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  • Alexis Winter

**SNEAK PEEK** Just This Once




Prologue-Savannah

Three Years Earlier…

“I got an interview!” I thrust my hands in the air in celebration as I stand up, my desk chair shooting out behind me.

I glance around nervously, trying to judge if anyone heard me. Probably not the best idea to be shouting about a new interview at my current job.

I sit back down and read the email again for a third time.

“Oh my God, I got an interview,” I repeat in disbelief.

When I applied for the open Chief Operations Officer position at Baxley Technologies, I truly didn’t expect a call back. Not to say I’m not qualified for the job; I feel I am, but most companies want to see at least fifteen years on your resume before they even consider you for the COO role.

I close my office door and grab my cell to call my best friend Callie.

“Hey, this is a lov—”

“I got an interview,” I blurt out, cutting her off.

“An interview for—oh, for Baxley?”

“Yes!” I’m attempting to whisper but with my excitement it’s coming out more in a whispered shout. “I’m in complete disbelief, like me? Seriously?”

“Of course you, why not you? First of all, you’re very qualified. Your insane work experience in just six years speaks for itself, not to mention the MBA and undergrad from an Ivy League school, both of which you got into on merit and not because your family had money.”

“I know. It’s just that I don’t want to get my hopes up if they’re not serious about me.”

“These are billionaires, sweetie. They wouldn’t waste their precious time if they weren’t serious about you. Now stop doubting yourself and get ready to go out and celebrate tonight. Think about where you wanna meet for drinks.”

I smile into the receiver. If there’s one person who will always have my back and gas me up, it’s Callie. She’s been my ride or die since the day we met freshman year at Northwestern. I didn’t think she’d associate with me at all. She comes from a very wealthy family, old money, from the North Shore and I… well, I’m an only child, that I know of, raised by my grandma after my mom went to prison and my dad abandoned me.

I put my phone on my desk and turn back to my computer to finish up my workday. I feel too giddy to focus, but if this interview does actually turn into a new career opportunity, I don’t want to leave this startup I’ve been at for the last three years high and dry. I need to finish up a few projects before I officially leave this place.

I knew from a young age I wanted a career, a big one. I busted my ass in high school, opting for any and every extracurricular and after-school program, even summer school. I graduated early with honors and was accepted into Northwestern University with a focus on business and finance.

Even through high school and college I worked any and every odd job I could find that would pay my bills and give me experience. I started in fast food, working my way up to a management position and then the corporate office that happened to be located in Chicago where I lived. Even through getting my MBA, I continued to move up the ladder until I was brought on as a project manager and financial advisor here at this software startup. In only three years we’ve grown from nothing to a multimillion-dollar company that’s in the final stages of IPO.

I was determined to break the cycle of failure in my family if it was the last thing I did. Sometimes I still struggle with imposter syndrome when I look in the mirror. Like who is this girl who came from nothing and why does she deserve this opportunity?

I shake the thoughts from my head and power through the rest of my day before sending a text to Callie.

Me: Leaving here in the next twenty. Mitzy’s for martinis?

Thirty minutes later I take the first celebratory sip of my dirty martini.

“Will Todd be surprised when you put in your notice?”

If I ge—”

“When,” Callie says emphatically with an arched brow.

“When,” I start over, “I get the job, I think Todd will be sad to see me go for sure, but I think he knew from the get-go that I didn’t plan to stay long term. I think when you jump in at the ground floor of a startup, it’s a much quicker burnout period than other jobs, you know?”

She nods and takes a sip of her French martini, her eyes rolling back in her head for a brief second. “Yeah, for sure. You have literally put blood, sweat, and tears into that place. I hope he knows what he has with you.”

“He does. He’s always been extremely generous with pay, but as we all know, there’s zero work-life balance when it comes to a startup. I’m only twenty-seven and I already feel like between school and all my jobs over the years, I’ve never had a chance to just breathe, enjoy life, and take some downtime.”

