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Daisy Patel had no issues with besotted lovers hiding away in a toilet cubicle for a little covert tongue gymnastics. For the most part, technology conferences were stressful and boring, and if someone could find a little lip loving between networking, speakers, and seminars, she didn't begrudge them their happiness.
In this case, however, the gold medal winner of the twist 'n' tangle in the women's restroom at the Oakland Convention Center happened to be her ex-boyfriend, Orson Fisk.
And the woman in his arms was her former boss, Madison Montgomery, CEO of Activize LLC.
"Ahem." Her attempt to draw their attention fell on deaf ears. Or maybe they didn't care. Maybe Orson had been bespelled, and when he was finally released from Madison's clutches, he would realize he'd made a mistake breaking up with a neurotic software engineer and her pakora-loving pup. Daisy and Max came as a package; dog haters be warned.
Curiously numb at the sight of her ex wrapped around her old boss like the most tenacious of invasive species, Daisy slammed a quarter into the disposable menstrual product dispenser.
She'd been under no illusions when Orson had asked her out after they'd met in a Developer Week hack-a-thon in Oakland, California. Clearly he was desperate for a hookup. After all, not many men were interested in a woman who lived by plans and quantifiable results and could do one compile a day in C++ in a POSIX environment with zero errors. They wanted the prom queens, not the class valedictorians; the women who wielded fashion as a weapon, and not a shield. So she'd been thrown off her Manic Pixie Dream Girl game when Orson had called after their one-night stand and asked her out again.
Thirty-five going on sixty-five, devoid of any body fat, and possessing a wispy goatee, Orson had introduced her to long walks, black coffee, art house films, slow jazz, gourmet cooking, and the benefits of intellectual over physical relationships. They worked in the same field, attended the same conferences, and shared the same interests in the online world. It should have been perfect. And yet she'd never once, in the four weeks they'd been seeing each other-making it the longest relationship in her life-thought of introducing him to her family. Serious relationships were not in a life plan that involved working hard, looking after her dad, and growing old alone in the house where she'd been born.
Orson tugged on Madison's blouse, tearing the top button to reveal the secret treasures of a woman seriously lacking in discretion. There was nothing intellectual about his frenzied pawing. If Daisy had known tearing off clothes was one of Orson's skills, she might have put a ring on it right away. But she'd been plagued with doubt. Why didn't she feel the flutters in her chest that were supposedly indicative of love? Where were the birds that were supposed to be tweeting around her head? Did she have some kind of chemical imbalance, or was something else wrong? Only when she caught Orson and Madison doing the nasty in Madison's office late one evening did she finally feel something.
As she had always suspected, she was meant to be alone.
Turning the crank as slowly as possible to maximize the decibel level of menstrual product release, she glanced over again at Orson and Madison pawing at each other like horny teenagers. She should make a quick exit before she said something awkward that would make the situation infinitely worse. Her tendency to blurt out whatever was on her mind had gotten her into trouble too many times. She was happiest alone in her cubicle at work, fully immersed in a screen of code, her favorite dance beats playing over her headphones. There was beauty in the simplicity of programming. If something was illogical, it simply wouldn't work.
Maybe there was a message here that wasn't getting through. She assessed the situation as if it were code and came up with: <>. It was the story of her life all over again.
The menstrual pad dropped into the dispenser with a soft thud. Her new boss, Tyler Dawes, CEO of Organicare, only needed one of the competitor's pads for the demonstration, but what if something went wrong? If they didn't secure more venture capital funding soon, the company would shut down and all of Organicare's employees would be out of work.
It didn't help that Tyler was a terrible salesman. A professor at Caltech, with a Ph.D. in chemical engineering, he had become involved in developing sustainable, organic menstrual products after his daughter, Kristina, realized there was a gap in the market. With hard work and millions in venture capital funding, they had built a successful subscription-based, direct-to-consumer business with an app-based product for lifestyle health and wellness. And then everything had gone wrong.
