I wrote Liberty’s Secret thirteen years ago when I thought I was going to be a romance writer (before I got bored by the formula). But when I decided that wasn’t the kind of writing I wanted to do, my completed genre novel was essentially abandoned and forgotten. But sometimes I get nostalgic about the path I’ve taken as a writer (and that includes the path not taken). So over the next two months, I’ll be posting it here a chapter at a time.
This is Chapter Four.
‘I recently bought a book publishing outfit because it was a bargain and I knew I already had the people to turn the profit margin around.’
Quinn strolled over from the elevator to where Libby and Fraser were standing by the boot of her green BMW.
‘Publishing? You want me to head up a publishing company?’ Her voice was quietly serious, hiding deeper emotions.
‘Well, not quite. You wouldn’t be quite the top dog. Of course, you’d be responsible to me.’ Of course. Fraser would not run his businesses any other way. ‘And there’d be one other person at the same level of responsibility as you.’
Quinn could sense what was coming. But he wasn’t sure of the logic in the decision. He didn’t know the first thing about books beyond how to read them.
Libby could sense it, too.
‘Quinn.’ It was a statement.
‘Yes,’ Fraser acknowledged. ‘He’s been as much a part of the turnaround of Society as you have. You make a formidable team. So I want to apply it to my latest acquisition.’
Would his being part of the package influence her decision?
Quinn watched her closely, and could see her mind ticking over as she processed the information.
‘You’re obviously thinking long term here. I wouldn’t be able to make a success of something like that in the short term,’ Libby said, placing her cardboard box in the boot of her car and slamming it shut.
‘Well, longer term, anyway. Two years is my estimation at the very least. The structure you’ve set up for the magazine wouldn’t work in this case. The company needs strong creative leadership, someone to bring a variety of texts together to add up to a powerful reading list. You’ll have to ride out the decisions of the previous staff and then you’ll have a lengthy wait to see the fruits of your own labour.’
Quinn had to admit that when Fraser wanted to, he knew how to sell something. If Libby had been enthralled by the idea of turning Society around, then the idea of an entire list of new titles would have her salivating. And Quinn had that small insight into the private Libby. He had seen the library at her home that belied her interest. Nobody who had that many books could deny an attraction to the industry. He wondered if Fraser had been to her home and been inspired by that sight. Perhaps he had simply assumed that her experience at the literary agency he had poached her from would set her in good stead for the task.
‘And no publicity?’ It was still foremost in Libby’s mind.
‘Well, that would be up to the marketing department, but I think you and I both know that the authors are the ones who receive all the glory in this.’
‘I want you to stipulate, Fraser.’ She was determined.
‘It will be in your contract. Besides, you’ll be the boss. It’ll be your call.’
‘Quinn wouldn’t have a say?’ she wanted to know.
‘Quinn doesn’t know diddley about that side of the business. He’ll be there in a purely financial capacity.’ As derogatory as that sounded, Quinn was glad Fraser realised it.
It seemed as though Libby was satisfied by Fraser’s responses but there was just one more thing she had to know.
‘Why didn’t you just offer me this job in the first place? You knew I’d take it.’
Immediately, their boss looked at Quinn.
‘What?’ He didn’t see that it had anything to do with him.
Fraser said nothing until he looked back to Libby. ‘I knew you’d accept this job, considering what happened before I offered you the Society editor’s job.’ Libby looked uncomfortable at Fraser’s words and glanced at Quinn. Hmmm, more intrigue. Quinn was going to know this woman better if it killed him.
‘I wanted to know how you and Quinn worked together. That’s why I sent him after you.’
‘Oh. And, of course, there was a full debriefing from Quinn before you came to offer me this job.’
‘Of course,’ Fraser admitted without embarrassment. ‘I don’t leave these things to chance.’
Libby looked at Quinn for a long time before speaking again. ‘What did he say about me?’
‘He said I shouldn’t call you a pushy, stubborn broad to your face. He said you were the best thing to happen to the magazine since it’s inception. And he said he didn’t think he’d be able to match your passion for the job.’
‘He’s right,’ she said without any embarrassment of her own.
‘He also said that you’d complement each other’s strengths and weaknesses. And I agree. I think the two of you together will be an unbeatable team.’ Fraser could be passionate himself when he wanted to be.
