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Without Apology (Without Series Book 1) by Aubrey Bondurant (1)

Peyton

I was running late. Not that my older sister would be surprised by that fact. I almost always ran late. This Friday, I was cutting out of work earlier than usual in order to babysit her three kids overnight while she and her husband made a romantic night of their ten-year anniversary. I now faced the time challenge of leaving the office, running home to change and get my dog, and then dropping by the grocery store—all while trying to arrive at my sister’s by six.

I’d shut down my computer and was gathering my stuff when Jeff, the director of payroll, invited himself into my office. I cringed, not wanting to deal with him today. Or any day, for that matter.

“You’re leaving early, Peyton.”

As the accounting director of Maddox Consulting, I typically put in fifty-hour weeks. Since I’d been here since seven this morning and was only leaving at four—dammit, now four-fifteen—I didn’t feel one ounce of guilt in doing so. Besides, I didn’t have to justify myself to a fellow director.

“Actually, I’m leaving on time for a change. What did you need?”

I couldn’t help my cool tone. The guy was hardly ever in the office, spent company money on anything he could get away with, and basically forwarded any actionable email for me to take care of. Despite the fact we were peers, he always treated me like I should be fetching his coffee. It had been like that all through the three years he’d worked here. I suppose some women might find him attractive with his newscaster hair and insincere smile, but he’d always rubbed me the wrong way. Even before he ever opened his mouth to prove he was a dick.

“I was dropping by to tell you George called. He’ll be here Monday.”

George was the owner of the company. He often said I was his ‘key’ person, so I was surprised he’d informed Jeff rather than me that he was coming in.

“Did he say why?”

“Word is he’ll be here to announce the new CFO position.”

With our former boss, the CFO, retiring, the position required a replacement, and the opening had been posted a week ago. I knew without a doubt Jeff had applied. Of course, I’d been mulling it over myself as it was the next logical career move for me. However, the title had its drawbacks.

“I hadn’t heard the posting had closed.” Most had to stay open for two weeks, especially if they were being offered externally, as this one was.

Jeff scoffed. “I think we both know that the best candidate has already applied. HR is only going through the motions by keeping it posted for a minimum amount of days.”

I had to grit my teeth. The last thing anyone wanted was for the lazy bastard in front of me to become boss over the entire accounting department.

My worry over reporting to him made me miss his next words.

“What did you say?”

“I said he could be coming in to lay off staff.”

Considering the owner could fire Jeff tomorrow, save one hundred and fifty thousand, and not see one dip in productivity, I had to bite my tongue. Despite the growth of the company and that we handled all of the accounting needs from this office, we maintained a slim staff. “That would be a shame.” I slung my computer bag over my shoulder along with my purse, hoping he’d get the hint I was done with the conversation and needed to go.

“Not always. Sometimes it’s good to keep staff on their toes. Make sure they understand they need to be productive or else.”

Clearly, we had a different view regarding how to motivate the people who worked here. “Yes, well, we’ll have to agree to disagree. I need to go. Have a nice weekend.”

He turned red at the fact I was dismissing him, but instead of storming out the way he normally did, he decided to throw his weight in my face. “I realize you’ve been here a long time, but I’d watch your tone with me. After all, I could end up your boss.”

He was a completely useless figurehead who did absolutely no work. All doubts over whether or not I would apply for the position went out the window. Pride was tricky that way. “Or I could end up yours. See you Monday.”

I literally had to walk around him to get through the door. It was annoying how he remained standing in the way. As though he enjoyed trying to intimidate me by not moving.

At least I had the satisfaction of the surprise registering on his face with my words. Obviously, he’d assumed I wouldn’t apply, which pissed me off even further.

On my way out, I caught the eye of my accounting manager, Megan.

She and her very pregnant belly got up from inside her cubicle, and she fell into step with me. “I’ll walk you out.”

As soon as we were in the elevator alone heading down, I muttered, “Asshole.”

Megan laughed. “You can say that again. Fucker doesn’t do a damn thing.”

I smiled at her description. Megan was a curvy redhead who was all of five foot nothing and had a foul mouth that would cause a sailor to blush. She was also seven months pregnant with her first child. Since she and her husband had been trying for years with a history of miscarriage, I knew how much apprehension she felt regarding this baby and how anxious she was to deliver.

