“Mr. Carlyle, I e-mailed those numbers you wanted.”
I glanced up and raised an eyebrow. Everyone in the office knew I checked my in-box compulsively. Why tell me the figures I needed had been sent? “Thanks, Riley. I’ll look at them as soon as I get a chance.”
Riley Jameson stood in my doorway, tapping a quick pattern on the frame with his fingers.
Was he hinting at me to check the numbers right now? I liked Riley, but I couldn’t let him think he had some special claim on my schedule. “Is there something else?”
His body started. “No, Mr. Carlyle.”
He seemed a bit lost. Maybe he was the one who needed the hint. “That will be all, then,” I said gently.
Riley’s graceful fingers paused on the frame. “Right,” he murmured, spinning around and leaving my office.
Tilting my head to the side, I stole a look at his rounded ass as it pushed against the seat of his slacks. As soon as he’d closed the door behind him, I let a slow grin curve my mouth.
Man, I knew it was so very wrong -- he was a subordinate on my team! -- but he was beautiful. Brown hair, hazel eyes. He was a hair under five feet eight, putting him four inches shorter than me, but he had that lean runner’s build that made him look much taller. And he was twenty-three years old. Only four years younger, which made him one of the few employees on this floor close to my age.
Every once in a while, I walked down the halls and caught a snip of a conversation where somebody was calling me “kid.” Not from people I had personally worked with and certainly not from anyone on my team. Still, I was hoping Riley’s presence would silence those anonymous whispers.
I hadn’t hired him, but there were times I viewed him as a personal present to me. I didn’t even mind the mistakes that kept cropping up in his work -- he was new, and everyone had to start somewhere.
Sighing, I returned my attention to my computer screen. I’d been reading an article on the Internet that fascinated and scared the hell out of me at the same time.
Distribution of Omnifluvac had begun. A synthetic flu vaccine that targeted specific proteins within the cell common across all forms of the virus, it was highly effective against not only one strain of flu, but every known strain of flu in existence.
From the previous articles I’d read, it looked like it had the potential to send influenza down the path of measles or polio. Amazing, really. But there were some bizarre side effects.
Fifty percent of people who took the shot gained an average of five inches in height. The growth was remarkably consistent, with only a few outliers topping out at seven inches and a few gaining only three inches.
My lips parted as I clicked to the next page.
People were flocking to get the shot, and that was understandable. The growth wasn’t dangerous to the individual’s health, and who wouldn’t want to have a little extra height along with a lifetime immunity to the flu?
But, God, that other side effect…
Of all the people inoculated, 0.5 percent lost
an average of three inches. Same consistency as with the gain -- outliers were four inches at most, one inch at the bottom end of the spectrum. Again, no deterioration of overall health, and “only” 0.5 percent of patients lost height, so it was deemed an acceptable risk.
My hand actually trembled on my mouse as I read that line.
I liked being six feet flat. Being taller than most of the men in my office felt damned good. And whether people wanted to believe it or not, men six feet and over earned nearly 3 percent more than men who measured under that mark.
Statistics didn’t lie.
Bottom line, I didn’t want to risk losing the height I had. And I was young -- I didn’t really need
a flu shot, right?
I closed the browser window and switched to e-mail. The height gain was probably exaggerated, anyway.
* * * * *
I glanced to the side, surprised because I’d just stepped off the elevator, lunch in hand. “Yes, Riley?”
He jerked a thumb at his monitor. “I’m putting together a new spreadsheet, and I wanted to know what you thought of it.”
“Sure.” My stomach grumbled in protest, but I ignored it as I walked past a row of cubicles to get to his. Scanning the spreadsheet on his screen, I let those numbers wash over me. The general noise of the office faded as my mind focused on the columns and rows, the sorting methods he used, and the bottom lines. Something screwed with the harmony of it all, and I homed in on it, thinking. “Your results are incorrect. Here.” I pointed to the second column, then the third. “And here.”
Riley frowned. “Really?”
He should have tested this sheet with figures he already knew. Rookie mistake. “Pull up your code.”
A few clicks and it was on the monitor. I leaned on his desk and scrolled through, trying not to notice how nice his arms looked, hugged by the sleeves of his polo shirt. I loved business casual dress. One of these days I might actually take advantage of it and wear something other than a suit to work.
Knowing the moment couldn’t last forever, I flicked a section of the screen with my fingers. “There. That’s where you have to clean it up.”
“Figure it out. The rest of your code is good, so you’ll catch it soon, I’m sure.”
Frowning, he tapped his pen against his desk as he studied the screen.
I watched him a moment, something about that rhythm tugging at my mind. My gaze drifted to his wrist, and I noticed he was wearing a new watch. Leather band, gold trim on the face. Cartier. At his salary, it had to be a knockoff, but I’d never seen one so perfect before. How many points would I lose as his boss if I asked him where he’d picked it up? I’d almost worked up the nerve to try, when I caught sight of the Band-Aid on his upper arm.
