As You Like It
“GREAT SEX isn’t just about mind-blowing orgasms and Fourth of July fireworks.”
Apparently not, Marissa Sturgess thought.
Leaning back in the tweed-cloth swivel chair, she doodled aggressively on her yellow legal pad and listened to Francine Phillips, the lab-coated clinician from the renowned Baxter and Jackson Sex Research Institute, address the Pegasus software team assembled around the paper-strewn wood-laminate conference table. The team consisted of the two remaining account managers—one of whom was Marissa—a system analyst, four programmers and the president of Pegasus, Judd Thompson.
If great sex was just about excellent technique she wouldn’t have found a rather insulting Dear Jane letter from her investment-banker boyfriend, Steve, propped against the salt and pepper shakers on her kitchen table that very morning, ending their three-month relationship.
As he put it, she was too intense in life in general and in the bedroom specifically. He needed someone more lighthearted, spontaneous and fun.
Yeah, okay, all right. Obviously, she was so intense Steve had resorted to dumping her via a scribbled note rather than confronting her face-to-face.
The coward. Running away and robbing her of the opportunity for rebuttal. She’d taken his stupid note, methodically shredded it into a hundred little pieces and flushed it down the toilet.
“Our extensive research with happily married couples has shown us that great sex demands not only trust, caring and honesty, but above all else…” Francine continued and then paused as if waiting for a drumroll.
Marissa tossed her head to shake away all thoughts of Steven J. Thortonberry the Third and get her mind back on the task at hand. She’d already wasted a good ten minutes fretting over the breakup. Enough was enough. Time to move on. She refused to linger on defeat.
Besides, it wasn’t losing Steve that bothered her so much as it was his accusation she was too serious in the sack.
“You go at sex like it’s a corporate takeover, Marissa. Can’t you ever just relax and enjoy the moment?” he’d asked her on several occasions.
In a nutshell? No. To Marissa’s way of thinking, relaxation was grossly overrated and a handy excuse for lazy people.
As the only child of Brigadier General Dwight D. Sturgess she had learned to attack life with verve and gusto; giving a hundred and twenty percent to any project she tackled, including sex. Her mother had died when she was a baby and it had just been her and her dad. At an early age, Marissa had discovered being the best was the only sure way to guarantee her father’s respect.
Her resulting lust for success had served her well in the business world, but in her personal life…well, in her experience most men didn’t appreciate a competitive woman.
At least not when it came to physical intimacy.
And now here was this plump, gray-haired, bespectacled grandmotherly woman standing behind the podium at the head of the conference table, a laser pointer in her hand, lecturing on the fundamentals of great sex. And according to the theory she was putting forth, Marissa simply didn’t measure up.
“Truly transcendental sex must include a sense of whimsy.” Francine used the pointer to highlight her presentation on the plasma screen featuring a laughing woman being pushed on a playground swing by an equally gleeful man.
“Whimsy?” The other account manager, Dash Peterson, asked.
“Fun, lightheartedness, humor.”
Dash winked suggestively across the table at Marissa. The man was a supreme egotist with a sleazy streak a mile wide. He fancied she wanted him as much as he wanted her and he was her chief competition for the promotion. Unfortunately, while Dash was a royal pain in the keester, he was also damn good at his job.
Marissa ignored him and focused her total attention on Francine. Baxter and Jackson made up thirty percent of Pegasus’s entire business and since premature labor had forced the current account director to leave her job three weeks earlier than planned, the sex institute’s account was now up for grabs. Whoever ended up managing that piece of the pie stood an excellent chance of becoming the next director.
And Marissa wanted the position more than she wanted to breathe.
For three years she’d been gunning for the job ever since she’d made the switch from systems liaison to marketing and joined the small but up-and-coming Manhattan software company with a very promising future. To that end, she’d done everything in her power to cultivate the right image.
Ooze success and convince everyone around her that she was a winner. If she looked and acted the part, sooner or later she was bound to get what she wanted.
Marissa kept her blond hair cut in a sleek, easy-to-manage, chin-length bob. She spent an hour a day at the gym to maintain the size eight figure she’d had since high school. She knew she wasn’t a ravishing beauty with her too-small eyes and her too-wide forehead but she had good cheekbones and she pampered her complexion with a plethora of beauty creams and potions.
And even though it required running up her credit cards a bit, she wore exquisitely tailored suits and look-at-me leather stilettos. Clothes might make the man, but in Marissa’s estimation the right footwear—from Manolo Blahnik to Jimmy Choo to Dolce and Gabbana—made the woman. Not that she was a true shoe-aholic in the vein of some women. It wasn’t the shoes themselves that set Marissa’s heart aflutter, but rather what those high-fashion accessories whispered to her.
See, Daddy, I am a winner.
So far, her attention to detail had paid off. Her last year’s productivity bonus equaled a fourth of her yearly salary. But her success only whet her appetite for bigger and better things. If she got the promotion and made a huge splash as Pegasus’s account director, she would enhance her cache with larger software firms. Marissa was determined to eventually become the most respected software-marketing director on the East Coast.
