“He sounded wonderful, Will!” My sister said, amused and worried at the same time. I knew her more then well enough to be able to tell her major emotions over the phone. “Until…”
“Until you mentioned the whole “Straight & Engaged” bit. He’s straight and engaged?”
“And he likes to fool around with you?”
“So it appears.”
“WILLLLL.” Holly worked herself up into a full-on wail, no longer amused. “You left us for THIS? Cheating with a straight guy?”
I sighed. My family had not yet completely forgiven me for leaving Madison for Boston, no matter how incredible a job it was, and my sister was majorette of the guilt parade. “I’m not cheating, I’m single.”
“HE’S cheating, and that makes you cheating. You suck, Will.” Ever since a boy she’d hope to marry had screwed her over by being a total assman she had very strong feelings on the subject, and I’m not sure I could blame her.
“Please, please please, Holly, no abuse tonight. I can’t take it.” I pinched the top of my nose. “I’ve told you, I’m a little desperate right now.”
There was silence for a moment.
“I know, baby.” She said, much more soothingly this time. “We miss you so much around here. But…”
Her voice rose again. “You used to be so DISCERNING. What happened to you?”
What she really meant was that I used to be a total snot. Taking a very long swig of my wine I had to admit to myself Holly was correct, I was. A total pain in the ass about who I dated and who I screwed, honestly. Time was precious and most men were assholes, that was my usual opinion. My gay friends back in Madison used to call me ‘princess’ because of my partner pickiness and what they termed my heart-breaking ways. I had no patience for selfish pricks, slimeballs, and most definitely for when my friends convinced themselves it was okay to fall for a straight guy. So how DID I get here?
Both my undergraduate degree and my MBA had come from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where my father was a tenured professor. My mother owned a boutique in town. They had let me live off campus, not forcing me to live at home, thank god, but Madison was my life, completely and fully.
We were disgustingly close in my family, and my first job after college had been as a low-level manager at a local software company. After I finished my weekend MBA I was promoted upwards and did very well but hit a ceiling, and that combined with a spectacularly bad reaction to a break-up from a boyfriend that made us the talk of our segment of town made me want to get the hell out. Not that I really thought it through. Just ‘out’ was the point, from a place that now seemed too small.
Thus I had thrown my resume into the wind, and it was snapped up fairly quickly by this old-school communications company with an arm in the Boston area that wanted to modernize. Get some young blood, say, a 29-year-old asian kid whose main experience was in a flashy and successful software firm. The offer itself kicked ass on several levels, and was something one would expect to go to someone quite a bit older.
Of course, the last divisional director whom they had just fired was quite a bit older, and had also been slowly but surely driving the operation into the ground with one hand while stealing and diverting funds as much as possible with the other. He was on trial somewhere now.
So they bought the whole “more then thinking outside the box, making the box into a sphere” hyper-cliché I had sold on my cover letter, they loved me, and I was now in charge of an antiquitated date-processing and information verification branch that was so close to redundency the company didn’t even seem to expect me to save it. I was working with business and technology models that were considered cutting edge in the late 80s.
So my casual work hipster-company work clothes were ditched for suits(this isn’t as whiny as it sounds, I found myself something of a suit-whore), and my cozy little too-small college town was exchanged for a big east coast city where people drove like maniacs.
And my hip-geek employees were exchanged for a group of people so damn normal they were really weird. Most were native Bostonians who had been here damn close to forever. They made it clear I was less then welcome. Gina had probably been sleeping with the old boss and was not happy that I wasn’t going to follow suit, and Creepy-Phil was always-present and creepy. As for the old ladies who actually did the data processing, they could never decide if they wanted to mother me or poison my coffee.
And there wasn’t a bloody free second to myself to get to know the city or anyone else. God, I missed my damn smallish midwestern town.
And the second Tom walked into my office I knew I was in trouble. He was ridiculously adorable.
“Hey, how are you?” He had said cheerfully, with that crazy cute grin and those big blue eyes. His red hair was artfully mussed and he was boyishly handsome but also built, round natural muscles that said he was once an athelete, and a comfortable charming manner that it was impossible not to relax around.
