Rock God in Exile
“Tall enough. Toned arms with just the right amount of ink. Blond wavy hair. Oh, hell no.”
Is it overreacting to knock someone down for groping you? Nell Whelan is a black belt whose self-protective instincts kick in hard when she’s uncomfortable.
Then she arrives at her hated day job to find the handsome jerk from the pub kicking the photocopier, and finds out that he looks familiar because he’s the bass player from a famous rock band... but when she asks him what he’s doing working for her boss, he avoids answering.
Eamonn Yarrow — known to the rock world as “Easy” — hasn’t always been a good person and he’s reaping the consequences, but maybe Nell is just what he needs to turn his life around.
Is there someone worth knowing behind his arrogant stage persona?
Will she lower her guard for a disgraced rock god?
♥ ♥ ♥ ♥ ♥
Fall in love with the rock stars of Smidge... Rock God in Exile is the second book in this series of interconnected standalone novels following each band member as they find their happily-ever-afters. Don’t miss the guitarist’s story in the first book, Rock Star’s Heart.
Release date: June 26, 2020
Publisher: Tied Star Books
Print pages: 294
Content advisory: Medium-heat romance (some open-door sex scenes with moderate description). Some of the characters swear, and there is mild violence (successfully applied self defense; a fist fight resulting in stitches) and talk of drug use.
* BingeBooks earns revenue from qualifying purchases as an Amazon Associate as well as from other retail partners.
Rock God in Exile
Nell sat alone at the bar, reading a book and sipping a Frosty Peach. They were a little too easy to drink, as cocktails went, but the frozen slushy mixture with the peach candy on top felt like a treat, in a way that a nice glass of wine or a standard gin and tonic never quite did. Her Sunday nights belonged to books and a quiet seat at the bar, two drinks over two hours — never more — and a plate of sweet potato fries or cream cheese wontons to snack on.
The Frog and Ball tended to be quiet on Sundays, which suited her perfectly. A group of regulars ate nachos and watched baseball; a few couples were there for the Sunday dinner special. A pair of old guys at the other end of the bar worked their way steadily through a small fortune in pull tabs with their beer — Nell had seen them before. Over at the pool table, a man with wavy blond hair played against himself, shooting first for solids, then for stripes.
What a bastard of a week. The comforting buzz of the alcohol in her drink soothed Nell a little. She didn’t believe in using booze to feel better — it’s a depressant, it dulls cognitive faculties, it’s bad for self-discipline, and it costs too much — but there was no denying that sometimes it could anesthetize the ache of a bad day. Or week. Or year.
The bartender never bothered Nell; after maybe a hundred or so Sunday nights at this point, he was used to her and her book. She tipped decently and didn’t create trouble for him.
And if the occasional jerk tried to chat her up, or muttered a pointed “antisocial” when she refused to take her eyes off the page she was reading, she just ignored him. Sundays were Nell’s Fridays, and after five straight days of dealing with mind-numbing ridiculousness, she needed her night off. Errands and socializing and necessary evils could wait for Monday or Tuesday — her “weekend” — but she didn’t have any space or patience for fools or even friends on Sunday nights.
When the bartender placed a third Frosty Peach in front of Nell, he had a slight smirk on his face. She looked up at him, raising her eyebrows in a silent question. “Enjoy,” he said.
“What’s this about, Tim? You know I never have more than two,” she told him.
“Courtesy of the gentleman at the pool table,” said the bartender, with just the faintest inflection on the word gentleman.
Unable to help it, Nell glanced over. The pool player was nearly done with his game, stripes set for the definitive win, solids nowhere. He looked up at her, winked. And she realized that she wore a green striped shirt, and his muscle tank was a solid blue.
“I don’t know,” she said. The Frog and Ball wasn’t the kind of place where men sent drinks over to her; it had never happened before, here. The book should have been armor enough.
The bartender shrugged. “He already paid for it. You might as well drink it.”
The sports-watchers called for another round of beer and the bartender moved to pour it, leaving the unwanted drink in front of Nell. She sighed and picked the peach candy off the top of the frozen slush. The best part. It would make more sense to just buy a bag of peach candies and eat them. “I suppose a few sips more won’t kill me,” she said aloud, mostly for the bartender’s benefit. And it meant she could put off going home for a little while longer.
But concentrating on her book had become difficult. I will not look over at that man again, she told herself. He might take it as an invitation.
He had blond hair, didn’t he? Seemed tall enough. And the muscle shirt showed off toned arms with just the right amount of ink. No.
Nell pushed the slushy cocktail away and stuffed her book into her sling bag. “I’m done, Tim,” she called to the bartender. “Thanks!”
As usual, she ducked into the bathroom on her way to the door. A twenty-minute walk home was no joke for someone holding it, and a couple of cocktails would have a predictable effect.
The lock was broken in the stall she’d chosen, but as Nell debated whether to shift herself to the other one, she heard the outer door to the bathroom swing open and decided she might as well stay put. As Nell awkwardly held the stall door closed with one hand while doing her business, she waited for footsteps to move into the adjacent stall. Nothing. Nor any sound of the sink being used. Perhaps it was just someone reapplying lipstick or getting something out of her teeth.
Nell opened the stall door and stepped out. Froze in surprise.
The pool player lounged against the counter, arms crossed, pleased with himself.
“What the flipping hell?” Nell stared at the cocky length of him. “Did you follow me in here?”
“Sure — it’s not like there’s anyone else using it, and I thought you might appreciate a little company, gorgeous.” His frank gaze fixed on her chest, blatantly admiring.
