"Hey, McAlister. Did you hear the news?"
Mark McAlister looked up from the balance sheets scattered across his desk. When he saw Jared Sloan swagger into his office, he wished he'd locked the door and booby-trapped it for good measure. Monday mornings were bad enough without being subjected to Sloan before he'd even had his second cup of coffee.
Sloan stopped in front of Mark's desk, folding his arms in the casual yet commanding pose of a man who thought he ruled the world. Mark had no time for gossip, but if he didn't ask, Sloan would never leave.
"What news is that?"
"Carson Industries. They're signing with us this morning."
It took every ounce of self-control Mark had to keep his shock from showing. Last Friday he'd given Jack Carson a presentation to show how his company was needlessly throwing away hundreds of thousands of dollars every year in taxes. He'd approached the issue with logic and reason, but for reasons he couldn't fathom, Carson had frowned his way through most of the presentation, then left the office with a noncommittal "I'll get back to you." Mark had been around long enough to know what that meant: Don't call me. I'll call you.
Had he read Carson wrong? Had he finally won a client through a clear, concise presentation of the facts? He felt a rush of satisfaction, his heart beating double-time.
"That's good," he told Sloan, trying not to let his relief show. "Of course, I assumed Carson would say yes after he had a chance to think about the numbers. We can save him a bundle with those tax credits I proposed, and that environmental loophole--"
"The numbers? Are you kidding?" Sloan burst into laughter. "Any accounting firm in Miami can throw numbers on a page. I took a different approach."
Mark froze, dread washing over him. Not again. This couldn't be happening again. He could barely spit out the words. "You got him to sign?
"Yeah. With a little help from Tiffany, of course. Turns out she and Carson's wife were both Tri-Delts at the University of Florida, so Tiffany invited her and Carson to join us in Aspen for the weekend. It took my lovely wife less than an hour to find out that Carson's wife makes all the decisions in that family." Sloan gave Mark a superior smile. "It was all downhill from there."
Sloan's secret weapon. The Tiffany Connection.
Tiffany was the daughter of one of Miami's most prominent neurosurgeons. She had a Master's degree in anthropology. She belonged to the Junior League, and she was on the board of the Miami Symphony. She was acquainted with movers and shakers all over the state of Florida, and she'd used that influence more than once to snag her husband a client.
Sloan gave Mark a big, phony grin. "I think this calls for a celebration, don't you? There'll be a bottle of bubbly floating around my office later on. Be sure to drop by."
At that moment it was all Mark could do not to vault over his desk, take Sloan by the throat and squeeze all that mocking condescension right out of him. It was bad enough that he horned in on every client Mark had ever tried to sign. What was worse was that he gloated about it--incessantly--then made Mark look like a bad sport for taking it personally.
"I've got work to do, Sloan. If you want to spend your day guzzling champagne, that's up to you."
"Aw, come on, McAlister! It's not important who's actually getting Carson to sign on the dotted line. This is a team effort, right?"
Team effort? What a joke. The day Sloan became a team player was the day hell became a winter wonderland.
"Don't worry," Sloan added. "I'm sure your contribution will be considered as highly as mine when the new partnership is announced. After all, somebody's got to crunch those numbers, right?" He gave Mark an irritating little chuckle, then strolled out of his office.
Anger and resentment tore through Mark like wildfire. He wanted that partnership so badly he could taste it, but it was going to be a damned hard thing to accomplish if Sloan continued to one-up him every step of the way. How was he ever going to outshine a phony ex-frat boy with a savvy, ambitious wife, who'd written the book on corporate ladder-climbing?
He strode out of his office to his assistant's desk. Tina Boyd had her hands on her computer keyboard, her fingers flying like mad. Her short, spiky blonde hair and long pink fingernails made her a striking standout among her peers, but Mark wouldn't have traded her for anyone. She was a hundred pounds of pure administrative dynamite, which left her plenty of time for her volunteer job as officer-in-charge of the rumor mill at Nichols, Marbury & White.
"Tina, can I ask you a question?"
"Sure, boss," she said, her fingers never ceasing their frantic tapping. "Shoot."
He lowered his voice. "The partnership. What's the grapevine telling you?"
