Iris Parker emptied the rest of her champagne flute into her mouth and swallowed, the bubbles fizzing up into her nose. Although she’d never been much of a champagne drinker, she made an exception for weddings, and gladly held up her glass to a passing waiter. After this many refills, he should just leave the bottle, she thought, chuckling to herself. The champagne buzz fogged her emotional state like no other buzz, blocking the fact that this was a wedding and making it feel like just another party with dancing and tons of food. While she could join her colleagues at the open bar, there was something delightfully decadent in getting drunk off champagne. Alone.
Isabel slid into the seat next to her, looking rumpled but happy. Her black curls had begun to come undone from their twist, and a few tumbled around her face, giving her an overall sexy-disheveled appearance. Iris wasn’t used to seeing Isabel dressed up, since she generally wore baggy, androgynous clothes to work. But tonight she was rocking a fitted blue cocktail dress that looked beautiful against her golden brown skin. Her boyfriend, Caleb, probably loved it. Iris glanced past Isabel, expecting to see Caleb right behind her as usual, but he was nowhere in sight. Shocking—ever since the couple had made their relationship public a few months back, they’d been virtually inseparable.
“Where’s Caleb?” Iris asked, leaning closer to Isabel to be heard over the music.
“He’s getting us drinks.” Isabel scooted her chair a few inches closer so they wouldn’t have to shout. She was practically glowing, and Iris couldn’t help feeling happy for her. While Iris was supposed to be the impartial human resources manager, neutral toward all her coworkers at PI Games, she’d developed a soft spot in her heart for Isabel ever since the other woman had called out that asshole Lloyd on his sexist behavior. When Lloyd had quit a month later, no one had complained, and the new sales and PR guy Iris had been instrumental in bringing on was both talented and personable. Isabel and Caleb had also managed to maintain an office romance for almost five months without crossing any boundaries, making Iris’s job a lot easier.
“Aren’t you going to dance?” Isabel’s voice broke off Iris’s train of thought and returned her to the present.
“Probably.” Iris tipped the champagne flute back, downing half of the liquid bubbles in one long gulp. Even to her own ear, her voice had a mild slur. She wasn’t hiding her drunkenness as well as she’d hoped, which was funny considering she pretty much had never let loose in front of her coworkers before. Well, first time for everything, she thought as she took another generous sip. What better place than at a wedding?
They both looked out at the dance floor. Will Garnett, the owner of Players Incorporated—PI Games—was spinning his new bride, Gwen, around the floor like he was a champion ballroom dancer and not the balding, squishy, middle-aged owner of a game design company. Iris watched them both with unfocused attention, the alcohol making her feel detached from the whole experience and pleasantly light-headed. Will was a good guy. He deserved this kind of happiness. Their small company felt like family to Iris, and despite her normal aversion to weddings, she was happy Will had invited the whole company to celebrate with him.
Caleb appeared carrying two glasses and handed one to Isabel. “You changed tables. I thought you disappeared on me.” Like his girlfriend, he cleaned up nicely, the picture of decorum in a gray suit and blue tie. How sweet: they matched.
Isabel took the proffered glass and nodded to the seat next to her. “Iris looked all alone over here and I wanted to visit.”
Iris waved her hand in a vague dismissal. “Don’t worry about me. I’ll get up and dance. I’m just trying to let all that cake digest first.”
“Oh, that cake.” Isabel tipped her head back and closed her eyes, letting out a small moan of pleasure like the memory alone was enough to overwhelm her. “That cake was incredible. Easily the most beautiful wedding cake I’ve ever seen, and it tasted so good I snuck seconds. Do you know where he got it?”
Iris nodded. “Sugar Rush over on . . . on South Street.” It took her a minute to remember the place in her alcohol-soaked state. “I recommended it to him.” Her relationship with Sugar Rush was more serious than any actual romantic relationship she’d ever had. She wasn’t on a first-name basis with the staff yet, but they definitely were starting to recognize her when she came in for her once—okay, twice—weekly indulgences.
It didn’t hurt that the head baker was hotter and sweeter than any of the desserts they offered.
