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Unbuttoning the ceo, p.2

Unbuttoning the CEO, page 2

 part  #1 of  The Suits Undone Series

 

Unbuttoning the CEO
 


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  Gracie rolled her eyes. Brenda was a smart and efficient assistant, but she had either no ability or no desire to filter her inappropriate thoughts, which meant she shared them with Gracie—often.

  “I’ll be right out,” Gracie said.

  She straightened in her chair and twisted her neck from side to side to ease the tightness in her shoulders. Checking her reflection in the mirror near her door, she licked her lips and swept her hair away from her face. Before she reached the reception area, she took a deep breath and pasted on a welcoming smile.

  Brenda came into view first. Gracie resisted the urge to laugh when her assistant fanned herself. Focus, Gracie. Focus.

  Nicholas Hill stood with his back to her, giving Gracie a few seconds to glance at her feet to be sure her hem wasn’t tucked into a shoe. Distracted by her wardrobe check, she gave him her typical perfunctory greeting as she held out her hand. “Welcome, Mr. Hill. My name is Graciela Ramirez, the director of Learn to Net. Call me Gracie. It’s a pleasure to meet—”

  When Nicholas Hill’s warm hand grasped hers, she looked up at him and her mouth stopped moving. Brenda’s assessment of his appearance was trite, but Gracie had to admit the description was spot on. This man—her ward for two hundred hours—rendered her speechless.

  Taking in the twinkle in his green eyes and the lopsided grin that emphasized his full lips, Gracie wanted to stuff him in a box, slap a bow on it, and set it under the Christmas tree. What the hell? So unlike her. And unsettling. Frankly, she needed a minute to collect herself, because he was too much to absorb at once.

  “Hello, Gracie. This isn’t the best of circumstances, but it’s a pleasure to meet you. And call me . . .” He paused. “Call me Nic.”

  Nic’s deep voice filled the space as his fingers lingered on hers. Her gaze dropped to their clasped hands, a joining more intimate than it should have been in this context. He snatched his hand away, maybe in recognition of that fact, and ran it through his tousled, dark brown hair. Gracie’s fingers itched to touch those locks, because she knew they’d be just as soft as they promised. Returning her gaze to his face, she suppressed a sigh.

  Wait. She had to remember why he was here. He was a reckless driver, and that was a bad thing. Bad, bad, bad. But she couldn’t help wondering whether he was reckless in more pleasurable ways. Yum, yum, yum.

  Ugh. Get it together, Gracie. He’s just a man, and you’re a smart, capable professional who has an important nonprofit to run, she reminded herself.

  She cleared her throat and willed herself to settle down. “I’ll show you around and then we can head back to my office to discuss the projects I’d like your help with. Sound good?”

  “Sounds great,” he said. “Lead the way.”

  Gracie hesitated. It was a truth universally acknowledged that a man in possession of a pair of eyes would check out a woman’s butt upon meeting her. Hoping to divert him from checking out said butt, she walked beside him and pointed out the framed awards that hung on the walls.

  She was sure he was no stranger to women who came undone in his presence, and she didn’t want to be the latest poor soul to join them. She tried. She did. But when she closed her eyes for the briefest of moments, she imagined Nic’s lips pressed against her neck as he held her in his arms. Do not think of him in that way. Do not think of him in that way.

  Saving LTN was her highest priority. She couldn’t afford to be distracted by any man. So it should have been no surprise that Nic was distraction personified. Somewhere the gods were laughing at her. Six months. She could ignore him for that long, right? Right.

  CHAPTER TWO

  Adopting a casual stance, Ethan pretended to be unaffected by meeting Gracie Ramirez in person. His head throbbed, though. Actually, both heads throbbed. The head on his shoulders struggled to remember that for these purposes he was Nicholas Hill. The head between his legs stirred awake, wanting to join the fun. This was ridiculous. Why was he acting like a teenage boy who couldn’t control his urges?

  News flash, his body announced: Your teenage fantasies have come to life.

