Red Vines

Susan X Meagher


Laila Harris looked up and made a valiant attempt to force her expression into a facsimile of a smile. Pete Hoeffs, the sales manager she had to appease, was heading for her desk. She’d been working on his project for four months, and hadn’t had a single productive meeting with him. He was the dunce who’d bought the balky, tough to scale program they were trying to install, but all eyes would be on her if it didn’t work—on deadline.

“Hi, Pete.” It was five o’clock on a Thursday, and most of the sales guys were packing up. She’d be there for hours, as usual, resigned to the fact that the extra hours she worked rewarded her with a much smaller check. Why was it that sales made so damn much more money, when all they did was make promises the rest of the company had to fulfill? “Need something?”

“Yeah.” He was a big, burly guy, a lineman in college, who’d gone to fat. You could still see the outline of his muscular self, but it was well padded now, with a roll of pink skin squeezing out and over his buttoned shirt collar. “I need you to join us at O’Reilly’s tonight. You keep promising, but you never show.”

Good lord almighty. She knew she was a fish out of water, but hanging out at a bar with the guys wasn’t going to fix that. As the only black woman on her floor, and, near as she could tell, the only lesbian on the whole campus, Laila was sure her little fish tail was going to be flopping on dry land for the length of her confinement.

She was exactly one hundred and fifty miles north of her home, but it seemed so much farther. Her boss, a VP at the head office, had convinced her to take on this project, promising it would take her a year at most. But four months in had yielded so little progress she could see herself locked in for three times as long. That was a truly horrifying prospect.

“I’ve got to work on that status report,” she said, telling the God’s honest truth. “You know…the one you want on your desk by eight?” She was fairly sure he’d never opened a single update. Just for fun, she was going to do the whole thing in Dingbats one day and see if he commented.

He sat on the edge of her desk, his girth making the metal beg for mercy, then his meaty hand gripped her shoulder. “Come on, Laila. I’ll go easy on you. The report can slide until nine o’clock.”

He was never even in at nine o’clock, but if she started to complain about every indignity she’d suffered at the hands of this fool she’d have to stay up late to get it all in.

“I don’t have a car, Pete.” Also the truth. Well, she had one, but she didn’t drive it to work. The company had a shuttle service that took people from the city out to their rural campus. It didn’t run often enough, but it was nice not to have to worry about hitting a stray cow when she left, bleary-eyed, at nine o’clock.

“I’ll drive you over. Come on,” he said, leaning closer. “You’ve got no excuses.” 

That wasn’t a threat. He didn’t have that kind of power over her. But it wasn’t a good idea to refuse all invitations to socialize with the guys. She stood out enough without also being standoffish. “All right. Let’s go have fun.” She rose and reached for her jacket. Sometimes a voluntary retreat was the best tactic. Let him have his way tonight and he might cut her a break tomorrow. Sure he would!


There were five of them at O’Reilly’s. She and Pete and his two direct reports, Jeff Schuh and Rick Schmidt, along with a junior guy who never spoke at the endless meetings she was forced to conduct.

O’Reilly’s was a down-at-the-heels, old school bar. The kind that used to populate the downtown streets of her hometown. She could still recall having just started her job, passing small, dark places with a few sad looking men sitting on bar stools at nine in the morning. They’d seemed unaccountably tragic to her callow eyes. O’Reilly’s wasn’t quite that bad, at least not after work, when people from the campus filled it. But it still had the aura of defeat that had seeped into the walls over the years.

Laila liked a nice glass of wine, but she went along with the crowd and gagged down some of the pitcher of light beer Pete ordered. Make that two pitchers, the first one running on empty after five minutes.

Jeff and Rick were young, probably in their early thirties. They were each working on acquiring beer bellies, but Pete was well ahead of both of them. The youngster, whose name she learned was Chad Braun, was still slim and muscular. That probably wouldn’t last long, given how the sales crew partied.