Nell shook her head. “Unbelievable. What I’d appreciate is a chance to wash my hands, if you could get your ass off the sink. Please.” Despite the sarcastic courtesy, her tone made it a command, not a request.
“Okay, sassy pants.” Laughing, he slid to one side, just enough for her to reach the taps.
She assessed the situation, not pleased with her choices. Stepping up to the sink would put her too close to him for comfort; she’d otherwise have to leave with unwashed hands.
“Get out of my space.” She stepped up to the sink as though he weren’t even in the room. He moved away at her approach, and she thought at first her confidence had driven him back — until he looped around and came up behind her, trapping her against the counter with a hand on either side of her.
“What’s your perfume? You smell good enough to eat,” he murmured, his mouth flirtatiously close to her ear, her neck.
Whoa! Flipping crap. How had she let herself get into a position like this? She could feel the heat of his body and smell the alcohol on his breath mixed with his body wash or cologne or whatever it was. A shiver rippled through her.
“Haven’t been able to take my eyes off you… sitting there, flirting with me over your book… and you’ve got such heavenly tits...” One of his hands left the counter and snaked around to caress Nell’s waist.
“Get your hands off me,” she snarled. When he didn’t comply immediately, she lost it. “That’s it. Fair warning was given. Flipping asshole.” With everything she had in her, all the power from every training session, every self-defense drill, she raised an arm, torqued herself around and nailed him with a hammerfist in the side of the neck. Pressure point. Brachial plexus origin. As his arms slackened, she turned, gripped his shoulder for leverage and slammed a knee into his groin. He dropped, groaning and cursing. “Don’t assume women are helpless. Some of us are black belts. Some of us will make you sorry you tried it.” Kicking away a pawing hand with one foot, she stalked out of the bathroom.
Do I say anything to Tim? Or do I just leave?
Technically, she knew she should probably say something. But explanations would be complicated. And a martial artist’s hands and feet can be considered weapons in a court of law.
The pool player could explain what had happened, if he wanted to — starting with why he’d been in the women’s bathroom.
Wednesday morning, the first day of Nell’s workweek, came all too soon.
Her usual round of squats and pushups and crunches jump-started her body and put her into a better frame of mind than she’d woken up with, but didn’t leave much time for anything except a quick shower and basic grooming. Not that anyone at the office would care if Nell Whelan did or did not wear eyeliner and mascara, as long as she followed the workplace dress code and looked like she was doing her job.
Pushing the vileness of business casual slacks and blouses into the back of her mind, she ate some cold leftover stir-fry for breakfast and made a protein shake to get herself through the rest of the morning.
I’ll have a cup of tea when I get to the office, she told herself. She kept a stash of good tea in the bottom drawer of her desk, a small luxury that made her office existence a little bit more bearable.
She didn’t get a seat on the bus, but that was normal, and at least her commute took only twenty minutes. The riders who got on early enough to have seats were coming in from the suburbs and had probably been on the bus for half an hour already. Tinny music from several sets of nearby earbuds buzzed softly around her, and she gazed out the bus window at the sunrise.
Work never changed. Nell was the first one to arrive, as usual, and she liked it that way. The elevators weren’t yet as crowded as they would be later in the morning, but two early birds waiting by the elevator bank were enough for Nell to take the stairs. Six flights were nothing; she usually did the stairs both ways at lunch anyway without breaking a sweat, but an extra set in the morning would be good for her. She reached the sixth floor, unlocked the glass front doors of the office, and moved through the space turning on lights.
The office had its usual early morning smell of cleaning solution and electronics. No one was ever around this early. Nell liked to get a start on her day before the rest of the managers and assistants and booking agents turned up to fill the office.
She turned on her computer, made her tea, tidied the photocopier room and kitchenette — even though that wasn’t technically her job. She couldn’t bear to have the office’s public and shared spaces in disarray, and Lila the receptionist never did it.
Basics attended to, she started on her email inbox.
I hate my job. I hate my job.
Nell was a supervisor for a vacation properties company. Wildforest Vacations Inc. owned assorted cottage resort parks — charming rustic cabins and cottages in picturesque rural areas, clustered around a restaurant and general store. Some were aimed at couples, some at families, some at singles and the party scene. Each property had a supervisor, and each supervisor was supposed to have an assistant in the office as well as an on-site manager at each property. But Nell’s previous assistant had quit without notice the month before, and Wildforest hadn’t yet hired her a new one. Two people’s jobs to get done in one person’s hours, on one salary. Not that Shannon had worked terribly hard. Lila had agreed to help Nell out until a new assistant could be found for her, but although the receptionist was friendly and had a great telephone voice, she wasn’t much for organization skills or neatness or quick work.
Emails from the on-site managers were Nell’s first priority each morning, in case something urgent needed to be dealt with right away. Brian at Winter Pine Cottages was practical and reliable, if a bit abrasive, and Nell tolerated working with him because he got things done, while Stuart at Secret Creek Lodge reminded her of a male version of Lila — great voice, super friendly, not so organized and a bit short on common sense. Deep down, Nell thought both of them were lucky. They lived in jeans and plaid shirts — Wildforest’s idea of what a “camp manager” ought to look like, but it was comfortable and much better than her stupid slacks and blouses.
“Why don’t you apply to be a camp manager?” Nell’s friend Amy had asked her one night, after listening to a frustrated outburst about office life. Amy lived for her acting career and didn’t seem to mind sleeping on friends’ couches or slinging coffee during the bad times; maybe she couldn’t understand Nell’s need for security, stability. Anyway, the camp manager life sounded idyllic in some ways, but not much of a challenge, and Nell couldn’t imagine giving up her martial arts training as she’d have to if she moved out of the city.
