Boss Me Chapter 1
Trouble came in the shape of a pair of broad shoulders.
Even hunched forward, bracketing his drooping head, they were wide and muscled, his biceps barely contained in a paper-thin vintage Rolling Stones T-shirt tucked at his narrow waist into a pair of jeans. His ridiculous Austin, Texas, belt buckle was as big as my hand.
When I hung out with the other admins at coffee breaks, they swooned over Jackson Jones’s rakish good looks and flirtatious personality.
Not me. I left that for my boss.
Wait, sorry, did I say that? Regardless, I knew Jackson Jones was trouble.
He scuffed to my desk and turned a pair of bloodshot eyes on me. “He in?”
God, I wished he wasn’t. Or that I could lie and save my boss from whatever fresh hell Jackson was about to drag him into.
“Something I can help you with?” I stood and smoothed down my navy merino wool sweater. I wasn’t a tall man, but standing, I didn’t have to crane my neck up at Jackson.
He chuckled. “Not unless you’ve got a miracle cure for whatever baby bug took down my kid, my wife, and the nanny.”
“Sorry, I’m fresh out—oh. You’re supposed to go to Boston today.”
“Yeah. About that…”
I winced. My boss had just gotten back from a trip to Asia the week before. He hadn’t had time to recover from the jet lag. And Jackson was about to ask him to get back on a plane to fly across the country and screw up his body clock again.
But Jackson thought Cooper Fallon was Superman, that he could do it all—his own job as the Chief Operating Officer and Jackson’s job, too.
It didn’t help that Cooper did nothing to dispel that notion. When Jackson asked him to jump, he asked how high. According to the executive assistant who supported Synergy’s board, who’d been there almost since the beginning, it had been their dynamic since they’d founded the company over a dozen years before. They were partners, but it was nothing like 50-50. More like 80-20. And Cooper always ended up on the wrong end of that ratio.
“So can I go in?”
I hadn’t realized I’d moved in front of the glass door to Cooper’s office, blocking his partner from entry. I wished I could tell him no to protect Cooper from Jackson and from his own overcommitment, but Cooper didn’t want to be protected from Jackson.
Even though he needed it.
Deliberately, I lowered my shoulders from where they’d crept up by my ears. I turned and rapped on the door before I pushed it open and stuck my head into the opening. “Mr. Fallon?”
When he turned from his monitor, the blue light lit his face, turning his normally golden tan skin greenish pale. His eyes were red, too. Not as bad as Jackson’s, but I could tell he’d spent too much time staring at spreadsheets. He lifted a hand to the juncture of his neck and shoulder and kneaded the muscle there. I wished I could do that for him, but that would’ve violated our unspoken no-touching rule.
“Ben, how many times have I asked you to call me Cooper?”
I let one side of my mouth curl up. “About once a day since I started working here six months ago, Mr. Fallon.”
“So approximately one hundred twenty times. And how many more times do I need to tell you before you listen?”
The snap in his tone might have scared someone else. Cooper Fallon was famous for his relentless drive and his quick temper. I knew he’d never follow up that bark with a proper bite. Maybe with an executive like Jackson, but not for someone at my level. I’d watched him, probably more than was healthy, and I knew from many hours of careful observation that even though his tone was sharp, he usually kept a leash on the fury that flashed in his blue eyes.
“Oh, I listen,” I said.
Behind me, Jackson cleared his throat, and the smile melted off my face. “Jackson is here to see you. Do you have a minute?” Please say no.
He ran a hand through his sunkissed hair and stood, his six-foot-four frame unfolding with athletic elegance. “Send him in.”
I held in a sigh and pressed the door all the way open, stepping into the office, and said more formally than I needed to, “He can see you now.”
Jackson shuffled past me. “Hey, Coop.”
Cooper strode around his desk and clapped Jackson’s shoulder. They were about the same height, two gorgeous physical specimens, but only one of them turned me inside out whenever I was in his presence.
I stayed there, pressed against the door. “Can I get you anything? Coffee? A sandwich?” Had Cooper eaten lunch? I’d gone to the cafeteria with Jackson’s assistant, Marlee, but I wasn’t sure if Cooper had left his desk.
“Would you get me a coffee, please?” Jackson asked.
“Sure. How about a green smoothie, Mr. Fallon?” He’d need the antioxidants to keep up his strength if he was going back out on the road.
