First Chapter: Man Card
Before getting out of my car, I slip into incognito mode—I tug my blonde hair into a sleek ponytail, pull on my black leather gloves, and lower my shades.
There. Now I’m ready for action.
I’m dressed in skintight black jeans, a black cashmere turtleneck with a sweet cowl neckline and black ankle boots. It’s the perfect cat burglar outfit, while also totally appropriate for cocktails later with my besties, Brynn and Sadie.
Do I have an outfit for everything, or what? It’s my superpower.
Closing the car door with a quiet click, I turn to survey the mansion. It’s gorgeous—a show home on Reed’s Lake. I’m not here to actually steal anything from the homeowner. I’m just here to claim what’s rightfully mine—a big, fat commission for selling this house.
If I get that commission, I’m one step closer to winning the year-end bonus at work. Furthermore, I’ll have outdone my competitor Braht. The world’s most irritating man.
Victory is going to be so sweet.
Ignoring the wrought-iron gates, I sneak through a hole in the boxwood hedge. It’s broad daylight, so anyone could see me. But if I stay close to the hedge and hunch over a bit, maybe I’ll be invisible.
It’s not rational, I know that, but I’m not feeling super rational these days.
The problem is Braht. He brings out all my craziest behavior. I’ve had to put up with him far too often this month as we try to coordinate the sale of this home. It’s all the more reason why I deserve the commission on this house, and he deserves to rub my feet.
I pause because something happens to me when I think of Braht rubbing my feet. What is that peculiar feeling?
Goddammit! It’s a throb! The image of his long, manicured fingers on my instep just makes my loins throb.
All the more reason to focus.
I have made it past the perfectly trimmed bushes, and I’m now standing at the giant entrance to the home. It’s a beautiful property that Tom Spanner, my bestie’s boyfriend, owns. He’s selling it so he and Brynn can live in a smaller house on a bigger lake, where they’ll be disgustingly happy together.
That’s all well and good, but I can’t fathom why they had to force Braht and me to work together on this sale. It means I actually have to answer his calls. Just thinking about it steams me up. It’s been a few days since my last yoga class, too.
Deep breaths. Deep breaths.
I reach out with my black gloved hands and commence Operation Suck It, Braht.
The goal: lock him out of the house right before his scheduled showing. I’m changing all the codes on the lockboxes. And then I’ll stick around to watch him squirm. He deserves to squirm a little, if only because he’s the kind of guy who wears khaki shorts and a pink button-down in October.
But, hey. It’s not like I’ve been checking him out whenever we’re here at the house together. It’s not like I keep noticing his surprisingly muscular legs, or the perpetually tan V of skin on his tight chest…
Fuck. Distraction is dangerous for cat burglars!
So I redirect my focus to the lockboxes, punching in the numbers, performing a little technical voodoo. And...voila! New codes.
Now I feel a new kind of tingle as I picture his face the moment he realizes he’s been had. He’ll fumble then, disappointing his buyers when he can’t get into the house. They’d have to have to use pogo sticks to peek into the upstairs windows.
And no one buys a house they can’t inspect. Not even rich people.
Feeling vindicated, I run back to my car. My heart thuds with excitement, and another emotion, too. I feel...nefarious. And it’s great! Okay, technically it’s bad. But being bad can be exquisite.
In my reckless youth, I let my inner bad girl out more often. It didn’t work out so well, so these days I keep myself on a much tighter leash. But today I can feel her rattling her chain.
I slip into my car and check my vantage point. I’m parked under a beautiful willow tree, where I’ll wait until poor little Brahtie shows up, and I win. The end.
* * *
Okay, I’ve been sitting here for three minutes. Three minutes is the entire time I can be evil before I just get bored. Why is he late? Uggghh.
And because I need to be stealthy and watchful, I can’t even listen to music or distract myself by checking my phone. So I’m forced to just sit here and analyze my entire life.
And, let’s face it, my past is like a dark alley I try to stay clear of.
