Authors: Lisa Renee Jones
Play with Me
is a work of fiction. Names, places, and incidents either are products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events, locales, or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.
A Loveswept eBook Original
Copyright © 2013 by Lisa Renee Jones
All Rights Reserved.
Published in the United States by Loveswept, an imprint of The Random House Publishing Group, a division of Random House LLC, a Penguin Random House Company, New York.
and colophon are trademarks of Random House LLC.
eBook ISBN 978-0-8041-7839-6
Cover design: Susan Schultz
Cover photograph: © James McLoughlin
To Louise, my fabulous agent, who I’ll gamble with any day of the week
At the sound of my name, I hop to my feet in the center of the Las Vegas temp service. Rushing forward, I stop in front of my interviewer, a forty-something woman in a navy suit not so unlike my own.
“Hi,” I say, sounding as awkward and nervous as I feel about being unemployed for the first time in my life.
My greeting earns me a quick up-and-down inspection that has my already rattled nerves swan-diving off an invisible cliff. She levels a stare at me and asks, “Can I help you?” And her prickly tone says I’ve failed her sixty-second assessment.
“I’m Ms. Miller,” I reply, and try to win her over. “But, please, you can call me Kali.”
Her lips twist and tell me she is clearly not charmed, as I had intended. Instead, she looks down her nose, which is as straight as the long brunette hair neatly tied at her nape, and repeats with formality, “Ms. Miller. I’m Ms. Williams, your job-placement counselor. Come with me.”
“Ms. Williams” charges down a narrow hallway and I chase after her, just as I did for the reporting job at the
that fell through before I ever started to work. She disappears into an office and I follow, swiping at a strand of my long blond hair, which suddenly feels as disheveled as the new life I’ve gambled on.
Ms. Williams settles behind a basic wooden desk and motions me to the burgundy cloth-covered visitor’s chair. Claiming the seat that might as well be labeled
FOR DESPERATE, UNEMPLOYED FOLKS
, I adjust my skirt to rest primly at my knees and watch Ms. Williams study my paperwork for what feels like an excruciatingly long amount of time.
She glances up at me, and the skeptical glint in her eyes—real or created by my insecurity—makes me wish she hadn’t. “Let me get right to the point,” she declares. “You were working as a reporter in college.”
“And for a year at the
,” I quickly add, afraid she’s missed that line on my application. “I only left for a better offer, which was eliminated while I was en route.”
“I was getting there, Ms. Miller,” she reprimands sharply. “My point is that I do not have any reporting jobs. They’re hard to come by. In other words, no one has any reporting jobs. If you can return to Texas and get your job back, you should.”
The whiplash effect of her words has me slumping and then straightening in rebellion. Even though my savings are gone, I will not go back to covering watermelon festivals and, well, other … stuff I’d rather not think about now. Or ever. I’d rather not think about it ever. “I took your administrative tests,” I point out, “and, as you should be able to tell, I have excellent clerical skills. Additionally, I’m highly organized and I’m dedicated to whatever I do. I need work—therefore, I will be timely and productive while on the job.”
“I saw your testing. The question is, will you be reliable if I send you to a job that isn’t a reporting position?” It doesn’t come out as the question it claims to be but more as an accusation.
“My experience in journalism should assure an employer that I’m articulate and know how to censor when necessary. And I want to be an asset. I need a stable career.” Not a dream that can’t pay the bills, no matter how hard it is to let it go.
She purses her lips and stands up. “Give me a moment to look at our job board.”
Yes. Yes. Yes
. She’s going to the job board, whatever that is. I track her departure, twisting in the chair and watching her from over my shoulder, then sinking down when she disappears from sight. Thrumming my nails on the arms of the chair, I anxiously feel every second Ms. Williams is gone. I used my savings to come here and start a new life. I couldn’t leave if I wanted to, which I don’t.
“Okay,” Ms. Williams announces, walking back into the office. “I have a secretarial job opening, but you have to start today.”
I sit up on the edge of the chair. “Now? It’s already two in the afternoon.”
“Now means now. The pay is exceptional and the opportunity amazing. You just happen to be at the right place at the right time. If you do well, I have no doubt you could go full-time. The CEO of the Vantage Hotel and Casino group has fired his assistant. Because he is in a highprofile position and fields a great deal of press, I think you hit the nail on the head in your earlier assessment of your journalism background as being useful. He oversees a three-property operation and is extremely powerful. That will make you extremely powerful if you do well.
He’s leaving town in an hour. He needs you there for a briefing immediately. In or out, Ms. Miller?”
For a moment I am paralyzed by where this is taking me. How far from my dreams, and how close—even at a distance—to a home that is now hell. But stability is not overrated. Not when a girl is alone in a new city. Not even when a girl is near family who feel like strangers.
“How much is the pay?” I ask. Then, holding my breath, I wait for the answer and curse the part of me that wants it to be bad, the part of me that wants an excuse to turn this down and cling to my dreams, to my escape from greed, pain, and powerful people who will stomp on you for no reason other than that they can.
