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The Wrong Girl - Chapter 4, Part 2

By the time I returned to the office, I had my plan well in place. I’d be cool, calm, and proficient going about my day, and let Jake see how well I could run things my way, with zero need for his leadership tips.

Having a plan didn’t chase the butterflies from my stomach at the thought of spending so much time with him, but I’d just have to suck it up and get over it. Exposure therapy or something like that. It was a thing, right?

And of course, my extra stop at the restroom in the lobby had nothing to do with Jake. I just had a sudden, totally rational fear I had ketchup smeared on my cheek from that massive burger. Definitely didn’t want to walk around, as Assistant CEO, with ketchup on my face.

I greeted Larissa when I left the elevator on the top floor and tried to ignore my rapidly elevating heart rate as I made my way down the hall to my office. My dad’s door was open, and I could hear him laughing, then Jake responding with a chuckle and a comment.

Pulse pounding, I set my bag in my office, fluffed my hair, and strode into my father’s office with all the appearance of absolute confidence.

Fake it ’til you make it was definitely my motto.

“Hi Dad, Jake. Did you guys have a good lunch?” I greeted them with a warm smile and friendly tone.

My dad beamed in response, but I didn’t miss Jake’s surprised jump when I spoke. He covered well and turned around to smile as well.

“Yeah, your dad took me to the Peak 9 restaurant today. I think I’m going to have to start packing my lunches if I want to be in shape for ski season,” he joked, and Dad chuckled appreciatively.

“A young buck like you? You’ll be fine. You must work out pretty regularly.”

Fine is right. My brain abandoned all reason and began this completely inappropriate commentary. My eyes roved over his wide shoulders, the fabric of his dress shirt clinging to the hard bulges of muscles. I could practically feel the ghost of his skin under my fingertips, and my thighs clenched involuntarily.

“Well, I normally work out, but I have yet to find a gym since we arrived. If you have any recommendations, I’m open to them.”

“You’re welcome to use the resort facilities for now, if you like,” Dad offered graciously.

“They’re pretty quiet, even during winter, but completely dead the rest of the year. I’ll have Larissa get you a key card.”

“That sounds great. I’ll take you up on that. At least for a couple of weeks while I get the lay of the land.”

“Then it’s settled. We’ll go to Season’s for lunch tomorrow. It’s over on Peak 3.”

Jake’s head tipped back, and he laughed, a rich sound that sent tingles down my legs. “You win, no sack lunch tomorrow.”

“I always win,” Dad replied with a mischievous grin.

Time for me to interject. “I hate to break this up, but I’m about to go do my rounds and I thought Jake ought to tag along. You ready?”

He popped out of his seat immediately. “Sure thing. Let me grab my coat.”

I stepped aside so he could pass to his office, and a waft of his cologne struck me by surprise, sending my eyelids fluttering as I breathed in deeply. That scent…
“Izzy, you okay?”

Shit, I have got to get myself under control. “Ellie, Dad, and I’m fine.”

“I don’t know when you decided you didn’t like Izzy,” he grumbled. “I’m an old man. Some habits are hard to break, you know. I’ve been calling you Izzy since you were born.”

“Dad, you’re not that old, and I’ve gone by Ellie for like twenty years. You’re the only one that calls me Izzy, and I’ve asked you not to since I was a teenager.”

“Exactly, it’s special. Why can’t you just let me have this one?”

“Bye, Dad,” I replied with a sigh. “I’ll see you later.”

“Okay, bye Honey. Oh, and Izzy!” He shouted when I started to walk away.

Cringing, I turned. “Yes, Dad?”

“Take it easy on him, will you? It’s his first day.”

I bit back the sarcastic response that rose to my lips, suggesting that such a great military leader ought to be prepared for anything. Instead, I just smiled and replied, “Sure, Dad.”

Jake was waiting for me by the door to my office, suit jacket already buttoned up.
Saliva pooled in my mouth, and my tongue froze in place. The man was too damned handsome. It just wasn’t fair.

I unglued my tongue and said, “Why don’t you step into my office for a minute?”

Jake’s dark eyes reflected confusion, but nothing else in his expression gave him away. He stepped aside and allowed me to enter, then followed me in.

“Close the door, please.” He dutifully followed the instruction.

“Take a seat.” I gestured between the seat in front of my desk and my cozy corner nook, then claimed the chair behind my desk.

