Maya huffed a hard breath as she tugged at the corner of a cardboard box. A piece came apart from the mass that was tangled in the folding machine, and she lost her footing, falling back onto the factory floor. Her ass took the brunt of the fall, and her tailbone stung.
A set of large, agile hands pulled her back up to her feet.
“Thanks, Amal. Damn, that hurt.” She rubbed her ass as he chuckled.
She glared at him. “It’s not funny, old man.”
Amal just grinned and shuffled her out of the way so he could try his hand at fixing the machine. She watched as his head, which was entirely covered in gray hair, bobbed up and down while his hands and arms pulled at the stupid box.
She worried about his back. Hell, she worried about her own back. The factory floor could be a real killer. But for someone with no formal education, or in Maya’s case a very expensive bachelor’s degree in Fine Arts, it paid the bills and it came with a full suite of benefits.
“Motherfucker!” Amal said as he finally dislodged the box and held the offending thing over his head.
“Nice work, my man.” Maya clapped him on the back. “Now we have to test this son of a bitch before we can restart the line.”
Swearing was a way of life on the factory floor. All the office workers whispered when they swore or gave guilty looks when a four-letter word popped out. But on the floor, if you didn’t swear you were a pansy-ass. And no one wanted to be that.
“I don’t need this shit today,” Maya told Amal as she walked to the front of the packing line.
Maya grinned at his nickname for her. Some people who’d overheard the sixty two year old call her that thought he was being fresh. But Amal’s mother was Nepalese and that was the direct translation of Maya in that language.
“Yes. Yesterday was my birthday,” she reminded him.
He came up beside her, near the head of the machine, and they both worked to make sure the stack of flat boxes were loaded properly before starting the test run. “Did you go out with your friends?”
Maya thought it was kind of nice when the line they were working on went down because it gave them a moment to talk. When the line was up it was both too noisy and too busy to have a conversation. “Yes. My birthday buddies.”
It was Amy, the HR assistant, who’d discovered that four women, all of whom worked at E.E.R. Tranquility Candle Co., had the same birthday. Last year they’d started a tradition of getting together at a local bar and celebrating. And this year, Julia, who was the VP of marketing for the company, a bit of a mischief-maker as far as Maya was concerned, had suggested they all make birthday wishes. Then they were supposed to share those wishes with the group and hold each other accountable for making them come true by their next birthday.
Maya had done it. She’d thrown down the gauntlet and made a promise to herself and her friends that by the end of the year she would be free of this stupid job and be a full-time artist.
It was a tall freaking order. Which is why afterward she’d gotten completely snockered.
“Well, I hope you had fun,” Amal said. “You only get to turn twenty-nine once, regardless of what my wife says.”
“I did. Here we go.” She hit the switch that would bring the machine back online.
A cacophonous noise overtook their little corner of the factory floor as the line came to life. As she watched the boxes roll down the conveyor belt, she felt as though her future was caught up with them, an endless revolving machine whose sole purpose was to make, package, and ship candles.
Once again, Everett had found his way over to the massive window overlooking the factory floor. He always felt exposed when he was up here. Any one of the twenty-two people down below could look up at any time and see him standing there. And despite being a good thirty feet above them, he was sure they could identify the focus of his gaze.
Maya. It was always Maya. Even in the boxy uniform she wore at work, she looked beautiful. Her dark curly hair was caught up in a ponytail that flowed down over her back to her lower ribs. It was so thick sometimes it flowed over her shoulders when she moved. Then she would bat it back as if it had attacked her, as if it were a living thing. Sometimes Everett thought it was.
He couldn’t see her eyes from up here, but he knew they were a bright green that reminded him of a lush forest. They were set under thick eyebrows and above high, delicate cheeks. She had this incredibly long, graceful neck that ended at this creamy little spot between her shoulders.
The beige factory uniform she wore hid one of the most perfect female figures he’d ever seen. She was tall, maybe five-foot-ten, and built well. She was no wilting violet. Maya’s arms were strong, her legs housed functional muscle, and her curves—good Lord—her curves killed him.
In seven years she hadn’t changed much. But he sure as hell had. Everett had been a graduate student in business when he’d gone to the senior art students’ show at UC Berkeley. Young, arrogant, and confident, he’d talked the beautiful art student into taking him home for one incredible night. Now, all these years later, he’d give anything for another chance. But she wasn’t giving it.
Maya was doing something with the machine she was working on, bent over it. A glance up showed Everett that the emergency stoppage light was on. He moved his gaze back to Maya in time to see her fall hard on her ass.
He jumped, instinctively moving toward the elevator. No matter what anyone thought, he needed to get to her.
“What are you doing out here?”
