Home > Right Where I Want You(12)

Right Where I Want You(12)
Jessica Hawkins

I twirled my empty shot glass, trying to seem disinterested. It wasn’t that I wanted Justin to tell me more about Sebastian’s personal life, but I did have to work with the man. I needed to know if I should keep a straightjacket sized “big and tall” on hand, or if Sebastian was just throwing a hissy fit. “When you say issues . . .? I’m just asking in case I need to be concerned for my safety,” I teased.

“Normal stuff. We all got ’em.” Justin shrugged. “What’re yours?”

I raised my eyebrows at him. “Now who’s the job therapist?”

“The more I know, the more I can smooth the way for you and Sebastian. And, you know, whip you each into shape. Or you can whip each other—no judgment.”

“Justin,” I scolded.

He showed me his palms. “Sebbly’s been pretty grumpy since the exposé came out, but I haven’t seen him this worked up in a while.”

“Sebbly?”

“Tip number one—don’t call him that. I have all kinds of nicknames for him, mostly to use behind his back. He’s anti-nicknames in general, thinks they’re juvenile.”

“What else do you call him?”

“I’ll ease you in with Sebbly—a.k.a. Silly Seb. I also call him Hump Day Hottie on Wednesdays since he was dumb enough to use that in a piece once, or when he’s in a mood, he’s Se-beast-ian. I think he secretly likes that one.”

Justin was the definition of a class clown, but it seemed as if he was also a great friend. “How did you feel about the exposé?”

“It sucked. Made us sound like a bunch of assholes.”

“You guys can come off as assholes,” I pointed out.

“That’s the whole idea. Not to look like assholes, but to project an image men want to emulate—cars, parties, women. It doesn’t mean we’re actually these people. For Seb, it started in college. Networking came in many forms, and for a guy like him, it was crucial to his success. He’s mild compared to the bros that went to colleges like ours. It’s a wonder we turned out so well.”

A guy like him? I was familiar. Luciano often called Neal a slimy salesman, but even before he’d sold insurance, he could get a “yes” out of almost anyone. In Sebastian’s world, it sounded as if networking meant schmoozing, and sure—that was a necessary evil for getting ahead if that was important to Sebastian. It wasn’t what you knew but who, and all that. “You went to Harvard also?”

“Penn State,” Justin said. “But it was the same idea. Without a tough outer shell, you got squished by others on their way up.”

As the article had said, from Cambridge to New York City, the world was Sebastian’s playground—and women likely let him off the hook for everything. I hadn’t necessarily pegged Sebastian as the silver-spoon type, but Justin described behavior stereotypical of a wealthy, attractive, Ivy League-educated man. They’d never had to work very hard for anything, and that explained why Sebastian hated having me around to monitor him.

“I’m not here to step on anyone’s toes,” I explained. Now that I had more facts, I could use them to stay in Justin’s good graces—and hopefully work my way into Sebastian’s. “I like to have fun at work. We can goof around as long as we meet our goals—goals we set together.”

“The atmosphere around there is important to Sebastian. He protects his team fiercely, sometimes at the jeopardy of his own job.”

Sebastian was one of the more passionate businesspeople I’d worked with. Would he actually risk his position for his team, or did a privileged life simply make him feel he was invincible? Either way, it explained why my presence frustrated him so much. Conviction, fear, or both—they were powerful motivators. “He has been at Modern Man a long time,” I reasoned.

“His whole career,” Justin agreed. “It was his first internship out of college. The magazine was going under when he took it over.”

That much I knew from my research, but the fact that Justin wasn’t making a joke of it only emphasized that this was more than a job for Sebastian. In a way, as dramatic as it sounded, it was his life’s work. He wouldn’t let me take over without a fight.

“It must suck coming into a workplace where nobody wants you around,” Justin said. “I get that you’re here tonight to be one of the guys, and I think it was the right choice.”