This was my computer guy? I thought incredulously. IT guys were actually not supposed to look like the hot high school quarterback everyone wanted to get with, it’s not how it works. My external was calm, but inwardly I was basically all “hubba-hubba”. I’ve always admired men like him.
“It’s really nice to have someone new running this place.” He said conspiratorally, and I was impressed with how up-front he was right off the bat. Chatty AND cute. “I’ve only been here two years and I would have quit if Mr. Larzki hadn’t been canned. Still was going to, but I wanted to check out the new guard.” He leaned back in the chair and smiled again, and I noted how perfect his shoulder to hip ratio was.
“Hopefully I won’t disappoint.” I gave him the warmest smile I’d probably smiled all day. “Corporate had a lot of good things to say about you, they hope you stick around for a while, as do I.”
“Huh.” He blushed slightly, but I could tell he was also very pleased, and changed the subject.“So how do you like Boston, Mr. Merrin?”
Now, thus far I’d tried to get these little mini-interviews with my new employees over with as quickly as possible, but for him, I was suddenly king of the small talk.
“You can call me Will, Tom.” Not that anyone else could. Perhaps I was making some bad decisions here. But how I wanted him to say my name in that east coast voice of his…
But I ducked the Boston question, since “I get up everyday, work out like crazy in the empty fitness center of my beautiful but soulless new condo building, come here, work my ass off until 10, and go back to said condo, which I have not had time to decorate. I’m overwhelmed, lonely, and sorta want to fly home today with my tail between my legs” was a pretty pussy answer.
“So, why where you thinking of quitting?”
He shrugged. “I had nothing much more to do then reset passwords, clean up spyware, and install software. There is no intranet here, despite the fact corporate has a perfectly functional shell that we can customize, and any of my ideas to modernize were dismissed due to budget concerns.” His grin got a bit wicked. “Of course, now we know why there were so many budget concerns. But it was boring. Working here just got more and more pointless.”
“You like challenges?” I asked.
His face suddenly turned proud. “I wouldn’t be in computers if I didn’t like challenges. What I was looking forward to out of college was constantly having new things to play with and use, and this has been the opposite, it’s been playing with ancient things and forcing them to function beyond their ability.”
Attraction suddenly took backseat to business. Corporate had given me a mandate to to make this place more efficient, modern and ready to take on a new type of workflow within six months, and someone who had the technical skill to implement the technological aspects of these chanes was more then vital, it was an absolute necessity.
“Tom, how would you feel about having more to do then you can imagine for the next two quarters? About having to make a lot of key decisions on where this office is going?”
He leaned forward with a gleam in his blue eyes. “Oh, I can imagine an awful lot of work. Just try me.”
“Eeeeeeexcellent.” I said, steepling my fingers Mr. Burns style. “Smithers, this is the dawning of a new age.” God, I was a dork, but it made Irish laugh outloud, a delightful, masculine sound that was infectuous. Hearing that laugh more would be nice.
Soon Allie(Short for Alabama, I found out, privilaged information) and Tom became my favorite people, even while I made many enemies by firing and hiring a good percentage of the office.
“How’s life?” He’d bound into my office cheerfully, with a legal pad and that damn smile. Perhaps I shouldn’t tell him about my Tom-centric dirty dreams, I thought.
“Life is.” I smiled back. “How’s yours?”
“Mmmmm, trying to pin down a date for the wedding, you know.” He shrugged and sat down. I’d learned pretty quickly he had a fiancee, and that one of the reasons overtime was so appealing was because he needed the money for the many things one had to pay for when you get hitched. Not because he wanted to hang with me, of course.
I nodded and smiled with what I hoped look like sympathy and we got down to work on our many integration issues.
Oh, but the growing urge to integrate with him was getting damn near unbearable. There was no time in my schedule to get out and meet anyone else, and he was so-bloody-straight it hurt.
I was constantly telling myself it wasn’t about him PERSONALLY, really, anyone would do. But I was very hot for him.
When I’d lean over him or he’d lean over me, showing each other things on our computers, I could smell him, and I had to stop before I made him uncomfortable – I caught him scootching away once, which was embarrassing. But he obviously wasn’t aware how close HE would stand over me, sometimes. Sometimes, looking at the light down on his chin, I wanted to kiss it, and then move downwards….
