The guy did not look like his picture. That was the first thing Elise Maxwell noticed about Jay Smith when he emerged into the waiting area of Cohen & Smith Accounting, walked right over to her, and said, “Ms. Maxwell, I’ve been waiting for you,” in a way that suggested that he had, in fact, been waiting for her. Like, for her, specifically. She didn’t even know how he knew which person in the lobby was her. Yes, she probably looked like an interior designer—she tried hard to make sure her personal style reflected the good taste and eye for detail her profession demanded—but there was at least one other woman in the waiting area who could have fit the bill. Who could have been Elise Maxwell, aspiring interior designer.
Except she needed to quit it with the aspiring part. What was her best friend Gia always telling her? Just because you haven’t had any big, lucrative jobs yet doesn’t mean you’re aspiring.
Tell that to her bank account, but yes. Elise appreciated the sentiment. So Elise Maxwell, Interior Designer, stood and shook the hand that Jay “I Don’t Look Like My Picture” Smith extended.
Elise had not seen a picture of Jay’s hand, but she had not imagined it being…like this. Big and warm and somehow striking the perfect sweet spot between firm and gentle with its grasp. Capable of inducing a shiver despite the aforementioned warmness.
Most of the time when guys did not look like their picture, it went in the opposite direction. Like when a guy’s Tinder profile showed him shirtless holding up a fish and you thought, Well, maybe I can excuse the stupid fish because look at those arms! And when we get married, I’ll appreciate all those fishing trips because don’t smother me, dude. But then you met him in person, and it turned out that those arms were from six years and two gym memberships ago.
This was…not that. The photo of Jay Smith, partner at Cohen & Smith, that accompanied his bio on the firm’s website showed an accountant. It sort of went with his name: non-descript. In the portrait, he wore a suit and glasses, and his hair had been slicked back. And the picture had been in black and white.
Jay Smith in the flesh, however, was not black and white. His hair was a deep rich brown, and instead of being neatly pasted back, it looked like he’d been raking his fingers through it all morning. His eyes, which were not obscured by glasses at the moment, were turquoise. Like, seriously, colored-contact levels of saturation. Elise had done an accent wall the other day that was pretty much that exact color.
“Bahaman Sea Blue,” she said before she could stop herself.
He flashed a smile that was equal parts amusement and bewilderment. Lines appeared around his eyes as he did so. She wondered how old he was. Older than she was, but she couldn’t tell by how much.
“I’m sorry,” she said. “I just did a job that involved some paint the exact color of your eyes. Benjamin Moore Bahaman Sea Blue.”
Then, to try to save herself, to make it seem less weird that she’d just informed him of the color of his eyes in the Benjamin Moore palette, she pointed to the pale pink button-down shirt he wore and said, “Millennial Pink.”
He grinned, and those lines came back. What the hell was going on with those lines? She kind of wanted to…stroke them?
No stroking prospective clients, Elise.
But, seriously, those eyes—the crazy color and the lines around them—made her realize how long it had been since she’d been on a date. Or…done other things. Between dealing with all the family drama, finding an apartment, and getting her business off the ground, she’d barely had time to sleep, much less engage in any extracurricular activities.
She hadn’t missed those activities—she’d thought. Or at least she hadn’t missed them until she was suddenly confronted with Jay Smith’s laugh lines.
“Millennial Pink,” he repeated. “Is that a Benjamin Moore color, too?”
“No. Just a…zeitgeisty thing. It’s a color millennials like.” Though he was rocking it super well, paired with a skinny black tie. “It’s sort of of-the-moment.”
“Well, I’m thirty-seven, so I don’t think I’m a millennial.”
That confirmed her sense that he was older than she was. But only by seven years. Somehow, he seemed older than he actually looked. He was commanding. In a good way.
Not that that mattered.
No stroking prospective clients, Elise.
He turned and gestured vaguely at the waiting area. “So this is the ‘before’ picture, I guess.”
Right. The firm was hiring a designer to redo the lobby. It wouldn’t be the most exciting job, but having something like this on her résumé would be huge for her. Cohen & Smith wasn’t a major player like Ernst & Young, but according to her research, the firm had a reasonably big reach in Toronto. If she did a good job, there might be referrals. And for someone with exactly seven hundred and seventeen dollars in the bank and a burning desire to not go crawling home to Daddy, referrals were precisely what she needed.