By six, the guys had eaten all of the bar snacks they could get their hands on, including the peanuts they’d made Chad scrounge up from other tables.

Their server, a bedraggled-looking woman whose hair stood up in the back, undoubtedly from trying to yank fistfuls of it out, made eye contact with Pete. “You need more food?”

“Yeah, Irene. Can you hook us up? Another pitcher, too,” he added, lifting the empty.

Laila prayed they tipped well, but she had a feeling her prayers would go unanswered.

A minute later, Irene plopped down more of the “beer,” along with a beer glass that held five pretzel rods. Laila noted the number because she watched Pete take four and put them right in front of himself, daring his staff to try to pry one from his meaty hands.

Chad tentatively put his hand out, but Rick and Jeff dove for the remaining rod, laughing as they fought—gently—so as not to break the prize.

Pete yanked it away and held it up. “Eat off!” he yelled. “A hundred to the winner.”

Her instinct was to keep her mouth shut, but Laila’s natural curiosity took over. “Eat off?”

Pete’s eyes were dancing with glee. “These two bozos start gnawing at the same time. The guy who pulls away first is the loser.” He laughed, the sound more taunting than merry. “Of course, they’re both losers, so you’re gonna have to be the judge. Who’s the biggest loser,” he said, guffawing at his cleverness.

“No way,” she said, scooting her chair back to get some geographical distance. “I’m…not impartial. Jeff and I both went to U of I.”

Pete looked at her like she had a mental defect, but let it go. His head jerked up when Tracy, the new compliance director, walked up to the table. “You made it!” he said, beaming at her. “Guys,” he said, making Jeff and Rick stop glaring at each other. “This is Tracy. She fixed that security breach I had with my email today.”

Tracy smiled at each of them. “That’s not my usual job,” she said, a playful warning tone coloring her voice. “We were worried this was a sophisticated attack, so I got involved.”

“Was it an attack?” Laila asked, having not heard a word about a security problem.

“Nope.” Tracy raised an eyebrow at Pete, but he didn’t comment. “It was a user driven issue.” That probably meant Pete had tried to download dirty pictures from an email. He seemed like the kind of guy “phishing” scams had been designed for.

Tracy shook hands with the other guys, then extended her hand to Laila as she took the chair next to her. “Tracy Alsteen,” she said. “I’ve seen you flying by, but I don’t think we’ve met.”

“No, we haven’t.” Laila didn’t add that she’d wanted to introduce herself, but had been too swamped.

Tracy was a fine-looking woman, with just enough of an androgynous flair to potentially be a lesbian. But Laila’s gaydar was so far off up here she was afraid to make an overture unless she saw women actually tongue-dueling—and by then she’d missed her chance.

“Grab a beer and sit back to watch the show,” Pete said, pushing a plastic cup over to Tracy.

“Show?” She turned her head to face Laila, puzzlement vivid in her dark, surprisingly sexy eyes. If Laila had gotten a better look the few times she’d caught sight of Tracy, she would have made time to introduce herself.

“For reasons I can’t imagine, Rich and Jeff are having an ‘eat off,’” she said. “They’re going to eat that pretzel, starting at opposite ends. Whoever gives up first loses.”

Tracy’s pretty dark eyebrows knit. “The point is…”

“They’re playing chicken,” Pete said as he held the rod horizontally, equidistant between the two men. “Go!”

They started off slowly, obviously having played, or watched the game before. It was so stupid. Two grown men acting like they were in junior high. Pete was slamming his beefy fist on the table, his roll of pink neck fat turning darker, sweat pinpricking all over the skin. He was enjoying this way too much.

Laila looked around to see lots of other people watching enthusiastically. She vaguely recognized some of the faces, not odd given this was the only bar within a mile of their campus. Her eyes shifted back to the contest, but Tracy’s pointed gaze stopped her. An eyebrow went up, then she inclined her head towards the combatants. Nice! She clearly wanted to make sure these two idiots were doing this voluntarily.

