The other day I was telling someone about Winner Takes All, and they asked me if I was going to do a series with it, and I said, well, it’s already loosely part of a series. Then it occurred to me, I hadn’t quite made that clear.
The Romance: Trysts series is four short stories that are seemingly disparate, but the people in each story share at least one connection with someone in another story. For example, the Mrs. Sinn character in Dr. Carter and Mrs. Sinn [FREE] is the friend who tells Blair about the painting in Tristan & Blair. The connections are pretty loose, but I’ve known they were there, and thought I’d like to do longer pieces in the same universe and better connect the dots.
Winner Takes All is the first book in that wider universe. In Winner Takes All, you see Nikki and Mike from the second Trysts story. It’s fun that we get to see more of Nikki in this book (as the short is Nikki’s story), and more of course the main character in Winner Takes All is Tina, Nikki’s best friend.
So, if you’ve read Nikki & Mike and want a tad more, definitely check out Winner Takes All. If you’ve read Winner Takes All and are curious about the other tale, definitely check out Nikki & Mike.
As for other tales in the original trysts series, my next is to delve into Tristan & Blair‘s universe, looking at Blair’s sister, and of course, we’d see Tristan and Blair as well. I don’t know when I’m going to get to this. I have another in the fairy tales series that I need to complete, and so I need to figure out where to focus my energy.
If you have any thoughts on what you’d like to see next (Red Rider, based on a Little Red Riding Hood/Robin Hood hybrid) or the Tristan/Blair universe, let me know.
Thanks all for bearing with me and giving me the energy to stop procrastinating and just finish up Winner Takes All. The book is now published. It’s available on Amazon for $2.99 or free for Kindle Unlimited subscribers.
As a bonus, I thought I’d leave you with one last chapter. Take care.
Chapter 9 – Guilt
She had good ideas. She’d come up with several tactics to market Santiago’s. A lot were low cost, but also very effective.
The problem was, she felt guilty. Tina looked out her office window at the sunny Tuesday morning, and all the happy people below. Only, Tina was sure Javi — as his family had called him — wasn’t happy. He’d looked horrified when he’d realized what she’d come to do. And the truth was, she hadn’t actually thought it would work — courting Santiago’s. She really just wanted to show Javier that she had the chutzpah to play against him on his home turf. A little bit of turnabout was always fair play, right?
She hadn’t expected the father to accept her offer, but the mention of nepotism had apparently hit the right button. In his office, he’d told her that Ben had everything handed to him, and he’d tried to raise a son who worked hard for his own. “I appreciate the fact that someone works hard, and I can tell you’re that kind of woman. Let’s give this a try.”
She’d been surprised, but she’d also appreciated it. For a moment, she’d even bought into the idea that Javier was falling prey to his uncle’s spoiled sloth. Only, when she saw his face, when she saw the hurt, she’d almost turned back and told the elder Santiago she didn’t want the account. Almost. But she needed this job. It was all she had. Well, not all she had. She had her mother, too. Ruby had been clean and sober for two years now. She’d been there when her own mother, Tina’s grandmother, had gotten sick. Ruby had promised to be there for Tina, and even though Tina didn’t really trust her mother’s word, the woman had been a steady presence in recent months.
And even though Josef Santiago had hired her, he still loved his son. That was evident, despite everything else. Josef’s office was covered in pictures of him with his family. You didn’t go to that office every day and look at those photos and not love your family. Javier would have something to fall back on. He’d have that loving father if all else went to hell. Tina only had herself. And she thought Josef understood that. It’s probably why he did this.
She took a deep breath. She wouldn’t let Josef down. Whatever hurt Javier was feeling, he’d get over it. She opened a new document on her computer and started typing.
* * *
It had been a pretty good morning. Tina had some effective strategies she could propose to Josef Santiago, and she’d made a few more client calls. Time for lunch. Tina was about to head out to eat her sandwich and chips at the park across the street, when there was a knock at her door.
“Come in,” she called. The door opened, and in walked Javier.
“Did you have a minute?” he asked, shutting the door behind him.
She wondered if maybe she’d misjudged him. He seemed contrite as he entered. His father had given her a shot last night, so maybe he was a decent guy at heart. Perhaps he’d taken after his father’s side of the family, rather than Ben’s. Maybe he just wanted to start fresh. “Sure,” she said, motioning to him to have a seat in the chair on the other side of her desk.
Javier walked over to her desk, but he didn’t sit. Instead, he stood over her, leaned forward, and said in a low voice, “You got the best of me last night, but it won’t happen again. I’m onto you now, and I won’t forget.”
Tina squinted up at him. She wasn’t even sure why she thought he’d wanted peace. For the briefest of seconds, she wondered if it had been she who wanted to bury the hatchet so she didn’t feel responsible for wounding him the way she so clearly had. But that was moot. He’d come to ratchet things up a level. She stood and looked him in the eye. “What I did pales in comparison to what you did,” she said.
Javier took a step back, confusion marring his face. “All I did was be nice to you.”
“You tried to get me drunk Sunday night, hoping I’d be off my game when you showed up and introduced yourself the next day.”
He shook his head. “I had no idea who you were,” he said too loudly.
“Really?” she said, her face a picture of disbelief. And while outwardly it was clear she thought he was lying, internally, as she watched his expression of shock, she briefly wondered if he could be telling the truth. Was he really in the dark about who she was when they met? “I guess when your uncle owns the place, you don’t bother to do any homework on who’s going to be at your new office. Looking at the profiles on the company website to see who you’ll be working with is just completely unnecessary, eh?”
Anger — with a hint of shame — flashed on his face, and then it was gone. She was pretty sure he actually hadn’t bothered to look at the employee profiles on the Taylor and Thompson site.
“I don’t have anything else to say to you,” he said, turned and walked out of her office.
That was bad. She shouldn’t have fought back. She should have just moved on. Instead, she’d let him get under her skin. He’d managed to crawl there the first night they’d met, yet for reasons she’d hoped would be entirely different. Now he was there gnawing at her, and not in a good way. What she needed was a good lay. A guy who could help her relieve some of the tension while not being clingy or needy. She needed to concentrate on her job right now. Unfortunately, she’d never gotten involved in one of those friends with benefits situations, and she didn’t have a single soul to call for this.
She supposed a good toy would have to do. She had a faithful go-to item, but it was a bit old. She figured she’d order a new one. She had free two-day shipping. She was opening the Amazon app on her cell phone when her office phone rang.
“Tina Jackson speaking,” she said. “How can I help you?”
“You can go on a date,” Nikki said on the other end.
Tina leaned back in her chair as she entered the search on her cell phone while talking on the landline. “That’s how I can help you?” she asked, quite dubious.
“Yes,” Nikki said. “Mike ran into a friend of his from college the other day. He just moved back to town and is looking for some female companionship. And I know you’re looking for some male companionship…”
Tina shook her head. A few options appeared on her phone screen. But were they better options than what Nikki was proposing? “True, I’m looking for someone, but right now, my job is too hectic. I don’t want to get involved with anyone for real. Not until I nail down this VP thing.”
Nikki sighed. “Really?” she asked. “Are you sure, because I think you’d really like him.”
Tina cradled the phone closer. “Do tell. What do you think I’d like?”
“Well, he’s handsome, he’s got a great sense of humor, and he’s ambitious”
“How long have you known him?”
“Mike knew him all through undergrad, and they sorta lost touch, but I did meet him briefly and he was smoking hot,” she said.
Smoking hot. Tina could use smoking hot. She sighed, and tapped her phone to add one of the toys to her shopping cart. She might as well hedge her bets. “Alright,” she said. “Maybe this weekend. I’ll give him a try.”
“Yes,” Nikki said, her voice brimming with joy. “You’re going to love him.”
Tina looked up from her phone and considered the tenor of the conversation. “Why is it that you’re so happy about this? I mean, it’s just a blind date.”
Nikki paused a moment. “It’s just that I’m happy, and I want you to be happy, too. Besides, I’ve missed two years of match-making while Mike and I were living in Oklahoma. I just want to get back on the horse.”
Tina laughed. “Back on the horse. You’ve been in Oklahoma too long, sweetie.” She looked at the clock on her phone. “Listen, I need to get some work done. But I’ll call you when I get home.”