She sighed. “Sorry, I forgot the rule. F words are for behind closed doors only. Although, technically, the elevator is private, so in that case I can say he’s a fucking fucker.”

I chuckled, loving her spunk. She also happened to be the most capable manager ever, dealing with customer service, working hard, and always maintaining a positive attitude.

“He’s something, all right.” Megan was the only person at work to whom I would ever confide my true feelings as I didn’t want to act unprofessional around my staff in talking about my peer. Not that anyone in the department liked him.

“Please tell me you’re planning to apply for the CFO job.”

“I haven’t yet.”

Although I would most likely apply and the position was a logical career move, truth be told, I wasn’t sure I actually wanted the next rung on the ladder. I already worked enough hours that I had to fight to maintain my work/life balance. I was aware I wasn’t married and didn’t have kids, but that didn’t mean I enjoyed spending every minute with my job, either. Someday, I hoped to have a family, and in that case, I wouldn’t want to compromise my time with them.

Megan expelled a long breath as the doors opened to the lobby. “At least submit your résumé. Otherwise, that dipshit may get the job. Then you’ll have to report to him.”

Ugh. The mere thought of Jeff as my boss made my skin crawl. “I’d probably have to quit.”

“You and me both, sister. He treats everyone horribly. Especially his own staff. And I heard he’s sleeping with the new girl in HR. She’s, like, twelve.”

I frowned, not believing in workplace romance or understanding it, for that matter. For me, work and romance could not have been at further ends of the spectrum. “That would be illegal. She’s at least twenty, but yeah, she looks twelve.”

“Will you please consider the job? You’re definitely more qualified, and everybody is really hoping.”

No pressure. I blew out a breath as she walked me over the footbridge to my car in the garage next door. “The CFO travels. And not just local where I can drive.”

“Oh.” She frowned, well aware how I felt about flying.

“Yeah. Oh.”

Her expression was sympathetic. “Maybe you can simply explain to George. Don’t you see him sometimes in your town?”

The owner of the company lived a few miles away—albeit in a gated community—so I sometimes ran into him and his wife at the grocery store or bank. But I doubted he could be flexible on my inability to fly. He might be a nice man, but he had to be practical.

“I don’t think this is a conversation for the grocery store, but perhaps he’d consider it if I bring it up while he’s here on Monday. Have a great weekend.”

“You, too.” She gave me a quick hug before looking at her watch.

“You’d better hurry. You’re late.”

When wasn’t I?

***

Luckily, traffic cooperated, something unusual during a Friday night commute home. After stopping at my house to change into comfortable clothes, grab my overnight bag and my dog, I then raced to the grocery store. Since my three nieces loved to cook with their Aunt Peyton, I didn’t dare show up without baking ingredients. My hope was we’d all have a ball, and by the time we’d made the kitchen a disaster, the girls would be exhausted enough to fall into bed without protest. After that, I’d pour a glass of wine and clean up the mess.

At this point, thoughts of my family were a welcome distraction from the stress at work and the worry over Jeff becoming my boss. The last thing I wanted was to let my staff down by allowing that to happen.

Attempting to put those thoughts aside, I ran into the local market. There were bigger stores on the outside of town, but I knew this store like the back of my hand. I grabbed the last of the ingredients on my list for snickerdoodles and then counted my blessings when there was only one person with a single item in front of me at the checkout counter. Maybe I wouldn’t be so late, after all.

As I unloaded my full carry basket onto the belt, I couldn’t help noticing the man in front me who was wearing a charcoal gray suit. He was attractive, but what instantly perked up my ears was his British accent. That wasn’t something one often heard in this suburban town outside of Dallas, Texas.

He was talking to the elderly cashier, who I knew as Laverne, about lacking the identification necessary to buy the bottle of champagne she was holding in her hand.

“You have my word I’m over the legal drinking age, whatever that may be here in Texas.”

Laverne adjusted her thick glasses and shook her head. “Unless you have some sort of identification proving it, honey, I can’t sell it to you.”