“YMCA” came on, a song that was impossible for all but the most determined wallflowers to avoid, and Iris let herself be dragged onto the dance floor by Isabel and Caleb, toeing off her red pumps before she broke an ankle. Everyone was dancing now, jumping around like lunatics, and Iris got swept up in the madness for several songs. She knew she was a good dancer, and under the influence of champagne and camaraderie managed to forget that she was among work colleagues long enough to loosen up and flail around with the best of them. Most of the people left at the reception were other PI Games employees, and even though it was kind of strange to see them in this environment, Iris liked the upbeat mood of her goofy, geeky coworkers.
Before long, Will was at her side, taking her hand. “Iris! You owe me a dance.” He was all smiles, joy personified, and Iris let him sweep her into his arms. He started with a fake tango and dipped her, then spun her out toward the crowd and twirled her back in again, exaggerating his moves with such flair that she was laughing uproariously by the time they settled into a casual, friendly dance at a moderate pace.
Beaming, he looked down at her. “I’ll bet you never thought this day would come.”
Iris shrugged and grinned. “You deserve it more than anyone.”
“Look at her, Iris. Look at that amazing woman.” They both looked over at Gwen, who was somehow dancing with both Matthew, a programmer, and Phil, one of the artists, forming a laughing, awkward triad. “How’d I get to be so lucky?”
“Because you’re the nicest guy in the world, that’s how.” Iris squeezed his shoulder where her hand rested. She thought back to the past four years working with Will, how he managed to run a business with both integrity and compassion in a continuously changing technological landscape. No one could ask for a better boss.
Will chuckled. “You flatter me.” His gaze was fond, almost paternal, as he looked down at her. “You know, there’s someone out there for you, too.”
Iris refrained from rolling her eyes because Will was happy and wanted everyone around him to be happy in the same way. “Thanks, Will. I’m sure he’ll turn up someday.” Now wasn’t the time to share her private belief that some people were better off alone, herself being one of them. Monogamy and marriage were nice for those who could make it work—and hopefully Will and Gwen would be among those rare few—but she knew that being alone didn’t mean being lonely.
Will squeezed her into a hug. “I know he will.” He let her go, his eyes bright. “You have fun tonight!”
“You, too.” She smiled as he danced away, rescuing Gwen from her ridiculous group dance. The slower music led back into some dance remix of a pop song, and then something Iris didn’t recognize with a really catchy beat.
When she finally got winded enough to take a break, she realized it was almost midnight. Where had the night gone? She hadn’t had this much fun in a long time, although her feet were going to be killing her in the morning. Her head, too, probably. Iris extricated herself from the crowd and made her way back to the table, still wobbly, where her champagne glass had been refilled in her absence and subsequently gone flat. She drank it down anyway, the liquid tasting a little sour, but it was a shame to waste champagne. A shame to waste any alcohol, really, she thought as she leaned her chair back and rubbed a knuckle into the sore arch of her foot.
Isabel and Caleb weren’t far behind her. “So what are you doing with your time off?” Isabel asked, propping her feet up in Caleb’s lap. Iris couldn’t help a twinge of jealousy when Caleb started massaging Isabel’s feet. She needed her own official foot masseur.
Before Iris could answer, the waiter came by with yet another bottle of champagne, but she waved him away. She was already too drunk to drive, and if she kept drinking, she was going to be too drunk to even take a cab. “I’m going to Clearwater Beach for a few days to lie around and do nothing,” she said in response to Isabel’s question. The very thought of it made her body relax. A whole week off, paid, without eating into her regular two weeks of vacation. What an unexpected luxury. Will was a great guy, closing the entire business for a week as a gift to his staff while he was on his honeymoon. Under the influence of alcohol and good cheer, Iris felt even warmer than usual toward the guy.
Kylie, one of the animators, came over to the table. Her girlfriend trailed behind, giggling, looking as drunk as Iris felt. “Hey, a bunch of us are going to Three Coins. You guys want to come?”
The diner was a favorite, one of the best twenty-four-hour food spots in Tampa, and Iris was starting to get hungry again, even though the prime rib had been succulent and perfectly cooked. “Yeah, I’m in. What the hell.” She pushed up to her feet, wobbling as she stepped into her heels, and looked over at Isabel and Caleb. “You guys in?”
Isabel and Caleb looked at each other, communicating without words in the way Iris had noticed lots of couples could do after a few months together. After a moment, Caleb shrugged. “Sure, okay.”