So, this should be the final chapter I post online. It’s one of those sorry-not sorry moments. I finished up all the final touches on the book’s editing, including cleaning up a few consistency issues I found in stuff that was posted here. It’s doing a final formatting, and the whole thing should be available on Amazon starting Tuesday or Wednesday (at the latest).
Enjoy chapter 8, and I hope you’ve liked what you read enough to enjoy the rest of the book.
~ ~ ~
Chapter 8 – Cojones
When Javier had told his mother this morning that he’d stop by the restaurant tonight, he’d actually been excited about seeing Tina. But, given how the day went, he was pretty sure she had zero plans to show up. Let her tell it, he had somehow ruined her triumph.
Part of him felt sympathetic. She’d clearly been told she could have the VP post, but by one half of the partnership. His uncle had never agreed to that. He’d broached the subject briefly with Uncle Ben in the afternoon, and Ben had called Tina a wild card. Good with on-the-ground stuff, and a real whiz at campaigns that were grass root-ish and got young people involved, but not as good at the slick, traditional marketing sector. Yes, times were changing and “new technology needed to be embraced, but you can’t forget the tried and trues of getting people to take notice,” Ben had told him.
Tina had wanted the job and good for her, but Javier was here now. And he wasn’t the reason she hadn’t gotten it. She hadn’t gotten it because Ben didn’t fully trust her. She needed to suck it up and deal, like a grown up. He’d already been burned by one woman who believed she deserved to be top dog and played dirty to get her way. Finding out about Tina today had to have been a blessing in disguise.
He sighed, as he entered the back door of Santiago’s, ending up in the kitchen. He nodded hello to a couple of the regular chefs, guys who’d been there when he’d been in college. He walked through to the back office, looking for his mother. She said she’d be in, but he didn’t find her.
Javier went out to the main dining area. Pretty empty. But Mondays tended to be on the lighter side. No music tonight. Just great food. He glanced over at the bar and saw Tina. Unexpected, but for some reason he smiled. He was glad she was there. Maybe he’d misjudged her. Maybe she wasn’t a spoiled diva who thought she deserved whatever she wanted. She must have realized her anger at him was misplaced. She’d come to dinner. Though, in retrospect, he’d asked her to come whether she was celebrating or commiserating. Perhaps they could commiserate together.
He sidled over to her, a grin on his face, confidence in his step, and leaned on the bar. She turned to him, raised an eyebrow, her mouth a hostile line.
His cheer oozed out like a deflating balloon, but he managed— just barely— to keep the smile on his face. She needn’t see his disappointment. “I’m surprised to see you here,” he said, his voice upbeat.
“Well,” she said, picking up her drink, which looked like something fizzy and non-alcoholic, perhaps a ginger ale, and took a sip. “I thought about what you said today and decided I should come.”
He sat down on the bar stool next to her, looking her over. She was still in her work suit. She hadn’t gone home to change. “What is it that I said that stuck with you?”
She opened her mouth to answer, but then a familiar voice called her name. “Ms. Jackson,” the voice said. Josef Santiago — tall, pudgy, and wearing a short-sleeved shirt that showed off his hairy arms and accentuated his belly paunch — was striding toward them. “Javi?” his father said.
Javier cringed, wishing his father wouldn’t call him that. He was a grown man. Javi was the name of a child. Like Timmy or Tommy or Benny. At some point, you outgrew that shit. He felt his jaw tighten as he spoke to his father. “Yeah, Dad, it’s me.”
Josef Santiago looked from his son to Tina, and then back. “If you’re here as backup, to try to sway me, that’s not going to work.”
“Sway you?” he asked.
Tina smiled and stood, walked toward Javier’s father and shook his hand. “Mr. Santiago, I’m actually here independent of your son. At Taylor & Thompson, we each have individual accounts. As I mentioned to you, I’ve worked there for eight years and have a wealth of experience turning small mom-and-pop businesses into the next trendy location. I think our firm could do wonders for you.”
As what she was doing sank in, Javier felt the heat rise in him. “Are you trying to get my dad’s restaurant as a customer?”
“Yes,” she admitted without the slightest hint of shame. “Of course. This is a wonderful establishment, which I learned of for the first time last night. And as you told me today, it’s not your fault they decided not to hire me for the VP job they promised me would be available. Them hiring you doesn’t impact me. My boss told me if I want to be the VP to bring in some new clients. So here I am, working on that. Hard work. Not nepotism. I don’t have an Uncle Ben to look after me. My Uncle Ben only offers me rice, not jobs that negatively affect other people.”
Javier could feel the vein throbbing in his neck. She had some nerve. Her hard stare was an indication that she had no intention of backing down. If he wasn’t so fucking mad, he might find that look a complete turn on. Like, I want to throw you down on the floor and take you right now turn on. But he was that mad, and no matter how hot Tina was, she wasn’t going to make a fool of him.
“My father’s not interested,” Javier said. He turned to his dad, and his eyes pleaded with him, just this once, to back him. Just this one time, stand with him, rather than against him.
Josef looked at Javier, then at Tina. “I didn’t say that, son.”
He glared at his father. Of course. He should’ve just kept his fucking mouth shut. Or contradicted her, told his dad that doing this would help him out immensely. He opened his mouth to ask his father if they could go to his office and talk.
“Javi,” he heard his mother’s voice call from behind. He turned and she was coming towards him, her arms outstretched. His mother was a hugger. A serious hugger. Every time she saw someone she knew, she wrapped her arms around them. It didn’t matter that she’d last seen the person. Five minutes ago, five hours ago, or five years ago, the next time she saw a person, they got a hug. The only thing the length of absence determined was the length of the hug. Since he’d seen her last night, their hug was brief.
“I’m so glad you came,” his mother said. She was a thin, blonde woman with a pale complexion, a dainty nose and a friendly demeanor. “How’d it go? I didn’t want to call Ben, because y’know, it’s not right for me to ask him. But, I was so anxious. Tell me everything.”
Everything. Where to start? Oh, yeah. How about that chica with cojones the size of bowling balls who decided to come steal his father as a client. He turned back to the bar and saw that his father and Tina were gone. What the hell? Where did they go just that quickly?
“Where’s dad?” he asked.
His mother frowned. “I don’t know,” she said, irritated. “I’m the one who’s talking to you right now. I want to hear about the job. You have to tell me everything.”
He wished he could, but he needed to find Tina and his dad, first. The last thing he needed was his father agreeing to work with her. He’d never live down that shame if that happened. He slowly turned 360, scanning the restaurant for signs of his father or Tina. He didn’t see them. His father had probably taken her to his office. “Mierda,” he cursed.
“Javi,” his mother said. “Watch your language.”
He dipped his head in apology. “Lo siento,” he said. “I just need to talk to dad before he makes a mistake.”
His mother eyed him dubiously. “Your father’s very competent,” she said, touching his cheek with her hand, trying to direct his face toward her, rather than searching the room with what futile shreds of hope he had left that his father hadn’t screwed him over. “What kind of mistake do you think he’s about to make?”
He pulled away from his mother and headed toward the rear of the building, where his father’s office was. He ignored his mother’s irritated call of Javi and walked as fast as he could to the back, where he barged into the office, without even knocking. He entered in time to see Tina shaking hands with his father.
“It’s been a pleasure,” his father said, presumably to Tina, but he’d looked up at Javier just as he’d uttered “pleasure.”
Tina turned and spied Javier. She flashed him a cat-who-ate-the-canary grin and then said to Josef. “Mr. Santiago, I don’t want to keep you any longer. I’m going to go home and get started. I’ll call you tomorrow so we can talk further.”
Javier stood there, speechless, seething. He wasn’t sure who he was angrier at: Tina or his father. He’d done nothing to her to deserve this kind of attack. And surely, she knew it was an attack. A direct hit. Yet his father was worse. He’d gone along with her to ensure the death blow.
She was standing right in front of him now, still smiling, still looking satisfied. “Excuse me,” she said.
“There is no excuse for what you just did,” he whispered, the anger hurtling out in each word.
Her smile faded, and for the first time tonight, she looked like she was having second thoughts, like she realized the depths of what she had done.
“I—” she started, then took a step back.
He waited, his eyes staring daggers at her. If he were that kind of man, he might have actually laid hands on her. But Javier wasn’t that kind of man. He would never touch a woman in anger. Instead, all he could do was offer this glacial hatred that radiated outward, chilling everything in its path.
