The club is nearly empty when I walk through it on Monday afternoon, save for a few cleaning staff. I have no idea why Linc wants to see me today, but I’m dying to know. I’ve already imagined a hundred different reasons. Unfortunately, not all of those reasons are ones I should be imagining. The scenario where he tells me he’s come up with some dance moves for the bar staff and wants to try them out with me is one of my most visited. In it, I end up flat on my back on his desk with my legs wrapped around his waist and him deep inside of me.
It’s dangerous to fantasise. He’s engaged for Pete’s sake. And even though I don’t understand his feelings for Claudia – even though he didn’t appear to like her all that much – I still don’t feel right thinking about him. Jemma said to appreciate him from afar, but I shouldn’t even be doing that now, should I?
I search the dance area and bar for Linc. Finally, I see him sitting in one of the booths along the wall, talking to someone. It seems like he’s in the middle of a meeting. Has he forgotten he asked me to come in today?
Suddenly, he stops focusing on the guy and looks straight at me. “Can you give us a minute, Brooke? I won’t be long.”
He looks incredible in his charcoal suit and white shirt. Every time I’ve seen him before now, he’s been clean shaven, but today he has dark stubble dotting his jaw line and his hair is a little messy. My stomach dips at the thought of spending time alone with him.
Aware that I sound just a tad breathless, I quickly walk away. Not sure what to do or where to go, I head towards the metal door and try to put in the code we used on Saturday night. Of course, it doesn’t work; it changes every night. I lean back against the wall, sliding down it and sitting on the floor while I wait for him, pondering again why he asked me to come here.
I hope it isn’t so he can lecture me on how I should act when I get hit on. I almost died last week when he told Kane that Saxon copped a feel. Talk about looking ineffective and feeling stupid. The fact Linc could tell how uncomfortable I was from miles away was embarrassing. True, I hadn’t yet figured out how to handle Saxon’s flirtatiousness, but now I’ll never have the chance. Ever since Linc yelled at him, Saxon treats me like I’m his kid sister. Honestly, I think I prefer flirty Saxon over brotherly Saxon.
Linc’s expression is full of apology as he walks over around ten minutes later, finally having finished his meeting.
“I’m sorry. That took way longer than it should have. How hard is it to understand I want one type of liquor supplied, not another?”
I stand up as he punches the pin into the keypad, causing the thick metal door to spring open. “Not hard at all.”
The grin he rewards me with makes my knees weak and my heart race.
“That’s what I thought.” He walks through the door and motions for me to follow him.
As I walk behind him to his office, I’m reminded of the interview I had with him just a few weeks ago. I’m as nervous now as I was then. No, I’m more nervous. Back then, I didn’t know how amazing it felt to have him touch me. Nor had I developed the admiration and respect for him I have now.
God, I hope that’s not why he’s called me in here today. I’ll die if it is. He must have noticed the way I blush around him and the way I react when he touches me. I’ve seen the awareness in his eyes. He knows I’m attracted to him. Please, please, please don’t let this meeting be about him giving me the ‘I don’t date staff’ lecture.
I’m nearly sick from nerves as I walk into his office and he closes the door behind us.
“Take a seat, Brooke,” he says, sitting down at his desk.
I can’t hide how nervous I am as I sit down opposite him. I swallow hard, and I’m sure he sees it. Hears it.
“I guess you’re wondering why I asked you here this afternoon.”
I nod, my heart still hammering in my chest.
He smiles, but his smile isn’t the easy one I’m used to, and for the first time I realise he’s nervous, too. The butterflies that are already dancing in my stomach pick up their pace, and my heart is beating so fast that I’m surprised he can’t hear it. What does he have to be nervous about?
“Brooke, I need you.”
“What?” I choke out.
He winces as he realises what he’s said. “I mean I need your skills. Your accounting skills, to be specific.”
That makes much more sense.
What doesn’t make sense? The disappointment creeping through me that I’m forced to slap down.
“In the interest of full disclosure, I hired you as much for your accounting skills as I did for your bartending. Actually, that’s a lie. I need an accountant far more than I need a bartender. It’s just convenient you happen to be both. You see…” He pauses, and I can see how much he’s struggling for words. He runs his hand through his hair, something I’ve never seen him do before. “Would you believe I rehearsed this over and over before you got here? I guess there’s just no easy way to say what I need to. I need to tell you some very personal and private things about this club and me. What I tell you has to stay between us and be kept absolutely confidential.”
