My flowy robin’s egg blue skirt was the wrong choice. After months of heavy winter clothing, I wanted to wear something that felt like the spring tulips blooming along the Magnificent Mile. Something that felt like shedding the grayscale of the long winter, and the layers that were now firmly left behind in last season.
I should have stuck with my normal tasteful slacks and blazer. The wind gusting off of Lake Michigan threatened to take my skirt hem from mid-calf to somewhere around my neck, so I gathered as much of it as I could in my fist. At least it was only my thigh flashing the cars jammed into Chicago’s traffic.
Another harsh gale whipped strands of my black hair free and some of my skirt out of my grip. While I was pushing the skirt back in place, my purse slipped off my shoulder and landed on the sidewalk. Shifting my eyes from side to side, I checked just how many people might have seen the flash of my tan-colored underwear. My fellow pedestrians weren’t paying me any attention.
Bending at the knees, I reached for my navy-and-gold purse. As I stood, my skirt was suddenly rent from my hand, and I found myself trapped in a wind to end all winds.
The breeze cut through my underwear like an ice-cold slap.
I gasped and pushed the fabric down the front of my thighs, but the cold smacked my ass. I moved my hands to the back, but then the front hem snapped against the breast of my jacket. The silky fabric slipped out of my fingers no matter how I struggled to put myself in order.
“Oh shit,” a man said from nearby.
With the vortex whistling all around me, I didn’t hear his shoes hurry in my direction, but then he was there between me and the line of cars. I was still struggling with my skirt when I felt a completely different type of fabric slip around my thighs. I took in the freckle-dotted knuckles holding a gray suit coat on both sides of my thighs at each lapel. I followed the crisp white sleeves wrapped around strong arms to broad shoulders. Further up was a square jaw with a dusting of auburn beard, lips quirked in a lopsided smile, more freckles on high cheekbones, and tousled auburn hair. Under his thick, straight eyebrows, his copper-colored eyes were apologetic.
He’d blocked me from the wind and covered me. I was shielded and encased by a total stranger, whose thumbs pressed into the naked skin of my upper thigh.
“I just wanted to be a tulip,” I whispered to myself.
“Excuse me?” he asked with a soft hint of an Irish accent.
I shook my head, which was only inches from his very attractive face. Attractive or not, he was still a stranger.
His Adam’s apple bobbed as he swallowed. “I’m sorry. I just reacted… and now I feel I may have crossed the line.”
“Because your hands are under my skirt?”
“When you put it that way, yes.”
“Well, thank you for your help, but my clothing seems to be under control now.”
Carefully removing his jacket from around my ass, he took two steps back. “Of course.”
This time when the wind took my skirt again, I was ready and able to keep it in place. “Honestly, thank you. I was not getting it under control on my own.”
He smirked down at the sidewalk, then shifted his eyes to meet mine. The blood started rushing in my ears again, for a completely different reason.
“I’m Daire, by the way,” he said.
“Serena. Nice to meet you.”
“You as well.” The wind forced ripples through his white button-up shirt, revealing the smooth planes of his abs and his rounded pecs.
I bit my lip and forced my eyes back on his. He arched an eyebrow, and I had to smile at him.
“Anyway… have a nice day.” His eyes flicked over my face once before he took another step backward.
I could say something polite—wish him a good day as well—but he was easily the most handsome man I’d ever seen. A handsome man, who could fix a problem on his toes, and still respect a woman’s need for physical space to feel safe. I could say something polite, but I wasn’t a fool and wouldn’t let him just walk away.
“I bet your girlfriend really appreciates your quick reflexes,” I quipped.
His face lit up with a smile like the sun reflecting off of the lake—almost too bright to look at. “No girlfriend—or boyfriend for that matter.”
Taking a step closer to him, I said, “You really were so gallant.”
“Knight in shining armor.”
“I’m not normally a damsel in distress.”
“What are you normally, then?”
“A bit of a badass, actually.”
He took a step closer, leaving about a foot between us. “That’s more my speed.”
My stomach flipped at the way his voice dipped lower.
“What about you? What are you when you’re not saving badass women in the streets?” I asked.
He shrugged his broad shoulders. “Irish.”
I giggled—honest-to-god giggled. I would have been embarrassed if I wasn’t so beguiled by him. “What brings you to the US?”
“I’ve been here since college.”
“They don’t have colleges in Ireland?”
“No, they have universities.”
I rolled my eyes. “Cute.”