Tina swallowed. “I meant, excuse me because you’re blocking the door,” she said softly.
He looked at his surroundings. She was right. He was standing right in the middle of the doorway. There was no way she could leave unless he moved. He had a good mind to stand there a minute more, make her live with the discomfort, make her stare at the wreckage of what she’d done. But he didn’t want to give her the satisfaction. He didn’t want her to relish in her triumph by remembering just how childishly he’d behaved. He took one last look at her. He had no more illusions about who she was. All women in this business were the same: heartless and cutthroat. He stepped aside, and she left. She didn’t even bother to look back and say goodbye to Josef.
Once she was gone, he stepped closer to his father, fully prepared to ask him, “Why?” Why on earth would he humiliate him like this? But, as he opened his mouth, he heard the door close behind them and turned to see his mother standing there, a scowl on her face.
“What is going on?” Cathy Santiago asked, looking at her son and then her husband.
Finally, he thought. His mother would fix this. He pointed to his father. “He signed up the restaurant to advertise with Uncle Ben’s firm, using that woman, instead of me.” He couldn’t even bring himself to say Tina’s name.
Cathy looked at her husband, scrunched up her face in confusion. “You hired Ben’s firm to market us?”
His father seemed to recognize he was in trouble and simply nodded. Trying to explain things to Cathy when you were clearly in the wrong was a bad idea.
“Why would you do that, Josef?” Cathy asked her husband.
He shrugged and said, “Because she asked.”
“Ben has asked you before, and you said no”
“And she reminds me of me,” Josef said. “She works hard, she comes from nothing, and she just wants a chance to prove herself. She doesn’t mind putting in the grunt work. She just wants to be given a fair shot.”
Javier saw his mother’s eyes softening at the explanation. Hell no. “I’m your son,” he interjected. “If he was going to go with Taylor & Thompson, he should have gone with me.”
“You didn’t ask me,” his father said.
Javier glared at his father. “You didn’t give me a chance.”
Josef raised an eyebrow. “Were you planning on asking me?”
No. But he didn’t want to say that. Frankly, Tina had beat him at his own game on this. He knew damned well his father’s restaurant was a great prospect, but he’d also known his father had said no to Ben on multiple occasions. He also knew his father didn’t respect people who used their family connections to get things done. So, there was no point in asking his father. It would have been a failed mission.
“See,” his father said, as Javier had spent too long thinking. “He had no intention of asking me, yet he gets upset when a hard-working young woman comes in here and asks.” Josef pointed a finger at his son. “Don’t go getting upset because someone had a better idea.”
Javier couldn’t believe his father. Wait. He could. This was always how his father was. Everything was Javier’s fault. Javier was lazy and spoiled and wanted everything to come easy. According to Josef Santiago, Javier could do nothing right.
“I have to go,” Javier said, walking toward the door. His mother looked at him a second, opened her mouth, as if she planned to speak, but then snapped her lips shut, having apparently thought better of it. She simply nodded, and Javier left the office. He needed to be somewhere else, anywhere else but here.
Thoughts of abandoning ship — of giving in to her baser, more retaliatory instincts — had propelled Tina to her office. With plans of ignoring Nikki’s advice, she looked through her war chest file, and marked off the best bets, even in this tight market. But then an email came to her personal account: an automatic payment notice for the nursing home. She sighed and decided to log into her bank account and look at the statement. Thoughts of telling Javier and Ben off were banished. She had to keep this job.
When she’d lived with her mother, up until she was eight, she’d gone to sleep hungry many nights. Her mother was too busy out in the streets to care for Tina, and even if she were home, there wasn’t any damned food in the cabinets. Tina couldn’t have that happen to her again. Living like that had been… no. She shook her head. She wasn’t going to go there. She wouldn’t think about that life, that old life. That was way in the past. Though, she couldn’t help think about it in times of crisis. One false move was all it took for a life to fall apart, to end up with no money, no food. Her life after age eight was everything she could have wanted. Her grandmother hadn’t been rich, but she’d been able to support Tina and herself, and point Tina on the right path. College, career, a good life.
Tina closed her eyes and smiled as an image of her grandmother, close-cropped white hair, a beautiful, toothy smile, and wrinkles that made her look majestic, popped into her head. She missed her so much. She didn’t regret agreeing to pay for the nursing care for her grandmother, to get her into that place, but the effect those payments were having on her life now, were … frustrating.
Tina was earning just enough to pay the debt and her living expenses. If she quit this job with nothing else lined up, she would end up in the same position as her mother. A grown woman with nothing of her own and no way to support herself. Tina realized she’d been a fool to go out to eat last night. Treat yourself, she’d thought. You’ve been eating beans and rice and noshing on the buffet at all the work-related events. You deserve a good meal. Go to the restaurant. Have a nice meal. Take an uber home, instead of grabbing the subway. You’re going to get that promotion tomorrow and the VP salary that comes with it. At least double her current salary. You can pay these bills and be secure yourself. You can build that financial safety you’ve been striving so hard for.
But no. Javier Santiago came and ripped it all away. She shook her head at the screen and cursed softly. She was in no mood to even work. Blind fury clouded everything she did. But she couldn’t just leave and go home. Vacation time was the equivalent of money and she wouldn’t waste it on a bad mood. If Taylor & Thompson decided to fire people, they’d have to pay out her unused vacation.
She tapped her red nails on her desk. She wasn’t sure why she was thinking this way. Her mind always went to worst case scenario when she got stressed. The company was in pretty good shape. Yes, they’d lost a couple of big accounts when the former VP Rick had left, but they still had a lot of clients. They wouldn’t need to get rid of people.
Tina stretched her neck, first to the left, then to the right. She breathed out and tried to focus. She had to figure out how to get ahead of Javier. She wasn’t going to let him come in and ruin her. Tina Jackson didn’t play that.
* * *
Tina was deep in thought about the best way to market one of the new accounts she’d received from Mark. He’d told her again he was in her corner and that he wanted her to succeed. And this account, from the old VP, Rick, was a pretty big one. If Mark trusted her with it, then she at least had an ally. And that meant she just needed to take a deep breath and focus. Nikki had been right, as usual. They were just covering their basis. She just needed to keep her nose to the grindstone for six months and she’d be a shoo-in. Mark was on her side.
Just then, there was knock on the door.
“Come in,” she said to the door, not looking up from her computer screen
“Hey,” she heard. The voice was quiet, but just as silky smooth as last night.
Tina pursed her lips and looked up.
“Got a minute?” Javier asked, flashing his dimples.
She wanted to smack him upside his head. Instead, she smiled and said, “Come on in and have a seat. Just be sure to close the door.”
Javier shut the door and then sauntered over. Yes, a real saunter! A lean, a swagger about him that said he was all that and a bag of chips. She watched wordlessly as he placed himself in the cushy chair on the opposite side of her desk. She’d picked the chairs to make clients comfortable. Only, she wished now the seats were hard and unpleasant.
He grinned, leaned in, and raised a brow. “It’s crazy that you work here,” he said. “I had no idea last night.”
A lie, she thought. He’s leading with a lie to keep me off balance. “I know I didn’t have any idea you were going to work here. I can’t imagine what your father sees objectionable about working for Taylor and Thompson.”
He sat up a little straighter, seeming stung by her tone. “He’s just old fashioned.”
“In that he doesn’t like marketing? Prefers people discover businesses on their own?”
Javier shook his head, his smile turning into a pensive, thin line. “No, he’s just about hard work. Working your way up from the bottom. He thinks anyone that doesn’t start as a dishwasher or in the mail room, isn’t right for the post.”
She stared at him pointedly. “You didn’t start as a dishwasher?”
Javier chuckled, a genuine one, his head tipping backward. “In fact, when I worked for my father, I did.” He sighed. “But, here, I didn’t start at the bottom. I have experience, of course. Like Ben said at the meeting, I’ve spent five years in New York at Duluth & Parker. The fact that we’re related has nothing to do with anything.”
Tina raised an eyebrow. Related? “I’m sorry, who are you related to?”
Javier stared at her a minute and then, in an epiphany, he said. “You were late. Ben is my mother’s brother.”
She took a moment to work that out in her head. “You mean he’s your uncle?”
“Uncle Ben,” she said and couldn’t help but chuckle. “Like the rice.” She imagined Ben in a straw hat, hunched over rice paddies in a field, like the image on the old boxes of rice. That was something she would love to see.