Quinn wondered if his presence was really necessary for this conversation. He didn’t seem required to say anything. Fraser was convincing her all on his own. But he liked being around Libby. He couldn’t deny that.
‘So when do we start?’ she asked and that was the end of negotiations. They went back to the restaurant where the saga had begun. Libby drove her car and Fraser and Quinn rode in the limousine. For anyone who didn’t know Fraser, which was a great many people, they might think it was a symbol of his incredible arrogance and tendency to show off. But it was simply that the limousine was the only car Fraser owned and that he didn’t know how to drive. He had been a rich man all his life and had never needed to learn. He had been too busy building his father’s businesses from moderately successful to monumentally lucrative.
They were seated at the same table as before and Libby was immediately in business mode. The conversation was held mostly between Libby and Fraser. Quinn gleaned most of what he had to know from them. The information that would fill in the gaps would come from a thorough study of the company’s accounts. No quantity of words could speak to him the way numbers did.
Quinn learned the company’s name was Verbatim Press, that his title would be Vice President – Financial and that Libby’s title would be Vice President – Editorial. Fraser would, of course, be the President, just as he was president of all his subsidiaries, despite his limited day-to-day involvement. Quinn knew, however, that he did enough to warrant the title. He and Libby might be the golden children but Fraser’s ability to grab the opportunities was uncanny. There had been many allusions in the media to Fraser’s having the Midas touch. Quinn didn’t doubt it.
Fraser produced sheafs of material for them to study. Libby immediately delved into hers, skimming the pages before closing them. She would pore over them later tonight; Quinn just knew it.
He briefly opened the file Fraser had presented to him, noting the contents and flicking through the report. It was impressive, even from that brief glance he had taken.
‘Who put this together?’ he asked.
‘A junior at the company.’
‘I think I’ve found my assistant,’ Quinn said quite seriously, and Fraser grinned.
‘I knew you’d appreciate her. She was one of the first people I met who I instinctively knew would be staying on.’
Quinn shook his head almost imperceptibly. He and Fraser were alike in so many ways. It was strange. Or perhaps it wasn’t, considering their history. But he didn’t want to think about that now. It was complicated and he needed to concentrate on the job at hand.
‘Who put my report together?’ Libby wanted to know.
‘Someone in middle management,’ Fraser responded and Quinn could see the Libby he had seen when she had first come to work at Society.
‘Hmmm,’ was all she said, but Fraser could read her as could Quinn.
‘I think she’s found the first person to put on the redundancy list,’ Fraser commented in an aside, and Libby looked at them without apology. It was her hiring and firing that had made their previous assignment an out-and-out success.
‘Well, I think that’s about as much as I can tell you. Report to the address on the files tomorrow morning and there’ll be someone to show you around. You’ll have the week to get settled and I’ll expect your preliminary reports by Friday week.’ Fraser stood and buttoned his suit jacket. ‘I’d wish you luck but I know you’d throw it back at me saying luck has nothing to do with it. And I’d agree. So just make me proud. And rich.’
‘You’re already rich, Fraser,’ Libby pointed out.
‘So make me richer,’ he amended and she laughed, a genuine peal of amusement. It was such a tempting sound. Quinn was glad to be alone with her again. They both watched Fraser cross the room and walk through the front door held open for him by the doorman, then slip into the back of his limousine.
Quinn kept his gaze on the front of the restaurant until the black stretch drew away, and when he turned back to look at Libby she had her head bent over her folder of notes. He ran a hand over his own folder but felt little inclination to open it and follow Libby’s lead.
He checked his watch, noting it was after five.
‘So…?’ He wasn’t exactly sure what he wanted to say but he wanted Libby to be focused on him, not the sheaf of papers that held their immediate occupational futures.
She looked up at him as if she had forgotten his presence. It was the second time she had done it that day and it frustrated Quinn to think he didn’t disturb her in the way she disturbed him. He was constantly aware of her presence, and couldn’t seem to stop looking at her.
Maybe he should take the hint and keep their relationship on a business footing. After all, they were going to be working side by side now. In such a close business relationship there was often no room for anything personal. And Verbatim Press now had to be their number one priority.
