Sneak Peek: The Arrangement (Chapter 1)

I’m bursting at the seams to tell you about The Arrangement. It releases on July 22nd (preorder here). So, how about an early peek at Chapter 1? Please keep in mind that this is still being edited. Changes may occur. Copyright Adriana Locke, 2024

 

Chapter One

Chloe

 

“That’ll teach you to lick my muffin!” 

I hold the last crumb-topped blueberry muffin in the palm of my hand. “Do you really think that telling me you licked this will stop me from eating it?” 

Nickie laughs, setting her coffee mug emblazoned with the Brewer Air logo on the corner of the table. “It should. I’d be grossed out if I ate a muffin that someone had slobbered all over.” 

“Did you have to say it like that?” 

“Hey, I’m just telling it like it is,” she says.  

I sit in the break room, gazing out the window overlooking the putting green the Brewer executives installed last spring. It’s a much better view than the picnic tables no one used that were there before—especially when the executives gather outside to shoot the shit.

The view is exceptional on those days.

“Listen, I live for Muffin Day,” I say. “And I put a lot of work into securing this small piece of heaven. I’m not afraid of a little spit.” 

Ooh. Sounds interesting. What are we talking about?” Jake from accounting stops beside us, stirring his coffee even though it’s black. I only wish that was his most annoying trait. “Swapping stories? I have a few if you want a threesome.”

He wiggles his brows as if we don’t get the innuendo.

“Keep walking, Jake,” I say, making my exasperation with his presence loud and clear. 

He mutters something under his trademark garlicky breath and continues down the hall.

Nickie takes a seat across from me, grinning. “I can’t tell if Jake fears or is infatuated with you. Something tells me his dreams start with you climbing naked on top of him and then end with visions of knives.”

“I have the same dream about him, minus the naked part.”

I push all thoughts of Jake out of my mind and sink my teeth into the top of the sweet, fluffy muffin. I struggle not to moan.

Few things are better than gourmet baked goods—especially when they are entirely out of your budget. I can barely afford cheap ramen and tap water at the moment. Nothing, not even Nickie’s threat that she licked my muffin, will stop me from enjoying it.

“How did you even get that thing?” she asks, watching me with amusement. “Weren’t you in the morning meeting when the muffins were delivered?”

I hold the bundle of goodness to my nose and inhale the sweet aroma. So, so good.

“It’s moments like this that I worry about you,” she says.

I peel the wrapper away from the side. “Yeah, I was in the meeting. But I slipped out at precisely ten after nine and intercepted an unsuspecting Wendy as she carried the Rolling Scones box from the front desk. I swiped the biggest muffin, hid it in the cabinet under the coffee pot, and then returned to the conference room no one the wiser.”

“You have it timed that perfectly?”

“Nickie, this blueberry muffin is the highlight of my week.”

“That’s sad.”

“You’re telling me.”

I take a giant bite, lifting a brow in response to her perfectly arched one.

My life is hard for Nickie Kennedy to comprehend. But I get it. It’s a series of unfortunate events over here. And for someone like Nickie, who leads a very full, charmed existence, imagining that someone could look forward to a muffin must be baffling. It probably seems exaggerated—like I’m making it up for a laugh. 

But it’s the truth. 

I’m this pathetic.

“What was the meeting about, anyway?” She dusts a strand of red hair off her shoulder. “It looked tense.”

“I don’t know. It probably was. A lot of scowls were worn today.”  

She laughs. “What do you mean it probably was?”

“Jason had two of his brothers with him.” 

Oh. Which two?” 

“Gannon and Tate, and they were oozing alpha male vibes. The Brewer Trifecta of Power was in there, and concentrating on anything besides them was rather difficult.”

“Well, that explains why half our department was milling around all morning instead of logging invoices. They were trying to get a glimpse of The Trifecta.” 

I poke at a blueberry. “I will admit, The Trifecta is a bonus of working here. I came for the paycheck. I stay for the view.”

“As we all do. But you ducked out on the view for a muffin. That says a lot about you.”

I laugh. “That says Tate’s analogies were boring, and my stomach growled. Remedying hunger and saving myself from mental anguish comes first on the hierarchy of needs. That’s true even if the view is spectacular. Tate is gorgeous … when his mouth is shut.” 

She shakes her head as if I’m ridiculous and watches me savor what’s left of my breakfast.  

