“What’re you doing?” a voice asked. Max looked up from his notebook and recognized the girl who’d sat next to him during the first half of training. He checked her name tag. Yup, Candace.
“Finishing up this song.”
Candace took the seat next to Max in the small kitchen. “Wow,” she said, drawing out the syllable, impressed. “You’re a musician?”
Max had been looking forward to working on his song during break, since it didn’t seem like he’d have much time to spare in the next couple of months—but it would be nice to have work friends to get him through the next two and a half months.
“Yeah,” he said, smiling back and setting his pen down. He could finish those lyrics tonight, maybe. “In my spare time, anyway.”
“That is so cool! What kind of music is it?”
Max felt the thrill of excitement that always surged through him when he talked about music. “This one is sort of inspired by Radio Ga-Ga by Queen, but I don't always write rock. Sometimes it's reggae or hip hop. Even country. I wanna do all sorts of crossover stuff. Combine different genres in interesting ways.” He began to rave about his favorites, including some Japanese enka and j-rock artists Candace had never heard of. He had to stop himself after a few minutes. “Sorry,” he said, shooting her a sheepish smile. “I get carried away.”
Candace only returned his smile with one of her own. “Music and accounting. Pretty different subjects.”
“Yup. Keeps things interesting.”
Candace chuckled at that. “You want some coffee? I’m gonna try to work out how to use this fancy Keurig machine.”
“I don’t drink coffee, but I’ll have some tea.” He got up from his seat and rummaged through the basket of haphazardly piled Keurig cups until he found one with green tea on the label.
“Oh, good job,” Candace said. “Now move aside so I can find myself some mocha.”
Max went over to the machine and inspected its settings. He heard a crow of success from Candace, who held up a cup and grinned.
“Figured it out yet?” she asked him, coming up behind him.
“Yup.” Max installed the pod and started the machine. Soon, a thin stream of steaming tea was spurting into his cup. “Success.” He grinned and took his tea back to the table.
“Hey, you’re not gonna wait for me?”
“I’m right over here,” Max said, giving Candace a teasing wink from across the room. “You can do this on your own. I believe in you.” He reached for his notebook and found the page he’d left off on. He was still working out the notes to a verse when Candace came to sit by him. The smell of coffee and chocolate wafted through the air.
Max expected her to keep talking, but she just sipped her coffee in silence. After a while, he glanced up to see her attention was on something else. Someone else. A man stood by the microwave, his fingertips tapping against the countertop as the food inside spun around under the light.
“That’s Stephen Webb,” Candace said in a low whisper. “He’s the only tax principal in the firm. The other principal is on the audit side.” Max glanced over just in time to witness her mock-sigh: “He’s a bit of a silver fox, isn’t he?”
The man had darkish hair that was peppered with gray, especially in the front, where Max could see actual silver. He didn’t look that old, though. Forty, maybe fifty at the most. His features were fine, his nose sharp. His thin lips were curved downward in a slight frown. Max couldn’t see his eyes well from this distance, but he liked everything he could see. “Looks tasty,” he mumbled absently, watching the shift of the man’s shoulders underneath his expensive aloha shirt.
A small, shocked laugh escaped Candace. “Max!” she reproached softly as they averted their eyes, in case Stephen Webb had heard them.
“What?” he asked under his breath. “You were the one who started it.”
Candace flashed him an unrepentant grin. “So you’re into guys.”
Max nodded, grinning back. He raised his eyebrows at her. “Disappointed?”
Another laugh from Candace. “In your dreams, buddy. I have a boyfriend.”
“How do you know who that is? Did he interview you?”
Candace shook her head. “I don’t think he goes to the interviews.” At this, she flushed again. “My dad’s the managing partner at the firm. I know.” She rolled her eyes and sighed. “Nepotism and all that. But I promise I get good grades. I’m not a useless idiot like some kids of parents in charge I could name.”
“Hey,” said Max, raising his hands in a gesture of peace, “you don’t have to explain to me. Plenty of people work for their parents, there’s no shame in it. You’re lucky you have family who can give you the opportunity.”
Candace was still frowning slightly, but she nodded. “Super lucky. A lot of my friends struggled to find internships with bigger firms. But mostly it’s lucky that I like accounting enough to put the connections to use.”
Now it was Max’s turn to frown. Accounting wasn’t exactly his first choice of career, but it had seemed like a good idea when he’d first settled on it. Safer and more financially secure than the Music major he’d started with. The bills needed to be paid, after all. He wasn’t jealous of Candace for her dad’s position in the firm, but he did envy her that affinity for the field she’d chosen.
“So,” he said, changing the subject and lowering his voice again—he glanced over to the microwave and saw with surprise that Stephen Webb was already gone. “You know the silver fox through your dad?”
She nodded. “He’s invited to all our family parties. My dad thinks he’s really talented. He’s on track to make partner in the next year or two. I’ve always liked him, even when I was a kid. He brings board games to the parties.”
