Working It (A Ringside Romance story)

Working It by Christine d'Abo
eBook ISBN: 
978-1-62649-521-0
eBook release: 
Feb 6, 2017
eBook Formats: 
pdf, mobi, html, epub
Print ISBN: 
978-1-62649-522-7
Print release: 
Feb 6, 2017
Word count: 
64,700
Page count: 
251
Type: 
Cover by: 

This title is part of the Ringside Romance universe.

Ebook $4.99
Print $17.99   $14.39 (20% off!)
Print and Ebook $22.98   $16.09 (30% off!)

Nolan Carmichael is getting a fresh start—new career, new company, new life. The only problem is, he liked his old life just fine . . . until an accident robbed him of his health, his job, his self-confidence, and his ability to go out in public without having anxiety attacks.

Zack Anderson has scared away his last four executive assistants. So when he hires Nolan on a whim, he’s not too worried, since Nolan will be gone within the week anyway. Two weeks later, Nolan has made himself indispensable, completely reforming Zack’s schedule, life . . . and libido.

But in a company already torn by internal politics, one wrong step could ruin both their careers. And not only are they working to reopen Ringside Gym, Zack’s retreat when he was a troubled teen, but they also can’t help themselves falling for each other. If only the rest of their lives could go as smoothly as things do when they’re alone together.

This title comes with no special warnings.

Caution: The following details may be considered spoilerish.

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Chapter One

Nolan hated mirrors. They were an unfortunate necessity for his morning routine—shaving, tying his tie, doing what he needed to fix his hair—but it was still strange to see himself, even after nearly two years of adjusting to the changes.

His sister, Tina, said nothing was different about him, he was the same old Nolan. She was sweet to say so, but he knew the truth.

Come on, get your act together.

He gave himself a moment and went through his anxiety checklist, ensuring he’d be able to keep himself in one piece. He hated having to do that, almost as much as he hated mirrors. Still, his therapist had been right about so many other things, he’d come to accept she knew what she was doing. He closed his eyes and tried to focus on his emotions. Yeah, he was nervous, worried about what people would think of him. It was a job interview, and he was underqualified for the position; that would raise questions he didn’t want to answer. Only an idiot wouldn’t be worried. He was also angry his life had taken such a horrible turn that he was forced to be in this position in the first place.

Nothing new, then.

Opening his eyes, he looked directly at himself as he turned on the water and let it flow over his hands, grounding him in the here and now. He took a deep breath, held it for a three count before letting it go.

“The water is warm from when I shaved a few moments ago. The running water sounds relax me and make me think of a river. The mirror needs cleaning. I need to remind Tina that I want to get a small water feature for the living room. It will help settle my mind in the morning . . .” He shook his head and gently directed his thoughts back to the present, to what his five senses told him. “I can smell the shaving cream, and maybe the fabric softener on this shirt. I can taste the mint from my toothpaste.”

He held his hands there until his fingers started to prune. He took extra time to dry his hands, enjoying the feel and smell of the fresh towel. It hadn’t been hard to convince Tina to switch fabric softeners, especially since he was paying for it. There was something to be said for the finer things.

Okay, the tie looked good, mostly straight. He adjusted it again and debated changing it one more time. No, damn it, he’d already wasted the better part of ten minutes picking this one out. It was fine.

Hair? He’d been growing it out in front since the accident, but still wasn’t entirely used to it. A necessary evil. Knowing exactly what he would find, he lifted up the long fringe that covered the left side of his forehead. The scar had faded to a light pink, a jagged road running just below his hairline. It was the least horrific of his injuries, and yet he couldn’t help but hate it the most. Nolan had never considered himself a particularly vain man, but he despised how the scar on his face opened him up to questions and comments, as if everyone felt entitled to information about his body now that it was so visibly flawed.

Oh my God, what happened?

Did it hurt?

You’re lucky you didn’t lose an eye.

Do you have other scars?

Not the sort of conversation he wanted to have with his family and friends, let alone complete strangers who didn’t know the first thing about him.

The hair fell back into place, and he took another moment to ensure nothing looked off. If the people at Compass Technologies noticed, he’d have a polite response ready to go; he’d memorized quite a few. It helped with the stress and prevented his anxiety from overwhelming him.

In theory at least.