Now I’m actually sitting on the edge of my seat, waiting for him to continue. Whatever this is, it’s important.
Never breaking eye contact, he reaches into the top drawer beside him and pulls out a document. Then he places it on the desk and slides it across to me. “I’m sorry to have to ask you to sign this confidentiality agreement, but it’s necessary. I don’t want you to think I don’t trust you, because I do. I wouldn’t be telling you any of this if I didn’t. I wouldn’t be asking for your help if I thought you were untrustworthy in any way. I just need to make sure everything that gets said in this room stays in it. You can’t tell Jemma or your sister what I share with you today. No one can know what you’re doing here.”
I tear my gaze away from his to look at the contract in front of me, confused. He says he trusts me, but I need to sign a confidentiality agreement?
No matter how much I stare at it and pretend I’m considering it, I know I’m going to sign it. Linc has me beyond curious. There’s no way I’m walking out of this room without hearing what he has to say.
I read the few lines on the document and then pick up the pen resting beside it. Linc’s gaze weighs heavy on me as I sign my name where I’m supposed to. When I slide the contract back to him, he doesn’t look at it; he just picks it up and puts it back in his top drawer, his eyes never leaving mine.
“My club is in trouble, Brooke. I’m not sure why. I did the projections before I started. I have a degree in business. I aced every subject. I swear I’m not an idiot, and yet I can’t make it add up when my accountant tells me the club is losing money every night.”
“You don’t trust him?”
“That’s an understatement. It’s a stipulation of the contract I signed with my parents that Mervyn Fairfield will be the one and only accountant of this club. He’s my parents’ accountant, and since my parents want me to fail, I can’t help but think he’s fudging the numbers because they asked him to.”
“I don’t understand. Why do they want you to fail?”
“So that I’ll take my place beside my father at River’s Financial Diversified. I sold my soul to the devil for this chance to run my club, Brooke. It was my only chance to live my dream and I jumped at it, thinking I couldn’t fail. But the evidence says otherwise. Now I have less than four months to solve the problem, or I’ll lose everything.”
“You mean Midnight Frenzy?”
“I mean everything. I have to give up this club, dancing, and even my bachelorhood. If I fail, I have to tie the knot to a woman I don’t love and never will.”
“Claudia Henley,” I state.
Linc’s reaction to Claudia and her comment suddenly make a lot more sense.
It also means they’re not together.
I refuse to dwell on what that news means to me.
“I would never have taken this route if I’d had another choice,” he says.
“There were really no other options?”
He spreads his arms wide. “I went to twenty different banks before I signed with my parents. All of them looked at me like I was insane for coming to them when my parents own a bank. To be a suitable applicant I should have had the deposit I needed already. My parents knew I’d never get a loan without their cash. I think they considered it their greatest achievement when I asked them for the money. It was their way to force my hand. They get to say they did this for me. But the price is my freedom. Which is why I need your help, Brooke.”
I’m shocked and appalled at how cold and heartless his parents sound. I’ve only known Linc for a few weeks, and I already know that this club is everything to him. Dancing is everything to him. He lives and breathes it. He’d be wasted and miserable stuck behind a desk. And I have no doubt he’s smart. He’s passionate. He’s driven. He’s disciplined.
If he says there’s something off about the books, then I believe him. I’ll regret it if I don’t help him. Not to mention I’ll feel guilty as hell. What he’s created here – this nirvana where people can let their hair down and indulge their senses is something he should be proud of. Instead, it sounds like the people who should support him the most can’t wait to watch him fail.
“Of course I’ll help.”
“Mervyn and my family can’t know you’re working with me on this. No one can.”
“It would be cash in hand. And if you declared it, that’s obviously traceable back to me, too. Which means I’m asking you to do something illegal by accepting it off the books.”
I hadn’t thought that far ahead, but I don’t want to be part of something illegal. It could threaten my custody of Belle and also make it impossible for me to find work as an accountant again.
“So what if you didn’t pay me?” I ask, brainstorming.
“Brooke, I’m going to need you here most days, working with me on this. I have no idea how long it will take to go through everything or find the problem. And when I do, I don’t know how long it will take to fix it. Hell, even when it’s fixed, I’m going to need an accountant full time – someone I can trust. I want that person to be you.”