Javier didn’t speak at first. Then he forced a smile and said, “I wanted to talk to you a bit about the layout here,” he said. “I’ve been talking to some of the other people, and everyone says you’re the nicest, most helpful person to talk to about stuff. And that you’re on top of everything, really connected.”
Tina nodded, and tried to keep the wisp of a smile planted on her face.
“I was wondering if maybe we could grab lunch, discuss how things work, any pitfalls I need to know.”
Tina stood. “Javier,” she said, her voice saccharine. “You know why I was excited last night, why I had to get to bed early?”
He shook his head.
“Because I was supposed to be promoted to VP this morning. Only, when I got here, I’m told by Mark Thompson that you have been hired and the VP search is on hold. I’m guessing, since Uncle Ben brought you in, he wants you to have that VP slot. Well, guess what? You can’t have it,” she said thrusting a finger at him. “If you want help, you better go chitchat with Uncle Ben over a rice bowl. You won’t find it here. Now please leave my office. If you want help with anything, and anyone suggests me, then you need to find an alternative. Goodbye.”
Javier stood, wide-eyed and fish-mouthed. He didn’t move, so Tina walked around the desk and headed straight to the door. She opened it, turned to Javier, smiled and waved him out. “Thanks for stopping by.”
This is super helpful in motivating me to get this book finished. Feeling the pressure every time I post a chapter.
Chapter 6 – No Introduction Needed
All the employees had assembled in the large conference room for the meeting. Ben had told the crew at the small firm that Javier was joining them. Mark, the other partner in the firm, a tall, serious, African American man, was there. As Javier glanced at the other 18 people in the room, he was glad for its size. It would be a cozy environment where people could be friendly, not just cut-throat and vindictive.
Javier had had enough of the cut-throats in New York. He smiled, tried to look personable. As Ben relinquished control of the meeting, asking Javier to say a couple of words, the conference room door slipped open and in she walked. Tina. His eyes locked on hers and she had the same look he probably did: one that said, Is it really you?
He smiled wider. This was shaping up to be a good day, he told himself. He wouldn’t even have to wait to see her until tonight. She was here. She was a co-worker.
A co-worker. Shit. That was bad. He didn’t want another New York.
“Javier,” Ben said, the verbal nudge for attention clear. “You were going to say a few words.”
“Oh, yes,” Javier said, standing. “Like Ben said, I’m Javier and I’ve been in this business for almost 9 years, and I’m coming back from working in New York. I wanted to get back to the D.C. area, and enjoy what this market has to offer. I am excited to be here, and I plan to work hard to keep Taylor & Thompson on top. I may have questions about how specific things work here, and I hope you’ll lend me a hand as I get fully acquainted with how we do things. I’m looking forward to digging in and getting to work.” He sat back down.
Tina stared at him, still, as if she was still trying to process his presence.
“Alright,” Ben said. “Thanks for those words. We’ll go ahead and start our Monday meeting now. Javier, this is where we all discuss what we’re working on for clients and see if there’s any crossover or cross-promotional opportunities. Keeps us all on the same page.”
Ben smiled as he scanned the conference room. “Today though,” he added. “Everyone introduce yourself, including how long you’ve been with the company and what kind of accounts you handle.”
The meeting went smoothly, with Javier taking notes on each person. Any accounts that sounded interesting, or that he’d had previous experience with, he noted. He’d try to be helpful to anyone he could. He was jotting down a note about the previous person — Elizabeth — when Tina spoke.
“I’m Tina Jackson,” she said. “I’ve been with Taylor & Thompson for eight years. I handle grassroots campaigns for urban enterprises. I’ve done everything from nonprofits to tech startups. I’ve got a network of people who I know can churn out results for the right client. This week, I’ll primarily be working Boys on Banneker, a nonprofit that’s helping teenage youths stay out of trouble. They’ve got a small marketing budget, but we’re going to get them some serious news coverage so they’re out there everywhere for two weeks solid. Then, we’ll dive in with the major part of our marketing strategy, which is specifically aimed at the donor community, so they can get some more cash to do good in the community. If you’ll recall, Ben,” she said, looking directly at Javier’s uncle, a laser stare, but a sweet smile. “You weren’t sure their budget was really what we were looking for, but through my initial marketing phase, they secured funding to pay our normal fee for the remaining campaign.”
She closed her mouth and sat but continued eyeing Ben.
“Well,” Mark said. “Anyone got cross-promo for Tina?”
The gentleman sitting two down from Javier spoke up. Javier hadn’t really paid much attention to Alan before, but he was a tall man, very pasty, with brown hair and a slight build. He chimed in with something that sounded like complete bullshit to Javier, but Tina thanked him kindly and said she’d consider it. Though, given how she looked, she didn’t seem like she’d consider it very long.
The rest of the meeting went smoothly and within an hour they were done.
We’re getting close to finalizing this book. Yeah baby! So that means you’ll be able to devour the entire thing at once, if you want. Here’s Chapter 5. Enjoy.
Chapter 5 – Considering All the Options
Tina was seriously considering walking right up to Ben Taylor and telling him he could go fuck himself. A major I QUIT flame-out that would be played all day on YouTube, and talked about as the way everyone wished they could quit their job. Sorta like that Alaskan TV reporter who quit during a live broadcast so she could continue her marijuana farming.
Only, Tina didn’t have a safety net. No booming marijuana business or trust fund to help. She had to be practical.
A year and a half ago, her account had enough in it for nine months of living expenses. Then, her grandmother had gotten sick and needed nursing home care. Even though her grandmother was eligible for state aid, the state was so far behind in approving cases, the nursing home wouldn’t take anyone expecting state aid unless a working person agreed to be on the hook. She had. And her grandmother had done well for about 4 months before dying suddenly. Before the paperwork was done. Tina was on the hook for tens of thousands of dollars for her grandmother’s care and there was no way she could quit with that hanging over her head.
At the moment, Tina had enough in savings to cover two months of mortgage, and zero months of food. She’d have a place to stay, so long as she didn’t eat. She’d kept telling herself she needed to lose a few pounds. That was one way to do it.
She sighed and shook her head. She looked at the clock in her office. It was 9:52 and the meeting would start soon. They’d be introducing some namby pamby fuckwad from New York. Asshole. Mark Thompson, a partner in the company, had told her last week that they were eyeing her seriously for the VP position. He said he’d likely have good news for her this morning. When he’d called her into the office, she’d tried to look cool, and had managed it until she’d seen his face. It looked as if he’d just sucked a lemon.
“I’m sorry,” he’d said, his ebony face the picture of regret. “I just wanted to let you know, personally, before the meeting started that we’re not going to fill the VP position any time soon.”
“Why not?” she’d demanded, realizing her voice sounded too desperate.
“Ben wants to wait, and he’s made a few decent arguments for it, including the fact that Rick took two of our biggest clients when he left. We should make that up before we start adding VPs.”
She straightened her back, looked confident. “I can do that. I can make that happen,” she said.
Mark smiled. “Tina, that’s what I love about you. You sell,” he said. “I think you can make it happen, but Ben is right. As a company, we need to be cautious until we bring in a couple of new clients. Otherwise, a few more flights could leave us vulnerable. We’re going to revisit the VP position in six months or so. We’re hiring a new person to help pick up Rick’s smaller clients. I’ve cherry picked a couple of his better clients for you. But if you want the VP slot, work your ass off the next few months, and I promise you, I’ll make Ben see reason. It will be yours.”
Tina felt like she’d been slapped. She’d been at this damned company for eight years, and she couldn’t believe she was getting so royally screwed. She stood up from her desk chair and paced her office. She looked around. It was a big office. Ben and Mark had done everything to get this marketing firm looking good. They could sell clients with the spacious decor. And they did pretty well for being a mid-sized firm. At a bigger firm, her office would be a quarter of this size and she’d meet with clients in communal conference rooms. But here, she got her own space. And she generally liked the people.
The firm’s clients also tended to be nice people. At least, Mark’s side of the business. He’d made his name courting mom and pop businesses and marketing the hell out of them. He’d taken on Tina right out of college and taught her so much. She hated that she was getting dicked over.
She was walking the length of the office, a good 15 feet of unencumbered space, when her cell phone rang. Finally. She ran back to her desk and scooped her Google Pixel to her ear. “What’s the 9-1-1 for?” her best friend Nikki asked.