My teen years provided plenty of cringeworthy moments, but those errors were mostly unimportant, like wearing a white T-shirt while canoeing with the football team. I forgive myself for little things like this.
But my grownup regrets are harder to excuse. The first one is a man named Dwight Engersoll. I can’t think too hard about it because it makes me anxious. But suffice it to say Dwight is now safely far away from me. Locked far away. Literally. In the Michigan State Penitentiary.
My second regret? It’s much less traumatic, but I was equally stupid and vulnerable. It involved a pantry, nudity, being coated with flour, and the most mind-blowing orgasm I’ve ever experienced. An orgasm so intense that not only did my toes curl, but they actually cramped.
It was sort of a good cramp, but still. A cramp. I probably shouldn’t regret that sexual experience, because who can actually regret an orgasm that makes you glow? But let me tell you, it was regrettable anyway. First, because the sound of said orgasm was caught and broadcast to ten thousand subscribers on Brynn’s new cooking show, and secondly because I was doing it...with Braht.
Just the sound of his name makes my toes curl. Wait. Not in the good post-orgasm way, but in the bad I-hate-him-so-much-I-could-spit way. It’s hard to explain why, since he’s rich, witty and scrumptiously attractive. But if you met him, you’d understand. He’s tall and lanky with floppy golden hair that falls into his face. He wears a shit-eating grin most of the time, along with clothing that’s always, always in pastel colors.
He’s like the reincarnation of James Spader in the eighties, complete with his collar up. He manscapes, gets manicures, and I’m pretty sure he mansplains with the best of them, but when we’re in the same room, the hairs on my arms rise. Also, my nipples harden.
And I am not hitting that again. No ma’am. Nope. Never again. There will be no nipple hardening here. Nipple hardening leads to my brain shutting down, which is often followed by PLC. Poor Life Choices.
Clearly, I cannot afford any more PLC. I’m still picking up the pieces of my life that Dwight destroyed. I was attracted to him, too.
God, I’m really an idiot.
Now Braht is ten minutes late. Ten! It isn’t like him. Not that I pay much attention, but a guy who matches his alligator shirts to his socks is rarely the type to be late.
Maybe his clients aren’t interested after all.
I find myself strangely disappointed by this idea, even though I want the sale all to myself. Then again, if he doesn’t show up, I don’t get the satisfaction of watching him squirm. And, ohhhhhhh, I want to see him squirm.
I hunker down, and check my phone, which I’ve wired up to show me the feed from the mansion’s front door. Nothing yet and then, finally…!
The wrought-iron gate swings open! And there he is!
He’s driving a station wagon that’s a...convertible? A wood-paneled station wagon convertible, circa 1977. What is WRONG with this man? There’s a couple in the car with him, and they’re all laughing gaily together.
Though not for long, right?
He pulls into the driveway, turns off the car, and a smile slowly spreads across my face. My nipples are hard, but they’ll calm down. Braht has no idea what’s in store for him. I laugh a little, maniacally, because come on. When you have the opportunity for a maniacal laugh, you take it.
I start the stopwatch feature on my phone and wait.
Sixty seconds: no sign of the station wagon’s departure, but they’re probably chatting on the front steps.
Two minutes: Nothing. No panicky texts. I know they’ll start rolling in any minute.
Four minutes: Hmm. He probably decided to show the grounds first. Our friend Tom is a master gardener along with being a kickass builder. He did the most incredible landscaping. It’s droolworthy.
Ten minutes: Okay, there aren’t that many shrubberies to ogle. Any second now, Braht will realize I’ve burned him. Burrrrrn!
Fifteen minutes: The house has three entrances. He’s obviously trying his code on all of them. Repeatedly.
Twenty minutes: OH KILL ME ALREADY HOW LONG DOES A GIRL HAVE TO WAIT TO CLAIM SWEET VICTORY?
A long time, it seems.
