Two dedicated coworkers with a lot of secrets (and fantasies!) between them must plan a Christmas party side by side—and discover a love worth celebrating—in this steamy office romance.
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Eric Bragg heard the even staccato clicking of her designer high heels coming down the polished hallway. He straightened in his chair as anticipation thrummed through him, matching the quickened beat of his heart.
He knew the sound of Maggie’s long-legged, purposeful walk with an innate awareness that exemplified his growing obsession with her. He could easily identify the sound of her stride apart from that of all the other employees. Mostly because when he heard it, he felt the familiar hot need, mixed with disgruntled dismay, that always seemed to be a part of him these days wherever Maggie Carmichael was concerned.
He remembered a time not too long ago when her footsteps would have been muted with sneakers that perfectly matched her tattered jeans and oversized sweatshirts. A time when she was so anxious to visit the office, she wouldn’t have bothered to measure her stride and she would have forgotten her now- impeccable good manners in her excitement at the visit. She used to hurry up and down the hallways with all the enthusiasm of a nineteen-year-old woman-child, almost old enough, almost mature enough.
Eric shifted, trying to settle himself more comfortably in his large chair while his muscles tightened and his pulse quickened. Unfortunately for Eric, Maggie had stepped right out of college and into the role of boss, a circumstance he had never foreseen. Perhaps if he had, he wouldn’t have bided his time so patiently, waiting for the differences in their ages to melt away under the influence of experience and maturity. Ten years wasn’t much, he’d always told himself, unless you were tampering with an innocent daydreamer still in college. The boss’s daughter- and now the damn boss.
But who would have guessed that her father would pass away so unexpectedly with a stroke? Or that he would have left Maggie, fresh-faced and uncertain, in charge of his small but growing company, rather than Eric, who’d served as his right-hand man for many years?
Deliberately, Eric loosened his hold on the pen he’s been using to check off items on a new supply order and placed it gently on his cluttered desk. Every other year, at just about this time, Maggie had visited him. She’d be out of school on Christmas break and she’d show up wearing small brass bells everywhere. They used to be tied to the laces of her shoes, hanging from a festive bow in her long, sinfully sexy hair, on ribbons around her neck. She loved Christmas and decorating and buying gifts. Eric reached into his pocket and smoothed his thumb over the engraved key ring she’d given him the year before.
This year, everything was different. This year, he’d become her employee.
Sprawled out in his seat, pretending a comfort he didn’t feel, Eric waited for her. But still, he caught his breath as Maggie opened his door without knocking and stepped in.
There wasn’t a single bell on her person. No red velvet ribbons, no blinking Santa pins. She was so damn subdued these days, it was almost as if the old Maggie had never existed. The combination of losing her father and gaining the responsibility of a company had changed her. Her glossy black hair had long since been cut into a chic shorter style, hanging just to the tops of her breasts. When she’d first cut it, he’d gotten rip-roaring drunk in mourning the loss of a longtime fantasy. Her slender body, which he’d become accustomed to seeing in sporty, casual clothes, was lost as well, beneath a ridiculously boxy, businesslike suit. It was drab in both color and form-but it still turned him on. He knew what was beneath that absurd armor she now wore, knew the slight, feminine body that it hid.
And her legs.oh, yeah, he approved of the high heels Maggie had taken to wearing. They’d helped him to contrive new fantasies, which he utilized every damn night with the finesse of a masochist, torturing himself while wondering about things he’d likely never know. He went to sleep thinking about her, and woke up wanting her.
He was getting real used to surviving with a semi-erection throughout the day.
He felt like a teenager, once again caught in the heated throes of puberty. Only now, groping a girl in the backseat of his car wasn’t about to put an end to his aching. Hell, an all-night sexual binge with triplets wouldn’t do the trick. He wanted only Maggie, naked, hot, breathless, accepting him and begging him and.
Damn, he had to get a grip!
“Maggie.” He ignored the raw edge to his voice and eyed her still features as she stared at him. There was a heated quality to her gaze, as if she’d read his thoughts. “You’re flushed, hon. Anything wrong?”
Maggie looked him over quickly, her gaze coasted from the top of his head to the toes of his shoes. Unlike Maggie, he hadn’t trussed himself up in a restricting suit. But then, he never had. From the day he’d been hired, he’d made do with the comfortable corduroy slacks or khakis-a true concession from his preference of jeans-and loose sweaters or oxford shirts. Ties were a definite no-no. He hated the damn things. Her father had never minded, and evidently, neither did she.
Maggie shut the door behind her and lifted her chin. She was a mere twenty-two years old, yet she managed to imbue her tone with all the seriousness of a wizened sage. “We need to talk.”
