Tempt Me excerpt: Natalie and Jamila's meet cute
When I stepped off the elevator to the sixth floor, I realized the flaw in my plan. The dress code at Synergy was casual, but my white coat stained with whatever fluid Larry had puked up on me, baggy chef pants, and the neon-green flip-flops I’d bought from a souvenir stand near the pier couldn’t be more different from the designer dresses I usually wore. Everyone gaped at me as I passed.
Channeling my mother, I lifted my chin like I was wearing Hermès and shuffled to my brother’s assistant’s desk. I missed seeing Marlee there, but since her promotion, she sat downstairs with the other developers.
His new assistant, Paulina, was an older woman from the Caribbean. She took in my appearance and smiled. “Coming straight from school, cariño?”
“Yeah.” I kept my wince on the inside. “Is my brother in his office?” I glanced at the glass door behind her.
“No, he’s in Mr. Fallon’s office.”
I sighed. I wanted to see Jackson, but his friend Cooper had taken the express lane to success. Cooper never said anything about my meandering path through life, but he always looked out from under the shelf of his bushy eyebrows and speared me with a glare of disapproval.
I wished I could slink away, but Paulina would tell Jackson I’d been here. I had to carry through with my half-baked plan.
“Thanks, Paulina.” I scuffed across the floor to Cooper’s office. His assistant wasn’t at his desk, but his cousin-slash-security guard, Mateo, stood near the door. He grinned as I approached.
“Natalie! What brings our little Cat Cora here?”
At five-eight, I wasn’t little, but compared to Mateo’s tall, bulky physique, I must have seemed tiny, especially when I wasn’t wearing my heels.
“I wanted to talk to my brother. He’s still in with Cooper?”
“They’re all in there. Go on in,” he said. I pushed the door handle.
It wasn’t until my gaze slid off Cooper seated at his desk and my brother leaning against the windowsill to the third person in the room, that I replayed what Mateo had said: They’re all in there. I realized who he meant by “all.”
She was there. My brain stalled out. She wasn’t supposed to be in San Francisco at Synergy. She was supposed to be at her office, an hour away, in Silicon Valley.
“Nutter Butter!” Jackson sprang across the room and folded me in his arms. He added a noogie for good measure, disheveling my artfully messy bun.
Why did he have to call me that goofy name? When I was an awkward nine-year-old, I let him call me whatever he wanted because I craved any attention my big brother would give me. Now I was as grown-up as he was. Yet he never failed to point out that adults had jobs and didn’t live with their parents.
“Get off of me.” I pushed against his overlong arms.
He loosened his hold but kept one arm slung around my shoulders, probably to keep me in noogie range. “What are you doing here?”
“I, uh…” Suddenly, telling my sob story for some sympathy from my brother seemed like a terrible idea. “I missed my big brother?”
“Aw.” He ground his knuckles into my hair again. “Well, you’re just in time to laugh at Jamila for what she’s done now.”
Laugh at Jamila? Not only was she the most gorgeous woman I’d ever met, but she was everything I wished I could be—smart, confident, capable. Like Cooper, she’d never wavered along her march to success.
I’d avoided her for four months since that disastrous party at Billie Woods’ place. And now she’d caught me at my lowest point with no designer clothes or makeup to armor me and smelling like the contents of Larry’s digestive system.
She sprawled on Cooper’s leather sofa, her right leg stretched to the floor, and the left propped on the back of the sofa with her beige stiletto heel dangling from her toes. Her flowy white wide-legged slacks were rucked up, showing the smooth, dark skin that covered her trim ankles and muscular calves. She wore a lilac sleeveless blouse and a pearl choker. The pearls and pastels implied softness, but her sharp words always cut through the illusion.
When she was nineteen, she had an abundant, coiled mane I envied. Now, her hair was cropped close to her head, showcasing her long, elegant neck. Running a billion-dollar software business didn’t leave time for curl maintenance.
Flinging one arm across her eyes, she let out a frustrated growl. “I’m telling you, all I did was try to protect my company. That reporter is an asshole.”
“That’s not how the asshole reporter wrote it in his article,” Cooper said dryly.
“What happened?” I asked.
She lifted her arm from her face and gave me a casual wave. “Hey, Nat.”
She sounded friendly enough. Maybe four months was enough time for her to forget, though I never would. My voice wavered as I asked, “Is everything okay?”
She huffed out a sigh. “It’s nothing for you to worry about, baby. I…”
As usual, my brain shorted out when she called me baby. I wished she meant it as a term of endearment, but she’d called me that since I’d met her the first time she’d come home with Jackson during spring break their first year of college. Even at nineteen and wearing a cropped Stanford sweatshirt over skinny jeans, Jamila had been impossibly sophisticated in my nine-year-old eyes. She still thought of me as a pigtail-wearing tween, and today I looked like a toddler who’d been playing in the dirt.
“…it’s nothing, really.”
“Nothing?” Cooper’s dark eyebrows shot up. “The Wall Street Journal article was particularly unflattering.”
“Wait. What?” I asked.
“Keep up, sis.” Her nostrils flared, and my face burned hotter. Of course she was sensitive to me tuning her out. Since Billie’s party, she must think I was a blond bonehead. Because that’s exactly what I’d led her to believe.
My face burned. “Sorry, I spaced out. Could you tell me again? Please?”