He hated interviews. Even before the accident, he’d sucked at them on a good day, and he had a feeling that today would be anything but good. Nerves and doubts were more his enemy than the other applicants. At least he assumed he was the only neurotic, panic-prone candidate they were meeting with this afternoon. His résumé spoke for itself, as did his references; none of that would matter, though, if he broke out into a full-blown anxiety attack the moment he walked into the office.

No, he wasn’t going to let that happen today. Not this time.

Yes, his life had been challenging over the past two years, but that didn’t mean he had to let what had happened control his future. He’d fought through physiotherapy, got his broken body working again, and that alone proved how strong he was. Didn’t it?

Damn straight it did.

Shaking his head, Nolan let out a breath and marched out of the tiny powder room. Ready or not, here I go.

“Let me see.”

So not ready . . .

Groaning, he turned and faced his big sister. “I do know how to dress myself. I’ve been doing it on my own for years now.”

Tina snorted before proceeding to loosen his tie. He ducked her attempts to run her fingers through his hair.

“Come here. You look like an uptight asshole.”

“I am an uptight asshole. Will you fuck off?” He stepped past her and did his best to avoid her grabbing hands. “I’m going to be late.”

“No, you’re not. You’re going to be a half hour early because you’re always early.”

“I won’t be if you don’t stop picking.”

“I’m just making sure you look your best. I want you out of here.”

As much as she bitched about him crashing at her apartment, he knew she didn’t mind. Well, maybe she did a little. Okay, probably more than a little. “I told you I can get my own place anytime. I have savings and am more than capable.”

“Not until you know if you have a job. I promised you could stay here until then, and I keep my promises.” She stepped in front of him as he finished slipping his dress shoes on. “Let me see.”

This would go far faster if he gave in to her prodding. Nolan straightened up and held his arms out slightly. “Fine. Have at me.”

The grin Tina gave him was positively satanic. Her fingers raked through his fringe and she brushed some lint from the back of his blazer. “You look good. Really good. Maybe you’ll find a hot guy to go with your new job.”

“Thank you. I don’t have the job yet, and I doubt they offer hot men as a signing bonus.”

Tina laughed. “That would be an interesting contract negotiation.”

His nerves gave way to a chuckle of his own. “Can you imagine? Now that would bring on a panic attack. Thankfully, that won’t happen. Can I go now?”

“Yes.” She pulled him into a hug, giving him an extra squeeze when he finally reciprocated. “Are you doing okay?”

He should have expected the question; his own poor attempt at a joke had given her the opening she was looking for. This was his first interview since his accident . . . and since the subsequent mental meltdown at work when he’d tried to go back to his previous job. He knew the possibility of an attack was weighing as heavily on her mind as it was with him. “I’m good. Took my pills, had a good sleep, and my leg doesn’t hurt at all. Only mildly freaked out right now.”

“On a scale of one to ten?”

“Four.”

She pulled back and gave him The Look.

“Okay, a six. But I don’t think it’ll get any worse. Believe it or not, I’m looking forward to trying this.”

It was weird how his emotions could be a chaotic mix of excitement and nerves while his body kept urging him to pee. Stupid body.

Tina stepped back, giving his hand one final squeeze before she let go. “You have my number. If there’s a problem, call me, and I’ll come get you.”

“I’m twenty-six, not a child.”

“Nolan, don’t be like that.”

He knew she was only trying to help. Tina and he were the closest in age, far younger than their three older brothers. Over the years they’d learned to look out for one another. Despite working full-time and with a busy volunteer schedule, Tina had spent a part of every day with him after the accident, helping him get back on his feet. Literally at first, then figuratively. Without her, Nolan knew his recovery would have taken a lot longer. She might be a pain in the ass, but she loved him. And he loved her more than anyone or anything in the world.

He lowered his chin and sighed. “Sorry. I guess I’m more nervous than I realized. I’ll call you if I have any problems.”

“Thank you. Or text me, and I’ll send you goofy gifs or something. Now, go knock ’em dead.”

“I think they frown upon that at job interviews.” He gave her a quick kiss to the cheek before making his escape. If he didn’t get on the road now, he would miss his ride, and then he really would be late.

His Uber driver was pleasant, on time, and more importantly a nontalker, making the drive to Toronto’s downtown core uneventful. It gave Nolan a few moments to mentally prepare. It had been a while since he’d interviewed for a position, let alone something that wasn’t in his field of expertise. His career history would inevitably lead to questions about why he wanted to change paths. That was something he would avoid going into detail about if at all possible.

Looking down, he caught himself rubbing at his thigh, and lifted his hand.

