wound down and went dark. I waited the obligatory five seconds to turn it back on.

  As my computer powered up, I thought about the V.P. rumors. I was sure Cara was completely delusional. The current vice president, a grumpy old guy with a comical hairpiece, had been in the position for years, never making it to the top spot, which had only made him more grumpy. Once his retirement had been announced, a short list of possible replacements had been floated around, and I was on it—with four other managers, all men. I just couldn’t see an all male board voting in a female vice president.

  I shook the notion from my head and returned my attention to the computer. “There’s no damn way. What the hell?” The mysterious website was back.

  The prompt returned, taunting me with its tempting message. This time the message changed. “What are you waiting for, Jessica? You’re not getting any younger.”

  I could see my open-mouthed reflection in the monitor. My mom knew three things about computers, how to turn them on, how to turn them off and how to infect them with viruses. Unless her skills had improved considerably, there was no way she’d designed a website on her own, particularly a tenacious one like this. Tenacious wasn’t even the word for it. Silk Stocking Inn seemed to have a life of its own, and now, it was addressing me personally.

  “In fact,” more text appeared, “I’m not getting any younger either. So let’s get this started. You need a man, and I’m here to help.” The website was talking to me as if we were having a one on one conversation.

  I sat back and smiled. Someone was playing a brilliant joke on me. But who? I sat forward and decided to go along with it. I had a few minutes to kill before the meeting. My fingers flew over the keyboard. “Fine then. I’m ready and willing. How does this work? Should I put in a few names, like Chris Hemsworth or Jake Gyllenhaal and then wait for them to appear at my office door? Oh, hey, do you have one of those 3-D printers? In that case, I’d like a combination of the aforementioned prospects.”

  A light pitter patter sound like fingers drumming a table top floated through my computer.

  “That tapping sound you hear is me waiting for you to finish with your silly wish list so we can get to the real thing. Besides, I don’t really think Thor and the Prince of Persia would make a pleasing combination. Might look really weird. Now, down to business. I understand you’re a high-powered, big shot who has quickly climbed her way close to the top of the corporate ladder. I suppose you want a man who you can control and boss around in bed?”

  “And we’re done here.” I hit the X, forgetting that it would be a waste of time. The site stayed stuck to my monitor as if it had been glued there with cement.

  “Wow. Guess you’re a little sensitive.”

  “Look, I don’t know who you are or who put you up to this, but I’ve got a meeting to attend.”

  “Yes, I know. You’re right. Maybe that vice president title will be enough to keep you happy. Who needs love when you’ve got Chanel suits, a Porsche and a corner office with a view?”

  I blinked at the last line of the message. Something about it saddened me. I’d already gotten past the shock that the person I was chatting with knew everything about me, but now that person had hit a nerve.

  My fingers were slower this time. “Everyone needs love.”

  I waited for a response. There was none. They were waiting for me.

  “I didn’t step on people and boss them around on my way up the ladder. I worked my butt off to get here.”

  “Well then, happily ever after achieved. Just no kiss involved.”

  “No, I need the kiss. I’ve got everything else but that.”

  “Then, I’m waiting. Describe your perfect man.”

  I had no idea why I was continuing this, but my fingers lowered over the keyboard. “My perfect man list.” They’d done it. They’d broken me down, and suddenly, I was spilling my guts out to an unidentified person on the other end of the website. “I want to be treated as an equal in business. But in bed, I want him to take complete control. I’m in charge all day. Between the sheets, I want to be his plaything, his love toy.” I sat back and stared at my words. “Holy shit, I’ve wasted thousands of dollars on a therapist and there you are, whoever the hell you are, typing rather obnoxious prompts on a computer, and it all comes out. My bottled up feelings. That’s why I haven’t found anyone. And now I’m even talking to my computer.”

  “See. Now we’re getting somewhere. What else?” Somehow they’d heard me. I looked around my computer for a camera or tiny bugging device. It was my same old computer. No extra technology or unusual additions.

  I stared at the last question. Once again, my fingers covered the keyboard. “I don’t want a man who fusses over his hair or clothes. And no manicured men. Gawd, I hate a man whose hands look better than mine. In
fact, a little grit under the nails wouldn’t be a bad thing. Oh, and, of course, there’s tall, dark and—”

  “Handsome?” the text box interrupted. “Didn’t figure you as the cliché type.”