He searched the inside pocket of his suit. “Unfortunately, my passport is back in my hotel room. Is there any chance you could give me the bottle now, and I could return tomorrow with my ID?”

Nice try, I thought, but then realized the words had inadvertently slipped out loud. When his ice-blue eyes focused on me, my body immediately responded. Because the eyes were only part of what made up his gorgeous face, now turned in my direction.

Damn, David Gandy had nothing on his younger version, for sure. The man’s mouth turned up in a slight smile towards me before he sighed at Laverne, seemingly recognizing that her cataracts and sour expression made any use of his charms a wasted effort.

Taking pity, I stepped up. “Hey, Laverne, how about I pay for the bottle? I have my ID if you need it.”

She hesitated and then glared when Brexy, my new mingled word for British and sexy, pulled out his wallet, probably to front me the money.

“You keep your wallet and your cash where it is, honey. What you two do in private ain’t none of my business, but don’t be doing it in front of me. Rules are rules.”

Brexy and I exchanged arched brows at Laverne’s suggestive way of putting it, but he stowed his wallet and said, “Understood. I promise to, uh, finish this transaction in private.”

Now he was smirking. The expression suited his handsome features very well. I had to bite my lip to keep from laughing out loud.

“Good.”

As Laverne scanned my items, she started chatting. “Making snickerdoodles with the girls tonight?” She directed the question towards me.

“Yes. Sure am.” I noticed the man’s gaze flick over to my left hand. Subtle he was not. Then again, neither was I. “My three nieces,” I offered, feeling like an idiot for needing to clarify that point.

“You don’t need her identification, I take it?” he inquired, making room for me to slide my credit card at the terminal in front of us.

Laverne tsked “I’ve known Peyton here for nearly the twenty-nine years she’s been on this earth, so I’m quite aware of her age without needing proper identification.” She handed me the receipt after bagging everything and added, “She’s also quite single.”

And with that, she was moving on to the next customer.

 I shook my head over her use of the word ‘quite’ in front of single. Because ‘single’ wasn’t enough, she had to add the word ‘quite,’ making it sound as if I couldn’t possibly be more single.

Small towns. Gotta love ‘em.

Brexy-could-pass-for-David-Gandy’s younger brother walked with me out the door and then fixed his smirk back on me. Suddenly I wished my unruly brown hair was in something other than a messy bun and my makeup wasn’t ten hours old.

Even if I’d been made up, I certainly wasn’t winning any beauty contests today with my tattered jeans and Mickey Mouse T-shirt putting me over the edge of casual into the land of lazy. Wasn’t that just the way of it, though? During the week, when I dressed in suits and heels, I saw nobody worth getting dressed up for. But when I changed into comfy clothes, I met the sexiest man alive. Oh well.

“So now that you’re quite aware of not only my age, but also my status and name, would it be too forward to ask for yours?”

“Simon. Thirty years old and quite single, as well,” he offered, pulling out his wallet. He then cursed at the fact he didn’t appear to have any cash.

I grinned. “I only meant your name, but I appreciate the even playing field. There’s an ATM next door at the bank if you want to walk over.”

“Thank you, by the way, for the rescue of the champagne.” He fell into step with me during the short walk down the sidewalk.

“You’re welcome.” The sound of a horn startled me. I immediately scanned the parking lot, looking for my SUV, and cursed at what I saw. “Shit. I’ll be right back.” I didn’t give him a chance to respond before sprinting across the lot to my white Chevy Tahoe. It was a large car for a single woman, but considering the big guy currently in the driver’s seat lying on the horn, I certainly needed one.

“Cooper, bad dog. No. Get off the horn.” I unlocked the doors, set my bags on the seat, and then shoved my humongous, black Great Dane off the driver’s side. “Get back where you belong, you big oaf.” I petted his adorable face and allowed him to nuzzle me, giggling in response as I always did.

“Ah, beauty and the beast, I see.” Simon’s voice came from behind me.

I loved the way his sexy British accent sounded. “Aww, did you hear that, Cooper? I was nice enough to buy the man a bottle of champagne, and he goes and calls me a beast.” I rubbed my dog’s ears and was amazed when Simon reached out his hand to let Cooper sniff him.

