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How long do you hang on to hope before you realize you’re just prolonging the inevitable? I finally had to face facts, leave Florida and Alexei behind, and move on with my life.
It’s not like I don’t still ache for him though, even dripping wet and half-naked in the Hawaiian jungle.
But this Alexei isn’t the sweet, calm man I left behind…
God help me, I don’t have it in me to let Mia walk away again. She doesn’t know, she can’t know, why I’ve had to resist claiming her for so long. Or letting anyone, even Mia, know how I feel about her.
Seeing her here, exposed to the elements, I’m done with waiting. She’s not flirting with other men as a war games vamp. I don’t give a damn whose idea it was. Only a few more weeks and the danger will be minimized. She’s worth the risk.
Just my luck that’s when everything goes to hell…
Release date: July 6, 2021
Print pages: 173
Content advisory: contains mature themes
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I want to leap up from my uncomfortable office chair and ask my cube neighbors what they think of the job offer I’m staring at on my computer screen. The late afternoon sunlight is raking in from between the slats of the industrial blinds and casting shadows that look vaguely like prison bars across my screen.
And maybe I want to brag a little too because, well, I’m used to not being seen. Or maybe that’s the wrong word. I get looked at plenty, just mostly in a way that makes me uncomfortable. As if having D cups means my brain had to sacrifice processing power in order to generate cleavage. If I remember high school biology correctly both areas require fat but completely different kinds.
Instead, I hold my excitement in (barely) even though I can feel my body quivering with repressed emotion. The office is mostly quiet. A few phone calls emanate from cubicles and the quiet hum of the copier is generating white noise down the hall. It’s that mood of being at work and not wanting to really do any work. And based on the lethargic movements of my nearest neighbors, I’d say the feeling is fairly widespread. The only thing holding me back from replying with Yes! Yes! Yes! to the email is the man sitting in the adjacent office. With his head held level, he’s focusing on a computer screen like it holds the answers to everything in life. Alexei. He’s not suffering from the late afternoon sludge. But then he never does.
He’s not my boss. But he is the guy in charge of this small Sarasota office. I think it might be the smallest regional office of ACI. How Alexei ended up here nobody seems to know because he is clearly not small regional office material. He has high-ranking military written all over him. But he’s really sweet. And he’s looked out for me since my first day here.
When Alexei noticed how random men were stopping by my cube and leaning over the short beige walls (trying to stare down my cleavage), he asked me if it was okay if he moved me to the back corner. That way, those guys would have to walk past his office door before they got to my desk.
I said yes to that before he’d even finished his sentence. I get a lot more work done back here and the fact that when I tilt my head far enough to see over the cubicle wall, I get to see Alexei’s profile isn’t exactly a downside. He’s gorgeous. Dark, almost black, hair that he keeps short and these mossy green eyes that make me think of ferns. And then there’s that cleft in his chin. I get wet if I stare at it too long, so I try to focus on his left ear instead, which probably comes across as a little strange. Not as weird as actively panting though, so there’s that.
His first name and his mother are Russian, and he got the cheekbones too. But everything else about him is pure American military. By the book, honor, integrity, and all the rest of it. What he’s doing in Sarasota, I’m not entirely sure. He’s not technically an office manager, even post-military. His title is something like Director of Project Operations. He spends a lot of time on his computer and he never leaves his office unattended without locking his laptop in the desk and dead-bolting the door behind him.
Which seems a bit overkill, but there are some super top secret projects in the company, so it probably has something to do with that kind of thing. And that’s all I really know. Oh, and that he’s forty-two, not married, and lives in a high-rise condo that he’s not particularly fond of. That last little tidbit I got out of him last week when I dared ask him about his weekend when we crossed paths in the break room. I’ve hugged those personal little details to my heart ever since. If he knows I have a crush on him, he hasn’t let on. But he’s genuinely a kind man, so he probably wouldn’t want to embarrass me unless he felt he had to for some reason.
I’ve been here almost exactly two years. I love my job, but I’m not sure Florida is for me. Not that there’s anything wrong with it exactly. It’s just that the cute little outfits the other women in the office wear to accommodate the heat, little business casual tanks with tiny sparkly beads and short flirty skirts, make me look like a slob. Or like I’m trying to gain the kind of attention that those idiots were offering when they kept hanging on my cube. It’s a lot of work trying to find things that are suitable for the climate and still somewhat professional.
The job offer I’m still staring at is from my friend Sarah in Washington State at the Sala Bay office. I can wear sweaters again there. All year round from the sounds of things. Hearing the groan of the air conditioning kick on again as it tries to combat the sunshine sneaking in the blinds makes me salivate at the thought of cold rainy weather. It sounds absolutely delicious.
