copyright Erin Nicholas 2020
Piper Barry was in love with an amazing, brilliant, funny, good-looking man.
Who, at least twice a day, she wanted to smother with the stuffed dragon that sat on the corner of his desk.
Okay, maybe not smother. That was extreme.
But duct tape over his mouth? Oh yeah, she thought about that often.
“Is spit better than snot?” Oliver Caprinelli, that man—and her boss—asked her as she crossed his office to refill the water pitcher by the window.
“In every single context, yes.” Piper was also aware that in any other workplace with any other boss, that question would be strange. Here though, not so much.
On her way back past his desk, she set the two folders and the manila envelope she carried in front of him. He was just one of her five bosses and the least likely to open those folders or that envelope. She put them down anyway.
“Grant said that a soda flavor called unicorn piss wouldn’t sell well,” Ollie said, almost as if he was thinking out loud.
He did that a lot. Thought out loud.
That never stopped Piper from chiming in though.
“And you think that calling it unicorn snot would make it sell better?”
This wasn’t even the strangest conversation she’d ever had with Ollie.
“Wouldn’t you assume that unicorn piss or snot tasted good?”
She wrinkled her nose. “No.”
“Uh, spit and snot.”
“But unicorn,” he insisted.
“I have never, not once, thought about the taste of unicorn… anything.”
“Well, think about it now. Yes, good?”
What she thought was that working for Oliver Caprinelli would be a lot better if he didn’t think out loud.
If he just sat there looking cute, things would be great.
“Why are we talking about unicorns?” she asked. “If you’re adding something new to Warriors, you can do better. Unicorns are overdone.”
The chances that this was about Warriors of Easton, the video game that Oliver and his four best friends had turned into the biggest-selling online game of the decade, was very good. It was nearly all Oliver thought about.
Even when she wore her sexiest dresses. And the body oil that all of the other guys said smelled like spicy candy and that made them walk extra close by her desk every time they passed just so they could get a whiff. And when she worked late just so it could be only her and Ollie in the office after dark.
“It’s not for Warriors,” Ollie said. He still sounded distracted.
Honestly, he sounded distracted 90 percent of the time he talked about anything.
The man was a genius and his thoughts were always going in a million directions. It was one of the things that fascinated her most about him.
And that made her think about picking up the dragon on his desk and stuffing it in his mouth. Trying to get Oliver’s attention was hard enough. Keeping it was nearly impossible.
“What’s it for, then?” she asked, pausing in front of his desk with the water pitcher.
She was able to study him as she waited for his answer. He was leaning back in his big leather chair, one ankle propped on his opposite knee. He was wearing dark gray slacks that went with the dark gray jacket he had tossed over the armchair that faced his desk. She wasn’t sure where his tie was. She found his ties stuffed in drawers, suit jacket pockets, seat cushions, and file drawers—wherever he happened to be when it started bugging him, and he yanked it off.
His white linen button-down shirt was unbuttoned at the top, revealing tan skin and a hint of dark hair. The hair on top of his head was sticking up a bit in the back where he had a cowlick, and she made a note to schedule a haircut for him as she resisted the urge to brush that hair down. He also hadn’t shaved this morning. He never grew a full beard or even let it get too scruffy, but once in a while there would be a day or two of growth. It made him look older and more intense. When he shaved, he looked easily five years younger than his twenty-eight years.
He was looking at the dragon on his desk, but Piper knew he wasn’t seeing Spark. The plush dragon was one of the toys from the Warriors of Easton merchandise line. Spark was the one dragon in the game that couldn’t breathe fire no matter how hard he tried.
Piper didn’t know anything more about Spark than that. She didn’t play the game and her awareness of it was limited to the things she’d handled as Oliver’s personal assistant. That consisted mostly of keeping his appearances organized, answering emails, and dealing with the paperwork he had to do as one of the company’s owners.
He had never cared about the business side of things much. He was the creative director. Still was, even though he and his four best friends who had owned Warriors under the umbrella of their company Fluke Inc. had sold Warriors to a larger gaming company last year.
Oliver continued to write story lines and develop characters for the game world.
But it was obvious that since they’d sold Warriors Oliver had been a little lost. His job hadn’t changed a lot, but his friends were not involved with Warriors on the same level they had been and Piper suspected Ollie missed that intensely.
Warriors had always been a passion project for the five friends. It had taken off unexpectedly and they’d become accidental millionaires from it. But at its most basic level, it had always been something they did together and just had a good time with.
“Oliver?” she asked. “What’s the unicorn spit about if it’s not Warriors?”
