by RL Burgess
A rising star in the corporate world of finance, Zoe Cavendish is nursing a secret flame for her boss. She knows it’s stupid and her friends keep telling her she should move on, but somehow she can’t quite extinguish the hope.
The last thing on Reyna Azoulay’s mind is love. Not only is she busy with her demanding role as CEO of a high-flying financial advisory firm, but she’s also just recently taken in her sister’s child.
When Zoe is selected to present alongside Reyna at a prestigious international conference, they are thrown together and reality comes knocking—as does the suave keynote speaker who seems determined to whisk Zoe away into the desert sunset.
Will Zoe and Reyna realize what’s right in front of them before it’s too late?
FROM THE AUTHOR
"I was doing some work in an office environment and the hierarchy between people really intrigued me. There were some people you couldn’t go up and speak to, just because they were the boss! There were so many rules, spoken and unspoken, about the kinds of relationships people could develop, it left me wondering what would happen if two people’s hearts didn’t get the memo. At the time I was also doing a lot of reading about the financial world and how cutthroat it is, but it struck me that regular people having information about how to handle their own money is actually so important in this day and age, and we really need champions of this. I finished up in that office and suddenly all the strings wove together in my head, and I found myself dreaming up a blossoming romance between two people with lives very different from my own."
Reviewer@Large - When a book makes accounting an interesting profession, you can be assured that it is very well written indeed.
Zoe Cavendish works in Reyna Azoulay’s financial services firm as a financial advisor. Zoe is bright, hardworking and creative (yes, the author has managed to bring in unsuspected and unexpected dimensions to the accounting profession!), She has a group of friends who are all into all sorts of extreme-sounding sports—their idea of a weekend well-spent. Zoe has had the biggest crush on the owner, Reyna, for about two years. Reyna is involved wholly in her own life, more so with the recent death of her sister and brother-in-law, which sees her becoming a substitute parent to her eight-year old nephew. Reyna believes between her fast-growing firm and her nephew, she cannot have any other life. And she carries this belief into a possible relationship with Zoe, nipping it in the bud before it could even be called a fledgling relationship.
Zoe is so completely likeable that you are rooting for her right from page one. We found ourselves getting mad at Rayna’s rather unconvincing reasons to keep Zoe at an arm’s length and much worse, hurt her—more than once. We wanted Zoe to find someone better who would appreciate her more. Not that Reyna is bad, she’s just too wrapped up in herself, her fears and the limitations she has placed on herself and the boundaries she’s built around herself. Thankfully, given her commitment and responsibility towards her company and her nephew, we feel that she’ll stick by Zoe and do right by her once they get together.
This is a well written book with such an engaging MC in Zoe that it becomes quite an involving read.
Heather B. - Counting on Love is a book you can count on to love to read. This book has great characters and storyline. It is well written and entertaining.
Carrie K. - I liked the main characters as well as the supporting ones. Zoe and Reyna both had backstories that impacted their thoughts and actions. I thought they were both likable and I was rooting for their happiness.
There was a nice depth to the story that made me feel invested in how things turned out. It made me cry. Like...a lip quivering cry. So it definitely hit at the heart during a few angsty moments.
There was a sex scene in this. It was very quick, appropriate, and not extremely explicit. Just the way I like them.
I recommend this to people who enjoy reading about romance, friendships, the corporate world, unexpected parenting, coping with loss, Alice Springs, and financial improvement.
Elle L. - Counting on Love by RL Burgess is a nice office romance that really took me by surprise.
Zoe Cavendish is a star employee at Azoulay House, a corporate finance advisory company. She likes her job, loves the new community program she’s developed and she might have a little crush on her boss, Reyna Azoulay. Reyna, CEO of Azoulay House, has a lot on her plate. She's single-handedly running a nationwide company. She’s recently lost her sister and is now her 8 years-old nephew's legal guardian. She definitely doesn't have time for romance in her life.
I appreciate that this wasn’t an insta-love romance. In fact, it’s quite a slow burn. It takes a while before anything happens between the two MCs. We get to know Zoe and Reyna as independent, well-developed characters with backstories and their own set of friends. They’re both likable and there’s nice chemistry between them. Burgess’ prose is quite smooth and engaging, and the story progresses at a nice, realistic pace.
I would definitely recommend this book if you’re looking for an office romance that isn’t actually set in an office. Based on my enjoyment of this novel, I will very likely read another book by this author.
Counting on Love is a workplace romance story set in an Australian financial firm. Both characters are well developed beyond the bounds of the workplace. The writing and dialogue is well done and the descriptions of sunrise make me want to book a ticket.
Isabelle S. - An amazing workplace and slow-burn romance. This is the first book of this author that I read, and I look forward to the next. I enjoyed the story line. Both the main characters are lovable. And their attraction is obvious. An amazing read!
Melissa F. - This was a great book. I really like the power dynamics with boss/employee story lines. Add in longing crushes and kids and I'm a sucker. I will say I like a little more insta-love than this book offers, but I also know that's not a popular opinion. This book is more of a slow burn. It was nice having different scenes, obviously their work environment, but the conference setting sounded lovely. A change of pace like that is a welcome addition. The characters were a pleasure to read about.
Zoe (Monday a.m.)
“Ouch,” Zoe cursed, knocking her head on the desk as she shifted beneath it.
“May I ask what you’re doing under there?” came the voice of Mel, Zoe’s workmate and best friend of twenty years.
“I’m fixing…” Zoe grunted with effort, scrabbling with her fingers blindly around the back of the computer stack, “…my computer. What does it look like?”
