Chapter 1

THE UMPTEENTH proposal that ends up back on his desk, complete with a tersely written note that basically says no chance in hell, is the proverbial sustainable-living and eco-friendly straw that breaks Avery Hextall’s back.

He’s been at Ratcliff and Roberts architectural firm for two years, patiently working his way up the ranks to junior associate. When he found himself with an ergonomically designed desk and his very own voice mail, he thought his first project couldn’t be far behind. Unfortunately he was saddled with a project manager who put the “cad” in AutoCAD and took a vicious glee in rejecting every single design Avery put in front of him.

He has no idea what he’s done to piss off Malin Lacroix, but whatever it is, he’s apparently a lot better at doing that than he is at designing buildings. Fuck. Think of all the student loan debt he could have saved himself if he’d only known that ahead of time.

His latest design, though—he was really proud of it, and he was sure it would at least make it past Project Manager Prissypants’ desk. He’d spent three weeks of his life on it, living on coffee spiked with two of those five-hour energy supplement things and eating nothing but Frosted Flakes. He was pretty sure he was designing the goddamn thing in his sleep—if he’d actually slept. He still wasn’t sure about that.

What he was sure about was that he’d pored over blueprints of every building he ever loved and every graduate-school design he ever did. Hell, he even looked at the shit he drew in his fifth-grade art class and asked his mom if his Lego creations struck her as particularly innovative and sustainable. She told him very calmly to get some sleep and then hung up. Avery took that as a no.

When it was finished, he sent the whole thing to his friend from graduate school, Blake Everett, himself an architect at an award-winning firm in Seattle. Then he paced around his living room, smoking cigarettes some chick left at his apartment a month or two before, and waited for Everett to respond.

Everett’s e-mail came a few hours later—fuck you, you brilliant goddamn bastard—and Avery gave a fist bump to his cat—or pillow. Whatever. He was really tired. And then he promptly went to sleep despite it being two in the afternoon on a Saturday. He spent the next day feverishly preparing the design for submission and drank two beers. He hit send on the e-mail to Lacroix when it was uploaded, watched some girl-on-girl porn on the Spice Channel, and then fell asleep on his couch.

He strolled into work on Monday morning convinced he’d finally done it, that he would finally see an Avery Hextall design on something other than a computer screen. He was high as a fucking kite for the next two weeks, right up until two minutes before, when he got back from lunch.

There it is, his proposal, sitting in the exact center of his desk with Lacroix’s crisp handwriting inked in red across the top page. Lacroix uses red ink because he’s some kind of sadistic bastard. Or maybe he has a recurrent high school calculus-teacher fantasy. Whichever. Avery knows what it means before he even reads it, and it feels like a thundercloud has just unleashed a storm on his kite and tangled the damn thing up in a tree.

Or something like that. Fuck it. He’s too angry for appropriate metaphors.

He is pissed. And he’s going to get some goddamn answers. Namely what the hell Lacroix’s note—too complicated given the parameters—means. Fuck. Avery designs commercial-use buildings, not Playmobil toy sets. Lacroix is going to have to explain himself, because this is personal—just like the fourth Jaws movie—only this makes even less sense.



THE PROBLEM with barging into Lacroix’s office, Avery quickly discovers, is the reality is far more anticlimactic than he imagined. It starts out promisingly enough. He storms in without knocking, and that’s pretty great. Then he yells for five minutes and even pounds his fist on Lacroix’s desk for added dramatic effect.

Lacroix just looks at him. “Is there a problem, Mr. Hextall?”

Avery gives his desk a cursory glance, looking for the red pen. Fuck that red pen, man. And fuck Lacroix. Fuck him and his classy suits, his icy eyes, his hands that look more like a violinist’s than a project manager’s. They’re nice hands, actually… and wait, what is he doing? He’s here to yell at Lacroix, not think about his hands.

“Yeah, there’s a problem,” Avery huffs, ready to shout so loud that the glass panes in the window behind Lacroix will shatter into pieces. Maybe the son of a bitch will get sucked outside—à la every action movie Avery’s ever seen. “The problem is you’re a prick with no soul.”

“Please have a seat.” Lacroix waves at the chair in front of his desk, the chair Avery is holding on to with both hands. He’s thinking about swinging it at Lacroix’s head.

Avery yanks the chair out and sits down, realizes he’s just obeyed Lacroix, and then stands up again. “No.”

Lacroix shrugs, in that effortless, annoying way of his that’s number sixty-five on Avery’s “Reasons I Irrationally Hate Malin Lacroix” list. He has another list of rational reasons. Avery is a believer in the power of lists.

“Suit yourself,” Lacroix says, watching him with those pale eyes of his. “I assume you are here because I rejected your proposal?”

There’s the slightest hint of amusement in Lacroix’s voice. At least, Avery thinks he hears it. Or maybe he just wants an excuse to pick up the dumb glass paperweight on Lacroix’s desk and hurl it at something, which is exactly the next step of his spur-of-the-moment plan.