Eventually, the suspense proves too much for me. Since I’m still wearing the best cat burglar outfit ever (with sparkly black round-toed ankle boots. Did I mention the shoes?), I quietly open my car door and get out to investigate.
As I creep toward the gate again, the willow tree and the fabulous boxwood hedge provide just the right amount of cover. I can’t let him spot me, not until his buyers give up and leave, and I can emerge as the winner.
Peeking around the hedge, I see the station wagon, parked at a jaunty angle on the white pebbled circular drive. I can’t risk those pebbles, they’ll crunch underfoot. So I stick to the grass, crouching down and bolting across the lawn toward the exterior wall of the house. I’m there in a flash.
Seriously, I’m acing this. It deserves an achievement sticker in my planner. Since I don’t have any stickers for being stealthy, I’ll probably just go with a cute running shoe sticker. But first, more recon.
Crouching under a dining room window, I listen for voices. And I hear one! It’s...Ella Fitzgerald. Coming from inside the house!
But that can’t be right. The place was quiet a half hour ago.
There are really two possibilities. Maybe the ghost of Ella haunts Tom’s mansion. Although there was no mention of ghosts on his disclosure form. Or, worse, someone has made it inside that house and is now playing music.
Fuck. It’s possible I’ve been outwitted. It’s rare these days, but no one is infallible.
I need to stand up straight and look inside, because A) I need to know if I’ve been beaten and B) my thighs are burning from crouching beside this window.
Slowly, I raise my head until I can see over the sill, and what I see inside floods me with anger. Braht and the laughing couple are still laughing. But they’re doing it seated around Tom’s gleaming dining table. Worse, there’s a silver tea service on a shining tray, and they’re all holding Noritake teacups in one hand and finger sandwiches in the other.
My stomach growls. Or maybe that was just a regular, angry growl. He’s having a fucking tea party in there. I’m going to kill him dead.
Somehow my anger announces my presence. The next thing I know, Braht has locked gazes with me. And he smiles.
My blood pressure doubles as he gets up, gallops around the table and cranks the window open. “Why, Ashley! What are you doing out there in Tom’s chrysanthemum bed?”
“I’m…” My panic only lasts a nanosecond, and the part of my psyche that’s willing to beat Braht at any cost comes roaring back, and I realize I need to double down on my deception. “The lockbox combination isn’t working. What did you do?”
His smile only widens. “Come around to the front, honey bear. I’ll let you in.”
Having no choice, I stomp out of the mums in my killer boots and around to the front door.
* * *
I swallow a bite of the most delectable cucumber and smoked salmon sandwich as I dance toward the front door. Life is good. I have quality tunes on Tom’s sound system, and gourmet snacks.
And, I’ll be honest, I’m totally turned on right now. Ash brings out the beast in me when we compete. I have to hand it to her. She’s proving herself to be a formidable opponent. The lockbox trick was a good effort.
Unfortunately for her, I anticipated this maneuver and wore shorts to work today. After a quick apology for the delay, I left my clients to enjoy the lake view from Tom’s exquisite patio while I waded out beside the dock to the fourth lockbox on the boathouse door.
The one that Ashley missed.
Then I jogged down the boathouse stairs, into the tunnel connecting it to the main house, put on the kettle for tea, arranged my nom noms on a tray, and then invited my clients into Tom’s home for a tea party.
I have cookies for dessert. The whole thing is a piece of cake, really. They don’t call me The Closer for nothing.
When I swing open the front door, Ash is standing on the front porch looking fabulous—all long legs and cashmere-wrapped tits and perfect cheekbones. With a defiant look on her face that always makes me hard.
Oh, Ash. You have no idea what you do to me.
Every time I see her I’m wrecked, right from hello. This has been going on for years. But lately it’s gotten even worse, ever since Ash jumped me and I got a taste of just how good we are together.
As always, it takes me a second to push through the familiar feeling of being karate chopped by Cupid. “Nice outfit, Ashleykins,” I manage to snap. “But those jeans are snug, baby girl. It’s a great look, but how am I going to get them off you later when it’s time to bend you over the sideboard and have my filthy way with you?”