His laugh was warm and rumbling. “Ireland just wasn’t big enough for me and—I needed somewhere bigger.”
I tilted my head to consider him, and he stared right back. “Well, thank you again. I should go, or I’m going to be late for work.”
I started on my way again but stopped when he called, “I’d love to hear more about your badassery. Can I take you to dinner?”
I smothered my eagerness as best as I could before turning to face him. “Right to dinner? You don’t want my number first?”
“Well, I’ll need that to set up the dinner.”
I bit my lower lip. “Is this the way you manufacture dates? Wardrobe malfunctions and mysterious comments about Ireland?”
“I’ve got a skill for spotting a chance and not letting it pass me by. So, can I have your number?”
He pulled his phone from his pocket. I gave him my number, and he sent me a text standing right there on the sidewalk with the wind whipping around us as if it was as excited by this man as I was.
“It’ll be nice to get to know you, Daire.”
“I’m looking forward to it, Tulip.”
He slipped his arms back into his jacket and stepped backward before turning around and continuing on his way. The lines of his suit accentuated his broad athletic frame. He looked back over his shoulder, and even at a distance, his crooked smile made my heart skip a beat.
I practically floated across the street and the rest of the walk to my building. Robin’s egg blue skirt didn’t seem like the wrong choice anymore.
The sun shone through the wall of windows as I entered the office of Garcia Public Relations LLC. I usually strode in with the professionalism expected of a partner, but my giddiness from meeting Daire just couldn’t be tamped down today.
I waved to our front desk administrator Michael. He waved back while continuing his phone call.
The office I shared with Willow, my best friend and fellow partner, was empty. Together we managed the publicists—she was in charge of hiring and training, while I focused on operations and assignments.
My skirt brushed my calves as I swayed past our open door and stopped at the accounting department. “Miya, you coming?”
“I’ll be right there,” she said with her back to me. The light from her computer screen caught the edges of her tight curls and gave her the illusion of tiny gems adorning her Afro. She must have been involved in a spreadsheet or something because only numbers ever distracted her from meeting a person’s eyes.
I raised an eyebrow at Josh, her mentee. “She’s in it, huh?”
He spun in his office chair, lacing his fingers behind his head. “Yeah, she’s been like that since I got here. Hasn’t even touched her coffee.”
I gasped melodramatically.
“I’m sorry, have I neglected you?” Miya didn’t look up, and her fingers didn’t slow on the ten-key.
Josh and I shared a look full of affection for our friend.
When I joined this little PR firm eight years ago, right out of college, I hadn’t expected to become so close with all of my coworkers. I thought I would get some work experience and move on to a larger company, but as Garcia Public Relations grew, my name grew with it. And so did my connection to it. I’d somehow devoted a significant chunk of my adult life to this business, and I didn’t have any regrets about that.
“No, you have not neglected anyone,” I told her. “I’m going to get to the meeting, which starts in”—I checked my watch—“five minutes.”
“I’ll be there,” she said absently.
“I’ll catch you later, Josh.”
“See ya, Rena.”
As I was leaving, I heard Miya say, “Josh, will you set a four-minute timer?”
I was still smiling as I practically swirled into the conference room five minutes later. The warm reddish browns of the table and chairs contrasted with the blues of the walls and the skyline view out of the large windows. Willow sat waiting. Her light brown hair hung in loose curls around her shoulders without their normal uniformity; clearly, the wind had run its fingers through them. She was in her usual seat, and a coffee cup was steaming on the long table in front of my spot next to her.
“Good morning,” I said, floating into my chair.
She grinned. “Well, hello. Don’t you look cute today.” Looking down at her very stylish and professional pencil skirt and blazer, she pouted. “I wish I looked cute.”
“Okay, but you weren’t the one with your skirt around your shoulders and your underwear flashing all of Chicago.”
“Oh shit. Are you okay?”
A slow smile spread across my face, and I nodded. “I’m great. Did I say thank you for the coffee?”
Tilting her head, she narrowed her blue eyes at me. “No… but you’re welcome. You don’t seem upset for someone who could have been arrested for indecent exposure.”
“I have underwear on. I couldn’t be arrested.”
“Not the point. What’s going on?”
I leaned forward to explain when loud laughter from the hall cut me off. Willow and I turned to see Miya and Lexi, the head of legal, enter the room. The four of us had been hired within months of each other, and we’d all made partner at the same time when the company began expanding too fast for our boss, Louisa Garcia, to manage on her own.