Everett stopped in his path and turned his head. His best friend and vice president of finance for the company approached him. “Hey, Carlos. I was just…” He turned back to the window. Maya was standing back up again and moving around. She didn’t look hurt, and he took a deep breath before turning back to Carlos. “Nothing. Headed to my office.”
Carlos smirked. He stepped up to the window and looked down. “Staring at Maya?”
Everett groaned. “I can’t believe I told you.”
Carlos slapped his back, and they both started walking toward Everett’s office. “You were pretty drunk last night. And out it came.”
“What, exactly, did I say?”
“That you had a crush on her.”
“No. Why? Is there more to the story.”
“Nope,” Everett said quickly.
The expression on Carlos’ face made it clear he knew there was a whole hell of a lot more to the story, but he didn’t pursue it. Both men turned into Everett’s office. Instead of sitting behind his desk, Everett took a seat on the small leather couch that sat along one wall of the room. Carlos sat across from him in an overstuffed chair.
“It’s totally done.” The big man rarely smiled, but he did now, slapping his hands together with finality.
“I thought it was done yesterday. That’s why we were celebrating,” Everett pointed out.
“Well, it’s totally over as of this morning. I transferred the last of the funds, and Devlin filed all the paperwork.”
Everett was not a fan of Devlin, the company lawyer, and he was glad it was Carlos that dealt with him the most. But more important, this news meant he wouldn’t have to deal with the main subjects of this conversation anymore. “So I’ll never see either of them again?”
“Hell, no. They’re back in Florida, and they aren’t entitled to one more red cent. The company is completely yours, man.”
Carlos’ grin was infectious. There was nothing like a massive finance man, who spent most of his time being grumpy as hell, wearing an ear-to-ear smile. Everett laughed. “Well, I’m glad. And relieved. And a little exhausted after all that.”
“All that” had been three years of lawsuits, depositions, and payment disputes. And it was over. But somehow Everett couldn’t seem to fully relax. It was like after being in a state of alert for so long, his nerves were fried.
“Now we can start making money.” Carlos leaned back in the chair.
“What?” Everett stared at his friend. “We already make money.” His company was only six years old, yet it had already expanded three times. They were making a great profit, and he was able to pay good wages and offer full benefits for his fifty-eight employees.
“I’ve been holding back. And so has Julia,” Carlos said casually. “We can do so much better.”
Everett was floored. He’d known Carlos was the best finance man around when he’d talked him into leaving the successful tech industry to help out an old friend three years ago, but he didn’t realize the man had even more up his sleeve. “I don’t understand.”
“We didn’t want to make a ton of money just to have to share it with those two jackasses,” Carlos explained. “I can get us better profits, and Julia can get us better marketing. We can triple our profits by this time next year. Then we can expand to three shifts and produce twenty-four/seven instead of eight/five.”
“Holy shit!” Everett said. “I didn’t realize…”
Carlos cocked his head. “You didn’t?” Then he straightened up, his face going blank again. “You’ve had your head stuck in that damn lawsuit. It’s all over now.”
“Yeah,” Everett said absently.
Carlos slapped his knees, snapping Everett’s eyes back to him. “I’m going to head back to my office now.” He stood and took a step backward, toward the door. “I have a lot to do to make you more money.” He winked and turned on his heel. When he reached the door, Carlos whirled back around. “Oh, I almost forgot. Julia says she needs to talk to you. She was super weird about it. So, call her or whatever.” He waved his hand dismissively and turned away again, heading out the door.
Everett could think of exactly two things Julia might want to discuss with him. The first was, of course, work. The second was the woman she’d seen last night during her birthday celebration, the woman Julia suspected, and now Carlos knew, Everett had a crush on.
He sprang off the couch and bolted toward the door. When he reached her office, Julia looked like a cat that had just swallowed the family finch. She sat behind her blond wood desk with her hands folded together over her stomach. Her long, braided hair was spread over the back of her chair and hung down, reaching toward the window behind her.
Julia was an incredibly beautiful woman, and her personality complimented Everett’s perfectly. They got along very well, and they absolutely killed it when they collaborated at work.
More than one of his friends, Carlos included, had wondered why he didn’t ask her out. The first reason was completely logical. She worked for him, closely, and when it inevitably ended, he would lose a great VP of marketing. The other reason was that, despite his playboy reputation, he hadn’t seen a woman in months.
With each passing day he’d become more and more consumed with Maya. Of course, Maya wouldn’t even speak to Everett. A problem Julia happened to know about.
“What’s the scoop?” He shut Julia’s office door behind him and moseyed to the chair opposite her desk. He didn’t really want to sit in it, but he was so tall he tended to be intimidating when towering over someone who was seated. So he plopped down in the hard, orange armchair and rested his elbows on his knees.