Eric smiled the smile he reserved just for Maggie. The one with no teeth showing, just a tiny curling at the corners of his mouth, barely noticeable, while his eyes remained intent and direct. He knew it made her uneasy, which was why he did it, cad that he was. Why should he be the only one suffering? Besides, seeing Maggie squirm was like refined foreplay, and he took undeniable satisfaction in being the one who engineered it. These days she was so set on displaying confidence, on proving herself while fulfilling the role her father had provided, it was a major accomplishment to be the one man who could put a dent in her façade.
He relished the small private games between them, the subtle battle for the upper hand. He wanted the old Maggie back, yet was intrigued by her new persona.
Eric leaned forward, propping his elbows on his desk amid the scattered papers. He did his job as well as ever, and managed to contain his nearly uncontainable lust. There surely wasn’t much more she could ask of him. “What is it you think we need to talk about, Maggie?”
Her indrawn breath lifted her delicate breasts beneath the wool jacket. When he’d first met her several years ago, he’d thought her a bit lacking in that department. Then she’d shown up on hot summer day, braless in a college T-shirt, and the air conditioning had caused her nipples to draw into stiff little points- and since then he’d been mesmerized by her delicacy. He wanted to hold her in his hands, smooth her nipples with his thumbs, then his tongue, tease them with his teeth.
Her jaw firmed and she pushed herself away from the door, catching her hands together at the small of her back and pacing to the front of his desk in a grand confrontation. “I want to talk about your attitude and lack of participation since I’ve stepped into my father’s position.”
Eric eyed her rigid stance. She was such a sweet, inexperienced woman that she’d at first misinterpreted his lust for jealousy. She’d assumed, and he supposed with good reason, that he’d resented her instant leap into the role of president of Carmichael Athletic Supplies. Most men would have. Eric had worked long and hard for Drake Carmichael, and under his guidance, the close personal business had grown. It was still a friendly company with a family atmosphere and very loyal employees, but the presiding stock Maggie inherited had double in worth from the year before-thanks to Eric. Because of that, Eric wasn’t the only one who had assumed he was next in line for the presidency.
But in truth, Eric didn’t give a damn about his position on the corporate ladder, except that he didn’t like the idea of having Maggie for his boss. It put an awkward slant to the things he’d wanted with her, throwing the dynamics of a relationship all out of whack. Maggie wasn’t a woman you messed around with; she was the marrying kind. Only now, if he pursued her for his wife, some might assume he was still going after the company in the only way left to him. That not only nettled his pride, it infuriated his sense of possessiveness toward her. He wouldn’t let anyone shortchange her worth.
So he’d assured her immediately that he had no desire to be president, no desire to usurp her new command. She’d looked equally stunned by his declaration, and bemused.
Still, he had hoped Maggie might tire of being the boss. She had always seemed like a free spirit to him, a woman meant to pursue her interests in the arts and her joy of traveling. She was a very creative person, fanciful, a daydreamer who had only learned the business to please her father, or so he’d assumed. Eric thought she’s merely been going through the motions when she worked first in the stock room, then briefly on the sales floor, before eventually making her way all the way to the top-at her father’s request.
But he had to give her credit; she knew what she was doing. Like all new people, she needed a helping hand now and then in order to familiarize herself with how operations had already been handled, but she was daring enough to try new things and had enough common sense not to rock too many boats at one time. The employees all respected her, and the people they dealt with accepted her command.
He’d do nothing to upset that balance, because contrary to his predictions, she hadn’t gotten frazzled and bored with corporate business. She’d dug in with incredible determination and now, within six months of taking over, Maggie had a firm grasp of all aspects of the company.
Eric, in the meantime, suffered the hellish agonies of unrequited lust and growing tenderness.
Shoving his chair back, Eric came to his feet and circled his desk to stand in front of Maggie. This close he could inhale her scent and feel the nearly electric charge of their combined chemistry. Surely she felt it too-which probably explained why she’d begun visiting his office more often. Eric got the distinct feeling that Maggie liked his predicament.
Tilting his head, he asked, “Why don’t you drop the president aura and just talk to me like you used to Maggie?” Six months ago, when her father had first passed away, Maggie had clung to him while she’d grieved. Eric had settled her in his lap, held her tight, and let her cry until his shirt was soaked. The emotions he’d felt in that moment had nearly brought him to his knees.
Nothing had been right between them since.
Eric crossed his arms over his chest and watched a faint blush color her cheeks.
He loved how Maggie blushed, the soft rose color that tinted her skin and the heat that glowed in her eyes. She blushed over everything-a good joke, a hard laugh, a sly smile. He could only imagine how she’d blush in the throes of a mind-blowing climax, her body damp with sweat from their exertions. Down, boy .
