The Billion-were Needs A Mate
Available Monday, July 31, on Amazon, free in KU or 99 cents to buy for a limited time – after that, it’s $2.99. In 90 days, it will be on all outlets. (No pre-order available, I’m afraid. Sorry!)
Copyright 2017 Georgette St. Clair
One little email threw Taylor Stockdale’s world into chaos. It was a simple email – it was only one sentence long. It was curt, like all of Cliff Bronson’s emails. It said “I need to speak to you; I’ll be at the office at noon.”
Noon? That was a disaster. That meant that the man Taylor had been long-distance-fantasizing about for a year would be at the office in less than an hour.
Her hair was frizzy from the July heat, she’d spilled coffee on her skirt, and she had ink-stains on her fingers from an exploding pen.
And why did he need to speak to her in person? She was a receptionist, a nobody. Completely inconsequential. The sales reps at Bronson Sports Performance were quick to point that out to her all the time.
An image of Cliff swam before Taylor’s eyes. She was intimately familiar with his looks. For some reason, he always insisted on speaking to her via Skype, unlike everyone else at the office, who he spoke to on the office phone. In fact, it was a little odd that he called and spoke to her as often as he did – he could just as easily have checked in with Perry Martin, their office manager. He’d ask her to pull up the sales reps’ reports, he’d ask her who was in the office that day but decline to speak to them…it was all information that he could easily have pulled up on his own computer. Sometimes he’d call up and ask her to transfer him over to the factory where their expensive sports supplements were packaged. Why didn’t he just call there directly?
He had a ruggedly handsome face and thick dark hair. His eyes were strange and beautiful. They were the color of amber whiskey, just like his brothers – Grant and Austin. The Bronson brothers had eyes that were a shade she’d never seen before. If it were just Cliff, she would have thought he was wearing some kind of exotically colored contact lenses, but all three of the brothers had the exact same eye color, and so had their late mother Jessica. She knew this from the publicity photos that she’d found on the internet, not that she was cyber-stalking Cliff, or anything.
Technically, one could argue that his younger brother Grant was even better looking than Cliff, and certainly a lot more charming. Grant was a notorious playboy; every week he was splashed all over social media with some new model or socialite on his arm. He hung out with movie stars on his mega-yacht and went to movie premiers. He’d stopped by the office in person once to congratulate everyone on exceeding their quotas, and all of the sales reps had melted into puddles of simpering lust at his feet.
But Taylor only had eyes for Cliff.
Not that anything would ever happen, of course. Although Cliff talked to her all the time, he’d never acted the least bit flirtatious. He was all business, that one.
Once, a few months ago, out of the blue, he’d asked her if she’d enjoyed her weekend. She’d told him the truth – she’d gone to a cookout at her best friend Chantelle’s house. She’d done her best to make it clear that she’d been there without a date. And she thought she’d seen a flicker of interest in his eyes. But nothing had ever come of it.
Still – she did enjoy fantasizing about him, her impossible dream lover, late at night in her bedroom. And she didn’t want to look like warmed-over roadkill when he got there.
She was about to head to the bathroom to freshen up when her intercom beeped.
“Taylor, are you aware that Mr. Bronson’s going to be here shortly?” the office manager, Perry Martin, asked her.
“Yes, sir, thanks for the heads up. The reception area is spotless, the plants have been watered, everything looks tip-top.”
“Excellent.” He hesitated. “Are you doing all right?”
“Fine, thanks. Really, it was no big deal.” She clicked off before he could ask any more questions. She’d gone out on a few dates with his son Joel, and then Joel had suddenly started acting angry and moody; he’d thrown her against a wall a few weeks ago, and she’d dumped him and threatened him with a restraining order if he came near her again. Perry had been mortified, and had apologized over and over.
She stood up and grabbed her purse – and the phone rang.
“Not now!” she whispered fiercely, but then she grabbed the phone and pasted on her happy receptionist face.
“Bronson Sports Performance and – ” she started to answer.
“Is the bitch squad on patrol?” Chantelle interrupted.
Taylor stifled a snicker. “Sadly, that is an affirmative. None of them are on the road, so today is going to be a double nightmare.” She lowered her voice as she said it, glancing at Shelley’s office.