He looked up at her and she could have sworn for a second that he’d forgotten she was there.
Even after working for the man for five years, that was still a little insulting. Especially when she was wearing one of her favorite pin-up dresses. It was bright pink, hugged her hips and breasts, and gave a little peek of cleavage without being inappropriate. She wore a wide black belt with it, black pumps with a big pink bow, black fishnets, and a black hair scarf.
She looked great. Sexy even.
And she would bet that if she had him close his eyes and asked him what color her dress was, he wouldn’t know.
“Trying to come up with names for the sodas,” he said.
She froze. Then straightened and narrowed her eyes. “What sodas?”
But she knew.
He frowned as if confused by her question. “The new sodas we’re going to launch when I buy the soda company in Wisconsin.”
“But you haven’t bought it yet?” she asked. She’d thought he was over that idea. After she had told him it was a bad idea.
“We’re meeting at the end of the week,” he said. “It’s basically done.”
“I thought we talked about how this was a bad move,” she said, trying to keep her voice calm. “I thought we agreed that you’re bored now that Hot Cakes is doing well, and the other guys have all been spending more time with their girls, but that buying another new company is not the right move.”
Honestly, Oliver had only gone along with the purchase of Hot Cakes because one of his best friends, Aiden, had been determined to buy it and wanted all the guys in on it. And because Ollie loved Hot Cakes’ Fudgie Fritters.
He actually liked most of the cakes. Sometimes, he was essentially a fourteen-year-old boy in a twenty-eight-year-old man’s body. He loved video games and snack cakes. And he loved hanging out with his friends.
He didn’t, however, like soda. Interestingly. He didn’t drink it. Claimed to not like it. But after they’d bought Hot Cakes and gotten it running well under their new management and had very successfully launched a new product and rebranded themselves, things had slowed down a little and now Ollie was feeling restless.
In part, because very few of the things they’d done with Hot Cakes had been his doing anyway.
Aiden had taken the lead, since the company was based in his hometown and buying it meant not only saving the town from losing its major employer, but also giving him a great reason to come home and be with the woman he was crazy in love with.
Dax had come along because Dax was always up for an adventure and was great with people. All people. In all situations. They’d needed Dax to help smooth things over with the disgruntled employees.
Grant had come along because he was the money guy. He’d never intended it to be a permanent move to the tiny Iowa town but, then he’d fallen in love with a hometown girl and now he wasn’t going anywhere.
Cam was also from Appleby and had rekindled his relationship with his ex. Who just happened to be the granddaughter of the founders of Hot Cakes. The two of them had been the force behind the new product launch and its huge success, and everyone knew that their next new product, which was already in the works, would be just as big.
So that left Ollie just… being here. Being here with his best friends because he truly didn’t have roots anywhere else and he could do his creative work for Warriors anywhere.
Which meant Piper was here too. She ran Oliver’s life. She definitely helped all the guys and Fluke at large, but she’d been hired to be Oliver’s assistant and he definitely needed the most… caretaking.
But now Ollie was bored. He’d been a little bored along the way since he’d had less direct investment, other than money, in Hot Cakes. But he’d enjoyed supporting his friends and brainstorming things like new snack cake ideas and names and the big launch event.
Now that was all over and he was looking for a new project.
Why? Why wasn’t Warriors enough? He was the imagination behind that entire world. Everything that existed in Warriors, even now under new ownership, was because of Oliver. Why wasn’t that enough?
And if he did have free time and had room in his brain for more, why couldn’t he do something more meaningful than soda?
“I think soda lines up well with my brand,” Ollie said. “Video games, snack cakes, soda.” He nodded. “That makes sense.”
“Your brand? What brand is that?”
“Oliver Caprinelli… let’s have a good time.” He paused and looked at her. “I’m working on a tag line.”
Piper took a deep breath. “You need a tag line? Like you individually need a tag line?”
“I guess.” He shrugged. “The guys are done with Warriors for the most part. And I’m more than Hot Cakes.”
Piper wished she wasn’t holding the water pitcher because she really needed to rub her forehead where a headache was starting. She had two types of headaches. The one right between her eyes, which came on quickly and she assumed had to with eye-rolling and frowning. She called those the Ollies. The ones that started in her neck and crept more slowly up the back of her head were the Olivers. They were tension headaches that came from stress and holding in all the are you fucking kidding me? that threatened to erupt throughout her days.
And she said some of them. She didn’t have, or need, a lot of filter around her bosses. Which was great. They were more like brothers than bosses. They respected her, they needed her—and knew it—and they listened to her.
