Maddy put the final touches on her lipstick, a bright confectionery pink that popped against her skin. A knock at her door made her jump, the lipstick jerking in her hand, smudging against her cheek. With a sigh, she wiped the smear of pink off her skin and went to get the door, her bitch-face at the ready.
“What do you want?” she demanded, not even waiting for a hello as she opened the door.
Her landlord, Larry smiled slickly, his tongue darting between his teeth at her rude greeting. Larry was thirty or so and he’d never grown up—which was compounded by the fact that his Mommy had given him this apartment building to run, clearly hoping it would give him some responsibility or something. Instead, it gave him the opportunity to hit on every female tenant in the building and make them uncomfortable as hell. He was a Grade A Creep.
Unfortunately, rent was cheap and Maddy was in no position to move—especially now when she was out of a job.
“I heard your stove wasn’t working,” Larry said, the pretense so see-through she barely resisted rolling her eyes.
“Must be another tenant,” she said smoothly, grabbing her purse and cat-eye sunglasses and pushing past him. She knew better than to let him in—or get trapped in a doorway by him. Her momma hadn’t raised a fool. “My stove is perfectly fine. Now if you’ll excuse me, I have somewhere to be.”
“Hot date?’ Larry asked, following her down the stairs as she made her way to the apartment’s fading court-yard. The bricks that laid the path were old and crumbling, the ancient fountain had once glittered with indigo blue tiles, but they’d faded almost to a sky blue with time.
Maddy ignored him, walking briskly towards the gate that led to the street. “I hope you find whoever’s stove isn’t working,” she said, keying her code into the gate and grabbing the handle.
Without another word, she walked out onto the sidewalk, losing herself in the bustle if the city, that was coming alive now that night had fallen.
Maddy took an Uber to the bar. Harvey’s was a cozy little place she and Nat had used to go to in college. It made her smile to remember as she paid her driver and got out of the car, staring up at the small brick building and flickering Neon sign, tucked away between a Thai grocery story and a empty storefront.
When she got inside and scanned the dimly lit room, she caught sight of the familiar mess of jet black hair in the back. “Nat!” she called.
Nat’s head whipped around, her extraordinary hair bouncing at the movement. “Maddy!”
Maddy crossed the bar at a skip, throwing her arms around her best friend. “I’ve missed you so much!”
“Not as much as I’ve missed you,” Nat declared, hugging her tight.
When they graduated, Maddy had stayed in Portland, but Nat had been offered an opportunity at what had been a start-up back then. It was an amazing opportunity, there was just one catch: she’d have to move to New York.
So Maddy had lost her best friend to the East Coast. It had been hard, because the two had been best friends since kindergarten and bonded over standing up to the class bully, an odious little girl named Caitlyn. But they’d visited and skyped and texted at all hours.
When she got the call from Nat a few months ago, telling her that the entire company she worked for was moving their offices to Portland, she was overjoyed. She’d missed Nat so much—especially in the last few months.
Going through a break-up without your best friend at your side was the pits.
“I’m so sorry I wasn’t able to pick you up at the airport,” Maddy said as they sat down in the back booth of the bar. Nat had already ordered her a martini with a twist, and she took a sip. Dry as a bone. Just the way she liked it.
“No worries at all, my parents would’ve tried to fight you for the right, anyway,” Nat said with a laugh.
“They must be so happy to have you home.”
“Mom’s ecstatic. She’s been planning my coming-home party for weeks. Dad’s still asking “Are you sure you want to keep working at that company, Natalie?”” She lowered her voice in an imitation of her father’s low, concerned rumble, making Maddy giggle.
“He’s still hung up on the whole “you work for a company that makes sex toys” thing?”
“He’s a lot better than he was before,” Nat said. “But it embarrasses him. He still tells people I’m the CFO of a manufacturing company.”
“Do you have a problem with that?” Maddy asked.
Nat shrugged. “Not really,” she said. “He has his boundaries. As long as he’s not slut-shaming anyone for their choices, he can be vague about what we actually manufacture.”
“CFO in five years” Maddy said, feeling a burst of pride just thinking about it. Nat had accomplished so much since college. “You’re amazing, Nat.”
“Oh god, don’t, or I’ll start crying,” Nat said. “Tell me about you! How’s work? How’s David?”
Anyone else, Maddy maybe would’ve been able to keep the mask on, keep her game face going. But this was Nat. She had held her hair back when she puked from drinking too much schnapps in college and held her tight when her Grandmother died. Nat had once instigated a water balloon fight in their dorm and when they ran out of balloons, they started using condoms. She knew every silly little secret, every embarrassing story, every heart-break.