She grabs my application off her desk, studies it for a moment, and then flicks me a look. “Double the salary you made in Texas.”
The promise of stability wins over watermelon festivals and ramen noodles much easier than I’d expected. I stand up. “Where do I go?”
* * *
Thirty minutes later, I’ve parked the rental car and found the lot’s elevator when my cell phone rings. Quickly scooping it from my purse, I answer to hear Ms. Williams demand, “Why are you not there yet?”
Shifting my purse and briefcase on my shoulder, I straighten my navy-blue jacket and reply, “I’m headed into the casino now.”
“Make it snappy. Mr. Ward has to leave. He needs to meet you first.”
“I’m almost there,” I assure her, right before I enter the building and the phone thankfully goes dead. That woman is as rude as they come, but she will be my new best friend if I get this job.
Once inside the building, I walk through rows of clanging slot machines to yet another elevator. Twenty-five floors later, I exit to a lobby that screams of money and luxury, from the fine hardwoods beneath my feet to the gorgeous mahogany desk.
The pretty blond receptionist, who I guess to be twenty-three, or maybe twenty-four like me, stands up. She is strikingly similar to an older version of someone I’d rather forget, and I am angry with myself for how easily the confidence I’ve fought to recover slips away. Suddenly I
am not blond enough, not tiny or pretty enough.
“Kali?” she asks hopefully.
“Yes, I’m Kali.”
“I’m so glad you’re here,” she says, pressing her hand to her chest, and her genuine friendliness begins to ease my tension. She waves me toward a hallway and I follow as she adds, “I’m Dana, and I’m so glad it’s you working for Mr. Ward instead of me. You just shout if you need anything, and I’ll help you.”
“Oh. Thanks. Why didn’t you want to work for him?”
She snorts. “Too good-looking and intense for me.” I barely have time to process that answer when we enter a second lobby, with leather chairs, fancy art on the walls, and a secretarial desk that looks as if six or seven files exploded on top of it.
“Good grief,” I whisper, but before I can ask what happened, Dana motions to the door directly behind the mess. “That’s
office,” she whispers, as if it’s a secret, then rushes forward and grabs the phone in the midst of the piles of papers. “Mr. Ward,” she says into the receiver, “your new secretary has arrived.” A brief pause, then, “I’ll send her right in.”
Dana hangs up and turns to me. “Good luck.”
“I’m supposed to just walk in?”
She gives an uncertain shrug. “Whatever feels right.” She waggles her fingers at me and hightails it in the other direction.
I sigh and walk behind the desk, intending to take the liberty of placing my purse in the drawer of what I assume will be my work space, but I gape at how much worse the mess is from this angle. The papers that have erupted on the desk are scribbled on with a black marker, as if someone was being malicious. And childish.
I study them, and it appears many are financial reports. Reaching for one, I freeze when the door behind me creaks, followed by, “Ms. Miller?”
The deep, richly masculine voice has me whirling around and then freezing: My new boss is an early-thirties, clean-shaven version of Robert Downey, Jr., in a gray pin-striped suit perfect for the role of Tony Stark. And while I’d have sworn the past few years had left me immune to men like this one, the low thrum of awareness pulsing through my body says
otherwise quite loudly.
“Ms. Miller?” he repeats, arching a brow at my silence, and I am appalled to realize I am gaping. At my new boss. Who clearly knows it.
. He now has an upper hand I shouldn’t have allowed. It’s not as if I’m an amateur with corporate wolves. I know how easily they will gobble you up if you let them. And that isn’t going to happen this time.
Straightening my spine, I attempt to reclaim the power I’ve given him and persuade us both that my gaping was in our imaginations. “I’m Ms. Miller, Mr. Ward,” I confirm. “I know you have a flight to catch. What can I do to help?”
The amusement in his unique pale-green eyes says he’s fully aware of the gift I gave him and he’s keeping it. “I need you in my office. We have to cover a few things before I leave.”
“Yes, of course,” I agree quickly, and, expecting him to turn and lead the way, I take a step closer. He doesn’t move. We end up almost toe-to-toe, with me staring at his chest. It’s safer than his eyes, which will see too much. It’s a nice chest. Broad and hard enough to flex beneath his shirt and suit jacket as he reaches for the ringing cell phone in his pocket.
I take a step backward. He turns and faces the other direction and answers the call: “Right. Yes. I’ll be on my way.” Short and sweet, and he ends the connection before facing me again. “Change of plans. You’re riding with me to the airport.” He doesn’t wait for my agreement, but, then, he didn’t really ask a question. He gives me his back and disappears into his office.
I blink after him, trying to process what has happened. Ride with him to the airport? I swallow the cotton forming in my throat. This is going to be him and me in a small space, playing with who gets what power, before I’ve even sat down at my desk.