The Hawaiian conference was the ideal setting to implement Christian's 'just slightly odd' plan. It coincided fortuitously with the peak of Carly's fertility cycle. They could do the deed, protect both their reputations and their jobs, and no one would be the wiser--Carly would have the baby she wanted, and her 'anonymous' donor could remain unknown.
Carly had doubts the plan would work, but she had no inkling just how bizarre a turn her quest for a gene donor could take. She certainly hadn't anticipated that she would end up in the bed of the one man she most definitely didn't want to know about her plans--her boss.
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New Concept Publisher
March 01, 2008
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Excerpt from Fulfillment by Kimberly Zant
I suspected my belly was beginning to look like origami. It tied itself into another knot as I watched Christian 'Chris' Jones weave his way to the bar for yet another drink. He wasn't a drinker, ordinarily, which made it abundantly clear that he was even more disturbed by our plans than I was.
Or maybe not. I was pretty stressed about it myself.
He was my best friend, but we hadn't exactly hit it off when I'd first gone to work for Mueller Enterprises the year before. Chris suffered from what I called optical-rectumitus--he had a shitty outlook on life--worse even than mine. I supposed, once I got to know him better, that he had every reason to. He was gay. Life had been hell for him just because he was 'different'. It didn't help that his life partner, whom he'd been with since college, had just recently dumped him for a younger man.
Oddly enough, it was his jaded view of people in general that had drawn me to him. He was critical of everyone and that just aroused a need in me for his approval. I supposed part of it was because he reminded me of my favorite uncle, the one person in the world I adored more than anyone else. A person had to be exceptional to earn his approval and I wanted to be exceptional.
Chris also had a viper tongue--another similarity to my uncle--and a rapier wit.
He could cut you to pieces without breaking a sweat and I admired that in a man--as long as it wasn't directed at me, which was another reason I desperately wanted his approval. I wanted to stand behind him and watch in admiration while he cut other people to the quick--not me.
Anyway, I did eventually earn his respect and once I had we'd become best friends. He was actually the best friend I'd ever had. I could talk to him about anything--anything--without worrying that he would look down on me. He might not always approve, but he always accepted me for what I was.
It was his willingness to listen that had led me, in a moment of weakness, to confess just how devastated I was that I'd never had children and how frightened I was that I'd missed my chance and never would.
I'd met my husband in college and fallen truly, madly, deeply--So truly, madly, and deeply that I was content for a long time just to worship and follow him around like a hopeful puppy. He didn't want children--not right away. He was ambitious. He wanted to build his career. He wanted to have me all to himself.
He didn't want to have to pay child support when he dumped me.
I don't think I ever tumbled to the fact that I was 'career building love slave' until I found myself staring at the divorce papers. I might not have wised up then except that Todd already had wife number two--younger and better connected--waiting in the wings for the ink to dry on the divorce papers. He threw the usual at me--I'd 'let myself go'. We'd grown apart. I didn't want the same things he did, etc., etc. but the unpalatable truth was that he'd never intended to do anything but use me to pay the bills, cook, clean, and provide sex on demand until something better came along, and he'd known better would just as soon as he had his career on track.
The prick had married a debutante fresh out of college.
She was already pregnant when they got married.
I thought about killing him for a while. I really wasn't a violent person per se, but he brought out the killer instinct in me like no one else. I finally decided, though, that I couldn't just throw my entire life away on the prick. I'd already wasted more time on him than I could afford. Spending the rest of my life in jail, or going to the electric chair, wasn't going to appease my need for revenge.
I had to show him that what he'd thrown away was better than what he'd ended up with.
As motivations went, it wasn't the healthiest I could've come up with, but it was all I could muster at first. I'd 'let myself go' because I was too busy working to support the bastard and slaving for him when I got home to spend time on myself. I ate on the run, and it stayed with me.
Picking my trampled pride up out of the dirt, I dusted it off and focused on 'showing' him. By the time I'd managed to get back in shape and gotten a start on my own career, which I'd neglected trying to support him, I'd managed to put most of my rage and hurt to the back of my mind and go on with my life.