“Hey, we’re here.” His driver double-parked, not giving Nolan much time to get his things together before people started honking. Fortunately, his leg was cooperative today—painful, but not cramping.

“Thanks.” Nolan stepped out of the car, shut the door, and made his way to the busy sidewalk before he happened to glance up at the building he hoped would soon be his place of employment. He stopped cold. The familiar tightening in his chest began as his thigh throbbed. Shit, no, this couldn’t happen now. He could fall apart after the interview. Hell, he could puke in the washroom the moment it was done, but not a second sooner.

Get your ass moving!

His feet stayed planted.

Fuck.

Reaching into his pocket, he wrapped his fingers around his phone. Tina was only a text away if he needed her. Not that he would give in to the impulse.

Closing his eyes, he focused on the sounds around him, taking a moment to identify several individual elements before moving on to the smells. Exhaust, street meat, and something that smelled strangely of urine. Wonderful. But grounding. When he finally opened his eyes, the colors of the bustling downtown seemed momentarily sharper. Regardless of how he did this morning, the world would keep turning and he’d keep going.

He took a step toward the building. Then another. One foot in front of the other until he made his way through the front door and to the security desk.

Don’t forget to smile. Of course it was Tina’s voice in his head. The smile felt foreign on his face, and his lips trembled from the strain. It worked, though, helping him push through the panic to speak to the woman behind the counter. “Hello. I’m Nolan Carmichael, and I have an interview at ten with Compass Technologies.”

She barely looked at him as she went through her list. “Yup, there you are. Take this badge and go up to the fourteenth floor. Swipe it through the card reader first, then select the floor number. Make sure to return it here when you’re done.” She then smiled at him without making eye contact. “Good luck.”

That wasn’t the least bit reassuring. “Thanks.”

After a short battle with the security badge, the elevator doors closed and the carriage flew up. His stomach fell somewhere around his feet from the speed, only to come slamming back into place when it stopped. By the time he reached his destination and stepped off the elevator into a tastefully decorated front-office area, he was ready to go back home to bed. Why did existing have to be so hard some days?

“Welcome to Compass. How may I help you?” The gray-haired woman behind the reception desk smiled pleasantly enough. “Interview today?”

“Yes. Nolan Carmichael.”

She ticked his name off. “Wonderful. They’re running a bit late. Please have a seat with the others and I’ll let you know when they’re ready for you.”

“Thanks.”

The seating area she’d directed him to held eight other hopeful candidates. Most were women, but there was one other man, which helped relieve some of Nolan’s tension. He’d assumed there would be far fewer male executive assistants than female, so it was nice to know he wasn’t the only one in the applicant pool.

All he had to do now was wait.

No problem at all.

His nerves crept up on him as time crawled forward. One older woman was called in, then the other man. The wall clock’s second hand ticked steadily forward, and constantly drew his attention. Damn it, this was worse than he’d thought it would be. And to top things off, he now really did have to pee. He should do that. Nothing worse than squirming his way through an interview. Or worse, being so nervous that he pissed himself.

He got to his feet so quickly he drew the attention of the remaining interviewees. Shit. Ignoring them, he strode over to the receptionist. “Hi. I’m sorry. Do I have time to use the washroom?”

She peeked at her computer screen. “Yes. There’s one person ahead of you still. It’s down the hall and on your left.”

“Thank you.”

Thankfully, the bathroom was empty. Granite countertops lined the wall, and held a long trough-style sink. Nolan used the urinal and washed his hands, then took a moment to splash water on his face, close his eyes, and run through his breathing techniques. Get a handle on yourself. It’s just a job interview.

For a position he’d never held before. One that would make the interviewers ask why he was settling for a lower salary range, less room for advancement . . .

No, nothing to worry about at all.

Closing his eyes, he focused on his breathing and ignored the pain that was creeping up his thigh toward his hip. In and out. Nice and deep. Relax. He wasn’t in a full-blown anxiety attack yet, so he knew he still had a chance to get a grip. The fan in the bathroom hummed softly in the background, and he latched on to that. It wasn’t the same as running water, but it was better than turning his hands into prunes before walking into a social situation.

He counted backward from one hundred in his head; around sixty-three, he felt he could finally breathe normally again.

Okay, he could do this.

His leg still throbbed, no doubt from forcing himself to walk without his slight limp. Being slightly off-balance was probably the reason he caught sight of his profile in the mirror beside the sink. Nolan knew better than to look—he’d practically trained himself not to—but his eyes focused on to his image and refused to move away.