Except for Ollie.
“You’re more than Hot Cakes?” she repeated. She agreed. But she’d never heard him say it and she was curious what he meant.
He swiveled his chair back and forth.
He was a big guy. Six-three, two-hundred-ten-ish pounds. He was wide and solid. He ran to keep in shape. In part because of that love of snack cakes and the amount of time he spent sitting and creating behind the computer.
He was wearing a custom-tailored suit that cost more than a lot of people’s house payments in Appleby.
But he was pouting. And Piper wanted to put him in time out.
“I mean, I need something more to do,” he said. “Aiden was the one who branched out into Hot Cakes. Grant’s got his consulting business. Dax is running the nursing home. Cam has turned into a house-husband. What’s my thing?”
The guys did all have pursuits outside of Fluke that they were enthusiastic about now. Projects and people that took up a lot of their time and energy. Additionally, the guys were all-in with their new relationships and the families and time that went along with those.
They were happy. Happier than Piper had ever seen them. And they were all still a unit. But Aiden, Dax, Grant, and Cam definitely shared a bond in being boyfriends and fiancés that left Oliver out.
Ollie was the only one who was still involved with Warriors. And he didn’t seem to have another passion.
“So you’re bored and your idea to branch out is soda?” she asked.
He shrugged. “Yeah.”
Clearly he was very passionate about this new company. Piper rolled her eyes, making the jab of pain in her forehead worse.
“Oliver, you need to find something to care about,” she said.
Like me, a voice said in the back of her mind.
She told that voice to shut the hell up. She and that voice had been over this before. She couldn’t explain why she loved Oliver, but she did. However, Oliver would make her crazy.
Oh, and he wasn’t interested. Clearly.
“I care about growing my brand.”
“Oh my God,” she exclaimed. “Your brand? You want your brand to be video games and crap food? You can do better than that, Ollie!”
He lifted a brow. “Like what?”
He wasn’t challenging her. He actually wanted her to tell him what he should do.
Oliver Caprinelli was a handsome, intelligent, charming-when-he-wanted-to-be, funny-usually-accidentally-but-sometimes-on-purpose, crazy successful creative genius.
Who drove her insane.
It was all Aiden’s and Grant’s and Dax’s and Cam’s fault.
They’d all been enabling this man since they’d met him. They treated him like he was delicate. Like if they pushed him too hard or told him no, he’d lose his spark and wouldn’t be able to create any longer.
They treated him like he was a spoiled royal prince.
Oliver had never had an idea that Dax hadn’t said, “Hell yes!” to. He’d never made a mistake that Grant hadn’t bailed him out of. He’d never created something Aiden hadn’t been able to sell for big bucks.
Oliver had also never booked a hotel room or a plane ticket on his own and had no idea how to even use the Instant Pot in his hotel suite. Because Piper did those things.
But that had been her job. She hadn’t enabled him the way the guys had.
It was really their fault he was the way he was.
But as she studied the good-looking guy who looked like a very successful functioning adult, she admitted that a lot of this was her fault too.
Ollie was bored because he truly had very little to do or take care of.
They’d all given him so much time and space to be creative that he had very little actually filling his days. Nothing real anyway. Nothing practical. His entire job was to sit down and imagine stuff.
He was good at it. It was definitely lucrative. There was no question about it. But yeah, it made sense that he was bored.
And, like everything else, she wanted to fix this for him.
“Oliver,” Piper said, making her tone more placating. “You can do better than soda. If you want a brand”—she did not roll her eyes—“can’t you come up with something more in line with Warriors? That’s what people know you for.”
He and Dax were the face of the company. They did YouTube videos, discussing the creation of the game as well as more in-depth conversations for fans about the world and the character arcs and what was to come.
People discussed the game as if it were a beloved television show or book series. They knew the main characters and cared about their development and what would happen to them. It rivaled the fans of Star Wars and the Marvel comics and movies. But it was a video game. So the fans could participate in the world. They could truly be a part of it.
“You don’t think people drink soda while they play?” he asked.
She sighed. “Does it matter? Couldn’t you buy a… gaming controller company or something?” She didn’t love that idea either. How meaningful was that?
And yes, with that thought, she realized that she wanted Oliver to do something more meaningful. Not just because the world needed his creativity and intelligence, but because he needed to do more.
He didn’t even care about this soda company.
“There aren’t any controller companies for sale.” He sighed and swiveled his chair. It squeaked when he went all the way to the right.
That squeak made her eye twitch. She was going to have to come in here and fix that later.
“There’s one that wants me to endorse their controllers,” he said, sounding completely disinterested.
