They've moved the conference call to two o'clock this afternoon," Kevin said as Russ came in.
"Did they give a reason?"
Kevin shrugged. "They said they weren't ready, and one of the VPs had a family emergency and wasn't in yet."
Russ sighed and headed for his glass-walled office. The floor-to-ceiling windows looked out on the ship canal that joined Elliot Bay to Lake Union and Lake Washington. Programmers on the other side of the building had views of the side streets of the Fremont neighborhood of Seattle, a once-funky area that was quickly becoming trendy. The yearly solstice parade with its naked bicyclists still pedaled on, but the neighborhood didn't have the comfortable eccentricity it had before the overpriced clothing boutiques and upscale coffee shops and bistros had moved in.
He often felt like the same thing was happening to himself and the company he and his brother, James, had started together. Once freewheeling and creative, they had struggled to stay in the software race and build a company of their own, where they would be no one's employee. They'd started an online used bookstore and developed software to inventory and link used bookstores across the country. The bookstore had failed, but the software they created for it had been the genesis of TrackingTech, the company that now specialized in software for inventory tracking and distribution.
Their struggle had brought them to where Russ was now: primary shareholder and chief executive officer of a profitable company that was set to make an exponential leap in growth. Innovative programming was left to others, while Russ evolved into a businessman courting the favor of pharmaceutical companies, discount retailers, and grocery stores.
He and his brother had been as successful as they'd ever wished-and then nine months ago James had been killed at the age of thirty-eight. A drunk driver crossing the center line of traffic had hit James's car head-on. Russ, his sister, Pamela, their parents and their extended family, and James's legions of friends had had their hearts ripped out.
Pamela had reacted by becoming overprotective of her one remaining sibling. Thus her hiring of Emma for him, even though he didn't need a housekeeper. He'd only agreed because he understood how badly Pam needed to take care of him-as if having a spotless kitchen and ironed sheets could keep him from meeting an untimely end.
For Russ, the zest had gone out of life. He pursued business with automated determination, knowing that it couldn't fill the space left by James and yet not knowing what else to do. There were long afternoons when he stared out the office window at the boats passing through the canal and felt a longing for the early days with James, when he and his brother had both been naked solstice bike riders, if only metaphorically. The days when there had been nothing between them and a crash to the asphalt, but they knew they could rely on each other. There had been the sweet rush of cool freedom against their skin and a sense of endless possibility in the road ahead.
Now the future was blank, its shapes and possibilities lost or unknown. It was the undrawn portion of the map where the monsters lurked, and he had lost his navigator.
Kevin popped his head in the open doorway. "Hey, can I have your housekeeper's phone number?"
"You want someone to clean your house?"
"I want to ask her out." Kevin entered the office. "Do you think she'd say yes? She implied I'm not a bad catch."
"I don't want you dating my housekeeper." It was a knee-jerk reaction, something inside him rejecting the notion of Kevin laying his hands on Emma Mayson.
Russ tried to think of a rational reason. "She's going to be going through my private stuff," he said, making it up as he went along. "It's not as if she signed a confidentiality agreement."
"You're afraid she'll spill secrets about you? Like what, that you leave towels on the bathroom floor? You don't have any secrets. Come on, give me her number."
"I'd rather you didn't get involved with her."
Kevin stared at him, and then his eyes widened. "Oh ho ho! You want her yourself1."
Russ scowled. "No, I don't."
"I don't blame you: she's hot. And bubbly. Who'd pass up hot and bubbly?"
"She's not a meat pie. And / would pass her up. Did you see that car of hers?" Russ said, trying to scare Kevin off. "Are you sure you could handle a woman who drove a car built for street racing? She's probably got bigger balls than either of us. Not exactly the take-home-to-Mama type."
A flicker of doubt passed over Kevin's face. "She seemed nice."
"She probably has a boyfriend in prison and three kids at home."
Kevin stared at him; then his natural ebullience resurfaced. "Yeah, right! Just give me her number and I'll ask her."
"Kevin. She's my employee, and she must be ten years younger than either of us. Leave her alone."
"I wouldn't mind playing sugar daddy."
Russ laughed. "I can't quite see you in that role."
"I can be a jerk if I try hard enough. And I'm sick of losing women to assholes."
Well, hell, Kevin would have better luck if he stopped getting involved with women recovering from breakups with assholes. They used his kind-hearted friend for sympathy and confidence-building; then when they felt strong again they went back to the jerks.
Maybe someone as seemingly normal as Emma would be good for Kevin, despite Russ's gut rejection of the idea. "I wouldn't feel right giving out Emma's number without her permission. I'll ask her if I can give it to you. How's that?"
"As good as I'll get, apparently. You'll ask her today?"
Russ raised an exasperated brow. "Don't push me."
"Just didn't want you waiting until next year. The sooner you do it, the sooner I'll stop asking you about it."
"Tell me again why I keep you working for me."
"Because I'm the only one not afraid of your sour temper."
"Get out of here," Russ said without heat.
" ''Emma, my lovely Emma …' " Kevin sang as he left the room.
His sour temper. Russ grimaced. Was that how people saw him now, as a grouch?
Was that what Emma Mayson had seen? He mentally reviewed their tour through the house, remembering how brusquely he had answered her small-talk remarks. She'd been lobbing him conversational softballs and he'd swatted them to the ground one after the other until she gave up. She'd probably thought him a grumpy tight-ass, instead of what he really was: a geeky guy who'd never learned to relax around an attractive woman.