Tina's fingers froze on the keyboard. She paused a moment, then lifted them off. She turned to face Mark, her mouth falling into a sympathetic frown. "It doesn't look good for you."
That was exactly what Mark had expected to hear, but still the words felt like a anvil settling on his chest.
"Almost everyone knows you're the best candidate," Tina added. "But that nasty Jared Sloan and his prissy wife won't get out of the way long enough for the big boys to see that."
Another fact Mark was painfully aware of.
"Actually," Tina went on, "from what I've been able to see, it's easy to become a partner at this company. All you have to do is turn yourself into a pushy, arrogant jerk and get yourself a woman who knows how to play the corporate social game, and you'll move right to the top of the list."
Mark gave her a wry smile. "Thanks for the tip. I'll get to work on it right away."
"You do, and you can find yourself another assistant."
"What? You don't want to be partner's assistant?"
"Not if the partner's a jerk." She stared at him a long time, her admonishing expression melting into concern. "You're a nice guy, Mark. Best boss I've ever had. Don't lose that for anything, okay?"
Yeah, and he knew exactly where nice guys finished. Dead last.
He went back into his office and shut the door. He leaned against it, his eyes closed, as that familiar wave of insecurity washed over him again--the one that told him a kid raised in a trailer park in Waldon Springs, Tennessee, population 937, couldn't possibly ascend to a partnership in one of the most prestigious accounting firms in the country.
But a guy like Sloan could.
Sloan came in late. He left early. He shoved work off on every other accountant in the firm. He was a lousy manager, driving most of his people to eventually hate the sight of him, and he routinely took credit for other people's accomplishments. But all of it was tolerated, because Sloan had one talent Mark had never been able to master.
He brought clients to the firm in droves.
As Mark stood in the quiet of his office, the echoes of his childhood vibrated inside his head. As one of the "poor folks" in town, he'd spent most of his early years ducking his head in shame, but as he grew older, he turned that shame into a motivating force that drove him to graduate near the top of his high school class. That had helped land him a college scholarship that paid part of his tuition. But still he'd had to work to pay the rest, leaving him no time for the social life his classmates took for granted. When he graduated and went to work for Nichols, Marbury & White, he naturally assumed hard work would have its reward, neglecting his social life to the point where he'd pretty much become a workaholic recluse.
How could he have been so blind?
At this firm, professional excellence meant more than being a good accountant. It meant poise and polish, wining and dining, and the man who made it to the top of the ladder was not the one who masterminded the financial strategy that saved the client thousands in taxes, but the man who brought that client to the firm in the first place.
All these years while Mark had been working himself to death, guys like Sloan, with half his expertise, had been using his shoulders as a stepping stone to success. At the same time, they'd learned how to attract the right kind of women, women who were at their sides right now, helping push them to the top. Mark had never had anyone but himself to rely on when it came to playing the social game, and he wasn't even sure he knew the rules.
Then Tina's words popped into his mind again. Turn yourself into a pushy, arrogant jerk and get yourself a woman who knows how to play the corporate social game...
Mark felt a jolt of sudden realization. Maybe Tina had been more right than she realized. He had no plans of turning into a pushy, arrogant jerk any time soon, but the woman thing...
Why hadn't he seen it before?
He froze for a moment as the thought took hold, then crossed to his window and looked down seven stories to the rush hour crowd swirling along the busy downtown street.
She was out there somewhere. The woman who could help him meet every professional goal he had, and then some. A woman with elegance and refinement, who could mesmerize clients just by being in the same room. A woman would put him on the same plane as Sloan and every other guy at the firm who minored in accounting and majored in schmoozing.
Unfortunately, he had no idea how to go about attracting such a woman.
In Waldon Springs, you were considered a social success if you drank wine with an actual cork and didn't pick your teeth at the dinner table. Mark's knowledge of the social graces had ascended a step or two above that over the years, but still he got queasy at the very thought of approaching a poised, confident, cultured woman.
Well, as of today, that was going to change.
The firm's annual dinner dance was coming up soon. If he showed up with a woman who glowed so brightly she made his image skyrocket just by standing next to him, then the partners would start to see him as something other than a pencil-pushing number-cruncher. They'd see him not as a guy in the trenches, but as a guy at the top. Partner material.
But first he had to find her.
