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Unbuttoning the ceo, p.3

Unbuttoning the CEO, page 3

 part  #1 of  The Suits Undone Series


Unbuttoning the CEO

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  Gracie imagined Calliope had been a siren in her earlier ears, because she still had the ability to make the senior gentlemen swoon. She guessed Calliope’s hair had been blond once. Today, her strands were a lustrous mix of white and gray.

  If Marilyn Monroe had lived to Calliope’s age, she would have looked like Calliope. One of LTN’s gentlemen clients, Mr. Crandon, certainly thought she was the equivalent of a blond bombshell. In fact, he never actually used LTN’s computers. He just sat in front of one and stared at her.

  “I was reading last night on my e-reader, bless that thing’s heart,” Calliope said. “And I was finishing a steamy novel where the heroine got into a fight with some tramp over a man, and I thought, ‘Time’s a wastin’, young lady. Get back to the man . . . that’s where the fun is. Scratch him like a cat.’”

  Gracie burst out laughing, releasing a snort that sounded like a car had backfired. And that’s when Nic walked into the room.

  She sobered quickly, and then she enjoyed the flare of awareness in his green eyes when his gaze landed on her. She wasn’t oblivious. She was sure he found her attractive, but he didn’t do anything to indicate he intended to move beyond a heated gaze.

  “Well, well,” Willa said. “If it isn’t Superman.” With mischief in her eyes, Willa leaned toward Ms. Rubio. “Able to drop ladies’ unmentionables in a single bound.”

  Nic’s face turned red. Willa was not an accomplished whisperer.

  “Come here, young man,” Calliope said. “A few of my e-reader books mention ‘golden showers,’ and I’m having trouble finding out what it means. I want to know what I’m missing.”

  Nic crossed the room and whispered in Calliope’s ear. As she listened, her eyes widened and she frowned. Then she pushed him away. “Well, that’s just disgusting. You young people are disturbed. Sex is simple. It’s a lock and a key—insert and turn, insert and turn, and then insert and turn again until the door opens. There’s no need for all those bells and whistles—and nastiness.”

  Nic scratched behind his ear. “I didn’t say I engage in that activity. I’m just telling you what it means.”

  Gracie covered her face. It was time to get out of here. “I’ll leave you to your work,” she said. Then she scurried out of the room.

  Two hours later, Nic appeared at her office door.

  “All done for the evening?” she asked.

  He remained near the doorway. “Yes, the Gray Ladies are long gone, and Jason is packing up his stuff. He’s a good kid. Knows a lot about computers. I imagine he’d be even more knowledgeable if he had a computer of his own.”

  “His parents work hard, but they can’t afford to purchase a computer for him. He has access to one at school, but he doesn’t have one for homework, and it would take him hours to get access to one at the library.”

  “Yeah. I never thought about it that way. Computers are ubiquitous in my world. I take having access to one for granted.”

  “Sounds like this community service is having a positive impact on you already.”

  Nic shifted from side to side. “So, uh . . . are you heading out for the night?”

  “Soon. I worked through lunch, though, so I’m going to grab something to eat first.”

  “Could I join you?”

  Gracie stared at him. It was a simple question that held no sexual overtones whatsoever. And yet . . . Whenever Nic uttered any word unrelated to computers, Gracie absorbed it as an overture. Her wishful thinking continually defeated her common sense.

  “Sure,” she said. “I’ll have to come back to gather my papers for the evening, but we could go to the diner on the corner. How’s that sound?”

  “Sounds great to me.”

  Nic stretched, giving Gracie a glimpse of the taut stomach hidden beneath his sweater. She didn’t see much, but there had to be a six-pack under there. In fact, she was sure of it. At the mere thought, her heart raced. She needed yoga—desperately—because she was anything but calm when Nic was in the vicinity.

  Jumping to her feet, Gracie grabbed the jacket draped over her chair and slung her purse over her shoulder. “Let’s go, then.”

  She walked ahead of Nic through the dark hall leading to LTN’s front door. The air surrounding them pulsed with restless energy and echoed the jumpiness coursing through her. She didn’t understand her reaction to his presence, but she couldn’t deny it, either. His footsteps summoned thoughts of the muscles in his powerful thighs. His steady breathing conjured images of his mouth against her ear. Dammit. She was too young for hot flashes, wasn’t she?