Julia leaned forward. Her dark eyes sparkled. “I was at the birthday dinner with the girls last night.”
Everett nodded. “Happy birthday, again.”
She rolled her eyes. “You know I’m not telling you this because I want another ‘Happy birthday’ from you, Ev.”
He grinned. There were exactly three people in the world that had ever dared to shorten his name. And they were the only people who didn’t get a dirty look from him when they did it. The first was his mother’s housekeeper, Jenna, who was the most adorable freaking person in the world and could call him whatever the hell she wanted. The second was Julia, because he couldn’t seem to talk her into stopping. And the third was Maya, who had not called him that since she was in the throes of passion seven years ago.
Everett leaned back in the uncomfortable chair, putting his hands behind his head and resting it within his interlaced fingers. “So why are you telling me?”
“Maya was there. And we played a little game.”
“Okay, so maybe game is the wrong word. We made wishes.”
Everett’s hands dropped to his lap. “Wishes?”
“Yeah, didn’t you ever do that when you were a little kid?”
He’d made all kinds of dreams and wishes when he was little. But they all seemed to get tangled up with what other people wanted, and it turned into a giant mess. But rather than get into that, he just nodded. “Sure.”
“So we did that. We blew out candles on cupcakes and we each made a wish. Then we told each other what the wish was. And we’re going to make it happen by our next birthday. And me, I am the little wish elf.”
That was about right. Julia had the energy of a fluffy pink bunny with a battery in its back. “And you need my help?”
“Yes. First, I need you to make that internship program happen. You know the one we talked about where one of the lower level staff gets to intern in different departments?”
Everett’s mouth dropped open. “You want Maya to do that?”
“No. Don’t be silly. She doesn’t give a rip about advancing her career here. We both know that. I want Amy to get it. She’ll compete with everyone who applies legitimately, of course, but I think we both know she has a good shot.”
“I already approved that program. Kimberly was going to run it. She’s the head of HR.” Everett repressed the face he usually made when referring to Carlos’ ex-wife.
“And we both know she’ll sit on it forever. Let me run with it, and I’ll have the program off the ground by the end of the week.”
“Fine.” He nodded.
“Yay!” Julia clapped her hands and bounced up and down in her seat. Everett could swear she didn’t look anywhere near her age, not to mention mature enough to be the fierce and successful woman he knew her to be.
“Is that it?” Everett leaned forward and pushed up with his quads, ready to leave her stupidly hard chair.
“No.” Julia held out her hand, fingers spread. “There’s more.”
He settled back in and propped one leg up on his opposite knee. “Okay.”
“This part is about Maya.” She wiggled her eyebrows.
Everett rolled his eyes. He really wished she hadn’t figured out his crush. It was becoming a serious pain in the ass. “Okay.”
“Her wish is to make it as an artist and be able to leave her crappy job on the factory floor.”
Everett’s chest tightened. It was only a matter of time before this happened. And it would mean the end of his pining away from the third floor window. “Is there some reason you thought this would come as a surprise to me?”
“No, but I think you could help her. And then she’d be grateful. And then she might actually say two words to you.”
Everett doubted Maya would ever get over her hatred of him. But he wanted to make her happy anyway, even if that meant not getting to see her every day. “How can I help?”
“Your friend, Melissa. She owns an art gallery, dummy.”
Everett’s head snapped back. Why the hell hadn’t he thought of that before? “I could get her a show.”
“Yes! Of course.”
Maya nearly stumbled as her squinted eyes caught sight of the man leaned up against her car. She stopped, her feet planted on the asphalt, in the guise of pulling her sunglasses out of her purse and slipping them on.
When she looked back up, he was still there, staring at her from behind a pair of very expensive silver-rimmed shades. She cursed under her breath and continued on her path toward him.
He was like a statue. Not just because he was so still, but also because he looked like he’d been lovingly sculpted by a master artist. Despite her own very above average height, he was still a good half foot taller than her. His long legs angled steeply from where his perfect ass rested against the side of Maya’s car to where his expensive leather shoes hit the parking lot. His arms showed beneath the short sleeves of his blue dress shirt. Dark skin skimmed over sinewy muscle and bulging veins. The jerk had even left the top two buttons of his shirt undone, exposing the beginning of a toned chest and a little tuft of black, curly hair.
Before her eyes could work their way up his neck to the strong jaw, adorably crooked nose that came from a soccer injury, to the deepest, darkest, brown eyes that she’d ever swum in, Maya looked past him at her car and snarled.
“Hi, Maya.” She repressed a shudder as his deep, smooth voice washed over her.
“You gonna pay for the damage you’re doing to my car?”
