She placed the contracts she’d spent the last two weeks reviewing in three piles on her boss’s desk. One for yes, one for make counter offer, and one for hell no. Her deadline for this assignment was still two weeks away, so she gave herself a pat on the back as she sat down in her boss’s chair. The soft leather felt good beneath her. She ran her hands over the smooth, mahogany desk. Everything in this office was polished and refined. Exactly what you’d expect from the Vice President of Wallace Holdings, Inc. Violet’s office was ten times nicer than hers. That is, if you could call a cubicle an office. For a brief moment she let herself believe that this was her office. This was where she belonged. This was what she had spent the past five years working towards.
Sure, she could have easily taken a position at her grandfather’s company – the rival of Wallace Holdings, Inc. – and had less stress, but she never was one for handouts. Especially when that handout was a slap in the face. Secretary. Her brother’s secretary. She graduated summa cum laude with an MBA from Harvard. None of that mattered to her grandfather, though. She spent her entire life in the shadow of her brother all because she was born with a vagina. Her grandfather had grown up in the era where women stayed at home to take care of their families. He expected her to follow in her grandmother’s footsteps. Marry a CEO, host fundraisers and gala balls, and pop out three or four kids. He humored her by agreeing to let her go to Harvard, and that was never as clear as it was the day she graduated. She was expecting the great Theodore Pattenson to be so impressed by her academic achievements that he’d eat crow and beg her to take a position at her brother’s side. As equals. Instead, he said if she was insistent on working she could be Teddy III’s secretary until she found a suitable husband. It was in that moment that she realized that all her grandfather saw when he looked at her was someone who would one day give him great grandbabies. And even then, her children wouldn’t measure up to the children that Teddy would have one day. Instead of feeling pride and excitement on one of the biggest days of her life, she felt disappointment. The only thing that disappointment did was fuel her passion to prove him wrong. To make him regret the day he ever doubted her abilities.
For once in her life, avoiding the public eye and keeping a low profile actually came in handy when she applied for the job at Wallace Holdings, Inc. The only good thing her grandfather ever did, as far as she was concerned, was keep her out of the limelight. No one had a clue she was the granddaughter of the infamous Theodore Pattenson, plus she used her grandmother’s maiden name. She wanted to work her way up, learn the ins and outs of this business from the ground up. From every possible position. Which she had done. From mail room clerk to her current position as Senior Executive Assistant to VP, Violet Hutchinson.
Violet was a wolf in sheep’s clothing and Lily couldn’t stand her. Every second she had to spend taking orders from her was torture. Violet was the epitome of everything Lily despised in a person. Rude. Conceited. Vain. Ruthless. Basically, her grandfather in a dress. She was certain Violet would sell her own mother to the devil himself if the price was right. But it was the very thing she hated most about her that would ultimately be Violet’s downfall. Rumor had it that the president of the company, the elusive Ethan Wallace, was looking to replace her. Loyalty, or lack thereof, was very important to Mr. Wallace. Violet didn’t have a loyal bone in her body. Mr. Wallace was a recluse that no one ever saw, but he knew everything that happened within the walls of his company. The only person in his employ that ever saw him face to face was the vice president. The rumor mill surrounding the reason for his reclusiveness was almost as large as the one circulating about Violet’s endangered employment status. Another rumor spreading around the company was that in order to save her own ass, she was trying to set him up with her daughter. Poor Mr. Wallace. Tiffany was almost as annoying as her mother.
Lily twirled around in the expensive chair one more time to face the magnificent view. Now this is something I could get used to. The city lights below twinkled like stars. Had she not been so distracted by the view, and her thoughts, she would have heard Violet enter the room. She hadn’t planned on spending so much time in here and she definitely hadn’t planned on getting caught. “Please, do make yourself comfortable in my office,” Violet’s irritatingly nasally voice bellowed from behind her. Lily shot up out of her chair, “I’m so sorry, Mrs. Hutchinson. It won’t happen again,” Lily apologized as she moved out from behind Violet’s desk.
“If you value your position here, see that it doesn’t.”
“Are these the contracts I asked you to review?”
“Yes,” Lily smiled proudly.
“You’re two weeks under deadline. Are you sure you gave this assignment the thoroughness it required? I’m putting my neck on the line by giving you this opportunity.”
“Of course I did. Have I ever turned in an assignment unfinished?” she asked, immediately regretting her boldness.
“There’s always a first time. You can go now.”
Lily quickly turned on her heels to leave, and almost made it to the door before she heard her name. She rolled her eyes to the heavens before turning back around, “Yes, Mrs. Hutchinson?”