Business, he decided; their relationship had to be about business.
‘Would you like to have dinner with me?’ he asked, immediately breaking the covenant he had just silently agreed to. ‘We really do need to discuss the company,’ he clarified, for both her benefit and his own.
‘I can’t,’ she said straight away, then frowned and searched the ceiling for a reason why. She was so easy to read, Quinn thought. ‘I have to get home to Dee.’
She began collecting the various papers and shoved them inside the folder Fraser had given her. ‘But we do need to talk about the company.’ She dithered at his side before speaking again. ‘Would you like to have dinner with Dee and I?’
Quinn was shocked.
‘It won’t be anything home-cooked. I tend to be a takeout specialist on weeknights. Or a gourmet defroster.’ She frowned again, as if trying to decide which was worse.
‘I’d like that,’ he responded before she could take the offer back.
She smiled thoughtfully as if she was wondering why she had asked him. ‘Do you like Chinese food?’
* * *
They arrived back at Libby’s house an hour later, bearing a dozen little white containers full of rice and noodles, black bean beef, honey chicken and sweet and sour pork. She effortlessly pulled her BMW into the garage at the side of the house and switched off the ignition.
Sitting in the passenger seat and watching Libby drive was another opportunity for Quinn to study her. She was a safe but confident driver and her technique had immediately put him at ease. He never drove a car himself, much like Fraser, but owned a motorcycle that he bummed around on during the weekends. He felt it was inappropriate to show up at the office on it, so he cabbed it to and from work. Besides he felt strange on his bike wearing a suit.
He speculated how Libby would feel riding on the back of his bike, her arms tightly around his waist, her thighs parted to accommodate him.
‘Are you coming in?’ She got out of the car without waiting for an answer, retrieving her bag and folder, and opening the boot to take out her cardboard box full of personal books. Quinn emerged, shaking his head to clear his thoughts, with his own folder and a box full of little white cartons of Chinese food.
They went inside and were immediately accosted by Dee.
‘Lib, where you been? I’m starved,’ she said, grabbing the box of food from out of Quinn’s arms. ‘Hey, Quinn.’ She headed to the kitchen.
‘See? I told you she liked me.’
‘Don’t start,’ Libby said sternly but Quinn caught her smile as she turned away.
They ate at the scrubbed pine kitchen table, and for the first time in a long time, Quinn felt like part of a family. He watched with contentment as Dee and Libby talked and joked and included him in their joviality. Libby was a completely different woman around her sister.
When they had all eaten their fill and pushed the little cartons aside, Dee brought out the local suburban tabloid and began flicking through the pages.
Libby was standing by the dishwasher, inserting plates and stowing cutlery. She looked up at the very quiet sound of Dee turning the pages.
‘Dee, I don’t think that’s appropriate tonight.’
‘What? It’s just Quinn,’ Dee said, and stopped when she found the page she was searching for. Quinn felt that strange warmth that had been enveloping him all evening strengthening considerably. He liked the way Dee included him after such a short period of their knowing one another. Apparently she felt she didn’t have to scare him off. She hadn’t called Libby ‘Mother’ once since they had arrived back at the house.
‘I’d prefer it if we didn’t do this tonight. Quinn and I have work to do.’
‘Lib, if you and Quinn aren’t dating, then we need to do it. Maybe we’ll find someone for Quinn, too.’ Dee began running her finger down the columns of the paper and Libby was suddenly smiling.
‘What is this?’ Quinn asked.
‘This is our traditional Tuesday ritual of Dee humiliating me by finding suitable candidates for the future Mr Libby Freeman. But as long as she’s humiliating you as well searching for the future Mrs Quinn O’Connell, I’ll go along with it.’ Libby sat back down at the table opposite Quinn, watching him with amusement.
‘Oh, well, I’m always on the lookout for the future ex-Mrs Quinn O’Connell,’ he quipped in return. ‘Match me up, Dee.’
‘Oh, God, I’ve found one for Lib already,’ she said, struggling not to laugh. ‘Get this. This is the entire ad. “Are you looking to get pregnant? Look no further.”’
They all laughed at that one.
She moved over to another column and scanned down the ads. ‘Quinn, you ready? This one definitely has ex-potential written all over it.’
