SUGAR AND SPICE: A Karma Cafe Novella

Dedra Hanson has three addictions. Gorgeous shoes, yummy treats and her sexy boss. Throw in a fairy godmother with personal agenda, a midnight deadline and a marriage-of-convenience and you have a hot and sassy twist on a modern day Cinderella story.

 

SUGAR AND SPICE: A Karma Cafe Novella

What was a smart, goal-oriented girl to do when she got all hot and bothered watching a strong, sexy man look like a lost little boy?  In this particular case, Dedra Hanson figured the only option was to run like hell.

Because when the lost little boy was her boss, a strong, sexy man who had just gotten engaged to someone else, he landed firmly on her off-limits list.  Throw in the fact that he saw her as an efficient, albeit sometimes humorous robot, and the whole situation just screamed heartache.

Standing by the front door with a stack of files clutched in her arms, Dedra watched Paul Chastain stare at the small, vividly furnished apartment like he’d never seen a couch before.  Then again, it was highly likely he’d never seen one in neon paisley.

The morning sunlight filtered through the sparkling windows, a view of the Golden Gate Bridge beckoning as Paul shoved both hands through his hair.

“This is surreal,” he decided, his voice hoarse with exhaustion.

Maybe it was jetlag, having had to fly from Sydney to San Francisco on a moment’s notice.  Or the frustration of having to cut his last single-man vacation short to clean up the mess Peter had created at Chastain International, the company the two brothers had inherited when they’d lost their parents five years back.  Chastain International specialized in luxury footwear, while the Chastain brothers specialized in playboy adventures.   Or maybe he was upset because he’d had to turn down some half-naked slut-bunny who’d promised him any number of sexual favors.

Which was yet another reason she had to quit this job.  It had been hard enough watching Paul parade through the society pages with a different gorgeous, sexy woman each month.  But once he was married, Sylvia would be in the office all the time.  Oh, at first it’d be sweetness and light, the same as she’d been in the meetings with Paul.  But the ice queen couldn’t hide her grabby intentions for long.  Dedra would bet it’d be less than a month before Sylvia started interfering.  Bossing her around.  Edging her out.  So, nope.  No way.  It was better to quit while she was ahead than deal with that.

“I don’t know how it happened,” Paul said, half to himself.  “One minute I was buying a cruller and wondering where the hell I was going to live for the next five days.  The next I was hanging my suits in a tiny closet between a glittering ball dress and what looks like a molting wolf-fur, trying to choose what kind of meat I wanted on my morning muffins.”

“It was sweet of Natalia Karmanski to offer you a place to stay,” Dedra said quietly, sorting through the already organized stack of papers she’d brought for him to read instead of staring at him with puppy-dog eyes.  “You don’t want the board to know you’re back until you finish negotiations with Ms. Bittle.  With your house under a termite tent, your office off limits and the paparazzi always squirreling out your location whenever you stay in a hotel, this is a great option.”

Dedra looked around at the small, colorful apartment with a grimace.  Decorated in late psychedelic, early gypsy, the bleeding pink, purple and turquoise walls made her wish she’d worn sunglasses.  But she’d give up a month’s pay to see her jet-setting, super elegant boss curl his long, lean body into that lime-green fur beanbag chair.

“Even if it isn’t quite your style,” she added dryly.

Paul rolled his eyes at her, then in a rare show of stress, rolled his neck from side to side as well.

“Did you tell Natalia I needed somewhere to hide out?” he asked, giving her a suspicious look.

“As fascinating as your life is to many, I actually don’t talk to people about it.”  Dedra handed over three thick file folders filled with merger documents.  Nope, talking about him inevitably led to deep sighs, lusty thoughts and hard nipples.  Nothing she wanted to share with others.  Sharing them with Paul?  That scared her almost as much as people suspecting she was a sad cliché, the mousy secretary falling for her glamorous boss.  A boss who had a strict policy against sleeping with people who worked for him.   “I figure I have to answer enough questions about you during work hours, I try to avoid it on my time off.”

Instead, she used her time off to obsess over her miserably inappropriate and useless crush on an off-limits, soon-to-be-engaged, out-of-her-league man.  Dedra gave a mental eye roll of her own, wondering when she’d changed from practical, sensible and smart into pathetic, desperate and demoralizing.

At least she hadn’t slipped over into delusional and started believing she had a chance with him.

“Peter claims they’re witches.  I figured he was referring to how delicious their food is.  But maybe he’s on to something.”

Dedra’s lips twitched.  “Magical muffins and mind reading, all in one visit?”