“Hmm. It looks like you’re trying to hide under your desk,” Mel replied, a laugh in her voice.
“Well I’m not. My screen’s packed it in. And right when I was knee deep in the McFarlane audit, but I’m sure,” she paused to catch her breath as she tried to stretch further toward the back of the computer, “I can fix it if I can just change out this cable.”
“Well that does sound tricky. Have you considered calling IT?”
“Mel. As if!” Zoe shuffled herself out from under the desk and stood up, rolling the tension out of her shoulders. Her cheeks felt warm with effort and her brunette hair, normally so carefully attended to, had slipped out of its usual simple clip. It fell around her face in dishevelled waves. “I’d have more luck getting them to bring me a coffee than fixing my computer.”
“But true. What are you doing this far down the hallway, anyway?”
“I’m bringing up the business cards for your team. We designed them with the new logo so they look pretty schmick.”
Zoe took the box Mel was waving, glancing at the new design. Hers read, Zoe Cavendish, New Business Specialist, Azoulay House. A miniature of her own face stared at her from the corner of the card, hair pulled back in a ponytail, acorn-coloured eyes, her crisp white shirt blending in with the linen on the card.
She snorted. “Was the picture necessary?”
“Yeah, everyone has their face on nowadays. It adds a sense of authenticity and trust.”
“Right. Well, thanks.” Zoe tossed the box on her desk. “I’ve got to get this bloody computer sorted.”
“Seriously. Let me call IT. Desperate times,” Mel replied with a smirk, flashing her dimples. She was dressed straight out of the 80s today, sporting a woollen grey suit with oversized shoulder pads and matching high-waisted trousers. That was the benefit of working in the marketing department, Zoe thought, tucking in her own shirt, which had come adrift while she was under the desk. There was a certain creative licence allowed in that department.
Mel changed her hair colour every other month and no one seemed to mind. Lately she had been going for a Desperately Seeking Susan look, her hair a tangle of bleached blond and dark roots, a style that appeared haphazard but Zoe knew was carefully crafted. Not something Zoe could get away with as a New Business Specialist. She was expected to meet the corporate expectations of a high-flying financial adviser with snappy business suits and a well-manicured look. She actually enjoyed dressing the part, but every now and then she was a little jealous of the creative freedom Mel had with her wardrobe. Not that she wanted to come to work looking like Madonna, but the occasional day in her track pants wouldn’t be so bad.
“I am actually desperate. I’ve got to finalise this audit by lunchtime.” Zoe paused, chewing her bottom lip anxiously. Her eyes lit upon her laptop, tucked into its bag under her desk and she crowed triumphantly. “But not desperate enough to sit around waiting all day for some lecherous slimeball from IT to come and breathe their coffee breath all over me. I’ll just go and take this little guy to the tea room and work from there.”
“Good idea. And in the meantime, I’ll pop in an IT help desk for you.”
“Don’t you dare,” Zoe warned, scooping up her laptop and and stalking out of her cubicle past Mel. She swiped a wayward lock of hair out of her face as she went, feeling like a bear on the warpath.
“Pop in to see you in the tea room if we need you today then, yes?” Mel asked sweetly, trotting after Zoe down the corridor.
“That’s where I’ll be,” Zoe said, her tone self-righteous. “And don’t be interrupting me with endless cups of coffee. I have much to do.” And with that she turned abruptly into the tea room, running straight into the CEO who was exiting the room with a brimming cup of hot tea.
“Oh god, Reyna, I’m sorry.” Zoe exclaimed, as tea slopped over the edge of the cup, spilling onto Zoe’s laptop and scalding the CEO’s hand. Reyna yelped in pain. “Quickly, run it under cold water,” Zoe instructed, grabbing the dripping cup and manoeuvring her boss to the sink. She flipped the tap open and blasted the cold water, holding Reyna’s hand firmly under the stream.
“Are you burned too?” Reyna asked.
“No, just you I think,” she replied, her eyes wide with concern. “God, I’m so sorry.”
“It’s fine, I believe I can manage from here. Thanks, Zoe,” Reyna said, gently extracting her hand from Zoe’s grasp. “It’s just a little scalded.”
“Shall I get the first aid kit?”
“Honestly, I’m fine.” Reyna shut off the tap and dried her hands on a tea towel. Zoe watched as she refilled her cup with boiling water from the urn and dipped in a fresh tea bag. Reyna’s dark features were unusually pensive.
“Big day?” Zoe asked, searching for something—anything—to say as her boss finished with the tea bag and elegantly tossed it into the bin.
“You could say that,” Reyna replied. “Perhaps we could all do with slowing down a bit today, no?” Her deep brown eyes met Zoe’s with a polite smile, and Zoe felt her stomach do its familiar flip-flop.
“Onward and upward then,” her boss said as she breezed out of the tea room. “Have a good day, Zoe. You too, Melanie,” she called over her shoulder. Mel, who was still lurking in the tea room doorway, grinned at Zoe.
“The smoothest,” Zoe replied, slumping into one of a group of white plastic chairs at a table. She propped her laptop up on the table and opened the lid to inspect the damage.
“She’ll probably ask you out tonight.”
“Probably. Perhaps I’ll just ask her. Save her the trouble. Pass me a tea towel, would you?”
Mel tossed it over and Zoe ran it across her laptop, mopping up the spilled tea. “Please still work, please still work,” she muttered and pressed the power button gingerly, waiting for the screen to light up. When nothing happened she closed her eyes briefly and let out a deep sigh.