“As I’m sure you know, the company’s charity gala is tomorrow night. I suppose you’ll need this invitation to get in,” she gritted out, handing her an envelope.
“Oh. I thought you said support staff weren’t invited?”
“Well, clearly, Mr. Wallace changed his mind.”
Yeah, that or you clearly got caught being a lying bitch.
“Thank you. It’s an honor to be invited.”
“It is. Please don’t embarrass me. The theme is masquerade, so please dress appropriately. None of the frumpy attire you normally wear, and for god’s sake, go buy yourself some makeup. As a matter of fact, take the day off tomorrow to prepare. You’ll need all the time you can get to fix….that,” she said, waving her hands in a circle in front of her.
Her words cut at the quick. Violet had an amazing talent for finding people’s weaknesses and using them against them. Lily had always thought that one of the reasons her grandfather kept her out of the public eye was because she wasn’t pretty enough. Her mother, Theodore’s daughter, had been gorgeous and Lily always felt like a troll in comparison. She found that trying to live up to the memory of someone so beloved was almost impossible. Hearing Violet’s words only confirmed her worst doubts about herself. That is why she normally steered clear of events like this, but there was no way she could turn down this invitation. The charity gala was the only event that Mr. Wallace actually attended. Hence, the masquerade ball. Even though she wouldn’t recognize him if she came face to face with him, he’d know if she wasn’t there. That would be a black mark on her otherwise spotless record with Wallace Holdings, Inc.
So she’d go, even if she hated every second of it, and she knew exactly who to call to help her get ready.
Serena was the only person from Lily’s old life who she kept in contact with. She was an inheritance baby with a huge heart…not easy to come by in Lily’s former world. They had been friends since they both exited their mothers’ wombs. Along with her huge heart, Serena had a penchant for shopping. Her style was impeccable. The dress she picked out for Lily was stunning. Almost too stunning for me, Lily thought as she twirled around in front of the mirror. The black silk gown flowed over her gorgeous curves like it was hand-made just for her. The halter-style top with the low-cut front displayed her ample cleavage, tastefully, of course. This was a work function after all.
Lily’s favorite part of the ensemble was the mask. It, too, was covered in black silk with silver embellishments to match her shoes and clutch. Her jet black hair was swept up in a gorgeous up do, with soft curls framing her face. The blue sapphire earrings and necklace that Serena lent her matched her eyes perfectly. After Serena did her hair and makeup she almost didn’t recognize the woman she saw staring back at her in the mirror. There was no way she could have achieved these results on her own. Lily was no fashionista.
“You are a miracle worker,” she complimented her friend.
“Miracles had nothing to do with it. I had a great canvas to work with. You’re stunning, Lily. When are you going to start believing that?”
“Nice try. You’re just prejudiced because you’re my best friend. All the men knocking down my door to date me is a clear indication of how stunning I am,” Lily retorted.
“Maybe they would if you didn’t bury yourself in your work all the time. Not to mention, it’s probably hard for most guys to get past the huge Do Not Disturb sign you wear across your chest.”
“You were the last person I thought would hold my ambition against me. I don’t need a man to define me or make me whole. I’m fine on my own.”
“I’m not holding it against you, Lil. I’m not saying you need a man to make you complete. I’m just saying that it’s okay to live a little. Have some fun. We’re not living in the ’50’s. It’s the age of women and it’s okay to play the field a little, if you know what I mean.” A mischievous grin covered her face and she winked at her.
“Oh, god. You’re talking about sex again, aren’t you? You know I’m not a one-night stand kind of girl. Ew. You’re so gross,” she laughed, slapping her friend on the shoulder.
“It’s not gross, it’s human nature. You need to lighten up. Anyway, I hope you have a great time tonight and get out of that pretty little head of yours.”
Serena walked over to her friend and gave her hug, trying her best not to wrinkle her.
“I’ll try,” Lily whispered in her friend’s ear.
“No you won’t,” Serena yelled as she walked towards the front door and then left.
“I know,” Lily said to the now-empty room.
Her friend knew her all too well.
Lily exited her two-story brownstone to find a limo waiting. “Good evening, Ms. Young,” the driver said as he opened the door for her, holding her hand as she got inside. Serena, she thought as he closed the door. She couldn’t think of anyone else who would do this. Certainly not her boss. She pulled out her phone and sent out a thank you text to her friend. A few seconds later she was staring down a text that left her stunned and confused.
It wasn’t me. Ooh! I bet you have a secret admirer!
Lily laughed. She seriously doubted someone was secretly pining over her. The more logical explanation was that all the employees had a car sent for them. Yeah, that was more believable than Serena’s ridiculous secret admirer idea. She pressed the intercom button, “Excuse me, sir. How many others will we be picking up?”