  Lost in her thoughts, she’d almost reached the front door when she remembered the alarm. Stopping abruptly at the security panel a few feet from the door, Gracie reached out to set the alarm. The unexpected move caused Nic’s chest to slam into her back. His arms circled her waist to steady her. Gracie stilled, unwilling to move away for a moment. She couldn’t be blamed for appreciating his touch, could she?

  “Oh, gosh,” she said. “Sorry. I need to set the alarm.”

  Nic inhaled deeply and released her. “Sure.”

  He shifted out of her way and Gracie set the alarm. When she motioned for him to precede her out the door, he did so without looking at her.

  The diner was deserted on this pleasant day in mid-September. Now that the worst of the sweltering heat of August had passed, most Washingtonians were enjoying dinner al fresco. Gracie wanted something quick and gluttonous, though, and the diner served the best chocolate milkshake she’d ever tasted. Her craving for one would not be denied.

  As they claimed a booth, a waitress in a crisp black-and-white uniform waved to them from behind the long counter. “Be right there, folks,” she called.

  The cherry red laminate crackled as they settled into their seats. The booth was fitted with a retro jukebox that promised tunes from the sixties, seventies, and eighties for just a quarter a pop.

  Seconds later, their waitress, a middle-aged woman with a shock of red hair, handed them their menus. “Good evening, folks. Can I start you off with anything to drink?”

  Gracie didn’t have to think about it. “A chocolate milkshake, please.”

  “Good choice,” the waitress said as she handed them their menus. A blush spread across the woman’s cheeks as her gaze swept over Nic. I know the feeling, sister. The waitress snuck a glance at Gracie and inclined her head in Nic’s direction. “And you, sir?”

  “I’ll have the same and a glass of water.” He perused the menu and set it aside. “What’s good here?” he asked Gracie.

  “In truth, I come for the milkshakes. But you can’t order a milkshake without also ordering a cheeseburger. That’s Diner 101, right?”

  “I like your way of thinking,” Nic said. “I’ll have whatever she’s having, please.”

  So Gracie ordered for them both.

  “You got it,” the waitress said. “Be right back with your milkshakes.”

  “Care to make a selection?” Gracie asked as she pointed to the jukebox.

  “I’ll spring for the selection, but you should make it,” he said as he reached into his pocket. “What’s your favorite song?”

  “Easy answer. ‘At Last’ by Etta James.”

  “Excellent choice.”

  “Three-three-four-two,” Gracie said.

  Nic’s eyes rounded in surprise. “Definitely a favorite, I see.” He punched in the numbers.

  After a pause, the music began, and Etta James’s voice filled the booth. Gracie’s face warmed when she listened to the words. They were beautiful. But maybe this wasn’t the right song to play in a small booth with a man she didn’t know very well. One she was clearly attracted to. Would he think she was fantasizing about him? Oh, God, he probably did. She wanted to dive under the table to hide her embarrassment.

  Nic simply watched her. The ghost of a smile hinted at his amusement, but then his face fell, and Gracie wondered where his thoughts had led him.

  The waitress, with two milkshakes in hand, hover
ed near their table. When the music stopped, she placed the milkshakes on the table. “Your burgers will be right out. First date, folks?”

  Gracie wanted to die. Right then. No funeral. No eulogy. Just a quick, painless death and an express ticket to a beautifully decorated urn. Gracie tried to laugh it off, but she jabbered instead. “Oh, no, no, no. We’re just friends. We work together. Well, not for long. He’s helping me. Yeah, no.” She grabbed her shake and scooped some of it with a spoon, hoping for a few seconds to recover.

  Realizing her mistake, the waitress rushed off.

  Nic smiled, and then his voice filled the painfully awkward void. “I’ve been wondering about something you told me last week.”

  Gracie struggled to suck the thick milkshake through the straw. “Oh?”

  “Yeah. You mentioned your father. Something about him expecting you to come back to New York.”