Life is complicated. I can’t have everything. Nell sighed.
At least, on this particular Wednesday morning, there were no urgent disasters for her to handle. One leaking pipe at Winter Pine, fixed by Brian, with a net result of two wet rugs that had been removed from the cottage in question for drying. The renters had been offered a move to another cottage but were fine where they were. Spare area rugs had been provided. Nell made a note to call Perks & Promos later, once everyone was in for the day, to see what they could do for those renters to make up for the burst pipe and boost goodwill. Apparently, nothing at all had happened at Secret Creek since Sunday afternoon — Stu’s email basically said, “It’s all good.” She could picture him saying it, with a shrug and a laugh. As long as no one died, Stu would probably think things were all good.
Lila stuck her head in Nell’s office doorway, saying, “Morning, sunshine!” with offensively cheerful enthusiasm. “I’m making coffee. Want some?”
Nell hadn’t accepted a cup of coffee once in the four years she’d been with the company, but Lila still offered every morning. Sometimes Nell wished Lila would offer to make her a cup of tea, but really, she’d just decline anyway. Lila’s idea of tea was probably a generic orange pekoe teabag with coffee creamer and two packets of sugar. A few times, Nell had offered to make tea for Lila, but the receptionist wrinkled her nose at the premium rooibos and whole-leaf green teas and said she thought regular tea was okay but liked coffee better. “No, thanks, Lila. I’ll make myself a second cup of tea in a bit.”
Lila giggled. “You and your tea. Are you drinking that vanilla spice rooibos you like so much?”
“Not this morning. Green tea tastes better with my protein shake.”
“Eww,” said Lila. “I hit the drive-thru and grabbed an Egg McMuffin on my way in.” Lila had a smart little black Jetta, bought for her by her parents, and the Wildforest owners had somehow been prevailed on to grant her a parking stall in the underground lot as part of her employment contract.
“I like my protein shakes!” Nell shook her head. “And taking the bus is good for the environment. I don’t mind not having a car.” In her heart, Nell coveted a Tesla — all that sleek luxury and status in an environmentally friendly package.
Lila rolled her eyes. “I never said anything about you having a car, Nell. And I guess I’d be fit like you if I drank protein shakes and worked out all the time, but eww. I just want to enjoy my life and eat delicious things.” Somehow, Lila was oblivious to the fact that she clearly weighed less than Nell — not that Nell wasn’t all muscle, and nor did she care about dress sizes, but her solidity looked a bit chunky next to Lila’s relatively ectomorphic frame. “I’m going to go make that coffee. Later!”
The kitchenette will have to be tidied again, Nell thought. Lila would leave the coffee canister out on the counter, the used filter and grounds in the machine, and a litter of spoons and stir sticks and sugar packets in the sink.
The front of the office looked spacious and calm — a prosperous and imposing reception desk, a sitting area for guests with a comfortable couch and two armchairs clustered around a coffee table. The nearby kitchenette meant that Lila could offer visitors coffee or tea without leaving the reception desk unsupervised. Behind this gracious front area lay a warren of small offices and passageways and cubicles. The photocopier and office supply room was right behind Nell’s office, with a thin shared wall. She could hear every copy being made. She’d gotten to know the photocopier very well, in fact, and could fix most of its jams and troubles without having to call a technician. Not her job, but it made everyone’s day go faster if they weren’t held up waiting for a tech to come fix the machine, and a little mechanical aptitude came in handy.
She might as well make sure the paper drawers were full. It seemed a small thing, to fill up the various paper trays of the photocopier as needed so the next person wouldn’t have to stop, job half done, and deal with refilling the paper. And that reminded Nell that she needed to order paper for both cabin sites — toilet paper, paper napkins, paper towels, paper for the site office printer, note pads for the guest cabins. An assistant to take care of basic orders would be awesome. But there was hardly a chance of them finding her someone anytime soon, so Nell would have to do the ordering and whatnot herself.
Just before lunch, her boss swung into her tiny office without so much as a knock. “Nell. You’re here. Good.”
Suppressing a desire to ask where else she might likely be at 11:30 on a workday, particularly as they weren’t supposed to go off-site without permission, she forced a smile and said, “Of course, Tommy. What can I do for you?”
“First of all, did you know? About Aidan?” He fixed her with a cold look.
“No, what about Aidan? I — we don’t exactly socialize or anything. He’s just a co-worker; I barely know him.”
Tommy Baxter practically snarled with displeasure. “It’s the height of our busy season, we’re short-staffed as it is, and that turd went and quit without notice. Sent me a goddamn email and didn’t come in today. Says he’ll mail in his keys.”
Nell struggled to control the expression on her face. “Wow. That’s… so wrong of him.” And exactly what we all wish we could do. Part of her wanted to applaud Aidan for getting out, but his defection would doubtless make life more difficult for the rest of them.
“His desk is already cleared out. He must have known on Sunday that he wasn’t planning to come back. You’re sure he didn’t say anything to you?” Tommy’s suspicious nature was legendary in the office.
“Literally the only thing Aidan said to me on Sunday was, ‘Got any plans for your off days?’ And I told him I was going to read the rest of A Discovery of Witches and bake bread. That’s it.”
Tommy huffed in a way that suggested he wasn’t impressed by her weekend plans — but then, she hadn’t mentioned to him or to Aidan that she also took an advanced combative self-defense course on Mondays and traditional taekwondo plus an MMA sparring session on Tuesdays, and taught classes both days as well. Aidan had abhorred violence of any sort, no matter how necessary and justified, and Tommy made it known on a regular basis that he admired women like Lila who “didn’t need to work out to look good” and entertained themselves on weekends by going out to restaurants and clubs. He’d hate the thought that Nell might be stronger than he was, which would likely make him even more poisonous in her vicinity. Nell would much rather stay invisible around the office as a homebody bookworm and bread-baker, hiding her strength under the business casual clothes she hated, even if she’d overheard Tommy referring to her as Chunky Booty.