He’d lost so much weight in the past two years his suit hung on him, giving him the appearance of a kid who’d put on his dad’s coat. He could live with that. It was his face that still looked like an imposter’s.

The surgeons had done an amazing job with his reconstruction. No one who hadn’t spent day in and day out with him would even notice the slight change of his nose’s shape, or the way his left eyebrow didn’t quite curve the right way. But Nolan found his reflection eerie, so close to correct that it was somehow worse than if he’d appeared as an entirely different person. How could he be himself, know himself, and still not recognize the man in the mirror?

He ran a finger along the side of his jaw where the break had been and pressed against the cheek and into the hole that should have been filled by a tooth. That would be the first thing he’d get fixed the moment he had dental benefits.

Nolan startled as the door pushed open and a man strode past him. It was easy to let his eyes follow the newcomer, partially because he was all energy and motion, walking with a sense of purpose, but mostly because Nolan didn’t want to look any longer at the flawed restoration project he’d become. The lingering scent of the man’s cologne wrapped around Nolan, making him wonder if the guy’s face was as attractive as the back of his head.

Wait a minute. What the hell am I doing?

Nolan’s body froze, and he was helpless to do anything but watch the man in the mirror as he made his way from the urinals to the sink. Shit, shit, shit, look away. Close your eyes. Stop. Looking! Somehow he managed to tear his gaze away before the man finished and made his way to the opposite mirror to fix his tie. As long as Nolan didn’t bring any undue attention on himself, everything would be fine. The man moved, and Nolan was staring at him once more. God, he was far too good-looking.

Nolan had been lucky enough to come out to his friends and family early in life. While some of his brothers had teased him, they’d always accepted him for who he was. But Nolan wasn’t naïve enough to think that everyone was as accommodating of his sexuality, especially strangers going about their business in the men’s room. And if he went around ogling hot guys in the men’s room, people were likely to draw the obvious conclusion.

“Something I can help you with?”

It took Nolan’s brain a second to realize that the deep rumbling voice had come from the man beside him. “Pardon?”

“You were staring.” The man’s brown eyes locked onto his in the mirror as he finished washing his hands.

Damn. “Sorry.” Wonderful, nothing like being a lecherous ass at a job interview. “I’m here for an interview and apparently I’m a bit nervous.”

The man frowned, causing lines to crease his forehead and cheeks. “The secretary pool?”

“Executive assistant.” He hated the position being called secretary as much as he imagined the women did. “And yes.”

“That’s unusual. For a man.”

“Not really. Though I have to admit the competition from the ladies is steep, especially at a company of this caliber.”

The other man softly grunted. “You enjoy your job?”

To his surprise, Nolan found himself relaxing. “I don’t know. It will be my first time in the position if I manage to get hired.”

“We don’t normally hire inexperienced people.”

Nolan shrugged. “I’m not inexperienced. I’ve had a recent . . . career change and Compass seems to offer a compatible opportunity for my skill set.”

The stranger looked at him, and Nolan felt a blush begin to creep up his cheeks. The man wore his clearly expensive suit to perfection. His expertly cut brown hair was nearly the same shade of brown as his eyes. He was only a bit taller than Nolan’s six feet, but his broad shoulders and chest were far more expansive than Nolan’s.

For a fleeting moment, Nolan imagined what it would be like to be wrapped up in those arms and to kiss along that chiseled jaw. Swallowing hard, he tore his gaze away once more. “I better get back. I don’t want to be late.”

If the man acknowledged that, Nolan didn’t wait around to see. The air in the hallway felt a hundred degrees cooler the moment he stepped out. Shit, what the hell had just happened in there? He never let himself get that overwhelmed by another person. At least the throat-squeezing anxiety had lessened.

The receptionist caught his attention as he came close. “They’re ready for you, Mr. Carmichael.”

Oh thank God. At least he could get through this now and get home. He needed a bath, a beer, and a good book. “Thank you.”

The conference room was down a short corridor, and inside were three women. The tallest of the trio stood and held out her hand. “Hi there. I’m Nancy Holmes from HR. This is Janice Weinstein, the manager of our support team, and Nikki Jones, the team lead. Please have a seat.”

Nolan unbuttoned his jacket and sat opposite the group. “Thank you.”