Daisy pushed another quarter into the slot and yanked on the dial. If Tyler had asked her to pitch with him when he first signed up for the conference, she wouldn't have been in the restroom at all. Daisy didn't go into meetings unprepared. Instead of sweating it out as she tried to dispense a pad in silence, she would have been seated in the air-conditioned conference room, sipping homemade chai from her thermos as she mentally rehearsed a demonstration she would have practiced for weeks.
Still oblivious to her presence, Orson and Madison continued to make out in the toilet stall, shaking the metal walls as they grappled and groaned. The toilet flushed-not once or twice, but three times in quick succession. Daisy hoped it was from an excess of passion and not because they'd had the dodgy seafood at the buffet lunch. She'd told herself to avoid it, but those prawns had been so tempting . . .
In any event, it was all very disappointing. When she and Orson had been together, he had been an efficient, no-nonsense lover, expressing the satisfactory outcome of their coupling with a whoosh of air followed by glass of Rioja and a deep dive into Aristotle's science of logic envisioned through the syllogism. There had been no moans or panting, no bras falling on the filthy tiles (thank God!), and no automatic toilets flushing a symphony of germs into the air.
The second pad dropped out of the machine, followed by another and another. Boxed pads shot out of the machine, hitting Daisy in the chest like bullets. She dropped to a crouch, scrambling to catch them before they touched the floor.
"Is someone there?" Madison called out.
Oh the huge manatee. Programmer slang for a catastrophic data failure, or in this case, a malfunctioning menstrual pad machine. Panicking, Daisy grabbed the boxes and bolted out of the restroom.
"Daisy! I was looking for you." Salena Auntie, her father's sister, ambushed her only a few steps from the door.
"What are you doing here, Auntie-ji?" Chest heaving, she looked over her shoulder to make sure she hadn't been followed. The last thing she wanted was for Madison and Orson to think she'd been spying on them. Although she'd been devastated by their betrayal, she wasn't the type of woman who wanted revenge, nor would she ever stoop to begging Orson to take her back. She wasn't that pathetic. One unfortunate drunk dial had cured her of that.
"I was having lunch with my friend Anushka and her son, Roshan, and they mentioned he was looking for a wife." Salena Auntie gestured to the tall, handsome man behind her. "I thought you'd be perfect for each other. I called your office and they said you were here, so we thought we'd drop in."
Daisy bit back a groan. Her aunties had been on a mission to get her married ever since her cousin Layla had gotten engaged, approaching the task with military precision. They showed up unannounced and unexpected at her home, her gym, grocery stores, and malls, always with an innocent bachelor in tow, and always on the pretense of "just being in the neighborhood" even if the "neighborhood" was an hour away.
"I'm so sorry." Daisy shot what she hoped was an apologetic smile at the dark-haired stranger. "I don't have time to chat. I'm about to go into a pitch session, and I have to get these product samples to my boss."
"But you haven't even met Roshan!"
"Another time!" She bolted away, clutching the boxes of pads as she wove in and out of the crowd, her heart pounding in her chest. When she'd woken up this morning, she would never have guessed she would be pulled away from her cozy workspace and dragged to a tech conference, only to wind up on the run from her ex, with an armload of pads and her matchmaking auntie hot on her heels.
Maybe she hadn't woken up. Maybe this was just a dream and any moment now she would open her eyes and . . .
"Ooof." She hit a slab of something rock hard and teetered back on red Mary Janes that were slightly too high for comfort but looked fabulous with her red flowered minidress. Daisy didn't care that her feet were usually hidden away under her desk all day. Shoes made an outfit. Whether they were kitten heels with kitten faces, funky flats decorated with embroidered bananas, or even her blinged-up biker boots, her shoes were always the finishing touch to her somewhat eclectic sense of style.
Off-balance, she dropped the pads, her hands flailing for purchase, her Marvel Universe tote bag swinging from her shoulder. Tyler was going to kill her if she didn't die from the cerebral hemorrhage that would be inevitable once her head hit the tile floor. At least Salena Auntie was there. One text and the entire Patel family would know when and how she died, and the funeral would be arranged before the ambulance arrived to take her to the morgue.
Time slowed and she squeezed her eyes shut as she fell, trying to remember every moment of her twenty-seven years on earth-happy family, sad family, small family, big family, heartache, heartbreak, Max . . .
