Unbuttoning the CEO, page 8part #1 of The Suits Undone Series
Gracie walked to the reception area and stopped short when she caught her first glimpse of Mr. Lansing. This man worked with Nic? She slowed to gain some extra time to study him. He wore a navy business suit and checkered cufflinks that matched his red tie perfectly. But he stood in a relaxed pose, his jet-black hair flopping carelessly over one brow, a perfect complement to his devilish smile.
He played the part of the successful businessman well, but she suspected the suit masked an earthy, hot-blooded male who could make a woman pant just from his hooded gaze. What surprised her most was the briefcase at his side and the stack of papers in his hands. He was here to attend to business. With Nic. She’d pictured Nic working at home—alone. But Mr. Lansing’s presence made clear that wasn’t always the case.
She stretched out her hand. “Mr. Lansing, my name is Graciela Ramirez, the director of Learn to Net.”
Mr. Lansing shook her hand, but there was neither a tingle nor a spark between them. The zing, apparently, was reserved for Nic. “Call me Mark.”
“And you can call me Gracie. Is this an emergency? Do I need to grab Nic from the computer room?”
“I wasn’t sure how long he’d be here. I need to go over some paperwork with him. If you have an empty room, I could wait there. He won’t be going past the lunch hour, right?”
“The workshop shouldn’t take more than an hour, and he’s been in there for forty minutes already.” Gracie turned to Brenda. “Brenda, could you take Mark to our conference room?”
Brenda jumped out of her chair. “Of course,” she said. “I’m an eager beaver.” Under her breath, she told Gracie, “Pun intended.”
Gracie snorted and turned back to Mark, who was watching their exchange with a wry grin. “Sorry, Mr. Lansing. It’s been a strange day. There’s a phone in the room. And if you need water or coffee, we’d be happy to get it.”
Mark thanked her as Brenda waved him in front of her. “We’re just going down this hall,” Brenda told Mark. As they walked down the hall, Brenda, wide-eyed and flustered, turned around and pretended to swoon.
Gracie shook her head. Brenda was incorrigible.
Gracie decided to peek in on the workshop on cybersecurity. It had been Nic’s idea. He’d heard countless stories of older people scammed out of savings because they’d revealed personal information online. Gracie had agreed with him that the workshop would be useful to LTN’s clients, both young and old.
On the one hand, she embraced the cyberspace revolution, had fashioned her nonprofit career around it. On the other hand, she feared some of its implications, not the least of which was an impingement on an individual’s right to privacy. Surely everything about a person shouldn’t be discovered with just a few clicks of a mouse. Mimi chastised her for not researching potential dates. She countered that there was a time, not long ago, when people got to know others simply by spending time with them.
She tiptoed into the room and sat in the back. Nic acknowledged her with a nod and a warm smile. She waved hello in return and dipped her head.
Calliope raised her hand.
Nic’s gaze whipped to the ceiling. “Yes, Calliope?”
“How much information should you provide when you create an online profile?”
“Good question,” he said. “There are a few ways to protect yourself . . .”
Gracie watched Nic cross the room as he spoke. He engaged the class, pausing to make sure they were following his tips and stopping every so often to ask if anyone had questions. He owned the room, and she wondered whether he’d done anything like this before.
Returning her attention to the workshop, Gracie noted that a few of the participants even jotted notes.
“Go ahead and search for your name on the Internet. It’s an interesting exercise to see what information is out there about you. If it’s more information than you’d like, there might be ways to correct it.”
After a minute, Calliope chuckled. “Ha. Apparently, I’m a porn star living in Las Vegas.”
Mr. Crandon’s eyes widened. Then he leaned over to view Calliope’s screen. Calliope pushed him away. “Oh, no, sweetie. You couldn’t handle that. You’ve got more than enough right next to you.”
Nic squeezed his temples with one hand while Gracie stifled the giggle that bubbled in her throat. When Ms. Rubio raised her hand, he rushed to her side. After a few seconds of discussion with her, he leaned over and tapped on her keyboard.