Janice picked up his résumé from the top of the stack of papers. “Your work history is very impressive, Mr. Carmichael.”

“Please, call me Nolan. And thank you.”

“Though you don’t have any assistant experience.” The smile Janice gave him didn’t reach her eyes. Oh no, that wasn’t good. “First thing I want to do is let you know about our process. We’ll give you a moment to tell us about your work history, then we’ll ask you a series of behavior-based questions. There’s no right or wrong answer with those. We simply want to get a feel for who you are as a person and if you’ll be a good fit for our team.”

He hated behavioral questions. It always came down to whether his answers were less obnoxious than everyone else’s, and he knew he could be a smart-ass at times. “Excellent. I’m looking forward to it.”

Janice glanced at her colleagues and nodded. “Please tell us a bit about your work history and why you’re making the change from corporate trainer to administrative support.”

He opened his mouth to speak, when a loud knock on the door cut him off. Nancy cringed as she stood. “Sorry. One second.”

Nolan wasn’t certain who was more surprised, him or the trio of women, when the handsome man from the bathroom walked into the room.

“Mr. Anderson.” Nancy took a step back. “We were just conducting an interview. Is there something I can help you with?”

Mr. Anderson walked passed Nancy and over to the table where they were sitting. Without looking at anyone, he took Nolan’s résumé from Janice’s grasp and read through it. While the women were silently shouting thoughts at one another about what the hell was happening—and really, they needed to work on their body language—Nolan flicked his gaze between Mr. Anderson and the door. Because there was no logical reason for this guy to burst into the interview unless he was about to call security and have Nolan removed for creepy bathroom behavior.

That might have been farfetched, but Nolan’s anxiety discarded any more innocuous explanation. His mind settled on the worst-case scenario and told him he’d been discounted before he’d even had the chance to make a bid for the position.

Shit.

After an eternity, Mr. Anderson set the résumé down and turned his laser stare on Nolan.

“Are you single?”

“Mr. Anderson, you can’t ask that—”

“Yes, I am.” Assuming the interview was over and Mr. Anderson was just asking random questions to stall for time to let security arrive, Nolan got to his feet and buttoned his jacket, ready to go along peaceably. To his surprise, Anderson’s queries turned more direct.

“Do you have any issues working long hours? Coming in on a moment’s notice? Redoing reports more than once if they don’t meet my requirements? Dealing with people I can’t be bothered to talk to?”

Nancy coughed. “Sir, are you looking for a secretary?”

“Executive assistant,” Mr. Anderson answered without looking away from Nolan.

He felt his face heat, but he refused to break eye contact. “No, I don’t have issues with any of that. Though if you need me to do a report more than twice, I would want your expectations clarified so I could make sure it wouldn’t happen again. I might not have a lot of experience as an assistant, but I was always good with paperwork in my previous job and I’m a fast learner. If I don’t know how to do something, I figure it out and master it.”

Mr. Anderson hit the side of his thigh with his open palm. “Your evaluation period is three months. I can fire you for any reason in that time.”

What? “I understand.” Liar! You don’t have a clue what’s going on here. It finally dawned on Nolan that he was not, in fact, about to be thrown out on his ear.

“Monday morning, 7 a.m. I expect you at my office.” Mr. Anderson tossed a glare at Nancy. “See that the paperwork is done.” As quickly as he arrived, Mr. Anderson was gone.

Nolan looked at the women, who were staring at him, shocked. He cleared his throat. “I know I was here, because my feet haven’t moved, but would one of you mind telling me what just happened?”

“That was Mr. Zachary Anderson.” Nancy spoke with a mix of awe and something that could have been mistaken for lust.

“I got that. But who is he?”

Janice rolled her eyes. “You’ve applied for a job at Compass and you don’t know who the senior management team is?”

“Well the CEO is Samantha Rollins, but I wasn’t familiar with the others. I wasn’t expecting to be railroaded in an interview.”

Nancy made a clicking noise. “Yeah, he does that. Mr. Anderson is the CTO. He’s in charge of all technology decisions at Compass. He’s basically the third most powerful man in the company, and the most difficult of all our executives to work with. We’d given up trying to find him an assistant after the last four either quit or he fired them.”

Nolan’s knees got a bit weak. “Oh.”

“And he’s your new boss.” She held out her hand. “Welcome to Compass, Nolan. God help you.”