My job is mostly about sourcing fish. Sounds weird, I know. But the animal employees are a growing area of Alpha Corps’ R&D department and they need to eat. And that food needs to stay fresh and also be available when they travel. So that’s where I come in. Need to feed three trained sea lions for a month in Kuwait? I’ve got you covered — complete with the generator-powered refrigerator truck because there probably isn’t a local power source close enough to the beach or dock. It’s fun and challenging and I get to talk to people all over the world. I can now say ‘tilapia’ in ten different languages. Try bringing that out at a holiday party when you don’t want to talk to someone. Works like a charm.
Sarah is a marine biologist and one of my primary human customers. We’ve never actually met in person, but we talk on the phone at least two or three times a week. She’s a riot. And this job would be keeping my existing duties as is but adding in an additional special project working with Sarah that she just got approved. Since my technical boss is in Virginia anyway, he doesn’t really care what office I work out of as long as I get the job done. It’s just… Alexei. I sigh with longing and frustration. I don’t want to give up on the dream, even if I know the odds are not in my favor.
If I move, I’m leaving behind any hope that he’ll ever ramp up the kindness I see in his green eyes to something more. Even if it seems unlikely, a chunk of my heart keeps hoping. Because he seems lonely. He comes in early and stays late. There are no personal photos on his desk and he hasn’t taken a single day of vacation while I’ve been here. Of course he’s never said he’s lonely, and he doesn’t hang out and chat with people in the break room. He just… works.
I want to ask him if I should take the job, mostly to see if he has any reaction at all, but what can I say if he asks why I’m asking him? I’ll blush and then if he doesn’t know already he’ll definitely know then how I feel about him. I need to give Sarah an answer by tomorrow, so I guess I can sleep on it and see if I have any new insights between now and then.
Leaning back in my chair, I twist my fingers through my brown curls. I wish my hair was a more exciting color. It’s not horrible, it’s just mid-brown. Not dark like Alexei’s and nowhere close to blond. Brown. But I do have nice natural lowlights and Florida has brought out some highlights that thankfully didn’t turn out to be brassy. Definitely things could be worse. My eyes scan the bland off-white ceiling tiles, hoping for inspiration when peripheral movement catches my attention. I lower my head.
That’s when I spot the woman heading into Alexei’s office. She’s the same level of gorgeous as he is. Long dark hair hanging down her back, completely straight and thick, like a shampoo commercial. She’s acting like she’s trying to surprise him and it seems to work because I see him stand and look shocked. Then a delighted smile spreads across his face, into his eyes. “Nat! What are you doing here?” he asks her.
Fuck. I just got my answer, and it wasn’t the one I wanted. I don’t hear the rest of their conversation because somehow the tears tightening my eyes are also clogging my ears. I stare at my computer screen blindly, waiting for the dull ache to pass. I’m not jealous of that woman exactly. Oh, I could be. I’m not denying that, but I’m so fucking envious of her ability to get that reaction from Alexei, instantly. He looked happy to see her, joyful even.
The strongest reaction I’ve ever gotten from him was a lot more tepid. Kind, with a huge helping of restraint. The occasional jaw tightening. I sort of had myself convinced that was who he is. Although I managed a few fantasies about how that control might play out in his bedroom. I mean, the man has to let go at some point, right?
Clearly I was wrong. Or at least deluding myself that he might pay more attention to me than the other women here. I hear the two of them leave his office after he locks up and head towards the exit. I listen to my pulse pounding in my veins until I remind myself to breathe.
Then I carefully reply to Sarah’s email with an acceptance and compose a brief follow on note to my boss. I’m not losing my chance with Alexei by leaving because I never had one to begin with. That’s what I need to keep reminding myself. If I keep all my attention on my job in the future, I won’t be hurt like this again. That sharp stabbing feeling is just shock and disappointment. It will fade.
“Please, Mia? It won’t be nearly as much fun without you. And you’ve earned the trip. Come on.” Sarah is whining cheerfully while perched on the corner of my desk, her auburn hair bouncing as she does her best to convince me to come with her to Hawaii for this year’s corporate war games.
“But you’ll be busy with Will, and I’m not in the mood to be the sad sack of a third wheel,” I pout. Sarah and her husband are the real deal, despite their twenty-year age gap. I had lunch with them once in the cafeteria, but it was clear the three or four hours they’d spent apart had been hard for both of them. They’re still in the honeymoon phase and can’t keep their eyes off each other. It was cute, but it made me think of Alexei. And thinking about Alexei makes me sad.
