There's less than a week until Applied Electromagnetism goes on sale, and I've got a special treat for you: a sneak peek at chapter one! Read on to meet Olivia and Adam, two combative coworkers stuck on a business trip that goes very, very wrong, and then very right. (If you know what I mean. *wink*)
It was Friday afternoon, and Olivia Woerner was engaged in a battle of wills with herself.
Just get up and go talk to him.
She stared across the office at Adam Cortinas. All she could see over the walls of his cubicle was the very top of his head, but that hadn’t stopped her from staring at him for the better part of an hour.
Just go over there.
It didn’t have to be a big deal. It was a simple ask. The odds of him saying no were pretty slim.
All she had to do was walk up to Adam and say one sentence: Will you write me a reference for the Future Leader Development Course?
It was a new program the company had announced last week, and Olivia wanted to be a part of it, more than she’d wanted anything professionally since she’d first started this job.
Aside from the obvious leverage it would provide when year-end review and bonus time rolled around, it would be nice to be officially recognized finally as someone with leadership potential. A person worth developing into something more than a junior analyst on the commercial systems team at an independent power producer, which was where she’d been stuck for the last four years.
Jesus tap dancing Christ, her job sounded so boring she was putting herself into a coma just by describing it.
It pretty much was boring, except the part where she was on call at all hours and sometimes had to get up in the middle of the night to fix some code in a system that had gone offline, or else Very Bad Things happened—like hospitals and airports losing power, or grandmothers either freezing or dying of heatstroke, depending on the time of year.
That was what Brad, the CIO, always told people when he thought they might be slacking off: imagine if it was your grandmother without heat in Nebraska in the coldest January on record, or without air-conditioning in Reno during the worst heat wave in a decade. How would you feel if your own beloved grandmother’s power went out because someone wasn’t paying enough attention to their job?
Other than that—the part where Olivia was helping keep grandmothers alive—her job was mega boring.
Not that she expected work to be exciting. She’d accepted that most people spent their lives doing boring work in boring jobs. Even if you had an exciting job like paramedic or bounty hunter or hostage negotiator, she imagined there were still probably lots of days where it felt ho-hum.
But Olivia had been in the same role on the same team for too long, and she was in danger of stagnating. If she wasn’t careful, she’d end up as one of those people in their fifties who’d been stuck in one job their entire career, until suddenly the technology changed and rendered them obsolete.
What she needed was a challenge. An opportunity to grow into something more.
But despite raising the subject of her professional advancement multiple times with her boss Gavin, opportunities never seemed to arise. Or when they did, they always seemed to be earmarked for someone else.
This leadership course was her chance to stand out. To be noticed, finally, and taken seriously.
She’d already finished her application. All she needed now were two professional recommendations. Gavin had already agreed to provide one, but the other had to be from someone on another team.
That was why she needed Adam Cortinas.
He worked on the plant systems team and spent half his time in the field. Whenever one of the company’s power plants was having an issue, Adam was the guy they’d throw at the problem. The CIO loved him, because Adam had saved his bacon about a million times by parachuting into a disaster and fixing whatever was broken. He was a troubleshooting rock star.
If Olivia could get a recommendation from Adam Cortinas, it would give her a serious edge up on the competition.
She and Adam interacted pretty regularly, keeping the company data systems that she maintained integrated with the plant systems that he maintained, and she thought he liked her okay.
Adam could be tough to read. He was a little…brusque. But he was like that with everyone, even the CIO. It was just how he was. Adam wasn’t interested in small talk or making friends around the office. He was laser-focused on his work, and since he was a rock star, he could be as brusque as he wanted.
Olivia wasn’t especially into making friends around the office either, but she didn’t have a choice about playing nice. She wasn’t a rock star like Adam. She was a woman in a predominantly male field, and if she didn’t put in the extra effort to suck up and make friends, it would bite her in the ass professionally.
So now here she was on a Friday afternoon, trying to work up the nerve to talk to Adam, which she wouldn’t have had a problem with under normal circumstances. If she’d needed to talk to him about an ordinary work thing, she’d go straight up to him, no problem.
But this wasn’t an ordinary work thing. This was a favor she was asking him to do for her.
Olivia hated asking for favors.
She preferred to solve problems on her own. Asking for help felt like an admission of weakness, and she already had enough of a problem seeming weak because she was small and female, not to mention so pale, with her alabaster complexion and light blue eyes, that she practically disappeared into the industrial beige walls.
