"The last item on the agenda is the compliance report. Merlin, anything to discuss?" The Executive Vice President of Operations, Arthur Pendragon, kept his tone politely patient but Merlin could see fatigue in his boss's blue eyes.
The three Operations Directors seated around the polished board table with its inlaid company logo of a red dragon looked beseechingly at the Compliance and Ethics Officer. This meeting had stretched forty-five minutes late due to discussion on the upcoming board presentation and they all had duties waiting for them, piling higher the longer they were away from their offices.
"I've got nothing to bring up," Merlin said.
Gwaine gave him a thumb's-up and Lancelot sent him a relieved smile.
"Then I will let you busy gentlemen get back to your work," Arthur said. His blond hair was stylishly cut if a trifle long and his tailored suit showcased his athletic build.
Gwaine and Lancelot flipped their tablets shut. They were both well-built, taller than Arthur but not as big as the lighter-haired man across the table. Percival laid his pen beside his notepad, stretched out his clasped hands, and cracked his knuckles. His suit jacket strained at the shoulders. Beside him, Merlin looked frail with his thin form and oversized ears.
"Sure you had nothing to bring to my attention?" Arthur asked the compliance officer after the three directors had filed out.
"Nothing new." Merlin's gaze fastened on the corridor beyond the glass wall.
He was unable to keep his gaze from following the Executive Vice President of Finance, her heels drumming against the flooring and her long, dark hair swept up and to the side today. She was wearing the dark green suit with a knee-length pencil skirt that outlined her hips and drew attention to her perfect long legs. Up close it probably made her beautiful eyes even more green.
A tall man with a too-charming smile on his tanned face followed her. The Head of Internal Audit wore a daring purple tie to set off his standard black suit and white shirt. Neatly trimmed dark stubble precisely followed the line of his jaw and perfectly styled hair disguised a chin that was too narrow and a forehead that was too broad.
Merlin resisted the urge to smooth down his own unruly dark hair.
Arthur saw his sister and fellow executive stride past the meeting room with Accolon behind her. He sighed. "I know it's technically against company policy for employees to be involved with each other."
"Accolon reports directly to Morgana, and a personal relationship between the two of them leaves us open to complaints about favouritism," Merlin said. "Not to mention the wrongful dismissal suit we're in for if she fires Accolon like she did her last paramour."
"I know, I know, but Morgana doesn't report to me and our father is not going to discipline her. If there is any fallout he'll deal with it when it happens."
"Is this where I give the speech about how our Code of Business Ethics applies equally to all employees, even the Chief Executive Officer's daughter?" And to the Head of Internal Audit, not that Merlin could entirely blame the man for falling under Morgana's spell. He wondered whether he would have the strength of will to turn her down if ever she looked his way.
"It's out of my hands. Besides, I know what a tough time Morgana and Urien are going through right now."
"Don't you think the fact that she is married makes her affair even more of an ethical issue?" Merlin said.
"You can't make morality a policy, and anyway it's your fault she's married to that jerk."
Merlin looked at Arthur in astonishment. "How is that my fault?"
"You've been staring at her with googly eyes since the day you joined this company five years ago. You should have asked her out before he did, like I told you."
"What you told me was that I should stick to girls who were more on my level."
Arthur grinned. "Did I say that?"
The smile faded from Arthur's face as he stared down the corridor where his dark-haired sister has disappeared. "She's always been driven. Had to work twice as hard as I did before Father would acknowledge she was ready for an executive position. She joined the company three years before me but was promoted to VP at the same time." He shook his head and turned back to his friend. "Seriously, though." Arthur leaned forward to rest an elbow on the glossy table surface. "It has been two years since Freya died and you should be dating."
"Brave words from an executive vice president who is too much of a prat to ask the Controller to marry him. You two have been dating for years to the exclusion of all the other beautiful women mooning over you."
"I'm not a prat." The blond man sat back and adjusted his tie.
Merlin rolled his eyes. "Gwen is going to give up on you and go out with Lancelot again if you don't tell her you're serious about your relationship with her. You know Lancelot has never gotten over their breakup."
Arthur frowned. "You think she still likes him?"
"Who wouldn't? Tall, dark, handsome, swarthy skin, that Latin accent."
"Keep talking like that and people are going to think you have a crush on him."
Merlin shrugged. "Better that than the rumours I have a crush on you." He gave an exaggerated shudder.
Arthur's face reddened. "You should tell Guinevere that she can't date Lancelot because it's against company policy."
"She's in Morgana's department, not yours. Technically there is no policy against her seeing Lancelot, or you. Although, being that you are Uther's choice for the next CEO, a case could be made that Gwen should not have a personal relationship with you."
"Merlin, shut up."
