Wrapped Up with You by Claire Marti
Rafael Cruz strode down the bright white hallway toward his boss’s office, brainstorming about the critical evening ahead. His boss had booked an entire table at the Jingle Ball at Rancho Valencia, one of the fanciest resorts in North San Diego County. Not only was the firm’s contribution helping benefit the Testicular Cancer Awareness Foundation, but tonight, Rafael had the opportunity to land not one, but two new clients for Trident Wealth Consultants.
His lips curved up––nothing like combining a good cause with his ambition. He’d played an instrumental role in convincing two of the firm’s major clients, the Harmons and Blakes, to invite their ultra-wealthy friends who were considering a new wealth management team. After all, he’d been managing their fortunes for a few years now and they were thrilled with his performance. Next year when MacDonald retired, he’d be first in line to run the business.
After a triumphant night, he had an excellent weekend planned to meet a few buddies to surf Torrey Pines in the morning plus a date with the hot little brunette he’d met in line at his favorite lunch spot yesterday. Life was pretty damn perfect.
His ebullient mood burst when he saw her lurking in front of MacDonald’s closed office door. Ever since Ms. Phoebe Hollingsworth––seriously, could she have a more British Lady of the Manor name?––had started working at his firm three months ago, she’d rubbed him the wrong way. With her conservative straight-laced dresses, severe bun, and glasses, she looked like she belonged in the stacks of an ancient university, not in a Southern California wealth management firm. Did the woman even notice the office’s floor-to-ceiling windows showcasing the pristine blue sky or did she keep her nose buried in work 24/7?
Hadn’t someone given her the memo that she lived in the land of sunshine, surfers, and casual wealth?
Since Ms. Ice Queen hadn’t noticed him yet, he raked his gaze from the top of her burnished golden-red updo, down the severe lines of her white-collared gray sheath dress, along with––whoa. How had he never noticed her mile-long legs before? Fire-engine red pumps with pointed toes, a sexy low side cut, and skinny high heels showcased defined calves. Had she always worn killer shoes like that? Totally not the low-heeled sensible shoes he’d expected to match her prim nun’s outfit.
Most of the time, he found that the second she started speaking, her cool, pompous voice grated on him, and he’d simply tune her out. He didn’t have time to be spoken down to––his focus in the office was on business. But, damn, those shoes instantly created the vision of her digging them into his back as he wrapped those long legs around his waist. His sucked in a breath and the back of his neck heated.
Where the hell had that image come from? He shook his head. No way in hell was this snooty woman usurping his role at Trident. Even though she was new to the company, she’d brought in enough big clients and was showing impressive enough returns to have turned the heads of everyone, especially his boss’. It was clear she was his main competition for the promotion.
Her head lifted. “What are you doing here?” Unusual silver-gray eyes froze him from behind her dark-framed glasses.
He gritted his teeth. “If you haven’t noticed, Ms. Hollingsworth, I work here.” He just couldn’t seem to call her by her first name, which was weird.
She rolled her eyes. “Don’t worry, everybody notices you, Mr. Cruz. I meant what are you doing here at Mr. MacDonald’s office? I’ve got a meeting with him in…” She flicked a glance at the sensible stainless-steel watch on her narrow wrist, “thirty seconds. So why don’t you flit off and come back later?”
Rafe counted to three before responding. Oh yes, this was why he’d never noticed her legs, much less her shoes. Because she couldn’t seem to speak to him without dripping condescension. Sarcasm was one of his own favorite forms of communication, but this woman elevated snark to a whole other level.
“Alright, Bitter Betty Table for One, dial it back. I’m meeting with MacDonald now. You must be confused.” He congratulated himself on his even, almost charming tone.
Her lips parted and her eyes narrowed. “Confused? I––”
The enormous door whipped open and they both jolted. “I thought I heard voices. Rafe, Phoebe, excellent, you’re both here. Come on in and have a seat. We don’t have much time.” Their boss strode back to his massive, sleek modern desk and sat.
They exchanged glances, both of their expressions now impassive as they followed him to sit in the matching charcoal gray armchairs facing the desk. Rafe refused to allow his boss to see his annoyance and, apparently, she was an expert at appearing unruffled.
“Is there an emergency? Something you need me to handle before this evening?” Rafe asked. Saving the day was one of his top talents and, again, no way was Ms. Phoebe Hollingsworth stealing the show with her measured tones and cool controlled demeanor.
Out of his peripheral vision, he caught her full, pink lips compressing into a tight line before she spoke. “What can I do to help?” He had never noticed how full her lower lip was before. Probably because she usually looked like she was sucking on a lemon.
MacDonald rested his chin on his steepled fingers, and his piercing blue eyes studied them. “I need both of you to step up tonight. I can’t attend the event after all, so you two will be representing the firm and courting the potential new clients. We need to review the research we’ve completed on the prospects and then I need to know I can count on you to close the deal tonight.”