Emma Mayson was young and beautiful and socially at ease, and completely out of his range. She probably went to nightclubs and… and… whatever people her age and type did with their free time. He'd never moved in socially active crowds. Social activists, yes. But no dance-till-dawn club hoppers. Emma and he probably didn't have a thing in common.
He pulled her business card out of his wallet, absently running his finger up and down the edge. He could call her right now and pass on Kevin's request.
The imaginary conversation flowed through his head. Him, awkward and embarrassed to be playing high school go-between. Her, uncomfortable being put on the spot, forced to decide whether or not to reject a man she'd met for only a moment, and not sure if her decision would impact her job at Russ's house.
He tossed the card on his desk; he couldn't think about it now.
He spun around to stare out the windows. Instead of passing motorboats, however, it was Emma Mayson he saw, pulling the sheets off his bed and examining them for signs of "activities."
Yikes! Appeasing his sister was one thing. Beautiful young women washing his underwear was another. He had to put an end to it right now.
He reached for the phone and quickly dialed Emma's cell number, hoping she'd pick up before he could think twice, since the second thoughts were already creeping in- Pamela's disappointed face gazing sad-eyed at him. On the fifth ring, Emma's breathless voice answered.
"Emma? This is Russ Carrick."
"Oh, hi! I was wondering who it could be. The caller ID said 'TrackingTech.'"
"Yes, that's my company."
"What do you track? Stolen cars? Wild animals with radio collars?"
"Nothing so exciting. We design software for tracking inventory."
Oh, she'd said. Oh, how boring. "You'd be surprised how big an industry it is. Everything from apples to the chemicals used in producing drugs has to be tracked by companies."
"Oh!" she said again, and he could hear her effort to sound fascinated.
He pressed the heel of his hand against his forehead, shutting his eyes against the embarrassment of trying to impress her with inventory software. "Yes, well, the reason I'm calling-"
"You're taking me up on my offer to cook for you?" she said, hope and excitement in her voice.
"No, I uh…" Christ, firing someone was always so hard.
"Oh." A world of disappointment in that one sound. She didn't say anything more, the soft crackling of the cell connection filling the space between them.
Ah, dammit. She probably needed this job. He sighed.
"Yes?" she said timidly.
He rubbed his face. It wouldn't kill him to let her clean his bathroom for a month or two-he'd just be sure to clean it himself, first, so there wasn't anything embarrassing for her to find. "I'm, er… calling about Kevin, the man you met at my house. The one with the Jaguar."
He smiled. Who knew that one vowel sound could convey so many different things? "This is awkward. He asked for your phone number."
There was a short silence, and then she said warily, "I'm assuming by your tone that he didn't want it in order to hire me."
"How about I give you his number, and you can call or not as you please? There's no need for you to give me any sort of answer."
"No, let's not do that," she said.
Conflicting emotions tumbled through his chest. Glee that she would not be dating Kevin, and embarrassment and a twinge of pain on Kevin's behalf.
Her tone turned brisk. "If he wants to ask me out, he should do it himself. None of this junior high 'he said, she said' nonsense, and I'm certainly not going to call him for a date. Go ahead and give him my number."
A shot of disappointment went through him, along with envy that Kevin had had the nerve to make an overture toward her. Russ would never have guessed that she would find Kevin attractive; that he would be her type. "So you're going to say yes?"
She was quiet for a long moment. "I don't know. What would you do?"
"If Kevin asked me out?"
She laughed. "You know the guy. Is he a good person? Does he treat people well?"
"I've no doubt he'll make an excellent husband. For the right woman," he qualified.
"No telling whether that's me, though, is there? But I'm not looking for a husband at this point in my life," she went on. "Is he looking for a wife?"
"I'd have to let him answer that."
"But your impression?"
"My impression is yes, he's ready to settle down and start a family."
He heard the breath of a sigh at the other end. "I'm twenty-six," she said. "How old is Kevin?"
"I'm a little older."
"Thirty-four, thirty-five, forty?"
He grimaced. "Thirty-six."
She laughed. "Yeah, you're positively decrepit."
"Maybe this isn't a good idea, your going out with Kevin," he said. Somehow it was easier to talk to her when he couldn't see her; when her lively eyes weren't upon him and he wasn't distracted by the silky locks of her ponytail hanging over her shoulder and down over the curve of her breast. Or by the way her low-cut jeans molded to her pert backside, as if inviting a man to put his hands on either side of her hips and pull her back against him.
"No, let him call me," she said. "You never know, we might hit it off. Maybe something unexpectedly good will come from it."
His heart sank. "Expecting the worst and hoping for the best?"
"It seems a reasonable approach to life." She laughed. "But it usually turns out to be neither the best nor the worst, does it?"
"It usually turns out to be Option C, the outcome you never considered. The one you never saw coming."
His own laugh was tinged with sorrow. "That's more true than I'd like to admit."
"Eh," she said, a shrug in her voice. "It keeps things interesting."
When the call was over he stared out his windows for a long time, watching the boats and thinking about Emma Mayson and her blithe spirit.
James would have liked her. She was a solstice bike rider, untouched as yet by the asphalt of life.
He hoped she stayed that way forever.