Everett pushed himself off the battered vehicle and looked back at it. It was two decades old, covered in flaking red paint, and had several little dings that came with it when she’d bought it from an older couple with questionable driving skills. “Why don’t I just buy you a new one?”
Maya harrumphed and reached past him to open the passenger door. She shoved her bag roughly into the seat and slammed the door. Then she stood in front of Everett and looked up at him, determined not to be brought to her knees by his stunning looks. The sunglasses he wore helped, they hid those killer eyes.
Slamming her hands on her hips, she spit out, “What do you want, Mr. Evans.”
Everett threw his head back. “I know you hate me. But please, for heaven’s sake, don’t call me that.”
His exasperation made her smile. Turnabout was fair play. He exasperated her every time they ran into each other. He seemed to take annoying her as a personal challenge.
“Goodbye, Everett.” Maya moved to go around him toward the driver side of the car. Everett didn’t touch her, but he stopped her nevertheless by simply shifting his position so he was blocking her way. He planted himself between her car and the truck parked beside her. There was no way Maya was taking a step backward to go the other way around. This was a challenge, and she intended to meet it.
Since his shadow was literally blocking out the sun, Maya pushed her sunglasses up on her forehead and glared at him. “This is harassment.”
“I just want to talk. Just for a minute.”
She shifted her weight onto her back leg and folded her arms across her chest. “About what?”
His eyes shot down to the pavement and back up again twice. And for the first time, probably in his life, he looked like he was at a loss for words. Then he seemed to come up with something. He leaned toward her. “Did you hear that we’re going to do an intern program?”
“So what?” Surely he didn’t think she would apply. She wanted to get the hell out of there. Everett and everyone else knew it. It was no secret. She’d even told her boss, Kelly, when she’d been hired that this gig was temporary until she could make a living with her art.
“I thought maybe you’d have some friends who would want to take advantage is all.”
Maya couldn’t stop the grin that spread across her face. The confident, unflappable man who’d so easily seduced her and just as easily thrown her away seven years ago was nervous. “Maybe. Can I go now?”
He seemed to be lost again. She couldn’t see his eyes properly behind the shades, but it felt like they were planted firmly on her lips. That was confirmed when he said, “I love your smile.”
“Ugh!” Risking a set of stupid butterflies in her stomach, she pushed on his arm to move him out of the way. He gave in and shifted so she could squeeze past him.
Unfortunately, her body brushed against his. Hips, shoulders, and knees all touched for a brief and electric moment before she was free. She leaped toward the door handle like it held the secrets to the universe.
Maya scrambled into the car and drove away without another glance at the man she’d left standing in her dust.
Seven years ago…
The prick was engaged!
Maya stared at the social announcements in the local paper, her mouth agape and her chest tight. She read over it again, in case the whole thing was some sort of delusion. “Everett Evans of Sausalito is lately engaged to Rebecca Heath of Miami. The couple does not currently have a wedding date planned.”
In the two months since Maya had taken the scrumptious graduate student to her apartment for a night of incredible sex and explosive chemistry, she hadn’t seen him in person once. But they’d exchanged texts nearly every day.
Maybe it was stupid to think sending flirty messages and cute pictures meant they had anything at all. But this was still a blow. Maya slumped into the second-hand sofa she and Everett had shared heavy petting on that fateful night and blinked back tears.
She may not have seen Everett since. She may have refused all his suggestions that they meet up. But she still felt like she knew him.
Everett had grown up rich, at least compared to her own modest childhood. The only kid of two lawyers in the North Bay, he’d had a bit of a silver spoon in his mouth. But he was aware of it, and didn’t seem like a privileged ass.
He was starting his own business with his best friend, Elias. They were thick as thieves those two, their friendship going back to elementary school. Everett was loyal, ambitious, and capable, not to mention smart as a whip.
Maya knew he had a girlfriend. But he’d also said the relationship wasn’t serious and it was open on both sides. Maya had never understood the concept of an open relationship. It might have been the result of being raised by parents who were so happy and in love, from beginning to present. Or maybe it was because every no good guy who’d cheated on her had left her feeling like a pile of warm dogshit.
And that was the main reason she had refused all of Everett’s suggestions that they meet up and hang out again. She hated the idea of being “something on the side.” But it would only be a matter of time before she gave in because Everett was getting under her skin.
And now…now he was fucking engaged? He hadn’t said a word about getting serious with Rebecca. And he sure as shit hadn’t mentioned asking her to marry him in between his texts to Maya begging her to have dinner with him.
She tossed the paper roughly onto her coffee table and threw her head against the back of the couch. Uninvited tears slipped down her cheeks.
Fucking Everett Evans.