“I meant beast in the truest of compliments and obviously for him. He’s gorgeous. Yours?”

I tried not to swoon over him scratching the biggest love of my life without a care in the world about the dog hair quickly getting all over his expensive-looking suit jacket. “He is. Cooper, this is Simon, who’s quite single, thirty, and likes champagne. Cooper is also single, five years old, and is known for his discerning taste in dog treats, although drinking out of the toilet bowl may negate that touch of class.”

Simon full on smiled, and boy, was it even better than the smirk. “He’s a lucky lad. I take it he enjoys spending time with your nieces?”

I laughed. “Definitely. He’s like a big bean bag chair to them. They adore him, and he’s very patient with them. By nine o’clock tonight, they’ll all be passed out.”

Cooper whined, and I took pity, getting into the driver’s seat to start the car so he could get some AC. It was an overcast day in March, and although all the windows had been down, he preferred the cooler air blowing on him because he was spoiled.

“Does that mean you’d be available after nine o’clock this evening for a drink?”

God, I wished. To be honest, there was a moment I was tempted to be selfish and say yes, but I couldn’t do that to my sister. Not only was she the most important person in my life, but she’d also sacrificed a great deal for me over the years. And tonight was an important occasion for her.

“Not this evening, I’m afraid. I’m staying overnight because it’s my sister’s anniversary.” Taking my buzzing phone out of my pocket, I apologized towards Simon. “Sorry. Speak of the devil.” I answered quickly with my excuse, “I have the stuff and am on my way.”

“Okay. It’s not me who is the most worried, you know. Kevin has already plotted all the ways we’re to have anniversary sex tonight once we get to the hotel room.”

All of a sudden, I realized the last part of her statement was coming through loud and clear over the Bluetooth speaker on the truck, something that had automatically connected once I turned the motor on for the AC. I felt my face heat when I noticed Simon’s amused expression. At least he hadn’t run off yet. Although that could be because I hadn’t given the poor man his bottle of champagne. He probably thought I was holding it hostage.

“Uh, TMI, Jen. I’ll be there in fifteen.”

But my older sister couldn’t let it go. Especially not today in front of this gorgeous man. “You’re less than five minutes from the house, and it sounds like you’re in your car, so unless you met some guy in the supermarket, what on earth would take you fifteen more minutes?”

I sighed heavily and then handed Simon his bottle of champagne with a look of apology.

But he leaned in and, much to my surprise, spoke up. “It so happened she did meet someone at the market. Matter of fact, I asked her out for a drink after she was nice enough to purchase my bottle of champagne.”

Jen didn’t skip a beat. “Please tell me you’re old enough to buy your own alcohol. I mean, Peyton, come on. Trolling for minors and providing them liquor in exchange for dates is a little last year.”

Forget her being the best sister in the world. I was going murder her. “You do realize you need me a lot more than I need you tonight, right?”

He threw his head back and laughed at the entire exchange. “I assure you I’m of age. However, Laverne wasn’t convinced without proper identification. Perhaps I can get your number instead, Peyton. Ring you for dinner sometime?”

I conjured up a smirk of my own. “After all of this craziness on display during the last few minutes, you’re still convinced eating with me in a public place would be a good idea?”

His eyes twinkled with amusement.

“Holy shit, I just realized he has a British accent, doesn’t he?” The voice that wouldn’t shut up came from over the speaker.

I shook my head, having forgotten about my sister in the background. “Bye, Jen. See you in a few minutes.” I hung up and then turned, looking sheepishly into Simon’s face.

“Let me get your number.”

He deftly entered the digits as I recited them, but I doubted very much I’d ever hear from him. I could’ve asked for his number instead of giving him mine, but I preferred to have him show the effort, not to mention interest.

“I’ll run over there, get your cash, and pay you back.”

I watched him cross over to the ATM.

Once he returned, he handed me a hundred dollars.

I looked at him dumbly. “You bought a hundred-dollar bottle of champagne?” I had no idea my local market had something that expensive.

“It’s for a business dinner I have with someone local. Did you not notice your one bag of groceries was a hundred twenty-eight dollars?”

I shook my head, realizing I’d been so sidetracked by him that the total hadn’t even registered. “Must’ve been distracted.”