My smile faded. Was I that obvious? Being a consultant could be a lonely job. My teams always came with an expiration date. It was my responsibility to come in, make them function better, then release them into the wild while I watched from the sidelines. I preferred it when they liked me, which was why I worked so hard to fit in, but it didn’t always play out that way. Being “one of the guys” would make life easier, but it was proving to be as difficult to achieve as I’d anticipated.

“Keller doesn’t have a drink,” Garth yelled from Sebastian’s end of the bar.

All eyes turned to me—even Sebastian’s all-knowing green ones.

The owner, Santino as he’d been introduced to me, nodded. “What’ll it be, guapa?”

On the spot, with everyone waiting, I couldn’t think of a single drink, not one. More tequila? Could I order a Guinness, or would that be an insult to Mexican beer? What was a good Mexican beer again? Oh, God. What was wrong with me? All week, I’d not only had the attention of the whole staff—I’d commanded it. Why couldn’t I speak now? Or think? That was the problem—I was overthinking it and making things worse. All I heard was Luciano in my head, telling me to choose something flirty.

“Lemon drop,” I blurted.

“What the hell’s a lemon drop?” Albert asked.

“It’s a fucking lemon drop,” Sebastian said from his post. “Is this your first time out in public with a woman?”

Albert scowled. “Go to hell.”

Ugh. I could not have chosen a more feminine drink. On a scale of one to girly, I was currently Barbie in a dream house waiting for Ken to pick me up in a convertible. I didn’t even like lemon drops—Luciano did. I’d been raised in a Guinness-drinking household, my dad a typical Irishman and my mom an Italian spitfire. I just hoped my parents never found out about the order.

“Good choice. I make a mean lemon drop,” Santino said, getting to work. “It’s lethal. None of these guys could handle it.”

I smiled. The rest of the men ordered bottles of Corona and Pacifico, Mexican beers I’d forgotten despite ordering them myself countless times. There wasn’t a Guinness in the bunch and that gave me some comfort. I could certainly take on a gang of non-Guinness drinkers easier than the alternative.

Santino served me a frosty yellow martini glass, and I immediately took a sip. For a lemon drop, it wasn’t half bad, only mildly sweet. As the team debated whether Sebastian should get a globe for his office—pros: it looked distinguished; cons: globes were huge and who needed one when there was Google Maps?—it was the crack of a baseball bat that made me look up. I’d almost forgotten about tonight’s Yankees game. The Mariners’ center fielder caught a fly ball for the Yankees’ first out.

“Oh, come on,” I said.

“This season could go either way,” said a man in a suit sitting alone at one end of the bar. “Which means we need these guys on their game.”

“I know, right?” I agreed, slapping the bar. My dad had texted me the same thing hours earlier.

Sebastian turned to look at the guy, then at me. “Easy, slugger,” he said.

Slugger? I’d moved right out of Barbie’s dream house and into The Sandlot. I didn’t know which was worse. “Sorry. We—my family—take it personally when the Yankees aren’t playing well.”

I expected Sebastian to go back to justifying his future globe purchase, something I suspected he wanted so he could spin it really fast and see where his finger landed, but he sat on the stool next to me so we were eye level. “That’s the second time you’ve apologized in twenty minutes and also the second time you’ve done it all day.”

I stopped myself from apologizing again. He was catching on to my act, and that was a problem. Why would he respect someone who apologized for existing?

I squared my shoulders, forcing myself to hold eye contact. “It’s called being polite. Maybe you could try it sometime.”

“I give what I receive. Kindness for kindness.” He set his elbow on the bar and circled the pad of his thumb around the rim of his Pacifico. “You scratch my back, I scratch yours.”

“That’s not what that means,” I said.

“You lift me, I lift you.” He leaned in. “You go down, I go down—and I reciprocate in spades.”