“I didn’t get it,” she said.
A sigh of disappointment from the other end, or perhaps it was a sigh of outrage. “I don’t understand,” Nikki said. “I thought you were a shoo-in.”
“I was supposed to be,” Tina groused quietly. She was in her office, which provided a certain amount of soundproofing, but nothing was perfect. She probably shouldn’t even have called from here, but she had to talk to someone. “I’m thinking of jumping ship. If they don’t appreciate me, why stay?”
“Don’t do that yet,” Nikki said, and Tina could imagine her shaking her head, her twists bobbing as she did. “Who got the job and why?”
“No one got it,” Tina said and explained what her Mark had said.
“Tina,” she said. “I know you’re disappointed, but I don’t think now is the time to jump ship. The company is going through a transition. If you stay, your rewards will be so big. If you go, how long is it going to take you somewhere else to even be considered as a VP?”
Tina sat on the edge of her desk, closed her eyes, sighed. Nikki was right. That’s why she’d called her. Nikki always saw reason. Perhaps that’s what happened when you married a member of Congress. You learned how to speak reason to unreasonable people. Tina breathed out. “Girl, thanks for calling me back. I mighta just walked out and ran right to my war chest.”
Nikki laughed. The war chest was a list of people Tina had met from other firms, people she knew who thought she was alright. People she could drop feelers to to see if they had a job. The only problem was the market was tight now. Getting a job wouldn’t necessarily be easy and leaving when she didn’t have the financial war chest, meant she couldn’t wait it out.
“Chin up,” Nikki said.
“Is that what white chocolate says?” Tina teased. She liked to call Nikki’s husband, a Midwest native who looked like a classic farm boy, white chocolate. While Tina really liked Mike and especially appreciated how great he treated her best friend, she didn’t appreciate the lingo — chin up, for example — he’d introduced to her vocabulary.
“Sometimes,” Nikki admitted. “And it’s a good attitude to have.”
“Yeah, whatevs,” Tina said.
Nikki sighed, and Tina could imagine her shaking her head at Tina’s incorrigibility.
“Listen,” Nikki said, “I haven’t got the boxes unpacked yet, but if you don’t mind the clutter, I’d love to see you. Why don’t you come over tonight after work. You can tell me about it, and I’ll make you dinner. Mike’s working late. Just us girls.” Tina smiled. A girls’ night on a Monday. Then she remembered Javier. Generally, “chicks before dicks” was a good saying, but it had been too long since Tina had had a good dick, so she’d have to pass on Nikki’s offer. “Ohhh,” Tina said, trying to sound disappointed. “I’ve got a work thing tonight. How about tomorrow?”
Nikki laughed. “I’m pretty sure Mike is working late tomorrow, too, so you’ve got a date.”
Tina filed that one away. Was Mike abandoning her girl now that he was serving as a U.S. Representative? She didn’t like the sound of that. “Alright, I’ll call you later.”
This is the fourth chapter in the novel. I am working furiously on getting this finished and published. I already pre-scheduled chapters 5 and 6. Good news, though. If I publish the book before their scheduled run date, I’ll go ahead and publish them simultaneously so you at least get through chapter 6 on the blog.
Chapter 4 – Fresh Start
Javier took a deep breath, and put on his cool, confidant look. In the past, this was the look that had always worked for him. It had opened Princeton and later Harvard to him. It had made him the man of the hour in New York. It had served him well everywhere he went. Only, he could never maintain it in the shadow of his father — the man who had never seen him as a winner. Josef had always seen Javier as spoiled, not disciplined enough to raise himself up from the gutter and eke out success. Because Javier wanted a different kind of success, his father had viewed it as somehow taking the easy road, the privileged road, not just a different road.
Javier had been determined to prove his father wrong. To return home a success. He’d been doing it. He’d been thisclose. Then everything fell apart, and instead of returning triumphant, he’d come back disgraced. A bad move, one led by the head between his legs, rather than the one on his shoulders, had ended with him being asked to leave the firm. Javier was good at his job. And he should’ve been a rising star. But getting involved with the wrong lady had messed everything up. She’d double crossed him in such a big way: he’d lost an account and his reputation.
He’d interviewed other places, but while the particulars had been shrouded in a confidentiality agreement, rumors that Javier was bad news spread quickly and any place he wanted to be in the city was closed to him. He’d told his mother, who had nothing but kindness in her heart. “You’re a good man, Javier,” she’d told him. “Don’t let the actions of a bad woman ruin you.” She’d told him to come home. There was no shame in that. She might even be able to help.
And she had. She’d gotten him the best he could hope for. A chance to start fresh — without the baggage of his past mistake — at a pretty decent job. It was technically nepotism, which had the possibility of marring his success. But Tina had been right. People respected respect. He could earn people’s respect at this company. He just had to go in with the right level of confidence. He had to present: “I got this, but I’m not an asshole.” Sometimes, it was hard to pull off, but he’d done it before. He wasn’t an asshole. So, that part of the equation was covered. Conveying that he had it, was the harder part.
He’d feel better if he hadn’t seen his father this morning. Javier had awakened at the crack of dawn and gone for an hour-long run. He’d come in to grab some eggs and bacon for breakfast — high protein was good; to Hell with the artery damage from all the cholesterol. Only, when he’d come in the kitchen, his father had been there. He’d tried to be cheerful, respectful, non-confrontational, all the things he thought he needed to be. His father had managed a couple of pleasantries about the weather. Javier thought all was going well. Then his father had folded his morning newspaper, stood to leave, and said, “I’d be ashamed if my mother had to beg for me a job from my uncle.”
God, he hated his dad. Javier had done the work your way up deal, and it had ended with a bad decision. Wasn’t he allowed to start in the mid-range and try again? If it all went well, he could springboard from Taylor & Thompson to another firm. One that wasn’t tied to his mother. One that he’d gotten to on his own.
Javier was sitting alone in his uncle Ben’s office. The door opened, and Ben walked in, returning from a brief chat with his partner. Ben was a tall, thin man with blond hair and blue eyes. Normally, Ben had fair skin, but today he still looked tan from his vacation. He had an old-world charm, reminiscent of Paul Newman, that tended to make a good impression. He got you with his good looks, then his straight up confidence. He could sell anything. That was, perhaps, why he had done so well in marketing.
Ben smiled as he closed the door to the office and walked over to Javier. He reached out with open arms, and Javier stood and hugged him. “You know, I’m really sorry about what happened in New York,” his uncle said, his silky voice dripping with sincerity. Then with the preface of “But,” he switched gears into complete cheer. “Their loss is our gain. I was so mad when you turned down our offer after you finished school.”
When his uncle released him, Javier tried to look appropriately regretful. “I was concerned it would look like nepotism, so I didn’t want to run in here and have everyone view me as the guy who got the job because his uncle runs the company.”
“Of course,” Ben said, sitting on the edge of his desk. “A little too much of your father in you. Always, ‘be your own man, don’t take handouts, yada yada yada.’ I wish Cathy could’ve convinced him to take a little more when you guys were little. But he needed to be his own man. Well, Santiago’s is still doing well, right? It worked out for him?”
Javier shrugged and sat back down in the chair opposite his uncle. He didn’t want to talk about his father. His father’s restaurants were doing well. There were two. The bigger Santiago’s out in the suburbs, and the original little hole in the wall in Adams Morgan, the one that had burned and been rebuilt. His father had left the running of the Adams Morgan location to Josefina. She was doing well with it, and, more importantly, loving it.
Ben nodded, perhaps wanting to talk less about Josef Santiago than Javier did. “As you know, my plan right now is to introduce you as the new marketing executive,” Ben said. “You’ll be working on some accounts that our former VP left behind. Additionally, you’ll be expected to generate new accounts.”
Javier raised a brow. “This isn’t the VP position, for sure then? I know you said there was some wiggle room.”
Ben sighed. “The VP position is open, but we’re not ready to fill it, yet. We’re just going to distribute some of the accounts, and in six months to a year, we’ll look at promoting from within for the job.” His uncle offered him a smile. “Do well with the accounts you have, and you could be the frontrunner for it.”
Frontrunner. Javier smiled. Earning a VP slot after six months would be an accomplishment. Though, he wondered if people would simply assume he didn’t earn it properly. “Six months might be a bit soon, Uncle Ben.”
