Available September 23, 2014
Rick Mercado stood in the doorway, his mouth dry with nerves. He forced an easy breath and settled his focus on the man behind the desk, searching his eyes.
The man rocked back in his chair and gave a satisfied smile. He was bald on top with gray on the sides. His hand swept the room, inviting inspection. “This is it,” he said.
Rick scanned the small office as directed: Cluttered desk, leather high-back chair, a window shaded with plastic louvers, everything a little dusty. “It’s very nice.”
The man puffed out his chest. “Oh, it’s not much, but it works.”
Rick’s lips twitched up toward a smile.
“I built this company on my own, you know. No silver spoon.”
“Yes, I know,” Rick said. Ben was a self-made man. He had mentioned this several times during the employment interview, which had been coffee at the truck stop. At the end of which, Ben had reached across the table to offer Rick a calloused hand and welcome him aboard Ben Johnson’s Concrete Construction.
Ben tilted forward and a spring squeaked. “Close the door.” He pointed to the small chair in the corner. “Have a sit. We’ll go over your duties.”
Rick pulled the chair to the center of the room and faced the desk, but he remained standing. His hands rested on the steel tubing that framed the chair’s back and his head nodded with interest while Ben shuffled some papers. Rick had taken an instant liking to the old contractor. The glint in the man’s eyes reminded him of ringing door bells and running off. When the waitress had asked his age in a playful way, Ben had said, “I’ve been ordering from the senior menu for years.” Then giving her a wink he had added, “Nobody ever wants to see my driver’s license for proof.”
Thinking of this, Rick’s grin widened. He was going to like working for Ol’ Ben Johnson. He had a good feeling.
Except then Ben stiffened up. “What’s so funny?”
Rick’s lips tightened. He said softly, “Nothing.”
The old man studied the young one with a fatherly eye. “Times have been tough out here the last four years while you’ve been hiding in the books.”
Ben showed him the stack of papers. “But business is starting to pick up again.”
Rick nodded agreement.
“Been in this business all my life, and it’s cyclical. Feast or famine.” The old man gave the young one a significant look. “You hungry, Rick?”
“Then wipe that grin off your face. This is serious stuff.”
Rick’s grip on the chair tightened, but then he caught that glint in the old man’s eye. Rick laughed and Ben joined him. “Got you, didn’t I.”
“Yes, sir. Yes, you sure did.” Rick felt his body loosen.
“But seriously, my point is this. If you are going to be running work for me you need to wipe that grin off your face. My crews are all good, but they’re roughnecks.”
“I can do this,” Rick said.
“I know you can, that’s why I hired you. Fine, strong young man. Got all the confidence in the world in you, boy. You’ll make someone a fine hand someday.”
Rick warmed. That’s what his dad always said.
“I’ve got some sidewalk repairs coming up. We’re replacing a driveway later this week. But I’ve got significant jobs to bid on. A couple of restaurants and even a small strip mall on the interstate. I’m sure I’ll keep you busy.”
“And if not, I suppose you can always do office work for your dad, huh?”
“Sure,” Rick said. “But I’d rather make it on my own. When I walk out to take charge of a crew I don’t want them whispering Daddy’s Boy.”
Ben’s round eyes gleamed. “I respect that, kid. I do. Your dad is a fine contractor and stiff competition. I can’t help but feel I’m cheating him a little.”
“He’s fine with my decision,” Rick said evenly.
“Then I’ll let it go at that.” Ben stood and stretched his hand across the desk. Rick knew the knuckle crushing strength of Ben’s grip and was prepared for it this time. The two locked on and worked forearm strength against each other. All the while Ben grinned. “You’ll get there, kid,” he said at last and loosened his grip.
“Thanks again, Ben. I won’t mess up this opportunity.”
“Of course you won’t, but look.” Ben’s gaze returned to the papers on his desk. “Everything is all formal now. I have a written job description for site foreman. You have to read it and sign it. And whatever else. Tax papers and such. Julia knows all that, so introduce yourself to her on the way out.” He glanced at the clock. “If she’s back from lunch.”
“Yeah, sure. I will.” Rick turned to leave but hesitated before opening the door. “When do I start?”
“Tonight. Be back at six. You can help us bid the strip mall. It’s big and I don’t want to mess it up.”
“Sure,” Rick said. “See you then. I’ll bring a calculator.” He stepped out and saw the young secretary sitting at her desk in the small reception area. She was a real cutie with dark hair cut shoulder length and intense eyes, but there was something more there than merely good looks. The old man’s words hung in his mind. Are you hungry, Rick?
Yes, he thought, surprising himself. Yes, I am.
Julia Benson reclined her desk chair and looked to the ceiling. She wasn’t ready to face her computer yet, not since her lunch had been so greasy. Ordering a cheeseburger at the truck stop had seemed like a good idea at the time. After forcing herself to finish it and half the fries she felt a little swollen, but that had been the point. While emotional eating wasn’t her thing, today was special. Or anti-special. Today was eat-at-at-the-truck-stop special.
Somewhat in pain with a rumbling tummy and wishing she had a mint, her head rolled back and she was patting her lips with her fingertips when she heard the hinges squeak. The door to Ben’s office was opening. Quickly, she tilted her chair back to level, and by the time the man with wide shoulders and tight jeans entered the reception area, her hands where folded together neatly on her desk.
Working in a construction office meant muscular guys happened to come in a lot, but this dark haired hombre made her nearly gasp. He was lean and rugged with a strong jawline, but more importantly, he was clean–like fresh out of the shower clean–and freshly shaven. He wore a sport shirt crisply ironed. She didn’t see that around here too often.