Lexi and Miya were also dressed in jewel tones and soft fabrics.
Willow sank back in her chair. “Dang it! You all look so cute.”
Miya’s full lips quirked. “Sorry?” She lowered herself into a seat on the opposite side of the table, the pink of her dress complemented the rosy hues in her dark skin.
“Don’t mind me, I’m just the most boring person in the office.”
“Not true.” Lexi sank into the seat across from Willow. “I think Dirtbag Brad is here today.”
“Don’t call him names, please. He’s a good one,” Miya said gently. She was the only one of us who still had the patience to argue with Lexi about her dislike of Bradford Castle, whom everyone else called Ford. Lexi preferred “Brad” probably because of the annoyed look he got every time she did.
“You think everyone is good, Miya.”
“Is it slander for you to call our private investigator a dirtbag?” I asked.
“He’s not suffering any loss of income from it, and he could just not be a dirtbag.”
“I bet it’s harassment.” Willow turned to Lexi. “Is it harassment?”
Lexi pinched her lips in a tight line. “If I was my legal counsel, I would advise against it. Happy?”
Willow smirked. “Yeah.”
“You’re lucky Brad’s here, or you’d be the most annoying person in the office.”
Miya and I tossed our heads back and laughed, but Willow turned toward me in her chair.
Speaking of annoying, tell me what happened this morning.”
“How is that annoying?” I asked.
“It’s annoying that you haven’t told me yet.”
It was almost 9:15 and our meeting would begin shortly. “I’ll tell you after.”
“Louisa’s assistant texted to say she’s running late. So, what’s going on?” Lexi held up her phone as if its black screen was proof of the text.
Sitting forward, I crossed my arms on the tabletop. “I met someone.”
“This morning?” Miya asked.
“I thought you flashed Chicago.” A crease formed between Willow’s eyebrows.
“How does one flash Chicago?” Lexi pondered.
“I’m wearing a flowy skirt,” I answered.
Miya and Lexi looked confused.
“It’s so windy,” Willow whispered.
Miya gasped. “Oh no, babe, are you okay?”
“Yeah. A very attractive Irishman came to my rescue. He wrapped his suit coat around me, and then we started flirting and we’re gonna get dinner.”
“An Irishman?” Willow’s mouth hung open.
“That’s like something out of an old movie.” Miya’s lips were turned up in a grin. She loved Hollywood classics. Miya had a head for numbers and also for romance.
“Right?” I grinned.
“What’s his name?” Lexi tossed her golden hair over her shoulder.
“Daire. I don’t know his last name yet.”
At my side, Willow chewed on her lower lip.
“You don’t know his last name? Okay, you’re going to tell us when and where this date is, and we’ll just happen to go there at the same time,” Lexi said.
I reached across the table to squeeze her hand. It was small in mine, but her petite stature did not diminish her protectiveness over the rest of us. “Obviously.”
“Tell us about him.” Miya crossed her legs and leaned closer.
“Actually…” Willow started, but I was already saying, “I pretty much told you everything I know. He’s somewhere around six feet tall, has, like, the most beautiful auburn hair, and rescues women from public embarrassment.”
Lexi narrowed her eyes. “We’re definitely coming along on that dinner.”
Willow shifted closer to me. “Rena, I can see how excited you are, but—”
“—no issue at all. Chicago is a big city and it’s easy to get turned around.” Louisa Garcia’s voice in the hallway carried through the open door and into the room.
“Shit.” Willow grimaced.
I looked over my shoulder to see our boss lead the way into the conference room, with a man in a well-fitted gray suit in tow.
“Thank you for being so understanding,” he said with the slightest lilt of an Irish accent.
“I’m sorry,” Willow whispered. It was clear that she’d been trying to warn me. She would have performed his interview and hiring.
His posture was straight and confident as he stood next to Louisa. The smiles fell off of my friends’ faces as they looked from the handsome, tall, auburn-haired man to me. His gaze followed theirs and landed on me. There was a light of surprise in his eyes, and then his shoulders sank the smallest amount.
To anyone who didn’t know Louisa, she’d seem oblivious to the mood of the room, but she was acutely observant—she scanned the four of us before landing on me as the most likely issue.
I sighed, and she nodded.
We’d talk later.
Brightly, she announced, “Ladies, this is our newest publicist, Daire O’Dowd.”
I met his eyes, and even through his warm smile, I swore I could see a reflection of my disappointment. It appeared he was mentally canceling our date as well.
The skirt was a bad choice.
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