‘I’m ready,’ he said, sitting forward in anticipation.
‘“Married professional lady, mid-40s, seeks young, hung stud for discreet fun times.” Like I said, ex-potential.’ Dee looked up to gauge Quinn’s reaction and tried not to laugh.
‘Well, I’m thirty-one now. I don’t know that I qualify as young anymore,’ he said pointedly and Libby burst out laughing as Dee turned bright red. Well, she was only fourteen. But she was old enough to realise that what Quinn hadn’t said was more informative than what he had.
‘You don’t look thirty-one,’ was all she said in response.
Quinn’s eyes rested on Libby and they shared a moment of something. Something happy and completely free of influence from the past or the future. It was just about the two of them sitting there at that exact moment.
Maybe it wasn’t just him. Maybe he was getting to her, too.
Libby looked away after a long moment, as did Quinn, to find Dee staring at them. She went back to the columns.
‘Okay, I have another one. Serious this time, Lib. “Handsome, mid-30s professional, kind, romantic, good sense of humour, loves kids and occasionally letting loose seeks similar for friendship, possible relationship.” Sounds like a keeper, Lib.’ Dee waited for Libby’s reaction and Quinn wondered about the ad. It sounded very much like the type of ad he would put in himself if he ever had the inclination. And then it hit him what Dee was doing.
‘No doubt he’s an egomaniac, workaholic, wild child who laughs at his own jokes,’ was Libby’s interpretation. Quinn grimaced. She wasn’t too far off, despite the extremes in her description. He was confident, but flatly denied any accusations of egomania; he did work hard although she really couldn’t point fingers on that score; and on weekends he did tend to bare his soul and let the inner rebel control him.
‘Maybe he’s misunderstood,’ Dee offered and Libby scoffed, getting up and going to the fridge.
‘Who’s for ice cream?’ she asked and both Quinn and Dee nodded their heads.
Dee turned her focus to Quinn.
‘Okay, Quinn, how about this one? She sounds interesting. I’m not sure about ex-potential though. “Attractive, mid-20s professional, genuine, shy but fun, with good sense of humour and lovable sister, seeks Mr Right, secure, loving, able to make me laugh. Serious applicants only need apply.”’
Libby paused in the action of reaching into the freezer for the tub of ice cream and looked at Dee past the open freezer door. ‘Dee.’
‘Libby, I swear that’s exactly what it says. So what do you think, Quinn?’
He looked at Dee and marvelled at her daring. Before he could arrange his tumbling thoughts into a coherent reply, Libby countered, ‘Quinn, for your health, I advise you not to say anything.’
He turned to watch her standing behind him, feeling somewhat like the meat in the sandwich.
‘Lib, for your health, I advise you to lighten up,’ Dee retorted, closing the paper and standing up. ‘Well, I feel my work for the evening is done. And I’ve got a hot date with Keanu Reeves. I really shouldn’t keep him waiting. ’Night, Quinn. ’Night, Lib.’
She left Quinn sitting at the table and Libby holding the frosted tub of butterscotch ice cream.
Quinn turned to look at Libby and raised his eyebrows at Dee’s blatant behaviour. She busied herself, scooping ice cream into two bowls and replacing the tub in the freezer, before setting a bowl and spoon in front of him and sitting down again with her own.
Delicately, Libby spooned a tiny portion into her mouth as if aware he was watching her. She licked the spoon clean with precision before spooning another portion in the direction of her mouth. The silver spoon halted half way to its destination and Quinn was almost disappointed at being denied the opportunity to witness her tongue come creeping out its moist cavern to engulf the creamy dessert. She looked uncomfortable at his unwavering scrutiny.
Instead of pressing his advantage, he said, ‘A hot date with Keanu Reeves?’
She looked relieved. ‘Not quite. She’s almost worn out her video copy of Speed. It’s her favourite movie.’
‘Can I ask you something?’
‘Shoot,’ Libby responded, lulled by his reference to Dee.
‘Why are you so nervous when you’re alone with me?’
Her head came up suddenly, her eyes meeting his. He could see her mind processing the numerous responses she could give. In the end, he could tell she went for the easiest and truest response.
‘I don’t know.’
Well, at least she hadn’t denied it.