It had grown quiet outside his office so Merlin knew it must be after 5:00. It was quitting time for him, too, but no one was home waiting in his flat and besides, after hours was a good time to work without interruption. He sighed and picked up the next document from the pile on his desk when there was a knock on his open door.
"Gwen!" he said with pleased surprise. "You should be gone by now."
"You should, too."
She leaned against the doorframe. Her tight black curls framed her attractive dark-skinned face and a knee-length skirt showed off high-heeled red shoes that contrasted the dark blazer and skirt. The three-inch heels drew attention to a lovely pair of legs.
"Actually, shouldn't you be on a date with one of your many hopeful admirers to make Arthur jealous?" Merlin said.
"I thought you could take me for a drink," she said.
He raised his eyebrows. "Arthur isn't likely to be jealous of you going for a drink with me."
"Then you're not trying hard enough. Now get up." Gwen crooked a finger at him. "We finally released quarter end results and I am in need of a refreshing beverage."
Merlin put the document back on the pile, logged out of his desk computer, grabbed his jacket, and packed his laptop.
"You're not bringing work with you," Gwen said.
He set the laptop bag down. She took his arm and led him to the elevator.
Downstairs in the restaurant lounge they both relaxed in a booth and waited for their drinks. Gwen shrugged out of her blazer with a heavy sigh.
"Tough day?" Merlin asked.
"Tough week," she said. "Morgana's been driving everyone harder than usual. Accolon must be giving her the cold shoulder again." Gwen frowned. "She's always been a tough boss. I can count on the fingers of one hand the number of times I've heard her compliment anyone in the department, but she is competent. I've never worked in an accounting department with higher standards. It's just that when her current boy toy gives her trouble it gets tougher for everyone than it needs to be."
"You admire her."
Gwen sniffed. "I have great respect for her skill and dedication and frankly for anyone who can put up with Uther as a direct boss, but I wouldn't want to be her. She seems … lonely."
Merlin's brows shot up to the dark fringe of his hairline. "She's never lacked for company. I don't think I've ever seen her alone at a social event." There was always at least one good-looking man at her elbow.
"Well, I know, but …" Gwen stared into her drink. "It's not like we've ever been social or anything and I could be way off base. It's only that for a little while when she got married she actually seemed pleasant and happy. Then she went back to being herself, except worse. Since the CEO is her father no one is going to say anything to her about being disrespectful to the staff." Gwen rolled her eyes. "Just like there are no repercussions for the way she carries on affairs even with her own employees."
"Human Resources should deal with her like they would deal with anyone else who is bringing down morale in a department, but Morgause would never reprimand her sister."
"Half-sister. Same father, different mothers."
"Family should be banned from working together."
"If that were true Arthur wouldn't be here, either," Merlin said.
Gwen looked down at her hands and idly picked up her phone. "Arthur's different."
She set down the phone and smiled self-consciously. "Well, he is and you know it."
"Yes, I do."
The waiter delivered their drinks and Merlin stirred his with the straw to watch the ice cubes spin.
"What about you, tough day?" Gwen asked.
"What is it, then?"
Merlin gave her a wide-eyed look. "Nothing, why?"
Gwen moved her phone aside and folded her hands on the table top.
Merlin sighed. "Just a conversation I had with George earlier."
"The new compliance analyst?" Gwen said. "He seems efficient."
"He is that. Anyway, he came across some payments to a consultant in Argentina that may not have followed our purchasing policies."
"Is that all you're going to tell me?"
Merlin smiled at her perceptiveness. "That's all there is to tell, right now, honestly. We can go back to gossiping about Arthur and Morgana and the whole Pendragon family tree."
"Okay, why did you never tell Morgana how you felt about her?"
Merlin's cheeks grew hot. "I didn't … I don't … there was nothing to tell."
"If you say so." Gwen sipped her drink. "But she should never have married Urien; they make each other miserable. And Freya was a sweet girl but you shouldn't be alone after all this time."
"Easy for you to say; you have Arthur, Lancelot, and Gwaine fighting each other for your attention."
"No one is fighting, you dramatize things too much." Gwen took a sip of her drink.
"Arthur loves you and he will get around to asking you to marry him."
She stared at her glass. "He's had plenty of opportunities."
Merlin grinned. "It takes patience to deal with him, trust me, I know."
One week later Merlin glanced at the clock in the bottom corner of his screen to see it was already after 3:00 p.m., the time he was supposed to join Gwaine and Lancelot in the lounge.
On cue, Gwaine stuck his head in Merlin's office door, his tie already removed and the top buttons of his shirt undone at the collar. "Merlin, put that work away, it's time for a cold brew."
"I heard the board meeting yesterday went well?"
"Arthur got a nod from Uther for his work on the presentation, high praise in my books. Now we are ready to celebrate the end of two months of all-day meetings and late-night revisions."
"Are Lancelot and Percival joining us?"