His gaze flicked to me, and heat washed over my skin. But his words were crisp with frost. “Yes, please. Thank you.”
And then, as much as I hated to do it, I walked out of his office and closed the door on Jackson Jones and Cooper Fallon.
* * *
I rubbed at my throbbing temple and edged forward in line for the coffee kiosk in Synergy’s soaring lobby. My gaze trailed up the glass elevator shaft to the sixth floor.
If I was any judge of the tightening around Cooper’s eyes, he was suffering through his own headache. Not that he’d ever admit to being human enough to experience pain. Maybe I could slip him a pain reliever along with the revolting green smoothie.
Smoothies: my small but important contribution to the company. Cooper drank at least one a day. It was quick, efficient fuel for his duties as Chief Operating Officer of Synergy Analytics. Cooper kept Synergy running, and by fetching his smoothies, I did my part.
I scrubbed my hand over my face and stared out across the lobby. Who was I kidding? I didn’t do it for Synergy. I did it for him.
I did it for the flare in those cool blue eyes when I handed the cup to him and said, “Your smoothie, Mr. Fallon.”
I did it because of the infatuation that fluttered in my stomach the moment I shook his hand on my first day on the job six months ago. And as we’d worked together, as I’d gotten to know the driven executive who’d do anything for his partner and best friend, who’d grown the company from a business plan he’d written in a spiral notebook in their dorm room, who supported foundations that helped at-risk kids, those flutters moved right into my heart and never left.
My sister, Mimi, said I lived with my heart on the outside, and I’d fall for anyone who gave me a hint of returning my attraction.
Cooper Fallon had given me no hints. He was always cool and polite. He said, “Thank you, Ben,” at the end of each day. He’d given me an expensive but impersonal cheese basket for the holidays. He asked me about school sometimes, but he probably had to since the company was paying my tuition.
Yet I gobbled up those flares of heat when I handed over his smoothies.
A woman took her coffee and strode away from the kiosk, and I stepped forward, still two people from the front of the line. I checked my phone. Ten minutes since I’d left Cooper alone with Jackson.
Why had I tried to save time by coming downstairs to the kiosk? The place down the street knew our order. But I’d wanted to stay close enough to rescue Cooper if he needed it. Ha. Cooper Fallon would never admit he needed rescuing. Or a goddamned break from saving the world. I inched forward in line and tapped the toe of my chukka boot against the floor to relieve the nervous energy that made me want to shake someone.
Jackson, who was supposed to be Cooper’s best friend, pulled this shit all the damn time. There was always a reason he couldn’t take a trip or present to the board.
When I was first hired, Cooper handled it, no problem. But since Jackson’s baby was born in February, Cooper seemed paler somehow. Not just his skin, but the whole of him. Like some of his actual life essence had been sucked out of him by that machine in The Princess Bride. His movements were smaller. His smile—rare at the best of times—was nonexistent now. Even that famous Fallon temper had cooled, like nothing was worth getting upset over anymore.
Maybe it was just a seasonal thing, and Cooper would spring back to life when the days got longer and brighter in the summer. But I had a feeling it wasn’t. It was a Jackson Jones thing. I dug a knuckle into my temple. Fucking Jackson Jones and his bullshit.
“Hey, Ben.” The barista’s voice snapped me back to reality. Finally, I was at the front of the line.
“Hey.” I didn’t come to the kiosk often, but I guessed the barista made it his job to know everyone’s name.
“It’s Kris.” He winked at me, his dark hair flopping over one eye.
“Oh, right, I knew that. Sorry, Kris.” Did I know that? “Do you have blueberries?”
Kris blinked. “Um, sure.”
“Can you add a handful of them to a kale smoothie, please?” I checked my phone. Fifteen minutes, and no SOS text. That had to be a good sign. “And can I also get a black coffee and a skinny latte? Plus a caramel macchiato for Marlee. Please.”
“Got it.” He scooped fresh grounds into a French press. “You don’t come here that often. Not as often as I’d like.”
I flicked my gaze from his hands, which I’d been mentally urging to move faster, to his face. He had a Harry Styles look going with that floppy hair and those to-die-for cheekbones. Totally my type.
Except he wasn’t. Not anymore. My type, apparently, was emotionally unavailable, blue-eyed billionaires. Fuck. My. Life.
My phone buzzed in my hand.
