Dane sat in his office, hiding from the gaggle of pimply new interns invading the trading floor. On the task bar of his open laptop, the IM program flashed continually. There was no point clicking on it; the instant he acknowledged the message, someone else would vie for his attention.
I oughta just shut that down and make them knock on my door.
As if he’d conjured it, a light tap brought his gaze up. The door opened a crack, and he caught the backside of Val as she turned and walked away.
He slid open the bottom drawer of his desk and rummaged for the crumpled pack of cigarettes.
He’d let it be known he was trying to quit so nobody would question why he rarely smoked. Out of sympathy, they never questioned him when he did. Not that he ever did. The cigarettes were nothing more than a prop, a means to an end. He’d bought the current pack a year ago. The half-empty pint of Maker’s Mark lying under the cigarettes, however, had only been there a day.
As he left his office, he deliberately lifted the pack and slid it into his suit coat pocket for all the world to see him slinking down for a secret smoke. He glanced furtively but conspicuously from side to side until he’d left the trading floor. Once in the first-floor lobby, he resumed his natural confident gait, lending him an air of aristocracy.
Out in the smoking area, Val waited, arms crossed, cigarette hand resting on her elbow. Juxtaposed to the warping picnic table and patchy, trash-strewn grass, Val glittered like fool’s gold. Her perfectly coiffed blond hair shone in the sun but didn’t budge despite a mild June wind. Everything about Val was anchored, moored, unyielding. Only Dane knew how to make that rock bend. And only sometimes.
Val faced the four-story structure but kept her eyes trained on Dane and nodded once in greeting. The temptation to look up at the office windows for observers might overwhelm anyone else, despite the inability to penetrate the glass. Whoever might be watching them would see nothing but a casual encounter.
Dane passed her and sat on top of the picnic table, faced at an angle away from the building, feet on the bench. He hunched over and focused on the unlit cigarette in his hand. “You know we can’t meet here again for at least two weeks.”
She turned a quarter of the way toward him, enough to appear to be conversing as one would expect of two people sharing the same space. Not enough to show interest in the topic. “I did message you, but you were ignoring me.”
“Don’t take it so personally. I ignore everyone.”
She took a long drag and exhaled. “We only have a minute before they start to show up.”
“Right. Interns.” If any of the new kids saw them out there alone together, they’d scrounge up a cigarette just to come and cozy up. It’s what I would have done in their place. Admirable, but irritating. “So get to the point.”
“Selena Valencia. Have you met her?”
He rubbed his chin and tried to place the name. “Valencia? Any relation to Geraldo?”
“It’s Geraldo’s daughter. She took an internship here under me. Isn’t that delicious?”
“Geraldo sent his daughter here?”
“No, that’s the delightful part. He doesn’t know she came here. Apparently, he’s occupied with some business in Germany and told his daughter to find an internship, probably expecting her to stay in the city at one of the obvious financial firms. But she’s apparently eager. She wants to learn from the best.”
Dane yawned. “And so she came here. Fascinating. You dragged me out here to gossip.”
“Of course not.” She snapped at him but then slicked her gold hair back and smiled at him, adjusting her tone to match. “Of course not. I have a favor to ask of you.”
Across the yard, a young man had opened the door and paced in a narrow circle, gathering his courage to approach the infamous pair.
“You’d better spit it out. We’ve got company.”
Val’s smile twisted wickedly. She sat on the picnic bench, beside Dane’s feet, and ran a finger under the hem of his slacks, lightly brushing along the edge of his sock. “Do you ever think about when we started together? The exhilarating risks we took?” She inched up the inside of his calf.
“Do you ever think about that one night? Do you even remember it?”
Dane shifted, but left his foot firmly planted. He knew what she was up to, but he wanted to know why. “Of course I remember.” He remembered waking up to find her gone. “Is that why we’re here? Do you want to take me home, Val?”
She withdrew her hand. “When it comes time to decide which intern you’ll mentor, I want you to pick Selena.”
“To what end?”
“To train her to bend rules and skirt the law. I want her to leave here an expert in ethical violations, without even knowing how amoral she’s become. I want to send her back to her daddy with an appetite for corruption.”
“Why would I want to do that?” Dane watched the awkward boy make up his mind. He’d taken a few hesitant steps toward the picnic table, still out of earshot.
“You have as much cause for vengeance as I do. If it weren’t for Geraldo, we’d still have our company.” She snarled. “R&M was our company.”
He knew he ought to feel touched she’d taken his ouster to heart, but he’d spent the past three years moving on. Val was never as forgiving.
Dane rested his elbows on his knees. “You could have stayed on without me. I hope you don’t think I’m to blame for your current situation. I shudder to think of how you’d punish me.”
“Very funny. You know I’m only loyal to you, Dane.”
He doubted she was loyal to anyone, but she had left their company to follow him to the Midwest, and he couldn’t forget that. “And I’m forever grateful. Truly, I’m humbled.”
Val narrowed an eye as though she could parse his bullshit enough to detect the sincerity behind his sarcastic tone. “Then you’ll help me set the girl on a ruinous path?”
Dane slid the unlit cigarette back in the pack. “I’m afraid I’m going to be distracted with another endeavor for some time.”
“Let me guess. Seducing the head of accounting? She seems like your type.”
He gave Val one long look. “No. I plan to seduce our new CEO.”
“Noelle?” Val scoffed. “How is that any kind of challenge? You could do that this morning and spend the rest of your summer with Selena.”
“You seem to forget history.”
“Oh, are you still nursing that wound? Or is this about Dane’s ego? She spruned you before you could bed her, and you’ll never rest until you check that box. Is that it?”
Dane clenched a fist. “I was so close. Until she shot me down with no explanation.”
Val frowned. “And publicly, too. Yes. How humiliating. If I’d known you carried a torch, I might not have insisted the board offer her the job.”
“Why did you? You never cared for her.”
“Perhaps not, but she might prove useful to me. There’s a story to her sudden resignation from R&M, and I intend to find out what it is. Maybe she holds a grudge against Geraldo as well. I could exploit that.” She dropped her cigarette and ground it out. “If you don’t spook her. What do you have planned?”
“What I failed to do last time.” He leaned forward to whisper in Val’s ear. “I’m going to seduce her before she realizes what happened. I want her to think she’s resisting me only to find she can’t.”
Val rolled her eyes. “Pedestrian. Let me guess. Was Noelle the last person to break your heart?”
“No.” Dane stepped off the table and tilted his head toward Val. “You were.”
The corner of Val’s mouth curled up slightly. “I believe I’ve rectified that.”
“Right. And then substituted rejection with betrayal.” He enjoyed seeing the color drain from her face.
She recovered enough to whisper harshly, “Let it go, Dane.”
He pushed the knife in another inch. “I already have.”
The awkward boy had circled around them and made his approach. Val regained the beneficent facade she reserved for the rest of the world. A strand of hair had escaped her tight control, and she tucked it behind her ear, head held high. She shot one more calculated glance at Dane. “Hurry along. This one looks ripe for the picking.”
Dane popped the pack of cigarettes back into his pocket and left Val to her games.