Sacrifice and Seduction: Not A Friends to Lovers Romance
“He’s single, you know.”
“Huh?” Karen dragged her gaze away from the sexiest man she’d ever had the pleasure to lay eyes on and turned to face her friend. “Did you say something?”
Claire Morse—now Claire Hardcastle—didn’t quite roll her eyes. “I said, he’s single,” she repeated, then nodded in the direction of the man in question. The man standing on the other side of the Italian restaurant, watching the wedding reception with an intense sweeping gaze that made him look more like Luke Hardcastle’s bodyguard than his chauffeur.
“Edward? Luke’s best man?” Claire continued. “You haven’t taken your eyes off him all afternoon.”
“Your point?” Karen said with a shrug, hoping she looked more casual than she felt.
“Go and talk to him. Ask him to dance.”
Karen laughed nervously and shook her head, her long blonde hair fanning around her shoulders as she did. “Yeah, I don’t think so.”
Claire’s gaze softened. “I know you’re still dealing with what happened in November, but it’s not like you to be shy. What’s going on?”
“Nothing,” Karen said, throwing her hands up in a gesture of surrender. “I swear.”
But Claire wasn’t having any of it. “Spill,” her friend demanded.
Biting her lip to silence herself would only work for so long, and over the last year Claire had morphed from her quiet, reserved boss into her dearest friend who brooked no refusal. She wasn’t going to let this go and her pointed stare proved that.
Letting out a sigh, Karen caved. “Fine. November aside, Edward is….” How the hell did she explain this to someone like Claire, someone who’d hit the jackpot on the first go? Someone who’d grown up on the same side of the tracks as her squillionaire husband? “Well, he’s… ah, not the type of guy who’d ever date a girl like me. Not seriously anyway. And usually—previously,” she corrected, “I would’ve been fine with that, but, you know,” she half groaned, half pleaded, “it’s Edward.”
Sexy, funny, cool-as-fuck, Edward. A casual fling with a man like him would only end one way: a broken heart. And Karen didn’t do casual anymore.
Not going there.
“What do you mean?” her friend asked, her brow scrunched. And that right there was one of the things she’d loved most about Claire. And simultaneously hated. The woman had grown up in a bubble—an emotionally and often physically abusive bubble, to be sure, but a bubble nonetheless—and she was still learning how the world worked. Yep. Naïve was Claire’s middle name. Most of the time it was adorable. Most of the time it wasn’t directed at Karen. “I see you two flirting all the time.” She lowered her voice and leaned closer. “Even since November.”
Karen cast her a sideways glance and chewed on her lip. “But that’s all it is. Flirting. Little quips here and there when he and Luke drop you off and pick you up from work, a wink and a smile and a how-you-doin’?” she said. “He’s never there for very long so we don’t talk about anything real. Not really real, you know? Flirting doesn’t mean anything.”
Claire’s gaze turned shrewd. The woman might be naïve, but she was also highly observant. “Except it does, doesn’t it? It means something to you.”
Karen slumped back in her chair and picked at the pale pink sequins on her dress. “But not to him.”
And that was the sore point.
“You don’t know that,” Claire said. “And what do you mean he’s not the type of guy to date someone like you? You have so much in common.”
“Like what?” Karen said with a snort.
“Off the top of my head? Books, music, cars….” Claire counted off on her fingers.
“Just because he’s a chauffeur, doesn’t mean he’s into cars,” Karen said. When Claire opened her mouth to interrupt, she cut her off and added, “Besides, I’m not that into cars.”
That time her friend did roll her eyes. “Oh, please. You practically lick the window every time a vintage…”—she waved her hand as she sought the right word—“whatever drives past the shop. Besides, you’re brilliant. Why wouldn’t he want to go out with you?”
Karen bit her lip to hide her pleased smile. “You’re my best friend, you’re supposed to think that.”
“I am your best friend which means I’m supposed to kick your arse when you’re being silly. Like right now. I mean, imagine the possibilities if you had an actual conversation with the man instead of just flirting.”
“You make it sound so easy.”
“It is easy.”
“Says the bride on her wedding day.”