Laila leaned over and smelled the refreshing scent of a woman. That was a welcome aroma, desperately missed during her four months of exile. “HQ believes Pete brings in big, big bucks. He can do whatever he wants,” she whispered. Maybe she could think of other secrets to tell, just to be close to Tracy’s body for a while. “Cross him at your peril.”

The crowd was into it now, with guys from other tables shouting out encouragement. Pete was nearly frothing at the mouth, yelling out, “Eat! Eat! Eat!” as he pounded his fist on the jiggling table.

It looked like Rick might win, but he spat the nubbin out at the last minute, a second before his lips would have touched Jeff’s.

Pete was on him like a lion. “Pussy!” he yelled, banging the table harder. “Pus-sy! Pus-sy! Pus-sy!”

“I’d rather be a straight pussy than a fa…” He shut his mouth as if someone had given him an uppercut. His gaze went to Laila, his cheeks turning pink with embarrassment. “There’s nothing wrong with being gay. I’m just…not,” he said, dots of flop sweat breaking out on his forehead. “Not for a hundred bucks!”

“It’s all right,” she said, very used to not taking offense at remarkably obnoxious comments. “I’m not the spokesperson for the gay community.” She was going to leave it there, but decided to push it a little. “I’m too busy coming up with the list of what black people really want.”

Deadly silence reigned for what seemed like a long time. Then Tracy started to laugh. Not an “I’d better laugh to cover up how embarrassed I am,” one either. This was a real laugh. A good, old-fashioned, throw your head back and let it all out kind of laugh.

That gave everyone else permission to do the same, cutting the tension to ribbons. Pete slapped Laila hard on the back as he wedged his body between the chairs to get to the bar. “I’m getting more pretzels. You and Tracy are up.”

“I’m in for a hundred,” Rick said, reaching for his wallet.

Jeff slapped his hand down. “Count me in on that!”

Pete deposited a glass full of rods on the table. His eyes were tiny pinpricks, full of fiendish pleasure. “This is worth three bills for me.” He grasped a pretzel and held it in front of Laila’s eyes. “Five hundred bucks, ladies, to eat a delicious pretzel. I know how much you girls make. Five large would make a difference.”

Laila wanted to school him in the jargon. A thousand bucks was a large. But she was too nervous, and too embarrassed to speak. A quick look at Tracy showed she was just as tongue-tied, which gave Laila some guts. “You don’t know what goes on in IT,” she said. “I made rent in a craps game the other day.”

Her teasing sent some brashness Tracy’s way. She took the pretzel from Pete, put the rod right up to her lips and opened them as if she was going to take it in. Laila, and all of the men, noted she was mimicking a blow job, and each of them thought that was a fine idea. Laila wasn’t invested in Tracy giving a blow job, of course, but a woman who’d tease like that was probably a heck of a lot of fun.

Dark eyes shifted to lock on Laila’s, then the rod was in Tracy’s mouth, tilting up and down like a teeter-totter. An equally dark eyebrow lifted, blatantly daring her to play.

But she couldn’t. Once you started that kind of thing, you were a laughingstock. Guys could get away with getting blown in the elevator of a conference hotel, but if a woman was caught even kissing a co-worker— she was a whore. She desperately wanted to play, to gobble down that pretzel to get to Tracy’s sensuous lips, but she would not do it in public. No way.

“I’d love the five small,” she said, winking at Pete, “but you jokers would never keep your mouths shut about it.”

mpliance, you know. They’re wild.”

“Yes we would!” Pete yelped, his beady little eyes now bulging. “I can keep a secret. I’ve never told anyone about Mindy in accounting passing out at the Christmas party with Rick’s dick in her mou…” He trailed off, obviously realizing he was cutting against his own argument.

“I think you’re chicken,” Tracy said, starting to cluck. She put her hands into her armpits, and waggled her arms. “Cluck, cluck, cluck!”