  Gracie Ramirez was spectacular, and he didn’t use that word lightly. Gorgeous, beautiful, sexy. Those were easy words, words that had rolled off his tongue countless times. Gracie deserved more thought than that.

  She stood about five inches below his six-foot-two frame, a statuesque goddess with curves she couldn’t hide behind her business casual attire. His fingers yearned to explore every inch of her tan skin. Golden wisps weaved their way through the curtain of her dark brown hair. And that mouth. Plump and covered in a light gloss, her lips distracted him. What was she saying?

  He shifted in his stance, hoping to camouflage his erection. Unfortunately, it had gone rogue on him, content to charge into the fray without any concern for tactics or careful maneuvers. It might as well have said, I’m going in, partner. With or without you. Yep. He was screwed.

  Gracie waved a hand in front of his eyes. “Nic?”

  He shook his head. “Yes?”

  “I asked if you’d like something to drink.”

  “No, no. I’m fine. Please continue.”

  She regarded him with a tilt of her head, probably wondering if he was under the influence. “The facility is divided into four equal-sized spaces, each with ten computers,” she said. “The computers were donated by Mine Suite Aeronautics, a defense software company based out of Alexandria. As you’ll see, they’re a bit outdated, but we make do with what we have.”

  “It’s an impressive operation.”

  Her eyes brightened and her cheeks flushed. “We try.” She stretched her arm out to indicate that he should enter the room to their right. “We run afternoon classes on Tuesdays and Thursdays and another class on Saturday morning,” she continued. “The remaining days our clients are free to come in and use the computers to practice what they’ve learned during their classes, to work on school projects, or to surf the Internet.”

  Ethan’s gaze swept the large room. The light blue walls gave the room a sense of cheeriness even though it housed only two large tables with a chair and a computer at each station. A single floor-to-ceiling window provided the room with plenty of natural sunlight. And photographs of the District’s famous cherry blossoms hung on the walls. The space, so different from the austere office in which he spent most of his hours, calmed him. But under the circumstances, he didn’t want to get comfortable here.

  Ethan turned to Gracie. “Some of your clients are minors. Do you have any controls in place to monitor their computer use?”

  “We do. We’ve placed Internet control software on each computer, and each client has a user name and password that limits his or her access to certain content.”

  Ethan nodded and she continued to the next room.

  “Are you comfortable with computers?” she asked.

  Ethan’s stomach muscles clenched. He hated this part. The part where he downplayed his professional success. But the board’s directive was simple—slip in, slip out, and move on. With that in mind, he kept his response brief. “Yes.”

  Hearing his one-word response, her eyes narrowed, as though she’d realized just then that he was a mystery. “Do you mind my asking what you do for a living?”

  “I’m in the technology industry,” he responded. “Global communications, Internet communications, applications and software. I do it all.”

  “I’m impressed. Are you a consultant?”

  “Of sorts. I get paid to make significant decisions about computer-based systems.” That much was true.

  Gracie nodded. “The projects I have in mind might not be much of a challenge, but you’d be using your skill set to give back to the community.”

  “That’s why I’m here.”

  “Great,” she said with a smile. “Let’s head back to my office to discuss the projects.”

  Ethan followed her down a narrow hall. The large, open space in front of her office contained a couch and a small desk. Pointing to the desk, she
said, “That’s my assistant Brenda’s desk. You met her in the reception area. When she’s not manning the front desk, she’s here.”

  The smell of lilacs invaded his senses when he crossed her office’s threshold. Ethan’s shoulders relaxed for the first time since he’d met Gracie. As he surveyed her work space, Ethan’s first impression was that she was a free spirit. The office was neat and organized, but the touches of whimsy in her décor told him she didn’t take herself too seriously.

  A framed reproduction of Edvard Munch’s The Scream hung on one wall, next to a framed photograph of Gracie and a friend, both of whom imitated the tortured expression in the famous painting. Under the photograph, a handwritten caption read, Gracie and Mimi in grad school.

