The CEO's Accidental Bride(9)

By: Barbara Dunlop

“Nope.” Kaitlin watched two uniformed cops stride into a deli. She was more than happy to leave the topic of Zach behind. “I’m going to take advantage of having everything out of the way. Clean the carpets and paint the walls.”

“Nesting?” asked Lindsay.

“Yes, I am.” When she gave herself time to think about staying put in New York City, Kaitlin felt a surge of relief lighten her shoulders. She’d curled up in her window seat yesterday evening with a cup of cocoa, simply staring for an hour at the bustle of the neighborhood.

“You deserve a great place to call home,” said Lindsay, warmth and caring evident in her tone.

Kaitlin smiled her agreement. “I may even buy that new rocker.” She’d been admiring a big, overstuffed gliding rocker in the window of a local furniture store for a few months now. Something about it said home.

“You?” Lindsay teased. “A frivolous expenditure?”

Kaitlin nodded with conviction. With no means of support other than her part-time job, she’d been forced to be frugal during her college years. The habit was hard to break. But she was gainfully employed now, and she had good prospects. And she was determined to make herself a real home.

“First the rocker,” she explained to Lindsay. “And then the Prestige espresso machine.”

“I love hearing you talk like that.” Lindsay laughed.

“It feels pretty good,” Kaitlin admitted, then her voice caught on her age-old sensation of loneliness. “I can make it a real home.”

Lindsay linked her arm and nudged up against her. “You’ve already made it a real home.”

It didn’t feel like a real home to Kaitlin. Then again, how would she know? Over her childhood years, most of her placements had been in group facilities instead of with families. The workers were mostly kind, but they came and went in shifts, and they often moved on to other jobs, replaced by new people, who were also nice, but also employees, not a family.

Lindsay gave her a squeeze, obviously recognizing that Kaitlin was getting emotional. “You ready for lunch?”

“Sure thing.” There was no point in dwelling on the past. She was staying in New York City, and that was a great thing. The rocker would make a difference, she was sure of it. Maybe she’d get a cat, a calico or a black-and-white gerbil. A pet would make things that much more homey.

With one last look around, she followed Lindsay inside. They locked the rooftop door and took the aging elevator back to the third floor and Kaitlin’s small office.

“There you are.” Zach’s greeting from inside the office sounded vaguely like an accusation.

“What are you doing here?” Kaitlin’s guard immediately went up. She suspiciously scanned the room, the deck, the bookshelf, her computer, checking to see if anything had been disturbed. She’d put a password on her laptop, and she was keeping the preliminary renovation drawings under lock and key.

She’d made Zach promise to give her carte blanche on the project. But she still feared, given half a chance, he would try to micromanage it. She wasn’t planning on giving him half a chance.

“I have something to show you,” he announced from where he stood behind her tilted drafting table.

She saw that he’d rolled out a set of blue line drawings. She moved forward to get a better view. “Those aren’t mine.”

“They’re something Hugo Rosche put together,” he responded.

Kaitlin slipped between the desk and drafting table, while Lindsay waited in the doorway of the cramped office. Kaitlin stopped shoulder-to-shoulder with Zach, and he moved closer up against the wall.

“What’s different than how it is now?” she asked, moving through the pages, noting that a few walls had been relocated. The lobby had been slightly expanded, and new windows were sketched in on the first floor.

“We’d also repaint, recarpet and get a decorator,” said Zach.

She glanced up at him, searching his expression. “Is this a joke?”

He frowned at her.

“Because, I mean, if it’s a joke, ha-ha.” She dropped the pages back into place.

He looked affronted. “It’s not a joke.”

She gestured to the sheets of paper. “You’re not seriously suggesting I use these.”

“We don’t need to make massive changes in order to improve the building,” he insisted.

“I’m not a decorator, Zach. I’m an architect.”

“Being an architect doesn’t mean you need to tear down walls for the sake of tearing down walls.”

She turned and propped her butt against the side of the desk, folding her arms over her chest and facing him head on. “Did you seriously think I’d fall for this?” Because if he had, he was delusional.