Jamila rolled her eyes. “There’s something fishy going on with Moo-Lah. I heard they’re launching a product that’s a lot like our new app. Every move I make, they seem to be a step ahead of me. I hired a PI to see if one of my folks is talking to them.”
“And the press found out,” Cooper added. “They called you paranoid.”
“Only the paranoid survive,” Jamila said. “That’s what Andy Grove used to say.”
“I agree with Mila,” my brother said. “Not about the paranoid bit, but that it’ll all die down. I’ve done worse things, and I’m a media darling now.” He beamed.
“That’s because you settled down with Alicia, and she keeps you in line,” Jamila said.
I half-expected him to deny it, but he hugged me tighter and said, “She does.”
“Don’t forget I’m the one who connected you two.” Jamila shot him a smug smile.
“Never,” he said. “Though I doubt you had marriage in mind when you recommended her as a consultant—and my boss.”
If they kept up their best-friend banter, I’d never get to the bottom of Jamila’s problem. I pulled away from my brother. “Being called paranoid by the Wall Street Journal is kind of a big deal.”
“Exactly.” Cooper pointed at me. “There were paps at Mila’s office today. That doesn’t seem like something that’s going to die down.”
“Like, more than five?” I asked.
“Not more than twenty.” Jamila waved an elegant hand. Her nails were short but impeccably manicured and painted a vibrant purple.
“Holy crap,” I said. “That’s serious.” She needed help. I got out my phone and searched for the article. I scanned through it, half-listening to my brother and his friends.
“Take the rest of the day off,” Cooper said. “On Monday, I’ll send Mateo with you. He’ll hold off the paps and get you into your office safely.”
She snorted. “I’d look like some damsel in distress trailing your meaty cousin. Everything will die down over the weekend. I can’t afford to take the day off. We’re scheduled to release the app in June.” She pulled her phone out of her pocket and glanced at it. “Sorry, I gotta take this.” She pushed off the sofa and strode from the office.
“This is not good,” I said, scrolling through the article. “They’ve painted her as a paranoid wacko. Who the heck is this PI? Do you think they were the source of the press leaks?”
Jackson shrugged. “Not if they want to keep their business. If Jamila finds out they sold the story, she’ll ensure they never work in San Francisco again.”
Cooper nodded. “You don’t want to be on the other end of Jamila’s vengeance.”
“That’s the problem,” I said. “She can’t afford to come across as a vindictive nutjob.”
“A little preventive aggression never hurt anyone,” Jackson said.
“Never hurt anyone?” I scoffed. “Ask Martha Stewart how that worked out. Women can’t get away with the same shit men can.”
Both men stared at me blankly.
I rolled my eyes. “You wouldn’t understand. I think I can help.”
“Sure, Nutter Butter.” Fortunately, Jackson was out of noogie range.
“I can help.” I stood as tall as I could in my flip-flops and baggy pants. Raised in the tech world, I’d lived in the spotlight all my life. Even longer than Jamila. “I have some ideas.”
Jackson snorted, deep in his throat, the way he always did when I said something he felt was ridiculous. “You’re always complaining about how much time culinary school takes. When would you have time to help Jamila?”
I looked down at my feet. The scarlet polish was half gone on my right big toe.
“Oh, no.” Jackson’s voice dripped with sympathy. “You didn’t drop out, did you?”
I’d come here seeking his sympathy, but as it turned out, his sorrowful tone was the worst. “Not exactly.”
“Fuck. My perfect little sister got kicked out?”
“Maybe?” I rubbed my toe against the edge of the thick rug. “I, uh, liberated a lobster from my butchery class.”
“Really?” He barked out a laugh. “Lobsters are basically overgrown bugs. It’s not like it appreciated your help.”
I planted my hands on my hips. “Larry was appreciative of not being murdered.”
“Larry?” Jackson’s voice rose with hilarity. “You named someone’s dinner?”
Cooper rested his chin on his hand and covered his mouth. Was he laughing?
“Screw you. Cruelty to animals isn’t funny.”
“You have to admit,” my brother said, “getting kicked out of a community college culinary school for stealing a lobster is pretty damn funny. As is thinking you can help Jamila out of her PR slipup. You might plan a good party, but you have zero public relations experience.”
“But—” I shot Cooper a pleading look.
He held up his hands. “Sorry, Natalie. Jay’s right. People go to school to learn the ins and outs of public relations. Leave it to the professionals.”
“But…” How could I have wanted my brother’s sympathy? It was the absolute worst. What I needed from him—or anyone—was a shred of confidence in my abilities. Apparently, the Synergy office was not the place to find it.
“Go home,” Jackson said. “Put your feet up. Eat some chocolate. Try some retail therapy. I’ll text you tonight to check on you, ’kay?”
I sucked in a breath through my nostrils and sighed it out. He was right. Who was I to help Jamila? I hadn’t even graduated from college. I still lived at home with my parents. In a suite with a luxurious, multi-jetted shower that was calling my name. “Okay.”
“Did you drive here?” Jackson asked.
“Ask Paulina to give you a ride home. I’ll give her the rest of the day off.”
“Thanks. See you, Cooper.” I waved and trudged out of the office in my ridiculous flip-flops. Jamila stood on the other side of the door, one arm crossed over her stomach and her other hand wiping a tear from her cheek.
I abandoned all thoughts of a shower.