There was one vital part of my goal that seemed out of reach, though. I was in my late twenties by the time Todd dumped me. That didn't give me much time to get on my feet financially--yes, the bastard got half of everything even though I'd actually paid for almost everything we had--find a new husband, and conceive. I tried marathon dating. I allowed anyone that would to try their hand at matchmaking.
None of it worked and I finally realized it was because I had developed a deep hatred and distrust of men in general because of what Todd had done. The right man could've knocked that wariness right out of me and I would've been just as gullible and vulnerable as I had been with Todd, but the right man didn't come along.
I didn't have time for the right man to come along!
Every time I managed to convince myself I'd just take what I could get and get what I really wanted--a baby--I realized I just couldn't stomach marrying someone I didn't care two cents about. I looked at every man that I dated like someone shopping on the sales rack--trying him on for size, but none of them 'fit'--in bed or outside of it. This one was great in the sack--everybody said so because he'd already fucked everybody and was still looking for new territory to conquer. That one was steady and reliable but stunk in the bedroom. This one had a seriously weak chin that I didn't want to pass on to my offspring. That one had a name that would bring torment down on any child we had. This one kissed like a vacuum cleaner and I didn't think I could stand much of that, and on and on.
Deciding I was being too picky, I tried harder, but I finally realized that if I couldn't stand to date them I sure as hell couldn't live with them.
Option number two came to mind--artificial insemination.
That was a bust because I just couldn't afford it.
It was along about the time I reached an all time low--and had a few too many drinks--that I finally wept all over Chris and told him I was never going to be a mother and my life was meaningless.
That was when Chris, who'd also had a few too many drinks, decided to be my very best friend and offered to be my gene donor.
Drunk or not, I immediately saw a LOT of problems with that very kind and sympathetic offer. Next to my uncle, I loved him better than anybody else in the world, but it would be like screwing my sister. Alright, my brother. I didn't love him that way. He snorted his mixed drink through his nose when I pointed out that I didn't think I could get a 'hard on' for him, told me I didn't need to. I could just lay there and 'receive'.
The second problem was that Chris was gay. He wasn't the kind of guy that went both ways. He was strictly gay. He didn't 'do' females.
The third problem was that we worked together and aside from the fact that I didn't want to wreck the best friendship I'd ever had, I also didn't want to have problems with a fellow worker--particularly since Mueller Enterprises was very strict about inner office relationships. Becoming intimate with Chris could, potentially, wreck both of our careers, especially if it got out, and things had a way of doing that in the office.
Contrary to what I'd expected, Chris didn't pretend amnesia about the discussion once he'd sobered up. It seemed, in point of fact, to have planted a seed in his mind that had taken root and grown like wild fire. He reminded me of a movie where two friends, a gay guy and a straight woman, had had a child together. I reminded him that it had not only ruined their friendship, but it turned out that it wasn't the gay guy's baby at all.
He dismissed the small details. That wouldn't happen to us because we wouldn't let it. He actually liked the idea of fathering a child, but he didn't consider himself parent material. He'd continue to be my buddy and be content to let me be the parent all by myself. Changing diapers and wiping snotty noses just weren't his 'thing'.
He got so 'in' to the project, he was following my cycle more closely than I was, had developed his own chart of my peak fertility periods by stuffing a thermometer in my mouth whenever he got the chance.
This was when he'd come up with the wild scheme that was currently driving him to drink and tying my stomach in knots.
'Fate', he decided, was smiling upon us. My peak fertility period coincided with the conference we were both scheduled to attend and that would be the time to shoot for the goal. Everyone, he assured me, would be so busy with their own rendezvous they wouldn't notice us. We could do 'it' away from the office, pretend we were just two strangers scratching an itch, and then go about our business.
We hadn't discussed what we would do if it didn't 'take'.
I wasn't sure what the conference had to do with it, but I'd begun to realize that what appealed to Chris about it was that he could pretend it wasn't me in his bed, and he thought he could go through with it.
I wasn't sure I could. It was all very well to say we could pretend, but once it got down to business, could we really?
The scheme was crazy--and right up Chris' alley.
He'd given me his room number. The two of us had split the additional expense to pay for him to have a room all to himself--a bungalow actually, which was a good bit more expensive than a room in the hotel proper, which was what the company had paid for. We would attend the welcome mixer and then he would leave after an appropriate amount of time and go back to wait for me. I would stay long enough to lull suspicions and then follow.