The late nights – for him no later then 8ish, or “Lori would KILL me” – gave me a lot of one-on-one time with him, and I wasn’t a strong enough man to resist flirting in my way.
Of course, there was a specific evening that got us where we are now.
One late Thursday we were at an impasse, where Tom wanted a more expensive server system then I had the budget for, despite agreeing wholeheartedly that he had truly excellent points about the system he wanted.
We had fallen silent, him looking out my window at the dark fall evening. He was stubborn, and I knew he was re-grouping for a new assault on my decision; it was something I respected about him immensely. Sitting back on the black couch that perpendicular to my desk gave me the perfect opportunity to study his handsome profile – so boyish yet so manly at the same time – and admire him in general. He was wearing charcol pants and a button up red shirt, his his legs were splayed slightly, one arm over the back of the couch and the other underneath his chin. Irish Boy in repose. It took a lot of self-control to not stare at the shape at his crotch.
Tom was so deep in thought and so cute I found myself mischeviously wadding up little pieces of paper and throwing them at him to see how long it took to break his stillness. It wasn’t until the third throw hit him in the face that he turned and blinked at me with two massive blue eyes.
I was watching him intently, and smiled, thinking how much I’d like to eat him, and I swore he blushed at whatever he found in my stare. “WHAT?” he asked again, like a little kid.
Shit. This is when it became clear to me that I was so very much flirting with him. An exe who was later a friend once pointedly told me I used ‘passive pursuit’ to get what I wanted, making sure I was being noticed while not actually doing the pursuing. People coming to me, that’s how I liked it.
But this one? Never would. Biting down on my natural response to Tom’s question, a coy “nothing” that said a lot more, I switched to a casual shrug and did a very fake stretch.
“Let’s close up shop, Tom. We’ve exhausted this conversation, and you have to get home to Lori. We’ll continue tommorrow. I’m going to stay a bit longer.”
“Yeah… I guess you’re right.” His face was a bit troubled, and I felt ashamed. Getting up and stretching like a muscular cat whose belly demanded to be scrunched(stop that!), he gathered up his things and then came to stand by the desk. His feet were practically shuffling, and he looked oddly unsure.
“You don’t have to wait for me, Tom.” I smiled. “You can head on out.”
“Sorry for giving you a hard time, Will.”
“Nah, don’t worry about it. I understand and respect your passion, and I can promise I’ll do my best. Have a great night.” I really did hate disappointing him, for all the wrong reasons, this being a professional relationship.
But he was still standing there.
“Actually…” He said shyly. “Lori’s out of town visiting her sister… I don’t really have anything to do. Can I take you out for a beer to say sorry for giving you a hard time? We can come back in afterwards.”
I blinked at him. “Um…”
Tom’s face fell and then snapped into fake jovility. “God, that was stupid, I’m sorry, Will. I know that’s probably pretty improper, asking your boss out for a beer. Just forget about it, I’ll see…”
“Hell, no!” I said, grinning at him like a goofball. “That sounds fantastic.”
Honestly, I was delighted, it had been a long time since I’d been just out for a beer with a friend, and I was a fairly social person. And socializing with Tom, well… sorta a dream.
He grinned back at me, and I resisted a hug.
We ended up at a pub not far from the office that he said he frequented regularly, a low-key joint with a very blue-collar vibe. I liked it, and two beers later I knew a lot more about Tom, as he was sorta rambling. In a very cute way. His phone had rung three times in a row and he finally slipped out apologetically to answer it, saying it was just Lori checking in on him from her sister’s. He had come back in with a strange look on his face, but had snapped back into a smile when I asked what was wrong.
“So all of your male family members do more labor-intensive work?” I asked, taking a sip of my second whiskey sour. These buggers were strong, and I was really out of practice drinking. I knew I should have stuck to beer, but sweet, sweet whiskey…
“Yeah.” He said with a lop-sided grin. “I’m pretty much a freak to them, going into computers. But I wasn’t near good enough to go pro with my football, and I’m pretty much a geek, so it was hard to fight.”