I do feel a little guilty wanting to move on from Code Red Software, but I’m beyond excited that I even get the chance to interview at a tech giant like Baxley Technologies.

***

I swallow down the fear in my throat as I stare up at the massive mirrored building on Franklin St.

I close my eyes for a brief second and take in a deep breath. “You’ve got this. You deserve this. You’re going to nail it.”

I square my shoulders back, lift my chin up, and march up to the massive revolving door emblazoned with the world-famous gold BT symbol.

“Please have a seat, Miss Monroe.”

I take a seat in front of a large table where six other people are sitting across from me. “I’m Pierce Denton, Executive Vice President here at Baxley.” The rest of the individuals follow suit with their name and title.

Round table style interviews are nothing new to me. I had to do them for my MBA program and when I came onboard with Code Red, but this one is intimidating. Not only is it filled with department heads, but the collective net worth in this room alone is more than I’ll see in ten lifetimes.

“Mr. Baxley won’t be here today for this interview. If we decide to move forward with second rounds, he’ll be present for that one,” Mr. Denton says.

I nod and try to consciously make eye contact with each person while not looking crazy at the same time.

“You have an impressive background, Miss Monroe. I’m sure it’s not the first time someone has told you that.”

I smile. “Thank you. Yes, I have heard that from previous employers.”

We go through some general questions about my background, education, and then come the fun ones… the ones about how I’d be an asset to the company, why I should be considered, what value I’d bring to the company… a fight for my life or basically a modern-day version of a mock execution.

But this is where I come alive because I’m not just trying to blow smoke up these people’s asses; I’m serious about my career and where I see myself, and I see myself at Baxley Tech.

I feel confident as I stand and shake each of their hands.

“Great job today, kid.” Eric, the CFO who introduced himself earlier during the round table, gives me a wink and touches my elbow.

An instant ick feeling settles in my stomach but I don’t let him see.

“Thank you. I feel very confident about the next steps.” I maintain solid eye contact with him, refusing to let him make me feel out of place with his subtle comment about my age.

I’m more than aware that I’d be the youngest person in an executive position at this company, but that doesn’t scare me one bit. It just stokes the fire of determination inside me.

“I have no doubt we’ll be in touch shortly,” Mr. Denton says after walking me to the elevator.

“Thank you and I look forward to it, sir.” I step into the empty elevator and press the button for the ground floor. The moment the doors close, I toss my hands in the air again and do a happy dance.

***

It’s been four agonizing days since my interview and I am a nervous wreck. Every time I turn around, I’m either knocking something over or tripping over my own feet. My nerves feel like they’ve been juiced up with adrenaline and caffeine and all my breath work is for nothing.

I glance at the clock; it’s 4:48 p.m. on a Friday. For most people, the workday is done already but for me, I’ll probably be here till at least seven p.m. or later. I’m used to it at this point—that’s not why I’m looking at the clock. I refresh my email for the fiftieth time, but there’s nothing from Baxley.

“Hey, Savannah, doing anything fun this weekend?” Lynn, my coworker, pokes her head in my office.

I shrug. “Nothing on the books. Probably be here pretty late tonight. What about you?”

“Pete’s uncle is taking his boat out on the lake so we’ll probably join him. It’s not exactly my cup of tea, fishing and drinking beer, but it’ll be nice to get out in the sun.”

“That does sound fun. And hey, maybe you can convince him to take you to that cute French bistro you saw the other week that you mentioned.”

Her eyes light up, “You are so smart. I completely forgot about that.”

I’m about to respond when my phone buzzes and I look at the screen.

Incoming call from Pierce Denton.

“Oh, I have to,” I say, pointing to the phone, and she nods and waves, shutting my door behind her.

“Hello?”

“Hello, Miss Monroe. Apologies for the late callback. I know how annoying that is, but business gets in the way sometimes.” He chuckles and I hold my breath. “Anyway, we would love to have you back for another round of interviews next week. That work for you?”

“Yes!” I attempt to readjust my volume as my excitement gets the better of me, “Yes, sorry.”