A half hour later, Iris was stuffed in the back of a cab with several of her coworkers as part of the third vehicle in a one-in-the-morning taxi caravan to Three Coins. Almost a dozen of the PI Games staff had taken Kylie up on her offer, so they filled a whole section of booths in the small diner.
Iris hadn’t really considered hanging out with coworkers before. She had her social circles, mostly friends from college, but being the human resources manager always left her aware of the potential for conflicts of interest. With all of them packed into the red vinyl booths, though, laughing raucously over breakfast platters, burgers, and overflowing pasta bowls, she felt the warm glow of camaraderie that didn’t fade even as the alcohol wore off under the combined influence of time and ice water.
By the time she stumbled out of the diner and into a taxi at five o’clock, pink rays of sunrise beginning to push back the carpet of stars, she felt awash in affection for her fellow PI Games employees and for the world as a whole, the hangover still probably a few hours away.
Ping. Iris opened her eyes as she heard the familiar chime of her cell phone from within the depths of her spangled clutch. As the taxi turned a corner, she dug out her phone and squinted at the message from her best friend, Jen.
Can’t go next week, sorry. Aidan got chicken pox.
Well, shit. She’d been looking forward to that trip ever since they’d booked it almost six weeks ago, back when Will first announced his plans to give everyone the week off following his wedding. The first thing she’d done was call her best friend and invite her for an extended weekend getaway. Jen had requested time off from work, asked her husband to play “single parent” for a few days, and they had planned to leave Thursday morning. They would lie on the beach, drinking piña coladas and daiquiris and absorbing the last bits of sun before the season ended, ignoring adult responsibilities for some frivolity. It was going to be perfect.
The key word being “was.”
Iris texted back to offer her condolences (she wasn’t an asshole, after all) and assurances it was okay, but she couldn’t help the wave of sadness that accompanied her response. She didn’t want to resent Jen for her other responsibilities, especially those related to her family. It was hard not to feel that they were drifting apart, though. Maybe she was the one trying too hard, clinging to a college friendship even though she’d turned thirty last month. Jen had been her best friend, but now she had a husband and a five-year-old, and beach getaway weekends could no longer be her priority. It wasn’t personal, Iris knew, but she couldn’t deny that it stung.
Staring out the taxi window and watching the sun come up, she felt the loneliness steal over her like a creeping chill. After pulling an all-nighter, her first since college, her eyes felt gritty and her head thick with pressure, and the lump in her throat had to be from Jen’s bad news. Too bad she hadn’t gotten this news after a good night’s sleep, or maybe while she was still drunk, as opposed to the half-drunk sleepless state in which she now found herself. Well, she was probably sober by now. So her regrettably sober sleepless state, then. Still shitty.
The taxi turned down South Street, and she spotted an amber glow through the Sugar Rush windows, the building already illuminated even though it was just after dawn on a Sunday. Suddenly she had an incurable craving for pastry. Sugary, fatty pastry. Maybe those Danishes they had with the raspberry filling and confectioners’ sugar on top.
Mouth practically watering, Iris tapped on the glass divider and pointed toward the homey-looking storefront with the redbrick facade and striped awning. “Just drop me off here.”
Iris Parker never planned on ending up in HR because, let’s face it: HR isn’t the most glamorous position in the world. She took a comfortable job and always planned on leaving when something better came along, but before she knows it, she’s thirty and the HR director for PI Games. Even though she likes her coworkers, there’s no excitement in the job for her, and Iris is worried that she’ll lose her spark. Luckily, Iris’s romantic life provides some thrills—living the confirmed bachelor life, when she wants her bed warm, she can find company, and in her sights at the moment is the cute pastry chef at her favorite bakery.
Owen Hobbs has noticed the gorgeous businesswoman making eyes at him when she comes in for coffee and sweets, but he’s not the type of guy who dates much anymore. Unfortunately for him, it didn’t take long in his sporadic dating history to learn that most women aren’t interested in taking charge in bed, which is what he really craves. Working early mornings at the bakery keeps him from the nightlife where he might meet someone who can fulfill his needs, so he’s resigned himself to fantasies and pretty much given up on the dating scene altogether. But when Iris’s advances become too much to resist, Owen finds himself revealing his desire to be sexually dominated...the only question is, is she the right woman for the job?