Can't Get Enough
CLAIRE was late. She hated being late almost as much as she hated brussel sprouts. And she hated brussel sprouts a lot. Traffic inched forward, and she craned her head out her window, confirming that the entrance to the company parking complex was just five car lengths ahead. Unfortunately, there were five cars occupying those five car lengths, and they were all moving as though they were powered by arthritic turtles. She willed them to move forward, concentrating intently on the shiny bumper of the pick-up in front of her.
Nothing. So much for any latent powers of ESP she might have.
Might as well use the time to slap on some lipstick. She flipped her visor mirror down and blinked in horror at the too-close image of herself it reflected back at her: eyes red, nose just beginning to peel thanks to too much sun on the weekend, and a hefty gob of what her godchild Oscar rather charmingly called “eye booger” in the corner of one eye.
“Aren’t you the belle of the ball,” she told her reflection.
A dab of moisturiser, some judicious use of Kleenex, and a swipe of lipstick went a long way to repairing the damage. She was just completing the last curve of pink-brown lipstick across her lips when the car behind her honked. A jagged lipstick smear raced up her cheek before she could control her reflexes.
Realising the lane was now clear all the way to the coveted car park entrance, she slapped the visor up, deciding to fix her face later. With an apologetic wave for the driver behind her, she accelerated forward and zipped up the entrance ramp with a spurt of speed.
Now it was simply a case of snaffling her favourite spot near the stairwell, and she could still make her first meeting of the day…
She frowned as she pulled up in front of “her” spot. A shiny red sports car gleamed smugly there, light reflecting off its sleek curves. Its owner had gone to the trouble of reversing in - obviously a fan of the quick get away. The frown creasing her forehead deepened. She knew the owner of this car, and, indeed, he was fond of the quick get away; at least a dozen women at Beck and Wise could vouch for just how fond.
“Stupid slacker,” she ground out under her breath as she threw her car into reverse and began trawling for another spot.
Everyone knew that spot was hers. She made a point of parking there every day. Okay, so it didn’t actually have her name on it – Beck and Wise only reserved car spots for its very senior executives – but it was common knowledge.
And she knew for a fact that Jack Brook was fully aware of her attachment to the spot; she ignored him every time she passed him on her way to or from her car. Just last week she’d glided coolly past him, not acknowledging his presence with so much as the twitch of an eyelid. So he knew. Oh yes, he knew.
At last she found another spot, a full five rows further back than her usual one. She turned into it with more verve than necessary, and had to waste precious seconds sliding her car into reverse and correcting the error. The contents of her handbag were spread out across her passenger seat after her ad-hoc repair mission in the traffic jam, and she scrabbled around until she’d stuffed them all back into her sleek black leather purse. Like much of her life, it looked perfect on the outside, its chaotic contents well hidden from prying eyes.
She broke into a fast trot as she cleared the first row of cars, but realised very quickly that no amount of training or conditioning could prepare someone for a hundred yard dash in leather pumps. Slowing to a tight-assed scamper, she spared a glance for the gleaming red affront in her car spot as she pushed open the door to the car park stairwell.
Jack Brook. Just thinking his name made her grind her teeth. From the moment she’d first laid eyes on him two years ago she’d had his number, and everything she’d heard or seen of him since had only confirmed that initial snap judgement.
Too good-looking for his own good - if you liked tall, dark, blue
eyed, broad-shouldered men.
Too smart for his own good, too - if you admired creative, clever, arrogant, witty minds.
And too damn aware of all of the above, as far as she was concerned.
Most of the women at Beck and Wise thought he was dreamy. Most of the men, too, come to think of it. If they weren’t admiring his latest magazine article, they were playing racquet ball with him after work, or laughing at one of his jokes.