His grin filled his face, wiping away the slight grayish cast of exhaustion and lighting his blue eyes, giving them that boyish sparkle she loved so much.

“Could be.  That elderly one, what’s her name?”

“Odette.”

“Yeah, she always seems to know what I’m craving.  If it’s not on the menu or in their dessert display, within seconds of me walking through the door, she comes out and says she’s just made it and would I like a taste.  Last month it was Hungarian Goulash.  Before that apple pie.  It’s scary.”  His exaggerated shudder made it a joke, but Dedra saw the hint of speculation in his eyes.

“They’re just good at what they do,” she dismissed in her practical way.

She wished they were magic, though.  Maybe if they whipped up a potion to help her get over her feelings, she wouldn’t have to quit her job.

Thanks to her father’s fling with his secretary, she’d learned how ugly the results could be.  He’d ended up marrying the harridan, leaving the woman and her snotty daughters to run the chain of boutiques when he died.  They’d wasted no time pushing Dedra out of the business, claiming her dowdy fashion sense and boring personality weren’t what Fairytale Fashions needed.

And now, four years later, they were begging her to come back.  Apparently dowdy fashion sense was okay as long as it was combined with a degree in business and three years working as the personal assistant to one of the top footwear design companies in the country.

“Gotta say, the Karmanski women are better at cooking than they are decorating,” Paul muttered, bending over to read titles in the odd bookcase under the couch.

Her eyes trailed over his backside in a long, hungry slide.  Long, because at six-four, he was one tall guy.  Hungry because she wanted him, like no one and nothing else she’d ever encountered in her life, she wanted him.

She wanted to run her hands over that butt, to know if it was as firm as it looked.  To press her petite body against his and find out where her breasts hit on his torso.  To taste him, one tiny bite at a time, until her control snapped and she ate him up in big, gulping slurps.

She pressed two fingers against her temple, just barely resisting the urge to poke them in her eyes so she’d stop torturing herself with the view.

She’d tried listing all of Paul’s irritating traits, making charts of the many, many reasons they were unsuitable and why he was a horrible man to lust after.

But his rumored sexual prowess, combined with the way her skin seemed to heat and tingle whenever she was within three feet of him pretty much nullified those reasons.

She’d tried distractions.  Hobbies.  Diet and exercise.  Dating.  All that’d done was fill her apartment with craft projects, add another language to her skillset, and skim five pounds off her hips.  The dating part of the experiment hadn’t produced anything worth remembering, either.

Finally, she’d given up.  The sky was blue, water was wet and she had the hots for her boss.  She couldn’t change any of it and she was too practical to keep wasting time wishing she could.

Accepting that she was stuck with the crush was one thing.  But watching him marry another woman, especially one like Sylvia Bittle, was too much.  The woman would be around all the time.  Not just in Paul’s bed and on his arm at social events.  But in the office.

In Dedra’s territory.

Ever practical in all things that didn’t relate to lusting after her boss, she’d decided the only solution was to remove herself from the situation.

Three days from now, at the stroke of midnight, her torment would end.  It’d be her, a red-eye from San Francisco to Chicago and the end of this phase of her life.

Easy peasy.

If you didn’t count the heart-wrenching misery of leaving behind a man she’d secretly lusted after for the last eighteen months, the job she’d loved for the last three years and the fun of living in the gorgeous Bay Area.

And since she wasn’t counting any of that, the easy peasy label fit just fine.

Except she’d expected him to be out of town when she quit.  It was so much easier to dump someone—even a job—if it wasn’t face to face.

“Have you checked in with Peter yet?” she asked, biting her lip.  Paul’s younger brother was, technically, in charge of personnel.  So it wasn’t, technically, chicken-shit to have tendered her two weeks’ notice to him instead of Paul.

Technically.

“Not yet.  I’m going to do that now, though,” Paul said, straightening with a copy of Kama Sutra for the Adventurous in his hand.

Dedra gulped.  Her entire body flashed hot, then cold, then hot again.  Her eyes shifted from the book to the phone in his hand and then to his face.

What was worse?  Being here while he called Peter and heard about her defection?  Or watching him flip through a sex manual, wondering what positions he liked best.

“I’ve got to go,” she blurted out.

“What?”  Frowning, Paul gestured to the tiny, scarf-covered table.  “I thought you were going to stick around, go over the files with me.”

“Um, no.”  Backing up, she reached behind her, feeling around for the doorknob.  “It’s Saturday.  I’ve got plans.  Stuff to do.  I’ll check in later, though.”

Maybe.  If she could get ahold of Peter first to beg him to keep her resignation quiet until she was actually gone.