“I am,” Laila said, admitting defeat. “I’m a big, huge chicken. Always have been, aways will be.”

“Come on,” Pete begged. “Tracy’s up for it.”

“Tracy’s clearly braver than I am. She’s in compliance, he looked at his watch, seeming like a kid’s toy on his massive wrist. “The old ball and chain will kick my butt if I miss my kid’s hockey game,” he said, getting to his feet.

“I’m on homework duty,” Jeff agreed.

Rick gave a helpless shrug. “My youngest has a ballet recital.”

“Pussy,” Pete stage-whispered. He met Laila’s eyes. “Let’s go.”

She did the calculation, figuring he’d had at least four beers. He could probably hold that much, but she truly wasn’t a risk-taker. “I’m good. See you tomorrow. Thanks for almost giving me five hundred bucks.”

“My money was on Tracy,” he said, giving her a look the old ball and chain would not have liked.

“I’m all talk, no action,” Tracy said, also not moving toward the door.

The three of them left without a word to Chad, who’d barely opened his mouth the entire time. “Would you guys like a ride back to work? I only had one beer.” He held up his cup, still half full.

“Love one,” Laila said. “I wasn’t looking forward to walking down that two-lane blacktop in the cold—but I would have.”

“I’m in,” Tracy said. “I took a cab over here, but it’ll take forever to have one come get me.”

He got up and they all walked to his small car. “Do you both live in the city?” he asked as they buckled themselves in.

“I do,” Laila said at the same time Tracy stated that she did too.

“Williamson Street,” Laila said as she turned to meet Tracy’s eyes.

“I don’t know where that is. I’m on Few, a block from the shuttle stop.”

“We’re probably only a mile from each other, but you’re closer to the good shuttle route. Mine’s a quarter mile from my place, but I love my neighborhood. I’ve got a great coffee spot where I can load up in the morning while I wait.”

In just a few minutes, Chad pulled up alongside the shuttle stop, and they silently watched the red lights as the 7:30 indifferently rolled away. “How long will you have to wait?” Chad asked.

“A half hour,” Tracy said. “It doesn’t run often after six.”

“I could wait…” he offered.

“No, we’re fine,” Laila said, hoisting herself from his small sedan. “Right?” she asked as she took Tracy’s hand and helped her out.

“I’ve spent many a night sitting here waiting. It’s not bad—unless it’s ten below and pelting ice.”

“Thanks a lot, Chad,” Laila said. “See you tomorrow.”

He nodded, then drove away, leaving them to a fairly stilted silence. They didn’t know each other well enough to be able to launch into work chit-chat, and Laila was still a little unsure about what Tracy’s taunting meant. Probably nothing, but…

“I wonder why we haven’t run into each other?” Tracy said. “I’ve been looking for you.”

“You have?”

Tracy zipped her long down coat up to her chin, flipped the big hood up to cover her head, and sat on one of the pleasingly comfortable seats, a questioning look on her face. “Uh-huh. I heard you were only here temporarily, so I thought we might have things in common.”

“Oh, right,” Laila nodded. “I bet we do.” She sat down, leaving an empty seat between them. That seemed polite, given that there were five seats under the all-weather cover. “If you’re like me, you can’t wait to leave. This is a nice town, but…”

“If you’re a big city girl, this is not for you.”

“I am such a city girl,” Laila said. “My grandfather came up north during World War Two, and every one of his five kids are still there. I’ve got my parents, two brothers, four aunts, for uncles, and eleven cousins, all within a half hour of my apartment. I miss them.”

“I bet you do. My family isn’t as large, but I got a lot of ‘no’ votes when I took a poll on whether or not I should take this job.”

“Where do you live?”

“Bucktown. You?”

“South Loop. In one of those new townhouse developments. I’m close to my family, but not too close. Know what I mean?”

“I do.” She smiled, with tiny lines forming near the corners of her eyes. Laila loved women with laugh lines. There was nothing more attractive in a woman than a sense of humor. “The company promised me I’d come back as a VP if I can make some progress getting compliance in shape.”