And he just made her want to spit. Call it an instinctive rejection of a type of man she’d always found incredibly unappealing. Call it the opposite of sexual magnetism. Whatever, it made her back go stiff whenever she caught sight of his dark head, it compelled her to press her full lips into a tight, ungenerous line at the mere sound of his voice, and it switched her clever tongue to ‘take no prisoners’ mode. Not that it did her much good. Usually he’d just smirk at anything she said and throw some off-the-cuff smart comment her way – and damn him if nine times out of ten she wasn’t left floundering and feeling stupid. Another excellent reason to avoid him as much as possible.
It wasn’t that big a deal, usually. Beck and Wise was a huge publishing company, a media giant that produced hundreds of magazines for the Australian marketplace. Jack worked on a whole different floor to her – when he was in the office – on a whole different selection of magazine titles. If she put some effort into it, she could manage things so that she barely ever saw him.
But now he’d slipped his red penis-compensator into her car spot, and she couldn’t simply assign him to his usual category of ‘necessary evil’ and forget about him.
The automatic doors to the impressive thirty storey Beck and Wise building swished open as she entered, and she glanced longingly across at the foyer coffee shop as a hit of freshly ground coffee beans washed over her. No time for coffee today. She spared a thought for her favourite double mocha latte, eyeing off the distinctive steaming cup in the hands of one lucky, contented customer. Her eyes automatically lifted to scan the coffee-lover’s face, and she felt her lips assume their usual stream-lined position as she looked into Jack Brook’s deep blue eyes.
Bastard. Now he had her favourite car spot, and her favourite coffee.
She forced herself to look away, concentrating instead on the elevator bank ahead. Checking her watch, she stabbed the up button urgently, then sighed with relief as the doors in front of her opened on a cheery chime. Entering, she punched the button for her floor, then looked up to see Jack bearing down on her, his stride lengthening as he sped up to beat the doors. They made eye contact again, and the corners of his ridiculously blue eyes crinkled as he flashed one of his patented engaging grins at her.
“Could you…?” he called, just a few steps away now.
She moved instinctively, her finger reaching for the button before her conscious mind could approve or disapprove the action. He’d stolen her car spot, after all. And he had that delicious-looking coffee in his hand…
The doors began to slide shut. Realising what she’d done, his eyes widened with confusion and then, quickly, annoyance. She tried to despise the little zing of triumph that shot up her spine, but when the doors closed completely she didn’t fight the smile that leapt to her lips.
Take that, Smug-boy, she thought.
And then she saw her reflection in the polished steel elevator doors: a huge smear of lipstick raced up her cheek like some bizarre experiment in modern art. Groaning, she closed her eyes. Why did Jack Brook always have the last word?
Jack stood staring at the closed elevator doors for a full twenty seconds. What was it with that uptight cow from level fifteen? Claire Something, that was her name. Always frowning. Her lips always squished into nothingness. Her chin always high and haughty. And what was with the weird lipstick?
He shook his head, genuinely baffled. To his knowledge, he’d never done a thing to offend her. Yet every time he smiled her way she blew him off. It was like she’d caught him double-dipping or cheating on his taxes or something.
He hated women like that. Women who acted as though every gesture of friendliness, every joke or helpful suggestion was about you trying to crack their defences and get them into bed. As if he’d be interested in some tightly-stitched-up chick who’d probably just lie there and stare at the ceiling anyway. Thanks, but he’d rather fly solo.
He stepped into the next elevator car and punched the button for the seventeenth floor. Claire What’s-her-name didn’t have anything to worry about where he was concerned. He liked his women young – sub twenty, if possible – bubbly, and full of life. Preferably in a bikini, but a one-piece was also acceptable. He grinned. Okay, so he was exaggerating a little, but if the hat fit…
He took a sip of his latte, then shook his head as the image of her be-striped face disappearing behind the closing elevator doors popped into his mind. God, how petty. How stupid and silly and petty.
And then he got it. And he threw back his head and laughed out loud at exactly the same time that the elevator car slid to a smooth stop on the fifteenth floor – someone must have pressed the button. Heads turned as people looked up from their work, and he saw Claire’s head snap around and her eyes narrow as she spotted him from her office doorway. He grinned and fished in his pocket, pulling his car keys out and dangling them suggestively.