Something about those words brings things into sharper focus for me. It’s like I’ve been looking through a blurry lens and he’s just adjusted it for me. I wasn’t aware of it until now, but I’ve wondered if Linc sees me differently to his other employees. He doesn’t seem to spend as much time with the other employees as he does with me. Even between his dances, Linc seems to seek me out. And every night I worked last week I was responsible for taking drinks backstage – during which Linc would spend time asking me how my day was, and about my sister.
I’ve run through a whole range of reasons for why he’s so friendly with me. I thought maybe he likes me because Jemma referred me to him, or he just enjoys spending time with me. I even wondered if he was attracted to me as I am to him. But now I see that all the time we’ve spent together has been with one purpose – him getting to know me better. He needed to before putting the future of his club in my hands.
It’s understandable. Midnight Frenzy is his baby. I should feel pleased and flattered that he’s willing to confide in me – that he trusts me and wants my help. Instead, Jemma’s warnings are ringing in my head again, and I’m now a lot more certain that my attraction is something I must take control of. It is actually going to end up with me hurt if I can’t get my head together over this man. What Linc needs from me is friendship and loyalty. He doesn’t need a girlfriend or a woman obsessed with him. He doesn’t want that from me. Or from anyone for that matter. He’s fighting for his freedom. He doesn’t want to be tied down. What he does want is his bachelorhood and this club. And he needs a confidante and someone he can trust.
I can be that for him, but I have to stop fantasising about him. It’s too dangerous for my health and wellbeing.
If only there were a switch I could turn off.
“I think that if this works out, I could get you on board as an accountant, full time,” Linc says. “No more late nights. You’d be considered a full-time employee and I’d pay you a very good wage, but I can’t do that until the contract with Mervyn is done. And if I can’t start paying back the money I owe my parents, I won’t have any position to offer you at all.”
A permanent position at Midnight Frenzy, one where I don’t have to work nights and rely on Patricia to take care of Belle, would be a dream. It means not returning to a job that is just tolerable. I love the club and the people who work here. And even if Linc is far too attractive for my peace of mind, he’s a great boss. I want to help him, I really do; and I will. But I can’t do it illegally.
“I understand. But you can’t pay me under the table. I can’t take money from you if it means I’m taking part in something illegal. It’s my career on the line.”
“I understand,” he says, but he doesn’t look like he does at all. In fact, he looks crushed.
My mind is made up. “I’ll do it for free.”
“No. No way. Brooke, I’ll need you here through the day. Maybe every day, and then you’ll be working nights here behind the bar as well. It’s too much. Any change in your pay will be questioned by the accountant, but I can’t not pay you for your time, either.” He makes a noise of frustration. “Even if I alter your position, Mervyn will be suspicious. Why does this have to be so hard?”
“Linc, at this stage I don’t have much during the day anyway. In fact, I’m bored at home while my sister is at school. I don’t mind coming in and looking through the books while she’s busy. It’ll give me something to do. Put it in writing that I’ll be your accountant when your contract with your current one finishes and you’ve got a deal.”
“No, there has to be something I can give you. I know how hard you’re working to provide for your sister. I can’t let you work for free.”
I hold out my hands and shrug. “There’s really nothing. You already pay me well for the four nights I’m here. You said the accountant would be suspicious if you make it any more than that. And I’m getting free dance lessons from you. That’s a huge thing for me. I’d forgotten how much I enjoyed dancing. I had to give up lessons when Mum got sick and couldn’t afford for me to keep going. Dancing again…it feels amazing. And I have you to thank for that.” I smile. “You could say that I owe you.”
“No.” He sits up straighter. “But maybe that is one way I can make it up to you. I can pay you in dance lessons.”
“You’re already giving me dance lessons.”
“Yes, but that’s only once a week. You said that you gave up dancing when you were younger, because of what was happening at the time. I can catch you up. Tutor you privately.” He looks more and more convinced with every word he says. “You want to learn how to dance. I can teach you.”
The memory of throwing myself at him during the last dance lesson still haunts me at regular intervals. I’m blushing even now as I remember it. If I get that flustered in a room full of people, how am I going to handle Linc one-on-one?