“Want me to call IT now?” Mel grinned impishly.
“You can if you want. But I have no need of their services today. I shall be finishing the McFarlane audit at your desk.”
“Come on, Zoe,” Mel cajoled. “They’re not that bad. Why don’t you just call?”
“I don’t see why I should have to deal with a pack of imbeciles who know less about technology than I do. Besides, that Barry guy is a total jerk. And he always smells like sardines.”
“Yeah, he’s not the greatest, but the girls down there are pretty cool.”
“You mean the women,” Zoe stressed the word. “But I never get them do I? It’s always Barry who comes huffing and puffing to my rescue. Anyway, I really don’t have time for this kind of mucking around today. Thomus will have my arse on the end of his boot if I don’t get this audit wound up by the end of today.”
“Thomus wouldn’t know his arse from the end of his boot,” Mel replied. “But fine, whatever. We can swap. You can hide at my desk and I’ll wait for IT for you. Feels like high school all over again. You run away and I’ll get in trouble with the teacher.”
“It was not like that,” Zoe protested. “You left me in the hot spot heaps of times.”
“Fine, well today I’ve got your back. I’ll tell I.T. you’re allergic to sardines and they can’t send Barry. Maybe I’ll get Rashmi. She’s totally cute.”
“You really shouldn’t objectify your colleagues,” Zoe replied primly, gathering up her laptop and following Mel out of the tea room. “But thank you.”
~ ~ ~
Mel’s desk was a sea of clutter. Towering stacks of paper threatened to topple at any moment. Books, coffee mugs, trinkets, posters, photos, and inspirational design ideas filled every available space on the desk and its surrounding walls, making it hard to see the two-toned, blue colour scheme of the cubicle. She had to concentrate now if she was going to finish this audit by lunchtime. The client was adamant on the timeline, but then, weren’t they all? Her job was characterised by tight deadlines, complex arrangements, and sensitive clients. Honestly, it was never dull, no matter what her friends thought.
As she waited for her settings to load, she ran her finger over a photo Mel had taped to one of the cubicle walls. It was from one of those black and white photo booths, a strip of four small photos. Five of them crammed into the tiny booth, laughing and falling on top of each other, pulling faces and grinning from ear to ear. Next to her in the photo was Enid with her perfectly manicured, long, golden hair and Chiara with her warm, puppy dog eyes. Then Mel pulling a ridiculous face and Travis with his trademark goofy grin, resting his lanky great arms around them all. They were younger, fresher versions of themselves now. The photo had been taken just after their university graduation—how long ago was that? She mentally counted forward from her twenty-third birthday and realised this November would be the tenth anniversary of that photo. She was lucky to have such a solid group of friends.
But Mel was her rock. She had scraped Zoe off the floor after her first big breakup and helped her find her own apartment. They had pounded the pavements together after uni looking for work. She had been there when Zoe’s mother had died unexpectedly a year and a half ago, always ready to lend an ear, a hand, or a shoulder—anything, anywhere. In fact it had been Mel, working in the marketing department of Azoulay House, who had shown Zoe the job advertisement for the position she currently held.
Zoe searched for the file she had been working on, scanning through the list of auto-saved documents, relieved to find it was there and intact, just where she had left off when her screen had fizzed out. When this was done she would organise a digital presentation for McFarlane’s management team, with the outcomes of her audit and a little extra for them, some handy tips on how to restructure their tax burden to enhance cash flow for the business. She knew they would be impressed with her work. That was one of her career mottos and she worked hard to nail it on every brief: never miss an opportunity to impress.
Zoe flashed back to Reyna’s dark, almond-shaped eyes as she asked Reyna to let go of her hand in the tea room. She flushed with embarrassment at the memory. Definitely not her most impressive moment. But then, Reyna Azoulay was hard to impress. She would stop to chat for a moment or two if Zoe bumped into her in the tea room, but she never really divulged anything about herself.
And yet nothing escaped her attention. She had sent flowers to Zoe’s home when her mother had passed away. At the time, Zoe had only been with the company six months. Now that she thought about it, most likely Reyna’s PA had purchased those flowers. Still, it represented the ethos of the company under Reyna’s leadership.
Zoe was also a fan of Reyna’s dry humour and quick intellect, often evident at staff meetings. Not to mention the fact that she was drop-dead gorgeous. Her strong dark Middle Eastern features reminded Zoe of a more delicate Frida Kahlo, shining black hair lightly curling over her shoulders, flawlessly smooth, tan skin and a body that curved and stretched in all the right places. She had heard that Reyna was fluent in both Arabic and Hebrew, a fact that was supported by their strongly diverse client base.
Yes, Reyna was in a league of her own, and Zoe had been the head cheerleader for Team Reyna since she had started with the firm two years earlier. In fact, if it weren’t for the issue of Thomus, Zoe would have said Reyna could literally do no wrong. For some reason Reyna continued to support him, even when it seemed to Zoe the whole world must see his incompetence, but somehow it seemed to have escaped Reyna’s notice. Oh well, you couldn’t be perfect on every level, she thought, dreamily chewing on the end of her pen, but Reyna was as darn near close as could be.
“I’ve called IT for you,” Mel said, sticking her head into the cubicle. “But you stay there. I’ll work at your desk when they’re done. Better to finish your train of thought.”
Zoe swivelled around to face her. “Thanks,” she said, her gaze still far away.
“No problem,” Mel replied. “Er, why are you looking at me like that?”
“Like you’ve turned into some kind of liquid chocolate and you want to be eaten up.”