She saw right through Maddy’s fake smile. She set her glass of wine down, her green eyes growing serious. “Uh oh, what happened?”
Maddy let out a breath. One of those, deep exhausted ones that kind of fluttered your lips because you were just too damn tired to try to be elegant right then. “Philman Pharmaceuticals got raided by the FBI a month ago. Turns out Philman was doing all sorts of fraud in order to pay for his affair, so I’m out of a job and no one will hire me. And two months before that, David dumped me. Because he said I liked sex too much.”
Nat’s eyes got so big they looked like they were going to swallow up her whole face. She raised her hand up, signaling the waitress. “We’re going to need two more,” she said. “And keep ‘em coming.”
Nat always knew exactly what to say.
“You don’t have a job? Or a boyfriend? And you didn’t tell me?! And what is this about you liking sex too much? What does that even mean?”
Maddy downed the rest of her martini in two gulps. “No job.” She said, fishing the twist of lemon rind out of the bottom of her glass. “No boyfriend. And certainly no sex.” God, she missed sex. She didn’t even really miss David, which probably meant he was right about her. But she missed sex. Not really with David. Just…in general.
“Okay, back the heck up,” Nat said. “Were you and David having problems? You never said anything.”
“I was embarrassed,” Maddy admitted. She still was. Her cheeks were getting red even thinking about it. About the things he’d said to her. About how she kept trying to make things work, instead of realizing he was treating her terribly and taking his own frustration out on her.
“Was he having, like, problems?” Nat asked. “Or did he just have a low libido?”
“I don’t even know,” Maddy said hopelessly. “Every time I tried to have a gentle, loving, open conversation about it, he’d just dissolve into anger. It got to the point where I wouldn’t bring it up and just took whatever affection he decided to give me. But then…” her cheeks got even redder as she thought back.
He’d stopped by unexpectedly. He had a key, so he just let himself in.
And found her in bed with her vibrator.
He’d exploded. She’d never seen him so angry. He’d always been touchy about toys when she even mentioned them, so she’d never even suggested incorporating them in their sex life. But when she was on her own, she liked to give herself some alone time. She’d been needing a lot of time with her vibrator in that last year of their relationship, as he seemed less and less interested in her.
The fight that had followed was the ugliest they’d ever had—and the last. He’d stormed off into the night and he hadn’t come back. Not that Maddy wanted him to.
Some things you just couldn’t unhear. Having being told she got too wet and that it was a turn-off that she wanted sex so much sent a chill down her spine. It made her wonder if that meant David was looking for someone who didn’t enjoy sex. Or if it was just his insecurities that was making him say it, making him blame her for all their problems, insisting that her libido was abnormal for a woman.
When she told this all to Nat, she watched as her friend’s green eyes began to glow hot with anger. “What a misgoynistic pig!” she spat when Maddy finished. “Look, it’s one thing if you two had mis-matched libidos. A relationship like that can work, but it requires communication, like all relationships. He had every right to reject sex or to say no. But he didn’t have the right to shame you for your sexual feelings or needs. Especially when you repeatedly tried to approach him lovingly about this.”
“It’s just been such a sucky few months,” Maddy confessed as the waitress slid another martini in front of her. “I’ve been looking and looking for a new job, but with Philman as my last employer, I’m afraid I’m gonna get blacklisted. It was all over the papers.”
“Let me ask around,” Nat said. “I still have a lot of connections in Portland and I need to start networking now that I’m in town, anyway.”
Maddy felt a rush of gratitude. Getting a job so often was about who you knew. And Nat was a big deal now. “That would be amazing,” she said.
“Not a problem,” Nat assured her. “It’s the least I could do, for all those nights I sexiled you in the dorms.”
Maddy laughed. “You weren’t as bad as Lucy’s roommate, remember? I don’t think she spent more than two days in a row in her own bed, poor thing.”
“Oh god, I’d forgotten about Lucy,” Nat said. “Did you know she opened her own line of organic baby food products in LA? Apparently she’s gone all hippie on us.”
“You’re kidding,” Maddy said.
As the two of them fell into their always-familiar rhythm, trading stories of old friends, sharing tales of new ones, Maddy felt a little bit of hope uncurl inside her.
Maybe things were looking brighter.
“Things are a shitshow,” was the first thing Zoe, Carter’s assistant said when the doors dinged open and he stepped out of the elevator and into the plush lobby of the new Purely Pleasure offices. She automatically took his side as he made his way through the hallways, towards his office in the back.