“Great. I’ll have Dorene from HR set it up with you. She’ll send over an email with some proposed times.”

“Will Mr. Baxley be there?”

“Yes, he will be—should be. You’ll be interviewing with him and Eric Oliver, the CFO you met at the last interview.”

“Oh, okay. Yes, I remember him.” I try to sound positive, but I don’t love the idea of having to speak to that man for several hours as these interviews can run long. At least Mr. Baxley will be there to hopefully correct him if he calls me kid again.

Per usual, I stay late tonight but with a little extra pep in my step. I double down and make sure I finish up as much as I can, knowing that there’s a good chance I’ll be gone from here in a few short weeks.

Normally, my Friday nights are a stressful battle between me trying to work late to finish things up so I’m not so stressed the next week and trying to appease my boyfriend via text with promises to spend every minute with him this weekend.

However, after several painful and teary conversations into the wee hours of the morning, Nick and I recently decided that after four years together, neither of us could offer what the other needed.

It wasn’t easy but it was right, and we both agreed. The breakup was mutual and amicable, and I’m sure we’ll stay friendly over the years. I promise myself that this time, I’ll give myself at least a year off from relationships.

I grab my purse and head down to my car, already yawning. I received an email about an hour ago from Dorene with three times next week for my interview. I confirmed one for Monday morning so now I can actually relax over the weekend… at least until Saturday afternoon when I start panicking all over again.

***

I hold my purse, plant, box of knickknacks for my office, and a bagel all in my hands as I walk through the revolving door of Baxley Tech, my new job where I, Savanna Grace Monroe, am COO. It still feels unreal.

Unfortunately and strangely, I have yet to meet Warren Baxley himself. He was called away on business before our interview so he was only able to attend via audio, sitting quietly on the call. I wouldn’t have even known he was there if Mr. Oliver hadn’t told me.

I purposely made eye contact with Mr. Oliver the entire interview because less than thirty seconds into it, his eyes dropped down to my breasts when I dared to look away for even a brief second.

“Hold it, please!” I say as my heels furiously click across the marble floor of the lobby. I dart through the closing doors of the elevator just as someone rushes up behind me to do the same.

I stumble as I feel two warm hands grab at my waist. I try to turn and see who it is when I hear his voice. “Whoa, kid. I’m sorry. Almost took a tumble on your first day.” Eric Oliver flashes me a smarmy smile, acting like he isn’t the one who caused me to stumble in the first place when his chest ran into my back.

I give him a slight smile and try to push my way to the back of the elevator.

“You need me to show you around? I can—”

“No, thank you. I know where I’m going. Much appreciated though.” I shut it down before he can offer anything else. “This is me,” I say, exiting the elevator the second the doors open.

But it isn’t me. I glance down to my right, then my left. I spot a bench and place my stuff down to pull up my email again to check the floor and suite number of my office.

“Shit, two floors up.” I walk back over to the elevator and press the button. This time when the doors open, it’s empty. I let out a sigh and step inside, but it stops after one floor and wouldn’t you know it, he gets back on the elevator with me.

“You sure you don’t need some help there, little lady?” He chuckles and pokes at my orchid that bobs over the top of my box.

“I’m sure.”

“Well, listen, I mean it. If you ever want to get lunch and get a feel for the company or need a mentor, I’m here for you.” It’s like he has zero control of his eyes that once again look down at my breasts at least four times in that one sentence.

I spin around and exit on my correct floor this time, finally finding my office and placing my things down. I straighten out my button-down blouse and pencil skirt, second-guessing my very professional clothing choice… Maybe I should have opted for a damn potato sack.

I don’t have many personal items to display in my office, not because I’m particularly private but because I have no family to have framed photos of or gifts or sentimental knickknacks. Besides my orchid, which I place on the corner of my desk, the only thing I have is a small five-inch-tall Eiffel Tower.

I click the button on the back of my iMac to turn it on, but nothing happens.