Zoe coloured, snapping out of her Reyna daydream. “I’m not. I was just thinking… Anyway, thanks for letting me use your computer.”
“It’s fine,” Mel said slowly, drawing out the words suspiciously. “Take your time. Have it for the rest of the day. I’ll just be over at your desk.” She backed out of the cubicle.
“Thanks Mel. You’re a good friend.”
“Yes, yes. Get over it. I’m going to sign you up for an online dating account if you don’t snap out of it.”
Zoe sat up straight and glared at her friend. “You will not.”
“That’s better. I don’t know what you were thinking about but that was weird. Don’t do that again, okay?”
Zoe laughed, feeling guilty. “Fine, whatever. Let me get on with this now.”
“Good idea,” Mel said, retreating from her cubicle. “I’m gone,” she called. “I don’t know why you’re even still trying to talk to me. Get on with it already.”
Zoe laughed and turned back to the computer. The clock at the bottom of the screen read 10:45 a.m. She didn’t have long to go. She really would have to concentrate now if she was going to get this wrapped up on time. Definitely no more time for daydreaming about Reyna Azoulay.
Reyna Monday p.m.)
Reyna stared at the tousled black curls protruding from the top of the thick, quilted blanket. For some reason he liked to sleep with his face under the doona. She worried he wouldn’t be able to breathe properly and gently slipped it down from his face, like she had every night so far, admiring the sweet curve of his nose and the perfect rose of his lips. He looked so much younger than eight when he slept. Undoubtedly he would pull the blanket back up again before the night was done. His face was slightly flushed and she touched his forehead with the back of her hand. Warm and damp. She lifted the edge of the blanket, fanning him lightly, wondering if he would wake up and be confused. He was actually an exceptionally deep sleeper. Reyna joked that she could have a band play in his room and he would sleep right through it, but then again, the nightmares still woke him up quite regularly. The result of the trauma, the child psychologist had said.
Reyna searched his sleeping face for evidence of her sister, a habit she had fallen into over the last six months. His father’s solid features had left little room for her sister’s delicate lines, but there were subtle similarities. There was the curve of his chin, the length of his eyelashes. Other features were vastly different. Sarit’s nose had been straight and thin, inherited from their Israeli mother, and his was wider, softer. Reyna knew his face would change as he aged, but it was difficult to picture it now. He had their father’s thick Egyptian brow and when he opened his eyes, the dark irises of a long line of Middle Eastern ancestors. Asleep, he looked impossibly young, even for his brief eight years.
She took a long sip from her frosted glass, enjoying the burn of the whiskey as it slid down her throat. It had been a long day. Meeting after meeting after meeting. Her hand still ached from the burn she’d received in the tea room this morning and she pressed it absentmindedly against the cold glass. Zoe Cavendish was flying high as a financial adviser, a real rising star for the firm, but she was possibly a bit of a klutz.
Holden shifted, whimpering slightly as he turned to face the wall. He had decorated it with posters lifted carefully out of the kids’ magazines she sometimes bought him at the supermarket. An array of footballers, soccer stars, and comic figures stared down from the walls, brightening up the space. She supposed these were his heroes. A far cry from the movie stars and ponies she had put on her own walls as a child.
He frowned in his sleep, a quick furrow of his brow, almost a flinch. Soft black curls fell across his face and Reyna reached out and lightly smoothed them away. Was he dreaming of them—his mother and father, her sister, now forever out of reach? Reyna’s throat ached and her eyes welled with tears. He was doing well, but god it was hard. She had watched him struggle against the weight of his inner demons day after day, trying to fit in at the new school, doing his best to embrace this strange new life. She had seen shadows of pain pass over his face when he stared out the window on a rainy day. Occasionally he would break down, sobbing until he was hoarse, and she would hold him while his little body wracked and trembled in her arms. They had only talked a little; he wasn’t so big on talking. The psychologist had said this was normal. She still felt guilty for moving him back to Australia, but what else could she have done? There had been no one left to care for him in England after his parents had died. One fiery car crash had taken away his whole life.
Kissing him lightly on his forehead, she adjusted his blanket again and headed back to the kitchen to sort through the detritus of their evening meal. A stray pair of Lego men lay on the floor under his chair, locked in suspended battle. Reyna picked them up, tossing them into the toy box in the corner by the TV. He certainly was a whirlwind. It was impossible to keep up with the chaos that seemed to follow him from room to room, a tornado of toys and books.
She had been touched by the support her friends had shown when she had first brought him home, supplying her with much needed Legos and stuffed toys, books about superheroes she hadn’t even known existed (seriously, Ant Man?), and action figures. She had bought a few things as well, but there really had been little need. Even his clothing had been taken care of, with bags of small, bright T-shirts and pants arriving in the arms of friends, whenever they visited. They had organised it all while she had been over in London collecting him. She had only just held it together when she had arrived home, jetlagged and heartbroken, a small sleeping boy resting his head on her shoulder in the back of her parents’ car.
Her closest friends, Samira and John, had been on the doorstep to usher them in, casserole in the oven, a glass of wine poured, and a bed made up for him in her spare room. When everyone had finally left, she had sat outside his room and cried herself to sleep. The room had been so bare back then, just plain white walls and the guest futon that doubled as a couch, one small bookshelf with some treasured items and a lamp. They had redecorated it together after a trip to Ikea. Holden wanted yellow, so they bought a sunny yellow desk and a burnt yellow bedspread. They painted the walls a warm and friendly dandelion, fetching the ladder to stick a set of glow stars on the ceiling. But that first night had been hard and strange. For both of them. She had woken on the cold wooden floorboards outside of his room, stiff necked and heart sore, with Holden standing in front of her looking anxious.
