Jerry Rouse lacks the three basic things Trinity Jordan requires to consider him her equal: education, class, and ambition. What he does have are piercings, bawdy tats, and a head full of blond dreads. All those things make the tech guy stick out like a sore thumb in conservative Eastern North Carolina.
Jerry lives life to the beat of his own drummer, and couldn’t care less what his bossy coworker thinks of him. In fact, he loves to rile the straight-laced preppy up just to see her blush.
When the cosmetics company they’ve helped build is rocked by sabotage attempts that threaten to delay the launch of the brand’s nail polish line, the two have little choice but to call a truce until the culprit is uncovered. That’s not all they uncover.
Being thrown together makes the two realize that perhaps they’re not so incompatible. But, who can think about love when their livelihoods are on the line?
Trinity Jordan counted the rise and fall of her boss’s chest seven times as the irascible leader took long, deep breaths through her nose.
If Nikki made it to ten, they’d all be safe. Just three more breaths, and maybe they could mark this down as being the most uneventful meeting in five months.
Nikki pushed her oversized sunglasses up on to her nose’s bridge, and laced her fingers atop the large, unfinished pine conference table. Her jaw scraped left, then right, then back as she ground her teeth.
What had done it this time?
The Natural by Nicolette staff had grown used to Nikki’s fickle, pregnancy-induced moods swings, but that made them no less terrible when they came. Scanning the table around her, Trinity could tell they all awaited the eruption with their usual wide-eyed expressions of horror. Stephen King didn’t have what little Nikki Stacy-Mitchell had. She could vacillate between sweet as pie to rampaging harpy in thirty seconds or less. Trinity wouldn’t have believed it if she wasn’t there to see it, but Nikki had once been pulled over for “speeding” by a highway patrolman, and before the officer could get a word out edgewise, he took one look at Nikki’s face, and backed away with a “Drive safe, ma’am.”
Trinity smoothed her face into what she hoped was a blank. Any little twitch could pull Nikki’s attention, and Trinity didn’t especially want to be the one at the brunt of the woman’s furor that day. Trinity was tired. She’d been working so many hours as of late, she could barely formulate complete sentences. Good thing she was paid to formulate chemicals, and not talk.
Looking across the table, she noted with some malice that the company tech guy, Jerry Rouse, did blank face better than anyone. Nothing could rattle that man, and Trinity had her suspicions that his cool demeanor was a side effect of some un-prescribed drug. Perhaps a smokeable one.
When no tirade came, Trinity let out a quiet breath and cut her gaze to the right to observe the staff’s collective confusion.
Good. I’m not the only one waiting for her to explode.
“I’m trying very hard not to get my blood pressure up,” Nikki said in an unusually flat voice. The delivery was especially eerie, because with Nikki’s dark shades, Trinity couldn’t tell who Nikki was directing her gaze at.
“The doctor told me being upset all the time is stressful for the baby, so I’m going to be calm and cool.”
“Just like that, huh?” Gramma Stacy asked her granddaughter with a chuckle before returning her focus to her knitting project.
Trinity clamped a hand over her mouth and turned her face to the right, hiding the unsuppressed giggle.
Nikki wasn’t renowned for her calm. She was a perpetual motion machine, and even when she was sitting still, the green glint of her eyes gave evidence of her internal machinating.
She continued in the monotone alto voice that reminded Trinity so much of a Gregorian dirge, and Trinity stole a glance across the table at the suspected pothead.
He blew ragged breaths through his lips and rubbed his eyes with the heels of his palms.
That won’t get the red out, bud.
Nikki cleared her throat, drawing Trinity’s attention back to the table head. “Natural by Nicolette has a lot of big things in the pipeline for the next few weeks.” Idly, she placed a hand in the hollow between her round belly and the bottom edge of her right ribs, and pressed.
The baby must have been stretching again. At a smidgen over five feet tall and equipped with the compact torso to go with her height, she probably felt every little hiccup and shudder from her unborn boy.
“We’re shooting catalog images for the tinted balms starting tomorrow, so models will be coming in and out to change and whatnot. Will someone be a team player and clean the bathrooms?”
No one volunteered. No one ever volunteered.
Trinity squashed the sigh her lungs threatened to exhale, and raised her hand. “I’ll do it.”
“Bless you, my love.”
Trinity managed to smile, though she dreaded the task. How hard was it for the male staff members to learn to flush? She could probably train a monkey to pull the lever in less time.
Nikki droned on. “The web commercials for the make-up remover, simulated sun lotion, and SPF moisturizer are slated to shoot Wednesday through Friday.” She swallowed, and stared at the sparse notes she’d revealed on her tablet computer.