Quit the damn job, Amy had said to her once. It sounds like a horrible place. You could get something else. But she was trapped, as so many people got trapped, by a salary she’d worked up to within the company — from booking support to junior booking agent to senior booking agent, then she’d been promoted across departments to property assistant and then to property manager — and it was all just specific enough to be not very transferable in terms of skills and position. She’d have to start over completely, rent would become unaffordable without a roommate, and she’d have a hard time paying her martial arts training fees. No.
“—all going to need to pull together and cover Aidan’s accounts until we can replace him, right?” Tommy was saying, and Nell nodded and tried to look appropriately concerned. “Good. Thank you.” Tommy’s satisfied tone puzzled Nell for a moment, then he plunked one of the folders he was holding onto her desk. Oh, no. He can’t possibly… “I’m giving you Champagne Cascades for the moment, and Scott or Trina can take Applegarth Cabins. Unless you’d rather have Applegarth?”
“But… I already have two properties, and no assistant. Couldn’t Scott and Trina take these ones?” Nell didn’t believe in the word can’t, but it was perilously close to forming in her mind at the thought of a third property to handle.
Tommy gave her a grimace of impatience. “I’m asking you, Nell. You’re taking one of these. Which one?”
Nell swallowed her frustration. As usual with Tommy, she had to force a smile — he liked to see women smile, he’d said, and he had a way of making life difficult if you didn’t accommodate him. “Champagne Cascades is fine.” She knew nothing about either property, as Tommy would know if he thought about it for a flipping minute. “But I haven’t got an assistant right now. I really will need some help managing three.”
“You’re on salary, Nell. That means you stay until your work is done, right? No running home at five. But I’ll get you an assistant. In fact, I have an idea about that…” His words trailed off as he left her office.
“Okay, so where is Champagne Cascades?” Nell muttered to herself, picking up the folder and opening it. “Huh. Up near the Canadian border. Romantic cottages for two, no kids or singles. One of those.” She read on. Rentals were at a higher price point, so this was obviously more luxurious than she was used to handling with Winter Pine and Secret Creek. Would it be interesting or just a hassle? The site manager’s name was Jessalyn Roberts. A woman? Nell didn’t know that Wildforest hired female site managers at all — she’d only ever dealt with men like Brian and Stu. What would this Jessalyn be like?
Soft chimes sounded over the office PA system, letting everyone know it was noon. They were allowed to leave the office for lunch as long as they were back before the chimes sounded again at one, as if they were at school, not adults working in an office. As soon as she heard the lunch chimes, Nell whisked her purse out of the desk drawer where she kept it and bolted for the stairs. Sure, it would be financially more responsible to bring a packed lunch, but then she’d have to eat at her desk and would have no escape all day from the Wildforest dungeon.
It was a matter of principle for her to get down the stairs in under three minutes, without running.
There was a little vegetarian café down the block from the office, barely a hole in the wall, it was so tiny — just a counter and a couple of tables, and some tall stools by the window. Nothing fancy, but Nell could eat in peace for half an hour. The tomato and avocado sandwich was her favorite, but she also liked the cucumber and cream cheese one, and egg salad some days for variety.
Refreshed, and a little more tolerant of the circus that was her workplace, Nell returned as usual just before the one o’clock chimes. On her desk was a yellow Post-It note from Tommy — Assistant confirmed, will start ASAP. No other details were provided, so she’d just have to wait. But at least help was coming.
She sent off an email to Jessalyn Roberts, introducing herself as the new property supervisor and inquiring about paper supplies at Champagne Cascades since the folder had no recent inventory report. And then Lila transferred a call to her desk with the warning, “Incoming hot top, Nell.” A hot top was the interoffice term for an actively angry guest.
Nell spent the next forty-five minutes listening to an enraged woman who claimed that Brian at Winter Pine had been rude and disrespectful, and ended up offering her a voucher for a night at Secret Creek to make amends. Forty-five minutes she’d never get back. And while it was quite possibly true — Brian was, in general, a rude and disrespectful sort of person, though she believed he mostly held his attitude in check around the guests to keep his job — Nell also had the feeling that the woman was milking a probably mild incident to get freebies in compensation, so it galled her a bit to play into that game. And now she’d have to call Brian and find out what happened from his point of view.
About twenty-four hours later, Nell returned from lunch to find another of Tommy’s yellow Post-It notes on her desk: My office — 1:30 pm. Everyone else at Wildforest seemed able to use the interoffice calendar and messaging app to arrange meetings, but Tommy liked his Post-Its, or maybe he just liked that one couldn’t decline or reschedule them.
Feeling all the relaxation of her lunch break boiling away, Nell bent down to grab her favorite vanilla spice rooibos from the tin box where she stashed her tea in a bottom drawer. She usually waited until later in the afternoon, but today she’d need it to handle Tommy’s meeting calmly. He’d probably tell her that it would be weeks until a new assistant could be hired, or that she’d have to share Trina’s assistant — putting a strain on both of their files and probably their relationship. Then she became aware of some thumping noises and swearing from the photocopier room behind her. Plainly, someone was having trouble with the copier and not handling it particularly well.
Stifling a wry snicker, Nell decided to see if she could help, like some kind of photocopier superhero. All she needed was a cape. She whipped around the corner and into the copier room.