"I'm right here." Lancelot came up behind Gwaine. "Percival begged off. He feels bad for neglecting his boyfriend these past weeks."
Gwaine rolled his eyes. "Couples," he said with disgust.
"Jealous because you can't get a woman to stick around for a second date?" Lancelot said.
Gwaine flicked his long, dark hair over his shoulder with a toss of his head. "I don't waste time on second dates when women are lining up outside my door. Merlin and I are confirmed bachelors. Right, Merlin?"
"I think Merlin would put aside this workaholic thing he's had going if the right woman came along." Lancelot winked at Merlin.
For a fleeting moment, Merlin imagined Morgana being the "right woman to come along" and felt his cheeks grow warm. From Lancelot's sympathetic glance and Gwaine's predatory grin he feared they had noticed the red tinge in his face.
"The finance department completed their own board presentation," Gwaine said. "Wonder if Morgana will take a few of her staff for drinks at the lounge downstairs as well?"
Merlin was torn between hoping she would be there so he could see her and hoping she would not be there with Accolon by her side. He was saved from coming up with a reply by Lancelot ushering Gwaine out the door.
Merlin grabbed his jacket from the back of his chair to follow the two of them. "Where's Arthur?"
"He said he'd join us as soon as he was off the phone."
They walked the block to the Senator hotel. The hostess gave Gwaine and Lancelot interested looks which Gwaine returned with a wide grin. There was no sign of anyone from the finance department. Merlin decided he was relieved.
By the time they were seated, the waitress was ready to take their drink orders. Merlin had once waited over twenty minutes for a server to arrive. Apparently between Gwaine's long, wavy dark hair and wolfish smile and Lancelot's clean-cut Latin looks, the service tonight would be prompt.
When Arthur joined them the waitress practically tripped in her hurry to take his order. She gave his blond, blue-eyed good looks a wide smile as she straightened the tight black skirt that barely covered her thighs.
"Another drink for each of my friends and bring us a round of shooters," Arthur said.
"What would you like?"
"Whatever you recommend." He winked. "I put myself in your expert hands."
Her cheeks coloured, but she knew her business because the shooters she brought had a pleasant burn without any after-taste.
Merlin intended to stay for two drinks, maximum, but when he checked his phone it was past 7:00 p.m. He tried to recall how much he had drunk. The group had shared a plate of nachos and the lounge's choose-any-three-appetizers platter, but snack food had barely slowed the effects of the alcohol.
"Put that away," Gwaine said, looking at Merlin's phone. "We've got all night."
"The new Club Bar is open," Arthur said. "Why don't we check it out? It can't be that busy on a Tuesday."
Merlin tried to think of a reason to call a cab and head home, but his silent apartment did not provide a good excuse.
Arthur asked the waitress to bring them their tab and she reluctantly cashed them out.
The new restaurant/bar was only three more blocks. The streetlights were coming on and neon "open" signs lit up the restaurants and bars downtown.
Merlin tugged his jacket tighter although the cool breeze felt good on his warm face.
As Arthur had predicted, they had no trouble finding a spot to sit in the trendy new bar ahead of the evening rush. Merlin slowly sipped the drinks he ordered but every time Arthur called for a round of shooters Merlin found himself tipping up his shot glass with the others.
Gwaine left the group to sit with a buxom redhead and her two friends, one of whom was making eye contact with Lancelot.
A pretty blonde in jeggings that displayed shapely legs quickly took Gwaine's seat, introduced herself to Arthur, and chatted animatedly with him.
Merlin leaned closer to Lancelot. "You should join them." He indicated Gwaine and the three pretty girls. "You don't have to keep me company."
Lancelot raised one dark brow. "I think the good-looking brunette would be happier if you joined them."
Merlin flushed. He thought the girl had given him an inquiring glance but it was more likely alcohol playing tricks with his mind. "She was probably looking at you."
"You know, Merlin, Gwen had a crush on you when you first joined the company, but you never showed any interest."
"What? No!" He shook his head but that made him dizzy. "We were just friends."
"For someone who is an auditor, you miss the most obvious things."
Merlin squinted at Lancelot but he was not sure what to make of his friend's comment.
The blonde laughed loudly at something Arthur said, her face flushed. Then she leaned over and kissed him.
At the same moment, Gwen entered the restaurant with a friend and stopped in the doorway of the lounge. Gwen's wide-eyed gaze fixed on Arthur, then she turned on her heel and marched back out. Her friend sent Arthur a disgusted look before she followed.
"Arthur." Merlin leaned across the narrow table to tug his friend's sleeve and point at the door, but his hand was unsteady and his voice sounded funny in his ears. He tried to remember the name of Gwen's friend.
Arthur glanced toward the entrance at a group of new arrivals, then gave Merlin a puzzled look.