  Gracie rolled her eyes. “Oh, that. Well, my father’s a proponent of machismo. In his mind, women are meant to take care of the home. Men are meant to provide for their families. Women are ruled by their passions. Men are ruled by pragmatism. He doesn’t applaud my professional aspirations. To him, they’re a waste. I should have been married years ago. And I should be raising his grandbabies by now.”

  Nic swirled his straw through the milkshake. “That must be tough. Trying to establish yourself, knowing he doesn’t approve.”

  Gracie shrugged. It was tough. But she’d never complained about her father’s mind-set to anyone other than her mother and her sister. Loyalty prevented her from sharing this aspect of her family dynamic to others. Nic, however, seemed genuinely curious. And his expression held no trace of judgment.

  “I’m used to it,” she said after a beat. “Anyway, my mother always rolled her eyes—behind my father’s back, of course—and he’d never interfere with my career choices.”

  “How’d you pay for college?” Nic didn’t give her a chance to respond before backtracking. “Sorry. That was way too personal.”

  Gracie shook her head. “No, no. I don’t mind. My sister, Karen, and I received scholarships. The rest we paid through student loans. Lots and lots of student loans. And despite his bluster, my dad helped when he could. He’s not an ogre. Just a tad old-fashioned.”

  “My guess is he’s secretly proud of you. I don’t know any man who wouldn’t be. You’ve accomplished a lot in a short time.”

  Gracie basked in his admiration. A compliment about her looks? No, thank you. A compliment about her accomplishments? Yes, please. “My father’s right about a few things, though. I want a simple life. A job I love. Two or three kids. And I’d love to come home to a husband who’d cook for me. Someday.”

  Nic frowned, and Gracie again wished to dive under the table. What the hell was wrong with her? “Oh, gosh,” she sputtered. “Listen to me. I’m talking way too much.” Her face burned from the embarrassment. Abort, abort, abort, she told herself. “So, I know you mentioned you grew up in Pennsylvania. Siblings?”

  “One. A sister. Her name’s Emily. We call her Em.”

  “Are you close?”

  “Very.” His head dropped a fraction. Nothing overt, but she could tell by the set of his shoulders that something about their relationship bothered him.

  “Do you see each other often?” she asked.

  “Unfortunately, no. Not since I moved out here. She’s settled in Pennsylvania. Has a husband who adores her. And a crazily advanced toddler who happens to be the cutest baby I’ve ever seen. I see them for the holidays, when I can get away. But it’s not enough. And I missed Sophie’s birth.”

  “Sophie. Is that your niece?”


  “And your parents?”

  He didn’t answer, and Gracie wondered if she’d asked one question too many. The planes of his face were etched with tension.

  Finally, he broke the silence. “My parents are hardworking people. They’ve always wanted me to have what they didn’t. Opportunities. A chance at a better life.”

  “And you have that?” Gracie asked.

  “I do,” he said.

  Gracie caught the hesitation in his voice. Two definitive words wrapped in a cloud of doubt. This man’s layers fascinated her, and she could spend all evening trying to peel them away, but judging from his tight expression, it was time to change the subject. “What brought you to D.C.?”

  Leaning against the booth, Nic repeatedly tapped the table with both hands. “It was happenstance. The right opportunity at the right time. I knew I wouldn’t stay in Pennsylvania, but I had no idea where to go. After college, I was recruited by a computer consulting firm in New York. That didn’t work out, so I decided to give D.C. a try.” He leaned forward to sip more of his shake.

  When the waitress arrived with their food, Nic lifted his head. After giving the waitress a polite nod, he rubbed his hands together, welcoming his meal in earnest. So he didn’t like talking about himself. Interesting.

  Gracie bit into her cheeseburger and moaned. “So good,” she murmured.

  Nic stared at her face. Then he zeroed in on her lips.

  “What?” Gracie asked. “Do I have ketchup on my face?”

  Nic leaned toward her and swiped his thumb over her bottom lip. “Nope. But I wanted to do that anyway.”

  Gracie wanted to suck his finger. Instead, her gaze fell to her plate.

  “Sorry,” Nic said. “That was not smooth.”