A man in beat-up jeans and a Queen t-shirt bent over the copier, prodding its innards unsuccessfully, and giving the base of the machine a desultory kick when it continued to beep and flash error messages. Tall enough. Toned arms with just the right amount of ink. Blond wavy hair. Oh, hell no.
The man stood up.
Their eyes met.
It was definitely, without a doubt, the pool player from the Frog and Ball — the man she’d left writhing on the floor of the women’s bathroom. And there was no question that he recognized her.
“What are you doing here?” Nell asked, before he could say anything.
He looked down at his hands, which were streaked with copier toner. “Tommy Baxter is my uncle. It seems I’m going to be working here for a bit. I’m, ah, not used to being in an office — do you know anything about these beasts?”
“Right,” said Nell. “Let me have a look at it.” She gave him a cold look and a jerk of her chin to let him know that he needed to move out of her space before she’d approach. Somewhat warily, he backed away to lean against the office supply cupboards. Stepping up to the copier, she turned the handle that would open the inner section of the machine, then rotated the wheel to move the jammed paper forward.
As she eased the crumpled and smudged paper out of the copier, the blond man moved closer, leaned down next to her ear and asked quietly, “What the hell was up with you putting me on the ground at the pub like that?” His unexpected nearness startled her, and she jumped back, only narrowly controlling her impulse to take down the threat. “Whoa!” he said, seeing her half-fisted hands and ready stance.
“You were in the women’s can, where you had no business being. You wouldn’t listen when I told you to back off. So yeah, I put you on the ground. And I’ll do it again if I have to.”
The man laughed, a sexy, throaty laugh. Flirty. “I would never have hurt you, gorgeous.”
Nell rolled her eyes. “You couldn’t hurt me even if you wanted to, and I don’t care about your intentions. Stay out of the women’s bathroom here at work, and stay away from me at the Frog and Ball on Sundays.”
“All right.” The man’s chuckle told her he wasn’t taking her seriously.
She finished putting the photocopier back together. “There. The copier is fixed. Try not to break it again.”
“Thanks. What’s your name, ninja woman?”
“Nell.” She didn’t want to tell him, but he’d find out from Tommy soon enough. No point in creating a war over something minor.
“That’s pretty. I’m Eamonn.”
Nell shrugged. Damned if I’ll show him I like anything about him. She didn’t want to find even his name appealing. “Right. Well, I’d better get back to my desk.”
Not waiting for a response, she swirled out of the room and ducked back into her office, grabbing her tin of tea and her mug. A soothing cup of vanilla spice rooibos would be just the thing to settle her agitation over finding him here, in her office.
At the dot of half past one, Nell knocked on Tommy’s office door. He didn’t like late, or early. But instead of his usual barked “Come in,” she heard footsteps, and he opened the door for her himself. “Nell, you’re here,” he said, in an unusually affable tone. “Come and sit down. There’s someone I want you to meet.”
Oh, crap. Eamonn the photocopy room guy, the pool player from the Frog and Ball, was sprawled in one of Tommy’s guest chairs. “Hi, Nell. Uncle Tommy, we’ve met — she helped me with a paper jam in the copy machine.”
“Well, good. Nell, Eamonn’s going to be your assistant for a while. No experience, but he can learn on the job. Changing careers isn’t easy, so I trust you’ll help him out and not be too hard on him?” The inflection made it a question and asked for her agreement, but the wording didn’t give her a choice.
“Of course. I’m… sure we’ll work things out.”
Eamonn looked across at her and gave her a slow wink, making the words work things out seem somehow dirty, like a double entendre she hadn’t intended. “It’ll be a pleasure to work things out with you, baby.”
Tommy or no Tommy, that couldn’t stand. “Do not call me baby,” Nell gritted out.
“Calm down, Nell. Eamonn isn’t used to an office environment; it’ll take him some time to learn all the niceties.”
“Right. Eamonn, if we’re going to work harmoniously together, you’ll have to call me Nell — or Miss Whelan.” No one used last names at Wildforest, not even the most senior management or the board of directors. But Nell was accustomed to being Miss Whelan in a martial arts setting, and she could use a little of that respect from Eamonn.
That only got a laugh from him. “Miss Whelan, is it?” And she realized that the title didn’t have quite the same meaning as it did in martial arts circles; his emphasis made it something dainty, maybe even a bit southern belle, rather than the earned title of a black belt. Damn. Well, in ten years she’d qualify as Master Whelan, and then… That wouldn’t show him anything. She wouldn’t even know him a decade on. But her goal of attaining mastership had sustained her through a lot of things. She held onto it now and straightened her spine.
“The Wildforest board prefers that we use first names here,” Tommy explained to Eamonn. “Friendly corporate culture and all that. Run along now and Nell will show you your office — Shannon’s is still empty, right, Nell?”
“Yes. Thank you, Tommy. Let’s go, Eamonn.” She turned to leave Tommy’s office and nearly ran smack into Lila, who was carrying two cups of coffee.
“Whoops! Didn’t know you were in here, Nell. I was just bringing some coffee for Tommy and Easy — it’s okay if I call you Easy, right? I’ll never remember to say Eamonn.” Lila held out the coffee to the men, practically purring and batting her eyelashes. “Let me know if there’s anything else I can get you.”
“Thanks, sugar.” Eamonn took the coffee, seeming to accept the nickname and Lila’s fawning behavior as normal and his due. Weird.
Tommy accepted his coffee with a shrug and a muttered, “Typical.”
“Let’s go,” Nell repeated, nearly taking Eamonn’s arm to drag him away from Lila’s fluttering attention. But she jerked her hand back just in time; he might take the contact the wrong way. Who knew what went through that man’s mind?