Marlee: 911. Need you NOW.
“Shit, sorry, 86 all that.” I shot Kris a quick smile. The corners of his mouth turned down just before I sprinted across the lobby to the elevator bank. I pounded the button and whirled to scan the elevator doors behind me. Open, open, open. I hopped on my toes like that would make the elevator come faster.
At last, a door pinged, and I rushed to stand in front of it. The elevator was full, and it took every ounce of self-control I had not to shove past my fellow employees and then push them out.
When the car finally emptied, I darted inside and pushed the button for the sixth floor, then I slammed my palm over the close-door button. It wasn’t the first time I’d had to rush back to my desk for my demanding boss. But I had a bad feeling today. Goddamn Jackson Jones.
I watched the floors light on the screen above the door and breathed deep. Maybe I was being unfair to Jackson. Marlee liked him. Everyone liked him. Including Cooper. In fact—
I rubbed my hand over the too-familiar burn in my belly. I needed to stop caring about Cooper. Like most people I’d fallen for, he was out of my league. Besides, his heart was otherwise engaged, and the sooner I got over my ridiculous crush, the better.
At last, the doors opened on the sixth floor, and I stepped out, my heart in my throat.
Raised voices assaulted the usual calm of the executive floor. They were coming from Cooper’s office. A crowd of people gathered near the door.
Marlee trotted toward me on her pink kitten heels. Wringing her hands, she whispered, “Great galloping Galileo, Ben. They’re fighting. Like, actually yelling at each other, and they wouldn’t answer when I knocked. You’ve got to go in there and make them stop. Everyone’s staring.”
“Is Weston in there?” The CEO was Jackson’s archnemesis, and neither man pulled any punches when they disagreed.
“No, just Jackson and Cooper. But I’m sure someone will tell Weston.”
The tension in my chest eased. Jackson and Cooper got loud sometimes, but it never lasted long. At least the CEO wasn’t witnessing it firsthand. Cooper could explain it away later. He had a magic touch with his boss.
I needed to capture some of that boss-magic for myself. “Back to work, everyone. Nothing to see here,” I announced as I made my way to Cooper’s office. Some people returned to their desks. Weston’s assistant, Julie, more brazen, lingered nearby.
I raised an eyebrow, and slowly, she turned and plodded back to her desk. She didn’t sit behind it but stood, staring, ready to witness whatever would erupt when I opened the door.
I knocked, but they were yelling too loudly to hear anything. I pushed the handle, but it didn’t budge. Why was it locked?
Reluctantly, I flicked my badge in front of the sensor. It was keyed to only Cooper’s ID, Jackson’s, and mine. The light turned green. I sucked in a deep breath, pushed the handle down, and opened the door.
Cooper, his face red and his eyes bulging, roared, “I’m not putting up with your bullshit anymore!” He slammed his hand onto his desk.
It all happened so fast. When I replayed the scene later in my mind, I thought I remembered hearing a ping as if that big, ugly ring Cooper always wore had hit the glass top that protected the wood.
Regardless of what caused it, there was a crackle like fireworks popping and then silence. After a second, a shard of glass tumbled off the edge and jabbed into the thick carpet. A few smaller pieces followed it. Cooper stared at the surface of his desk. Then he looked up and scanned his best friend from head to toe.
Jealousy ignited in my gut. Why, even when Jackson was dumping his responsibilities on Cooper, was Cooper’s first instinct to protect Jackson? What I wouldn’t give to have that concern, that care, directed at me.
Shit, this was no time for me to moon over my boss. I had to do something to fix this. But my feet stuck to the floor. I was intimately familiar with his temper, but as far as I knew, he’d never hit anything.
“Coop—you all right?” Jackson’s voice was funeral-quiet. It was the first time I’d seen him motionless.
“I—I’m sorry, Jay. It was an…”
I wanted to run to him, check that he wasn’t hurt, but the tension in the room was solid enough to keep me rooted at the door. I closed it behind me. “Everything okay in here?”
Clearly it wasn’t. The top of Cooper’s desk sparkled with shattered glass. His face was as white as the papers stacked neatly in his outbox. When a drop of blood plopped onto the desk, he raised his hand and gazed at it like he wasn’t sure it belonged to him.
“Sh—I mean, here. Let me help.” My feet unstuck from the carpet, and the next second, I stood beside my boss. His palm was crisscrossed with cuts, blood welling in each one.