“Aunty Rey, I need to pee,” he’d said. “Where do I go?”
Somehow they had made it through the last six months, intact. Her parents had been a godsend, picking him up from school each day and helping him with his homework until Reyna could make it back from the office. Most nights she made it home in time for dinner. Juggling the demands of her role as CEO of Azoulay House with this new responsibility of raising a child had been quite the challenge.
Single at thirty-eight, she hadn’t exactly given up on the idea of having children, but in truth, she also hadn’t really thought about it much. Friends joked that her career was her baby. And in a way it was. Seven years ago she had started Azoulay House, and since then, through long hours and dedicated hard work, she had taken the company from a respectable, but small accountancy firm, to a nationally sought-after industry leader and corporate business partner of the highest calibre. It had been hard work, but it had been worth it.
With the arrival of Holden, things had shifted. When she wasn’t in the office, she was learning to be the parent of a thoroughly grief-stricken, utterly beautiful eight-year-old boy. He required all her attention. There was no more casual dating, no more lazy Sunday mornings drinking coffee and reading the paper, many fewer bottles of wine with friends. She kept her business trips to a minimum. She was Skyping more with her national offices, conducting more of her work from her computer screen, rather than face-to-face. She had considered selling the firm or stepping down from her role as CEO, but with her parents’ support, she had allowed herself the luxury of maintaining her job. These days, though, she worked a lot from home in the evenings, finishing off the day’s emails and juggling the workload she would normally have fit into long days at the office when Holden was asleep.
Her mobile phone buzzed, snapping her out of her reverie. She dried her hands on her jeans and fished it out of her pocket. A message from Samira. Sunday night dinner?
Sure, we’d love to.
Her phone buzzed again. Smiley face. Come early. Boys can play. For the hundredth time she felt lucky to have such supportive friends as Samira and John. It had been Samira’s idea for Holden to try out for the local soccer club with their boys.
“It’ll be a great way for him to make some friends,” she had said as Reyna hauled herself across a freezing, muddy field at eight a.m. on a Saturday morning. And he had really seemed to come alive. He had played soccer back in London, he had told her, half wistfully, half excited. His favourite position was goalie. She had gasped with shock when he had fallen, taking a hard ball to the stomach, but he had nodded at her stoically and set himself back on his feet, his little body rigid with determination. And so, with her shoes entirely ruined, she had resolved to buy herself a pair of gumboots and a much warmer jacket, and sign him up for the team.
We’re doing okay, she thought as she pulled out his lunchbox and started to prepare his sandwich for school the next day. Her heart gave a painful little kick. We’re doing okay, she silently told her sister.
Zoe (Tuesday p.m.)
Zoe’s intercom crackled.
“Could you come to my office, please,” a familiar voice sing-songed. Her team leader Thomus (Thom-arse to his team behind closed doors) was a fan of buzzing people in to his office. He never came to their desks if he could help it. It was one of his many power plays.
“Sure,” Zoe replied, sighing as she saved her work and gathered up her notebook and pen.
Thomus was not renowned for being quick. He loved to theorise and digress, expounding his ideas mercilessly as he leaned back in his oversized swivel chair, hands linked behind his thinning, blond ponytail. By three o’clock he would have pronounced sweat patches under each armpit, and his room would be pungent with the mix of his man-scented deodorant and his heavy body odour. An afternoon meeting with Thomus was not something to look forward to. At least he tries to do something about it, Zoe thought charitably as she made her way to his office.
True to form, Thomus was not just leaning back in his oversized, black leather office chair, he actually had his shiny, brown brogues propped up on the large mahogany desk, ankles crossed.
“Zoe, come in, come in,” he sang at her as he twirled a pencil with his right hand, his mobile tucked between his shoulder and his ear. “I’ll just be a sec.”
Which he was not. Ten minutes later she was feeling far less charitable as she fidgeted in her seat, waiting for him to wrap up his call, his self-important tone grating on her nerves.
“Sorry, darl,” he said eventually, dropping his feet from the desk and tossing his mobile onto a pile of paperwork in front of him. “I had to take that.” He tipped himself forward in the overbearing chair, leaning his elbows on the desk. “The McFarlane audit,” he said, giving her a meaningful look. His black-rimmed eyes were small and rounded, sitting closely together in his thin, pale face, on top of a pair of large dark shows, almost racoon-like.
“Er, yes,” she replied, unsure where he was going with this. “I submitted the report yesterday at lunchtime as requested.”
“And what did you put in there?” From his tone, one could have concluded that Zoe had packaged up the final report with a handful of cockroaches included.
She spread open her palms, as if to say, just the usual. “Results of the audit, tax implications and future projections. Just everything the team has been working on for the last few months.”
“And?” He pressed his fingertips together, clearly probing for something in particular. She was at a loss to know where he was going.
“Cover page? Contact details?”
“I don’t suppose you included any advice in your report? No little suggestions for improvements?”
“There may have been a couple of small suggestions.” She tried not to look guilty. “But nothing beyond the scope of my role. I saw a way they could structure their tax burden slightly differently in the future and included it as a pathway for their consideration. That is perfectly within my scope.”
Thomus sighed, his thin eyebrows drawn together in disapproval. Slugs, she thought. His eyebrows looked like silvery slugs, creeping across his forehead. She would not be intimidated by him. She had done nothing wrong.
“You like to be a high flyer, don’t you, Zoe Cavendish?”