Her lips practically disappeared as she glared at him, and he gave her a little finger wave as the lift doors closed between them for the second time that day.
She was pissed about the car spot! He practically giggled as he relished the moment. Imagine being that invested in something so mundane. Imagine wanting to take revenge over something so small and insignificant. Admittedly, the thought that the spot he’d reversed into this morning was usually filled by her sensible sedan had crossed his mind at the time. And just as quickly exited at the other end. It would do her good to have a bit of variety, he’d thought. She looked like she was a creature of habit, always in the same sensible boxy suits, always with her dark, curly hair cut sensibly short. So he was practically doing her a favour, forcing her to break her routine. She might even thank him for the new perspective he was offering her.
Or not. He was still smiling as he stepped out onto the seventeenth floor, raising his latte in greeting at his assistant Linda as he passed by.
“Why are you looking particularly naughty this morning? What trouble have you just stirred up?” she demanded as she followed him into his corner office.
He smiled mysteriously and waggled his eyebrows at her, glancing out the window at his fantastic view of the city of Melbourne. The sky was blue, fluffy clouds floated across the sky… and seventeen floors down, if only he had x-ray vision, he could spot his car…in her spot…
“Jack? What on earth have you done?” Linda asked, real worry in her voice now.
“Relax. It’s nothing. Just a stupid…thing that happened. With that Claire girl from Homes and Decorating,” he said.
Linda gave him a look.
“Claire Marsden, you mean?
“Is she the sensible one? With the skinny little mouth?”
“Are we talking about the same woman ? On the short side? Cute as a button?” Linda queried.
He made a dismissive noise, unprepared to think positive things about Claire Marsden right now.
“Well, I think she’s very attractive,” Linda continued.
“Compared to the Russian women’s weightlifting team, you mean?”
“Whatever did she do to get you so offside?” Linda asked, her eyes wide at his unaccustomed cruelty.
He shrugged, suddenly aware that he’d actually allowed himself to get quite worked up.
“We just had a little…transport dispute this morning.”
“I see. Well, she’s a nice person. My niece Ronnie spent a week doing work experience with her recently. Claire was very supportive and helpful, and Ronnie is really inspired to have a go at journalism now.”
He paused in the act of flipping open the lid on his notebook computer.
“Why didn’t you ask me about the work experience? I’d have been happy to have Ronnie up here.”
Linda made a noise in the back of her throat. He recognised it as her ‘deeply sceptical’ grunt and decided he was offended.
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“Oh, come on, Jack. You’re hardly the most patient of men. I didn’t want you breathing down Ronnie’s neck, making her nervous. Besides, you’re far too good-looking and Ronnie’s far too young and blonde for my personal comfort.”
He leaned back in his chair, happy for any opportunity to crank his assistant up a little.
“Blonde you say? Just how old is she?”
Linda shook her head and slapped his mail down onto his desk.
“Keep your trousers on and read your mail, Mr Sexy,” she said.
He took another big slurp of latte while he waited for his computer to boot up. A dialogue box flashed onto the screen and he typed in his password, flicking idly through the few letters Linda had just given him while the computer logged into the company network.
Nothing exciting there. In his role as Managing Editor, he oversaw the production of six monthly magazine titles. It meant he got a lot of mail – most of it dull. Today he had a complaint from one of the tour operators they’d profiled in a recent ‘Travel Time’ issue which could go straight in the bin, and a couple of letters to the editor from two of the other titles he managed.
He turned his attention to his email, his eyebrows rising with surprise as he saw he had a message from the Big Kahuna himself, Morgan Beck. He scanned the note quickly, then called Linda in.
“Can you cancel my two o’clock and reschedule it for me? I’ve been summonsed upstairs by God.”
“Can do. Anything else?”
He flashed his most disarming smile, turning on the charm shamelessly. To her credit, Linda remained steadfastly unaffected, instead shaking her head ruefully.
“Don’t waste your little boy lost routine on me. What do you want?”