I'd thought it was an insane plan when Chris hatched it. The more I watched him, the more certain I was that it wasn't going to work.
If nothing else, he was going to be too drunk to perform.
How the hell was I supposed to just 'lay there' and receive when he could hardly walk already?
I glanced distractedly at the woman who'd walked up to me. "I beg your pardon?"
The woman settled in the chair across from me, nudging her chin in the direction of the bar. I glanced that way obediently, discovering in the process that the woman was right--sort of. Nicholas Mueller, my boss, was at the bar, and he was now staring directly at the two of us or, more likely, the woman who'd addressed me. Horror washed through me in a cold wave as it occurred to me that, if the woman had been observing me staring at the bar and thought my interest was focused on my boss, she might not be the only one who'd had that thought.
Nothing good could come of a personal interest in Nick Mueller, as proven by the women who'd been dismissed over the years. He didn't put up with any kind of hanky panky going on in the office, and he wasn't the sort of person who believed in 'do as I say, not as I do'--either that or he just had no interest in his female employees.
Rumor had it--according to my 'source', Jane the receptionist who was also his personal secretary--that 'Nicky' was something of a playboy outside the office. It stood to reason. The guy had a drool factor of ten on a scale of one to ten. He was not only handsome, the fit of his suits made it obvious he was built like a god. He was wealthy, single since his divorce three years earlier, and above and beyond all that, he had a sexy voice, and he was James Bond debonair.
I wasn't blind or dead from the neck down. I'd noticed. I'd been damned careful, though, not to appear to notice because I'd been informed right off that the surest way to leave Mueller Enterprises under a cloud was to make eyes at the boss or even to appear to be flirting.
I thought his standoffishness was probably self-defense, even though most of the women in the office just considered him a prick. His wife had been insanely jealous, though, also according to rumors, and despite his efforts to pacify her by being a total, cold asshole to the women who worked for him, she couldn't be convinced that he wasn't cheating on her and she'd finally divorced him, nearly breaking him--financially, at least. I had no idea how it had affected him emotionally. No one knew him well enough to even guess at that--though they speculated that he was too cold blooded to have been effected by the divorce in that way.
Beyond that, though, his divorce settlement had made it clear he couldn't afford a lawsuit for sexual harassment. It had taken all he could do to hold the business together and build it up again after his ex had walked off with half his assets.
Maybe I'd read him wrong, but that was what I thought anyway.
"What's it like working for him?" the woman asked, obviously taking my silence as a confirmation that I had been staring at my boss.
Thrown for a loop, mostly because of the woman's blatant sexual interest, I blinked rapidly at the question. Before I thought better of it, I followed the direction of the woman's gaze and turned to glance at my boss again, Nicholas Mueller--Mr. Mueller to his employees, Nick or Nicky to the women whose calls filtered through the receptionist at Mueller Enterprises. Almost as if he felt my interest, he looked my way again at just that moment, the easy smile curling his sensual lips slowly dying as our gazes locked across the room.
I felt my face heat, felt my heart skip a beat and then execute a little two-step as it tried to catch up its normal rate. With an effort, I dragged my gaze from his and tried to pretend I'd just glanced toward the elevators. Stalling for time, I cleared my throat, trying to think of an acceptable comment. "Good," I managed finally. "He's very fair, and the benefits at Mueller are better than average. You looking for a new position?"
The woman grinned. "If it's under him, yeah."
I felt my color fluctuate again. I was fairly certain the comment had been deliberately suggestive but couldn't decide whether to respond in kind or pretend I hadn't caught the double meaning. "He is the CEO, now. His father retired last year."
The woman stared at me for a long moment and finally chuckled. "I meant under him," she clarified. "Is he as good in bed as he looks? They so rarely are when they look that good, but one can always dream."
I was abruptly sorry I'd eschewed alcoholic beverages for the duration. Not that I drank very often anyway, but if the circumstances had been different I would've allowed myself at least one to calm my nerves. The conference had a relaxed air about it given the setting--Hawaii--and everyone was working hard to combine vacation with work. Unfortunately, I had a date with destiny--I hoped--and allowing myself even a small drink wasn't an option.