“I have three messages from board members,” Zoe continued, trotting along beside him. She was short, “teacup sized” as she always put it with a wry grin. He’d spent the first six months she worked for him modifying his lanky stride when she walked beside him, not wanting to be leaving her in the dust. But she’d proven herself to be quick on her feet—figuratively and literally.
“Two of our IT guys are stuck in traffic because there’s an accident on one of the bridges,” Zoe continued. “Don’t ask me which one. This place seems full of clouds and bridges. Half of the computers still haven’t been delivered and I have yet to find decent coffee, so you’re going to have to suffer with what I grabbed across the street.” She handed him a to-go cup. “Also the stuff from your New York office is…somewhere.”
“Somewhere?” he echoed.
“I haven’t quite located it,” Zoe confessed. “Thus the vagueness. I will find it, though. I know it’s been delivered to the building. I just don’t know where.”
“We only have one floor, Zoe,” he said.
“I’ll find it,” she promised, as they came to a halt outside his office door. “Your tablet is on your desk, loaded with your itinerary today. Oh, and, Rebecca called and said she isn’t coming.”
She said this last sentence in a rush of words, like she had to force them out before she lost the nerve.
Carter closed his eyes, taking a deep, cleansing breath.
Remember, you’re doing this for Olivia and for Mom and Jake, he told himself. They need you here. Not in New York. This is the only way.
“What do you mean, she said she wasn’t coming?”
“Just that,” Zoe said, biting her lip, looking at him worriedly. His social media manager had been reluctant to leave her life in New York. He’d offered her an excellent moving bonus, but told her he understood if she wanted to stay. She’d taken the job, but he’d always worried the move to Portland would be too much for her. And now it looked like that concern was warranted. “She said she was sorry. But she’d gotten another offer and she needed to pursue it.”
“Fuck,” Carter swore softly, rubbing a hand over his close-cropped hair. “Okay. Thanks, Zoe.”
“Ms. Sloane is waiting for you in your office,” Zoe said, before turning and disappearing down the hall, probably in search of his missing office things.
He opened the door to his office, finding Nat sitting in the lone chair set in an empty room.
“I love what you’ve done with the place,” Nat drawled, spinning in lazy circles in his desk chair. “Zoe tell you about Rebecca?”
“Yep,” Carter said. “I have no idea where I’m going to find a social media manager this late in the game. Rebecca was about to unveil a whole new campaign for the subscription boxes.”
“Well, I might actually have a solution for that,” Nat said.
“Oh?” Carter asked.
Nat was one of his oldest employees—she’d started at Purely Pleasure when it was just a start-up, barely a glimmer in his eyes. She’d worked for him back when he was merely an inventor, fiddling around with making a better sex toy, because why not. Before he became Carter Daniels, master of pleasure.
God, that New York Times article was going to be the death of him. It made him want to roll his eyes every time he thought about it. It had been a gushing review of his products and it had propelled the business forward when it desperately needed it, but it had also painted him as some sort of purveyor of countless orgasms.
Well, you kind of are, Nat had pointed out to him at the time.
She’d been his vice-president and CFO for three years and he couldn’t ask for anyone better. He relied on her more and more, especially when he took over as CEO last year, which pulled him away from his inventing—something he sorely missed. When he’d told her he wanted the entire company to Portland, where they manufactured their products and had a small, solid workforce and their flagship store already, she’d been one of the few people to be behind him one-hundred percent.
When it came to business, it was rare to have loyal people. And Nat was loyal.
“I actually have a friend who’s looking for a job,” Nat said. “Madeline Craine. She majored in communications and advertising in college and she did the social media for A Million Little Hearts, that clothing line that took off a few years ago? ModCloth and Anthropologie picked it up and all sorts of magazines featured it?”
“I’ll take your word for it,” Carter said dryly, taking a sip of his coffee. It was terrible, like Zoe had warned. But he kept drinking it anyway.
“Anyway, Maddy is a big reason they took off the way they did. She designed this scavenger hunt to reveal the new line that a lot of people got into and the whole thing ended up going viral. When the company moved their operation to San Francisco, they wanted Maddy to go, but she’s really close to her family. She didn’t want to leave Portland.”
“If you think she’d be a good choice, then by all means, call her in for an interview,” Carter said. “We need someone competent and clever as soon as possible. Rebecca left us dangling in the wind and the subscription box reveal is just six months away.”
“Got it,” Carter said. “I’ll have Zoe set up the interview on your schedule for tomorrow. You’ll love Maddy. Everyone does.”
She got up from the chair, flipping back her riot of black curls with a flourish. “Any idea when the rest of the computers are coming?”