“Nic, what’s your last name?” Calliope asked.
He responded without hesitation. “Hill.”
“Let’s see what I find when I look up Nicholas Hill,” Calliope said.
She began to type.
Nic rose to his full height, a deep frown marring his handsome face. “Actually, Calliope, we’ve got to wrap up the workshop. The computer room needs to be cleared out for the lunch crowd.”
Calliope pouted and stood. “Spoilsport. Tell me this, Nic. Do you know how to have fun? Because I’m sensing a lot of tension bottled up inside of you. You might want to find a way to release it. Just a suggestion.”
Calliope winked at Nic, looped her arm through Mr. Crandon’s, and left the room.
As Gracie walked to him, Nic raised his head to the ceiling and muttered an unintelligible word.
“Calliope doesn’t mean to annoy you,” Gracie said. “She’s just sassy.”
Nic smiled, revealing the adorable dimples that highlighted his remarkable smile. “That’s the understatement of the year.” As the rest of the workshop participants shuffled out the door, Nic’s gaze went from friendly to intimate. “It’s hard not to touch you right now.”
Heat snaked through Gracie’s core. He wasn’t playing fair. And to her surprise, she wanted to play, too. She leaned into him and whispered a suggestion. “My office is down the hall. You could touch me there. But just a touch.”
“Let’s go,” he said as he sailed through the door.
Gah. She’d forgotten about Mr. Lansing. Mark. “Wait a minute. You have a visitor. Mark Lansing.”
The color drained from Nic’s face. “I do? Where is he? What did he say he wanted?”
“He’s here on business. Brenda set him up in the conference room. He didn’t say much.”
The planes of Nic’s face smoothed. “Okay. Thanks. I’ll go check in with him. Shouldn’t take long.”
Gracie dismissed his sudden change in mood. “Looking forward to it.”
* * *
Ethan’s heart banged against his chest. Luckily, Mark hadn’t blown his cover. Still, he didn’t think he could stand much more of this ploy.
When Ethan entered the conference room, Mark raised his hand, signaling that he was on a call. Ethan sat across from him and stewed.
After Mark disconnected the call, Ethan leaned forward. “What’s going on, Mark? Why are you here?”
Mark donned a look of earnestness. “Sorry to disrupt you on your service day. I know how much community service means to you.”
“Cut the crap, Mark. What’s going on?”
“I need your signature on the quarterly report. You approved the financials last week, but you wanted to see the final language in the summary. It has to be distributed to the board before tomorrow’s meeting.”
“Why didn’t you send someone from the office? You didn’t have to come here yourself.”
Mark sat back in his seat. “Oh, really? Is there someone else in the office who knows that you’re Nic Hill?”
Ethan swore under his breath. “I’m not cut out for this shit. I can’t keep it straight in my head.”
“So why don’t you tell her?”
“And how do you propose I do that?
“Easy. My name is Ethan Hill, the CEO of Media Best. Nicholas is my given name, the name I stopped using years ago. Forgive me.”
“If only it were that easy. Be serious. I need time to figure this out.”
“Well, while you’re out saving the world and answering Batman’s calls, may I remind you that you have a
“I know. Today’s my only day here. I plan to catch up the rest of the week. Then I’d like to dig into the Teleconnectiv software launch.”
“Ethan, we have engineers working on the software. You don’t need to do that.”
“I want to do it, okay?”
Mark’s lips pressed into a thin line. “Okay. Fine. Just read the summary and sign off, please.”
Ethan read while Mark stewed. After several minutes, Ethan looked up. “It’s fine.” He wrote his signature on the executive cover page. “Anything else?”
“Nope,” Mark said.
Ethan studied Mark’s face and knew his friend was holding something back. “What’s wrong? Something’s obviously bothering you.”
Mark stuffed the papers in his briefcase. “Look, I know you. And I know what you’re like when you’re dissatisfied. I was there. Remember? If you’re unhappy about the job, do something about it.”