She gave Paul a quick wave and hurried out the door.

She had to move fast, before she grabbed the book, opened it to any random page and begged him to prove to her that reality really was better than fiction.

Of course, if she did that, she wouldn’t have to worry so much about his reaction to her resigning.

Because he’d fire her.

 

What the hell?

His eyes locked on the closed door, Paul Chastain dropped to the vivid paisley couch with a grimace.

What was wrong with Dedra?  She’d run out so fast, the shag carpet was still quivering.  He’d hoped she’d stick around.  Keep him company.  Then again, his return had interrupted her vacation, so maybe she had plans.

With a guy?

Paul frowned at the silhouette of a naked couple on the book he was holding.  What kind of guy did Dedra get naked with?  He flipped a few pages through what was clearly the animal chapter.  Dog, cat, snake.  He grinned.  Flamingo?  He wondered how the guy got traction standing on one leg like that.  Adventurous Kama Sutra, indeed.

Was Dedra doing the adventurous style with that faceless guy?  Paul peered at the Flamingo sketches, wondering if she was flexible enough to bend that way.  If he squinted, he could imagine her face on the hazy sketch.  But it wasn’t some random guy behind her.  It was him.  And he knew damned well that he was limber enough to handle the position.  Just the idea got him excited, his body stirring to action as if it, unlike his brain, wasn’t exhausted.

Crap.  He shoved a frustrated hand through his hair, then tossed the book aside.  He was imagining sex with his assistant again.

Clearly, fatigue was taking its toll on his good sense.

He hadn’t complained over having his vacation cut short by two weeks.  But coming back only to find himself evicted from his house due to a termite infestation, dealing with the insane but unavoidable demands of this recent merger with the Bittle Group, and having to hide his return in order to strategically curtail a sneaky board takeover were bad enough.  But forbidden fantasies and ugly furniture?

A man could only take so much.

His head fell back on the hideous—yet surprisingly comfortable—couch cushion.  Eyes closed, he sighed, giving in to the dragging weight of jetlag for just a second.

Thank God for Dedra

She was his sanity.  His lifeline.  And as long as she kept those little glasses on to blur the vivid green of her eyes, her hair in a tidy bun so he wasn’t tempted to touch the silky blonde strands, she was the perfect assistant.

She’d become so much more than the secretary he’d originally hired her to be.  She was savvy enough to trust with minor negotiations, clever enough to keep him two steps ahead of manufacturing issues.  She ran his office and social calendars with a deft hand, kept him up-to-date on everything from current events to industry changes to pop-culture trends.  Anything and everything he needed both to run his company and keep him sane.

So efficient he’d swear she read his mind.

Except that she’d probably run, screaming in shock, if she knew where his thoughts tended to go when he was around her.

He’d imagined her naked on his desk.  Naked in his car.  Naked on his plane.  Naked in the board room, the bedroom, the café bathroom, even.

Hell, if it had a flat surface, he’d imagined her naked there.  Which was crazy.  Dedra wasn’t his type.  She wore bland colors, barely any makeup and usually smelled like talcum powder instead of exotic flowers.  She never dressed to impress, but more to fade into the background.  He wasn’t even sure what her curves looked like, since all her dresses were on the baggy side.  If it wasn’t for her penchant for sexy shoes, he’d figure she had no fashion sense at all.

She’d been the one to alert him to the board’s plans to take over controlling interest of Chastain.  A bunch of crotchety old contemporaries of his grandparents—the founders of Chastain—they’d evidently decided that Paul and Peter needed a little moral guidance.  Ridiculous really, considering they were both over thirty.  But the board had deemed it time that at least one of the brothers settled down and show they were mature enough to continue leading.

As much as he’d like to say he had been surprised, Paul had only shook his head in resignation.  He could fight the mandate.  He and Peter only held forty-nine percent interest, but still, this mandate was archaic.  The law was probably on his side.  But doing so now would derail business, shift focus from their new line’s launch and the bad publicity could put Chastain’s stock in jeopardy.

Throw in this Bittle merger…

Just thinking about it made Paul groan and sink his face into his hands.  Married?  It wasn’t like he’d been holding out for that love fairy tale or anything.  Hell, he’d never thought about marriage.  But if he had, he’d never have imagined it as a business merger to a hungry shark in high heels.

But personal feelings didn’t matter.  Chastains was his priority.  And despite his playboy rep—and unlike his brother, who hit on anything female regardless of the consequences—Paul knew he had to keep his attraction for Dedra buried.

Sex was easy.  But a great assistant?

Too damned hard to replace.

Especially one he needed as much as he needed her.

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