“Okay.” That wasn’t great, but it was better than soda. Especially soda called unicorn snot. “Are you going to?”
“I don’t like the controllers,” he said.
“Oh well, then…”
Piper blew out a breath. “You can’t endorse a controller if you don’t like it.”
He shrugged. “Maybe I could do some commercials or something.”
It wasn’t that he liked the spotlight, though it would seem that way. He just liked to do things. He liked to travel and meet people and have projects. The gaming cons were fun for him because he got to go places and interact with people who were enthusiastic about things he was enthusiastic about. Dax actually did better on stage and engaging with audiences than Ollie, but Dax could pull Oliver out and make him relax and be charming.
“Oliver,” Piper finally said firmly. “You should not endorse that controller and you should not buy that soda company.”
“They’re already coming on Friday.”
“I can cancel the meeting.”
“Nah.” He swiveled his chair again.
The squeak made Piper grit her teeth. She was going to have a combo headache today.
“You’re determined to go ahead with the soda?”
He sounded so enthusiastic.
“And you’re going to call one of the flavors unicorn snot?”
“Maybe spit. I haven’t decided.”
The biggest decision of his day was choosing between unicorn snot or spit.
She should not ask.
“What are the other flavors you’ve come up with?” she asked in spite of knowing that she didn’t want to know.
She took a deep breath. At least there were trolls in Warriors. Maybe the labels could have something to do with Warriors. That was on brand for Ollie.
Ugh, he did not need to be a brand.
“Fairy dust,” he said. Then he frowned. “But that’s not good. Dust isn’t liquid.”
Piper just nodded. Honestly, none of this mattered. None of it was good.
“Dragon fire,” he said.
“Fire isn’t liquid either,” she pointed out. She was on the verge of just laughing hysterically.
He nodded, frowning. “I know.”
“You should just call all of them spit,” she said. “Troll spit, fairy spit, dragon spit, unicorn spit. All different flavors and colors but similar theme. And,” she said, on a roll now, feeling like she was going a little crazy, “you should add unicorns to Warriors in your next story. Then it all goes along with Warriors and can be part of your brand. In fact,” she added, definitely feeling like she was about to crack. And that meant laughing uncontrollably, crying, or ripping the head off of Spark and strewing his innards all over Ollie’s office. “You should talk to Whitney about making some Warriors snack cakes. Troll turds.” She nodded. “Brown roll-up cakes. Or green. Is troll poop brown or green?”
She was breathing hard and her heart was racing.
Oliver, on the other hand, was still leaning back in his chair. He did, however, stop swiveling. And arched a brow.
“Don’t be ridiculous,” he said.
She laughed, sounding manic, but feeling a touch of relief. Ollie’s bar for ridiculous was high but it was good there was a limit.
“We can’t use Warriors on anything officially. We sold it off to Plus Gaming, remember?”
She stared at him. “Of course I remember.”
“They own all the trademarks and logos and stuff.” He sighed as if everything was just too much to bear. “So all of that is out. Though I guess I could still call the sodas troll and dragon spit and stuff. People might make the connection. We could put my face on the labels or something.”
Piper opened her mouth to reply. Then snapped it shut. She started to reach for Spark. Then pulled her hand back. She pressed her lips together. Then pivoted on her heel and marched out to her desk.
She yanked open her middle right-hand drawer, lifted three folders out of the way, and withdrew the crisp piece of paper. She signed and dated it, then stomped back into Oliver’s office. She laid it on the middle of his desk.
He sat forward. That made the stupid chair creak too and Piper pulled a breath in through her nose.
“What’s this?” he asked.
“My resignation letter.”
“Oh.” He grinned and sat back again. “Okay.”
She raised both eyebrows. “I’m serious, Oliver.”
It was true that she’d quit twice before. But both times she’d done it verbally and once had been to Grant only. She threatened to quit about twice a month. It was her fault that he wasn’t taking this seriously.
But a lot of Oliver’s behaviors and attitudes were her fault.
Dax was the master enabler. Grant a close second. But she was easily number three. She could own that.
She could also fix it.
“I’m sorry,” he said.
She tipped her head. “For?” She knew he had no idea what exactly she was pissed about. He really didn’t know that she was, in part, pissed at herself.
“For upsetting you.”
“But for what? Exactly?” she pressed.
He looked at her for a long moment. “For not liking your idea about the troll turds?” he finally asked. “It’s not that I didn’t like it. We just can’t do it.”
She sighed. He was going to need a little help here. Fine. She could explain this to him. Then she was leaving.