I dug in my front pocket for my handkerchief and shook out the creases. I hesitated for a moment—that no-touching rule—but this was an emergency. He’d hate it if I had to disrupt his work to remove a bloodstained rug.
I folded the handkerchief in thirds and gently pressed it against his palm. His jaw tightened.
“Does it hurt?” The cuts didn’t look deep, but I hadn’t gotten a good look at them.
“No.” The word held none of his usual crispness. Was he in shock?
“Sit down.” With the hand I wasn’t using to apply pressure to his wound, I reached up and pushed on his shoulder until he folded into his chair.
Finally, I looked at Jackson, whose mouth still hung open, staring at his friend. “What happened?” My tone wasn’t as respectful as it should’ve been around the company’s cofounder, but anything involving blood was extenuating circumstances.
Jackson leaped toward the desk and scooped the shards of shattered glass into a pile. “Cooper was making a point a little too forcefully. I guess he should’ve sprung for the tempered glass.”
Fuck, if he kept doing that, I was going to have two bleeders on my hands. “Jackson, stop. I’ll get maintenance up here—”
“Dammit!” When Jackson stuck his thumb in his mouth, his elbow caught the conch shell on Cooper’s desk. The one I’d dusted once a week, each time wondering why he kept that one decorative item on his desk. I didn’t have to wonder anymore. It tumbled off the desk, bounced once on the carpet, and shattered when it smashed on the wood floor.
The silence after was even louder than when Cooper broke his desk.
“Sorry, Coop, I—”
Pain flashed across Cooper’s face. It was the same look he’d gotten the day Jackson wore his baby to the office in one of those backward backpacks. “Forget about it. I—I need to go.”
“Now?” I lifted a corner of my handkerchief. The bleeding had slowed. “You can’t go to a meeting like this.” Only Cooper Fallon would continue his workday like nothing had happened after he’d sliced himself open. I wrapped the ends of the cloth around the back of his hand and tied them into a knot over his palm.
“People are used to me showing up as a hot mess. Not you.” Jackson raked his hand through his dark hair. “Listen to Ben. Sit and rest a minute. I’ve got some whiskey in my office. We can—”
As soon as my fingers left the knot on the handkerchief, Cooper ripped his hand away. His blue eyes weren’t as icy as usual when he turned them on me. Probably because of the blood loss.
“I need—out.” He rose and stepped around me on his way to the door. His hand on the latch, he turned back.
Thank God, he was going to sit down and be reasonable. I took a half step toward him in case he wobbled on his way back to the chair.
But he stayed there, gripping the handle. “Ben, let the New England Entrepreneurs’ Society know I’ll be taking Jackson’s place as the keynote speaker. And switch his hotel reservation to me.”
Jackson popped his thumb out of his mouth. “Coop, you don’t have to do that.”
Cooper gave his best friend a wry smile. “Isn’t that exactly what you were telling me I had to do before—before this?” He waved his handkerchief-wrapped hand at the mess in his office.
He held out his palm. It trembled. He must have been exerting an enormous amount of control over himself. “Move all my meetings to next week.”
What the absolute fuck was happening? “Yes, Mr. Fallon.”
He opened the door and walked out, closing it gently behind him. No gym bag, no coat, no laptop. Was he staying in the building? Did he have a secret, primal-scream room downstairs?
“It’s okay.” Jackson hung his head. “You can say it. I’m the worst friend ever.”
I couldn’t help it. I smiled at the jerk. He was irritatingly adorable. “You totally are. But he loves you anyway.”
He whipped his head up and grinned. “He does, doesn’t he? I’m the luckiest guy in San Francisco.”
My smile melted off my face. He fucking was. What I wouldn’t give to be on the receiving end of one percent of that love. Jackson was too full of himself to notice, but I’d seen it from my first days at the company. Cooper was pining for his best friend. His obliviously straight best friend.
“You should get out of here,” I said, my tone flat. “I’ll call maintenance to clean this up.”
“Thanks, Ben. I’ll give Coop an hour or so to stew, and then I’ll talk to him.”
If I knew my boss, he needed more than an hour. And I guessed he’d get it on his last-minute trip to Boston. Which I now had to schedule.
I’d figure out a way to check on him, even in Boston. Because maybe Jackson Jones didn’t give a shit about how much he’d fucked up Cooper’s life, but I did.