Faced with that seemingly impossible task, his resolve should have wavered, but with each passing moment it only grew stronger. He hadn't gotten this far in life without plowing through insurmountable odds, and now that he realized the source of his problem, he wasn't about to turn down this challenge.
One way or another, he'd find the right woman. When he did, he'd have every bit of the success he'd been striving for. And the memory of that boy he'd been in Waldon Springs so many years ago would never come back to haunt him again.
* * *
"I'll bet you a dollar he doesn't go through with it."
Liz Prescott plunked olives into a pair of martinis and set the glasses onto Sherri's drink tray. "No way. I might as well give you a buck and call it quits. He's not going anywhere."
"Even if he did speak to her," Sherri said, grabbing a stack of cocktail napkins, "I doubt he'd get to first base."
"You're probably right. A woman like that wouldn't even let him into the ballpark."
For the past thirty minutes, Mark had been staring at the pristine, wool-suited blonde sitting across the bar. Her manicure was perfect, her hair upswept in one of those sophisticated twists, and even at the end of the day her makeup still had that fresh, dewy finish Liz couldn't even manage first thing in the morning. She chatted with the woman beside her in that haughty, cosmopolitan way Liz hated, punctuating her conversation with the latest buzz words and radiating an aura of arrogance a man would have to use a machete to whack his way through. Still, Mark couldn't take his eyes off her. He wore that hypervigilant expression that dated all the way back to prehistoric man--the one that said he'd found a woman worth slaying a mastodon for if only he could work up the nerve to say hello.
Simon's Bar and Grille attracted upwardly-mobile young professionals who came there at happy hour to meet other upwardly-mobile young professionals. Tending bar in this place was like being in the middle of one gigantic mating ritual, but apparently no one had let Mark in on how to play the game.
Liz met him for the first time when he came into Simon's a week ago, took a seat at the bar, ordered a Scotch and water, and proceeded to evaluate every woman who walked into the place. He clearly wanted to make a connection, but he was so unassuming that he practically melted into the wall, leaving Liz to wonder if he might get lost in a crowd of two. His suit was a nondescript gray, styleless and ultra conservative, further drabbed-down by a starched white shirt and solid burgundy tie. But it wasn't as if he had a pocket protector for his pens, or high-water pants, or anything like that. He was actually okay-looking, with nice brown eyes behind those glasses, and thick, dark hair that would look great in the hands of the right stylist. But the women here could smell a lack of confidence at a hundred paces, and that blonde was no exception.
Liz had chatted with Mark enough to find out his first name, that he was an accountant, that he liked baseball, and…well, that was about it. No matter how much she tried to work her friendly bartender magic, the guy was a closed book.
"He's kind of cute, though," Liz said. "Don't you think?"
"Yeah, but around here, cute doesn't cut it," Sherri said. "Now, if he'd let her browse his financial portfolio first, or maybe wave the keys to a Jag under her nose, he might have a chance."
Sherri's assessment of the situation was right on target. When Liz first started working there, the millennial overload had just about driven her nuts. Every time a phone rang, a dozen people dove into purses, pockets, and planners. If the night was a little slow, she could count on doing her job by the hazy glow of a dozen laptop screens. And she'd never seen such a variety of credit cards in her life. Gold cards. Silver cards. Platinum cards. Photo cards. Holographic image cards. If someone had hauled out a card encrusted in diamonds with blinking neon lights, she wouldn't have been surprised.
But while the people here weren't the type Liz would hang out with if she had a choice, they still fascinated her because people fascinated her, period. She was only a bartender now, but this fall she was starting college to pursue a degree in psychology. At twenty seven she'd be a bit old to be a freshman, but it was better late than never. Excitement burst though her at the very thought of becoming a clinical psychologist. Listening to people's problems all day long and offering sage and wonderful advice to put their lives back on track--did it get any better than that? In the meantime, what better place to practice her future profession than working behind a bar?
"How many drinks does that make for him?" Sherri asked, as Mark downed a another swallow of scotch and water.
"Just one. Think it's enough to get him moving?"
But this time, when he set his glass down, a flicker of determination came over his face. Liz felt a glimmer of hope. Maybe he was finally going to make a move. Could this mean money in her pocket after all?
"I won't go a buck," she told Sherri. "But I've got a quarter that says he at least gets off the stool."