“Hey, it wasn’t all roses and kittens with me and Luke, remember? I admit, I fantasised about him naked on a regular basis—still do, in fact—but I also fantasised about pushing him in front of a bus on more than one occasion.”
Karen smirked. “Your point?”
“My point is that it was only after we started talking to each other, instead of making assumptions, that we started to connect on a meaningful level. And I think if you tried talking to Teddy—”
“Teddy?” Karen asked, one eyebrow winging up.
“It’s what his friends call him, which you would know if you talked to him. And do you know a really good place to talk at a wedding?”
Lips pursed in a moue of resignation, Karen said, “I’m sure you’re about to tell me.”
“On the dance floor.” Claire gave her a nudge. “Go on. Ask him to dance before… oooh, too late. Serena beat you to it.”
“What?” Karen sat up straight and spun her head in Edward’s direction so fast it was a minor miracle she didn’t give herself whiplash. Then she gritted her teeth and forced down a growl as she watched the barely legal daughter of their friend and restauranteur, Angie Campioni, sidle up to Edward and bat her thick, luxurious eyelashes at him. “That little—” She let her growl loose. “Well, I’m not going over there now.”
Claire snickered. “Oh, come on. It’s not his fault he’s sexy as fuck.”
“Who’s sexy as fuck?” Claire’s husband, Luke Hardcastle, sat down beside them and kissed his wife’s cheek.
“You are, my love,” her friend replied instantly, the broad smile decorating her face doing little to disguise the look of “oh, shit” in her wide eyes.
“Nice save.” Luke chuckled, then cupped his hand behind Claire’s head and pulled her in for a deep and languid kiss.
Karen almost sighed out loud as she watched them. Claire and Luke’s road to happily-ever-after had been a bumpy one, what with Claire’s aunty trying to destroy Luke, and Luke blackmailing Claire, but everything had turned out all right in the end. As evidenced by the fact they’d said “I do” that afternoon in an intimate ceremony in the Botanical Gardens and were flying out that night for a month-long honeymoon, touring the south of France and the Mediterranean.
When Luke pulled back from the kiss, Karen smirked at the doe-eyed look on Claire’s face. Her friend was the very definition of head-over-heels in love, but as happy as she was for the couple, she couldn’t help the tiny pang of jealousy that stabbed at her heart.
No one had ever looked at Karen like that, like their world began and ended with her. Sometimes she wondered if anyone ever would.
Oh sure, plenty of men looked at her, in a creepy leering sort of way. Many of them were quite vocal about it too, even more so when she failed to show them the gratitude they felt they deserved for pointing out how fuckable she was. Because God forbid she should walk down the street, minding her own business and not have some total wanker call her a bitch, or a slut, or the insult to end all insults, a “fucking Karen”.
“Did you ask her yet?”
Luke’s deep voice dragged Karen back from her irritable thoughts and she suddenly found herself the centre of attention as both newlyweds turned to stare at her.
“Ask me what?” she asked slowly, a tingle of caution shooting up her spine.
Claire shared a secretive look with her husband before returning her gaze to Karen. Biting her lip to contain her smile did nothing to lessen the excitement shining in the steel-blue of her eyes. “I wanted to talk to you about Novelteas.”
“Oh my God.” Karen let her head fall back as she groaned the words. “It’s your wedding day, Claire! Can we not talk shop on your wedding day? You know I’m more than capable of running the bookstore for the whole freaking month you’ll be away.”
Geez. Have a little faith.
Her friend grinned. “I know you’re more than capable, that’s what I wanted to talk to you about.”
Karen had to admit, the look of barely restrained glee on Claire’s face had her intrigued. “Okay, I’m listening.”
“When the month is up, how would you feel about staying on as store manager full time?”
Karen blinked slowly. “But… you’re the manager.”
“But what if I wasn’t?”
The question sat in the air between them as Karen pondered Claire’s meaning. Was she really suggesting what she thought she was suggesting? No way was Claire just handing over control of her pride and joy for no reason.
Sliding her gaze from Claire to Luke and back again, Karen’s brow pulled down in confusion. “What am I missing?”