He lifted his chin. “I thought you’d at least consider it.”

“I just considered it. I don’t like it.”

“Thank you so much for keeping such an open mind.”

“Thank you so much for bringing me a fait accompli.”

“I paid good money for these plans.” He snagged the bottom of the sheets and began to roll them up. His voice rose, the offense clear in his tone. “And I paid good money for your original plans. And now I’m paying a third time for the same work.”

Lindsay shifted forward, stepping fully into the room. “Would you prefer to fire Kaitlin and meet us in court?”

Zach’s steel gaze shot her way.

He glared at her briefly, then returned his attention to Kaitlin. “I thought you could use them as a starting point.”

Kaitlin shrugged. “Okay,” she said easily.

His hands stilled. He drew back, eyes narrowing in suspicion. Then he paused and asked, “You will?”

She shrugged again. “Since they’re virtually identical to the existing building, I’ve already used them as a starting point.”

Lindsay coughed a surprised laugh.

Zach came back to life, snapping an elastic band around the paper roll, while Kaitlin hopped out of his way.

“It’s my backup plan,” Zach said to Dylan. It was Sunday afternoon, and the two men maneuvered their way through the crowded rotunda at Citi Field toward a Mets game. If there was one thing he’d learned from both his father and from Dylan’s dad, it was that your contingencies had to have contingencies. Plans failed all the time. An intelligent man was prepared for failure.

Dylan counted on his fingers. “Plan A was to buy her off. Plan B was getting her to agree to the Hugo Rosche drawings. Low percentage on that one working, by the way.” He skirted a trash can. “And now Plan C is to find her a new job?”

Zach didn’t disagree on the Rosche drawings. It had been a long shot that she’d agree to use them. But finding her a new job could easily work. It was a well thought out strategy.

“She said it herself,” he explained. “Her long-term goal is to get a good job. She wants her career back on track. And I don’t blame her. Thing is, it doesn’t have to be my building. It could be any building.”

“She wants to stay in New York City,” Dylan confirmed.

“New York City is a very big place. There are plenty of buildings to renovate.”

“So, you invited her to the game, because…?”

That was another element of Zach’s plan. “Because she was wearing a Mets T-shirt that day at her apartment. It turns out, she’s a fan.”

“And odds are she’s never watched a game from a Sterling Suite,” Dylan elaborated.

“I’m betting she hasn’t,” said Zach as he came to a stop near the escalator, glancing around for Kaitlin and Lindsay. “It works exceedingly well on Fortune 500 execs. Besides, my project is temporary. If I can find her a solid offer with a good firm, then she’s got something permanent.”

“And in order to accept the offer, she’ll have to quit your project.”

“Exactly.” Zach couldn’t help but smile at his own genius.

Dylan, on the other hand, had a skeptical expression on his face. “Good luck with that.”

“Here she is,” Zach announced in a loud voice, sending Dylan a quick warning glance.

The plan was perfectly sound. But it would take some finesse. He wouldn’t try to sell her on the idea of a new job right away. Today, he only wanted to smooth the path, get a little closer to her. He’d let her know he was interested in a good outcome for both of them. No reason they had to be at odds.

Next week, he’d make a few calls, talk to a few associates, field offers for her.

Kaitlin broke her way through the escalator lineup and angled toward them.

His mood lifted at the sight of her, and he recognized the danger in that hormonal reaction. It didn’t mean he had a hope in hell of changing it. But it did mean he needed to be careful, keep his emotions in check and hold himself at a distance.

She was wearing a snug white T-shirt, faded formfitting blue jeans, scuffed white sneakers and a blue-and-orange Mets cap with a jaunty ponytail sticking out the back. He’d never had a girl-next-door thing, preferring glitz and glamour in his dates. But it didn’t seem to matter what Kaitlin wore. She’d be his fantasy girl in a bathrobe.

Damn. He had to shut that image down right now.

Her friend Lindsay was a half pace behind her. She had topped a pair of black jeans with a white sleeveless blouse.

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