  “I’m not, but you didn’t let me finish. Tall, dark and a pleasure in bed and out. If that includes a pleasure to look at, then I guess I’m a little cliché. Not going to lie—expressive eyes, a cool, confident smile and a chiseled jaw go a long way when you’re looking at someone over a pillow.”

  Cara knocked on the door and poked in her head. Instinctively, I hit the X to close the site. This time, much to my disappointment, it disappeared. My usual desktop splashed open. “It’s time, and some of the really important big wigs are here.” She winked conspiratorially at me.

  “Yes, well don’t start packing up your desk supplies just yet. I’ll be there in a second. I just need to print my reports.”

  “Still? Thought that’s what you’ve been doing.” She stuck her hands on her hips. “Are you still daydreaming about that vending machine hottie? You know, I could get his number for you.”

  “Yes, that’s what I need. The woman who jumps from man to man as if her feet were on fire to set me up on a date with the soda man.”

  She lifted her finger. “The hot soda man.” Her mouth twisted in consideration. “That didn’t come out quite right. Anyhow, they’re waiting for you in the board room.” She walked out.

  I stared at the desktop, wondering if I had been just daydreaming again. I needed to get more sleep. I moved the mouse to get the reports. With the same whiff of fragrance as before, the Silk Stocking Inn web page popped open.

  “We’re almost finished here. One last question. What is your favorite flavor of cupcake?”

  I blinked at the question before laughing out loud. “See, I knew this was a joke. Hope you enjoyed yourself.”

  “There’s nothing comical about cupcakes. Just answer the question.”

  “Red velvet,” I typed, hitting the keys far harder than I needed to.

  “I might have guessed that. We’ll be in touch.” With that, the website vanished as suddenly and mysteriously as it had appeared.

  I brushed the whole thing off as a comical diversion, even if it was somewhat eye opening for me. I quickly printed and collected my reports and headed down the hallway to the board room.

  Chapter 3

  Cara was waiting in my office with an airline sized bottle of wine. She held it between her thumb and forefinger. “It’s all I could come up with on such short notice. Although, technically, it wasn’t all that short because I predicted your promotion to vice president this morning.”

  We hugged. “Still can’t believe it. I was sure they’d give it to Gregory.”

  Cara opened the wine and dribbled it into our coffee mugs. She handed me mine. “How are you feeling?”

  I thought about her question. I was still coming out of the stunned haze that had swept over me when Harold Taylor, the owner of the company, announced my name. Everyone had looked at me, some with angry scowls—most especially Gregory—and some with smiles. I’d sat frozen to my chair like the proverbial deer in headlights wondering if I was back in one of my weird daydreams.

  “I’m not sure how I feel. Surprised . . . I guess. A little nervous. Anxious, that’s another good adjective to throw in there.” I drank the shot of wine in one gulp. “I’m sure I’m still just getting over the shock. I’ll feel more excited once that wears off.”

  “I’m sure of it. Well, it’s quittin’ time. Guess I better go buy myself some new clothes. I’ve got to look the part of the vice president’s assistant. I’ll let you sit and contemplate for awhile. You look a little dazed.” She hugged me again and walked out.

  I sat down at my desk. My scenic meadow desktop wallpaper stared back at me. No more strange pop-up windows. Just the well-organized array of report folders dotting the field of wildflowers behind it.

  I rolled my executive chair to the window and gazed out at the view. Skyscrapers and office buildings of equal or more height striped the blue sky. Movement below carried my attention down to the sidewalk. There he was, my lunchtime amusement. He crossed the street to his delivery truck. As he reached it, a pretty red head with long legs and barely there shorts stepped out of the truck with a blazing white smile.

  He stopped his dolly on the sidewalk, and in one swift move, he had his arms around her waist and his mouth pressed hard against hers. I looked on with envy as the two came dangerously close to making out right there on the city sidewalk. I had it all, but I didn’t have that. I didn’t have that guy who would make me throw away all inhibitions and bring me to a full blush in the middle of a crowded sidewalk. I wanted that.

  I pulled myself away from the window and reached for the phone. My mom answered. “Jessi, so glad you called. I’ve got such big news.”

  “I’ve got some big news too, Mom.”