Leaning closer as though she were about to impart some grand secret, her friend whispered, “I’m pregnant.”
Karen’s jaw dropped and she blinked hard. “I’m sorry, what?”
“I’m pregnant,” Claire said again, her smile serene, “and I was thinking about what that means to me, about what I want for my kids and how I don’t want them raised the way I was, like they’re an obstacle or a burden.” She took a deep breath. “When the baby comes, I intend to take a full year off work, which means I need someone I trust to look after the business, and there’s no one a I trust to run Novelteas more than you, Karen.”
Karen sat back in her chair and stared at her friend for what felt like a full five minutes before her power of speech returned. The fact she only blinked twice during all that time meant it was probably closer to five seconds, but she was so utterly stunned and flattered and completely freaked out by Claire’s offer that time had ceased to exist.
“Wow, I don’t know what to say.” Which was highly unusual because Karen was rarely at a loss for words.
Novelteas, the independent bookstore and tearoom Claire had opened less than a year ago, was fast becoming one of the hottest spots in town, and Karen had been right there with her from day one. She had as much pride in their store as Claire did, and instinct told her to yell “Yes!” and just figure it out later. But a tiny kernel of doubt began to sprout near the back of her mind.
Should she do it? Could she do it? She was a kick-arse assistant manager and knew without reservation she could run the store for one month and hand it back to Claire in tip-top shape.
Absolutely 100 percent certain.
But taking over indefinitely was an entirely different matter. It involved a lot more responsibility and a lot less goofing around. Even now on days when she was left in charge of the store, she had idiots flick dismissive glances over her before asking to speak to her manager, only to look at her with total dismay when she informed them she was the fucking manager.
Okay, so she never said the “fucking” part out loud, but she’d been sorely tempted. Did she really want to deal with that sort of bullshit all day, every day?
Obviously taking too long to offer up an answer, Luke said, “Think of these next few weeks as your trial period.” His rich voice pulled her back to the conversation and calmed a little of her inner turmoil. “And Claire will still be working part-time in the shop as you transition over.”
“That’s right.” Claire nodded eagerly. “I won’t dump you in the deep end.” She rested her hand over her belly, making Karen wonder just how far along her friend was. Claire was a big woman to begin with, tall and curvy, so she could be several months along before anyone noticed. “We’ll make sure you’ve got everything you need to succeed before I take maternity leave. And even then, I’m only a phone call away if you get desperate,” she added with a wink, knowing Karen would rather die before admitting defeat. “But seriously, I know it’s a big change. I know I’m asking a lot. But you’ll get all the same benefits as before, you’ll keep any leave you’ve already accrued, and of course, you’ll get a pay raise.” Claire grasped Karen’s hands. “Say you’ll think about it?”
Wrenching one hand free, Karen reached for her champagne, then gulped down the crisp, bubbly liquid, draining the glass completely and giving herself a moment to fashion a proper response. She’d be lying if she said she hadn’t thought about running the shop. Tweaking a few procedures here and there. And a bigger pay packet was nothing to sneeze at, plus better hours. She had more than a few ideas for the tearoom too….
Was there really a downside to this?
And… fuck it. Karen wanted the job. She worked hard, she was good at what she did, and maybe it was the champagne talking, but she deserved that promotion.
Slowly lowering the glass to the table, she nodded once. “Okay,” she said, then swallowed hard.
“Okay, you’ll think about it…?” Claire asked cautiously.
“No,” Karen said. “Okay, I’ll do it.”
Claire clutched her chest and breathed out a sigh of what Karen assumed was relief. “Oh, thank God, because I already had this made for you.”
“Had what made?”
Claire slid a tiny parcel wrapped in pink tissue paper towards her. “This.”
A grin tugged at Karen’s lips and a laugh bubbled up her throat. She grabbed the parcel off the table, the size and shape giving away the contents of the present before she’d even unwrapped it. And as she peeled back the tissue paper to reveal her new name badge, her laughter exploded out of her. For almost a year the words Assistant Book Nerd had sat beneath her name. But no longer.
From now on, Karen Walker would be known to all as, Da Boss.