It’s been nearly six months since I left the Florida office and he hasn’t reached out. Not once. I didn’t hold out hope that he would, which is also why I didn’t go out of my way to say goodbye when I left. It felt a little desperate and I couldn’t think of a casual way to mention, ‘hey, I’m moving clear across the country — see you around’. I’m not even sure he knew I was leaving. He was traveling on business the day I packed up the few personal things on my desk. Sarah drags me back to the present.
“Nonsense. Just because Will and I sleep together every night doesn’t mean we’re not mortal enemies during working hours.” She grins like she’s seriously looking forward to going to battle against her husband.
“But I’m…” I gesture down at my tits.
“I know. The girls will be in good company. You’ve put a lot of work into this project, you should be there to help put it into action.” She sits back with confidence like an attorney wrapping up closing arguments. The overhead light glints on the diamond ring she usually wears on a chain around her neck. The project she’s referring to is the Triple Bs. On official paperwork it’s listed as Blended Beneficial Business, but really it’s the Bodacious Babes Battalion and also sometimes the Busty Bitches Brigade. Some of the guys just call it a honey trap. But HR is very clear. No sex of any kind to be offered or exchanged. But a few pouts delivered by lips dressed up in Vixen Red lipstick? Bring it on. I’m just not feeling that kind of brave right now. I’d rather the women that are get their shot at the team this year.
Sarah’s having none of it. “You’re going. Technically, I’m your boss for this project.” She nods emphatically, and I stare at her.
“You’re a year younger than I am.”
“So? In this case, I know what you need. And it’s not moping around this office while most of your coworkers are off frolicking in the jungles of Hawaii.”
“Um, frolicking? With guns?”
“Paint ball guns. And a lot of drones. The sea lions are really looking forward to it.”
“Told you that, did they?”
“Martha did. She was barking up a storm this morning. Pretty sure she’s excited about the warmer water, wondering if her suit will still fit.” Sarah’s eyes are crinkling with laughter, but I know she actually believes those sea lions hold conversations with her. I’m not entirely sold one way or the other but they do seem to like her rather a lot… They don’t spare much attention for the woman that makes sure they have fresh fish to eat. But then I’m not sure I want to be the object of sea lion affection. They are freaking huge.
“Okay, fine. But I am not sleeping out in a tent or whatever. I want a hotel room with a shower and air conditioning. And alcohol.” I add that last inspired item, picturing myself looking out over the water at a gorgeous sunset. Alone.
“I’ll see what I can do. Thank you for your service.” She gives me a snappy salute and a grin before hopping down and bouncing down the corridor towards her temporary office. Her real one is at the marine center, but this project requires more central resources so she’s been holed up in one of the smaller conference rooms for the last three weeks.
I sigh, thinking about flying off to a tropical island. I wanted to see Hawaii for the first time with a significant other. Romantic strolls down sandy beaches at sunset, snorkeling to see the sea turtles. It just doesn’t seem like the sort of place single people go on their own. I know there must be plenty of singles living there like anywhere else in the world, but that’s different. Although this is technically for work after all. And fuck, what’s the weather going to be?
I quickly bring up a browser and look up Kauai in July. The internet promises warm but not extremely hot temperatures and periodic rain almost every day. It doesn’t really cool down at night according to this. And of course I ditched all my Florida clothing when I got here and settled into jeans and t-shirts. With sweaters for winter. Although Sarah did say something about providing uniforms. That has me nervous because everyone on the B Brigade is a misfit in some way or another. Trying to find something that works for everyone’s body type never works out on those bridal shows so why would it here? I’d better go do some quick shopping at the mall tonight.
Two weeks in Hawaii, all expenses paid. I guess I shouldn’t be complaining. And at least I still haven’t made it down to the shelter to adopt a cat yet. Something I’ve been promising myself since I gave up on love. When I get back here, I’ll finally do it. And then I’ll have a built in excuse the next time. I heard a rumor that for next year’s games they’re looking at Nevada and I hate snakes. And hot weather. And cacti.
It’s a fucking long flight from Florida to Hawaii. More like three long flights since there isn’t anything direct on offer. Probably why nobody does it. Floridians head to the Keys or the Bahamas when they want a tropical island. Of course this is work, not a vacation but I’d rather be doing actual work than praying that the seat in front of me hasn’t caused permanent damage to the blood flow in my legs.
The model-thin flight attendant stops by again with an offer of a tiny bag of pretzels and water. They ran out of soda, and I’m not paying for the ridiculously overpriced miniature bottles of booze. If she’s lingering by my shoulder longer than other passengers’ I’m not interested and I ignore her hovering presence. Instead, I lean back and close my eyes, thinking about Mia and wondering what she’s up to. And whether she ran away from Florida because she read my dirty mind and wanted nothing further to do with me. I don’t know if it’s better or worse that I never even got the chance to kiss her before she fled.