Taylor sat at a desk facing big double glass doors, and on either side of the reception area, hallways stretched back behind her with rows of offices for the sales reps, marketing department, managers, accountants, and other personnel. Unfortunately, Shelley, her least favorite sales rep, had specifically asked for the office immediately to the right of Taylor’s desk.
“Why double?” Chantelle asked.
“Cliff Bronson is coming to the office today. And he said that he needed to talk to me. He’ll be here in less than an hour.”
“What the Hell-0 Kitty? Why wouldn’t you lead with that?” Chantelle gasped.
“Because I am officially so freaked out that I can barely form rational thoughts.”
“Pshaw. That’s just you on a day of the week that ends in Y. I’ll be right over. I need to see this paragon of manhood for myself.” Chantelle hung up.
Ha. Wouldn’t it be ironic if Cliff fell for Chantelle? Chantelle was a teeny, adorable little blonde with a deceptively angelic face. However, she was also the most loyal person Taylor knew– she and Taylor had been BFFs since kindergarten. She would never go for a guy if she knew that Taylor had a crush on him.
She quickly forwarded the phone to the answering service and stood up. A brief wave of dizziness washed over her, and she leaned on the desk. That was the second time this week. Odd. She’d never in her life experienced dizzy spells before. Must be all the stress she’d been under lately.
The dizziness passed, and she grabbed her purse and headed to the bathroom.
Shelley stalked out of her office just then. She was wearing a fitted silk skirt-suit the color of pepto bismol. She was tall and tanned, with perfectly frosted hair, ice-blue eyes, and a tiny little bud of a nose.
She looked down that little nose at Taylor. “You just went to the bathroom. We pay you to work, not take breaks all day long. What if someone comes in?”
“First of all, I haven’t used the restroom since I got here three hours ago. And secondly, it’s more than a little creepy that you’re paying attention to when I go pee.” Taylor stalked down the hall, back stiff, waiting for Shelley to scream something petty at her. Shelley did not disappoint.
“I am not paying attention to when you pee, you freak! That’s gross! You’re gross! I’m telling Perry!” Shelley was on a first-name basis with their boss.
Taylor paused at the bathroom door, and turned to face her. “What, exactly, are you going to tell him? That I’m going to the bathroom?”
Shelley’s porcelain skin flushed red with anger, and she glared at Taylor, her mouth opening and closing in a pink-lipsticked ‘o’ of frustration as she tried to think of a good comeback. Brandii-with-two-ii’s stuck her head out of her office door, eyes shining and hopeful, eager to see Shelley bring Taylor down a peg or two.
Shelley and the other sales reps were skinny, attractive girls who weren’t quite pretty enough to model. The mean girls of high school, they’d been raised to think their fashion-magazine looks made them superior – and therefore, anyone who didn’t look like them was inferior.
They hated that Taylor, a short, plump girl with a halo of frizzy brown hair, was their receptionist, the person who greeted clients. They wanted someone like them – plastic perfection.
Since they couldn’t get her fired, they satisfied themselves with throwing petty jabs at her whenever they thought they could get away with it – like when Perry wasn’t there. Taylor mostly ignored them – the worst thing about their insults was how utterly predictable and uninspired they were.
Shelley turned around and went back to her office, slamming the door hard. Taylor shook her head and hurried into the bathroom, shutting the door behind her.
She knew Shelley couldn’t get her in trouble – at least, not for neglecting her duties. Taylor was a hard worker. There was one thing, and one thing only, that she was doing which could land her in a world of trouble. Felony level trouble. For a brief moment she worried that might be why Cliff wanted to talk to her, but no. He didn’t look anywhere near that angry. And if he knew what Taylor did every few months, the police would be showing up, not Cliff.
Anyway, right now she had other things to worry about. She quickly washed her hands in the sink and scrubbed the ink off. She splashed water on her hands and ran it through her hair, taming some of the frizz.
The coffee stain on her skirt was still there, a Rorschach splatter of humiliation. Should she turn her shirt around? No, then it would look like she’d hadn’t made it to the toilet on time. She turned the skirt to the side and winced. What were the odds he’d overlook it? He didn’t seem like the type who overlooked anything. Every time they Skyped, she felt as if his gaze pierced her very soul.