* * *
Phoebe’s fingerscurled around the edges of her tablet and her pulse kicked up a notch. Her boss wanted her and Mr. Perfect to attend the Ball together and work as a united team? How in the world would she be able to endure hours of looking at his thick, shiny, dark hair that always fell just so across his broad forehead or his perfect square jaw with a hint of cleft in his strong chin or those damn thick, dark eyelashes framing penetrating whiskey brown eyes? And that was before he spoke in that smooth husky baritone.
Not that she’d spent time studying him or anything, but he was just so in your face with his tall, leanly muscled frame stalking all over the office like a panther. At 5’10 herself, she often was eye to eye with the mostly male members of her profession, but even in her favorite heels, he still seemed to loom over her. Not that he ever noticed her presence. His ability to ignore her, even when she was leading meetings, wasn’t exactly subtle.
On her first day of work, his gaze had skimmed over her dismissively, like she was a new computer or a damn lamppost. She’d been nervous that day––not about the career opportunity, which she relished––but worried he might recognize her. Nope, it was if he had zero recollection of meeting her at Harvard and probably hadn’t bothered to look at her credentials to learn they’d attended the same graduate business program. Kind of humiliating when she’d crushed on him from afar at school, observed him dating every other pretty, smart girl on campus, and even now he remained oblivious to her.
Not that she’d wanted to be noticed by the player who not only scored all the top grades and honors, but scored with every woman at whom he flashed that wicked grin. Granted, work was always her number one priority. She’d fought hard to earn the scholarships to undergrad and graduate school.
And now, of all the boutique wealth management firms in Southern California, she’d ended up in the same company. It was bad enough having to work in the same four-thousand-square-foot office and see him once a week for meetings. And Mr. Perfect seemed to always be flirting or laughing or schmoozing someone. He hadn’t changed a bit over the last few years. Still strutting around like he owned the place with women falling at his feet.
She didn’t have time for players or hell, even nice guys. No, until she’d achieved her goals, men could wait. Not like she didn’t date here and there, but when guys realized she worked an average of seventy hours a week, they disappeared. They might claim they wanted a woman with her own life, but when confronted with her job and her weekend tennis matches, there just wasn’t much time for romance.
How “Mr. 40 Under 40 Eligible Bachelor” managed to earn his reputation as one of the best wealth managers in the country and still have a different woman on his arm every week was a mystery. Jerk.
“Of course.” Phoebe flipped open her tablet. “I’ve got their files right here. I’m confident I’ll be able to connect with them, especially the Samuels, since they’re both also Southerners and University of Virginia alumni.”
“You’re from the South?” Rafael asked, doubt in his deep baritone.
She glanced at him. “Yes.” Not that anyone would ever hear the slight twang she’d ruthlessly trained out of her voice once she’d left Tennessee.
“That’s excellent, Phoebe. I knew that would be a great commonality. I know how you Wahoos are about school pride. And Rafe, I’m sure you know that the Levines are avid surfers and take surf vacations around the world. Both couples have fortunes comparable to our current clients and I think they are both excellent fits for our style and strategies.”
Rafe nodded and started to speak, but Cliff held up one deeply tanned hand.
Their boss stared between them again, his gray brows drawn together over a hawk-like nose. “I’m apprehensive about not joining you this evening, however, and need some reassurance from both of you.”
Phoebe’s brows rose and she couldn’t help but notice Rafe’s dark brows winged up too. What kind of concern could he possibly have? Although she thought Mr. Perfect was a pompous ass, he had an excellent track record at work. She might dislike his demeanor, but she couldn’t deny his success. And his work ethic couldn’t be as superficial as his personal life if he’d earned his MBA with honors. Just like she had.
“Look, I’ll be frank. You two are the smartest advisors I’ve had the pleasure to work with in my career. That’s why I hired you both. And next year, when and if I do decide to retire and play golf every day, one of you may be taking the helm of the firm. But.” He shook a finger at them.
Phoebe preened under his praise, easily ignoring the part about him. “But?” She’d never found an objection she couldn’t turn around and certainly wouldn’t start doing so now. Not when the dangling carrot of managing a firm was close enough that she could take a bite of it. She’d sacrificed her personal life to establish her impeccable reputation in the male-dominated industry and relocated to California for the opportunity to run Trident one day.
“Look, you two are professionals and I have the utmost faith in your work. But it hasn’t escaped my notice that you don’t get along.”
Rafe chuckled. “Cliff, that’s not true. I just don’t see Ms.—I mean Phoebe, around very often. We’re both just really busy. Right, Phoebe?” He turned to her, his eyes gleaming.
Phoebe shrugged a shoulder and forced her lips to curve upward. “Rafael’s right. There’s no issue.” Her toes strained to cross in her pumps at the blatant lie. Sometimes honesty was not the best policy. She couldn’t afford for her boss to question her professionalism.