“Ask Zoe, she’s got all the records and tracking numbers,” Carter said, glancing down at his desk as his phone rang. Mom, the phone screen said. “I’ve got to take this,” he said.
“I’ll go find Zoe,” she said, walking towards the door. “Oh, and Carter?”
She smiled. “It’s good to be home.”
Maddy tugged nervously at the hem of her cream colored sheath dress. It was one of the nicest business-casual dresses she owned, with cap sleeves and an asymmetrical neckline, but she was kind of tall.
Okay, she was more than kind of tall. She was Tall. With a capital T. Five foot ten if she was slumping and over six feet in a decent pair of heels, which really thrilled the men she dated.
She sighed, pulling the hem again. The problem with being tall and having a long torso was everything was just a little too short. Even when it was designed to hit at the knee. She normally got her clothes tailored, but she’d hadn’t found the time to get this one altered and then she couldn’t afford it.
You should’ve worn the black dress, she thought. But the black dress made her look somber and that wasn’t something the head of a sex toy company was looking for in his social media manager.
Maddy still couldn’t believe that Nat had got her this interview. When her best friend had called with the news, Maddy thought she was joking at first. And then she’d had a flash, and David’s words echoed in her head: You like sex way too much. It’s disgusting. It’s like you’re obsessed. No one wants to marry a slut.
Did she really want to work for a sex toy company? Would this be proving David’s words right? She knew it shouldn’t matter to her, she kept telling herself that. But she couldn’t shake what he said out of her mind, no matter how hard she tried.
Then she had thought about her quickly dwindling savings and how she’d installed two extra chains on the door just in case Larry the landlord decided to graduate from creepy to dangerous and had asked Nat what time she needed to be there.
Screw David. Or rather, not. Ever again. Thank goodness.
Maddy looked up from her hem tugging to see one of the prettiest—and tiniest—women she’d ever seen. She had beautiful olive skin and black hair, cropped short to her head and the hem of her skirt hit her knees perfectly.
“Yes,” she said, getting up, acutely aware of how she towered over her.
“Carter will see you now. Just follow me.”
Maddy followed her down a wide hallway, all the way to the end, where there was an oak door. She knocked lightly on it and then opened it. “Carter, Ms. Craine is here for her interview. Can I get either of you anything? Tea? Coffee? Water?”
“I’m fine, thank you,” Maddy said.
“I’m good, Zoe,” said a rumbling masculine voice, so low and deep that it sent shivers through her as she stepped inside the office.
Carter Daniels wasn’t sitting behind a desk like she expected. Probably because there was no desk in the room. There was a phone, hooked up and set on the floor, and two chairs and that was it.
She was taken aback at how empty the office was, so much so that for a moment, she didn’t quite register the man himself.
Then he got to his feet, and honest to god, right then and there, Maddy’s knees went absolutely, positively weak.
Because Carter Daniels? Was the yummiest, handsomest, hottest, most delicious hunk of man she’d ever seen in her life.
He towered over her the way she’d towered over his bite-sized assistant. His light brown hair was short and a little messy, his lips smiling as his green eyes met hers. He had kind of profile you put on coins, and set on that perfect nose was a pair of glasses.
Oh, the glasses. Simple, square rectangles set in silver frames. But that’s what was doing it for her. Not that the whole package wasn’t amazing. But those glasses.
She’d always had a thing for geeky guys. The ones who used their brains and their hands. And this particular geek had all the goods.
Carter Daniels wasn’t just famous for leading the sex toy market and constantly topping even himself, but he was infamous. Rumors about him—about the women he’d been with—abounded. Some said he was the greatest lover since Lothario himself, though Maddy had been pretty sure that was just hyperbole.
At least, until she saw the man in the flesh. Then she wondered if maybe there was some credence to that rumor. Because…damn.
“You must be Madeline,” he said.
Oh god. Had she been standing there gaping at him with a stupid expression on her face? Was she drooling? Or worse, licking her lips like a she-wolf ready to pounce?
Get your shit together, she scolded herself.
“It’s wonderful to meet you. Mr. Daniels,” she said, smiling and holding out her hand.
“Apologies for the spartan atmosphere,” he said, taking her hand and shaking it. He had callouses along the base of his fingers and along the edge of his thumb. It caught against her skin as they drew apart. She wanted to shiver at the sensation, at the warmth that little touch of his roughness against her softness sent shooting through her, but she managed to suppress it. “I just touched down in Portland yesterday. My assistant is still trying to track down our computers. And our furniture. And apparently my manners,” he added, with a rueful smile, motioning to the chair. “Please, sit.”