I wasn't offended by the suggestion, but it made me uncomfortable. It wasn't as if I hadn't noticed the boss was drop dead gorgeous, but I liked my job.
On the other hand, plenty of women called the boss about anything but business. He was catnip for the female of the species. And maybe the boss was open to a little flirtation away from the office, business or not? I wasn't about to 'pimp' for him--not that he needed any help--but I also didn't want to say anything that would sound as if I was 'guarding' him. I didn't want comments I'd made that sounded even vaguely personal to get back to him. I smiled with an effort, forced a chuckle that held little amusement. "I wouldn't know personally. He's a stick ...."
I nearly jumped out of my skin when a hand settled on my shoulder--a male hand. My head snapped to the side in a guilty jerk. I eyed the hand on my shoulder and then looked upward to identify the owner of the hand.
Mr. Mueller was standing over me. My mind went blank.
"Stick?" the woman asked, her eyes dancing with suppressed laughter. "Stick in the mud? Somehow, I find that hard to believe."
I could've cheerfully strangled the woman. Obviously, Mueller had realized we were discussing him, although he might have decided that glance I'd exchanged with him was a plea for help--business-wise. "Mr. Mueller!" I exclaimed, trying to hide my acute discomfort. "I was just about to explain to Ms. ... uh ...," I glanced quickly at the woman's name badge, "Chancellor about the services the company offers. She's with Dillon and Sons."
They exchanged greetings. Betty Chancellor made no attempt to hide the fact that she was summing him up, and she didn't have business on her mind at all. The woman grinned. An icy finger of fear sliced through me when I saw her amused expression and it occurred to me that she might tell him what we actually were discussing.
"Actually, I was trying to steer her away from business talk and into a bit of 'girl' talk."
He lifted one dark brow, but although that was generally accompanied by a stony look that could freeze an employee in their tracks and turn them into a blithering idiot, a touch of humor gleamed in the depths of his green eyes and his lips curled faintly. My heart did a little flip flop despite the fact that I knew that look hadn't been intended for me at all.
"Should I leave?"
The woman chuckled. "I hope not. You were the subject under discussion."
I felt my face redden again when he sent me an indecipherable look.
"I was wondering if you were as good in the sack as you looked and she explained that men who look as good as you do rarely are."
I felt my eyes widen with pure horror at that 'artless' comment. Repressed laughter danced in the woman's eyes, but it was impossible to decide whether her teasing was intentionally malicious or not. I thought not. On the other hand, it put me in a difficult position. Mr. Mueller sure as hell didn't encourage that sort of familiarity with employees. Glancing at my boss, I sent him a weak, apologetic smile.
Again, his expression was completely unreadable, but there was a deep note to his voice that sent a shiver along my spine and made warmth blossom in my belly.
The woman laughed. "No, actually, she didn't. I just couldn't resist teasing her. She was struggling so hard to talk shop in spite of my curiosity. I believe she was about to tell me you were a stick in the mud."
This was getting worse and worse. I gritted my teeth and tried to smile. "I was going to say you were a stickler for business--very professional at all times, Mr. Mueller. We don't discuss private matters at work--so I wouldn't know. Or want to ...."
He looked at me again. This time, though, his gaze flickered over me assessingly.
"If you'll excuse me?" I added hurriedly, miserably aware that I was just getting myself in deeper the longer I babbled. "I just remembered something I forgot to tell Chris earlier."
I didn't wait to see how either had taken my abrupt departure. Instead, I hopped up and headed straight for Chris, trying not to appear as if I was fleeing. Chris looked up, saw me bearing down on him, and paled. Gritting my teeth, I continued until I reached him. "Just nod your head, Chris."
He stared at me, but finally nodded. "What's this about?"
"Never mind," I said. "I need a drink."
His brows rose. "I thought you said ...?"
"We're not going to talk about that, though, are we?" I reminded him. Straightening, I turned and headed toward the bar. "I'll have a strawberry daiquiri--Shirley Temple," I said with a sigh when the bartender gave me his attention.
The man seated on the barstool beside me glanced my way. "That takes all the fun out of it," he murmured.