“I think you’ve got your work cut out for you—at least that’s what I hear.” Laila shrugged. “I wasn’t promised a promotion, but I had to come up here to even have a chance at one.” She rolled her eyes. “Don’t corporations suck?”

“Usually,” Tracy agreed. “But my mom’s a postal worker and things aren’t any better when you’ve got a government job.”

“My dad was a postal worker! He’s retired now, but…” She couldn’t wipe the smile off her face. “Small world, huh?”

“Tiny.” Tracy leaned a little closer, with her voice getting quieter. “I hope you get to go home, but not before I do. Is that horribly selfish?”

“A little,” Laila said, “but I feel the same. How often do you visit?”

Tracy laughed again, those cute lines by her eyes crinkling up. “I haven’t been back yet. I’ve only been up here for two weeks.”

“I could never have held out two weeks!” Laila said, laughing at herself. “I went home every weekend for the first month. Now I’m down to every other one. Hey,” she said, feeling her mood bump up a notch, “we could drive down together. I’d love someone to talk to.”

“You’re on. Let me know when you’re going.”

“Saturday,” she said, smiling. “Is that too soon?”

“I can make it. God knows I don’t have any plans.”

“I’ll pick you up. I like to leave early on Saturday morning. Is that good?”

“Sure.” She took out a case and extracted a business card. “I’ll write down my address.” After scribbling a few words on the card, she handed it to Laila. “I’m looking forward to it.”

“Me too.” She checked her watch. Twenty five minutes until Tracy’s shuttle. Thirty for hers. “If I don’t get a bite to eat I’m going to cry. I missed lunch—again.”

Tracy put her hand back into her bag and removed a red licorice whip, then stuck one end into her mouth. “I didn’t snag any pretzels, but if you’re really hungry…”

Laila’s friends called her a hound, for her ability to approach a woman and flirt like the dickens. But she had nothing on Tracy. Those dark, smoky eyes were locked on her, daring her to take a bite.

Laila grabbed her bag and shifted it to an empty seat, then settled herself right next to Tracy. “I’m starved,” she said, trying to make her voice as sexy as it got.

In fact, she hated red licorice, but she would have eaten half of a snake to meet those lips. It was crazy, but meeting someone in her same circumstance—away from home and all of the things that centered her, made Laila feel like they were in some exotic vacation location. The kind of place where you could do something a little wild and just chalk it up to vacation fever.

Laila’s body started to tingle at the thought of kissing Tracy’s sexy lips. There was no way she was going to drop out of this game. They started off, each delicately taking a bite, then chewing. They approached it exactly the same way; with patient manners, unlike the guys, who’d looked like starving wolves eating a rabbit on the verge of spoilage. Determination and revulsion in equal measure.

Despite the overly sweet candy, there was not a single part of this experience that Laila didn’t dig. She’d found another lesbian on campus, and they were going to be kissing in about four inches. Tracy’s sexy smile never faltered as she nibbled away, stopping to swallow, but never letting the candy leave her lips.

It didn’t take long, even at their leisurely pace, to get close to the middle. Laila could feel Tracy’s hot breath, and the warmth of her body as they drew near. Their breasts were the first things to touch. Nice, even through down. Then they paused, simultaneously, as Tracy delicately flipped the last bit into her mouth. “I win,” she whispered, the moisture from her sweet breath settling on Laila’s lips. Lips that were instantly famished.

When Tracy swallowed, Laila couldn’t tell how much of the fluttering skin on her neck was nerves. She hoped part of it was. Women who were one hundred percent bold were too much for her. She preferred a woman who made bold choices, but had to force herself to take the leap.

Right before their lips met, she caught a glimpse of Tracy’s eyes. They were wide, with her pupils dilated. That was the look of a woman who wasn’t sure this was going to go her way—that hesitancy reassuring Laila in an instant.