“The hell?” I mutter as I do it again and still nothing. I look under my desk and see that it’s not plugged in. I reach under my desk and plug it in. I grab my chair to help pull myself back up, but it swivels, so I launch myself forward and land right on my belly on the floor.

“Glad to see you found your office. Everything okay?”

I hear a voice behind me as I right myself. I’m on my knees, readjusting my ponytail I just knocked askew. I am really not in the mood for this man’s continued attempts at flirting or whatever the hell he’s thinking. Time to let him know this won’t fly with me.

“Sir, let me be very clear,” I say with my back still toward the door. “I’m not your midlife crises, okay?” I stand up and brush down my skirt. “This is a professional setting.”

“No, you’re not, but I’m pretty sure I’m your new boss.”

My spine stiffens and I feel my eyes bug out as I slowly turn around to face the man standing casually in my doorway.

Warren Freaking Baxley, in the flesh.

Shit.


Chapter 1-Warren

Present Day…

“He broke up with me.”

Savannah flings her arms in the air before flopping down in the chair across from my desk, her silky chocolate hair pooling around her shoulders as she slumps down.

“Are you more upset that he broke up with you or that the relationship is over?”

I don’t look up from the document in my hand. This isn’t the first time Savannah has vented to me about her relationship woes and I’m sure it won’t be the last.

We’re an… unlikely friendship. She’s outgoing and friendly, young and not afraid to voice her opinion. Whereas I’m fifteen years her senior and do everything I can to avoid human interaction outside of my business.

Yes, I’m her boss, but I’d say we’re also good friends. Completely professional, of course, which is why I leave all the filthy thoughts that wander into my head about her, in my head.

“What do you mean?” The V between her brow deepens.

I put the paper down and remove my glasses, folding them in my hands.

“I mean, is it an insult that he’s the one who dumped you or did you really think he was the one?” She chews her bottom lip as she considers my question.

“I’m not upset that he was the one who ended things because I can’t handle being dumped. I’m hurt. We’ve been together almost a year and a half and this just came out of nowhere. I thought he was asking me to move in with him or maybe proposing at the—”

“Proposing?” That gets my attention. Sure, they’ve been dating that long, but I’ve never heard her speak about him like she’s ready to marry the guy. I swallow down the panic that forms in my throat.

“Yeah, or moving in together. It’s just—frustrating. Another failed relationship at thirty.”

“Savannah, you have plenty of time to find the one. Stop putting that pressure on yourself and live your life. I’m sure Nick will regret his decision soon enough.” I offer her a tight-lipped smile, but she just glares at me.

“Nick? Nick was my ex from three years ago. His name is Easton and you’ve met him twice.”

“I have?”

I shrug nonchalantly, knowing full well that I met the smug prick twice. The first time he tried to offer me advice on my company’s latest software launch by telling me that someone my age should be taking tech advice from someone in their twenties. And the second time, he was sloppy drunk at our office Christmas party and knocked over an entire table of champagne flutes.

“Maybe I’m not the best person for these kinds of talks.”

She lets out a dramatic sigh. “No, you’re probably right. I’ll save it for overpriced martinis with the girls.” She stands up and stretches her arms overhead, the bottom of her blouse lifting just enough to expose a sliver of her flat stomach. She pulls her long hair into a high ponytail, wrapping the tie from her wrist around it a few times.

“You doing anything this weekend?” she asks, coming around my desk to look at the paper I’ve been studying.

“The usual—work, maybe a round of golf or tennis at the club, and more work.”

She leans in closer. The familiar scent of her floral perfume still lingers at the end of a ten-hour day. Her long, delicate fingers rest on her hip as she eyes the paper.

“This the Code Red proposal?”

“It is.”

She picks it up and hikes one hip up to rest it on my desk. My eyes fall to where her hips flare out from her waist. It’s a spot that I often fixate on with her. She has that classic hourglass figure that leaves me constantly desiring to run my hand over that dip in her body.