  “It’s okay. I just—”

  “No need to explain. I was out of line. It won’t happen again.”

  Gracie searched for something to ease the tension, but she came up empty. So she sighed instead. “Let’s forget about it. Deal?”

  “Deal,” he said. Then he grabbed his burger and began eating it with comical enthusiasm. “Damn, that’s good. You were right.”

  “Told you so,” Gracie said as she wiped her chin with a napkin.

  They chatted about LTN and the Gray Ladies for the remainder of the meal. After that, they each paid for their respective portions of the bill.

  “I’ll walk you back to the office,” Nic offered. “I need to grab my bag.”

  “All right. Thanks.”

  They walked the half block in companionable silence. Just before they reached LTN’s door, Nic’s cell phone rang. Gracie wasn’t surprised. Over the past month, the ring of his cell phone had become commonplace, just like the grimace that distorted his face when he was called away to deal with an emergency.

  After unlocking LTN’s door, Gracie veered toward her office while Nic headed to one of the workrooms with his cell phone against his ear. “Come and see me before you go,” she called behind her. “I’ll need to lock the door behind you.”

  “Sure,” he said.

  When Gracie returned to her office, she closed the door and collapsed onto her chair. Nic unsettled her, which made the simple act of having dinner with him an exhausting exercise. Her attraction to him didn’t surprise her. After all, he was a handsome man. But Gracie knew better than to be charmed by good looks and a smile. What sounded the alarms in her brain was the fact that he listened to her. And he seemed genuinely interested in what she had to say. He engaged her on an intellectual level, which made him hard to resist.

  Gracie had no choice but to resist him, though. She’d welcomed a man into her life once, and the results had had been ugly. When it came to men, her new manifesto was simple: Don’t let them distract you, don’t expect much, and engage on your terms. With LTN’s future riding on her shoulders, she needed to abide by that manifesto more than ever.

  She saw the blinking light on her phone indicating that she’d missed a call. She hit the message button and listened: “Gracie, this is Robert Banks. I’m calling to give you a heads-up that the Onyx Foundation will not be able to renew its funding commitment for the next fiscal year. The foundation itself has fallen on hard times and has a lot less money to go around. The director wants us to reapply next year, but for now it’s a ‘no.’ I know i
t’s disappointing, but we’ll work this out somehow. Talk to you soon.”

  Robert Banks was a dedicated member of the LTN board. Until now, the Onyx Foundation had been a consistent supporter.

  Gracie’s head pounded, and she slumped her shoulders in defeat. LTN’s Washington facility was on its last legs. If it failed, she’d have to return to New York, with a sign of defeat taped to her back. She’d given the board hope. Had told the board she’d devote all of her energy into reviving the D.C. facility. But so far, her energy hadn’t produced results. And she was running out of time. A single tear dropped to her desk.

  Hearing a knock on her door, she wiped her face and schooled her features.

  “Come in.”


  Ethan opened Gracie’s office door, and what he saw startled him. Gracie sat in her chair, her back straight as an ironing board. Her eyes glistened. He’d never seen anything other than a cheerful or befuddled look on her face, so her tense expression did something to him.

  For weeks, he’d suppressed the urge to pursue her, and he’d done so by erecting a wall between them. By thinking of her as nothing more than the friendly director of the organization where he was completing his community service. He’d breached that wall tonight, when he’d asked her to dinner, when he’d swiped his thumb across her lip, and when he’d asked her about her family. Ethan was on a roll apparently.

  During dinner, she’d described her ideal future. And it bore no resemblance to the life he could give her. He suspected Gracie wouldn’t be interested in hanging on the arm of a CEO who was invited to every ball, gala, and fund-raiser known to man. Granted, he hated the hoopla, but it was a necessary evil of his position. She was looking for a simple guy. He was anything but. So his resolve to avoid a romantic entanglement with her had solidified as they’d sat across from each other in the diner.

  Now he wasn’t sure of anything. Seeing her in a vulnerable state reminded him that she was a woman with a life outside these walls, and picturing her outside these walls led to dangerous thoughts. Suck it up, Hill, and find out what’s wrong. “Is everything okay?”

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