“Do you think you could also swing past the post office and collect the mail from my personal box? I haven’t had a chance to get over there since I flew back into town yesterday.”
“Jack, we’ve been over this - I’m more than happy to collect your personal mail for you every day during my lunch break. Just give me the key to your box and it will be taken care of.”
Sliding the small key from his key ring, Jack hesitated before handing it over.
“I feel bad asking you to run personal errands for me,” he confessed when Linda made an impatient noise.
“Well, get over it. You’re a good boss, you don’t treat me like a slave, and I’m happy to help you out however I can.”
Overcoming his personal scruples, Jack shrugged and handed the key over. Linda gave him an amused look as she slid it into her hip pocket.
“Don’t worry - I’ll let you know when you’ve crossed the line and turned into a heartless corporate shark.”
“My deepest, darkest fear. How did you know?” Jack joked.
“I’m psychic. Which is why I suspect it’s useless suggesting you tidy yourself up a bit before your appointment with Mr Beck,” Linda said, her tone indicating she already knew his response.
“You are psychic, you know. It’s uncanny,” he said, loving annoying her.
Linda’s eyes flicked down to his black three-quarter length cargo pants, slip on sandals, and un-ironed Hawaiian shirt.
“You’re lucky Mr Beck likes you,” she said on her way out of his office.
Jack snorted, his mood shifting abruptly as her words triggered a memory.
What a concept. What a stupid, random, insane, cruel concept. He was very quiet for a moment as he stared out unseeingly at his view. And then he remembered that big smear of lipstick across Claire Marsden’s face and he laughed to himself all over again.
Busy. The thought registered somewhere between Claire’s third impromptu meeting of the day and the fourth phone call from the client she’d been wooing for the past six months. Now they’d signed the contracts, Hillcrest Hardware were keen to have their new custom-magazine in their hot little hands.
Ironic, if you had the time to appreciate such things. She’d spent so long explaining, and illustrating, and cajoling to bring them to the point of saying yes, and now they were more keen than she was. And she was pretty damn keen.
Despite the fact that it was well past midday and she still hadn’t read her emails, she paused to appreciate the larger-than-life blow up of the front cover for the launch edition of ‘Welcome Home’ magazine that was leaning against her office wall. Gleaming floorboards reflected light from wide, white framed windows, and a rustic wood dining setting graced the centre of the tastefully decorated room. ‘Colour Your World’ read one of the cover lines, while another claimed ‘Bring Your Garden To Life In An Instant’. A little bubble of pride blossomed in her belly. After all the hard work, they were finally go.
Her own magazine. Based on a concept she’d created. Executed just how she thought it should be executed. It simply didn’t get better.
She was the one who had seen the opportunity for a custom magazine within the Hillcrest Hardware Chain. She’d watched the growth in demand for decorator magazine titles, and she’d found a progressive hardware retailer in the marketplace who was looking for a new way to create relationships with its customers. It had made sense to her to answer one need with the other, just as it had made sense to the executives at Hillcrest when she pitched it to them six months ago.
Now she was about to launch a new magazine title into the Australian market place, an important, key part of her five year plan. Soon, if she played her cards right, the corner office and senior management status she coveted would be hers - it was just a matter of time.
Today was Wednesday; by this time next week, she should have editorial sign-off from her client, and the magazine should be well into production. Another week or so later, and the first edition would be rolling off the printing presses.
A goofy smile still wreathing her lips, Claire clicked the mouse on the email icon on her computer screen and watched as her inbox registered way too many notifications. Sighing, she realised she was going to have to get her assistant to prioritise them for her, alert her to the urgent ones, and print the rest off for her to read in bed later that night. Another fascinating evening.
It was just as well there was no man also planning on sharing her bed.
She paused for a moment, annoyed with herself. Where had that thought come from? Parts of her body twitched suggestively, and she shrugged. Okay, it’d been a while. And a bit of frustration release was necessary every now and then, but that was what George Clooney movies were for. This was more important. ‘Welcome Home’ was her baby, and it deserved all her attention.