The Brewer men, all five brothers, are the most stunning family in the universe, and no one will convince me otherwise. Even their sister and mother are beautiful. But one of them outshines them all—my boss, Jason.

Jason, the CEO of Brewer Air, is arguably the most attractive man of all time. Sandy-blond hair. Bright green eyes. High forehead, strong brow, and solid jaw. He’s remarkably intelligent, a powerhouse in every right, and confident yet somehow not arrogant. Getting to know him takes some effort, but Jason is a lot of fun once you do. 

And I think about the fun part. A lot

“Speaking of things that say a lot about you,” she says, resting her chin in her palm. “Did you call Bodhi back?” 

No, I didn’t call Bodhi back.” I mock her, earning a roll of her eyes. “I told you I wasn’t calling him back when he asked for my number.”

“Look, I get that he is a busboy at twenty-five, but he has potential. And with all the running around he was doing during the lunch rush, his stamina must be great.” 

“My failure to return his call has nothing to do with his place of employment. Actually, I like the idea that he’s out there hustling his ass off.” 

“Then what’s the problem?” 

I sigh, sitting back in my chair. Nickie sighs right back. 

We have this conversation at least once a week. My friend has decided that I cannot possibly be happy and live a fulfilling life without a man. She’s projecting. I’ve known her for three years—we started work at Brewer Air the same day—and I’ve never known her to go more than a week without a boyfriend. 

On the other hand, I just passed the six-month mark of complete singledom. The guy before that wasn’t exactly a winner, but he did get the important job done. Mostly. I did learn to fake orgasms throughout that experience, which is a silver lining. I think.  

“What will you do?” she asks, sounding like a broken record. “Stay single forever?” 

“I think my relationship status bothers you a whole lot more than it bothers me, Nick.” 

She leans forward, resting her elbows on the table. “Someone has to worry about you getting laid, and if that someone has to be me, then so be it.” 

Jake appears out of nowhere, opening his mouth to interject an unwanted comment into our discussion. The mere thought of Jake getting laid makes my stomach lurch. 

“Keep walking, Jake,” I say again.

His head falls forward, and he scoots off toward his office.  

“Your relationship status should bother you more. Forever is a long time, Chloe,” Nickie says, not missing a beat. 

I cram the rest of the muffin in my mouth.

“That’s ladylike,” she says, teasing me. “Go out this weekend and swallow like that at the bar. You won’t be single for long.” 

I laugh, nearly choking on the last bit of blueberry muffin. “Stop it.”

“No, I won’t stop it until I’m satisfied that you remember that you’re a whole person who deserves love and affection and a big hard cock.” 

I wipe the corner of my eye with a napkin and try to rein in my laughter. 

“Do you have a secret boyfriend?” she asks, crossing her arms over her chest. “I’m starting to think you do. It’s the only answer that makes sense.”

“Trust me. If I had a boyfriend, you’d be the first person to know, so you’d shut up about it.” 

She nods, smiling in satisfaction.

It’s easier with Nickie to pretend I’m not interested in dating at all. I once made the mistake of being open to the idea, and she came to work the next morning with a photo album on her phone filled with men she thought might be a good match for me. That morning, I learned that Nickie is a one-woman matchmaking company. She memorized their bios and statistics and rattled them off like a game show host.

It was as impressive as it was alarming. 

But the truth is that I’m not anti-dating. I’m anti-relationship. Anti-marriage. When coupled with the fact that I only attract men who I’m not interested in and that I have zero free time thanks to a mountain of debt that’ll wind up crushing me at some point—my life is lonely.

I’d rather it be lonely than miserable.

“You have to make time for what’s important to you,” she says.

I hold up the muffin wrapper and grin. “I made time for this little nugget today, didn’t I?”

She groans, making me laugh.

“Look, my neighbor’s grandson is coming to town this week,” I say. “Thomas and I have a little friends-with-benefits thing going on, which will hold me over for a while. It’s the best I can do.”

“That’s absolutely not the best you can do.”

“Even if I wanted to meet someone—which I don’t—there’s no time. During the week, by the time I get home, I’ve been gone ten hours, and I’ve started picking up shifts at Fika’s if someone calls off in the evenings. I also need to spend time with Mimi since she’s alone at our apartment all day—which I feel terrible about, by the way. I barely have time to bathe and sleep, and I feel guilty when I do that.”