“What’s your diagnosis?” he asked, still looking around the space, which matched her impression of his corporate portrait: nondescript. Beige sofas, beige low-pile carpet, boring landscape paintings.
“Well, it could use a refresh.”
“I know it could use a refresh. That’s why I’m interviewing designers.”
Technically, he was still smiling, but there was an edge to his tone that hadn’t been there before. In doing her research on the firm and its partners, she’d read a profile of Jay in Canadian Business. He reportedly had an IQ of 150 and was known for valuing honesty and transparency. For being hard but fair. For not suffering fools.
So she tried again with that in mind. “Your company’s slogan is interesting. Most accounting firms would say something vague and kind of interchangeable about service and integrity. Yours is ‘Toronto’s Accountants.’” He nodded, and she took it as permission to continue. “I read in an interview that you don’t have national or international ambitions for the company.”
“Right. When my partner and I started the firm, we made a distinct choice not to try to chase the big four, but we also aren’t a small mom-and-pop shop. Most of our clients are well-to-do individuals or medium-size businesses headquartered here. We thought it would be a sweet spot, and that turned out to be true.”
“And you do a lot of local charity work,” she said. “Your mission statement references the generation of wealth coming with an obligation to funnel some of that wealth back into the city.”
“Someone’s done her homework.” The respect in his tone thrilled her, probably out of proportion. The last thing she needed was to get herself into a position where she was seeking approval from a man. She’d done that with dear old Dad. Done it and was done with it. Elise and her seven hundred and seventeen dollars were on their own now. And as scary as it was sometimes, she wouldn’t have it any other way. She wished she could have her independence and maintain a relationship with her parents, but that was a game she couldn’t win. Not unless she was content to contort herself into the mold her parents had cast for her the day she was born: old money, north Toronto socialite. Just like her mom. God forbid she should actually want a career of her own.
Anyway, the fact that Jay’s praise delighted her so much wasn’t about that. It was about the fact that she was getting somewhere with him. So she pressed on. “I have done my homework. And the results make me wonder why the physical space of your business looks like every other accounting firm in the world. Like every other dental office, even. Sitting out here, you could just as well be waiting to get your molars drilled in Yellowknife as get your taxes done in Toronto.” He winced at the dental office comparison, so she decided to wrap things up and deliver her prescription in a nutshell. “What I would do with this space is make it match your corporate values.”
He looked at her for a long time, his face impossible to read—those laugh lines had disappeared along with his smile. There was some of that edge again, in his demeanor this time rather than in his voice, but there just the same.
And stupidly compelling just the same.
Just when she was starting to sweat, to fear she’d gone too far on the whole honesty front, he grinned. “And I presume you have some ideas about how to do that?”
* * *
Elise Maxwell looked exactly like her picture—namely, almost supernaturally pretty. Jay let his eyes roam as she settled into the guest chair at his desk and unzipped a leather portfolio. She had honey-blonde hair, sparkling hazel eyes, and a heart-shaped mouth that almost looked like a cartoon. He might even call it “Millennial Pink.” He glanced at his shirt for comparative purposes. Nope, her lips were darker.
The picture on her website had been a full-body one of her dressed in a crazy floral print minidress but paired with plain black tights and flat shoes. Today, she wore a dark green-and-black striped tunic over skinny black pants and black patent-leather heels. Elise Maxwell managed to convey fun and creativity, but with just the right dose of reined-in professionalism.
So did her plans for his lobby, judging by the pile of sketches and images she was arranging on the desk between them. Not that that mattered, because he’d decided to hire her before he’d even seen them—right after her devastating little monologue about how the waiting area looked like a dental office. Still, he had to let her talk him through her vision. Hell, he wanted to let her talk him through her vision. And here he’d thought he’d drawn the short straw when his partner Kent had stuck him with the job of overseeing the lobby redesign.
He ordered himself to pay attention to her work instead of to her. Ogle the designs, not the designer. Not that it mattered. She was too young for him.
“So one idea is to embrace the Toronto part of your mission,” she said. “You want to be ‘Toronto’s Accountants,’ so why not show it? Not in a hokey, boosterish sort of way, though.” She slid a stack of photographs closer to him. “These are reproductions of some shots by an up-and-coming local photographer. I know you’ve supported the Toronto Arts Foundation. Buying some originals from this woman would align with that mission, too.”