“Just you, miss. And please, call me Joe.”
“Thank you, Joe.”
“Certainly. Help yourself to a glass of champagne. Might ease your nerves a bit,” he laughed. A warm, hearty laugh that instantly made her like him. Maybe I do need a drink if the driver noticed I’m nervous. When they stopped at a traffic light, she reached over and quickly poured herself a glass of the pink, bubbly liquid. It was fruity and refreshing and by the time she finished it, she was surprisingly more relaxed. She poured herself another glass at the next stop. One more glass couldn’t hurt. She was about to pour a third glass but the next time the limo stopped, they were at their destination. Joe got out of the vehicle and opened the door so fast she didn’t have time to prepare herself to exit. The heel of her shoe got caught on her dress and she practically fell into Joe’s arms. He held tightly onto her until she regained her balance. “Maybe you should take it easy on the alcohol tonight, Ms. Young,” he laughed.
“You’re probably right,” she giggled.
She thanked Joe for his help and then started walking down the red carpet that was set out for tonight’s guests. Mr. Wallace pulled out all the stops when hosting his charity events. No expense was spared to make sure that the very generous donors they invited had a night they wouldn’t forget. The grand ballroom of the exclusive Wallace Hotel looked like something out of a fairytale. Huge bouquets of white roses adorned every table. Reams and reams of midnight blue silk were draped across the ceiling, twinkle lights hung just below the fabric, mimicking a night under the stars. Stunning ice sculptures of swans were featured at the huge buffet table. Waiters and waitresses floated gracefully around the room carrying trays of champagne the same color as the champagne she had in the limo. As beautiful as it all was, she couldn’t wait for the night to be over.
She pulled her invitation out of her clutch to see what table she was seated at. Table 15. As she made her way to the table she prayed that she wouldn’t have to spend her evening listening to Violet. The mere thought of the woman sent a tingle down her spine. She was relieved to see that her table was occupied by two other couples and since Violet was divorced and was bringing her daughter as her plus one, she was in the clear. It hadn’t dawned on her before, since she wouldn’t have brought a date anyway, but she was a little miffed that her invitation didn’t include a guest. How rude. Before she had a chance to wallow in her self-pity a pair of strong hands pulled out the chair next to her and a deep voice as smooth as silk invaded her space. “Table 15. Since this is the last seat, I’m going to assume that it’s mine.”
With his mask on the only thing she could see were his amazing deep brown eyes and a smile she was sure melted the hearts of women everywhere. That dimple hiding just beneath his mask looked kissable.
Still feeling a little tipsy from the champagne, she leaned in and whispered, “You didn’t have a plus one either? Sorry you got stuck sitting next to me.”
“I’m not,” he whispered back. She could feel the warmth of his breath against her ear. It sent electric sparks coursing through her. Heat pooled at her center and she felt herself blush. This guy was good. He hadn’t even touched her and she felt like molten lava. She had no idea how on earth he was dateless. Nor how she was the lucky woman sitting next to him. When the band started playing he got up out of his seat, stood behind her chair, and placed his soft, strong hands on her bare shoulders. He leaned in real close. The scent of his cologne made her mouth water. “Would you do me the honor of dancing with me?” he whispered in her ear again. She shuddered. If he kept this up he was going to melt all her defenses. She nodded and he pulled her chair out. She took his extended hand and then he led her to the dance floor.
A couple of years of dance lessons were no match for the ease and grace he exuded on the dance floor. His movements were flawless as he glided her from one end to the other. They left no spot on the floor untouched. For the first time in her life she felt like the beautiful princess who had won the heart of the handsome prince. All the women in the room shot daggers her way. Especially Violet and Tiffany. Surprisingly, the men looked envious too. “I need to keep you close. I don’t like it when other men want what I have.”
“I don’t think you have anything to worry about. I’m nothing special.”
“That’s where you’re wrong, Ms. Young. You are smart, talented, and drop-dead gorgeous. You see all these men? They are wishing it was them holding you in their arms. If looks could kill, I’d be dead right now,” he laughed, the sound vibrating in chest. He was holding her so close, she felt it. It felt good.
“I don’t remember telling you my name,” she said, trying to loosen his grip on her. Suddenly, she felt trapped and a little frightened. Who the hell is this guy?
He pulled her closer, leaning in to whisper in her ear, “I make it a point to know all my employees, Ms. Young.”
Holy shit. I’m dancing with Ethan Wallace.
She looked up into his dark brown eyes. She saw a twinkle there, a fire she didn’t notice before. His lips formed a sexy grin.