I smiled wryly, but shrugged. "I'm not here on vacation, though," I responded easily.
He glanced at my badge. "Me either. I'm with Trinity."
I focused on paying for my drink, but my heart had given an uncomfortable leap at the name. It was one of the accounts I'd earmarked. I smiled at him easily as I turned with my drink in my hand, resisting the urge to try to get a better look at his name badge. He didn't make any bones about studying mine--although it was debatable whether he was actually looking at my name tag or my boobs. "So--you're here with the trade show, too?" I asked as casually as I could.
He nodded but flicked a hand dismissively. "No shop talk. I'm all talked out after today."
Disappointment filled me, but I kept my smile in place. "I'm not sure I'd know how to carry on a conversation that didn't include that," I said jokingly.
He studied me for a long moment, seemed to search his mind, and finally grinned. "Nice weather," he said.
Caught off guard, I laughed. "Is it? I haven't been outside all day."
He grinned at me. "I got a glimpse from the window."
As disheartening as it was that he wouldn't allow me to lead him into a discussion that might end in me landing a much coveted new account, it was a relief that it wasn't too much of a struggle to keep a light, friendly conversation going. The tricky part was steering clear of anything too personal.
He was obviously interested in me sexually. I could see that in the way he looked at me, but he was intelligent, and not drunk enough to be blatant. It was just as well. He wasn't a particularly attractive man--not too hard on the eyes, but nothing to give me even a slightly accelerated heartbeat. Even if he had been, I wasn't interested.
The lighter skin on his ring finger might mean he was recently divorced, and it might mean he'd just decided to be single for the conference.
I had an agenda that wasn't strictly business, but it wasn't getting laid--not per se anyway--and I sure as hell wasn't interested in using sex to land a new account, no matter how sexy the account was.
The conversation actually soothed my nerves a bit--and I needed it--keeping my mind occupied enough that I was able to beat back the issue that had been preying on me.
I'd thought it was a bad idea to start with--Chris was the one who'd suggested it--and now it seemed painfully obvious he was having problems dealing with it.
Maybe I should just forget it?
Reluctance settled in the pit of my stomach the moment I thought about it.
The sad truth was that I was teetering on the brink of being too old to safely try to have a baby or I wouldn't have considered the plan to begin with. I adored Chris, strictly as friend, but I was desperate or I wouldn't have entertained the idea for a moment. Now that I had, now that we'd made all the plans, I was so fixated on the possibility of having a baby I was reluctant to give up the idea for any reason.
Jittery nerves were to be expected, on both sides. Chris hadn't said he just couldn't go through with it, and I was by damned going to give it a shot!
* * * *
Nick was annoyed. He wasn't in the mood to pinpoint why he was annoyed when he certainly shouldn't have been, but he was definitely aware of a knot of conflicting emotions in the pit of his belly as he surreptitiously watched Carly Nelson with the CEO from Trinity.
He was certain of one thing. He didn't like the way Bill Trinity was looking her over as if she was a choice piece of steak.
The thought made it hard to dismiss the fact that at least part of his resentment was the sense that the man was poaching on his preserves. Carly Nelson not only wasn't 'his', though, she was an employee, and he made it a policy to steer clear of involvement with anyone around the office for a lot of damned good reasons.
Obviously, he thought wryly, he'd already imbibed more than he should have and his judgment was impaired. It wasn't as if he'd never noticed Carly. He had tried hard not to, but it took an effort--a constant effort--to keep his mind on business whenever she was around.
It had piqued him, he realized, that she'd shot up from her chair and took off almost the moment he'd settled--almost as much as the comments had irritated him.
There was something wrong with being professional? He was a prick because he behaved himself around the office instead of chasing every 'skirt' in his employ?
Not that his ex-wife had believed he knew how to keep his dick in his pants. If she had, she wouldn't be his ex now.
Betty Chancelor 'accidentally' stroked her leg along his, dragging his attention back to her.