Max raised an eyebrow. “What, like Monopoly?”
“No, like—ones I’ve never seen before. He always has a new one, and sometimes he’ll invite the older kids to join in. I think we played one about the stock exchange once.” Seeing Max’s incredulous look, she laughed. “Not as boring as you’d think!”
“I’ll take your word for it, accounting major.”
“Hey, you’re an accounting major too. Right?”
Max nodded. No one had responded to the demo tracks he’d sent out and it had been two months. Now that the internship had started he wouldn’t have time to do anything more about it. It was only a project he’d begun over the winter break, a last-ditch effort to do something with his music before he had to settle down to a responsible life as a tax accountant—or whatever he ended up doing in the long run. Something not music.
As if on cue, one of the tax seniors who was in charge of orientation stopped by and rapped on the wall to get their attention. “You guys about ready to get started again? We’re waiting on you two.” Max and Candace scrambled out of their seats.
The second session of their training was important but so boring Max found himself struggling to stay awake before the first two hours of the three-hour session had passed.
This changed when, in the middle of an explanation on inputting new asset acquisitions into the depreciation schedule, the conference room door opened and Stephen Webb walked in.
“Don’t mind me,” he said, “I’m just hiding from Alfred.” His voice was all rasp and gravel. Sexy. He flashed a short, ironic smile at Shohei, the tax senior in charge of the presentation. The smile made him even more handsome than he’d seemed when Max first saw him. It accentuated the wrinkles at the corners of his eyes and mouth and gave him a slightly rakish air. Max tore his eyes away as Stephen passed him on the way to the back of the room, where some empty seats were lined up.
“I’m gonna tell on you,” Candace joked in a low voice, and the surrounding people snickered.
“Go ahead,” said Stephen. “Just not until I finish reviewing this return.” He picked a pair of glasses from his breast pocket and put them on. Max tried hard not to stare, since he was supposed to be focused on the front of the room. Still, Stephen Webb with glasses was almost as good as Stephen Webb smiling. Shit, he couldn’t believe he’d developed a crush on his first day of work. That had to be a record, even for him.
Candace drew his attention to her notepad with a tap of her pen on the back of his hand. Max looked down, and saw that she’d scribbled something in the top corner.
Like what you see?
Max felt a smile tugging at his lips. He reached over and scribbled his answer.
“Oh, you’re so much fun,” Candace whispered gleefully.
* * *
“Okay, guys,” Shohei said as he closed down the Powerpoint and switched off the projector. “Today is the only day you’re gonna be able to leave early, so take advantage of this short reprieve and go have a nice dinner. Get some rest. Tomorrow you’re gonna have to be here bright and early at eight a.m. We’re going to be assigning you to your individual teams, and then you’ll get some hands-on training from one of your seniors. Any questions before I get back to my work?”
None of the seven interns uttered a peep.
“No one wants to be the person to prolong the torture for today,” came that rough, raspy voice from the back. Max turned and saw Stephen smirking, a glimmer of amusement clear in his eyes. From where Max sat he could see that Stephen’s eyes were a clear light gray, like a stormy sky before rain. To Max’s surprise, Stephen met his gaze for a fraction of a second before Max looked away. He wondered if anyone could see the blush crawling like a spider up his neck.
“Hey,” said Shohei, “I never said I was trying to be nice to them. Don’t want to be tortured? Don’t become a tax accountant.”
“He says this,” Stephen drawled, “but he’s actually one of that rare breed of masochists who choose to do both tax and audit.”
“Gives me more options when I finally come to my senses and leave this awful place,” Shohei retorted good-naturedly. “Okay, class, you’re dismissed.”
Max followed the rest of the interns out, wishing he didn’t have to leave just yet—he’d thought he would be dying to, but he’d enjoyed listening to the banter between Stephen and Shohei. He wanted to hear more words coming out of Stephen’s mouth. Or see things going into it. Things like his tongue, or…
“Wanna grab some dinner?” Candace’s voice cut through his thoughts. “You’re a man I want to get to know more.”
Max stopped at the cubicle he’d been assigned and shouldered his book bag, grimacing. “Can’t. Really want to continue fawning over the silver fox with you, but I’ve gotta get home. We ran out of groceries yesterday and I promised I’d pick some up for my grandma so she could, y’know, eat.”
Candace looked a little bewildered.
“She doesn’t drive and has a phobia of the bus,” Max elaborated. “Our house is way up Liliha heights, so it’s hard to walk back and forth to the grocery store.”
“Oh, I’m sorry. That sucks.”
“Don’t worry,” he said, shooting her an encouraging smile. “I’m sure we’ll have plenty of chances to get to know each other in the many evenings we’ll be spending eating dinner at work and not getting any homework done.”
She laughed. “God, I hope so. Not getting homework done is the only incentive to this job.”