Cassie Howard’s brain processed her boss’s words, but logged them under “inconsequential.” She was starting a critical project for a new government contract. If she didn’t focus, her data analysis would be subpar. Cassie didn’t do subpar. Whatever Kevin needed would be fine without her.
“Everyone, can I have your attention please?”
“Cassie, that includes you.”
She groaned. They’d just won this major deal, a stepping-stone to bigger projects, projects that could have worldwide impact. If she was going to pull this off, she needed every stinking second she could scrounge. “Just a second…” She keyed in a few more lines of code, her train of thought already back with the data on her screen.
“Okay, okay,” she grumbled as she saved her work. Kevin knew her way too well. Knew her propensity to get caught up in her work, and not hear, see, or smell anything going on around her. “Keep your shorts on.”
A few chuckles drifted up from the cubicles situated around hers. Her coworkers were used to Cassie’s tendency to verbalize her every thought by now.
Cassie pushed back from her desk. Darn disruptions. She’d been in her zone. Interrupting her for what was probably another new employee introduction was not the best use of anyone’s time, least of all hers. With all the hiring Data Minds, Inc., had done lately, it’s not like she recognized everyone in the office anymore. What was one more unfamiliar face?
She peered over the top of the four-foot partitions at the wall-to-wall maze of light grey cubicles covering their floor of the building. Her lips twitched as colleagues around her did the same, reminding her of groundhogs poking their heads up out of their holes.
A quick glance toward the front of the office revealed Kevin, looking the typical manager in khakis and a pink polo shirt—which acted more as a hammock for his pot belly—standing by the printer. Beside him was Lou, one of the three partners who started the firm.
Next to him, a well-dressed man stood facing away from her.
Interesting. New client?
Kevin cocked his head, a smile of amused patience on his lips directed squarely at her.
She glanced significantly down at her computer by way of response. He got the message: wasted time. He chuckled, turning to say something to Lou.
Would it be insubordination to slip back into her seat and finish off a few more lines of code? Really, she’d be doing him a favor. The analysis she was working on would take Data Minds to an even higher level. Surely that was more important than meeting whoever the mystery man turned out to be. She let herself sink a few inches, patting the air behind her in search of the arm of her ergonomically correct chair…
As if he sensed her attempt at escape, the unidentified man turned around.
Cassie paused mid crouch and sucked in a shaky breath. As if she’d conjured him up from a blueprint and used a 3D imager to map him out, right there in the middle of cube-land stood the embodiment of all her geeky-girl dreams.
Dark hair? Check.
Blue eyes? Check.
Loved Star Wars as much as she did? Okay, so she didn’t know for sure, but she’d bet her mint-collectors-edition VHS copy of the original movie he did. So, check.
Kevin held up a hand, and a hush fell over the floor. “Everyone, I’d like you to meet Drew Kerrigan. He’ll be joining our analytical team.”
Hold up. He was a new employee and not some corporate big wig here to give them business? His suit and tie had thrown her. No one dressed so formally around here, cargo shorts and t-shirts being the norm. She shifted up onto her tiptoes, trying to get a better look.
Holy smoking hotness, Batman. No computer nerd has a right to look like that.
Cassie barely absorbed the rest of Kevin’s introduction, her focus trained on the new guy and the odd tightness in the center of her chest. He wore his dark hair on the short side, a bit longer on top, one lock kind of flopping over his forehead. Wire-rimmed glasses couldn’t hide the deep blue of his eyes.
Kevin said something to wrap up the introduction, turning things over to the new guy. Drew gave a tight smile and nod to everyone, but total radio silence, paired with his intent, assessing gaze, greeted everyone’s expectant stares.
If she’d had a pin to drop, everyone on the floor would’ve heard it, despite the carpeted flooring. Cassie was usually the one causing uncomfortable silences in the office, and even she knew a brief hello was appropriate at this point. However, Drew didn’t appear aware of any weird vibes. He just…waited.
Finally, Kevin cleared his throat. “Well. Nice to have you with us, Drew.”
Taking that as the end of introductions, the usual low babble of sound resumed as everyone sat down and got back to work. All except Cassie, who’s attention remained snagged on Drew. Seriously, what was wrong with her? She couldn’t bring herself to peel her gaze away.
Then, without warning, he looked her way, pinning her in place with a look that whispered all sorts of naughty things.
Or maybe that was her imagination combined with a heavy dose of wishful thinking.
Cheese and krakens.
Cassie ducked back into her cube with more haste than grace, her cheeks heating up with the darn blush that, with her peaches n’ cream skin, she never could escape.
She plopped into her chair, which creaked in protest. Of course, she managed to bump her mug of tea in the process, and the brown liquid sloshed over the sides and all over her desk. Ignoring the spilled liquid, which thankfully went nowhere close to her keyboard or papers, she covered her burning cheeks with her hands. Why, oh why, had she stuck her long hair up in a bun with a pencil? She could use the curtain it provided for cover right now.
“You did not just get caught panting over the hot new guy,” she moaned quietly.
Panting? Heck, she’d practically been humping his leg. Metaphorically speaking. And he’d caught her in the act. Too bad she hadn’t applied her brain to a time machine for her thesis, because she’d definitely go back and erase the last few minutes.