As they filed down the narrow corridors to Nell’s office and the empty one beside it, now Eamonn’s, she wondered about Lila nicknaming him “Easy” — and how readily he’d accepted it. That seemed pretty brazen of Lila, in retrospect, although it did somehow suit him. Maybe the receptionist had heard Tommy call him that, or perhaps he’d leaned over the reception desk and suggested it. Without thinking it through, she turned back to him and asked, “Hey, why did Lila call you Easy? Is it a nickname? Something you prefer?”
He looked at her in stunned incredulity, coming to a stop in the hallway. “You don’t know?”
“Should I know something about you? Other than your habit of entering women’s bathrooms uninvited?” And she didn’t even know that was a habit, but it didn’t strike her as a one-time effort.
Eamonn still looked stunned. “You don’t, ah, recognize me?” She blinked at him, still drawing a blank. “Rock band? Bass player?” he prompted. “Stage names?”
Crap. “Smidge,” she said, as the puzzle pieces fell into place in her mind. She wasn’t a huge rock fan, preferring classical music and jazz, but she didn’t live in a convent. She’d seen them on television, on bus shelter posters, heard their songs on friends’ playlists. She hadn’t expected one of them to be here. “You’re Easy from Smidge.” And then, “So what the ever-loving hell are you doing in an office, working for Wildforest?”
His face closed up, grew hard, stony. “If you have to ask, do you think we could talk about it somewhere more private?” The icy tone to his voice told her something had gone very wrong and he was raw about it right to his core.
“It’s none of my business,” Nell said at once. “I’m sorry I asked.”
Eamonn shrugged. “Whatever. Show me my office so I can get settled in, okay?” A faint hint of a flush around his neck and jaw told her he wasn’t as blasé about it as he seemed. A complicated man. A rock god. An office assistant?
“Would you rather I call you Eamonn, or Easy?” she asked.
“Either. I’ll answer to both.”
She shrugged, letting him have his privacy. “Here’s your office. Mine’s next door. Have you been given a username and password for the office computer system yet?”
For answer, he fished a crumpled Post-It note out of his pocket and held it up.
“Okay, then, go ahead and get logged in and configure your email and chat profile and stuff. I’ve got a couple of things I want to get done, then I’ll come back and walk you through the basics of managing a Wildforest property. All right?”
“Cool,” Eamonn said, sliding into the desk chair with a smoothly graceful movement that shouldn’t have made Nell shiver.
She needed more tea. Hell, she needed a Frosty Peach and some sweet potato fries.
How is it only Thursday? Sunday night seemed an eternity away.
Did it bother him that she didn’t recognize him at first glance? The question had troubled her a few times in the night. Presumably, he’d earned his place in the music world every bit as much as she’d earned hers in martial arts; she was familiar with the infuriating feeling of having one’s skill disregarded — she hated it when people assumed she was helpless just because she was female. If being recognized was inherent to being a rock star, then to go unrecognized…
Still, Nell refused to vary her routine for a new assistant, especially one who was so presumptuous with women and so sure of himself and his fame and sex appeal. She felt particularly glad that she hadn’t done something silly — like buy a new blouse or put on makeup — when Lila floated in, early for a miraculous first time ever, in a ruffled peach chiffon dress and smoky, sparkly eye makeup. “Hot date after work, Lila?” Nell asked, although she was pretty sure she knew the cause of Lila’s extra efforts.
Lila giggled. “Not unless Easy asks me out. Is he here yet?”
“No. Haven’t seen him.”
“Do me a favor and let me know when he comes in, ’kay? I want to be the one who brings him coffee.”
Nell snorted. “Sure, but you’ve got feathers for brains if you think that’s going to get you anywhere. The man probably has a dozen girlfriends.”
Eamonn didn’t turn up until after ten o’clock, eating a doughnut and drinking coffee from a Top Pot to-go cup. He propped himself against the open door of her office and said, “Morning, baby.”
Suppressing an eye-roll, Nell said mildly, “You have to stop calling me baby. Also, the office opens at nine.”
“Mm. I’m not good with mornings,” he said. “But I’ll try. Brought you a doughnut.”
He tossed a paper bag onto her desk and vanished into his office without another word. Through the thin walls, she could hear the squeak of his desk chair and the burbling start-up noises of his computer.
A doughnut. Nell hadn’t eaten one in — she couldn’t remember how long — it must have been years.
The paper bag was slightly warm and smelled amazing: a doughy, sugary smell that reminded her of fairgrounds and bakeries. She ripped the paper open, exposing the fried goodness within. A jelly doughnut, no less. Round, plump, covered in powdered sugar, with a tiny bit of raspberry filling dripping from a hole in the side.
I shouldn’t. But why would it be so wrong to eat the doughnut? It didn’t mean she’d owe Eamonn anything. It had been freely offered, without conditions; he hadn’t given her a chance to refuse it.
She lifted it to her mouth and bit into it, closing her eyes to better savor the combination of flavors. Damn, that’s good. She nearly moaned with the pleasure of tart raspberry jelly and sweet sugar on her tongue.
A soft chuckle made her open her eyes. Eamonn was leaning in her doorway again, grinning at her. He’d been watching her eat the doughnut. “You like it,” he said.
“Yeah.” Couldn’t very well deny it. “Thanks.”
“You’ve got jelly on your lip.”
“Oh.” She stuck out her tongue and licked the jelly up.
The way he looked at her mouth made her feel like she’d just stripped for him. “I want to be that doughnut, gorgeous,” he muttered.