“Just Ben around the office. We’re not going to hide that we’re related, but referring to me as Uncle Ben is bad for two reasons: First because it makes it sound like a rice farmer, and second, it reminds people you’re my sister’s kids. Javier Santiago feels a bit distant from Ben Taylor, right?”
Javier nodded. “Right, Mr. Taylor.”
Ben winked. “I like that even better.”
With this, Ben stood up and motioned for the door. “Everyone should be ready for us in the conference room. Let’s go introduce you as the new employee.”
For those who missed the first installment, I’m giving myself incentive to finish the editing and formatting of this book and get it out the door. I’m publishing a chapter twice a week until this book is all set for publishing.
Chapter 3 – Rash Decisions
Javier. His name was as hot as his body. A swath of curly black hair, olive skin, chiseled features and hazel eyes that were devastatingly honest. OK. Tina wasn’t sure she could explain what made eyes devastatingly honest. She only knew that his were, that his eyes seemed to betray his every secret.
Every inch of his taut body, his perfect smile, exuded confidence. But his eyes revealed a hint of nerves, a hint of vulnerability, a whiff of someone who wanted to be wanted. And she found that extremely attractive. The bartender had tried to challenge him, had given him a look, one Tina hadn’t quite deciphered, but one that was clearly a play for dominance, a harkening to some past grudge. But Javier had shot the man a dismissive look, the look of an alpha who would not be challenged. The bartender had blinked, looking away first.
She tried to appear neutral, calm, but feared she was ogling. Hot as hell and honest eyes. A combination she couldn’t resist. Still, she’d already made one mistake by judging a book by it’s cover. Quentin had been hot on the outside, but a hot mess underneath. She didn’t trust her instincts entirely tonight. She didn’t want to go two for two in the wrong man arena in a single night.
She gently dabbed at her forehead with a bar napkin. She’d started to sweat. “Could I get a water, too?” she asked the bartender. He nodded, and squirted water into a low glass with a couple of ice cubes.
“First time here?” Javier asked.
She nodded. “Yep,” she said. “And if my date had brought me here, I might not have walked out before we’d even had a chance for dinner.”
Javier’s eyes widened and his mouth twisted to the side, seeming to wonder if she was joking.
“I’m serious,” she assured him. “Awful date. I left, but I was hungry, and I heard the music. The smell was so heavenly once I stepped inside, I knew I had to stay.”
He chuckled. “I like a woman who’s decisive.”
“You’d be one of the few,” she said with a light tone but knowing the sting of how true that was. She knew what she wanted, and what she didn’t want. Men rarely appreciated a woman who knew her mind and made quick decisions. Though, they lauded men who did the same. She sighed and swallowed down the glass of water. It was refreshing. She should probably have one more before returning to her wine. A little of each would ensure she wasn’t too tipsy. Even though she thought ride share services were pretty safe, she didn’t like getting into a stranger’s car if she’d had too much to drink. People took advantage, sometimes.
“Well, I’m glad he didn’t bring you here, because he would’ve been mighty upset with me for luring you onto the dance floor.”
Tina let out a light laugh. So, he thought he would have lured her away from her date. That was cocky. But a glimpse of his dimple when he smiled made her heart thud harder, and her body inch closer. She couldn’t help but lean in, taking in his musky scent. He may have been right. He might have lured her away from Quentin if he’d looked at her like that and flashed that dimple. Tina sucked in a breath to center herself and motioned to the bartender for some more water.
“I guess it’s a good thing he didn’t bring me here, then. I certainly think I’m having more fun without him.” Though, if he’d brought her here, he’d have been a different kind of guy. Probably the kind of guy she would’ve been too busy having fun with to notice Javier.
Javier’s piercing hazel eyes stared at her, as if she was a puzzle he needed to solve. Tina wanted to lose herself in his eyes alone.
“Do you come here much?” she asked.
Javier laughed, a hearty, robust laugh as if this was the funniest thing in the world. “Truthfully, I used to wish I’d never have to see this place again.”
She stared at him, her turn to try to piece together his puzzle. “Why wouldn’t you want to come back?”
“My family owns it,” he said. He inclined his head to the girl who’d been so helpful to her tonight. “That’s my sister, the hostess, Josefina. My father’s had this place for 20 years. I used to work here when I was in high school.”
So the girl looked young because she probably was. A family business. His sister. Tina eyed Javier closer now, searching for the resemblance. Definitely their coloring and their hair. Also they each had really graceful noses. Not too pointy or angular. Perfect curve. He had dimples, though, and the sister didn’t. “Your sister’s nice,” she said. “She was telling me about your father. He sounds like quite an industrious man, pulling himself up from very little and starting this place. Recovering from that devastating fire, the kind that would have crushed most people, and rebuilding. Just amazing.”
Javier grimaced, and she realized this was probably not the first time someone had said something like this to him. He must have felt compared to his father, and not in a good way. She got that. She’d been compared to her mother at times. The drug addict whore. Sure, one was a downward shift and the other was upward, but regardless of up or down, an unwanted comparison was still just that: unwanted.
“So, I take it you’re not part of the family business?”
He shook his head. “Nope,” he said. “I branched out, did my own thing. Got a degree at an Ivy League, and my dad still thinks I’m going to come back here to run this place for him.”
She looked around. It was a lovely place. “Well, if that’s not you, I wouldn’t worry about it,” she said. “People are always looking for you to do what suits them. And if that aligns with your goals, then Ace Boon Coon. But if not, then they can go to hell. You gotta live in your own skin every morning, not them.”
Javier’s mouth was a full grin. “I’ll have to tell my father your advice. Though, Ace, boon coon? I don’t think I’ve heard that one before.”
Tina grinned at him. “It’s just something we used to say when I was a kid. Maybe it’s a DC thing. But, if it was all good, it was ace boon coon.”
Javier nodded, his smile wider. “I like that. I’ll have to remember that.”
She laughed. “And remember that you get to be you, regardless of what other people want.”
Javier nodded. “I got it,” he said. “I was never going to delete my goals for his. But, tomorrow I’m starting something new, taking a big risk. It’s a big change, and if it doesn’t work out, I know I’ll never hear the end of it.”
Tina winked at him. “Then make sure it works out,” she said. “Besides, what was the point of going to an Ivy League if they didn’t teach you the first rule of new endeavors?”
He raised an eyebrow and leaned in. “And what is that?”
“When you walk into any room, you gotta own it. Not, smug, asshole own it. But ‘I’m here, and I will stay here,’ own it. ‘I’m me and you don’t have to like me, but you have to show me respect’ kind of own it.”
He raised a hand to his chin, nodded. “That, I’ve heard.”
“Good,” she said. “And rule number two is, treat everyone with respect. You never know when you’ll need their help.”
“Good advice,” he said.
Tina’s phone started chirping. She frowned, reached into her purse, and peeked at it. It was her alarm. She needed to go. She looked at Javier sheepishly. “I’m going to turn into a pumpkin if I don’t get home.”
Javier turned his wrist to check the time on his watch. A Rolex, Tina noted. He didn’t seem the big spender type, dressed casually in jeans and a Henley shirt. “It’s only nine o’clock,” he said. “Not even close to midnight.”
He flashed his dimples, as if he knew men with dimples were her weakness. She stood and shook her head. “I’ve got a big day at work tomorrow,” she admitted. She shouldn’t even have agreed to go out with Quentin. Sunday night was supposed to have been her down time, but he said he was traveling for the next three weekends, and she’d thought sooner would be better than later. She’d been right. She could’ve been fooling with that trifling man for three more weeks, if she hadn’t gone out with him tonight and realized he was a complete dick. “Think of me as Cinderella with a much earlier curfew.”
He chuckled. “How about I give you a ride home, then?”
Tina raised an eyebrow. A ride home. She wanted to let out a low whistle. She refrained. Oh boy. If he took her home, with the slight buzz she had from the drinks and her total lack of man time in the last couple of years, she would be totally his. She knew she should say no, but those eyes. Damn those eyes.
“I won’t bite,” he said.
Damn. Now, she could only imagine his mouth on hers, peppering her with kisses, slowly trailing down her cheek, to her neck, and then a playful bite. A nip that made her insides clench. She shook her head. What the hell was wrong with her? She couldn’t let a stranger take her home, no matter how good looking he was. “I don’t give men I’ve just met my address.”