‘Are you afraid I’ll try to kiss you again?’ No-one could accuse him of subtlety. She smiled wryly.
‘Afraid isn’t the word I’d use. In fact, I’m sure it’s not an entirely unpleasant prospect. And the way we keep being thrown together, it seems inevitable.’ It was a surprisingly frank admission. She smiled again and said with humour in her voice, ‘Maybe we should just get it over with.’
Quinn was stuck to his chair. Get up, his body urged. Go to her. Take her face between your hands and kiss her senseless. Don’t let her even think about getting out of it now.
But he remained where he was, struck dumb by her words. She looked down at her bowl and ate another small portion of ice cream, and he could tell she was surprised he had responded so passively to her statement.
Even he was silently reprimanding himself. Stupid, stupid, stupid! But the moment was over and still he couldn’t even pick up his spoon and eat any of the dessert.
If she had kept quiet, he probably would have sat there stupidly for another ten minutes, going over and over her words and his lack of response to them. But the one thing he wasn’t prepared to do was let her think he wasn’t interested. He looked at her again, as she rose from her chair, taking her unfinished bowl of ice cream with her and depositing it on the sideboard of the sink.
Quinn was out of his chair in seconds and by her side. He grasped her arm, spinning her about to face him, and paused for a moment to take in her stunned expression. Then he was too close to see anything else and he closed his eyes and kissed her.
He could feel her surprise in her response or rather initial lack of one. But once he started on the course he had chosen, he found it difficult to stop. And he didn’t want to stop. He wanted to go on kissing her for as long as she would let him.
He opened his mouth over hers and could taste butterscotch. For a moment he just savoured the sensation of her lips, cool and sweet from the ice cream, under his. But she began to open her mouth and kiss him back, and he was lost. His passion overwhelmed him and his last logical thought was to wonder how a woman he barely knew could affect him so much.
Her arms went around his neck and she deepened the kiss. There was no hint of any nervousness, only what he could perceive as a deeply felt response. And suddenly she was taking control, pushing him back against the sink. His arms left the controlling position they had taken around her biceps, going around her waist, and he parted his legs. She moved closer to him in the available space, pressing her body against his, moving sinuously against him. Every one of his muscles corded tightly and blood rushed faster throughout his body, every drop making its way towards the culmination of his desire for her.
His large hands measured her slim body, caressing up and down her back, while his mouth moved over her eyes, her cheeks, her neck and the shoulder he exposed to his touch. This woman was all woman. This woman was all fire. And Quinn was on fire. He could not get enough of her. He couldn’t get close enough to her to satisfy himself. He knew that one or two kisses would do little to quench his hunger for her.
His tongue touched hers lightly, and again he could taste the butterscotch, the sweet, creamy residue lacing her tongue and adding to the thrill of his mouth on hers, her mouth on his.
Libby’s hands went in his hair, her fingers running through his soft, thick brown locks, and she made a sound deep in her throat that sent Quinn insane. He immediately pushed his frame off the edge of the sink and stood up to his full height, his arms remaining in place around Libby’s waist and his mouth remaining in place on hers. She dangled there for a moment before he allowed her feet to touch the floor again. But he didn’t allow her any time to get comfortable. He cupped his hands underneath her rear, momentarily savouring the perfect fit, unconsciously moving his hips in an effort to feel even millimetres closer, and then lifted her to sit on the kitchen counter.
Her legs instantly splayed and then joined at the ankles around his waist, bringing them into breathtakingly intimate contact. The little skirt she had been so self-conscious over earlier in the day now seemed to cover far too much and Quinn pushed the hem up further, past her thighs to bunch at her hips. She wasn’t wearing stockings, he noted in aroused approval, and he ran his hands over the length of her long, toned legs, his hand going around one ankle, circling the joint.
Her hands pulled back from the softness of his hair to frame his face, and as much as Quinn felt the impulse to continue kissing her, he felt an even stronger one to stop for one moment to look into her eyes. He lifted his head and opened his eyes, watching her face until she did the same. They were both refilling their lungs in great gasps, their bodies simultaneously demanding respite and completion.
‘Libby.’ He wasn’t asking anything, or demanding anything, or doing anything beyond savouring the texture of her name on his tongue.