I’m going to try to fix that error in judgment in another couple of months. If I’m not already too late. But I don’t think I am. I’ve got contacts throughout ACI and I’ve been told that Mia keeps to herself and doesn’t seem interested in dating her coworkers. She never did. But I thought, I hoped, she felt a little warmer towards me. There were… impediments… at the time that I’m almost done removing. And then there’s the age difference. I’m too fucking old for her.
I’ve tried and failed to put her out of my mind several times. I’d tell her image that I was going to forget about her, not think about her anymore, and I’d manage for a few minutes. But Mia’s intoxicating. And it was never even twenty-four hours before her face was swimming in front of my eyes again. Her smile warming me up from the inside. She’s smart and sweet and has a body built for pleasure. It pisses me off when men sniff around her, only noticing that last one. Have the decency to ask her name before staring at her tits. On second thought, nobody gets to do that either, so just fucking stay away from her.
God, now my cock is aching. Something it does pretty much every time I take out my mental photo album of Mia. Images flash across my mind’s eye. Her gorgeous hazel eyes twinkling with laughter. Those silky sable curls I want to tangle my fingers in once I finally get to kiss her. That time I saw her bent over the front of her car, trying to figure out why it wouldn’t start. I fixed that for her after I had myself back under control. The curve of her ass is perfection. And the way she bites the corner of her lip when she’s nervous and trying to choose her words carefully. Something I wish she didn’t feel like she has to do around me.
Just a couple more signatures on some pieces of paper and I can be blunt with her. Well, straight up about the personal stuff. The classified information will have to stay that way. But by then I won’t have to think about those things either, so we should be fine. Which is good because once I get a taste of her, I’m not sure I’m ever going to be able to walk away. My eyes might be open again, staring at the royal blue upholstery of the seat in front of me, but all I’m really seeing is Mia.
When the plane finally touches down in Hawaii, the long day plus the time change has my body wanting nothing more than a stiff drink and a bed. I’m beyond pissed when I realize ACI has decided to save money by having everyone bunk at the site rather than at a hotel for the two days before the events officially kickoff. So after a bumpy ride on an old school bus, I’m staring down at the military canvas cot lined up with twenty others in a row. I’m thrown back to my boot camp days. Fuck it. I’m too tired to argue with anyone about the sleeping arrangements. Some guy offers me a bottle of vodka with a silently raised eyebrow, and I nod with relief. He hands me a plastic glass half full, as if knowing words aren’t going to make anything better.
I down the liquor and hit the shower before lying face down on the damn cot. I’m too old for this shit. Fifteen days more of this and I can get on with my life. I ignore the low rumble of men talking — reuniting with old buddies and acquaintances. Bringing old service rivalries back to life. I’ve been there, done that at these things in the past.
In the morning, over breakfast in a large tent serving as the mess hall for this quadrant, I get my assignment for the games. I’m to be the operational perimeter guard for one of the back roads. I grunt, accepting it with an internal eye roll. It’s good and bad and somewhat of an acknowledgment of my age and experience. As in they know I don’t really want to be here. And since I was (and am) in a very secret branch of special ops for almost my entire military career I’m not part of the two major combatants this year which is Army vs Navy. The good news is I don’t have to wander around in the jungle, slipping and sliding in the red mud. The downside is I can’t get ‘killed’ either, which would put me back in a real hotel a few days faster. I’m stuck in my temporary duty hut from 8 am to 6 pm unless relieved for meals or some kind of meeting. Aside from a handful of newbies, most of the guys plus the handful of women that are here know how to stay within the defined perimeter of the event. So while I’ll mostly be bored, if I am needed it will be important. Or so the little slip of paper I’ve been handed states. I’m not convinced. But I’m also not looking for one more challenge on my plate at the moment either. I sigh and slip the paper into my pocket. I’m not expected to report to my hut until tomorrow, so there’s that.
Damn good thing I’ve got a few books loaded up on my phone. Mia was always sneaking romances over her lunch break, even though she thought nobody noticed. So I’ve stalked some of her social media profiles to figure out what she likes. Laugh all you want, basic intel like this can make the difference in a hearts and minds campaign. I just have to decide if I’m brave enough to start with The Virgin’s Second Chance or not. She seemed to really like it based on the review she posted. Ever since I found that I’ve been wondering if Mia is still a virgin. It wouldn’t change my opinion of her but I might have to alter a few plans, go a little slower on the flinging her over my shoulder part. She’s still ending up in my bed for the rest of her life, if I have anything to say about it.
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