Besides, it wasn’t like there was a battle going on here between the magazine and her personal life; apart from her training regime and the actual triathlon meets themselves, she had no personal life. There was work, and there was the road and the pool and her bike. End of story.
And it was a nice, uncomplicated, successful story. She was fulfilled. Really. And hadn’t she made it into the state triathlon semi-finals thanks to all that focus?
Okay, maybe she was a little horny. But that could wait. Sex would always be there, but this opportunity wouldn’t.
A recent memory volunteered itself suddenly - last time she’d visited her grandmother she’d been astonished to learn that her Gran was telling everyone in the old people’s home that she was a lesbian.
“Just to take the heat off them all wondering when you’re getting married and having children, dear,” her Gran had explained.
So she wasn’t going to be young forever. But this was important, and sometimes other things had to take a backseat to work. In five years time, she’d be ensconced in that corner office, in charge of a handful of quality magazines. The sacrifices and loneliness were worth it. For the time being.
Having talked her nether regions into submission, she called her assistant, Tom, in and asked him to sort through the rest of her emails.
She was just about to plunge back into her in-tray when a familiar figure propped itself against her door frame.
“We still on for lunch?”
Claire stared at her friend Katherine in dismay.
“You forgot, didn’t you?” Katherine guessed, one hand resting on her slim hip.
“I’m sorry. I’ve got so much on, I think I should just work through lunch…”
But Katherine wasn’t about to take no for an answer. Swinging around, she called in reinforcements.
“Tom! Get over here and help me convince your boss she needs to eat lunch,” she called imperatively.
Tom shot up from his seat as though he’d been electrocuted, and Claire had to stifle a laugh as he stared at Katherine slavishly. At nearly six foot, with legs that seemed to go on forever and a bust that would put a 1950’s pin-up to shame, Katherine was every man’s sexual fantasy. The fact that she was funny, clever and worked as editor of a sports magazine were bonuses that most men didn’t seem to mind, either. At a tender twenty years, Tom was like a bunny in the car headlights of her attractiveness.
“I tell her all the time she should have a lunch break, but she thinks a protein shake is enough,” Tom said, sounding for all the world like a worried Jewish mother.
“Are you listening to what Tom is saying, Claire?” Katherine asked, the glint in her eye signalling that she wasn’t unaware of Tom’s adoration.
Shaking her head at her friend, Claire checked her watch.
“Twenty minutes,” she said.
“Done. Thanks for the back up, Tom,” Katherine said, giving him a big smile.
Tom just sat there, apparently stunned by such beneficence.
Claire grabbed her handbag and followed Katherine to the lifts.
“You’re cruel,” she admonished.
“How so? I was perfectly nice to him!”
Claire gave Katherine’s close-fitting deep red, short-skirted suit and elegant high heels a once-over.
“You ought to be registered as a deadly weapon. Or given a handicap. How are the rest of us mere mortals supposed to compete?”
“You do okay, from what I’ve seen,” Katherine commented dryly.
“Right. That’s why I watched three George Clooney movies this month.”
The lift opened and they exited into the foyer, heading for the coffee shop.
“The opportunities are there, but you choose not to see them.”
Claire rolled her eyes - as if she wouldn’t have noticed if an eligible guy was interested in her! As if to prove her point, a young courier walked straight into a potted palm because he was too busy tracking Katherine’s progress across the foyer to look where he was going.
“You see that? Nobody walks into pot-plants for me, I can tell you.”
“You don’t believe me? What about Cameron Johnson in lay-out? And that cute security guard on the night shift?”
Claire had to rack her brains to get even a vague mental image of both men. Needless to say, they hadn’t walked into a wall or any other obstacle the last time she was in their vicinity - that she would have remembered.
They settled into their usual seat in the far back corner of the coffee shop and picked up a menu each, even though neither of them ever strayed from their normal order - a chicken club sandwich.
“You don’t want to see - that’s your problem. When was the last time you had a date?” Katherine challenged.