“How long,” Eric asked, trying to distract him, “have I known you honey?”
A small teasing smile flitted across her mouth. “I was seventeen when Daddy hired you.”
“So let’s see.that’s five years? Too damn long for you to traipse in here and act so impersonal, wouldn’t you say?” If he could only get things back on a strictly friendly basis, maybe, just maybe, he could deal with the powerful physical attraction between them.
“Yes.” She sighed, letting out a long breath and clasping her hands together in front of her. “I’m sorry, Eric. It’s just.well, since taking over so many people have been watching me, waiting for me to fall on my face. I feel like I’m under constant scrutiny.”
“And you think I’m one of those people?”
She met his gaze, then admitted slowly, “I don’t know. Despite what you’ve said, I know you thought-everyone thought-that you’d be the president, not me.” There was an emotion in her face that seemed almost.hopeful. No, that couldn’t be.
“I already explained about that, Maggie.”
“I know.” She gave a long, dramatic sigh. “But you’ve been so.I don’t know, distant, since I took over.”
And she’d been so damn beguiling.
Eric had done his damnedest to come to terms with a radical chink in his plans. He wanted her. Looking at her now with her hair pulled sleekly to one side by a gold clip, her clothes too sophisticated for her spirit, her heels bringing her five-foot-eight-inch height up enough to make her within kissing level to his six-foot-even length.
God, but he wanted her. She had her back to the desk and he could have gladly cleared it in an instant, then lowered her gently and parted her long, sleek thighs. The thought of exploring her soft female flesh, of coaxing her to a wet readiness, made him shake. He knew without the slightest doubt how well they’d fit together.
He cleared his throat as he thrust his hands into his pants pockets and tried to inconspicuously adjust his trousers. “It’s the holiday season, hon,” he said with a nonchalance he didn’t feel. “Lots to do, not only at work, but at home too. You know that. If you need anything-”
She waved that away. “You’ve been very helpful here, Eric. I never could have made the transition so smoothly if you hadn’t been giving me so much assistance.”
That made him frown. “Nonsense. The transition was smooth because you worked hard to make it so. Don’t shortchange yourself, Maggie. Drake would have been damn proud if he could see how you’ve filled his shoes without a hitch.”
A short laugh escaped her, even as she began to relax. She stared out the window to the left of his desk. A gentle swirl of snowflakes softened the darkening day. “Daddy’s wishes,” she said quietly, while sneaking a somewhat shy peek at him, “might not have been as clear as you think.”
Eric frowned at those cryptic words, sensing she meant to tell him something, but having no idea what it might be. “You want to explain that, Maggie?”
“No.” She shook her head, determination replacing the vulnerability he’d witnessed. “Never mind.”
“Maggie.” he said, making it sound like a warning.
She sighed again. “There’ve been plenty of hitches Eric. Believe me.”
A feeling of menace invaded Eric’s muscles, making him tense. “Has someone been giving you a hard time?” He stepped closer, willing her to meet his gaze. He’d specifically warned everyone that if they valued their jobs, they’d better work with her, not against her, or he’d personally see them out the door.
No!” She reached out and touched his biceps in a reassuring gesture. Her touch was at first impersonal, and then gently caressing. God, did she know she was playing with fire?
She drew a shuddering breath. “No, Eric, it’s nothing like that. We have the very best employees around.”
Eric barely heard her; his rational mind stopped functioning the moment her small hand landed on his arm. She was warm and soft and her scent-that of sweet innocence and spicy sexuality-drifted in to him. He inhaled sharply, and she dropped her hand, tipping her head to study him.
“The problem,” she said, now watching him curiously, “is that I’ve been ultra-popular since taking over.”
A new feeling of unease threatened to choke him. “What the hell does that mean?” He propped his hands on his hips and glared. “Have the guys here been hitting on you?”
“Yes, of course they have.” Her simplistic reply felt like the kick of a mule, and then she continued, oblivious to his growing rage. “Not just the guys here, but the men we deal with, men from neighboring businesses, men from-”
“I get the picture!” Eric paced away, then back again. It was bad enough that the female employees had, for some insane reason, decided he was fair game and had been coming on to him in force. But the males hitting on Maggie, too? Forget the holiday spirit of generosity-he wanted to break some heads!
“You realize,” he growled, deciding she could do with a dose of reality, “that it’s not your sexy legs and big brown eyes they’re after?”
She blinked at him and that intriguing blush warmed her skin. “You think I have sexy legs?”
Eric drew back. Damn he hadn’t meant to say that. Just as he didn’t mean to glance down at her legs, and then not be able to look away. Her legs were long and slender and shapely and they went on forever. He’d seen her in jeans, in shorts, in miniskirts. He’d studied those long legs and visualized them around his hips clasping him tight, or better yet, over his shoulders as he held her bottom and entered her so deeply.