  On her desk, a ceramic statue of a small frog caught his eye. The frog held a parasol while it sunbathed on a lounge chair. Puerto Rico was scrawled across the lounge chair. “I take it you’ve been there?”

  She looked at the statue. “Many times, yes. My parents grew up there. I was born and raised in the States, though. What about you? Ever been?”

  “A few times, actually. It’s a popular location for business conferences.”

  He wanted to say more. He’d toured the island several times when his company had considered opening a satellite office there. He’d fallen in love with its culture. The resilience and beauty of the forts that Spanish settlers had erected to protect the island had fascinated him. And he’d developed a minor obsession with mofongo, a popular dish made with fried green plaintains. But if he shared these thoughts with her, he’d undoubtedly slip and say more than was wise. Twenty minutes into the ruse, Ethan’s confidence waned. Could he do this?

  She gestured to the two chairs facing her desk and settled into her own chair. “Please sit.”

  Ethan sat and waited. And tried to control the thoughts rattling inside his brain like Ping-Pong balls. Ethan didn’t like surprises. And his reaction to Gracie surprised him. Flummoxed him, really. He couldn’t recall experiencing instant attraction like this with any woman in his past, including the one he’d almost married. His gaze returned to her expressive face. Her smile captivated him. Made him want to be the cause of it.

  In a flash, the smile disappeared. After a brief shake of her head, she straightened in her chair. Maybe he wasn’t alone in this. Maybe Gracie was affected by him, too. He sharpened his gaze, grasping for a clue that she, too, sensed the tension between them. She set her clasped hands on the desk and squared her shoulders, her eyes fixed on the papers in front of her. Quite the opposite, it seemed. This was business. She was all business.

  “I have two projects in mind,” she said. “First, and especially now that I know you’re familiar with computers, I’d like you to help our clients when they come for free computer time. We only have a few volunteers, and their hours are unpredictable, so it would be great if you could hang around and answer our clients’ questions or figure out a technical glitch. We don’t have the resources for a full-time tech.”

  “Easy enough. What’s the other thing?”

  She wriggled in her chair and darted a glance his way, eventually returning her attention to the papers on her desk. Before she spoke, she pushed a strand of hair behind her ear. His gaze wandered to her hand, searching for a ring. He relaxed in his chair when he failed to see one. After several seconds of silence, Ethan realized she was staring at him.

  Crap. He’d missed her explanation. Very smooth, Ethan. Very smooth. He sat up and shook his head. “I’m sorry. Coffee is essential, and I didn’t have any this morning. Can you go over that explanation one more time?”

  She blinked several times and started over. “LTN needs an influx of funds or it’s going to shut down by the end of the fiscal year. Not in its entirety, but here in D.C. The New York facility has a steady flow of cash that’s been earmarked for use by New York residents, and that money can’t be used for the D.C. operation.”

  “What about the board? Can’t it help?”

  She sighed. “Our board members are busy people who don’t have the time to help with finding funding sources. I was given this position in large part because I had succeeded in obtaining funds in New York. But I didn’t count on all the work related to keeping this place running on a day-to-day basis. Have you ever negotiated a lease in the D.C. real estate market? It’s a full-time job.”

  Ethan understood. “Tell me about it. Our agent—” Shit. He clamped down on his loose lips and cleared his throat.

  She waited, and he stared. Thankfully, she broke the communication impasse. “Anyway, the board’s backing is helpful, but the task of getting funds ultimately falls to me. So far, I’ve been focused on getting funding from foundations, but I need a Plan B.”

  “Is Plan B where I come in?” he asked.

  “Yes. I want to go straight to the source and hit up Internet and communications companies that might be interested in supporting LTN’s efforts.”

  Ethan sensed he wouldn’t appreciate what she would say next, but he relaxed his features to hide his distress. “Okay, what do you need from me?”

  “We need a list of the companies in the area that are potential sources of funding. The who, what, and why, so to speak. Nothing fancy. Just something to get me going. I’ll take that information and plan a funding blitz, first with letters and then personal visits to key people. It’s more administrative than anything else, but I’d like to free up some of Brenda’s time to help me plan classes for the fall. I know the funding players in New York, but I’ve only been in Washington for three months, so I’m feeling out of my depth here.”