People had a tendency to look right through her, or right past her, or right over the top of her five foot three inches. It was why she always wore thick, black eyeliner and the darkest, most dramatic lipstick she could get away with in the office. To try and make herself seem tougher—or at least less invisible.
Her reluctance to ask for favors wasn’t the only thing keeping her from going over to talk to Adam. There was also the small matter of her long-standing crush on him.
Adam Cortinas was the most attractive man in the office by a considerable margin.
Admittedly, there wasn’t a lot of competition for the title. Most of the IT guys she worked with were a lot older than Adam, who couldn’t be much over thirty, and most of them looked exactly how you’d expect middle-aged IT guys to look. A few of the energy traders upstairs were okay-looking, she supposed, if douchebags were your preferred type—but they most definitely were not Olivia’s.
Adam looked more like an Instagram model than systems analyst. He would have been the hottest guy in any office.
For starters, he had beautiful bronze skin, piercing dark eyes, thick black hair that fell across his forehead in luscious waves, and a jawline that could cut diamonds. Then there was the matter of his body, which was practically a work of art. The guy definitely spent time in the gym. The same vendor-branded polos that hung shapelessly on everyone else around the office pulled tight across his broad chest and clung to his muscled arms like they’d been custom tailored just for him.
Adam Cortinas was the whole luscious package, and Olivia had been fantasizing about him from afar since he’d joined the company two years ago. Which was why, if this whole reference thing went well, she was thinking of asking him out for a drink.
It was the perfect opening. She could couch it as a thank-you for writing her the reference. That way she wasn’t extending herself too far. It was simply a friendly drink among coworkers. A professional courtesy.
She just had to go over there and talk to him first.
Yet somehow she wasn’t doing it. Her feet were two chunks of lead, and her ass was permanently welded to the seat of her swivel chair. She was never moving. She’d be excavated by archeologists eons from now, still sitting here, chin in palm, staring dreamily in the direction of Adam’s cubicle.
Olivia was twenty-eight years old, but she felt like she’d been teleported back to the pubescent hell of fifteen, when she’d been too scared to ask Josh Fratangelo to the Sadie Hawkins dance. Olivia’s arch-nemesis Ashley Beeman had asked him instead, and Olivia had spent the night at home alone with a tube of raw cookie dough and her Veronica Mars DVDs for consolation.
Get up. Go over there. Talk to him.
Just as she was about to screw up her courage, Adam got to his feet.
Olivia lowered her eyes in a panic, terrified he might have noticed her staring. What if he had spidey senses that tingled to warn him when someone was watching him and having lustful thoughts?
Out of the corner of her eye, she saw Adam carry his coffee mug into the break room without even a glance in her direction.
This was her chance. She could go get more coffee and just happen to bump into him.
Oh hey, how’s your day going? she could say. Listen, since we’re here, would you mind writing me a rec for FLDC? And once he’d agreed, she could offer to buy him a drink sometime after work.
Why not, right? Nothing ventured or some shit.
Olivia breathed deep for a count of three. Smoothed her hand over her white-blonde hair. Gathered her strength and grabbed her coffee mug off her desk before she strode into the break room.
And stuttered to a stop just inside the doorway.
Adam was leaning into the fridge, bent over, with his ass pointing directly at her.
Jesus roller-blading fuck. That was one USDA Prime cut of meat staring at her. Why did he have to have such a nice ass? And why did it have to be pointing right at her? Totally unfair.
He turned his head in her direction lazily, as if he almost couldn’t be bothered to see who’d walked in. His eyes flicked over her, his expression dull and disinterested.
Olivia swallowed down her nervousness and propelled herself toward the sink. “Hey,” she managed to force out, despite the fact that her throat felt like it was coated with gravel. Also, her heart was pounding in her ears and her legs felt like jellyfish tentacles.
Adam acknowledged her with a nod before turning back to the fridge.
The way he was bending over should be an occupational safety hazard. It was definitely hazardous to her occupational safety. She ought to report him to OSHA for bringing an ass like that to the office.
And of course she was still totally staring at his ass when he closed the fridge and turned around, holding a carton of almond milk.
His eyes narrowed slightly, which meant he probably knew she’d been staring at his ass, so that was completely mortifying. Not that it was entirely her fault. He was the one who was bending over, presenting his ass for all the world to see. She’d just come in here to have a simple conversation with him, and his ass happened to be front and center. What else was she supposed to look at?