Nikki sniffled, and suddenly, Trinity realized the woman must have had her head over the toilet again before the meeting. She’d finally managed to wean herself off IV bags onto actual food at around thirty weeks, but had the occasional rough spot. Anyone would be in a bad mood under the same circumstances, but Nikki was naturally a bit crusty to start with. Being sick had only made her rages less predictable. They all hoped she’d get back to her usual self after the chunk was born, because when she screamed she could wake the newly dead. She was like a siren, and not the sexy kind.
Well, except for the case of Trinity. Nikki never really yelled at Trinity…or Jerry, the more Trinity thought about it, but she didn’t know what was up with that. Maybe they’d been a couple in the past or something, because who the hell else would hire a guy who couldn’t be assed to perform the small chore of combing his hair? It was a basic life skill, the way she figured it.
At that thought, she shifted her gaze to Jerry, and rolled her eyes at his left profile.
“Big order going out to the Atlanta distributor on Monday. Is it close to being filled?” Nikki turned her head microscopically toward Jerry, who sat at her left hand at the table.
Jerry coded the website, managed the inventory system, talked to folks on the Natural by Nicolette social media accounts, and handled customer service issues. He often worked from home, which annoyed the shit out of Trinity, but her desire to stab him in the eye with a pipette at such was tempered by the knowledge that he probably worked more than her. Of course, it was all just busy work. He wasn’t doing anything that monkey she’d train to flush the men’s room toilet couldn’t do. Wasn’t like he was mixing chemicals and running test groups like Trinity did every day. Anyone could do his job.
He flipped open the lid of his laptop, and studied the screen. “It’s about time for the Atlanta Flower Show.” He scratched the skin beneath his labret spike, and Trinity cringed.
He had five piercings that could be seen. Besides the lip, he had a barbell bisecting his right eyebrow, there was a septum hoop, and he had both ears plugged with these odd, winding expanders. At the age of twenty-five, she’d somehow managed to have no piercings, much to her very girly grandmother’s dismay.
Her grandmother had bought Trinity pearl earrings last Christmas. They were lovely, but she wasn’t sure what her grandmother expected her to do with them. To Trinity, they were an undisguised sort of bribery. Grandmother hadn’t gotten her a gift for graduating college at the top of her class, so naturally Trinity’s suspicion was piqued that Christmas morning. The pearls had come with a note that read:
“Do you remember Josh Boylan? He asked about you. Also, you might consider growing out your hair, dear. You looked a little butch in that last picture.”
Trinity had scoffed and tossed the note. The pearls lived at the bottom of her underwear drawer.
Jerry droned on. “They placed an oversized order of Shake Well in anticipation of the show, thinking it would be a good tie-in for all the gardeners. We’re short six cases as a result.” He looked up at Nikki warily.
She tented her fingers and tapped the ends together impatiently. “I can’t mix that shit right now. The smell makes me nauseous.”
Trinity broke free of her piercing reverie. Shake Well was the company’s award-winning natural insect repellant. Only two people knew the repellant formulation, so she capitalized on Nikki’s discomfort for her personal gain and felt not a lick of shame about it. This was a chance to step up and prove her mettle. Again. One could never have enough mettle.
“I’ll get the batches done, Nikki, if I can swap out the overtime for some days off next month. I want to spend some time at the beach before we close the house up for the fall.”
“Fine.” Nikki toggled off her tablet screen off, and Trinity blew out a relieved exhale.
“Last item of Monday business.” Nikki’s voice had gone about half an octave deeper.
“Uh-oh,” one of the men mumbled low.
Trinity guessed it was Juan.
Jerry may have had a job a dumb-dumb could do, but he was nothing if not careful.
She snuck a glance at him across the table and found him staring back at her with the side of his face propped against his fist.
He didn’t look amused.
She hid her burning cheeks behind a convenient stack of paperwork. How did he always manage to raise her temperature with just one flat look? The man’s intensity scared her.
“As you all know, I’ve been working with Beth on finalizing the palette for the nail polish launch. But, every time I get the test colors mixed, something happens.” Nikki paced, wringing her hands. “I’ll come into the barn in the morning and find the mixing bottles shattered on the floor, or there’ll be some weird shit inside making the base formula clump.” Her voice’s pitch careened upward as she turned to face them, her olive skin now florid. “I can’t afford fuck-ups. We’ve been putting in too many work hours for this, so someone needs to figure out who’s behind it, and why. And I mean now.”
Ah, there’s Nikki.
“If I don’t get these goddamned colors finalized within the next few days, we’ll have to delay the Polished Slick launch until fall. Not gonna happen.” She smacked a palm on the tabletop, and they all jumped.
“I’ve already purchased ad space in major beauty magazines and set aside time here to shoot the new campaign. There’s no wiggle-room here. We are not prepared to fall behind.”