Jake’s gaze followed, then returned to me with a slight curl to his lip. “In the jungle? Is that the time out jungle?”

A snort of laughter escaped me. “It’s just a chair. I wanted it to feel like an escape when I needed one.” My eyes roved over the tall plants on either side of the over-sized chair that almost created a screen from the rest of the room. “Maybe it is a bit much,” I admitted.
Jake sat on the edge of the chair with a serious expression, then leaned back so some of the foliage was now in front of his face. “I feel like I’m on ‘Between Two Ferns’. Do I look like Zach Galifianakis?”

That drew a burst of laughter from my lips. “Okay, enough jokes about my décor, old man. We need to talk.”

“Yeah,” he sighed. “We do. Obviously, if I had known who you were Friday-”

“Exactly, if I’d known who you were…” I agreed.

“…nothing would have happened,” Jake finished.


“Because it’s awkward as fuck now, isn’t it?” His dark eyes held my gaze, his posture slightly slouched in defeat.

“Well, I dunno about awkward, but it definitely sucks.”


“It’s too bad. I was looking forward to your cat-and-mouse texting game. I heard you were a champ.”

“Whoever told you that was lying,” he replied with a grin. “I have no game. At all.”

“I’m not sure I agree with you,” I answered with a smile of my own. “I’d say your game was pretty strong Friday.”

“I think you just liked the mystery.” His grin widened, and he leaned further behind the plant.

“Does this do it for you? Should I carry around a giant plant to be more mysterious?”

Laughter bubbled up in my chest. He was just so disarming it was impossible not to like him.

“No, you’d better not. Now we both know who each other is, and what my dad has planned, we obviously can’t be dating, or doing anything else.”

Jake straightened up immediately. “Yes, of course.” His voice took on a completely different tone, a serious, taking-orders-in-the-military sort of tone.

I already missed the warmth of his teasing.

“That doesn’t mean we can’t be friendly, but we have to keep it strictly business from here on out.” Surprisingly, I managed to say that with a completely straight face. My brain kept pulling up delicious flashes of stripping that suit from his body and mounting him on that chair.

“Agreed. Strictly business. I certainly don’t want anyone to think I slept my way to the top.” 

He said it with such conviction that I paused for a second, wondering if he was being sarcastic or not. When the corner of his lips twitched, I allowed myself to smile.
“Yeah, we’d better maintain your Captain America image. Don’t want the boss’s rebellious daughter to taint you.”

“What if I want to be tainted?” His half-smile deepened.


“Okay, sorry, I promise I’ll stop.”

“We have to. There is no intra-office romance allowed. Period. It wouldn’t help either of us.”


“So, we’re good?”

“We’re good,” he answered in that all-business voice again.

“Okay.” I stood. “Let’s head out.”

Jake rose from his seat and followed me into the hallway. “Where are we going?” 

“On my rounds,” I answered vaguely, leading him to the elevator.

“And what exactly do you do on your rounds?” That sounded like less of a curiosity question, and more of an evaluative one.

“I try to spend most of my afternoons visiting different facilities in the portfolio, checking in on the employees, chatting with the managers.”

“I see,” he answered seriously. “And what do you do on these visits? What is their purpose?”

Something about the question made me feel as if he were implying they had no purpose.
It was distracting how he switched from charming to all-business so quickly. Annoyance rose quickly in my chest—clearly we were already past the flirtation and straight into business—but I answered as genuinely as I could. “There are a few. Mostly, to make sure people know me, and I know them. I want them to feel like even though we’ve become a huge resort, their needs are not below my attention. I want to know that they’re happy, or find out if there’s something I can change to make their job better. I know this business inside and out. I know every job that every employee in lodging performs. So if they have an idea to make it better, I want to hear that too.”
Jake listened with rapt attention, smiling widely at the end of my little speech. “That’s definitely admirable. Have you had any employees that gave you valuable suggestions during your ‘rounds’?”

“Well… not exactly. I think it’s more about showing them I’m present, and that I care. Every job here is important, and every employee deserves to be recognized.” My tone verged on defensive and I struggled to rein it in.

“No, absolutely, I agree with you one-hundred percent,” Jake nodded. “For some reason, the population believes that everyone in the Air Force is a pilot. It’s definitely the most flashy job, and most wing commanders are former pilots—it’s just the nature of the force. We all revolve around the aircraft. But there are thousands of jobs that, while not glamorous, are essential to the mission. The runways have to be paved, for example. Pilots—not to mention everyone else—need to eat. We need properly functioning electricity and plumbing in base facilities. Each base has thousands of jobs, and only a handful of those are pilots. They don’t get the media attention, but it’s a huge policy in the military to recognize superior performers at every level, not just the top.”