Then their lips met, warm and soft and pliable. Laila breathed in, taking in Tracy’s scent, clean and fresh, with an undertone of something spicy. Maybe clove or nutmeg. Something edible. Something lickable.

A gloved hand settled on her shoulder, then Tracy put a bit of pressure there, holding her still in the most tender way. Really nice.

Returning the favor, Laila slid her hand down Tracy’s side, then tugged her closer, so their breasts pressed together.

A soft sigh left Tracy’s mouth, then she tilted her head and increased the pressure, really getting into it.

Laila struggled to keep up, thrown off stride by a woman as assertive as she usually was. But she focused and let Tracy lead, desperate to see where she’d take them.

That hand moved, reaching the small of her back. Then she felt her body being pulled forward, both of them having to swing their knees out to the side to get closer. Well worth the effort. Their thighs pressed into one another as Laila opened her mouth and welcomed Tracy’s slick tongue inside. Fantastic.

Their tongues entwined, sliding against each other as their breathing grew ragged. Thank god there were no lights inside the shelter. Everyone knew she was gay, but knowing it and seeing it were two different things.

Tracy didn’t show the slightest hesitancy, making Laila take risks she normally wouldn’t have. Right now she would have whipped off her coat if Tracy had told her to, reckless abandon taking over.

That tongue was driving her mad. You could tell so much about a woman’s lovemaking by the way she used her tongue. Laila was sure Tracy was going to be a knockout in bed. She was focused and determined but never too aggressive. She acted like she’d done this often, and knew exactly how she wanted the evening to go.

Laila wasn’t so sure. They were at a bus stop! At work! And Tracy’s bus was going to be there in ten minutes.

A soft suede glove cupped her cheek. Then Tracy’s dark eyes peered into hers. Her chin tilted and her voice was quiet when she asked, “You didn’t do that just for the candy, did you?”

Her expression was so serious, Laila blinked in confusion for a second. Then Tracy started to laugh, letting out another hearty one. “I’m kidding, Laila. I’m just checking to see if this is your normal thing.”

“My thing…?” Her arousal was making her brain misfire.

“I like lesbians and bisexual women. I’m not so much into being an experiment. So if you’re straight…”

“I wasn’t straight in my crib,” Laila said, chuckling.

“Fantastic,” Tracy purred, while sliding her arms around Laila again. But she stopped quickly. “You’re single, right? Like totally single? Not ‘single because my girlfriend can’t see me right now’ single?”

“Totally single. You?”

“Totally single, and totally ready not to be.”

As Laila’s arms wrapped around Tracy once again, the damn shuttle rumbled down the drive, arriving early. It was never early! They broke apart, with Tracy’s mesmerizing gaze locked onto Laila’s lips. “This is the day he had to show up early? Really?”

Laila could feel some of her driving need start to bleed away. With the bright light of the shuttle bus washing out Tracy’s features, the magic vanished.

With a sigh, she gathered her bag and stood, taking a moment to adjust her clothing. As she settled her coat, she gave Laila a regretful look. “I’ve never wanted to go home less.”

“See you Saturday?” she managed, desperately tempted to beg her to wait and ride home with her.

“You sure will.” With a sweet, winsome smile, she stepped onto the bus, sat down and held her hand up against the window, where the warmth of her hand made an impression on the frosty glass.

Laila waved, her heart thrumming in her chest. It wasn’t too late. She could jump on the bus and hope Tracy didn’t throw her off. As that thought percolated, the door slid shut and the bus came to life, rolling down the drive until it disappeared around the corner.

Damn! Why hadn’t she been more decisive?

Her own bus lumbered up to the stop and she got on, her high now crashed. They’d been so close—but Tracy hadn’t even hinted at having Laila go home with her. Maybe she wasn’t as into the whole thing as she’d seemed—which was the worst possible thought to end an otherwise fantastic evening.


Laila dragged herself into work the next morning, her normal grim determination for her project absent. All she could think of was Tracy—and why she’d blithely gotten on that bus.