“The job’s fine. Just stressed, is all. I’ll get over it.”
“Fair enough. But if you need to get over anything, find productive ways to do it this time around.”
“You’re a fucking nag, man. I’ll handle my own business, if you don’t mind.”
Mark’s eyes closed. “Fine. See you at the office.”
Ethan knew he was being a prick. Mark didn’t deserve his ire. None of this was Mark’s fault. Before Mark walked out of the conference room, Ethan called him back.
“What?” Mark asked through gritted teeth.
“Thanks, man. For everything.”
Mark’s mouth softened. “You got it. Catch you later.”
Ethan rubbed his shoulder. Then he heard a knock on the conference room door. One of his favorite LTN students stood at the threshold.
“Hey, Jason. What’s up?’
“You got a minute, Mr. H?”
“Sure. Come join me. Aren’t you supposed to be in school today?”
Jason sat across from him, in the same seat Mark had been in moments ago. “It’s parent-teacher conferences. I get a break.”
“Ah. What’s on your mind?”
Jason licked his lips. “I’ve been thinking about college a lot. About what I want to do. For a career, I mean. And I was wondering why you decided to work with computers.”
Ethan had an easy answer. “I loved working with computers. It was as simple as that. I’ll never forget my first computer class in high school. We learned how to make video games. I was hooked. The teacher taught the basics about game code, and then we moved to 2D and 3D graphics.”
Jason nodded enthusiastically, appearing as eager as Ethan had been years ago. “Is that what you do now?”
Hardly. He signed documents, ran meetings, and answered questions all day. And if he was lucky, now and again he’d sit in on a meeting with his engineering staff. But that wasn’t the point of his conversation with Jason. He wanted to encourage Jason to pursue his interests. “By the time I went to college, I knew I wanted to work in the computer industry. And when the Internet exploded, I learned as much as I could about designing software that would work on that platform. Now I concentrate on Internet communications, mostly instant messaging and video and voice calls.”
“Cool. Any advice on how to make myself the ideal candidate for a spot at a top school like MIT?”
“Yeah. Work your ass off. Get good grades. Rock the SAT and your AP classes. Try to get an internship in the computer industry. And make sure your admission essay shows how much you love computer programming. Easy.”
Jason rose and clasped Ethan’s hand. “Right. Thanks, Mr. H. This has been helpful. I’m going to check out MIT’s admission requirements while I’m here.”
“Good idea. One more piece of advice.”
“I’m listening,” Jason said.
“Make sure you love what you do. If you don’t, the job will wear on you. So long as you’re inspired, you’ll be golden. Even when things are harder than you’d like them to be.”
“That’s great advice, Mr. H. I’ll keep that in mind.”
Jason rushed out the door, a bundle of energy and inspiration. Ethan had felt like that once. Energized and inspired about his work.
He envied Jason’s enthusiasm about his future. And frankly, that envy was a source of embarrassment. He was the CEO of a significant player in the Internet communications industry. Shouldn’t he be satisfied with that? Why, then, did he miss the old days? The days when he sat around a conference room brainstorming with fellow engineers while eating cold pizza?
A soft knock on the door made him sit up. He turned and smiled. “Hey, Gracie.”
“Can I speak to you for a minute?” she asked.
“Sure. What’s up?”
“I’d prefer to speak with you in my office. If you have time, of course.”
Her voice had lowered to a whisper. A very seductive whisper. Needing no more encouragement than that, he jumped up from his chair. “Of course. After you.”
As he followed her down the hall, Ethan watched Gracie’s hips swing like a pendulum. The tease.
“Nic, make sure you bring your papers with you,” she said as she looked over her shoulder. “We can discuss them in my office.”
Ethan cocked his head, wondering what the hell she was talking about. Then he saw Brenda at her desk. Ah. Once again he was slow on the uptake. “Right. I’ll go get them from the conference room.”
A minute later he closed her office door and leaned against it.