The glass is cold in his fingers—smooth—and the architect in him appreciates the form of it, even as the rest of him wants to smash it into Lacroix’s face. “Yes. Do you know how hard I worked on that?”

Lacroix has his fingers around Avery’s wrist. They’re warm, surprisingly strong, and his grasp is starting to hurt.

“Hextall.” Lacroix’s voice is just as firm as his grip, and there’s something in his tone that takes Avery’s breath away completely. “Put that down, and then sit. I’m not going to tell you again.”

Lacroix says that like Avery is his dog—or a junior associate, same thing. And it should be infuriating. It is, but that’s exactly what Avery does. He flexes his hand with a petulant mutter and then collapses in the seat with as much grace as a fallen angel sauntering into a whorehouse.

“There.” Lacroix sounds pleased, but Avery can’t tell for sure because he refuses to look at the motherfucker. “Now I know you’re upset that I did not select your design, and I am perfectly willing to give you feedback. Provided you stop sulking.”

“I know why you did it.” Avery’s starting to feel kind of… maybe not embarrassed. He’s still really pissed, but he’s sort of wishing he thought this through. As usual that doesn’t make him stop talking. “You want to crush my hopes and dreams. That’s why.”

“I’m sure you are aware that I reject most of the junior designers’ submissions—all of them, not just yours. But I assure you it’s for the benefit of this firm, not personal enjoyment.” Lacroix pauses. “Well, maybe I find it a little enjoyable in your case.” Now he’s definitely amused. Avery doesn’t need to look up from his intense concentration on the threads of his dress pants to see that.

“And all of you think the same thing—that I am failing to appreciate your genius, that I’m too rigid and don’t understand how brilliant you are. Or if I only knew how you stayed up for days on end, living on coffee and cigarettes, running purely on fumes from the fires of creation—then I would understand that this is more to you than just a building. Does that sound familiar?”

It does. And it also sounds like his life resembles one of the songs from Rent. He finally looks up, wary, and meets Lacroix’s gaze. Probably responding with jazz hands and La Vie Boheme isn’t the best thing to do, even if it would be fucking funny as hell. So he doesn’t say anything at all.

“I thought so. And I myself am a designer, Mr. Hextall. I understand the simple elements of a good design. But my job is to select a proposal that has a chance of winning the bid for a certain project. And so, yes, they are just buildings to me. I’m not here to inflate your ego with constant praise. You’re no longer in graduate school.”

“Wait. They do that in graduate school? Someone should call Columbia University and tell them that, then.” Avery leans forward, eyes narrowed. “That was a goddamn good design and you know it.” Maybe if Lacroix agrees, he can leave, and they can both pretend he didn’t just do this.

There’s an angry flash in Lacroix’s eyes, and his mouth sets into a hard line. “I’m going to assume you need longer than the average person to absorb information, and simply remind you that my job is not to select proposals based entirely on their design but their functionality, cost effectiveness, and adherence to the client’s wishes. Do you understand that, or shall I draw you a diagram explaining how architecture firms work?”

Avery glares at him. “I understand. Yeah. I knew there would be soulless corporate types, just not soulless architects. Is that why you’re in project management, because all your designs are stuffy and boring?”

“No. I’m in project management because I’m very good at convincing clients to select our firm’s proposals. Which, by the way, I accomplish without shouting at them and suggesting they’re idiots.” Lacroix sighs. “Even though most of them are. I’m able to adapt our designs so that they actually get built, Hextall. So you might want to rethink which one of us is so rigid, hmm?”

“I designed that building according to the specifications we were given.” Avery’s voice is less angry now, and he’s fidgety, unable to sit still. “If there were other ones, you should have told me.”

“I don’t have to do anything,” Lacroix snaps. Then he closes his eyes like he’s counting to ten. Or… whatever the fuck ten is in French. Avery is pretty sure that’s Lacroix’s nationality. “Let me show you something.”

Lacroix turns his computer screen so Avery can see it, and what’s on the monitor doesn’t make a whole lot of sense to him at first. He leans forward, squints, grabs his glasses from his front pocket out of instinct, and puts them on. “Fascinating. Are these the things called ‘spreadsheets’ I’ve heard so much about?”

“Were you this annoying in all your classes, Hextall?”

“Oh yeah.” Avery doesn’t look away from the screen. “It’s a good thing this place only needed two reference letters, or I’d be in trouble.”

There’s a huff that might be a laugh, and then Lacroix continues. “This is the schematic of the job for which your proposal was rejected.” He starts clicking with the mouse, pulling up screens comprised of bar graphs and a lot of boring math. “It was a brilliant design. Your talent is only very rarely in question.”

Avery is too shocked by the first actual word of praise he’s ever heard from Lacroix to do anything but gape like a drunken fish with black-rimmed glasses. Did he fall asleep? Because no way did that just happen….