 

Chapter Two

Zack ignored the stares of the employees in the lobby as he strode through toward the exit. He needed to get out of the building for a few hours and get a drink or else he was going to lose his mind. Maybe it was already too late for that, given the odd way he’d been acting all day.

He’d hired himself an assistant this morning.

Again.

He hated having an assistant. Hated being micromanaged, having the need for that person to be involved in his business all the time. It was worse than when he’d lived at home and had to declare his comings and goings to his parents.

What had possessed him to follow Nolan into the interview room after their brief encounter in the men’s room, he still wasn’t sure. The nerves radiating off Nolan in the bathroom were practically visible; he was not at all the type of person Zack wanted to have to deal with on a daily basis. He didn’t have time to coddle a new hire, nor did he think the poorly dressed, almost frail-looking man would necessarily be able to handle his moods.

It was a horrible idea.

He should probably tell HR to find Nolan another executive or team to work with and save them both a world of headaches.

Yes, he’d do that when he got back.

But first he needed to see Max.

It would have made sense for him to take his car, given how far away Frantic was, but he needed to stretch his legs and taking transit worked for him. Him behind the wheel, feeling the way he was, wouldn’t end well.

He hated days when his brain seemed out of sync with his body. Thoughts banging up against one another, too many projects vying for his attention, things he desperately wanted to make happen but had to stomp the brakes on because of process. Or the worst: having to be quiet when other people thought they knew better than he did. They usually didn’t. It wasn’t all arrogance that led him to that conclusion; it was years of being proven right time and time again. But he’d learned the hard way there were certain people you couldn’t tell what to do and how to do it.

His boss being one of them.

He’d have to go to the gym after work, if for no other reason than to bleed off enough excess energy that he could sleep later. Really, it would do him a world of good to hit something.

It took him nearly forty minutes and two buses to get to Max’s bar. He didn’t need to check to see if Max would be there. It was nearly four, and his friend was always the one to open the club. The door was locked, so Zack pulled out his phone.

Let me in.

There was a minute-long pause before Max’s response popped up. Why are you here?

To bug you. Let me in.

Go back to work.

Asshole.

Zack had barely pressed Send when the door’s lock clicked and Max opened the door. “Why do you torture me?”

“Because I’m your friend and business partner.”

Max rolled his eyes and walked away. “Still an asshole.”

Frantic was currently empty, but Zack knew that in a short time staff would start arriving and prep would be underway for Friday night’s inevitable crowd. “We need to talk about Ringside.”

Max’s groan echoed in the empty dance area. “We need a drink, then.”

“Beer?”

“I’m not giving you anything good. That’s for paying customers.”

“I pay.”

“Not in the last five years you haven’t. Cheap prick.” Max pulled two bottles from beneath the bar and cracked the caps off before sliding one to Zack. “What’s going on with the gym?”

“I was going to ask you. Any word on those investors of yours?” The beer was cold and slid easily down his throat as he took several long pulls. “I need some good news today.”

Max grinned as he shook his head. “So impatient for a business guy.”

“I’m used to things happening on my timetable, not some mysterious venture capitalist who I don’t even know is worth his word.”

They’d been working on getting their childhood sanctuary up and running again far too long for Zack to not be impatient. Starting Frantic had been Max’s dream, one Zack had helped him with from square one; reopening Ringside Boxing was Zack’s, and he’d be damned if anything would stop him.

Max downed his beer far too quickly and tossed the bottle in a recycling bin. “My investor said he was looking to find some new LGBTQ businesses to invest in around Toronto. He’s got connections, and Ringside has solid PR opportunities given what you’ve planned. The teen programs are also great advertising to have at schools. We’ll make this happen.”

“We better.”

Max frowned. “What the hell crawled up your ass and died? You’re more of a jerk than usual.”

“Nothing.”

“Bullshit. You look like you’re ready to run a marathon or take on crime or something.”

Max had been his closest friend since they’d met at the original Ringside gym when they were both sixteen. If anyone could tell when Zack was on edge, it was Max. “I just don’t want anything to screw this up.”

Along with their friend Eli, the three of them had spent the better part of their high school years as part of an LGBTQ teen-outreach program at Ringside. Max and Eli had used boxing as a way to develop their self-confidence and learn how to defend themselves. Zack had never lacked either of those skills, even at a young age. No, he’d used his workouts at Ringside as a way to funnel the buildup of emotions that constantly swirled inside him. Sparring in the ring had helped him learn how to direct that charge outward and stop himself from losing his shit on his parents, friends, and teachers.