“Laverne does have that effect.”

My face heated. “Indeed.” Then something dawned on me. “Where’s your car?” If he’d come here without a license, I wondered how he was driving.

He pointed to the front of the store, where a sedan was parked, waiting with a driver. “I should have my own vehicle squared away soon.”

“Oh.” Hot guy in a suit, hundred-dollar bottle of champagne, car with a driver, all in my small town. Yeah, I was sure he was only passing through, not looking for a date with a girl in a Mickey shirt.

“Goodbye, Cooper. Take care of your mum. It was nice to meet you, Peyton.”

 “Nice meeting you, too. Cheers.”

***

Twenty minutes later, I relayed every bit of my unexpected meeting to my sister, who was face palming while we sat at her kitchen table. She was dressed up and ready to leave for the night with her husband, but first insisted on all the details of my hot guy at the supermarket adventure.

Jen had the same shade of brown hair I did but wore it quite a bit shorter, a length she insisted was a consequence of having babies and no time to style your hair daily. I guess that meant I was screwed since I could hardly be bothered now. She was older than me by five years and had met her husband in high school when they were both fifteen. To this day, he practically worshipped her and seemed to take genetic predisposition for crazy in stride.

“You left it with ‘cheers’ to the Brit? You’re seriously terrible at this,” she admonished on a sigh. Jen wasn’t one to mince words.

“Your comments via the speakerphone didn’t exactly help me out, sis.”

My brother-in-law, Kevin, looking much as he had in high school, with his sandy blond hair and baby face, came in from the living room and patted my head. “Maybe he thought you were only making fun of him.”

I groaned. “That’s even worse. And now I feel awful postponing your anniversary night by retelling the story of the guy who most likely will never call.”

“No worries. It’s not as though Kevin hasn’t seen my vagina plenty, so an extra half hour won’t kill him. Speaking of which, you should probably schedule with your waxer, Peyton. Better safe than sorry if he does ask you out.”

You’d think after all these years of dealing with a sister who had no filter I’d be accustomed to her ability to embarrass me. “Jesus, Jen. Not only do I not want to talk about your vagina, but I’m certainly not talking about mine.”

My brother-in-law clinked his soda against mine. “Cheers to that thought. With any luck, this guy will overlook your crazy family and give you a call. At least he wasn’t intimidated by Cooper, unlike the last loser you dated. No offense.”

“Some taken,” I muttered since I’d been the one actually to date said loser. How was I supposed to know the guy had a fear of dogs, and when he came to pick me up for a second date, Cooper would send him running out to his car, where he wouldn’t do more than crack a window to talk to me? Ugh. My dating life was practically nonexistent these days. But in my defense, I spent most of my free time with my dog or family. Besides, first dates were typically—at least in my experience—excruciating.

“Why was he in town?”

I shrugged. “He mentioned something about a dinner. Seemed rude to ask more, and I was distracted by, well, him.”

“Hey, did you apply for the CFO job yet or what?” Jen inquired, giving me whiplash with the change in subject.

Because she’d practically raised me after our parents died when I was fourteen, she often took on a parental thing of trying to guide and advise my life decisions.

Nothing like feeling as though everyone would be let down if I didn’t apply for that damn position. “Not yet.”

“Come on, sis. You’re more than qualified. You definitely have Dad’s brain for numbers.”

Our father had been a successful CFO of a Fortune 500 company. All through school, my family would tease me that I had the same affinity he did for numbers. But when he’d been alive, he’d worked a lot of hours, taking him away from his family for weeks at a time. The last thing I wanted was to be pressured into taking the job.

“Yes. I will. But enough about me already. You guys go.”

“All right. We’ll talk later. Call us if you need anything tonight with the girls,” Jen offered, giving me a hug. “Love you.”

“Love you, too.”

“I prefer a text,” Kevin quipped with a wink. He gave my shoulder a brotherly squeeze and ushered my sister out before she delayed one more minute.

Going into the back yard, I clapped my hands for the girls. “Who wants to make cookies?”

I might not ever hear from Brexy or be the next CFO, but at least I’d always be the most awesome aunt, particularly tonight when three little girls with exuberant faces came running in.