Sometimes I wonder if there’s overt flirty undertones with her body language and actions, but I always settle on no because she knows how important discretion is to me. But also because I don’t think for one second she sees me as anything more than a boss or mentor—fuck, maybe even a father figure in her life. It hasn’t gone totally unnoticed by some of my male colleagues that not only is Savannah young and beautiful, but that I’m also rather protective of her.

“Good thing I didn’t sell my stocks after they went public and I left the company. If this acquisition goes through, I’m poised to become a very wealthy woman. Might even knock you off the richest man in Chicago pedestal.”

She winks at me and tosses it back on my desk. I lean back in my chair, attempting to put some distance between us.

“What about your weekend plans?”

I’m trying my hardest not to look down at her smooth, tan legs left exposed by her skirt riding up a little. Sometimes—okay, often—I wonder what her reaction would be if I simply reached my hand out and ran my fingertips up her silky skin.

In my fantasy, she parts her legs a little further for me, allowing me a peek at what she’s wearing beneath her proper pencil skirts. In this particular fantasy, her on my desk at the end of a long day, she’d simply slip her panties off and hike her skirt up, offering me her sweet, wet pussy to devour.

“Oh, general wallowing I suppose now that I’m a single woman.” Her response snaps me back to reality and I realize I’ve let my gaze settle on her thighs, but she doesn’t seem to notice.

“I’m sure I’ll let it all out with Callie and then rapidly go through the phases of grief, convincing myself I’m better off while I get it all out over a grueling spin class.”

“That sounds miserable but I’ll wish you all the best.”

“You’re welcome to join us for martinis at Mitzy’s if you’re bored.” She smiles and while I know she knows I’ll never take her up on the offer, I do appreciate that every weekend she offers to let me tag along on whatever crazy adventure she’s up to.

“I’m afraid I’d be a bore. You don’t want an old man, let alone your boss, to tag along with your friends.” I wink at her and I swear I see a slight pink hue spread across her cheeks. For as much as we have kept things professional between us, once in a while it feels like these little tender moments are laced with flirty innuendo.

“Maybe I’ll become a sugar mama. Find some twenty-one-year-old smoke show that needs beer money.” She scoots back a little further on my desk so that she’s now fully sitting on it and reaches down to pull off her heels. “You ever done that?”

“Been a sugar mama? Can’t say that I have.”

She slaps my arm playfully. “No, have you ever entertained someone considerably younger than you that you knew wouldn’t be anything serious, just a fling?”

I debate on saying something to the effect of no, but I’d be happy to if you’re offering. Instead, I answer truthfully. “No. I’m not really the kind of man who wants to be used for my money, but there’s no shame in those who desire that kind of arrangement. It’s just not for me.”

“And what kind of arrangement does work for you? What is Warren Baxley looking for?” She crosses one leg over the other, briefly drawing my attention to her exposed flesh. I look up at her and she’s leaning on one arm, palm flat on my desk as she waits for my answer.

“Who says I’m looking for anything?” She rolls her eyes. “I don’t think I’m looking for an arrangement of anything. Just open, I suppose.”

It’s a vague answer, but the truth is I’m not sure what I actually want. I’m not exactly wanting to die alone, but what I want feels wrong. It feels selfish to want Savannah. She’s young, has her entire life ahead of her, and I’m already in the second phase of my life. Besides, I’ve convinced myself that the things I’d want to do to her would scare her away.

“Look at us, both single with an amazing career, but no prospects.” Suddenly her face drops and she lets out a groan. “Dammit! I completely forgot that Easton and I have our annual benefit dinner next month for the Northwestern University Alumni Association.”

“I’m sure he’ll behave accordingly if that’s what you’re worried about.”

She shakes her head. “That’s not what I’m worried about. I just hate having to make a public appearance at a place where everyone knows he and I were previously dating. It’s like a public statement letting everyone know we failed. Like back when your friend would change their Facebook relationship status to it’s complicated.”

“I think you’re being a touch dramatic, Savannah. And if it’s really that uncomfortable, just don’t go. Make him be the one who has to tell everyone there that he made the biggest mistake of his life and dumped the smartest, most accomplished, and beautiful woman he’ll ever meet. He’ll look fucking stupid.”