“Not everything we do has to be pushed to the nth degree, you know. Sometimes we can just meet the brief and move on. We don’t need to strive for industry recognition with every client.” His sarcasm clearly referenced the award she had won the previous year for Victorian Advisor of the Year.
Zoe pursed her lips, a slight flare of her nostrils the only indication that she was angry. “I’m just trying to do my job.”
“Well, they want to meet with us and explore this option further.”
Ah, so that was it! She blew out a short breath. Thomus hated field trips. He hated any reason to leave his pretentious office and potentially have to do extra work.
“Would you like me to go on my own?” she suggested, knowing he wouldn’t be able to accept. If there was any chance McFarlane’s wanted to take up her suggestions, Thomus would need to be there to claim the credit.
“No, no.” He waved his hand, brushing aside her suggestion. Suddenly his brow cleared. “I will invite them here.”
“Great.” She closed her notebook and pushed back her chair, hoping their meeting was done. The centrally heated air was thick with his smell and she was starting to feel lightheaded.
“Book us a meeting room and arrange this into a prospectus. If we’re going to assist them with this restructure, we should really take over the account entirely. You can organise a little morning tea for them or something. I like those biscuits with the shortbread and chocolate.”
“Right,” she said, knowing it would be useless to argue that booking meeting rooms and organising morning teas was hardly her role. “I’ll organise it. Have you spoken with them?”
“Not yet, just had the email. You can call them and get them in.”
She stood. “Anything else?”
“Try to stick to the script next time, Zoe. We don’t need to be fishing for extra business everywhere we look.”
She nodded briefly, and left the office, taking a deep breath of fresh air as she tried to calm herself. What an arsehole he was. Surely a manager was supposed to be pleased when a client was so impressed with your work they wanted to talk further. Wasn’t that what they were supposed to be doing? Building up business for the firm. Reyna had been banging that drum consistently since Zoe had joined the firm. “We offer an holistic service.” Zoe could clearly hear Reyna’s voice quietly driving the point home at their staff meetings. We aim to be corporate partners with the businesses we serve, not just tax agents, not just accountants, not just financial advisers. Their investment is our investment,” Reyna intoned.
Zoe knew the drill by heart. Thomus was possibly the laziest manager she had ever had. Why the firm put up with him, she did not know.
She stepped into the bathroom to freshen up, pausing at the mirror to check her face. She splashed some water on a paper towel and pressed it against her flushed cheeks. For some reason it always felt ten degrees hotter in his man cave.
The face she examined in the bathroom mirror looked reasonably well put together, given the hours she had put in this week. Long lashes framed her light brown eyes, slight shadows beneath them the only evidence of the late nights she had pulled to finish the McFarlane audit. Wavy, caramel-coloured hair, flecked with streaks of auburn, pulled up into a butterfly clip. She let her hair out and fluffed it with her hands, massaging her neck for a second.
Thomus made her feel stupidly tense. She wished he didn’t get so under her skin. She rubbed her temples in a circular motion, mimicking the stress relief techniques she had seen in an article in the tea room the other day. Was it making her feel better? Hard to tell really. She splashed some more water onto a towel, cooled her neck, and patted herself dry with some more paper towel. Right. Time to get back to work.
Pulling her hair back up into the clip, she studied herself, trying to imagine how others would see her. Her nose was small—a ski jump, her brother had called it. She had laugh lines around her eyes and her cheekbones were high. Medium lips—not too large, not to thin. She smiled at herself, checking her teeth for evidence of lunch. Her features were even, almost symmetrical. She had read once that symmetry was one of the key characteristics of attractive people. Did Reyna think she was pretty? She frowned at herself, waggling her manicured eyebrows. Ridiculous question. Reyna barely knew she existed.
As if summoned by her thoughts, the bathroom door swept open and Zoe yelped, instinctively jumping behind the door, fully expecting to see her boss enter the bathroom. Mel strode through the door and caught sight of Zoe in the mirror. She jumped.
“Woah!” Mel cried, swinging around to face her. “Why are you hiding behind the bathroom door? You gave me a fright. I swear you are not normal!”
Zoe chewed her lip. “I thought you were Reyna,” she said, ducking her head in embarrassment.
“So what if I was? Why the hell would you be hiding from Reyna?”
“Shh, Mel! Keep your voice down.”
“Reyna’s in her office,” Mel replied with exaggerated calm. “She’s unlikely to hear you from across the office and inside the bathroom. Are we losing the plot a little here do you think? Shall we come out from behind the bathroom door and go about the business of being a sought after and successful, highly paid financial adviser?” Mel smiled, to soften her words. “It is undignified for the Victorian Adviser of the Year to be hiding behind bathroom doors.”
Zoe grinned sheepishly. “I was thinking about Reyna and when the door opened I thought it was her. I panicked.”
“Fair enough. Well, it’s not her, it’s me. What are you doing hiding in here anyway?”
“I needed to freshen up. Thomus called me in to his office.”
“Oh no. What did Thom-arse want with you? For what reason were you called into the palace de stink?”
She grimaced. “He’s cross with me for doing such a good job on the McFarlane audit. They want more information so now we have to have a meeting with them.”
“Aha! How dare you be so good at your job as to generate more work for Thom-arse.”
“Yeah.” She stepped back over to the mirror, adjusting her hair clip. “How annoying am I?”
“Well, sometimes a bit annoying…” Mel smirked at her through the mirror. “Hey, shall we finish off the pamphlet for your seminar program after work tonight? I want to get it done before the next round starts. We could squeeze it in before dinner with the girls?”