Claire studied the menu intently. Why had she even brought this subject up? Hadn’t she just decided that she was happy with her work-oriented world at the moment?
“Forget I said anything. I was only joking, anyway,” she hedged.
Katherine shook her head sympathetically.
“That long, huh?”
Desperate for some way to avoid the conversation she suspected was in the offing, Claire scanned the coffee shop looking for a distraction. She twitched as she noted Jack Brook propped at the lunch bar, one leg resting comfortably on the foot rail as he chatted to a woman she didn’t recognise. He looked so confident and happy and self-assured that she felt her toes curling in her shoes with annoyance.
“You went out with Jack Brook for a while, didn’t you?” she found herself blurting.
Katherine looked surprised and she turned to follow Claire’s line of sight, quickly spotting Jack lounging at the bar.
The glance she shot Claire was unreadable as she settled back down.
“Yeah, I did. For a few short, spectacular weeks a couple of years ago.”
The waiter stopped by their table, and Claire and Katherine both ordered the chicken club sandwich. Silence fell. Aware that Katherine was now thinking completely the wrong thing, Claire felt honour-bound to correct her.
“He parked in my car space this morning,” she explained. “He’s such an arrogant jerk, I just wondered what you saw in him.”
“That’s simple - pretty much what every other woman sees in him. He’s gorgeous.”
Claire pulled a face, her eyes sliding across to contemplate Jack’s profile.
“He really does nothing for me,” she said airily.
Katherine made a small disbelieving noise.
“Then you’re officially the walking dead. Whether Jack Brook is gorgeous is not a matter of subjective opinion. He has those amazing eyes, and a body to die for - fantastic skin, great arms. And he’s a great lover. Really…gifted, if you get what I mean,” Katherine said, wiggling her eyebrows suggestively.
Claire shifted in her seat, but she was unable to stop her eyes from sliding back across to him. He was teasing his lunch companion, reaching out to swipe a bit of frosting off her cake. As Claire watched he slid his chocolate-coated finger into his mouth and licked it, his actions completely unconscious and completely erotic. She flicked her eyes away from the blatant display, but, again, they slid back to him of their own accord. Now he was shoving his hand into his pants pocket as he leant casually on the bar. The fabric tightened across his thighs and, unbelievably, she felt herself blushing as she considered what Katherine had said. Gifted…what exactly did that mean? Was that about the finger licking thing, or the part of his trousers that was holding her attention right now?
“You know, a fling with someone like Jack could be exactly what you need,” Katherine said.
Claire jerked her attention back to her friend.
“Are you insane? I wouldn’t sleep with Jack Brook if you paid me. He’s cocky, conceited, smug - and a complete man-slut.”
Katherine was smiling knowingly, and Claire bristled. Determined to prove her point, she leaned across the table.
“If you gave me the choice of kissing Jack Brook or punching him in the face, I’d choose the punch every time,” she said firmly.
“Ah - so you have thought about kissing Jack, then?”
Claire was about to launch into all the reasons why she considered Jack Brook to be sub-human when Katherine’s face suddenly lit up as though she’d just thought of something funny. She laughed, nodding her head as though she’d just worked something out. Claire frowned at her, suspicious.
“I just remembered something. I was talking about you with Jack once. He wanted to know why we were friends - he thought you were prissy.”
Claire sat bolt upright in her seat and glared across at Jack. What a pig! How dare he call her prissy! What a horrible thing to say - like she was some dried up spinster aunt or something. She had a good mind to go over and give him a piece of her mind…
“Where does he get off talking about me like that?” she steamed, dragging her gaze away from Jack to find Katherine studying her speculatively.
Claire suddenly felt very exposed under her friend’s knowing gaze.
“I mean, as if I care what a jerk like him thinks about me.”
Katherine simply quirked an eyebrow disbelievingly.
“Can we please talk about something - anything - else?” Claire asked, fiddling with her paper napkin and cutlery.
To her everlasting relief, their sandwiches arrived.
“You’re lucky I’m really hungry,” Katherine said lightly. “You’re off the hook - for the moment."