  In the background, Dad was telling her to let my sister Leticia tell me the news. I could almost see my mom waving at him to hush up. “Leti is having twins! Two girls. I tell you I just can’t stop smiling over here.” She laughed. “I was knitting one of those cute little caps and now I’ve got to knit another. The one I have on my needles is pink. I was thinking lavender for the next one. What do you think?”

  I couldn’t remember the last time Mom had sounded so excited. Wait. Yes I could. It was when Leti had told her she was pregnant with her first baby. “I think lavender would be pretty, Mom.”

  She went on with some details about due dates and prenatal vitamins. I listened half-heartedly. Then she stopped suddenly. “Oh my, I’m going on and on and you said you had some big news too, Jessi. What is it?”

  My news was big to me, but it would be nothing compared to twin granddaughters. At least not in my mom’s eyes. This was Leti’s big news day, not mine. “Oh, it’s nothing that can’t wait, Mom. Tell Leti congratulations for me, and I’ll see you later.”

  I hung up. Pauline, one of the managers, poked her head into the office. “Congratulations, Boss. A few of us are going to head over to that new Thai restaurant across town for a Friday night wind down. Want to join us? That is, if you don’t mind eating with us little people.”

  I tilted my head and raised a brow at her.

  “Sorry, that was uncalled for. You’ll be a great V.P., Jessi. How about that dinner?”

  I nodded. “That sounds good. I’ll just finish up here and meet you guys there in an hour.”

  Chapter 4

  I glanced at the screen on my phone. The directions had taken a weird turn. I was sure I needed to go south on Berkshire Ave., but the little voice in my phone was saying north. It was entirely possible the whirlwind of a day I’d had was making my internal compass a little screwy.

  I wasn’t even completely sure why I’d agreed to meet everyone for dinner. I wasn’t in the mood to socialize. And it wasn’t the new position that had me feeling like I just needed to go curl up on my couch with a book and bag of barbecue potato chips. It was those wacky few moments on my computer that had shifted my mood. Of course, wacky was a light word for it. I had no idea who had been on the other end of the conversation where I’d basically poured out my heart’s desire to a complete stranger, possibly even just a robot. But a well-programmed robot at that. It seemed to know everything about me. And now, thanks to me opening my virtual diary and spilling the contents out onto my keyboard, my deepest fantasy was out floating around in cyberspace.

  “Turn left here,” my phone instructed. It seemed my life was now being directed by bossy technological beings.

  I turned left onto a small street I’d never seen before. It was really more of an alley than a street, and a questionable one at that. But the sketchy state of the deserted alley was nothing compared to the unexplained layer of fog floating down from an otherwise crystal bla
ck night sky.

  “I’ve had about enough of you and your nutty directions.” I shut the phone off. Fog or not, I pushed my foot down on the gas pedal. The walls on either side of the alley were closing in on me, and the thick, eerie mist was clouding my windshield. Visibility was down to a few feet past the front of my headlights but I motored on, plowing through the seemingly endless corridor.

  The shroud of fog reminded me of a ghost in a long gray gown as it rolled over my hood and across my front windshield. I was at least a forty minute drive from the coast, but a heavy fog wasn’t completely unheard of in the city. Only this one had drifted in alarmingly fast.

  I shivered as a cold clammy mist seemed to fill the car. My trembling fingers reached for the window buttons. I pushed them forward to make sure they were sealed shut and then double checked that the doors were locked.

  I reached for my phone, deciding to let Pauline know I’d be late and that I’d taken a wrong turn on Berkshire. That way, if I didn’t show up, the police would know where to start the search.

  My overactive imagination took me to the notion that Gregory, my coworker who was sure he’d had the vice president position on lock, might have set up this elaborate scheme to get rid of me. I laughed at the rather dark idea, not because Greg wouldn’t sink so low but because he had never shown himself to be a creative thinker. And this elaborate scheme would require a lot of creativity and thinking . . . and some knowledge of weather science.

  Sudden unexpected brightness coaxed me to lift my arm and shade my eyes. Headlights or a large flood lamp, I decided. At least I was reaching some kind of life form or glimmer of civilization. The light mellowed, obviously being muted by the pea soup fog.

  I put my phone down, deciding I would be at the restaurant in plenty of time. I was sure they all needed a chance to debrief and talk about my promotion and new position before I got there. Then I was heading straight to the bar. The tablespoon of wine with Cara was still a few good apple martinis away from a proper buzz.

 
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