  Ethan swallowed—hard. She had no idea what she was asking of him. How could he prepare an analysis of the key players and companies and leave out the important fact that he was one of those key players and his company could be a major source of funding?

  He forced a smile. “Sure, I can do that.” And he wasn’t going to cheat his service hours. He’d do it himself. But he’d leave his company off the list and hope for the best.

  Right then, he resolved to view Gracie as a business acquaintance. So long as they kept their interactions at a professional level, his failure to disclose his role at Media Best wouldn’t matter. Nevertheless, his deceit sat on his shoulders, a heavy burden that promised to make him tense when he was around her. That, coupled with his attraction to her, would make this community service stint torturous. Six months of torture—for the benefit of the company and his improved image. Maybe he should have opted for jail.

  CHAPTER THREE

  With a resigned sigh, Gracie stared at her watch and waited for Nic to arrive. A month ago, he’d walked into LTN and knocked Gracie on her butt. Since then, she’d tried to right herself, but she’d failed. She wished she didn’t look forward to the sight of him so much, but she knew that wish wasn’t going to come true.

  He was a regular presence, contributing five to ten hours a week on average, and she looked forward to every minute he spent at LTN. He approached his work with good cheer, and he never complained about the sentence the court had imposed on him.

  Nic was a wizard with computers, and the male students loved him. He’d developed an easy camaraderie with them, and despite his obvious computer expertise, he didn’t talk down to them. One student in particular, Jason, bonded with Nic like he was the older brother Jason had always wanted.

  He’d also developed a humorous rapport with a trio of elderly clients who’d dubbed themselves the “Gray Ladies.” They took their identity as a unit seriously, and as a unified force they reveled in making Nic uncomfortable whenever possible. He deflected their banter by pretending he couldn’t hear their comments, but his flushed face and small smile revealed that he’d heard every word. Even though she couldn’t see them from where she stood¸ Gracie knew the Gray Ladies were waiting for him with as much anticipation as she was.

  She pressed her face against the glass door and surveyed the sidewalk as far as her vision would allow. Behind her, the steady thump of Wil
la’s cane alerted her that she wasn’t alone.

  “What are you standing there for, girl?” Willa asked.

  The petite, dark-skinned woman had one hand on her waist and another on her cane. The least feisty of the Gray Ladies was a handful, which meant the other two were a grenade and dynamite rolled into one.

  Gracie moved from the front door. “Oh, I’m waiting on a delivery from UPS. I thought it would be here by now.”

  “Right,” Willa said. She eyed Gracie like a cat studying its next meal. “I’m on to you, sweetie. I know you’re waiting on that fine hunk of man who’s been gracing us with his presence these past few weeks. Get ahold of yourself.”

  Gracie fiddled with the collar of her blouse. “What hunk of a man? Nic?”

  Willa wasn’t buying it. “Yes, Nic.”

  “Don’t be silly, Willa. Nic and I are just friends.”

  “And that’s relevant because?”

  “Because it’s a fact.”

  Willa turned and began walking to the computer room. “Just because you’re friends doesn’t mean it has to stay that way.”

  Gracie ignored the comment and followed Willa’s progress, wanting to make sure the older woman didn’t slip on her way to the room. Willa’s heart was strong, but her body was frail. At times, she joked that all her strength was centered in her heart and her mouth, and her heart would stop beating before her mouth ran out of words.

  As Gracie pushed back Willa’s chair, Ms. Rubio slapped her hand on the table to get Gracie’s attention. “Where’s my man?” she asked.

  Gracie laughed. “Do you mean Nic? He isn’t yours, you know.”

  Ms. Rubio sucked her teeth, sticking her fists in front of her face. “I’ll fight you for him.”

  “Now, now, ladies,” said Calliope Brill, the final member of the trio. “Show some decorum, please. Real women don’t fight over men. We fight with men, so we can get to the makeup session.”

 
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