She stared at her face in the harsh fluorescent glare of the bathroom lights. Round, with a mouth that was too full. When she bemoaned the roundness of her face as a teenager, Chantelle’s mother Carol had insisted that her face was like the sun rising on a beautiful morning – over and over, until Taylor started to believe it. Most days.
She freshened up her lipstick and mascara. Another brief wave of dizziness washed over her and she clutched at the counter.
Now she was starting to get worried. Why was this happening? She wasn’t feverish or achy, so she couldn’t be coming down with anything. She most definitely wasn’t pregnant; she’d never had sex with Joel, and it had been a long time since she’d actually been intimate with anyone besides her battery operated boyfriend. A humiliatingly long time.
Could it have been the head injury? When Joel slammed her head against the wall, she’d suffered a bump to the head, but that had been minor and had only hurt for a few days.
All right. She’d find an after-hours clinic to visit later and see if they could figure out what was wrong. She couldn’t afford to take a sick day. She couldn’t give Mr. Martin any excuse to fire her.
She hurried out of the room and back to her desk. To her dismay, she saw Shelley standing behind her desk, looking at the computer. She’d forgotten to minimize her screen and Cliff’s email was there for all the world to see.
“Ooh, Taylor’s boyfriend is coming to visit!” Shelley snickered. “I thought she ran to the bathroom awfully fast. Trying to make herself pretty? There isn’t enough makeup in all of Sephora for that.”
“Taylor has a boyfriend? Who?” Brandii-with-two-iis squawked from her office. “And why?”
Brandii hurried out as Taylor attempted to get to her desk and Shelley blocked her. Taylor flushed with humiliation.
“Move,” she said. “I need to get to work.”
“You mean you need to search for pictures of Cliff on the internet and imagine what he’d look like naked,” Shelley snickered. “I hope you’ve got a really good imagination.”
Chantelle stalked through the door just then, flinging it open with a bang that made everyone jump, and then slamming it shut behind her. Her office building was just down the road from theirs, and she had a finely tuned bitch radar.
Taylor felt the familiar tightening in her chest that she always did when she saw Chantelle these days. Chantelle looked perfectly healthy – for now.
I can’t lose her. I won’t lose her.
“Excuse you,” Chantelle snapped at Brandii. “Did someone just order a can of whoopass?” Chantelle and Brandii had been foes since high school, when Brandii lost her spot on the cheerleading squad to Chantelle. She’d tried to get revenge by spreading rumors that Chantelle was doing everyone on the football squad; Chantelle had settled that score after school behind the bleachers, and forced Brandii to admit she’d lied, under threat of a daily ass-beating.
“Try it,” squeaked Brandii, but she ducked behind Shelley. Shelley looked annoyed and stepped aside. There were no real friends on the bully squad.
“Your friend isn’t allowed in here,” Shelley complained to Taylor. “She’s trespassing. Make her go away.”
“My father sent me to make sure that our cleaning crew did a good job. Obviously they still left some trash behind,” Chantelle said, smiling without warmth. Chantelle’s father owned the janitorial services company that cleaned the Bronson office building, among others.
Shelley looked around in confusion, searching for stray pieces of litter. Then finally the meaning of the insult dawned on her. “Did you just call us trash?” she demanded indignantly.
“Oh. My. God. How does she walk and chew gum at the same time?” Chantelle and Taylor exchanged glances.
Before they could say anything else, the front door banged open and it felt as if the very air in the room had changed. It was like static electricity before a storm.
Cliff swept through the door and stood there, larger than life, and Taylor thought she felt her heart actually stutter in her chest. He was accompanied by a tall, lean man, in his fifties, his brown hair shot through with gray.
Cliff was even taller than she’d thought – easily 6’10”. His navy blue bespoke double-breasted suit fit his broad frame amazingly well. Taylor felt the raw power pulsing off of him. He moved with an animal-like grace, taking command of the room without saying a word.
Cliff’s cold gaze swept the women clustered around the desk. “What the hell is going on here?” he snapped at them, and Taylor felt the anger flowing from him, like a physical force pulsing in the air.