He nodded. “Good idea” he said. “You can’t be too careful.” He looked around. “How about I walk you out? No addresses. I’ll just accompany you outside to your car.”
That was an offer she couldn’t refuse. “Sure,” she said, as she stepped off the bar stool.
She felt Javier place his hand in the small of her back, as they walked together out of the restaurant. Once outside, the temperature was bearable, having cooled by the sun going down. They walked down the street a bit, as she used an app to call for a ride home. The app said the car would be there in four minutes. She showed Javier the countdown time on the screen.
He nodded. “So, what’s so important tomorrow that you have to get home when it’s just barely gotten dark?”
Tina grinned at him. “A promotion,” she said, then shook her head, rolled her eyes. “I shouldn’t even have said anything. I don’t want to jinx it.”
He laughed. “Didn’t you just tell me to make sure things worked out?”
She laughed with him. “Aha, using my own words against me.” She raised an eyebrow. “Fair enough. I’ll make sure things work out, and when they do, I’ll come back tomorrow for a victory dinner.”
He grinned. “Definitely come back for a victory dinner,” he said. “My treat.” He placed a hand on her arm, his fingers feeling fiery warm, as he traced the length of her forearm.
Tina swallowed as she gazed into his eyes, which had taken on a slightly golden tint in the low light. For once, she was at a loss for words. She just nodded
Javier leaned in and pressed his lips to hers, and her whole body felt like it was melting into him. He wrapped his arms around her, pulling her tight. He pulse quickened and she could feel the wetness swelling in her. She pulled away, because she hadn’t had a good romp in too long. Her panties were wet and she needed to get herself together, or she’d succumb to him right here on the street, or worse. “The car will be here any minute,” she said.
Javier shrugged. “You could always cancel it. Let me take you.” His eyes were locked on hers, and he licked his lips. That tongue looked so scrumptious, so long, so agile. She wondered if he knew how tempting he was.
Just then, a silver Camry pulled up. That was the car. “Too late” she said. Though, thank God, was more like it. She had been thisclose to cancelling it and letting Javier take her home and do whatever the hell he wanted to with her.
Javier walked over to the car, and pulled the back door open for her. “Milady,” he said, motioning to the car, as if he were her own personal valet.
“Thank you,” she said, as she slipped inside the car. “And I’ll see you tomorrow, for my victory dinner.”
Javier nodded, and leaned into the car, “Even if it’s not a ‘victory,’” he said, lifting his hands to form air quotes, “Still come back. I’ll buy you dinner either way.”
For those who missed Sunday’s blog, I’m trying to put the finishing touches on this book, and in order to get inspired to finish in a timely fashion, I’m releasing two chapters per week of Winner takes all.
Chapter 2 – A New Beginning
The last thing Javier needed in his life was a woman. He’d vowed to stay away from them after New York. And he’d been pretty good at keeping that vow for the past four months.
But something about this woman intrigued him. She’d come to the bar, sat alone, and hadn’t ordered a drink. She’d spent a decent amount of time talking to his sister, Josefina, about what food to order.
Javier had watched her from his table and tried not to seem conspicuous as he ate pupusas. She wasn’t his type, though she was beautiful. Caramel skin, hair to her shoulders in some kind of twists and lips that just screamed to be kissed. He wasn’t sure if she worked out to get that body, but she was surely working that red slinky dress that cut off mid thigh and had a swooping v-neck that accentuated her breasts. They were a nice size, and looked so succulent, he could only imagine what they looked like once separated from that dress. His cock twitched.
Dammit. He wasn’t sure why this one was getting to him. Ever since Delilah, he’d been sufficiently through with the ladies. He felt a surge of anger just thinking about her. Delilah. He should have known just from the name. When he’d met her, he’d thought of the sweet, silver-toned radio hostess his mother listened to on weekday evenings. All warm and light as she dispensed love advice. How wrong he’d been. He should have thought of the original vixen who had wooed poor Sampson and then sold him out to the Philistines. That Delilah was more akin to the one he’d gotten.
He shook his head, blew out, and banished Delilah from his thoughts. Instead, he watched this woman. He found he couldn’t take his eyes off her. She called Josefina over a couple more times during her meal, and they chatted. Questions, perhaps. She was pointing to things in the restaurant. Pictures. He sighed and looked at a picture she’d just pointed to. It was a little boy on a farm in El Salvador. Javier’s father, Josef. He looked so little and unintimidating in that photo. If only Josef had remained that way.
Javier’s interest should have waned when she asked about his father. Showing interest in a man he got along with as well as oil did with water should have been a sign that she was not the one. Only, for some reason, it just made him more curious about her. As soon as Josefina had a moment free, Javier waved her over. She came to his table, but remained standing, as if she might take his order. His father would have been incensed if it looked like she was sitting with a customer. “Who’s that lady?” he asked, inclining his head toward the bar. “The one who’s been monopolizing your time?”
Josefina turned and looked in the direction of the gorgeous customer. “Um, she just stumbled in here after not liking the place down the street. She was curious about how long we’d been here. Wanted to know more about the restaurant’s history. I told her the story: dad’s story.” Javier refrained from rolling his eyes. Dad’s story. It had been one of his first real sells, a sign that, given enough motivation, he could sell anything, even a father who hated him.
“You put in the bit about the first restaurant burning down?” he asked.
Josefina did not refrain from rolling her eyes. “It’s not like you created the restaurant, Javi. You just polished the story a bit so it sounded good.”
He hated how he didn’t get credit for punching up the story, for boiling it down to its best elements. The story’s key component was the imagery of the Phoenix rising from the ashes. Santiago’s had been rebuilt, the dream completed, success claimed, a final triumph. It was the perfect story. And, really, that’s all it was: a story. The image of the successful American dream applied only to the business. Josef Santiago’s personal life was more aptly described as an American nightmare.
“Javi, what’s rule number one?” Josefina asked.
Rule number one. “The customer is always right,” he belted out with a smirk.
She gritted her teeth and shook her head. “You know what I’m talking about,” she said, but she clearly felt he needed to hear it said aloud. “Don’t hit on the customers.”
“Rule number one is for employees. I’m not employed here, now am I, sis?” he asked.
He grinned. No, he wasn’t technically working here. An employee had called in sick, and Josefina had asked if he could lend a hand. He’d almost said no, but his sister wasn’t his father, and if she was asking him to lend a hand, she needed it. He’d been forced to work here throughout high school and any time he’d been home on break during college, so he knew the ropes. Still, he wasn’t an employee, so he wasn’t about to be stuck with employee rules.
Josefina looked like she planned to say something else, but she finally just shook her head and walked away. Maybe as little as a year ago, she would have threatened something along the lines of, “I’m gonna tell dad.” But his baby sister had taken on a more mature attitude as she approached her senior year in college. And she’d also gotten serious about the restaurant. The domain Javier had outright rejected, she’d come to embrace fully.
With Josefina off to check on a customer, Javier turned his attention to the beautiful mystery woman. She was now watching the band. The group had already played a short practice set. Javier glanced at his watch. It was time. The tables closest to the low, platform stage were empty, so he started pulling them away to make room for people to dance. Josefina sidled over to help him. Soon, they had the area cleared.
Miguel, the band leader, nodded to Javier as the group began to play a rousing salsa. The first rule of working at the restaurant was not to hit on the customers. The second rule was to work, not parade around having fun. And Javier was about to break both those rules. He stood on the dance floor and began to move to the beat. Just a swivel of the hip as his feet glided in time with the music. He smiled and let the music’s vibrations guide his body. He knew one or two people would join in eventually. He turned, his body facing the bar, and looked right at the lovely woman in red. Her eyes sparkled as she smiled at him. He held out his hand and beckoned her to join him. She considered it a moment, and then stood.
The vision in red glided off the bar stool and sauntered right to him. Every eye in the restaurant seemed mesmerized by her. Or was he projecting his own thoughts to everyone else? But how could they not be watching her? Long silky legs, striding tall and confident, the way her hips swung, slinky, sexily, in tune with the music.
And here she was — right in front of him. She smiled crookedly, those ruby red lips looking sinfully delightful, and joined him on the dance floor. She nestled her fingers inside his extended palm, and he closed his hand around hers. Her touch was electric and his body hummed the closer she got to him. Together, they shimmied on the dance floor, their bodies flying in time with the music, gyrating, puffing, swaying and having a good time. They managed to keep up with each other through four songs, songs that brought others out, and drew the occasional, “You two are good,” from couples dancing nearby.