Her frown morphs into a huge, genuine smile that reaches her eyes.

“Look at you, Mr. Sentimental.” She pokes me with her bare foot, and I bat it away, but she does it again, this time trying to poke me in the ribs, but I reach my hand out and catch her foot. The warmth of her skin tingles against my palm. The moment we make contact, it’s like something shifts between us. The air grows thick with unsaid desires and tension.

Her smile fades and I swear I see a sharp intake of breath between her open lips. I don’t let go of her foot right away. Instead, I do something so stupid—I run my thumb up her insole and her eyelids flutter. Something is definitely happening between us, and it feels magnetic, like I couldn’t stop it if I wanted to. But then it’s gone when a soft knock brings us both back to reality.

“Hey, boss, got a min—oh, sorry, didn’t mean to interrupt.” Eric shoves his hands in his pockets as he looks between us.

“Not interrupting. Come on in.”

Savannah jumps down from my desk and scoops up her heels.

“I’m heading home,” she says to me as she slips on her heels. “Have a good weekend, gentlemen.”

“What was that about?” Eric asks the moment she’s gone. He walks over to the bar cart in the corner of my office and pours himself a generous amount of my liquor.

I shake my head like I have no idea what he’s talking about. “Nothing. We were just talking about our weekend plans and Code Red.”

“Last time I checked, my secretary doesn’t sit on my desk when she’s making small talk with me.”

That irks me. I narrow my gaze at him and sharpen my voice.

“She’s not my secretary, Eric. Those digs won’t fly with me so cut that shit out.”

I’ve always known Eric was a little more than jealous when I brought Savannah on as COO. He thought as the current CFO, he was a shoo-in for the position. He could have managed it—I have no doubt—but he’s better with finances. He’s not as good with the big-picture decision-making that Savannah does.

He raises his hand in a silent apology. “Speaking of Code Red, are things still moving forward?”

“As expected, yes. We’ll make the announcement sometime in the next two weeks. How’s Kane doing? Still no interest in coming aboard Baxley?”

I stand and walk over to the bar cart to pour myself a tumbler of whiskey. I’m not a big drinker, maybe a drink a week, typically on Friday night. It’s a ritual; usually after everyone has left the building, I pour myself a glass and slowly sip it as I put on a record, kick back, and watch the city below.

“I’m working on it. Kid still thinks he wants to focus on building his own app. I told him I’m all for it, but it could really help him to get a few years under his belt working here. Really help him land some connections, and then he could develop the app with us or sell it to Baxley.”

“Well, he’s still young. I’m sure he’ll come around eventually. It’s good that he’s so ambitious though. Just like you.”

Eric and I have known each other for the better part of two decades. He was my mentor out of grad school at my first major job. He was a director, and I was just starting out. He saw something in me, took me under his wing, and helped me become the man I am today. So when I started Baxley Technologies fifteen years ago, he was the first employee I hired.

“More like you. I still remember you telling me six months after you started at DataTech, you said Eric, I give myself five years before I start my own company and ten to make it a billion-dollar enterprise. I thought you were crazy but here we are.” He raises his glass to me and we both drink.

“Shit,” he says, looking at his watch, “the Mrs. will be calling me any second if I don’t get home. Maybe if I’m lucky I can sweet-talk her into giving me some of that action you and Savannah almost had.” He winks at me and I just ignore the comment. “Have a good weekend, boss. See you Sunday at the club. Nine a.m. tee off; don’t be late.” He points to me as he walks out of my office.

Eric is on his fourth, possibly fifth marriage at this point. I can’t keep track. His penchant for chasing after his next wife while still married to his current usually lands him in divorce court every few years.

His comment about Savannah and me lingers as I dim the lights and walk over to my records. I leaf through them briefly, finally deciding on “Something Else” by Cannonball Adderley. The smooth sound of jazz fills the office as I take a seat in my chair. I lean back and close my eyes, allowing the melody to carry me away.



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