He shook his head and croaked, “You have great legs, sweetheart, really. But the point is-”
“And my eyes?”
She watched him, those big dark eyes consuming him, begging him for the words. “You have bedroom eyes,” he whispered, forgetting his resolve to keep her at a distance. “Big and soft. Inviting.”
His voice dropped despite his intentions. “A man could forget himself looking into your eyes.”
Her face glowed and she primped. “I had no idea.”
Eric locked his jaw against the temptation to show her just how lost he already was. “The point,” he said in a near growl, “is that many of the men hitting on you are probably only after the damn company.”
“I’m not an idiot, I know that already.”
“They think if they.What do you mean, you know?”
“That’s what I was talking about,” she said with a reasonableness Eric had a hard time grasping. “I’ve been in or around this business for ages-as I already said, since I was seventeen. Most of the men ignored me. I mean, I realize I’m kind of gangly and people saw me as a little too flighty. No,” she said when he started to argue with her, appalled by her skewed perceptions of herself. “I’m not fishing for more compliments. I’m a realist, Eric. I know who and what I am. But the point is that men who have always ignored me or were only distantly polite suddenly want to take me to the Bahamas for a private weekend winter getaway, or-”
“- they want to give me expensive gifts or-”
“Who the hell asked you to the Bahamas ?”
“It doesn’t matter, it’s just-”
“It most certainly does matter!” Eric felt tense from his toes to his ears. He was forcibly keeping away from her, refusing to involve her in an affair, and equally opposed to making her the object of speculation and office gossip. He’d be damned before he let some bozo-especially one with dishonorable intentions-cozy up to her. “Who was it, Maggie?”
She touched him again, this time on his chest. “Eric.” Like a sigh, she breathed his name, and once again her eyes were huge. “I appreciate your umbrage on my behalf, really I do. But I don’t need you to play my white knight.”
His tongue stuck to the roof of his mouth. Ridiculous for a thirty-two-year-old man to go mute just because of a simple touch. And on his chest, for God’s sake. Not anyplace important. Not where he’d really love for her to touch him.
But he’d wanted her for five long years, and then been denied her just when he’d thought his waiting was about over. He mentally shook himself out of his stupor and framed her face in his hands. Her skin was so warm, so smooth, his heartbeat threatened to break his ribs. “If anyone-and I do mean anyone-insults you in any way, Maggie, I want you to promise to tell me.”
Her eyes darkened, and she stared at his mouth, “Okay.”
“Your father was one of my best friends.” Good , he thought, a tack that makes sense, a reason for my unreasonable reaction. “Drake would have expected me to help take care of you, to watch out for you.”
Just like that, the heat left her eyes. She gave him a withering half smile, patted his left hand, and then pulled it away from her face. Stepping back, she put some space between them and propped her hip on the edge of his desk.
She once again wore her damn professional mien that never failed to set his teeth on edge.
“I appreciate the sentiment, Eric, but I’m a big girl. I know that even though you don’t want the company, others do and they’re not above trying to marry me for it. But I can take care of myself.”
Goddamn it, he wanted to take care of her. But he couldn’t very well say so without running the risk of sounding like all the others. If only he hadn’t been so noble, if only he’d told her from the beginning how much he wanted her. But she had been so young.
Eric nodded his head, feeling incredibly grim. “Just keep it in mind.”
Her smile was a bit distracted. “It’s almost time to call it a day, so I’d better get to the point of my visit, huh?”
“All right.” Eric watched her as she stood and began edging toward the door.
“The annual Christmas party. I heard from Margo that you don’t plan to attend?”
Margo had a big mouth; he’d have to talk to her about that. “I haven’t decided yet,” he lied, because he had no intention of forcing himself into her company any more than he had to.
“Margo said you turned her down.”
Eric rubbed the back of his neck. “Yeah, I didn’t.”
“I understand that you turned everyone down. Margo, Janine, Sally.”
“I know who I’ve spoken with, Maggie. You don’t need to remind me.” Hell, half the female employees had asked him to the party. He wondered how Maggie knew that, though.
She stared him in the eye. “You, uh, aren’t dating anyone right now, are you?”
Eric frowned at her, wondering what she was getting at. It wasn’t like her to get involved in his personal life. “No, I’m not dating anyone right now.” Despite the female employees’ efforts, there was no one he wanted except Maggie, so he’d been suffering a self-assigned celibacy that was about to make him crazed.
“Excellent.” She lifted her chin with a façade of bravado and announced boldly, “Then you can go with me. I. I need you, Eric.”