As she approached her desk, she dropped her briefcase, noticing a card with her name written on it. Her heart racing like she’d won the lottery, she pulled the card from the envelope. Inside was a hand drawn picture of the back of a bus, with a stick figure peering out the window bearing a sad face.


This is how I felt on that damn bus last night. I didn’t have time to tell you that my niece has been staying with me while checking out the college. I didn’t want her to blab to my whole family about my having a guest over—and she would have! After only sharing some red licorice, it’s presumptuous of me to ask you out for Valentine’s Day, but…are you free tonight?


The drawing nearly made Laila cry, mostly because of its ineptitude. It took a confident woman to share a drawing a three-year-old could have whipped out. The floor vibrated and Laila looked up to see Pete heading right for her. She looked up and smiled. “Good morning.”

“Hey,” he said, sitting on the corner of the desk and leaning close. “About last night. Are we cool?”


“You’re not going to complain to HR are you? I only suggested you and Tracy eat that pretzel. You didn’t feel forced or anything, did you?”

Laila had the feeling Pete was often compelled to apologize for his actions. In an ideal world, guys like him wouldn’t have the nerve to give into their base instincts. But it wasn’t an ideal world, and she truly hadn’t felt coerced. In fact, she was damned glad it had happened. She’d never let him know that, of course.

“I didn’t feel forced,” she said. She stood and put her arm around his shoulders, barely able to reach all the way across his broad back. “But a younger woman, or one more junior very well might have. You don’t want HQ, or even worse, the old ball and chain to find out about those little games, do you?”

His laugh was surprisingly nervous. Like the sound a small boy would make. “She wouldn’t like it,” he admitted.

“She’d like it even less if you lost your job because of an embarrassing lawsuit, wouldn’t she?”

“It would suck,” he said, nodding robotically.

“Think about these words before you have another contest. ‘What would happen if my wife found out?’ Words to live by,” she said, giving him a hard slap.

“Right. Right.” He was nodding, with his forehead furrowed, like he needed to write this down to make sure he didn’t forget. “Thanks, Laila. Thanks for not busting my chops.”

“Someone will,” she warned. “But it won’t be me. I just want to get my project finished on time. Why don’t we stop beating around the bush and get going?”

He stood tall and looked her in the eye, something he rarely did. “You’ve got a deal. I guess we’ve been blocking—a little.”

“A lot,” she said, giving him another slap, this one near his kidney. “Let’s start to actually work together. My success will benefit you more than it will me. Right?”

“I guess you’re right. Got that status report ready?”

“I do. Let’s go over it in person. Then I can make sure you don’t throw it in the trash.”

“Busted,” he said, looking down while letting his eyes shift upward, like a schoolboy trying to charm his teacher.

Movement from behind Pete caught her eye. Tracy. Looking good enough to eat. She met her gaze, gave her a thumbs up and started to guide Pete across the floor to his office. It was going to be a fantastic day. If she rushed, she’d have time to go to the store and pick up some chocolate before she headed over to Tracy’s. And a bottle of wine. Make that two bottles of wine, a red and a white, just to cover all the bases.

So immersed in her thoughts she wasn’t listening to Pete prattle on, Laila idly looked around at her co-workers. They weren’t such a bad bunch. And the town really was kinda charming. Not to mention more manageable than her hometown. If she had someone to explore some of the restaurants she’d noticed… A satisfied smile covered her face as they reached Pete’s desk. He looked at her for a second, sat down and dropped his hands onto his desk. “I know I’ve been slowing things down. Let’s make some progress.”

She shrugged while opening her notebook. “I want to do this right. We’ll take as much time as we need.” Looking up, she saw the puzzled expression on his face. “I like to move fast, but I also like to lay a good foundation.” She grinned to herself, thinking of ways to do just that with Tracy—the Valentine’s Day gift she couldn’t wait to unwrap.

The End

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