My chest warmed—maybe it wouldn’t be as difficult as I thought to win him over to my side.

“Yes, exactly! This resort is enormous. It started as a single ski hill, just one peak, and a tiny hotel. My grandparents, along with the Blackwells, slowly built it up. They added hotels, more runs, condos, restaurants, and when their kids took over, they expanded even more. We have stables, an events venue-” my words froze on my lips and heat rushed to my face immediately. I wet my lips and continued shakily, “Which, of course, you know. All I mean to say is, this business has grown so large it’s important that we keep ourselves from forgetting all the people at the bottom who make it happen.”

“No, you’re absolutely right. So, where are we headed first?”

We began in the main lodge. I greeted the front desk employees and introduced them to Jake, pleased to show off that I knew them all by name. We continued down the hall to the service elevator, riding down to the garage level and chatting with a few of the maintenance employees before heading back up to the laundry.

Pride swelled in my chest as we continued. I knew every name, and each employee happily greeted Jake, assuring him Aspen Ridge was a great place to work and how well they were treated. He asked them a few questions about their job, or the company as a whole, or their families, genuinely interested in their stories.

When we finished with the main lodge, we crossed to the Birch Run condos, and repeated the process. Even though he didn’t carry a notepad, I had the distinct impression Jake was filing all the information he received away for later. I couldn’t have been happier there was nothing negative for him to note.

As usual, all we encountered were happy, satisfied Aspen Ridge employees, going about their day and performing their jobs admirably. By the time we made it back to the offices, I was pretty pleased with the results of our tour. Surely, he could only agree that my techniques of maintaining first-name relationships with the employees were beneficial to the business.

When we got off the elevator, he followed me straight to my office, settling into the corner seat when I sat behind my desk.

“Well, it certainly seems like you have a very happy group of employees,” he complimented with a wide smile.

I tried to ignore the sparkle in his brown eyes when he said it. Damned Captain America charm.

Heat rushed to my neck just thinking about the way those eyes devoured me on Friday night.
“Thank you. It’s definitely one of my priorities.”

“And what are the others?”

“I’m sorry?”

“What are your other priorities?”

“Oh,” that took me by surprise. “I mean, whatever my father needs me to do, obviously, to help run things.”

“I see. So what are you vice president of, exactly?”

“I’m not a VP, per se. Not in the way the other VPs are, like hospitality, lodging, food service. Technically, my position is Assistant CEO.”

His head tilted back. “Ah, I see. So you’re your father’s assistant.”

Indignation rose in my chest, straightening my back. “No, I’m not his assistant. He has an executive assistant. I’m more like his understudy—he didn’t want to take a job away from one of our VPs to give it to me, so he created a comparable position that would allow me to see the top-down view of how the business is run.”

“No, that makes sense. You can’t take over as CEO if you haven’t seen how the job works. So, how long have you been in this position?”

“Three years,” I answered, chin high. “I have made employee satisfaction my top priority for the last two years and it’s had a dramatic effect on our retention rates of hourly employees.”

“That’s really impressive,” he smiled indulgently. “I’m sure it’s gratifying to see that your policies have a direct effect on your employees’ lives. So what did you do before this position?”

“I was mid-level manager for a year, working directly for the VP of Lodging. Before that I managed the hotel downstairs for two years, directly after I finished my MBA. Summers during college I managed the housekeeping team, and while I was in highschool, I worked the reception desk downstairs.”

“Even more impressive,” he complimented. “Not a lot of kids would take a low-level job when their parents own the company.”

“Oh, my dad insisted on it. He said that if we wanted to be the boss some day, we had to start from the bottom like everyone else.”

Jake’s head tilted slightly at that statement, and I rushed to explain. “I mean, I know it wasn’t exactly like everyone else, but I had to do the same high school job as most of my friends. So I wasn’t scrubbing toilets, but I learned firsthand how to deal with rude customers and what the rest of the staff hated about their jobs. I’ve taken those lessons with me as I’ve gone up the ranks.”

“It certainly seems like you have a good understanding of all those positions. So, what do you know about your father’s job?”