Russel Kinson, the previous owner of Ringside, had done so much for so many people over the years that a piece of Zack had broken when he’d died and the place shut down. How many more kids and troubled youth could have been helped in the intervening years? How many more like himself, Max, and Eli?

Despite what everyone thought about him, working at Compass Technologies wasn’t his life’s goal. It was little more than a means to an end. Within the next year or two, he wanted to walk away from all things technology and spend his days helping people the way Russel had helped him.

Max started taking clean mugs from the wash tray and stacking them in the bar. “So what happened at work to get you all riled up? That boss of yours on the warpath again?”

The image of a too skinny and pale Nolan flashed through his head. “I hired an assistant.”

“Jesus. I thought you swore you wouldn’t do that to someone else again?”

“It was an impulsive hire.”

Nooo. You’d never do anything like that.”

Zack growled. “He’s different from the others, though I doubt that I’ll keep him. Better to have HR rehome him before I chew his head off.”

“Whoa, back up. You hired a male assistant?” Max leaned over the bar and grinned. “Is he cute?”

“He’s way too thin and not even remotely my type.” God, he couldn’t imagine anyone further away from the sort of man he was attracted to; Nolan lacked confidence, didn’t have that edge Zack looked for in a partner. He couldn’t imagine what it would be like to have sex with someone like that. He liked it rough, fucked the same way he fought both in the ring and in business. Nolan would no doubt be overwhelmed by everything Zack would want. Not that he was into any kinky shit, but he liked things hard and fast: fucking, not making love.

Max clicked his tongue. “Huh.”

“What?”

“Nothing. You’re just full of surprises.”

Zack’s cell chose that moment to sound off. “Shit.”

“What?”

The notification tone he’d specifically assigned to Samantha Rollins told him who’d emailed without his having to look at the name. Problem with the Korean shipment of the network appliance. “I have to head back to the office.”

“Something wrong?”

“Nothing I can’t handle.” He was the best at putting out fires, a skill set Samantha had taken advantage of for the past three years. “But I won’t be stopping in tonight.”

“Good, that’ll leave some of the hot guys for me for a change.”

“Like you’ve ever had a problem with that before.”

“I take it your assistant won’t be with you this evening?”

“No. Starts Monday.”

“That’s good. Don’t want to burn the poor boy out before he’s even gotten his feet wet. I’ll let you know as soon as I hear from my investor and I can set up a meeting between the two of you.”

“Thanks. I’ll talk to you next week about it.”

Traffic had kicked up considerably since his arrival, as people began their treks home from work. The buses and subway would be packed, but faster than a taxi. Still, Zack flagged the closest one down, not wanting to deal with the off and on and jostling of bodies.

The moment the door closed and the cab pulled into traffic, Zack knew it had been a mistake. Being stuck in the backseat with nothing but his thoughts was liable to drive him nuts. He pulled out his phone and read through Samantha’s email, ensuring he had a grasp on the situation. Someone else had screwed up, and she needed him to smooth things over. Typical and easy enough to sort through.

A new email popped onto the top of the screen from Nancy in HR.

New Hire Confirmation: Nolan Carmichael

Nothing was set in stone yet. He could easily brush the entire incident off and Nancy would no doubt find another role for the man, or at the very least let him down easy. Zack had no illusions about how difficult he was to work with. Nolan seemed like a decent sort, and shouldn’t be subjected to him.

No one should.

He hit Reply, his thumbs poised over the screen keyboard to tell her never mind, that it had been a horrible idea.

And yet.

God, he couldn’t put his finger on it, but there’d been something about Nolan—about the way he’d looked in the bathroom, scared and lost—that spoke to him. Zack had been that way once, back before Russel had taken him in at the gym as part of his program. Nolan might not exude the same confidence Zack had, but neither had he shied away from him once Zack hijacked the interview. Nolan had held his gaze, given concise answers to his questions, and didn’t once look as though Zack was the Devil incarnate.

That was more than he could say for most employees at Compass.

Running on the same impulse that seemed to have been at his back all day, he typed out a terse acknowledgment. Nolan Carmichael, for good or ill, would start Monday morning as his new assistant.

Zack could only hope he wasn’t making a mistake. For both their sakes.

from RT Book Reviews

This book has everything one looks for in a romance.

from Publishers Weekly

Treading a comfortably familiar path, d’Abo creates distinctive characters to take on the traditional forbidden romance across class lines.