Zoe checked her watch. “Damn,” she muttered, surprised to see that it was already three o’clock. “I’d better motor if there is going to be an ‘after work’ today. But yes, that would be good.”
~ ~ ~
At seven o’clock Zoe and Mel were still hunkered down in Zoe’s cubicle, making their way through a large plunger of coffee and a comprehensive review of the marketing material for the community financial wellness seminars Zoe had been running. Earlier in the year she had completed an online Diploma in Financial Counselling, qualifying her to provide emotional and practical support to people experiencing financial difficulty. It had been Mel’s idea. Hearing that Zoe was no longer entirely content with helping the rich get richer, Mel suggested she learn how to help the poor get richer too.
Zoe had seized on the idea, researching on the Internet until she had found the right course. Combined with her masters in accounting she was perfectly set to design her own seminar series, covering the basics of the emotional and intellectual demands of managing one’s finances, including budgeting, getting out of debt, and planning for the future. She was running the sessions on Monday evenings from the office after some manipulation of Thomus.
Naturally, he hadn’t been keen to support her idea, but Mel (to the rescue again) had convinced him that with the marketing department on board, they could really drive home a community service message that would look good for the company, and which would simultaneously enhance his own image. He had begrudgingly allowed her to proceed, as long as it didn’t encroach on her regular duties, of course. She had approached the local municipal council and struck a deal. They were pleased to be able to offer a free seminar series on such an important issue in conjunction with Azoulay House, agreeing to run advertisements in the local paper and manage enrolments, with Azoulay House supplying the venue and the course. Zoe had been ecstatic when fifteen people had shown up to her first Monday evening seminar. In a show of moral support, Mel had been attending too.
“Do you think management even knows we’re doing this?” Zoe wondered, stretching out her shoulders and giving a wide yawn. She gazed at the complex graphic design program Mel was expertly manoeuvring on the computer screen.
“If by management, you mean Reyna, then yes, for sure. I’d say she knows most everything that happens in her own firm.” Mel looked straight at Zoe, her normally clear blue eyes suddenly pensive. “God, you really have it bad for her, don’t you?”
“I do not,” Zoe said primly.
“Whatever.” Mel shook her head and changed the subject. “I think we’re good. We’ve got a full suite of marketing collateral to capture the essence of what you’re doing. I’ll run some of the posters off on the printer downstairs and you can take them to council tomorrow morning on your way to work.”
“Yeah and I can see how many have signed up for the new series next week.” Zoe stood and stretched, wriggling her hips. “I think my bum’s gone to sleep. What time is it?”
Mel checked her watch. “Holy shit, it’s after seven. We were supposed to meet the girls half an hour ago.”
Zoe shrugged. “So we’ll be late. We’re always late.” She reached over to save their document and then flicked off the screen. “If we leave now we’ll make it in time for dessert.”
~ ~ ~
Three cheerful faces, flushed with cheap wine and good spaghetti, greeted them as they walked through the door at La Travoletta.
“You’re late,” Enid said, pointing at her watch. “If we’ve told you once, we’ve told you a thousand times, dinner is at seven.”
“We ate without you,” Chiara chimed in.
Travis said hi and pulled out a couple of chairs. “Sit,” he gestured.
“Let me guess,” Enid said, pouring out two generous glasses of red wine and handing them across the table. “Working late?”
“Yep.” Zoe took a gulp of the wine and grimaced as the vinegary liquid made her mouth pucker.
They had never really graduated from cheap wine after their university days, everyone agreeing they had more or less developed a taste for it, so why waste money on the expensive stuff. Sometimes, though, she thought they could afford to lift the bar a little higher. Chiara slid a slice of pizza on to each of their plates and Zoe tucked in. She was ravenous. “Mel had a new proposal for the marketing material for my seminars,” she mumbled through a mouthful of pizza.
“You what?” Chiara asked, her face confused. “That sounded like you said Mel proposed to you.”
“She wishes. I was helping her with the seminar stuff,” Mel explained. “Now that she’s run a couple of sessions, we wanted to put together some proper collateral so we can advertise it more widely.”
Zoe actually felt excited as she and Mel explained exactly what was planned out for the sessions. This program had brought a new element of inspiration into her daily grind. She loved her job, but she had also found herself searching for something more. At the end of the day her work revolved around helping people make money, which was fine, but she was enjoying bringing that skill to regular people as well, not just big business. The corporate world had a tendency to be a bit soulless, so it was refreshing to feel like she was also helping normal, day-to-day people.
She knew her friends found it hard to understand, but Zoe truly loved working as a financial adviser. She loved the puzzle of making the numbers fit together, the excitement of following trails of figures to an answer that was often surprising. Sometimes she felt like a detective, deciphering clues, unearthing missing numbers, and then solving difficult financial problems.
Her friends thought her job was dry and boring. Travis had once described it as “sitting around with a calculator,” but for Zoe, it was far more than that. Her solutions had allowed clients to prosper and make the most out of their innovative ideas. What she loved the most was working with clients who were trying to achieve exciting outcomes, like breakthroughs in health care, technological developments, and enhancements in community development. She loved helping businesses manage their finances, so that they could really focus on their creative development.
“Well, I never thought I’d say this,” Enid said, tucking a strand of her golden hair behind her ear. “Your program actually sounds interesting! I think even I would like to come along, and I hate talking about money.”
“But that’s the whole point,” Zoe exclaimed, her eyes sparkling. “I want to help people overcome their financial fears and see it as a tool so they can get on with their lives.”