“Feeling guilty for taking care of yourself is ridiculous.” 

I shrug. “I’m struggling right now thanks to a crap ton of debt, sky-high rent, and trying to keep Mimi out of a nursing home—all while managing not to get offed by the nasty guy on the first floor of my apartment building.” I pause while Nickie glares at me. “But my life is built on a precarious set of needs that must be met, and mine must be last right now. And that’s okay. It won’t always be this way.” 

“I told you the Pliny Building wasn’t safe.” 

“And I told you the Pliny Building is cheap. Get over it.”

“What does the cost matter if you wind up dead?”

“Listen,” I say, “choices were made. I could starve to death and live somewhere nicer or take my chances with the guy in 1B.” The memory of the slimy prick who lives conveniently by the exit, so I must pass him every time I leave the apartment, makes me shiver. “Getting whacked is faster and less depressing, and at least I’d go out on a full stomach.”

She makes a face. “That’s not funny.” 

I chuckle, tossing the muffin wrapper on the table. “Relax. I’m kidding.” Kind of.

She blows out a breath, wanting to cling to this conversation. But the look on my face must convince her otherwise. 

“I was asking about the meeting this morning because of the gossip going around the building today,” she says. “Did you hear the rumors?”

“I generally try to avoid them.”

“Well, you might want to hear this one.”

I lift a brow.

“The word in accounting is that we’re downsizing, and they’re going to eliminate a bunch of positions soon,” she says, her eyes wide. “Everyone is panicking. And, since you’re Jason Brewer’s executive assistant, I thought maybe you had a little insight you could share with your work bestie.” 

“You know I’m under a Non-Disclosure Agreement.” 

“Yeah, but there are ways you can tell me without telling me. For example, blink one for yes and two for no.” 

“No,” I say, laughing.

No, as in we aren’t downsizing, or no, as in you’re a terrible friend?” 

“I can’t tell you anything for certain, but you know how rumors go.”

“Don’t you worry something will go wrong, and we’ll all be jobless?” Nickie asks. 

“In theory, of course. But over this? No.”

She stands, smoothing out her skirt. “Walter asked me to give him my stapler this morning. It feels like a sign. Give me your stapler because you won’t need it—you’re out of here. I almost fought him over it, as if possessing office supplies is nine-tenths of employment law.”

I laugh. 

“He’s an absolute asshole. He orders me around like I’m a peon. You should’ve heard how he ordered me to give him my stapler.” She pauses dramatically. “That’s a problem for me. Ask, don’t order. I don’t want to give him anything now—not my time, my skills, or my fucking stapler.” 

“Sucks to be you.” I grin. “I’d give Jason Brewer whatever he wants.”

Someone clears their throat behind Nickie. I groan, sure that it’s Jake in another attempt at weaseling his way into our conversation. I peer around my friend to send him on his way for a third time but stop.

As my lips part with a one-liner and my gaze focuses on the man in the doorway, my irritation fades.

And my embarrassment grows. 

It’s not Jake.

Jason stands in the break room entrance like he’s been there a while … long enough to have heard my seven-word sentence.

His sandy-blond hair is sun-kissed to perfection. It’s styled back off his chiseled face, giving me a better view of his bright green eyes and thick, heavy brows pulled together as he watches me … and smirks.

“I’d give Jason Brewer whatever he wants.”

Dark dress pants fit his muscular thighs. A thin brown belt cinches his narrow waist. A crisp white shirt is cuffed at his elbows, displaying the ends of the tattoos etched into his upper arms that peek out the bottom of the sleeves. 

My God.

I melt in front of him in a mix of surprise, concupiscence, and deep, deep mortification from being overheard. 

Nickie fights a laugh. “I’ll talk to you later, Chloe.” She turns for the door, smiling cheekily. “Good morning, Mr. Brewer. How are you today?”

He nods, never taking his eyes off me. “It’s been an interesting day so far.”

She laughs. “So it has. Have a good one.”

“You too,” he says, crossing one ankle over the other. His lips twist in amusement. 

So,” I say once my traitorous friend abandons me and leaves the two of us alone. Despite the look in his eyes, I try to exude cool, calm confidence. “How long were you standing there?”

He holds my gaze for a moment, then two. Finally, he presses away from the doorway.

“Chloe, may I see you in my office for a moment?”

Shit.

 

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