“You need to do more,” she told him. “You need to do something important. You’ve been given every opportunity, and if you use your money and success and position to buy a soda company to make drinks for kids that are called troll spit, you are absolutely wasting all of it. And I can’t be around to watch that.”
He frowned. “I’m not wasting anything. I give money to charity.”
“You do,” she said. “But you randomly write checks to organizations. Those organizations appreciate it, I’m sure. But they don’t really mean anything to you. They don’t make you passionate. I know that Hot Cakes doesn’t make you passionate either. I know you’re here because of the guys. And that is awesome. Your friendships make you passionate. But you don’t care about Hot Cakes. Not really. Hell, sometimes I’m not sure how much you care about Warriors. At least not as it is right now.”
She felt herself frown as she said that out loud realizing that it was true. And that she was just now actually realizing that herself.
“I know that Warriors was your creation. Still is. But I think it’s… not exactly what you want it to be. But instead of making it into more, you just keep doing the same thing with it. And I don’t think you care about soda.”
Ollie was frowning deeply now. “Does anyone care about soda?” he asked.
“I have no idea. It would be hard for me to imagine,” she agreed. “But the point is, you need something to care about and I’m tired of you not looking for that. Not trying for that. I’ve been right here, for five years, supporting everything you’ve wanted to do—probably more than I should have—and made everything easy for you. I think that you need to figure out what you want and I think you need to work for it.”
“Work for what?”
“For the things you want.”
“What are those?”
She blew out a breath. “That’s what you need to figure out, Ollie. You need to figure out what you care about. I think Warriors just happened to you. I’m not saying you regret it, but I do think you wish some of it was different. Hot Cakes just happened to you. That was all Aiden. And now, when you go looking for something of your own, you land on soda? And you want to call it troll spit? Come on. You’re better than that.”
Notably, he didn’t argue with her about Warriors not being what he wanted it to be, nor did he declare that he loved owning Hot Cakes and thought that was incredibly important work.
“And you think everything is easy for me?” he asked.
“Yes.” She laughed. “Very.”
“So you think I’m…” He lifted a brow, as if challenging her to fill in that blank.
Well, she was ready.
“Entitled. Spoiled. Brilliant. A little lazy. Creative. Infuriating. One of my favorite people. And full of yourself.”
He just sat blinking at her.
“And clueless,” she added after a few seconds.
“Is that it?”
She shrugged. “I’m sure I can come up with a few more. Those cover the basics.”
“You think I’m lazy?”
“I also said brilliant and creative.”
He studied her, his eyes narrowed. “You also said one of your favorite people.”
She nodded. “I did.”
“So why are you handing me a resignation letter?”
“Because my contract with Fluke Inc. requires I write one. The contract, by the way, that none of you even remember that I had to sign.”
She knew very well she could have gotten away with not turning that letter in. Sure, Oliver might have thrown a little fit and Cam might have dug into his paperwork when he had a tiny niggle in the back of his memory about a contract. But her bosses had become very dependent on her knowing all of the paperwork details about the business. If she’d told them she didn’t have to write a letter, they probably would have believed her.
Which was why she couldn’t do that. She’d never manipulate their trust in her.
“So you want to quit? Even though you just said you really like me and you know that I need to find something that matters to me? Don’t you think I need you if I’m going to do that?”
She put a hand on her hip. Oh man, she’d love for this guy to need her. For more than booking plane reservations and writing emails and making sure he didn’t eat room service every night at the hotel where they’d both been living for the past several months. Not that she was complaining. They both had penthouse suites. The hotel room was nicer than her apartment in Chicago, and that had been really nice. The guys paid her well, what could she say?
“Why do you need me to help you figure out what you need to be doing with your life?” she asked, truly curious about his answer to that question.
“Because you know me better than anyone,” he said easily.
Her heart flipped in her chest, then fell to her stomach. He wasn’t wrong. She did know him. Probably better than he knew himself. But that was the problem. Oliver needed to get to know himself. He needed to figure out what he wanted. He needed to stop being dependent on everyone around him to tell him what he should and shouldn’t do.
“This is all on you, sorry,” she said.
“So you really are quitting?” He actually looked and sounded concerned now. Finally.
She nodded. “I am.”
“You’re really that pissed about the soda company?” he asked. “Fine. I won’t buy it.”
“No, Ollie, that’s not it.” She sighed. “Well, that’s not all of it. That’s just symbolic.”
“So why are you quitting, then?”
“Because… I can’t be in love with you and work for you. And the only one of those two things I can change is the working for you part.”