“Get out of my office, pervert,” she told him, but without much fire. “And follow up with Champagne about their paper order. I need to put the order in by five.” Stick with business. Don’t even acknowledge that look. They’d have to work together for an unspecified amount of time, and anything less than total professionalism would be awkward as hell.
Nell felt angry and discombobulated all afternoon. It’s ridiculous. I’m an adult, a woman, a feminist, a martial artist. He’s a pervert — he hit on me at the pub in the women’s bathroom — and he uses the most inappropriate language. Accepting a doughnut from him felt like a low point in her personal account book.
Part of her wanted to put him on the ground and teach him some manners, some respect and appreciation for women. An angry, frustrated side of her flared up. Ordinarily, self-control and a disciplined outlook on life were things she took pride in: the ability to tap an opponent’s headgear with a precise kick that showcased her aim, the measured speed and strength she brought to self-defense drills — enough to be realistic as a defender and provide some resistance and force as an attacker without either partner actually getting injured. But now and then the anger flared up, particularly when a cocky teenage boy started showing off with her at training, trying to score points on a senior black belt, out to win rather than train and improve. This was especially true if she caught a sense that he thought he could beat her because she was female, that he didn’t think girls could hit hard or take hard hits. On a couple of occasions, and she was not proud of them, she’d lost her temper during training and tried to nail a sparring partner hard or put him into the mat during self-defense. She’d done it, too, swearing under her breath and jangling with adrenaline, earning herself some surprised looks for the loss of control.
She could feel the anger burning in the same way here, the urge to fight and win, to take him down and teach him his place in her world. That’s ridiculous. He doesn’t even do martial arts.
But it wasn’t about sports or sparring. She was just angry.
Angry at herself?
The twinges of attraction, the dirty way he looked at her, it all added up to something that shouldn’t be. How could she want to like him, let alone be attracted to him? Everything about him was reprehensible to her and stood against her values and the way she tried to live her life, with integrity and respect for life and individual autonomy. And it wasn’t as though she had some kind of subconscious fetish for disrespect; she’d been catcalled and propositioned plenty of times, and there’d been no turn-on in it, no flutter of appeal, just a sort of scornful distaste. But she kept thinking about how he’d looked at her mouth as she’d eaten the doughnut. How he’d flushed and closed himself off when asked why he was working in an office. How he’d never once presumed on his fame to ingratiate himself with her. Hell, he’d introduced himself as Eamonn, not Easy.
Easy. He sure acted like he’d be easy to get into bed. Flirt.
That ought to gross her out, repel her. Why didn’t it? Ugh.
So when Eamonn popped into her office, she snapped, “Even if it’s open, you can still knock on the frame before walking in, you know.”
“Right,” he said, with a what got your panties in a knot expression on his face. “So I got a hold of that chick Jessalyn at Champagne Cascades.”
“Did she say why she didn’t bother to return my call or email yesterday?” Nell didn’t even bother to correct his use of chick, though she did raise a disapproving eyebrow.
“She wasn’t feeling good yesterday. She didn’t say exactly but I’m thinking it’s woman stuff, you know? She says she was at work but had a hard time getting much done.”
“She really unbuttoned for you, didn’t she?” The moment she said it, Nell knew her choice of words was a mistake. But it burned her that the unknown Jessalyn had taken his call when she’d been ignored the day before.
Eamonn laughed. “I wouldn’t say unbuttoned, gorgeous — that’s what I want you to do for me. I can’t help it that women like to talk to me. Anyway, if it works… I got the paper inventory figures from her and forwarded them to you. Good?”
“Thanks. Could you stop calling me that, though?”
“Why? You are gorgeous. You’ve got heavenly tits and—”
Nell growled, actually growled, in frustration. “We’re in an office. I’m technically your supervisor. Your uncle is my boss and I don’t need him walking by and hearing that — I really, really, absolutely don’t need him to be thinking about my personal attributes in any way. Okay?”
Eamonn shook his head. “Uncle Tommy’s married, he’d never… well, okay, yeah, that’d be weird.”
An awkward silence settled between them. You think I have nice breasts? The question burned on Nell’s tongue, tempting her, but there was no way she’d ask such a ridiculous thing.
He watched her, considering, a half-smile on his lips. “Yes,” he said.
“I was not thinking about—”
“Of course you were, and you do. But I won’t refer to your tits in the office again. Nell.” The way he said her name made her think that maybe he was getting it, that he could see the difference between an office and backstage, and that he understood the differences, the things you could say there and not here.
“Thanks,” she said, and she didn’t know if she was thanking him for using her name, or for the compliment he’d given her. Easy from Smidge. Bass player, rock star, sex god. Given all the females he must have known, the array of chests available for him to sample, his commendation meant a lot to her. Not that she’d let herself care. Her body was strong and muscular and solid, perfect for a fighter, a competitor. “Thanks for getting me those numbers from Champagne. I need to get the order in before the paper supplier closes.”
“I’m off, then. See you tomorrow.” And he was gone.
I should make him stay until the clock hits five, Nell thought. But he was Tommy’s nephew, so she suspected the usual Wildforest regulations didn’t apply to him.
The first sign of anything wrong came with a phone call. Someone from booking and customer service pinged Nell on the intercom line. “Got a hot top on line four calling from Champagne Cascades. Goes beyond what we can handle in booking. Will you take it?”
“Saying no isn’t a choice, is it? Sure.” Nell sighed, looking at the button for line four, flashing red, on hold. Coping with an angry guest was never fun, but it was part of dealing with resort properties and their temporary residents — people paid for pleasant vacations, after all, and tended to get bent out of shape when little things didn’t go their way. She took a sip of tea and hit the button to take the call. “Hi there, this is Nell Whelan, property supervisor for Champagne Cascades. I understand there’s a problem?”