“Did you send the limo for me?” she asked, not knowing how she found the strength to speak, “And the invitation, minus a plus one. That was at your request, wasn’t it?”
“Why? Why would you do that? You don’t even know me.”
“Like I said Ms. Young, I make it a point to know all of my employees. When I see something I want, I stop at nothing until I get it. One thing you should know about me, I don’t like sharing. I’ve been watching you. You’re the hardest working employee I have. If Violet thinks for one second that I don’t know that it’s you doing most of the work, then she’s deluding herself. I have big plans for you.” He finished his speech by planting soft little kisses on her neck. It took all her strength not to melt into a puddle right there and even more strength to tell him exactly what she thought of his “big plans.”
“If you think for one minute that I’d sleep my way to the top, then the rumors of you being a crazy recluse must be true,” she said, trying to loosen his hold on her, again.
He laughed. A deep belly laugh.
“Oh, sweetheart, when I get you in my bed, and trust me, I will, it will be because you’re dying to feel me inside you and it will have nothing to do with business. It will be all personal. Unlike some people, I know how to separate my business life and my personal life. Tonight, however, is just a sample of what’s to come. The business part is easy. A no-brainer actually. But when it comes down to you and me, personally, I’m going to take my time and sweep you off your feet. And you’re going to love every second of it.”
She practically choked on the golf-ball sized lump in her throat. She was trying to formulate a response when Violet walked up and tapped her on the shoulder.
“May I cut in? I’m so sorry my assistant has monopolized all your time tonight,” she whispered in Ethan’s ear, only loud enough that Lily could hear too.
Lily was about to step aside when Ethan said, “She hasn’t been monopolizing my time, I’ve been monopolizing hers.”
“You can’t seriously expect me to believe that you willingly spent all night with this…this…”
Ethan’s nostrils flared and his grip on Lily tightened.
“I wasn’t going to do this here, but you really leave me no choice. Violet, you’re fired. I know you’ve been feeding information to Pattenson Enterprises. If you leave quietly, I won’t press charges.”
Never had Lily ever seen Violet at a loss for words. She fought hard to suppress the giggle that was bubbling up in her throat. Violet flung her hair over her shoulders and stormed out of the room.
Ethan took Lily’s hand and led her off the dance floor and out to the balcony. The moonlight danced across his face, making the silver threads in his mask glisten.
“Now, back to those big plans. I wasn’t planning on doing this here, but Violet forced my hand. I had a whole meeting and a proper proposal lined up, but I think you know where this is going.”
Lily shook her head. “Actually, I have no clue. I’m really confused. Do you want to date me or promote me?”
“Oh,” she said, her lips forming a frown.
“What’s wrong? Don’t you want to be vice president?”
“More than anything.”
“Then what’s the…..oh, I see. You want the job, but not the relationship. Am I right?”
“I can understand the promotion. I’ve worked my ass off to get your attention. It’s the dating part that throws me for a loop. I don’t want people to think I slept my way to the top.”
“I do recall saying I wanted to take my time wooing you, right? You can’t deny our chemistry. Please tell me that what I’m feeling here tonight isn’t one-sided.”
“It’s not, but –”
“By the time people know we’re dating, you’ll have proven yourself. They’ll know without a doubt that you are the right person for the job. They will all just assume that we fell in love working so close together. And in case I didn’t mention it, we will be spending a lot of time together. I’m not taking no for an answer. You deserve this promotion, Lily. And you deserve a man who will treat you like the goddess you are. Let me be that man.”
Before she had the chance to respond he leaned in and pressed his mouth lightly against hers. A soft, sweet kiss. His lips felt like velvet. They were warm and soft, causing her legs to turn to jelly. Without warning, his kiss turned more passionate. His tongue flicked against her lips, asking for entrance. She granted his request. He moved his hands up her arms and gripped her firmly behind her neck, exploring her mouth like he was searching for a lost treasure. She closed her eyes, reveling in all the sensations that were wracking her body. She knew there was no way she could turn down his proposition. Forget the fact that she’d worked toward this VP position for the last five years, but now that she had a taste of this man, there was no way she could give him up. Anyone who thought less of her for it, could go to hell.
When he pulled away, she was breathless. Her body ached to feel him against her. She hoped that if she kept her eyes closed, he’d kiss her again. Instead he stood back and watched her. He brushed a strand of hair behind her ear and cupped her face in his hands. Without looking, she could feel the smile on his face. “What do you say?”
She opened her eyes to find him staring at her. Never in her entire life had anyone ever looked at her like he was looking at her now. She liked it. A lot.
“Yes. But I have one condition,” she smiled, a rosy pink color flushing her cheeks.
“Whatever you want, it’s yours.”
“Kiss me again.”