“You really don’t need to. Lessons on Tuesdays are enough.”
He shakes his head. “That’s how I’m going to repay you. For now. Until I can work something out, or find a way around this problem, I’ll give you private lessons.”
My stomach is in knots. I need to focus on not thinking about him and not being so attracted to him. Being here with him, day in day out, working on the books is one thing. There’s too much at stake for me to let the attraction distract me. But dancing with him?
“We can even do it here,” he adds. “You come in to help me with the books, and I give you a lesson.”
“Brooke, I’m not going to take no for an answer. I need your help. I don’t trust anyone else. But I’m not going to let you work for free. If I’m teaching you when you come in, at least I won’t feel like I’m taking advantage of you. You have to say yes.”
I wonder if my smile looks as strained as it feels. “Then I guess I have no choice but to say yes.”
He’s not going to let this go. The only thing I can tell myself is that the cleaning staff might be around, so hopefully we won’t be alone, fingers crossed. Because as desperate as I am to keep learning how to dance, one-on-one lessons with the boss has heartbreak written all over it.
“It’s a deal then.”
He reaches out and I take his hand, shaking it. It doesn’t feel like a business handshake. It feels like something a lot more personal as he holds my hand in his. My heart is hammering against my ribcage, and then it goes through the roof when his thumb scrapes over my wrist, taking stock of just how affected I am by him.
I’ve never felt as exposed as I do when he lets my hand go and looks at me. “We’re going to be spending a lot of time together.”
My voice sounds strangled and affected. He didn’t need any more proof that he affects me, but there he has it.
“To avoid complications, I think we should discuss some things straight up.”
I’m blushing profusely as I nod. I know where this is going, and I am going to die because now he’s about to launch into the I-don’t-date-staff speech. This is the most embarrassing moment of my life. And yet maybe I need to hear it from him personally. Maybe if I do, I can draw on this horrible and mortifying moment the next time I’m fantasising about my boss.
“I’m asking for your help, Brooke. In return, I would happily pay you for your services, though I understand you’d rather avoid taking money illegally, and I respect you for that. Since I’m not comfortable with you working for free, I insist on giving you lessons. But I need to make it clear that our relationship must stay strictly professional. I think you know how much this club means to me. Since you’ll be looking at all of the finances for this club and you’re privy to the details of my private life, I think it would be dangerous to blur the boundaries of our working relationship.”
Yes, I think that remembering this moment will work ten times better than a cold shower. I’m beyond mortified, not to mention he couldn’t be any clearer. He isn’t interested in me romantically. It’s no surprise. And mistaking anything he says as interest or imagining any of his professional courtesy as desire and attraction is straight up foolish.
Now that I’ve heard it and I understand, I have to stop him before this gets any worse.
“I understand perfectly. I won’t confuse anything between us.”
‘From this point forward’ is something I don’t add, even if I’m thinking it.
He nods. “I know this has been an awkward conversation to have,” he says. “But I’d be having it with anyone who I was going to be working with this closely. It’s not personal. I just don’t want any kind of romantic relationship to get in the way of what we’re doing. Between you and me, I don’t want any kind of romantic relationship, ever.”
He really is attached to bachelorhood and his freedom. He doesn’t want to be tied down. From what Jemma has said, Linc is even careful and selective about who he sleeps with; he likes his freedom that much. And who am I to judge him for it? It sounds like his parents have been trying to force his every decision since the day he was born. If I was in his position, I might feel the same.
“I get it.”
“Good.” He smiles. “Because I think we’ll work well together. Hiring you was one of the best decisions I’ve made, and I think we’re going to be good friends. I would like us to be friends.”
Friends. Lincoln Rivers wants to be friends with me.
I have to admit that what he’s saying goes a little way towards easing the sting of his previous comments. Sure, he’s just permanently friend-zoned me, but I now know it’s not personal. This is who he is. We’re fighting for his future. At the moment he’s looking down the barrel of a gun, at a future he can’t stand, unless we can figure this out.
So, can I be friends with Lincoln Rivers?
Providing I can keep my thoughts and fantasies to myself, I think I can.
“Friends sounds good,” I tell him. Who doesn’t need more friends, after all?
“Great.” His grin is contagious, and for the first time since we sat down, he’s completely at ease. “Let’s get down to business then.”