She had a flare for the dramatic, for she winked at the compliment and said, full of bravado, “Of course we are.”
She was bold and unapologetic, and he couldn’t imagine anything more delightful than that in a woman. His dad would like her, Javier thought. Dammit! Where the hell had that thought come from? His father was the last thing he wanted to think about. Not when he was dancing with a beautiful woman, not when he was preparing for his triumphant tomorrow. Tomorrow was the beginning of his new life. He wasn’t going to fuck it up this time. He was going to knock this one out of the park. It wasn’t the ideal post, but if he could craft his father’s life story into something moving, he sure as hell could do the same for his own life.
As the music faded, beautiful pulled away from him and gave a quick nod. “Thank you for the dancing,” she said, placing a manicured hand on her chest. “I need a little break.”
Javier nodded to her, and she turned and headed back to the bar. He followed, watching her nestle her fine ass into the seat. He knew he should stay away from her, but he couldn’t help the attraction. She was flawless: she was brave, she could dance, and she was into him. He leaned against the bar, preferring not to sit quite yet. “Can I buy you a drink?” he asked.
She eyed him, as if sizing him up. He didn’t mind. He had nothing to worry about when it came to size. He cocked the right corner of his mouth into a rakish smile. Her eyes roved his body, from top to bottom, and then she licked her lips as if she’d determined he was exactly what she wanted. “Sure, I’d love a drink.”
He grinned and motioned Marco, the bartender. “Her drink’s on me.”
Marco raised an eyebrow in doubt. Javier ignored the look and kept the confident smile on his face, but he had a flash of absolute hatred toward his father. It was one thing for his father to deride him privately. It was beyond the pale that he’d given the bartender the impression that Javier was a loser. Javier tried to ignore the look the bartender had given him, but Red Dress had watched the exchange closely. Javier thought for a moment that she might sour on him based on the bartender’s disdain at his offer to buy her drink. But she just smiled, turned to the bartender and ordered a glass of white wine.
The pandemic has made it so that I’ve lost a little bit of gusto in writing and editing. So, in order to give myself a bit of a deadline and force me to just get it done, I’ve decided to arrange a little game of beat the clock.
How will this work? Well, my novel Winner Takes All has been in a bit of a holding pattern in finishing up the rewrites and edits. So, to motivate me to finish it up, I decided to post a chapter every few days. That way, I have incentive to make sure I get the book completed properly and up for sale. And if I can’t get it published in time, then it will end up being fully published on the website.
So, it starts here. Today. This is chapter one of Winner Takes All. And I’ll keep publishing a chapter every Sunday and Wednesday until it’s ready to go online as an ebook.
Chapter 1 – An Abrupt End
Tina sat across from Quentin and watched his lips move. They were gorgeous, thick lips — plump, moist, soft — attached to a hella fine, chocolate man, with pretty white teeth, brooding mahogany eyes, and a flawless face. He smiled at her, cupping his long, thick fingers together on the tabletop. His voice rang out velvety smooth.
When he’d asked her out to dinner after bumping into her at the coffee shop, she’d been elated. Things were going right on her job, with her being a shoo-in for an upcoming promotion. Now all she needed was for things in the love department to pick up. And she’d thought Quentin would be the answer. Even the name sounded regal. Only, the time they’d spent together tonight had shown just how mistaken Tina had been. Quentin was a pretty package hiding the ugly beneath.
“So, enough about me,” Quentin said with a smile, one he probably thought looked bashful. Actually, it looked phony. “Tell me about what you do.”
She smiled back at him, hoping the ruby red lipstick, aptly called “sinner” by the cosmetics line, drew his eyes to her lips. She glanced at her watch, before locking eyes on him.
“We’ve been here, in this restaurant, for 30 minutes, and this is the first time you’ve asked about me,” she said. His smile faltered, and he opened his mouth — she presumed to apologize. Tina held up her hand to shush him, her manicured nails glinting in the dim restaurant lighting. “You asked what I did. I’m a marketing executive at a small, but respected, DC firm. I manage marketing campaigns for clients, and I have exactly three seconds to capture the attention of my product’s target audience. Not three seconds to sell to them. Three seconds to capture their attention. Then, I have about 10 seconds before they get bored and go on to something else. So, I’ve learned to say what I have to say up front and say it quickly. I’ve learned to cut to the heart of matters, so that my most important message is heard up front and when it matters. I’ve learned to make that message compelling. So, Quentin, we are done.”
He leaned back, his eyes widening,
She leaned forward, her eyes never leaving his. “You have talked about yourself nonstop for 30 minutes. You have been rude to the waitstaff. You were condescending to the valet — a person you just left your very nice Lexus with. You are boorish, self-absorbed, and seemingly uncaring. I have no interest in spending another moment with you, and I would have left sooner, except I have been working on bringing my professional demeanor to my personal life. In the past, I have been known to be too quick to react in my desire to be decisive. I want to thank you for the drink,” she said as she lifted the glass of white wine and took one last sip. “However, I will not be staying for dinner.”
She stood, and as he stammered futilely, Tina walked right out of the crowded, upscale dining room and through the front door.
Once outside, the heat slammed into her like a brick wall. The conditioned air inside the five-star restaurant had made her forget these were the waning days of a Washington, DC, summer. The outdoors felt like a sauna. She debated taking a cab home, but she wanted to eat. And not at that place. She was confident that the fancy establishment, with pressed linens and men in stuffy-jackets, served overpriced food in portions that wouldn’t fill her. She wanted real food. Good food. She walked away from the restaurant, being sure to turn the corner in case Quentin decided to get up and follow. Though, she doubted he would. Her read on him was that Quentin was not the kind of guy who followed when spurned. He didn’t try to make amends or fix things. He was a save-face-at-all-costs kind of guy. She imagined he would stay at the restaurant long enough to pay the check, and then go home, eat buffalo wings, and write her off as a “crazy bitch.” Tina didn’t care. She’d been called worse.
She walked a couple blocks as she searched for the ride-sharing app on her phone and tried to figure out where she wanted to eat. She was in Adams Morgan, a restaurant district known for cozy, authentic eateries. Rather than take her to a trendy, quiet place, Quentin had opted for a shi-shi foo foo place that had opened up in hopes of getting the tourist who heard it was trendy but actually wanted traditional.
She’d gotten the app and was considering just calling for a ride and scarfing down a bowl of cereal at home, when she heard salsa music. She turned in the direction the harmonies were coming from: a little place just a door down. Drawn to the music, Tina soon found herself in a clean, bright, tiny restaurant. Though only about half full, it held a decent sized crowd. The customers were a mix of people who appeared to range from the young 20s to the fun-loving forties. Small square tables for two dotted the restaurant. The tables were pushed together in spots to accommodate foursomes and could probably be configured to fit larger groups, if necessary. Customers were enjoying plates of what looked like Mexican food: things rolled in tortillas and covered in sauces and cheeses. Bean dishes that looked heavenly nestled on festive plates. Tina scanned the restaurant, taking in the atmosphere. Most people ate family style, a couple of dishes in the middle of their table, with large serving spoons to ladle out what they wanted.
There was a bar to the left. The salsa band was on a stage in the back of the room. They’d actually stopped playing at the moment. She wondered if they’d just been warming up. It was too early for them to be done. As Tina looked around, she didn’t see a podium for a hostess, but after a moment, a young woman in a black skirt, and green shirt holding a menu walked over to her, and asked, “Would you like a table or did you want to eat at the bar?”
Tina wasn’t sure. “Is the band going to play again?”
As Tina got a closer look at the woman, she wondered if she was a high school student, she looked so youthful. Though she had the poise of someone older. She nodded in response to Tina’s question. “Yes, they’re warming up. They don’t start officially for about twenty minutes. Then we move out the tables closest to the stage so people can dance. It can get pretty crowded, once they start.”
Tina nodded at the lady, who was pretty, with olive skin and a thick mane of curly black hair.
“So, what kind of food do you serve here?” “Authentic Salvadoran food.”
The dishes she’d spied on the tables looked scrumptious. She could get down with that. Tina surveyed the room. The tables were alright, but the bar looked perfect. It had the best vantage point. She could eat, watch the band, and see the dance floor. She might even decide to shake her booty. This evening didn’t have to be a complete waste after all.