“Yeah,” Mel said seriously. “It seems like half the battle is won just by taking the fear out of it.”
“Count us in,” Chiara said, giving Travis a gentle poke in the ribs. “We could use a little help in that department.”
Travis sat up straight, knocking his knees under the table. Next to the petite Chiara with her lithe, dancer’s body, he looked like a gangly beanpole. “We’ll definitely be there. If we’re ever going to get a house deposit saved, we could really use some advice.”
Zoe beamed at her friends. It had taken forever for Travis and Chiara to admit their feelings for each other, and it still filled her with joy to see them so happy together.
“Careful,” Mel warned. “Zoe will give you too much advice if you let her. She’ll probably start with, ‘if you’re trying to save for a house deposit, don’t waste all your money on cheap booze and eating out at restaurants with your friends.’ At least that’s what she told me.”
“It’s probably true,” Travis mused. “Ah well, you can’t win ’em all. So, what does the esteemed Thom-arse think about it all?”
“Actually, he hasn’t mentioned it since he authorised it. It’s entirely possible that he has forgotten about it. The only time I’ve mentioned it to him was when he approved it, and that was after Friday drinks when he definitely had more than a couple of champagnes in him.”
“Speaking of, who wants a top up?” Enid waved the bottle. “We’ve got another one of these to get through people, so drink up.”
“Me, please,” Mel said, passing her glass over the table. “And can we order dessert now? I want ice cream.”
“We all ready for the Tough Mudder run next weekend?” Enid asked.
Travis groaned. “My hamstring is still playing up.”
“We’ll carry you through Trav,” Mel said. “We can give you a chair lift if your hammy gives out. Or Chiara can throw you over her shoulder, fireman style, and run you through to the finish line.”
Zoe grinned, enjoying the mental image of Chiara powering for the finish line with a lanky Travis draped across her. People always underestimated Chiara’s strength because she was so slight, but as a professional dancer her muscles were phenomenal and Zoe knew she could outmatch any of them in the strength department.
“Would you do that for me, babe?” Travis asked, and Chiara kissed him on the nose in answer.
“These events are definitely not as easy as they were back when we were at uni,” Zoe said.
“Easy for you to say,” Mel replied. “You’re still running almost every day. The only place I’m running to is flab town.” She poked at her nonexistent belly.
“Get out, Mel,” Enid said. “You haven’t got an ounce of flab on you.”
“Maybe you could do a little less wining and dining,” Zoe teased.
“Actually, Zoe.” Chiara drew out the words, a shy smile breaking over her face. “Speaking of wining and dining. Did you get my message about Petra?”
Zoe fiddled with her wineglass. “I did.”
She took a slow sip of the Burgundy and straightened the napkin in front of her. “Not really.”
“She really wants to meet you! Trust me, you’ll love her.”
“Yeah,” Travis agreed, nodding so enthusiastically he reminded her of one of those bobbing dogs on a car dashboard. “She’s smoking hot too. Not as smoking as you, babe,” he added quickly, dropping a kiss on Chiara’s cheek.
“She sounds great,” Zoe replied, trying to appear casual. “I just, well, I’m pretty busy with work at the moment.”
“You are not,” Mel chimed in.
Enid smirked. “You can’t use that excuse. Work is the whole reason we’re trying to set you up with someone. It’s time you blew out the Reyna flame and got yourself a real lover.”
“There is no Reyna flame,” she said quickly, feeling her cheeks redden.
“Yes, and there is no wine in your glass,” Enid countered. “And there’s no food on this table, and no people in the restaurant either. Are we talking opposites?”
Chiara smiled gently at Zoe, her dark eyes warm with understanding. “We’re not asking you to marry Petra, just have a drink? If you don’t hit it off, there will be no hard feelings. If you do… Well, we can cross that bridge if you come to it.”
“Can I think about it?”
“I wouldn’t advise it,” Enid said. “Thinking seems to be the problem here. I suggest we just say yes and get it over with.”
“It’s not exactly ‘we,’ though, is it?” Zoe huffed. “I’m the one who has to go on the potentially awkward date.”
“Yes, but we will live every moment of it with you before and afterward, so you’re really only on your own for an hour or so. Come on, Zoe. You haven’t been out on a date in forever,” Mel said.
She sighed. Her friends had been steadily trying to set her up with an array of different women for the last year. They claimed they were tired of her crush on Reyna, but Zoe didn’t think things were that bad. It was just a harmless crush, and she knew it would never come to anything. She was certainly never tempted to try and act on her feelings. Reyna was about as attainable as a casual holiday to the moon. But by the same token she was wary of her friends’ setups. They meant well, but things had turned out extremely awkwardly more than a few times. Zoe could laugh about it all afterward, but it was painful to live through in the moment. She had considered Internet dating but had never had the heart to finish setting up a profile. Better to just leave it and wait for things to happen naturally. Surely she would bump into someone in a bar or a bookstore one day and sparks would fly, just the way it worked for normal people.
“I’ll think about it.” She jutted out her chin stubbornly. “I actually do have quite a bit on at the moment with work and the new seminar program. It just might not be the best time.”
“No time like the present,” Mel sang, signalling the waiter over to order. “Book it in, Chiara.”
“Done.” Chiara waved her phone. “I sent her a message while we were talking. She’ll come for drinks Sunday night.”
“Wait, but I—”
“Dessert?” the waiter asked, leaning on the back of Zoe’s chair.
“Yes please. The usual everyone?” Mel looked around the group.
Everyone nodded, including Zoe, who had the feeling she had just been completely railroaded.