Now that he was facing her, she realized that looking at his face posed a whole new set of challenges. She definitely couldn’t look directly into his eyes. Oh no. It was impossible to concentrate when she was looking into those bottomless ebon orbs.
Which left her staring at his mouth. His lush, soft lips with an almost sulky curl to them--
She needed to pull herself together and quit objectifying him. He was her coworker, and he probably had a gorgeous girlfriend. A model or an actress—maybe even someone famous. That could be why he was such a closed book. Because he was dating, like, Rihanna or Jennifer Lawrence, and didn’t want anyone at work to know so they didn’t act all weird around him.
Weird like Olivia was acting right now.
To keep from gawking at him, she tried to focus on an imaginary point just to the right of his head. But since there was nothing there but empty air, she ended up staring at the CPR poster on the wall behind him, which must have looked odd because he actually threw a glance over his shoulder like he was trying to figure out what she was looking at.
She dragged her eyes back to his, but that was way too much, so she let her gaze fall to his chest, which ought to be safe. Except Adam’s chest was exquisite. His gray polo was made of shiny athletic fabric with a drape that would make Tim Gunn drool. The shirt was thin enough that she could see the square outline of his pecs, with just a hint of his nipples beneath.
Sweet cream-cheesy Jesus, she was staring at his nipples now.
Her eyes jumped higher, settling on his collarbone, which was only marginally better because now she was noticing the strong tendons in his neck and the graceful way they melted into his broad and apparently hairless chest. Or was that a hint of dark chest hair just beneath the open collar of his shirt? It was hard to tell from this distance.
“Did you need something?” Adam asked, appearing only mildly curious to know why she was gawping at him like an imbecile. He was probably used to being stared at. With a face and a body like that, he must get ogled all the time.
Olivia cleared her throat.
Just spit it out before this drags on and gets even weirder.
“Yeah, actually. I—uh—I was hoping you’d write me a reference for the Future Leader Development Course.”
“Ah.” He turned away, but not before she glimpsed his unmistakable expression of distaste.
Her heart sank to the floor, where it lay in a puddle of mortification at her feet. This was why she hated asking people for favors. Because it opened the door for rejection, and as far as her brain was concerned, rejection was a fate worse than death.
He hasn’t even said no yet. Calm down and give him a chance to answer before you panic.
“So, yeah,” she continued, forging ahead with false buoyancy, “I’m putting my name in the hat and you need two references—one of which has to be from someone on another team. And I was hoping you’d be willing to do it, since we’ve worked together for a while.”
Adam stirred almond milk into his coffee without looking at her. “Can you ask someone else?”
“Oh.” Her heart clattered to the floor again and smashed to bits. “Um, sure. I guess.”
If she’d had a time machine, she wouldn’t use it to kill baby Hitler, she’d travel back five minutes and jam a plastic spork into her eye, so she wouldn’t humiliate herself by asking Adam for a fucking reference. And then she’d kill baby Hitler.
“It’s just that I’d rather not,” Adam said, still not looking at her.
So, that was that. That was her answer. He wasn’t willing to write her a reference.
“Can I ask why?” She knew it was a mistake, but the question slipped out before she could stop it. She had to know. It was possible it had nothing to do with her. Maybe he just hated writing references. Or maybe he’d already promised one to somebody else.
He put the almond milk back in the fridge and picked up his coffee cup, regarding her silently as he lifted it to his lips. “Look, I’m sorry,” he said finally. “But I just can’t see you as a manager.”
He might as well have slapped her across the face. Olivia’s cheeks stung with pins and needles as if they’d been struck.
She wanted to argue. She knew she ought to speak up and defend herself, but she couldn’t formulate any kind of retort. “Okay, well, thanks anyway,” she forced out in a voice so small and high it was practically a whistle.
Adam gave her a jerky nod and walked out of the kitchen without another word.
On the bright side, she was no longer distracted by his hot bod.
He wasn’t the least bit attractive to her anymore. He was a cockwaffle. An arrogant, hostile fecalwad who had apparently never liked her and thought she was bad at her job.
Her. The person who had sat with the users and calmed them all down when they’d had that big outage last year. And who’d solved that problem in the trading system a few months ago that no one else had been able to figure out.
How dare he? She was fucking awesome at her job.
Well, screw him. She didn’t need his stupid reference. Plenty of people around here liked her. Because she was nice, and she’d gone out of her way to make allies. She’d have no trouble getting a reference from any number of other people.
Adam Cortinas could shove his reference and his attitude straight up his Grade A Prime ass.