He allowed a half smile to curl his lips, wondering whether it was her that had made the comment about his supposed prowess in bed--or rather lack of it--or Carly. He didn't know what irritated him more--the implication that he was too conceited about his appearance to spare the time to please his partner, or the fact that the comment made him feel defensive when he knew damned well he had no reason to be ... because he thought it might be Carly's opinion of him, he realized, and that was what really bothered the hell out of him. He didn't particularly give a damn what Betty Chancelor believed.
"So ...," Betty said conversationally. "Want to fool around?"
A jolt of surprise went through Nicholas even though she'd been pretty blatant about her interest. No mixed signals here, he thought wryly. "Is that a trick question?" he asked, sparing for wind while trying to think how to respond.
She chuckled. It was a pleasant sound, husky. She wasn't a bad looking woman.
He didn't know why he wasn't particularly interested aside from the fact that he wasn't really thrilled about women who took the initiative, especially when they didn't bother with any of the niceties, like flirtation, first. Maybe he was old fashioned, but he liked the game.
On the other hand, she was from Dillon and Sons and he had no clue of her position in the company.
She blushed faintly, enough to tell him she wasn't ordinarily quite as forward. Maybe the drink she was nursing had given her a little false courage?
"I take it that's a no?"
"I didn't say that," he drawled.
"You didn't say you were interested either," she said, obviously piqued, although she made a of show of pretending to pout, as if she didn't care one way or the other.
He studied her through narrowed eyes. "Maybe I'm just not used to women being so frank."
She settled back in her seat, studying him in turn. "I think you are. You just don't like it when a woman foils your hunt."
He grinned. "Perceptive."
She shrugged. "We're only going to be here a few days. I figured, what the hell? It isn't like there's time for a lot of beating around the bush when I already know what I want."
Nicolas held his smile with an effort. "And what, exactly, is it that you want?"
She took a healthy draught of her drink. "A good fuck. You game for a little bareback riding? I got the old tubes tied."
Warning bells were ringing in Nicholas' head, but part of his uneasiness was the possibility that if he slighted her he was liable to have problems with landing the Dillon and Sons account. Another part was the uneasy feeling that she might be more closely connected to Dillion or sons than her name implied and he could be looking at worse than losing the chance at the account.
That was the problem with women hanging on to their maiden name. A man never knew when he was fooling around with dynamite. He frowned at his own drink, idly turning the glass on the table top. "That depends on what's at stake," he said finally. "I'm a little old to enjoy the 'excitement' of diving out windows at the discovery of a husband, or boyfriend, beating at the door just when things are getting interesting."
She stared at him a long moment and began laughing. "There's an image."
Annoyance flickered through him when she didn't bother to respond to the question he'd so tactfully asked. "Is there a husband or boyfriend in the picture?" he asked bluntly.
She met his gaze, smiling in a way that made him distinctly uneasy. "Nope."
God! He hated women that could look a man in the eyes and lie, and he had a bad feeling she was one of those women.
He felt his gut tighten--and not with pleasurable expectation. "So ... your place or mine?"
She relaxed fractionally. "Are you in the main hotel? Or in one of the bungalows?"
"I guess it's your place then."
That didn't make him feel a hell of a lot better. It had definite vibes of she didn't want to get caught. It could just be a matter of discretion, despite her 'straight for the jugular' approach, but it could also mean serious trouble. He glanced as casually around the room as possible, trying to discover if there was a man somewhere in the room studying him with death in his eyes. He didn't see one, but that didn't mean there wasn't a Mr. Betty somewhere around ... maybe waiting upstairs in the room she didn't want to take him to.
He pushed away from the table and got up. "Shall we, then?"
She smiled up at him. "I'd just as soon not be the main menu of the office gossip when we get home. Why don't I follow you?"
He felt his uneasiness increase. "Good thought. I'll see you in a little, then."
She nodded. "What number?"
"Fifty two," he threw over his shoulder, turning and heading toward the doors that led out of the hotel to the beach path.
It wasn't until he was halfway to his bungalow that it suddenly dawned on him that he'd given her the wrong bungalow number. He'd traded with Christian Jones after they'd arrived and discovered that the bungalow he'd been assigned was further back from the beach than he liked.
He paused, considered going back, and finally dismissed it. Chris could set her straight--or not. He thought he'd be just as happy if she discovered he'd sent her to the wrong bungalow and was too pissed off about it to meet him.