A snort pushed from my lips. “You mean besides long lunches and golf with the VPs?”

Jake’s eyebrows lowered, his expression immediately becoming serious. “Yeah, what does he do when he’s working in his office? What are his primary concerns? What are the things only the CEO manages?”

“Honestly, I think the VPs do most of the work. They bring my dad things to sign off on. They present their quarterly budgets and costs, profits, needs, and anything that he can’t decide on himself he takes to the board. Other than that, it’s meetings… I think more of his days are spent on duties related to his position as board chair than they are on things relating to being the CEO of Aspen Ridge Lodging.”

“So, how would you change that?”

That took me by surprise. “Come again?”

“When you take over as CEO, and your father steps back to merely serving as the chair of the board? You said his days are filled with board duties. So what would you do differently, as CEO, than your father does now?”

Pleasure swelled in my chest, and I settled further into my seat. He was definitely interested in my approach, already talking about the changes I’d make when Dad retired. “Frankly, I don’t think my days will differ greatly from what they are now. I’d have reports to look over, things to coordinate for the VPs to make sure they have what they need to run their portions of the business. In the afternoons, I’ll continue my rounds. I might have occasional meetings that take me away, but I don’t see why I can’t mostly stick to how things are now.”

“So your father told me I’m as likely to find you outside working with the landscaping crew as I am to find you in your office. Would you consider that an exaggeration? Are your rounds pretty much what we did today?”

A worm of unease wriggled in my belly. “Well, I have pitched in and helped if I saw someone who needed it.”

“Like how? Give me an example.”

Suddenly, it felt like an inquisition again. I spent the entire day Friday decorating and helping prepare food for the employee party, but I certainly didn’t want to bring that up. It would renew the awkwardness as I forced him to remember getting drunk and making out. “One time we had a long-time client wanting to check in early, and the housekeeping staff was short-handed, so I stepped in to help get the rooms ready.”

“Okay. And did the staff appreciate the help?”

“Absolutely. They thanked me a lot. I mean, they kept insisting they didn’t need the help, but I don’t want anyone to feel overwhelmed and I was there. It was no problem.”

Jake’s expression turned thoughtful. “Did you consider they might not think it was helpful?”
“What? Why not?”

“Well, they could have interpreted you jumping in to help as a sign that you don’t think them capable of doing their jobs. Or they could have seen it as posturing: either you showing that they’re replaceable, or that you simply wanted to ‘step down to their level’ in a condescending way. Did you think about them possibly taking it that way?”

Heat flooded my cheeks. “Of course not, because that isn’t what happened. They were short two team members, and I just wanted to help them out. They knew that. There was no underlying intent aside from helping.”

Jake nodded, raised his hands defensively. “Okay, I’m just asking. You should always remember that intent and interpretation aren’t always the same. You can intend to be helpful—like that shoe company who gives a free pair of shoes to a kid in Africa for every pair sold. They obviously had altruistic intent. However, what happened was they put a lot of local shoemakers out of business, and the people who needed that income didn’t feel as gratified by the reality.”
The indignation broke like a wave over me, this criticism all the more frustrating coming from the lips I kept wanting to kiss. “You’re being ridiculous. I helped to make a few beds so our staff could get home on time. That’s it.”

“Fair enough,” he replied mildly. “Speaking of getting home to our families, it’s about time for me to head out and pick up my kids.”

A wave of shock rippled through me. “You have kids?”

“Yep, two. Olivia is nine and Ethan is seven.”

“Wow, I didn’t realize….” I trailed off, not really sure where to go from there. We hadn’t exactly had the type of conversation that led to a discussion about kids and wives.

My eyes darted to his hand, but there was still no ring.

“Yeah,” he chuckled awkwardly. “Not really something that comes up when I first meet someone. But they’re why I got out of the Air Force. I was missing too much.”

“That makes sense,” I nodded, rubbing my sweaty palms on my skirt. “By all means, if you need to go…”

“Great. I’ll see you tomorrow, Ellie.” He stood and turned, pausing at the door for just a second before continuing.

I wondered if he was going to say something, then changed his mind. There was a charge on the air, a moment, and then he thought better of it and was gone.

A waft of his cologne trailed behind him, and I sighed, dropping my head to my hands.

Despite our agreement to keep our relationship strictly business, I had no idea how to pack up and tuck away my desire for Jake.

Stuffed shirt and all.

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