This must be Rick Mercado, she thought, the new site foreman. His sleeves were rolled back, exposing the defined forearms of a hard worker, and Julia couldn’t help but stare when he extended his hand to her. He was warm and tan and smiled easily with nice white teeth. She hesitated to touch him, but business being business and the moment growing awkward, she extended a tentative hand. His grip was firm, rough, and calloused, but gentle. Julia’s palm pricked with heat and all she heard was her heartbeat. Business, she thought. Just business.
He grasped her a little too long, though, and Julia tightened in the chest. She looked up to his eyes, probing those brown beauties for something solid, but she only found quicksand. Swallowing, she pulled, and he let her hand slip through his, apparently unfazed, continuing to smile. Julia rubbed her temple with her left hand while a headache grew between her eyes. What was up with this guy?
“Heya,” he said. “You must be Julie.”
“Juli-a,” she said evenly with emphasis on the A. While she spoke, she felt his eyes on her ring finger and she would have been happier be anywhere else but there at the moment. Not to be scared off from her own desk, though, she met his eyes and followed his gaze as he looked down to the name plaque.
“Julia Benson,” he said. He gave her a significant look that made her eyes dart away. “Miss Benson.”
Julia noticed she had her hands once again folded on her desk, the right covering the left. “Julia is fine.”
“Yeah, sure. Julia. Nice name.” He formed a fist that flexed his forearm. “Ben said I should see you about the paper work. I’ll be working here now, you know.”
She pushed her chair back from her desk and spun part way around, glad to put some distance between them. With her back to him she said, “Yes, I know.” Her hand tingled while she opened a file drawer and pulled out the folder she had already prepared, but before returning to her desk and this so-sure-of-himself player, she paused to gather strength. Her heart was racing and she felt light headed. This was ridiculous.
She steeled herself up and scooted her chair to her desk. Laying the folder down and letting it flop open she made it a point to look at him impersonally. “Take these with you and fill them out. Bring them back on your first day.”
“Ben said something about a job description.”
“Yes, it’s in there. Read it and sign it.” She paused to size him up. “It’s pretty easy.”
“Sure, no problem.” He placed a finger on the papers but didn’t retrieve them. “Have you worked here long?”
“Yeah, so how’s that been?”
She rubbed her temple. Confounded headache, she thought.
“That bad, huh?” He chuckled. “How’s Ben to work for?”
“He’s nice.” Julia felt her chest loosen and expand. “He really helped me out when I needed it. I’m grateful.” When she realized she was smiling she narrowed her eyes. “Do you have any questions about the papers?”
“Don’t know yet, but I’ll call you if I do.”
Such nice white teeth, she thought. Trouble was, he knew it. “That’s fine, I guess.” She pulled a paper to her and posed her pen to write. “I need to know. When do you start?”
“Tonight. Coming in to help with a bid.”
“Oh.” The pen slipped from her fingers. She knew her voice betrayed her disappointment and this warmed her cheeks, but she had been helping Ben a lot lately and enjoyed learning more about the business in what had been their own two person office. Where did she stand now? “That’s nice.”
“Yes, nice.” He leaned over the desk and his face grew close. Julia turned her head from him with a stiff neck, but at the same time, she caught a scent of something sweet that made her float.
His mouth was near her ear and he spoke softly. “Does Ben have any rules about employee fraternization?”
What was that scent?
His voice became nearly a whisper, “Would you like to go out with me sometime?”
Julia swatted an invisible gnat. “You move kind of fast, don’t you?”
“You’re right. We’ve got time.” He pulled back. “I just thought I’d put it out there.”
“I wish you hadn’t.”
“Oh, how come?”
Could he really be that big on himself? “Because I’m not interested.”
He rubbed his chin. “I hear you, but I’m getting a different set of cues from you. That’s how come I asked.”
“You aren’t getting any cues from me, I assure you.”
“Okay, sure. My bad.” He gave her a sympathetic nod. “We’ve got time, no sense rushing it. Good idea.”
Julia talked through closed teeth. “The papers are there. Everything you’ll need.”
Then Ben was there. “Good, good,” he said. “Glad you kids are getting along.”
Getting along? Could he be any more clueless?
He looked at Julia and his round eyes narrowed. “What’s the matter?”
Nothing,” she said. “It’s all good.”
She patted her mouth. “I’m fine.”
“Oh, maybe you ate too much.” He laughed. “I know how that goes.”
Really? He was going there? She loved Ben, such a wonderful mentor, but right now he should just go away. She squinted her eyes at him, but didn’t expect he would ever be a mind reader.
“Great. That’s good. Glad you went out for a change.” He turned to Rick. “Most days it’s yogurt and fruit at her desk.” Back to Julia, “I admire your dedication, but live a little. What’d you have?”
Ben laughed again. “You must be celebrating, huh? That’s terrific about your new house.” He turned to Rick. “Julia’s got her own place now. Isn’t that great? I’m so proud of her. And she’s only twenty-two. A real go-getter, that one.”
“Yes, well, speaking of that.” She waved her hands to shoo them off. “Got work to do.”
Once she got her reception space back to herself, Julia let out a sigh. Her nerves hummed and she caught herself tapping her desktop with her nails. She looked at her left ring finger and wondered if maybe she shouldn’t just buy herself a small diamond–something to fend off the wolves. She smiled at the idea, but then suddenly it came to her: The scent she had noticed on him. So incongruous, she thought, now that she recognized it. Either his cologne or his shampoo was the scent of Georgia Blossom. Mr. Tall-and-Rugged smelled like a peach?
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