"Okay. You're on."
They watched furtively as Mark straightened his tie, then patted his lapels. He placed his hands on the bar, his chest rising and falling as if he were inhaling a few deep breaths. The he swung a leg to the side to rise from the stool.
"Ha!" Liz whispered. "There he goes. You owe me--"
But right in the middle of Liz's premature celebration, Mark froze. Liz turned a quick eye to the other end of the bar. Larry the Lounge Lizard had approached the blonde and was taking the stool beside her.
Larry, whose real name was Howard Something-or-Other, had earned his nickname by hitting on every living, breathing female who ventured through the door. Actually, breathing was barely a prerequisite. If someone were to bring an unconscious woman into the club, he would let the paramedics perform CPR, then hit on her. Liz had no doubt the blonde would eventually chew him up and spit him out, but right now, he was really screwing things up.
She turned back to the man she had her money on, and her worst fears were confirmed. As the guy watched Larry put the moves on the blonde, he glared at him for a few moments, then sat back down on the barstool with what was clearly a muttered curse.
"Nope," Sherri said, flashing Liz a triumphant smile. "Looks like you owe me. Gimme the quarter."
"But Larry got in the way!"
"Yeah, and the track was muddy, the blackjack dealer was crooked, and the referee made a bad call. So sad. Now, pay up."
Liz pulled a quarter from her apron pocket and slapped it into her friend's hand. She and Sherri were roommates, and betting on just about everything was one of their favorite recreational activities. Their five-dollar limit said they didn't exactly play high stakes, but betting with actual cash still made things interesting. Liz won most of the time because she was better than Sherri at knowing when she had a shot and when she didn't, but this time she'd definitely miscalculated.
"Your customers are waiting for their drinks, Miss Moneybags," Liz said. "Now, go."
Sherri smiled. "Sore loser."
She scooped up the tray and headed to table six, where she dropped off another round of drinks to a pair of impeccably dressed twenty-something males who were scanning the place nonstop, looking for those special women who could bear them two-point-five children without all that embarrassing weight gain.
She turned to see Mark holding up his empty highball glass, asking for a refill. She poured him another scotch and water and set it down on the bar in front of him. He downed half of it and didn't even blink.
"Rough night?" Liz asked.
"You might say that."
She nodded over her shoulder. "You want to talk to that blonde at the end of the bar. Is that right?"
His eyes narrowed with suspicion, as if she'd crawled inside his head and gone rummaging around. The truth was that anyone this side of blind could have read his "I gotta have her" expression from halfway across the room.
He turned away. "No. I don't want to talk to anyone."
Liz leaned closer and lowered her voice. "Ignore that guy who's hitting on her right now. He talks a good game, but we don't call him Larry the Lounge Lizard for nothing. His mother dresses him from the department store where she works, and the only reason he drives a Mercedes is because his uncle owns a dealership. And he got his personality at Walmart. On sale."
"Why are you telling me this?"
"Because I don't want you to think he's competition."
He stared at his drink. "Competition?"
Liz rolled her eyes. Denying his interest in that blonde was like Donald Trump denying his interest in real estate. She rested her forearms on the bar and raised an eyebrow.
"Look. You've sat on that stool for the past thirty minutes, checking out that blonde. If you don't make a move pretty soon, I'm gonna have to start charging you rent."
He shot her a look of irritation. "This is none of your business."
Liz smiled teasingly. "Sure it is. You're sitting at my bar. Everything that goes on here is my business." She inched closer, raising her eyebrows expectantly. "So do you want to meet her or not?"
He gazed at the blonde. A look of longing entered his eyes, and Liz found herself wondering if any man had ever looked at her like that. Finally he let out a breath of resignation. "Yes. I want to meet her. But she's occupied."
Liz glanced over her shoulder and saw Larry leaning closer to the blonde with a drunken hey, baby, how about you and me doing the horizontal tango look, while the blonde's expression said he was on the verge of getting a knee in the groin.
"I told you that guy's not a problem. Watch."
Right on cue, the blonde turned on her barstool and met Larry face to face. She smiled sweetly with a cutesy, Barbie-doll expression, but while Liz couldn't hear what she was saying, the look on Larry's face said her words were pure venom. Larry generally took rejection like a real trooper, but this time his eyes widened with surprise. He backed away one step, then two, then turned in a huff and stalked off. Liz had seen it coming, but still she was impressed. Most women had to whip out their phones and dial 911 to get rid of Larry.