There’s a long pause and I think she’s actually considering it. Then Ashley gasps, and her cheeks redden further. “You cannot say things like that! We’re at work. Have you read the employee handbook? Does the term ‘hostile work environment’ ring any bells?”
This should be a perfectly valid point, and I have always respected a woman’s right to be the mistress of her own domain. Except for one little flaw in her argument. “Ashleycakes, the first time we ever had a conversation about this house, you ended it by unzipping my fly and swallowing my dick in Brynn’s pantry.”
Now the blush is creeping down her neck, and right into that delectable cleavage. I’m actually a little worried about spontaneous combustion. Good thing Tom showed me where he keeps the fire extinguisher in the coat closet. Safety first.
“We’re not in the pantry now,” she grinds out.
“Pity. That thing you do with your tongue really rocks my world.”
That’s when her head pops off and bounces down the brick portico stairs. Okay, not really. But the look on her face makes this seem possible.
“Stop. It.” She takes a deep breath. “Business, Braht. We need to talk business.”
“Fab,” I agree. “So let’s talk about three lockboxes that don’t work and a fourth one that requires water entry. I don’t suppose you have a set of waders in that cute little car you hid up the block?”
“The boathouse. You don’t think I descended from the chimney, do you? I’m good, but I’m not that good.”
Her perfect pink tongue appears in the corner of her mouth and her eyes go a little soft-focus. She’s remembering just how good I am with my hands. And my tongue.
I snap my fingers. “Focus, baby. Why don’t you work on this lockbox thing. Any idea how we can undo the damage?”
“Uh…” She shakes herself. “It must have been a miscommunication with…my intern.”
“Your intern?” What the actual fuck. Realtors don’t have interns.
But Ash is nodding rapidly. “Her name is Zelda. She’s young and inexperienced. She must have, uh, mistyped the codes I sent her. I’ll get her to fix it and then I’ll send you the new codes.”
Intern my ass. “Zelda, huh? Is she my type, too?”
“What do you mean, too? I am not your type, Braht.”
“You are the walking definition of my type, Ash.” I didn’t mean to say it so forcefully, but it’s just true. “And you don’t need to tell me about Zelda, because I’m sure I’ll meet her myself tomorrow.”
“Tomorrow?” Ash blinks, as if maybe there’s an appointment she’s forgotten.
“Tomorrow,” I confirm. Then I drop the bomb I’ve been waiting to drop on her since I got the news three days ago. I needed to do it in person, because her reaction is going to be epic. “I’ve been transferred to your branch. We’re going to be office buddies.” I waggle my brows. It’s a thing I do. It’s a thing I do around Ash because it makes her squirm. And I love to make her squirm.
She sucks in a breath. “My…branch?” The look on her face is one I see often when she looks at me—an intriguing blend of lust mixed with horror. “You don’t mean…my branch of the company. At my…physical location.”
“Yes indeedy! I asked Bill to put our desks near each other, too. Because we’re working on this deal together. Corporate asked me to help get the revenue up at the Eastown branch. We’re going to be the power couple of Ernst VanderMollen Realty.”
“But…!” Her pretty face drains of color. She’s almost paler than the golden highlights in her hair. “You can’t do that! I’ve made Top Salesperson nine months out of the last twelve!”
Well, ouch. I hadn’t thought of that. “Sorry, honey bear. You’re going to have to share that trophy occasionally. It will be good for morale. The other kids need to see that success has more than one face.”
“You’re…this is a joke, right?” she whispers. “Good one, Braht. Well played.”
“It’s all too real, Ash. We’re colleagues now. Once the shock wears off, I’m sure you’ll remember how much you like me.”
“I do not. Like you,” she says, crossing her arms firmly.
“Then why do your nipples get so pointy whenever we speak?”
Ash lets out a shriek of indignation, and I have to duck as she takes a swing at me.