“You?” I said, giving him an eyebrow. “A geek. No fucking way. You’re no geek.” It was a joke. I could tell he had some serious undercover geek leanings, such as a Simpsons obsession and an appreciation for a well-made video game.
But after the out-and-out Nerds I knew in college and that I had worked with at my last company, the type that ran around with T-shirts that said “the Geek shall inheirit the Earth” and other pithy geek-ascendent sayings, his mix of pride and shy embarassment was too endearing not to poke fun at.
“Shut up.” He mock-scowled at me, and his face became serious. “I get think of what people think of me when they first meet me. It’s been my whole life, people seeing me as a dumb jock-pretty boy.”
I looked around at the pub, and took note for the first time that he could be many of the people here, strong blue-collar men, but wasn’t. It was obviously a paradox he himself wasn’t comfortable with yet.
To break his suddenly bleak mode, I leaned on one of my arms and gave him a faux-drunken-leer. “You’re not that pretty.” Which was true. He was a lot more handsome then pretty. Cute, yes. Pretty, no.
“Thanks.” He gave me his lop-sided grin. “You’re right, sorry. You’re the really pretty one.”
“Even without my make-up on?” I gave him a grin. “Thanks, sweets, you’re too kind.” His face turned so red I laughed, and I backed off from this line of what to me was basically flirtation when I saw he was looking at the table, lost for words. “Come on.” I killed the rest of my drink and put down more then enough to cover the tab. “Want to try to hammer out a compromise on this server issue?”
I was determined to not let the fact I was just called pretty by someone I found so incredibly attactive bother me. But here I was, inviting him back into the office.
“Yeah!” He practically jumped out of his seat, and gave me a faux-steely glare over his shoulder as he opened the door to fall evening. “I’ll break you down, Mr. Merrin. You’ll see.”
“Uh huh.” I rolled my eyes at him. “You wish, Pretty Boy, you wish.”
We were around the corner from the office when Tom gave me a devilish grin, bounded into a convenience store without warning, and bounded out again with a 6 pack of Smithwicks beer.
“Beer.” He strode out in front of me, turning around to walk backward and grin at me. “It’ll help grease the wheels!’
“And make me more pliable, huh? I see where you’re going with this, Mr. Naughton, and it won’t work.”
“We’ll see, We’ll see!” I practically had to chase him back to the office like a little kid, and we were both laughing by the time we got inside.
We settled in again and started again where we had left off a couple of hours before, challanging him to prove to me the more expensive system was worth more then just cred. My third beer was on the corner of the desk, my feet stretched out in front of me, and Tom was passionate in his sales pitch he was walking back and forth across the room, gesticulating.
Honestly, I had stopped listening on the last beer and at this point I was just watching his ass.
“Do you see, Will?” He was leaning on the desk excitedly, his eyes gleaming. “We invest in this fail-safe system and it will not only create a more efficient workflow, it’ll also SAVE us mone- SHIT!”
On the ‘Save’ he had swept his hand in an expansive gesture, and somehow managed to smack my beer – right onto my chest.
I jumped up, and looked down at my dripping shirt in consternation.
“God, Will, I’m so sorry, let me find a towel, or…”
Laughing, I shook my head. “Nah, it wasn’t even a full bottle, it’s not a big deal.”
“But you can’t hang around in a shirt soaked with beer.” He looked so crestfallen, I rushed to make him feel better. So bloody cute.
“Fuck it, Tom, it’s no big deal.” I unbuttoned my shirt while striding towards my private closet, and pulled out a black duffle bag from the bottom. “Sometimes I go for a run at night, I always have a change of clothes in here.” I pulled out my T-shirt, put it on the desk, and shucked my beer soaked button-up and turned to him with a smile.
“It’s not actually clean, but…” I pulled my undershirt over my head, “It’s sweeter smelling then that thing.” I threw it on the floor near my bag. “At least you didn’t get my pants, or I’d have to run around in my underwear!”
Tom was still standing there, looking highly embarrassed and bright red far beyond the actual situation, and I turned and put a comforting hand on his arm. “Look, it’s okay. Let’s head home, I think we’re both a little tired and a little drunk.”
And I leaned forward minutely and gave him a little kiss on his cheek, easily done, as he was only about an inch taller then me.
And we both froze.