Mark gave Liz a look of total astonishment. "How did you know that?"
"Gosh, I don't know." She gave him a teasing smile. "I guess I must be psychic."
"Then why don't you look into the future and tell me what my chances are with her?"
Liz winced. If that blonde could make Larry turn tail and run, she probably had claws she hadn't even sharpened yet. Mark seemed nice. Why would he want to subject himself to a woman like that? Sure, she was beautiful, but it was a phony, put-on kind of beauty that was swimming in arrogance. Were men really that blind? Or did they truly not care what was inside the package as long as the wrapping was pretty?
Liz had never had any delusions about her own beauty, or sometimes, she thought, lack of beauty, but at least she'd never tried to be something she wasn't. She knew her auburn hair was too curly and wild, always sneaking out of the knot she gathered it in and cascading in ringlets around her face. Her figure was way too curvy to be fashionable, with breasts and hips a supermodel would run screaming from. On the plus side, though, she had a beauty-queen smile and a pair of long, shapely legs that had stopped more than a few men in their tracks. She'd learned a long time ago to minimize her liabilities and play up her assets, which meant incarcerating her hair, wearing Spanx, hemming her skirts another inch or two and smiling as often as possible.
"Why are you so fixated on her?" Liz asked.
"Her name is Gwen Adams. She manages a high-class art gallery on Ashworth Avenue. She went to Vassar, and she speaks three languages. And look at her. Not a hair out of place."
Liz automatically reached up to smooth down her own hair. "Then you already know her?"
"Not really. She's a friend of a friend."
"So you haven't actually spoken to her?"
"No. But trust me. She's perfect for me."
Oh, boy. He hadn't even spoken to her, and he was a goner already. Liz had seen infatuation before, but this was ridiculous.
One of the waitresses slapped a drink order on the bar. Liz held up a finger, telling Mark she wasn't through with him yet. She drew two Millers and grabbed a Perrier from the fridge, wondering what she could say to get it through to him that his dream woman was really a nightmare in disguise.
Oh, hell. Who was she to decide who belonged with whom? Even though she wouldn't have put the two of them together in a thousand years, love was a funny thing. She'd dated a string of men who'd looked really, really good, then turned out to be jerks. Couldn't it work the other way, too? Maybe deep down he and the Ice Princess were soul mates. If so, Liz had never been one to stand in the way of true love.
She put the mugs of beer and the bottle of glorified tap water on the tray and the waitress took them away. She returned to where Mark sat swirling his drink in his glass.
Looking at him now, she decided she'd been a little hasty in her assessment of him. He was more than just okay-looking. He had nice, broad shoulders that made his dull, boring suit look not so dull and boring. A pair of utilitarian horn-rimmed glasses dominated his face. Those might have been in right now, but if he ever took them off, his strong facial features--firm jaw, bold cheekbones, and full, almost sensuous lips--could easily take center stage. And if he ever smiled, which he certainly hadn't tonight, she had the feeling the room would light up brighter than a Vegas casino. If Gwen had any foresight at all, she just might be getting a diamond in the rough.
"So you want to know what your chances are with her?" Liz asked.
"Exactly zero if you don't get up off that stool, walk over there and introduce yourself."
"Just let me finish this drink first."
As exasperated as Liz was over his reluctance to take action, at the same time she couldn't ignore the tiny thrill that swept through her. The longer he sat there, the more obvious it became that if he wanted to get that woman's attention, he was going to need some help.
People's problems naturally piqued Liz's interest, hence her interest in psychology. It was in her genetic makeup, just as her auburn hair was, and her green eyes. Decades ago, her great grandmother had run a soda shop in Grand Rapids, Michigan, and aside of the usual problems she addressed on a daily basis, family legend had it that after the stock market crash of 1929, she'd actually prevented one distraught customer from climbing to the top of the four-story building next door and taking one of those much-publicized free-falls.
Liz's grandmother was similarly gifted with fabulous advice for anyone who needed it. Queen of the quilting circle at her church, the other women relied on her to put their problems into perspective and then send them off in the right direction.