“Could you please elaborate about this whole whimsy thing, Francine? I want to make absolutely sure I have a handle on your proposed project.” Dash grinned at the Baxter and Jackson clinician, putting all four of his cheeky dimples into the smile.
Suck-up. Marissa flashed him the message with her eyes.
Don’t you know it, he flashed back.
“Why, certainly, Dash. Our extensive two-year study group has shown that a sense of fun is the key to long-term monogamous sex. And you would be surprised at how many couples don’t recognize their inner need for spontaneous, impulsive sex play.”
What a load of malarkey, Marissa thought. Playing pinch and tickle in the bedroom no more kept a marriage together than holiday traditions. What made a marriage succeed was hard work and dedication and facing problems head-on.
In her personal opinion the Baxter and Jackson research project oversimplified relationships, but hey, they were the clients. She wasn’t paid to have a personal opinion. She’d buy into anything they wanted her to buy into.
“Very informative,” Dash said. “And your theory explains why Marissa has trouble holding on to a man. She wouldn’t know fun if it bit her on the butt.”
“I don’t…” Marissa almost rose to the bait but then quickly clamped down on her tongue.
If Steve hadn’t just walked out on her, Dash’s comment wouldn’t have rankled. Normally his digs rolled right off her back, but today she yearned to wrap her hands around his neck and throttle him merely for the enjoyment of watching his eyes pop out.
From the opposite end of the conference table Judd Thompson cleared his throat. Judd was in his midfifties, although he looked ten years younger. He had once worked for the largest, most successful software company on the planet, and was the most computer-savvy man Marissa had ever met.
Judd expected a lot from his employees, but he wasn’t as demanding as her father. Naturally, he had a more civilian approach to life than the General, but like her old man, he prized achievement. She eagerly turned herself inside out to engender his accolades.
When Judd was happy with her performance, Marissa was happy.
“Pipe down, you two,” Judd chided with a frown. “Could we put the petty one-upmanship aside for at least a few minutes and allow Francine to finish detailing her requirements?”
Marissa nodded, sat up straighter and purposefully avoided looking at Dash.
“Thank you, Judd,” Francine said. “What we want from Pegasus on this project is a bit different from the software you’ve created for us in the past.”
“How so?” Dash asked.
“We’re interested in producing a virtual-reality video game promoting sex play among couples who’ve found their love life stagnating. An aid, if you will, for our patients who have difficulty letting their hair down and having fun.”
“But we don’t design video games,” piped up one of the programmers. “Especially virtual reality. That requires a completely different set of skills.”
“I’m sure we can find a way around that small obstacle,” Marissa said, knowing full well the obstacles were anything but small. “I’m prepared to do whatever it takes to keep Baxter and Jackson satisfied.”
Take that, Dash.
“I know a freelance designer,” Dash interrupted. “I’m sure if you selected me to manage your account I could wrangle a very good deal for you.”
“Actually.” Francine smiled. “We already have a designer in mind.”
“Oh?” Dash looked taken aback.
Marissa very professionally resisted the urge to pitch him a gloating smirk.
“Beau Thibbedeaux,” Francine said. “I’m assuming you’re all familiar with his work.”
A hushed, reverential silence fell over the room. Everyone in the software industry had heard of Beau Thibbedeaux. He was, arguably, the best video-game design architect ever to code a script.
Or at least he used to be.
Dash, Judd, the system liaison and the four programmers exchanged a look. Marissa didn’t know the whole story of the Beau Thibbedeaux scandal but apparently it had been a doozy.
The guy had been the biggest star at the largest video-game design company in the country. Hailed as a creative genius, he was a visionary far ahead of his time. From what she could gather through the industry grapevine, Thibbedeaux hated being rushed or pressured.
The rumor was he’d run afoul of a very influential, very impatient overseas client. Beau had simply walked away from the project with an unfinished design left on the table.
Marissa figured Thibbedeaux must have suffered some kind of mental or emotional meltdown because she could not fathom any other reason why the man would hightail it back home to Louisiana and leave the company stranded. Personally, she would rather lie down and die than disappoint her employer no matter how difficult the project or the client.
“Beau’s no longer in the business,” Judd said, but Marissa could tell from the speculative expression in his eyes that he would love to be responsible for luring Thibbedeaux back to Manhattan.
“I heard he’s a complete recluse,” another programmer added.
“The guy retired over two years ago,” Dash supplied. “Last I heard he owned a B and B or a restaurant or a bar or something like that in New Orleans.”
“We were hoping Pegasus could coax him out of retirement.” Francine steepled her fingers and glanced around the table.
“There are plenty of other qualified designers available,” Judd said. “Jack Firestein. Ashleigh Henning. Blair Downey to name a few.”
Francine was already shaking her head. “But none of those other candidates have Beau’s flare for pure, unadulterated fun. We’ve reviewed his video games. He’s the one we want.”