Gracie walked to him and pulled him away from the door. “I have a ton of work to do tonight, and Brenda’s staying late to help. But you look like you need a kiss.”
“You’re so fucking smart it boggles the mind.”
Gracie stepped into his waiting arms. Her upturned face calmed him. But her tight embrace stimulated him. Rather than begin something he couldn’t finish, he pressed a soft kiss against her wet lips and rested his chin on the top of her head. The tension in his shoulders eased, and his breathing slowed. The moment was as perfect as any moment he could remember. Not the kind of sentiment a casual affair was supposed to inspire. But he couldn’t deny the truth.
And the truth—that he could easily fall for Gracie—scared him. He stepped back, needing distance and a clear head.
Gracie’s fingers absently rubbed her lips. “Enjoy the rest of the day, Nic.”
“You, too, Gracie,” he said.
In a rare moment of clarity, he knew what he had to do: make her come to him. He wouldn’t call. He wouldn’t suggest they get together. He’d claim to be busy. And when sufficient time had passed, she’d understand the depth of his determination to see her on the terms she’d laid out. Theirs was a casual affair. He wouldn’t let either of them forget it.
The insistent banging at Gracie’s door startled her. She sat up, flipped the blanket off her, and rose from the couch. A quick peek through the peephole settled her nerves. Nic paced in front of her door, waiting for her to let him in. She hadn’t seen him in over a week, and she didn’t want to see him today. Especially not today of all days.
Her sweatpants hung off her hips, and her knit top dwarfed her frame. She sniffled and hoped her voice would carry through the door. “Hi, Nic. I’m sick. Probably best if I don’t let you in.”
She stood motionless at the door and listened. The ensuing silence surprised her. Was he gone?
“Graciela, let me in,” was his muffled response. “Please.”
The urgency in his voice threw her, an easy feat in her already muddled state. “Okay. But if you get sick, don’t blame it on me.” She unlatched the lock and cracked the door open. “Are you sure you want to come in?”
Nic’s strained face softened at the sight of her. “I’m sure.”
She let him in and plopped on the couch, returning to her burrowed stat
Nic towered over her as his gaze swept over her living room. “I don’t need you to be good company. I wanted to check on you.”
“How sweet. You were worried about me?”
He didn’t answer. Instead, he bent over and pressed the back of his hand to her forehead. “Do you have a fever? How long have you been sick?”
She swatted his hand away. “Careful, Dr. Hill. There’s this medical advance called a thermometer. I’ve used it, like a capable woman should. No need to get crazy, McDreamy. I don’t have a fever. Just a good old-fashioned cold.” She blew her nose to punctuate her point.
Nic smiled. “Aw. You’re a grumpy sick person. It’s adorable.”
She gave him her best not-in-the-mood stare until he shifted in place. Satisfied she’d made him uncomfortable, she burrowed deeper into the comforter. He turned and surveyed her living room again.
Yes, it was a mess. No, she didn’t care.
He moved around her living room, picking up plates and tissues and other items she hadn’t bothered to put in their proper place. Every movement was accompanied by more force than necessary. He yanked tissues off the table and dropped dirty dishes into the sink. His abrupt movements grated her nerves. “What’s your problem, Nic?”
“I haven’t heard from you in over a week.”
Hearing the bite in his words, Gracie closed her eyes. “Ditto. I’ve been sick. What’s your excuse?”
He stuffed a paper plate in her trash and placed his hands on his jean-clad hips. Even sickness couldn’t distort that pleasant image. He expelled a ragged breath, drawing her gaze from his hips to his face. “I was worried, okay? You didn’t call. I waited. And when I realized you wouldn’t call, I tried to reach you on your cell phone. It went straight to voice mail. I had no idea where you were.”
Nic strode across the room and sat in the chair opposite her sofa.
Gracie hid her face in the folds of the comforter. “Why did you wait?”
“You said you waited. Why did you wait? Why didn’t you call me first?”
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