Straightening, I grinned, hoping the expression covered the moment of disquiet that had flashed through me. “Let me know when you’re done,” I told him as I headed for my office. My stomach rumbled again, but thankfully it was out of Riley’s earshot.
“Giving the new kid help?” Greg Morris, my peer from the development expense department, leaned against the wall, his arms crossed over his chest. He was around ten years older than me, and although we had somewhat different work philosophies, I looked up to him, and he seemed to like me well enough.
“A little,” I said, studying his suit like I always did. Even with knockoffs, Riley had good taste, but Greg was in a league of his own. He always knew just how to accent his dark eyes and hair, and I’d yet to figure out how to parlay that into my own coloring. I had brown hair and eyes, so given Greg’s style, I should wear a brown suit, but I didn’t really like brown suits --
“Think that’s wise?”
Damn, I’d lost the thread of the conversation. Oh, yeah. Helping Riley.
“Why wouldn’t it be?”
“Harvard whiz kid, fresh from school. Everyone thinks he’s hot shit. Aren’t you worried he’ll show you up?”
I never understood attitudes like that. Sure, I didn’t go to an Ivy League school, but I was good. And if a member of my team did well, it only helped the company. “Not worried about that at all.”
Greg shrugged and straightened away from the wall. “If I were you, I’d be more concerned about your job.”
Fighting the urge to roll my eyes, I politely thanked him for the advice and went into my office. When it came to figures and stats, I was a fucking savant. Consolidating over two hundred million dollars in engineering expenses across twenty countries wasn’t work for me. It was fun
No one was taking my job, and at the moment I was more distracted by the Band-Aid I’d seen on Riley’s arm. I’d seen similar ones on most of the people in the building.
Right after they’d come back from their flu shots.
* * * * *
I bumped into someone and turned my head. “Sorry about that,” I murmured, tilting my face up.
A man I didn’t recognize grinned down at me. “No problem.”
Had he always been tall? Or had he gotten inoculated? Uncomfortable, I hurried to catch the elevator. After I hit the button to my floor and edged to the back of the box, I watched as more people crammed themselves in, staring at the heads that inched up past mine.
The world had changed around me in the last few months. Everyone who was inoculated with Omnifluvac and experienced the growth aspect of the shot reacted differently. Some grew over the course of weeks, others in a matter of days
Days. Logically, I knew the numbers weren’t right, but the people who shot up quickly made it feel as if half of the population was shooting up around me.
A man well over six feet strode into the elevator just before the doors closed. He didn’t have to make room for himself -- the people around him simply squeezed themselves deeper into corners, against walls. I doubted any of them realized what they were doing.
Had I been like that? I didn’t think so, but it was hard to be sure, given how automatically this person had asserted his power just now. I might have walked into any number of tight spaces and not noticed as people made room for me.
Today I’d neither taken another person’s space nor given up my own. As faint, bland music cascaded over us and the elevator bell dinged for each floor, I wondered what that meant.
Where did I stand?
“Hey, Mr. Carlyle.”
My head whipped to the side, my heart skipping a beat when I saw Riley looking at me eye-to-eye.
Shit. Since when could he level my gaze?
“H-hello, Riley,” I said, trying to straighten my posture.
It didn’t work. We were still the same size.
The corner of his mouth lifted. “How are you doing?”
If Riley was beautiful before, I didn’t know what
the hell to call him now. A lot of the people who’d grown as a result of the shot seemed to burn fat as they grew taller. They looked lean as a result, even lanky. But while the man at my side was perfectly in proportion, he also seemed… I don’t know how to describe it. A bit thicker, maybe. And his skin seemed smoother, tanner. Even his eyes seemed brighter.
“I’m fine,” I told him, my voice calm as I prayed silently I wasn’t blushing.
He stretched his arms over his head, snapping my gaze to the hard lines in his triceps, the strong cords in his forearms. Even his hands looked bigger, his long fingers stretching toward the ceiling as his watch caught the light and flashed gold. “It’s been crazy lately, with quarter close and everything. Don’t you think?”
My mouth went dry and I wanted to swallow, but I was afraid he’d see it. “No more than usual.”
Riley’s grin pulled wider as he linked his hands behind his head. “Figured you’d say that.” He glanced at me. “You’re always good under pressure. Does anything shake you up?”
Before I could stop it, I’d taken a half step away from him. Those eyes were confident, focused. They were teasing and…predatory? “You’d be surprised.”
A bell dinged, and the elevator door opened to our floor. Riley dropped his arms, looking me up and down. “Doubt that,” he said, walking out of the box.
I blew out a harsh breath -- I hadn’t even realized I’d been holding it -- and stumbled out of the elevator.