Then there was Liz's mother, Laura Lee Prescott, who ran a hair salon in Big Fork, Texas. Even as a child, Liz realized the people who patronized her mother's place of business generally wanted more than a cut or a perm.
I told him exactly what you said last week, Laura Lee. I told him it was time to poop or get off the pot. And guess what? We're getting married in June!
I kept my mouth shut about the twenty dollars she owed me, just like you said. Then I found out she'd stuck it into the pocket of my purse last week at bingo and forgot to tell me!
I thought you was nuts, Laura Lee. But I gave her the new clothes dryer on her birthday instead of perfume and flowers, and she said it was about time I gave her something to help out around the house instead of something silly and useless.
To Liz and everyone else in town, Laura Lee Prescott had been Dr. Phil, Ann Landers and Sigmund Freud all rolled into one. Even as a child, Liz had stood in awe of the way people respected every word her mother uttered. As Liz eased into womanhood, the tingle she felt inside every time she sensed a problem in her vicinity told her, without a doubt, that she was now the keeper of the family heritage. And she was even taking things one step further than her mother and grandmother by getting a degree in psychology. Best of all, she intended to specialize in couples therapy. She couldn't imagine anything more satisfying than being an interim matchmaker, spending her days repairing broken relationships and bringing people back together again.
But right then she had a different kind of matchmaking to attend to.
"Give me one of your business cards," she told Mark.
He looked at her warily. "Why?"
"Just do it."
He reached into the breast pocket of his coat and produced a business card. Liz took it from him, then tilted it slightly to read it in the dim light. Mark McAlister. Tax Accounting Manager. Nichols, Marbury & White, Certified Public Accountants. White with black lettering. She sighed. Did it get any more boring than that?
Oh, well. She had to play the card she was dealt. She stuck the card into her apron pocket and started toward the fridge.
"Liz?" Mark said. "What are you doing?"
"Trust me," she said over her shoulder. "I'll get the door open, but you have to walk through it. Now, pay attention."
"Hey!" he said. "Wait a minute! Get back here!"
Liz ignored his protests. She pulled a bottle of the ridiculously overpriced white wine Ms. High-and-Mighty was drinking from the fridge, poured a glass, then strolled over and placed it in front of her. Gwen looked at her questioningly.
"It's from the gentleman at the other end of the bar," Liz said, handing her Mark's business card. Gwen scanned the card briefly, then zeroed in on Mark.
When Mark realized Gwen was looking at him, his eyes widened. He sat up from his dejected slump and tried to look cool and nonchalant. But as Gwen's gaze flicked up and down appraisingly, Liz could tell he was coming up short.
"Him?" Gwen said, crinkling her nose as if she'd smelled something rotten.
"Yes. The handsome dark-haired man." Liz gave the blonde a conspiratorial, woman-to-woman wiggle of the eyebrows. "He's very intriguing."
"Yes. Well. I'm sure you'd think so."
Because you're a low-class, drink-slinging barmaid, Liz said to herself, filling in the rest of that unspoken thought, then wondered how Gwen would like to stop drinking her wine and start wearing it.
Very deliberately, Gwen pushed the glass of wine to the back of the bar. Then, with her fingertip alone, she slid Mark's business card away from her until it came to rest against a bowl of peanuts an arm's length away, insuring that no one, under any circumstances, would even think of associating her with it. Then she resumed her conversation with the woman next to her, as if Liz hadn't just offered her an introduction to a man who might possibly be willing to worship the ground she walked on.
Liz couldn't believe it. She thought her ploy would at least give Mark a chance to say hello, but no such luck. And now that Princess Gwen had banished him to the dungeon for eternity, he was going to feel embarrassed. Mortified. Humiliated.
But to Liz's surprise, when she turned back around, he didn't appear to be any of those things. He was something worse. And that something was directed right at her.
She watched with mounting apprehension as Mark gulped the rest of his drink, then slammed the glass down on the bar, glaring at her with a narrow-eyed, tight-lipped expression that told her it was a real good thing he wasn't armed. His face actually started to turn red, and if smoke had come out his ears she wouldn't have been surprised. He skewered her with his angry gaze for a full five seconds, then rose from his stool, tossed money by his empty glass, and stalked out of the bar.