Wait. Does he really want to fall asleep and dream about Lacroix? Absolutely not. The praise, though. He could get used to that.

“Mr. Hextall?”

“Oh. Uh. What?” Avery adjusts his glasses and tries for his scowl, but he can’t quite manage it. Besides, he’s interested in what’s on the screen. There are a lot of words about soil composition and weather patterns, right next to things like bid tabulation and schedule of values.

“I have to take every single proposal that meets my expectations and filter them through the requirements of the client, and then through the company and our available resources. At the end of the day, I select the proposal that comes closest to satisfying both.” He finishes clicking buttons, and there’s a screen with Avery’s initials and some more graphs—as well as a lot of numbers. “Here is the breakdown of your design.”

Avery studies the screen, and he’s not entirely sure what he’s reading, but he has a pretty good idea based on the frightening amount of numbers in red.

“It was too expensive?”

“That was one issue. Yes.”

“For us or for them?” Avery looks at him, his temper flaring, though it is solely on behalf of his artistic soul this time. “And what do you mean, one issue? What are the others? Because sometimes you have to pay more for quality—”

“Hextall, be quiet. Look at the screen and listen to me.” Lacroix has that same tone in his voice he did when he told Avery to sit. “You’re thinking like an architect, not a businessman. There are more things to consider than a brief cost analysis and environmental impact survey.” Lacroix waves his hand dismissively. “Did you know that the insurance required for this particular company to have a—what did you call it, a free-standing atrium—would likely cost a thousand people their jobs, just to pay for it?”

“They said they wanted open spaces with plenty of light. That’s what I was designing. How was I supposed to know that other stuff?”

Lacroix sighs, and turns his computer screen away from Avery. “You’re not. I am. There were issues with some of the soil composites and water runoff from a nearby lake. I imagine you didn’t know there was a lake nearby either. And that impacted it as well.”

Avery takes his glasses off and rubs the lenses with his shirt. “I could have fixed that. All of it. If someone had told me.”

“I’m sure you could have. But you are a junior associate in a firm, and Thomas’s design was far better suited for the environment and the cost.”

Brandon Thomas. Ugh. Of course. The shining golden boy who was nice to just about everyone and also really genuine about it. He also was impossible to hate. And oh, had Avery ever tried. Including right this moment, learning Brandon’s design had been chosen instead of his.

“So you didn’t hate it.” Avery falls back in his chair, stares up at the ceiling, and tries to figure out how to say “I’m sorry” without actually having to say it. In hindsight, this entire thing was a terrible idea. At least he didn’t throw the paperweight. “My design, I mean.”

“This one? No. I’ve hated a few of them because I find your adherence to sustainability affects your form, on occasion. I’m beginning to think your trademark is unnecessarily complicated.”

That surprises him enough to prompt him to look at Lacroix again. “You better not be talking about the passive solar-heating coil that I integrated into the curvature of the staircase, because that was fucking brilliant.”

“Passive solar heating… you mean a window?”

“It’s not my fault you hate the Earth.” Avery expels a breath. He probably just fucked himself six ways to Sunday, and if he gets a reputation for being a prima donna, he’ll end up designing condos for retirees in Virginia Beach or something equally horrible. He just can’t bring himself to apologize, even though he knows he should. It probably won’t do any good… but still.

Avery remains obstinately silent. All he has left here is his pride and a fucking killer staircase design.

“I assume this little chat addresses all your questions, Mr. Hextall?” Lacroix is still staring at him. Avery thinks he looks like a hawk. Does that make Avery a bunny rabbit if he can’t look away?

He nods as grudgingly as possible.

“Good. You are more than welcome to schedule a meeting with me about your designs, but don’t you ever barge in here and act like I owe you any answers for doing my job. Or like I’m carrying out some personal crusade to end your professional career. Consider it a new rule that you don’t enter my office without my express permission.” Lacroix’s winter voice feels like ice sliding down Avery’s spine.

No wonder he didn’t like that staircase of mine. He’s way too cold for solar anything. It’s a sign of maturity that he doesn’t allow that thought to become actual words.

“I would suggest taking a few days off. Expend some of this energy of yours on something other than nearly losing your job.”

Avery stands up, nods, and shoves his hands into his pockets before he can do something dumb, like try to shake Lacroix’s hand.

“Yeah. Okay.” He heads toward the door and says, without looking back, “I didn’t know. That other stuff.”

Lacroix is quiet for a moment. “And now you do. And you won’t act that way again.”

It’s not a question, which is a good thing because Avery doesn’t want to make promises he can’t keep. And promising he won’t make impulsive decisions is like promising he can keep the sun from rising.

It’s also a clear assertion of who has the control, who holds the power over whom. And instead of infuriating Avery like it should, it does something just as maddening.

Avery walks out of Lacroix’s office, heads back to his desk, and grabs his cell phone. There is only one thing to do after the double gut punch of rejection and forced humility.

It’s time to get drunk.