Damn. He’d been thinking of sprucing up the lobby as a necessary but annoying task. Never in a million years had he imagined it could also advance some of the firm’s corporate responsibility goals. Plus, he was no artist, but the photos were great. They were of some iconic Toronto scenes—a streetcar, the mid-century city hall buildings—but taken from odd angles so that the familiar looked a little strange. Strange in an appealing way. Nothing you’d ever see in a dental office.
“Obviously that’s just the art,” she went on. “I don’t think you want to go crazy with color or anything. You still want to convey the sophistication and seriousness people will expect from someone they’re trusting their finances to, so I’m not suggesting you paint the lobby hot pink.”
He had the sudden, alarming notion that if she told him to paint the lobby hot pink, he would do exactly that.
“But I do think you should abandon beige,” she said.
“Abandon beige?” He chuckled. It was an interesting, amusing turn of phrase.
“Yeah. So many corporate spaces are beige. I get it. It’s safe. But…” She pulled a foam board out of her portfolio. It was covered with squares of color and swatches of fabric. She pointed to one of the squares—a pale, icy blue. “Something like this could be good for the walls. Unassuming enough to allow the art to speak for itself, but it still has a little personality.”
She moved onto some of the fabric swatches. “These are just some initial ideas for upholstery for sofas and chairs.”
“And what about flooring?” He realized with a start that he, who had literally never spent more than thirty seconds thinking about flooring, was on the edge of his chair waiting to hear what she’d say about the carpet in the waiting area. The beige carpet in the waiting area. “The carpet out there is only a year old,” he added, suddenly wanting to needle her a little, to see more of the contrarian spirit that had animated her in the lobby earlier.
“I get it. That carpet disguises stains. People track in snow and salt in the winter.” She was trying to be diplomatic. “Design has to be functional.”
He raised an eyebrow. Diplomatic didn’t look good on Elise Maxwell. He liked her better when she was making impassioned speeches that made her cheeks go pink. “I always thought design was about making things look pretty.”
“It is. It can be. And there’s nothing wrong with wanting things to be pretty. But what good is useless beauty?”
“Is beauty ever just useless, though?” For example, he could look at Elise Maxwell forever.
Whoa. Where had that come from?
And not that she was merely beautiful. She was clearly a talented, thoughtful designer, too.
Ogle the designs, not the designer.
The too-young designer.
There was no ring on her finger, but there was no way a woman like Elise Maxwell didn’t already have the names of her future kids picked out. Hell, she probably had their future bedrooms designed, too.
“Is beauty ever just useless?” she echoed thoughtfully, giving his throwaway question serious consideration. Then she smiled—a full-on delighted, high-wattage smile, which wasn’t helping his cause. “An accountant and a philosopher.”
He dipped his head self-deprecatingly, not wanting to get into an existential argument with her, though he appreciated that the designer he was about to hire was capable of one.
“My point,” she went on, “is merely that I understand the beige carpet impulse. But whatever function it was serving could be served equally well with a more beautiful solution. Engineered hardwood, for example, can stand up to a lot, and though it would be more expensive to install, it would last much longer. You probably have a cleaning service that’s vacuuming that carpet every night, at least in the winter. They could just as easily mop a floor. It would look better, and let’s face it, your design choices send a message to your clients. What kind of message is beige carpet sending?”
“Welcome to the dental office?”
She chuckled. “Exactly. This doesn’t seem like a very beige sort of company. And you—”
She cut herself off. He wanted to know what she’d been going to say, suddenly. Needed to know. So he raised an eyebrow and made a “continue” gesture. When she still didn’t say anything, he summoned his best cranky boss tone, the one Kent was always telling him was scaring the interns, and said, “Tell me what you were going to say.”
She sucked in a breath. Apparently that tone worked on prospective interior designers, too, because she answered him. “I was going to say that you don’t seem like a beige sort of man to me.” She bit her lip. He watched her top teeth scrape against a perfect plump swathe of pink-but-darker-than-Millennial-Pink lip. “You don’t seem like a beige sort of man to me at all.”
Too young, too young, too young, his mind chanted, even as his renegade mouth opened and said, “You’re hired. And I want you to do my office, too.”