Why am I making such a big deal over a better than average computer nerd?
Maybe she’d blown him up in her mind. Close up and upon more thorough inspection, he’d end up looking like every other guy in the office. Besides, he probably hadn’t noticed her anyway. No one noticed the smart girls, right? The clumsy, unpopular girls who never wore the right clothes, or said the right things…or had many dates.
Shoving away the unproductive memories of adolescence, she straightened her posture. Who the hell cared about some new employee—hot or not? She was a smart, capable woman, dammit. She’d worked her ass off at MIT, earned her PhD early, and dealt with the male chauvinist world of geek-dom with a grin-and-bite-me attitude. She might not be the Queen of Witty Repartee, and her mother might still nit-pick, but her perfect grades and results at work did all the talking for her.
At twenty-seven, she held the position as the only qualitative data analyst for an up-and-coming big data company. She could afford to live alone in a halfway decent apartment in New York City, which was saying a lot. And her breakthrough algorithm had just won the company she loved a huge government contract.
Okay, so maybe she had a habit of saying her thoughts out loud and holding conversations in her head. And maybe she still hadn’t determined what look worked for her. Talking to herself and wearing comfy, uninspiring clothes were loveable quirks. Right?
They certainly had nothing to do with her brains or her abilities.
“Take that, hot new guy.” She nodded as if she’d actually proven that point to him, snatched a few tissues from the box on her desk, and wiped up the now sticky brown ring of tea forming around the base of her mug.
A low cough, the polite noise of a masculine throat being cleared, sounded behind her, and she froze mid-wipe as the hairs on the back of her neck stood to attention. A sinking feeling started in her chest and dropped straight to the bottom of her stomach.
No. Flipping. Way.
The reflection in her now-black monitor screen told her the person standing behind her was Drew. Had he heard her mumblings? She frantically reexamined the last few minutes, trying to figure out what, if anything, had leaked from her brain to her mouth unintentionally.
When she didn’t acknowledge his presence, he cleared his throat again, a little more pointedly.
Cassie pushed her chunky, plastic glasses up the bridge of her nose. Slowly she spun her chair around to find him standing, hands in the pockets of his black pants, watching her intently in a way that knocked her slightly off center.
Goodnight nurse. If anything, he was even better up close. There went that theory down the drain.
Her body’s reaction was instant. Heat rushed everywhere. Not just the blush, either, which she could feel creeping back up her neck and into her face. No, a different kind of tingling heat spread out before settling low. She crossed her legs, determined to ruthlessly stamp out the ridiculous sensation.
While most of her brain simply shut down, requiring a hard reboot, a small part of her mind stood apart, trying to evaluate what about this guy overclocked her systems. A pheromone he gave off. That had to be it. Because she’d met good looking guys before and none had had this effect. This was a blip. A chemically induced anomaly.
“Stupid pheromones,” she grumbled. Then her eyes widened as she realized she’d spoken the words aloud. Ohmygod.
He frowned, thick brows drawing over his eyes. “Excuse me?”
Apparently, he had no sense of humor to help her out of this one.
“What?” If she pretended not to understand, people usually dropped the subject.
“What did you say?” he asked.
Hope bubbled up inside her. Maybe he hadn’t heard her? Had she gotten lucky for a change? Please. Please. Please.
“Something about pheromones?” he prodded.
Frick. Think fast. Use that big brain you’re so proud of. “Sorry. I was thinking through a data issue.”
He raised a single eyebrow. “They can be pesky buggers.”
Cassie paused and narrowed her eyes. Was he referring to data issues or pheromones? The small tilt to his mouth had her leaning toward him making fun of her. Irritation sparked and she tipped her chin up. “Can I help you?”
He hesitated only a fraction of a second before he thrust out a broad hand. Yowsa. If the rumors about hand size and other parts were to be believed….
Cassie Howard, get your head out of the gutter. This Drew guy had managed to completely derail her. Still, she managed to reach for his proffered hand, proud her own remained steady.
“I’m Drew Kerrigan. I understand we’re going to be working together.”
His grip was warm and firm, making her want to melt into him. Through her annoyance at that response, she had to force herself not to think about the way the deep timbre of his voice skittered down her spine in a delicious way.
“Yeah. I was here for your introduction a few minutes ago.” Then his words sank in. She snatched her hand back with a frown. “Wait. What do you mean, working?”
He raised his eyebrows. “I believe work is defined as an activity involving mental or physical effort done in order to achieve a purpose or result.”
She glared at him. Was he laughing at her? Hard to tell with that deadpan expression. Reluctantly, her own lips twitched. Sarcastic ass. “I mean working together.”
Rather than comment, he stared at her in silence for a long moment, his gaze watchful. What was he thinking? Finally, he said, “I’m the new qualitative data analyst.”
Her body, still reacting to his nearness regardless of her efforts, cooled down faster than being shoved in a deep freeze.
No. No freakin’ way. I’m the company’s qualitative data analyst. There’s no need for another. Hadn’t Kevin just said that morning how integral she was to the company’s success? But the way a partner had been present for Drew’s introduction now took on more significance. Were they…replacing her?
Wait. They’re not just replacing me…they’re making me train my replacement.
Oh heck no.