‘Quinn.’ She said it softly, like a purr, her voice devoid of any identifiable emotion but the position of her body said quite enough.
It was a voice he hadn’t been expecting to hear, and a name that he thought would only come from his lips at that exact moment.
Libby twisted her head to take in the sight of Dee standing by the pine table, her smile one of wicked incredulity, her eyes wide, taking in the sight of them in their intimate embrace, their bodies still pressed fervently together.
Libby’s legs immediately unfolded from around Quinn’s waist and she pushed the hem of her skirt back down to a respectable height as Quinn stepped away from her, with a mixture of relief and regret. The one thing he had been hoping for had happened, pleasurable and perfect, only to be interrupted. Dee seemed to have some sort of alarm clock to tell her when the most inconvenient time to disturb them would be.
The older Freeman slid down from the bench, her cheeks vividly crimson. ‘Dee—’
‘Way to go, Quinn!’ said the fourteen-year-old, going on twenty.
‘Dee!’ Libby was embarrassed. He didn’t need to look at her to know it. He was embarrassed himself. Adults acting like teenagers caught by a teenager who acted too much like an adult.
‘I came back for ice cream but maybe I should go for popcorn. This is better than the movie. And you know how much I love Keanu Reeves, Lib.’
‘Dee—’ Libby’s hand went to her forehead with frustration.
‘Geez, Lib, don’t get all upset. It’s not like I don’t know that guys kiss girls and girls kiss guys. And even though you acted like you’d forgotten how since Mum died’ – Libby’s eyes immediately went to Quinn’s – ‘I knew you still had it in you.’
‘Dee!’ Libby’s cheeks, from which the colour had been receding, flamed again.
‘What?’ She seemed, if not oblivious, then completely unsympathetic to Libby’s situation. Quinn guessed it wasn’t often that Dee wandered into the kitchen to find her older sister virtually making love to a man. The thought made him smile with a sort of perverse possessiveness.
You barely know her, he reprimanded himself. And the censure returned severely dressed down. You know her well enough to kiss her senseless and start out on the path to making love. Sex? he put in with the last vestige of bachelor hope. Making love, came the silent response. And he knew it to be true.
‘Do you mind?’
‘Not at all, Lib. Feel free to kiss Quinn any time you wish.’ Dee poked a finger into the dish of melting ice cream Quinn had abandoned on the table and licked the tip of her finger clean.
‘Dee, go to your room.’ Libby had had enough. Quinn watched her transformation. Like she had said earlier, she was the adult here. And if she had a man in her bedroom – or in her kitchen, as in this instance – she wasn’t going to be manipulated by her fourteen-year-old sister into feeling shame.
Dee smiled demurely, picking up Quinn’s untouched bowl of ice cream and the spoon that lay beside it, and exiting the kitchen. ‘Later.’ She was still smiling widely, and if it had been a cartoon, there would have been a tiny little devil sitting on her shoulder. Quinn wasn’t sure that he couldn’t see one whispering in her ear right now.
Her departure left Quinn and Libby alone in the room, and as much as he wanted to resume where they had left off, he didn’t think Libby had the same inclination. She continued to stand in the middle of the room with her back to him. He didn’t approach her and for a long time she didn’t turn around.
When she did, her face was composed, the passion he had glimpsed momentarily, long gone.
All she said was, ‘It’s late, Quinn. Maybe you should go.’
‘Sorry?’ She was confused, and so was he.
‘After what just happened, that’s all you have to say? It’s late? And maybe I should go?’
She swung away from him again, walking out of the kitchen, and Quinn followed her.
‘It was just a kiss,’ she said, picking up Quinn’s folder of notes from the coffee table in front of the television where he had left them. She continued moving across the polished floorboards towards the front door.
‘Just a kiss?’ Quinn echoed, tracing her footsteps and finally catching up with her by the heavy wooden door at the front of the house. ‘Maybe you’ve forgotten a few things in four years. That was not just a kiss. That was so much more than a kiss, Libby. That was passion. That was you and me. That was us.’
Libby reached up to unhook his jacket from a spoke on the hat stand, shoving it at him along with the folder, then opening the door. She pushed him through it then said the words that sounded all too familiar, yet far too late to be relevant.
‘I don’t get involved with people I work with.’