“Well, yeah. Been standing here forty minutes waiting to get our keys, but your office is closed up tight and there’s no sign of when someone will be coming or anything.”
“You’re saying that you’re at Champagne Cascades now, and there’s no one in the office there to book you in and give you keys?”
“Yes. We’ve been waiting forty minutes. Ridiculous! There’s not even a sign on the door saying when they’ll be back.”
Nell brought up the booking system on her computer. “Could I get your name, ma’am? I just want to check and make sure we were expecting you.” She spoke slowly, pitching her voice quietly, aiming for a calm and respectful tone that would help the infuriated woman settle down.
“Annie and Michael Prince. We got a confirmation email yesterday.”
“Right. I see Veuve Cliquot is reserved for you.” The booking was there in the system, as it should be — apparently, all the cottages were named after famous champagne brands. At three in the afternoon, there was absolutely no reason the site office at Champagne should be closed. And the policy at all sites was, if you had to close up the office during business hours for any amount of time, even five minutes, you had to place a notice on the door saying why the office was closed and for how long. “Well, the office should not be closed at this hour. If I may put you on hold, Mrs. Prince, I’ll see what I can do from here.”
Mrs. Prince made a frustrated noise into the phone, a sort of huffing sigh of annoyance. “I guess, okay. I’ll hold.”
As soon as Nell placed Mrs. Prince on hold, she tried the office line, but as expected got no answer. She then tried the mobile number in the company records for Jessalyn Roberts and got no answer there either. Now what? She decided to try the restaurant — there should be two full-time staff there, though she couldn’t remember their names off-hand from her glance through the information binder: a cook and a waitress.
A man with a thick Québécois accent answered. “Allo, Pink Champagne Dining Room. François speaking.”
“François, this is Nell Whelan. I’m the new property supervisor for Champagne Cascades. Have you seen Jessalyn today?”
“Non. She hasn’t been here today. Mary and I didn’t know what to do. Guests at breakfast ask us when they can check out, but we don’t know. We had Aidan’s cell number but he says he doesn’t work for the company anymore.”
And you didn’t think to call the main office? But recriminations wouldn’t help anything now. “Either you or Mary is going to need to go and open the office. I’ll have to walk you through the check-in and check-out process over the phone.”
“Better be Mary,” said François. “She’s better with computers and things. I’m just a cook.”
“Don’t knock yourself. It’s a gift to be good with food. Okay. Send Mary up to the office and have her call me when she gets there. Oh, and warn her there’s a hot top waiting to be checked in.”
“Hot top?” the cook asked, sounding puzzled.
“Angry guest,” Nell clarified, surprised to find that they didn’t use the office code words on-site. She gave François her phone number to give Mary, in case Jessalyn hadn’t updated the site office’s speed dial and emergency call list, and then hung up. Taking a deep breath, she picked up line four. “Mrs. Prince, thanks for waiting. We don’t know what’s happened to our site manager at this time, but Mary from the dining room is on her way to the office and I’ll help her check you in. You should be all right for this evening, and someone from Wildforest Vacations will be up there tomorrow morning to take charge.”
“Will you come?” Mrs. Prince asked. “You seem like a sensible person.”
“I’ll ask my boss,” Nell said, knowing that she would indeed likely be the person sent up, but thinking it wouldn’t hurt to have Mrs. Prince believe she’d asked to come.
“I’ll hang up with you now, but I’ll be here waiting to take Mary’s call once she gets into the office.” Hopefully, Mary would prove competent to follow instructions over the phone, just to get them by overnight. What had happened to Jessalyn Roberts? Why had she not turned up for work that morning?
Nell knocked on Tommy’s door. “Come in!” he barked. Not a happy afternoon, then.
“Tommy, you’re not going to like this, but one of our site managers seems to have disappeared.”
“You’re kidding me, right? Tell me you’re kidding me.”
“Unfortunately, no. Jessalyn Roberts from Champagne Cascades didn’t turn up for work this morning — no note, no message, nothing. I’ve got the waitress from the restaurant doing office duty for tonight, but she’s not trained and has to be talked through everything over the phone.”
“Smart thinking, Nell. You and Eamonn will have to get up there tomorrow to take over, of course. Sign out a company vehicle; here’s the authorization slip. I’ll get HR working on finding a new site manager right away.”
The thought of the unknown Jessalyn losing her job made Nell wince, no matter what difficulties she was causing. “Give me twenty-four hours to look into it up there, Tommy? If she’s just down with a violent flu or something, it may not be worth the expense of finding a new site manager.”
“Twenty-four hours, then,” Tommy said, looking displeased. Torn between wanting to fire her and wanting to save the cost of hiring and training someone new, probably. “And only if she has a damn good reason.”
Then something else he’d said struck Nell. “I can make the trip alone,” she said quickly. “I’ve never taken an assistant along on site visits before.”
“You’ve never had to cover for and investigate a missing site manager before, either,” Tommy snapped back. “Plus, I want him to get some on-site experience, and it’s safer for you to have a man along on trips like this.”
Seriously? She was plenty safe on her own. But that wasn’t a conversation Nell wanted to have with Tommy. “Fine.”
“It had better be fine with you, Nell. You’re taking Eamonn with you, and that’s an order. Now, send him down to see me. And get Lila to bring us coffee.”
I hate my job. I hate my job. Nell nodded, not trusting her voice to come out evenly over the fury inside her. At least she’d get to go on-site for two or three days. If nothing else, it would get her away from the office. But it wouldn’t get her away from Eamonn.
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