Clifford J. MacDonald raised his eyebrows. “Look, I’ve noticed the tension between you and the staff mentioned some type of scuffle in the kitchen? If there is a problem, let’s clear it up right now. We can’t afford to have a hint of dissension in front of these clients tonight.”
A pit formed in Phoebe’s belly. Crap, someone had not only heard their rude little exchange in the kitchen last month, but reported back to their boss. Over the years, she’d crafted her conservative, proficient image and nothing ruffled her. Nothing. Except for this man next to her who was now a threat to her career?
And he’d been the one who started it when he’d made a snide comment about her brewing tea. Something about teatime with the Queen or some such nonsense. Of course she’d retorted about his habit of frothing all the milk for his fancy cappuccinos. But that wasn’t such a big deal, was it? With clients present she’d be able to refrain from responding to his childish comments. But how embarrassing to be called out about it. All Mr. Perfect’s fault. She hadn’t gotten this far in a cutthroat industry to be held back now because of him.
“Cliff, really, there is no problem and both Ms. Hol––I mean Phoebe––”
Clifford threw up his hands. “That right there is not acceptable. What is going on with you not calling her by her first name? Did you two date at Harvard or something? What’s the deal?”
Rafe turned to look at her, his dark brows up to his hairline. “Harvard? You went to Harvard?”
At this rate, her tablet would disintegrate in her hands she was clutching it so tight. Too bad it wasn’t his neck. “Yes, I graduated a year behind you. You must not keep up with the alumni network.” Jerk.
Cliff shook his head. “Okay, not Harvard. Look, you two actually have a lot in common. One thing that attracted me to both of you was that you’d both gone to school on academic scholarships. Your work ethics are impeccable. I don’t have a clue why you seem to dislike each other and frankly, I don’t give a damn. I care about this firm and these clients. So, you will figure out this situation. You will be charming, professional, and show how Trident has advisors who work together as a team. Got it?”
Rafael had also been on scholarship?Phoebe nodded, her heart now galloping in her chest. “Of course, Cliff, we’ll be a united front and I’m confident the prospects will come on board. Right, Rafael?” She shifted in her seat and smiled congenially at Mr. Perfect. Good thing their boss couldn’t see her eyes boring into him. If she were Medusa, he’d be stone.
“Of course, Phoebe.” Rafe emphasized her first name with a wicked grin. “In fact, why don’t we meet a little early at The Pony Room. It’s the bar at Rancho Valencia upstairs from The Terrace Ballroom where the Jingle Ball is being held. We can have a drink and get to know each other a little better. See how much we have in common.”
Extra time together? Just the two of them? Heat flared in Phoebe’s belly. His smooth voice evoked images of raw, passionate sex. Long-fingered hands and sensual lips capturing her own. And time to squash that little fantasy until it disappeared.
“That’s a great plan, Rafael.” She looked up at Mr. MacDonald. “Trust me, sir, tonight will go off without a hitch and the clients will believe we’re not just colleagues but friends.”
Clifford studied them and his lips twitched. “Don’t let me down. And enjoy yourselves. It’s my favorite charity event of the holiday season, maybe even the year.”
When it was clear they were dismissed, Phoebe rose from the chair and prayed her face didn’t give her away. “I’ll report back tomorrow.”
He shook his head. “Tomorrow is Saturday and I’m leaving town for the holiday. The office is closed until the Monday after New Years. We can discuss it then.”
Rafe stood and they crossed to the door together. Her skin tingled from their proximity and his masculine scent, coffee and a hint of the ocean, teased her. Keep walking, girl, and act like nothing is wrong.
When Rafael closed the door behind them, both their professional masks disappeared.
“I can’t believe we got reprimanded because of your childish comments about me drinking tea in the afternoon. Way to go, Cruz.” Phoebe whispered.
“Oh please, Phoebe,” he drew out the syllables into a faux British accent, “Look, I can act professional. Maybe if you weren’t so damn snotty all the time, I wouldn’t have made a joke.”
She gasped. “Me? Are you kidding me? You with your––”
He grasped her arm and led her away from their boss’s office. “Keep your voice down, for god’s sake. I’m not going to let your attitude screw up my promotion next year. So, this is how it’s going to be. You’ll meet me at 5 p.m. sharp at The Pony Room. Take a cab. I’ve got the limo coming to take us home after the Ball. We will interview each other––favorite color, school stories, family stories––we will be the best of friends for the clients tonight. Got it?” He spoke through a clenched jaw.
Phoebe shook off his grip and squared her shoulders. “Got it. Just make sure you’ll be able to keep your focus on the table tonight. No hooking up with random chicks.” Ha, take that.
A small tic appeared in his lean cheek. “Were you saving that up all day? I’ll see you later. Try to look festive and not like you’re headed to a convent.” His gaze raked down her length and with that he turned on his heel and strode down the hall.
Phoebe’s fingers curled into fists. Oh, a convent, huh? Was Mr. Perfect in for a bombshell tonight.