“I once worked with Beau. The guy is completely unstable and when he decides to dig his heels in, he digs his heels in. There’s no way he’s coming back.” Dash shook his head.
Dash’s easy capitulation surprised Marissa. She’d never known him to give up without a fight. She studied him, trying to figure out his angle.
“I’m sorry to hear you say that.” Francine’s face reflected her disappointment. “If Pegasus can’t make this happen for us perhaps there’s another software developer who can.”
Oooh, the plot thickens. Why was Francine so insistent on Thibbedeaux?
“Now, Francine, be reasonable,” Judd said, attempting to placate her. “If the man is retired, the man is retired.”
“We want Thibbedeaux.” Francine crossed her arms. For whatever reason, she wasn’t going to give an inch on this one.
Judd met Marissa’s gaze. She knew that look.
Are you my ace in the hole? Her boss’s expression quizzed. He hadn’t asked the nonverbal question of Dash, but of her. He’d chosen her as his go-to person. Pride swelled her chest. Yes, yes.
This is your chance. Jump in. Say something. Do it, do it, do it.
Excitement pushed Marissa to her feet. Anticipation had her slapping her palms against the smooth coolness of the tabletop. Enthusiasm had her vigorously nodding her head.
“I can make it happen,” she said, the words spilling from her mouth before she’d fully thought this commitment through.
All she knew was a very important client wanted something and it was her job to fill her clients’ needs. If she gave Baxter and Jackson what they wanted, Judd would be pleased. And if Judd was pleased, he would give her the promotion.
And the General would stop asking her why she was disappointing him by wasting her time at Pegasus when he felt she obviously would not get promoted there.
The new job would mollify her father. At least for a little while anyway.
Francine beamed at her. “Now that’s the kind of can-do spirit I’m looking for.”
Marissa possessed the upper hand and she knew it. Francine wanted Thibbedeaux.
“We’re going to need more money,” she dared and thrilled to her own audacity. “This work is beyond the realm of what we normally perform for Baxter and Jackson. We will require twenty-five percent more than our usual fee.”
“Fifteen,” Francine countered.
“Twenty,” Marissa haggled, leaning forward in an aggressive stance. “And you pick up the tab for my travel expenses.”
From the corner of her eye she saw Judd watching their interaction like a spectator at Wimbledon, a wide grin on his craggy face. His approval fed her momentum and her boldness.
“Can you assure me you will get Thibbedeaux?” Francine asked.
“You have my word, one hundred percent.”
Judd got to his feet. “Could you excuse us for a minute?”
“Certainly,” Francine said and wagged a finger. “But I am counting on Marissa to accomplish what she has promised.”
How many times had similar words spurred her to climb higher and push harder? Nothing motivated her more than someone’s lofty expectations.
Once the door snapped closed with Francine on the other side of it, Dash let out a hoot of laughter.
“What’s so funny?” Marissa glared and sank her hands on her hips.
“Boy, are you screwed.”
“Just shut up.” “I can’t get over the image of you traipsing through the muck of the Louisiana bayou in your la-di-da Manolo Blahniks and your smart little black miniskirt trying to convince a man more hardheaded than a pit bull to return to the city he hates. Priceless.”
“Overdoing the melodrama a bit, aren’t you, Peterson?” Marissa rearranged her papers. Dash was just jealous because she’d beaten him to the punch.
“And remember, you’ve got to talk Thibbedeaux into designing a sex video game.” He laughed again. “I know Beau. It ain’t gonna happen, Sturgess. When you come back with your tail between your legs, a complete failure, I’ll be the new account director and you’ll be answering to me.” He jerked a thumb at his chest.
Dash knew just how to bother her, but if he meant to dampen her resolve with his derision, he’d sorely miscalculated.
“You’re just pissy because I had the cajones to commit to the project before you did.”
Judd gave a sharp bark of laughter. “She’s got you there, Peterson.”
“No, I’m just trying to save her from humiliating herself. I know Thibbedeaux and she doesn’t. But hey, if she likes having egg plastered all over her face, let her go for it.” Dash dusted his palms together in a dismissive gesture.
Marissa met Judd’s gaze. “Am I officially managing the Baxter and Jackson account?”
“You did a splendid job of negotiating, Marissa. I’m proud of you,” her boss said.
She soaked up his praise. She was a sponge expanding to full size. Her chest tightened and her heart floated. But Judd wasn’t finished.
“However, Dash is right. Getting Thibbedeaux on board isn’t going to be easy.” He furrowed his forehead. “The man’s a complete eccentric.”
“You don’t think I can handle him?”
“It’s not you I’m concerned about.”
“I’m not without my charms, Judd.” She batted her eyelashes.
“Your sex appeal isn’t in question here, it’s Thibbedeaux. He’s a wild card. Are you certain you really want to tackle this obligation? It’s better to back out now than not deliver in the end. Don’t make a promise you can’t keep.”