Murmurs erupted from around the large table, and when Trinity looked at each of the other six present staff members, she found Jerry doing the same thing. If it wasn’t him, wasn’t her, then who was it?
Nikki took a bolstering breath and adjusted her ponytail holder. “Look, I know I promised if we got Polished Slick launched on time this year, I’d make Christmas bonuses happen.” She took off her sunglasses, rubbed the red marks on her nose between her thumb and forefinger, and fixed her red-rimmed green eyes first on Jerry, then pointedly at Trinity.
She got the hint. If there were a fuck-up, they were the clean-up crew.
“It’s been a turbulent two years with the breakneck pace we’re releasing new products, but I still mean it. I owe you guys big. Every one of you has grown this business in some way, small or large, and I value your presence here. I don’t want to lose a single one of you.” Coming from Nikki, it was downright gushing.
She adjusted the waistband of her peasant skirt so it rested under her belly, and put her hands on her spreading hips. “Trinity, you’ll be in charge when I’m out those few weeks with the baby.” She hooked one arm of her sunglasses into her ballooning cleavage and folded them closed atop the collar of her tank top. “I need you to prove to me you can handle the unpredictable. I need to know you’re not just good when everything is even keel. I’m grooming you to lead, so here’s your chance to break through.”
She was right, and Trinity perked up a bit. That would show her grandmother—the woman who thought the only good reason to go to college was to get a husband. Trinity could be a vice president of a hot young company by the ripe old age of twenty-five.
“Jerry!” Nikki snapped.
“Yes?” Jerry pushed his heavy blond dreads out of his face, and cut his eyes toward Captain Battle-ax.
“We talked about getting you an assistant so you wouldn’t have to work on weekends.” Nikki waddled over to the refrigerator in the break area and helped herself to a sport drink. She popped the lid and swallowed about a third of the stuff in one gulp. After sighing her satisfaction, she turned back to her team. “Until we fix this nail polish mess, I don’t trust bringing on any new staff.”
Jerry’s face fell, but to his credit, he kept his mouth shut.
“Everyone in this room has something at stake if Polished Slick doesn’t launch on time. I need to grow this business and fast. Natural by Nicolette needs to stay relevant by offering products modern consumers demand. I’m not just talking women, either. If we don’t fill that space in the stores, the big girls will gladly step in and take our market share. Big companies are taking their cues from what designers are sending out on the runways in New York and Paris. They’re already behind because they don’t have an ear to the ground. They’re not paying attention to the people who are really driving trends.” Nikki blew out a ragged breath.
Two years ago, Nikki decided not to sell her formulations to the major cosmetics company Rococo. They wanted to use Nikki, who happened to be a drop-dead gorgeous little spark-plug of a chemist, as the face of their new natural line. Rococo wanted to buy her formulas, package them under their corporation’s branding, and use her to promote the stuff, but they wanted to reserve the right to alter her formula at any time with Nikki’s name and reputation still attached. After very little introspection, Nikki refused. She’d had some award money that floated the business for a while, and then the Mitchells injected some money from the farm after Nikki and Charlie got married.
In about twenty months, Nikki was able to pay back the money she borrowed due to careful marketing and having products that just worked, although there had been a few bum formulations they all laughed about in hindsight. Trinity truly believed she owed Nikki a debt of gratitude for hiring her with no cosmetics experience. Her internship had been in pharmaceuticals. True, she’d had one of the highest GPAs in her class, but book smarts didn’t always translate to practical knowledge. Some of the smartest people she knew were complete idiots.
Nikki tucked her tablet under her arm, and walked slowly toward her private office at the back of the converted barn. Halfway there, she seemed to remember she hadn’t dismissed her crew. She turned around. “I’m running late practices this week to get Gabby and the rest of the all-star squad ready for the state dance competition.” She looked at Jerry, then Trinity, then continued her passage without another word.
The staff was quiet, sitting very still until Nikki shut her office door. Trinity knew Nikki well enough to have caught the drift. They were grown-ups. It was time to work.
“Well, let’s get on with it,” she said, clapping her hands in accompaniment.
The staff just stared at her for a few long, uncomfortable seconds, then one by one, folks pushed back their chairs.
The way Trinity saw things, that last look Nikki cast at them had said, “Fix this shit,” and Trinity was going to do just that.
She couldn’t help but notice when she scooped up her papers, all the staff had cleared the table except one person.
Jerry wore an expression of quiet amusement on his face. One side of his mouth was ticked up into a dangerous smirk, and he had his arms crossed over his chest.
He was either teasing her, or gunning for a fight.
So mature. She scoffed, and stood with her papers. Why bother wasting time figuring it out? When she was his boss, she’d wipe that smug smirk off that lazy bum’s face for good. And then she’d fire him.