Maddy sat, trying to maneuver in a way so she didn’t flash too much leg. Damn this dress. She crossed her ankles, placing her hands in her lap, hoping there’d be a opening to surreptitiously tug her hem down.
“You’ve caught us in a major transition, obviously,” he said. “I had expected our social media manager from New York to be following us, but it seems that won’t be the case. So I’m looking for someone who can start immediately and really hit the ground running. We’re six months away from releasing our first subscription box of toys and I only have a preliminary social media campaign that our advertising company has designed. It would be your job to design the roll out online, from the ground up.”
“That sounds like an incredible challenge,” Maddy said. She hadn’t realized she’d have so much freedom to really implement her ideas in this way. It was an exciting thought. Her last job had been very regimented and frankly, boring before the whole boss-committed-fraud thing.
“Do you like challenges?” he asked.
“I like having a goal,” Maddy said. “Working hard towards something. Bettering myself. You only have one life, after all. You might as well live it striving to be the best you can be.”
“I like that attitude,” he said. “I understand you have a background in advertising?”
Maddy nodded. “It’s what I studied in college. And I did a year at an advertising firm in Seattle.”
“But you didn’t stay in advertising. Why not?”
She hesitated, thinking about all the times Nat had talked about this man with admiration and respect. “Do you want me to be honest?” she asked.
He leaned back in his own chair, a curious look shimmering in those forest-green eyes. “Always,” he said.
“Advertising is a giant boy’s club. I got tired of being treated like a second class citizen by men who didn’t have even a fifth of my talent. And I got really tired of my work getting rejected in favor of sexist ads.”
Her heart was thrashing in her chest. She probably shouldn’t have said it. But it was the truth. She had been great at advertising, but she didn’t want to spend her entire life fighting even more than a typical woman had to. She didn’t want to spend her career being belittled and disrespected and not listened to, or even worse, stolen from.
“Understandable,” he said. “I hear a lot of the same complaints from women in STEM fields.”
Relief flooded her, at his easy acceptance of her truth, of how he acknowledgement it, instead of denying it or dismissing it. “It can be tough out there,” she said. “That’s honestly why I was excited when I heard of this job opening. Natalie has always spoken about working here with such joy and pride. I know it sounds cheesy, but I never hear her complaining about her job. And if you know Nat—“
“She likes to complain,” he finished.
They smiled at each other and Maddy had to look down, break the gaze as her cheeks began to turn pink.
“You’ve seen our ads,” Carter said. “And our social media presence. What’s your opinion?”
This time, she didn’t hesitate. This was a man who put aiming for success and growth in front of his own ego. He listened. “I think some of it’s been great and the subscription box idea is gold, but it’s clear that you’ve still got a uphill climb with the millennial market.”
“That’s what my data says, as well,” he said, his voice warm with approval. “So how would you tackle bringing in that market?”
“Like I said, it can be tough out there. We’re all feeling it. The way to bring in the millennial market is to approach us through either humor or through what we care about. Do a campaign that’s a whole wry wink to the fact that we’re all so stressed and over-worked. Stuck in another dead-end internship? Rent being raised again? Distract yourself with an orgasm practically delivered to your door! And so forth. Something cheeky, that will get them clicking to read more. Shelling out 20 dollars for a subscription box is a lot easier after a cute video’s made you laugh.”
“And what about causes they care about?”
“You’re not very public about your charity,” Maddy said. “You donate to select causes, listed on your web site, but that’s all. It’s time to get involved in a real way. A majority of your buyers are women and unless there’s a huge change in the market, that’s likely always going to be the case. Young women are more informed now than ever. They’re fighting every day of their lives, because this world isn’t kind to them. And they’re finding more and more ways to have their voices heard and they have more and more ways to listen to other’s voices and viewpoints. Now, I’m not telling you to just get involved in a charity because it’s good PR. That’s gross. But you should find causes you and your employees believe in and start making a difference. That will cause a ripple effect, because millennials care about where they spend their money, because they often have so little of it. That is how you bring them in.”
“I see,” he said, in an inscrutable way that told her nothing. “I just have one more question.”
He leaned forward, his glasses glinting in the light. Her stomach swooped, her insides going all hot and liquid, as yet again she registered just how handsome he was.
“Can you start tomorrow?”
Happiness flooded her. Seriously? He was just going to offer her the job, right here?
“That depends,” she said, unable to stop the wide smile from spreading across her face. “Do you think I’ll have a computer by then?”
He laughed. “I’ll make sure of it,” he promised.
She had the feeling he was the kind of man who kept his promises.