Goosebumps rose over my skin. I knew he’d meant that last one as a threat, but the hint of gravel in his voice, his sizeable hand fondling his beer, and the slight curve at the corner of his mouth sent my thoughts right to the gutter. Neal had hated going down. Sebastian’s almost drunken expression read as if he was having the same thought I was, and he didn’t hate it at all. I liked the look on his face and the attention he paid me.

A lot.

“I can’t tell what you’re thinking,” he said. “You haven’t been this quiet since the morning at the café, when I was trying to . . .” His dimples appeared with a sly smile. “Well, before everything changed.”

I wished I could say I hadn’t thought of that morning since, but I had—frequently. Sometimes fondly at the memory of his flirting. I licked citrus from the underside of my upper lip. “What’s the fun if you know what I’m thinking?”

He got even closer. “Good point.”

And then, while reliving the moments “before everything changed,” I remembered how weak-kneed I’d gotten just from one short conversation, and how dropping my guard around my smooth-talking ex had gotten me into this situation—having to become someone else to get through one happy hour.

I pulled back right as Justin appeared next to us. “Oh, man,” he said, slapping Sebastian on the back. “She’s working you so hard right now.”

Sebastian frowned. “What?”

“You’re practically falling off your seat. You said she had no game, and now she’s spitting it all over you.”

“Ah, that’s right,” Sebastian said, lighting up as he turned back to me. “I almost forgot about the challenge.”

“It wasn’t a challenge,” I said. “Vance simply wanted to get me out with you guys. There was no challenge.”

“To ‘show us a thing or two’—I think that was how he put it,” Sebastian said. “Teach us some game and put your theories to the test.”

“I never claimed to have game,” I said, trying to quell the panic rising in my chest. “You were the one bragging about it, so why don’t you show us what you’ve got?”

“Happily,” Sebastian said.

“We’ve seen him in action enough times,” Justin said, winking at me. “How about this? Whoever displays the most game by the end of the night wins.”

“Wins? But—” I started to protest, but it was too late. The guys had caught wind and were chiming in their agreement.

Sebastian studied me until he said, “I’ll take that bet.”

“The objective is too vague,” I said. “You can’t measure game.”

“We can,” Justin said. “We make a living of it. We’ll be the judges.”

Judges? A bet? All I’d wanted to do in the meeting was demonstrate how the editors of Modern Man could improve, not that I could do their jobs better. Most of the guys looked on with excitement, and how would it look if I tried to back out?

Like I was scared.

By the slight smile on Sebastian’s face, I thought maybe he could sense that. He wanted me to back down, either so I’d embarrass myself, or so he could retain his “best game in the office” title. Probably both. As I debated the most convincing way to fake a stomachache, the lone Yankees fan at the end of the bar cried out, “Hell, yeah,” his eyes glued to the TV as he began clapping.

I darted my eyes to the screen. We were still behind but had finally scored. “Look,” I said, turning to show Boris, but he wasn’t there. My eyes landed on the guy down the bar as he took a slug of Corona. Despite a loosened tie and slight bags under his eyes, he was nice-looking with a round, inviting face and an abundance of black hair.

Cute but not the kind of attractive that turned my throat and mouth to cotton.

At least he got points for his choice of team.

Most importantly, he wasn’t sporting a wedding ring.

My strategy clicked into place, and I had to dive in head first before I lost my nerve. I shouldered off my blazer and passed it to Sebastian. “Hold this for me?”

He dropped his eyes to my leopard-print blouse and said, “Anytime.”

“Thanks.” I picked up my lemon drop and walked by him. The crowd parted as I followed the curve of the bar, passing empty stools until I found one next to the Yankee. “Hi,” I said, placing my drink on the bar. I nodded at a bowl of nuts. “Do you mind?”

“Have at it,” he said.

I picked up a few cashews, happy for something to do with my hands. “I’m Georgina.”

He wiped his hand on his trousers and held it out. “François.”

“Oh.” I chewed on the nuts and shook his hand. “Are you French?”

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