She was so preoccupied with reliving her most poignant memories that it took her a moment to realize she was no longer airborne. Strong, warm hands encircled her waist, holding her safe.
"Are you okay?"
Deep, warming, and as delicious as liquid caramel, the voice sent a tingle of electricity down her spine, and a jolt of recognition through her body as hard as the strong arms around her.
She knew that voice. She had heard it almost every day for ten years. Her gaze lifted, and for a moment she forgot to breathe.
Liam Freaking Bastard Murphy.
Her brother's onetime best friend. Her undying preteen crush, teen obsession, and still the object of her nightly fantasies. The man who had broken her heart and disappeared from her life never to be seen or heard from again . . .
Her pulse kicked up a notch, as the still-functioning part of her brain cataloged his appearance. Time had worn hard lines and chiseled planes into what had once been a slightly rounded face, tipping the balance from simply handsome into breathtakingly gorgeous. A five-o'clock shadow darkened his jaw, and his lips-God, his lips-were firm and curved into the familiar smile that had once made her weak in the knees.
"Daisy?!" His voice rose slightly in pitch, and her gaze snapped up to eyes as blue as the ocean she had wanted to drown herself in after Liam stood her up on the night of her senior prom and scurried off into oblivion like the lowly night-crawling scumbag he had turned out to be.
She opened her mouth to speak but nothing came out. How did she express the maelstrom of emotions coursing through her veins? It had been ten years since she'd stood alone on the front steps of her house-in a bright pink prom dress, the corsage her father had bought her pinned to her shoulder-waiting for Liam to take her to the prom. Ten years since he'd disappeared, never to be seen again. How many times had she imagined this moment?
Should she slap him or kick him between the legs?
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Liam's arms tightened around Daisy's waist in a grip he seemed in no hurry to break. "I can't believe it's you."
Of course he couldn't. The Daisy he knew was young and innocent and had fully embraced her position on the high school geek squad. Her clothes had been quirky and weird, a mix of accessories, colors, patterns, and fandoms that she'd combined into a unique geek-chic style. She'd tied her long, dark hair in a ponytail so it didn't get in the way when she was helping the freshmen with their computer programs, mixing chemicals for science fair projects, or studying for the latest math competition. Prom night was the first time she'd ever dressed up, and even then she'd had to ask her cousin Layla to help with her hair and makeup. Not that it had done much good.
"Let me go, Liam." How ironic that she'd spent her teen years dreaming of being in Liam's arms, and now it was the last place on earth she wanted to be.
"For a moment there, I thought you didn't recognize me." He slowly relaxed his grip and she pulled away, feeling instantly bereft.
"I wish that were true." She looked back over her shoulder for an escape route only to see Orson and Madison walking her way, hand in hand, hair slightly mussed, clothes askew. Behind them, Salena Auntie battered her way through the crowd with her enormous red purse, poor Roshan following in her wake.
Just what she needed. A lifetime's worth of humiliation descending on her all at once.
Liam studied her intently as if he hadn't heard the burn. "How long has it been?"
"Ten years, eleven months, thirteen days, thirteen hours, forty-seven minutes, and sixteen seconds." The clock behind him had a bright red second hand for precise calculation.
She realized her mistake when his lips tugged into an infuriating smirk.
"You haven't changed."
Hadn't changed? Was he serious? She'd grown up the night she had to go to the prom with Layla instead of with the most infamous bad boy in their high school. It was supposed to be the defining night of her high school life-the moment when she showed everyone she wasn't the geek they thought she was. Someone wanted her-someone handsome and charming who had insisted on being her escort when he found out she didn't have a date.
A senior when she was a freshman, Liam was the boy every girl wanted and every guy wanted to befriend. He had spent more time in the principal's office than he did in class. With a new girlfriend every week, a permanent gang of hangers-on who followed him around the school, and the legendary pranks he'd played etched on the restroom walls, he was still remembered years after graduation. It would have been perfect. But now, as she took in those sparkling blue eyes and thick dark hair, the chiseled planes and angles of a face that had morphed from good-looking into devastatingly handsome, she couldn't believe she had fallen so hard for someone who had always been completely out of her league.