When Merlin opened his mouth, his stomach lurched unpleasantly. There was a buzzing in his ears and he had trouble focusing. "Elaine," he said loudly, proud to have remembered the name of the woman with Gwen.
Both Lancelot and Arthur gave him odd looks.
"Sorry, I need to take my friend home," Arthur said to the blonde girl.
"I can take care of him if you want to stay," Lancelot said, glancing at the woman.
Merlin wondered if he heard a trace of censure in Lancelot's usually calm voice and tried to focus on their faces but the room rotated slowly around him.
"No, I think it's time to call a cab," Arthur said.
He pulled out his phone and Merlin decided he could tell Arthur in the cab that Gwen had been there. Or he could tell him tomorrow, because Merlin did not feel well. In fact, he very much wanted to go home and lie down.
Merlin sat at his desk the next day massaging the back of his neck and trying to decide if eating would make his stomach feel better or worse. The doughnuts someone had brought to the lunch room made him queasy but maybe a toasted bagel would be a good idea.
"How are you feeling?"
Merlin winced at the loud greeting and looked up to see Arthur standing in his office doorway, grinning. He looked much too cheerful for someone who had drunk so much the previous night.
"Great," Merlin answered. "Don't you have a meeting to attend or a plane to catch?"
"Nope." Arthur sat down in the chair in front of Merlin's desk, rocked it back on two legs, and braced one knee against the desk. "Making time for my compliance officer."
"Do you need to speak so loudly?"
Arthur grinned. "Brought you a doughnut."
Merlin stared at the greasy, iced pastry. "No, thanks."
"Well, I offered."
Arthur took a big bite of the doughnut and Merlin looked away, his stomach rolling. His eyes fell on the 42-page report George had provided.
"Arthur, since you're here taking up my time, how familiar are you with the efforts to sell to the new government buying group in Argentina?"
"Father's marketing group is still negotiating, operations won't be involved until we actually have a sales contract and need to plan our logistics. Why? Is there a compliance issue?"
"We found a few invoices for consulting services but no contracts to support the payments," Merlin said.
"Did you ask the marketing directors?"
"No, not yet."
"You should go and talk to them." Arthur's chair dropped back to the floor as he stood. "They almost always have doughnuts to share."
Merlin gave his retreating back a disgusted look, then composed a message to the marketing vice president for Latin America. It was only after the message was sent that he remembered his intention to tell Arthur that Gwen had been in the bar the previous evening. Of course, by now she had likely talked to him herself.
Gwen decided she was going to have another cup of coffee. If the caffeine kept her awake this Friday evening, so be it. Once she finished her report she would have the rest of the weekend free, though that hardly mattered since she had no plans and had barely spoken with Arthur all week.
She headed for the lunch room, hoping there was coffee in the urn that was not too old to drink.
When she pushed open the lunch room door she found Lancelot filling his own cup.
"Working late?" she asked.
He started at the sound of her voice, then a warm smile curved his lips at the sight of her. "Yes. You too?"
Gwen reached into the cupboard for a clean mug, happy that not only was there coffee but it smelled fresh.
"I made another pot," Lancelot said. "I decided if I have to burn the midnight oil on a Friday I deserved to have good coffee."
She returned the smile. "I'm glad you did."
He stepped aside with his full mug and she slipped hers under the spout.
"Did you ever finish that poem you were writing?" he asked.
She was surprised he remembered that. "No. I kept the paper on my counter for months, then it graduated to the top of the fridge, and now I don't even know where I put my notes."
"That's too bad. I thought the first few lines were good."
Gwen laughed self-consciously.
"Really. You should finish it," Lancelot said.
She wondered if she could find the paper with her poem and notes. She leaned back against the counter and took a sip of coffee.
"What about you?" Gwen asked. "Any plans to get back together with that band?"
"Yes, actually," Lancelot said. "We've held a few practice sessions and we're going to play Wednesday."
"Where? I'd love to hear your band; I never got a chance before."
"Would you really like to come?"
"Absolutely," Gwen said.
Lancelot sent her a curious look and Gwen wondered if he thought she was suggesting something more than a friend supporting a friend. Which she was not, even though he was one of the best-looking men she had ever dated and her coworkers considered her a fool for breaking up with him. Even her mother had been disappointed.
"We're playing at Molly's Place, a small pub on 8th Street."
"I know where it is," Gwen said. "Elaine and I were planning to go somewhere Wednesday night anyway since our Tuesday plans got cancelled."
A picture of Arthur kissing that sleazy blonde in the club intruded. She tried to remember if Lancelot had been there with Arthur but all she could recall were two blond heads mashed together.
"It wasn't anything, you know," Lancelot said quietly.
She stared at him.
"Really, he was just talking to her and she made the move."
Gwen had successfully gotten through three whole days without dwelling on that moment, at least not for long. To her horror she realized her eyes were misty. She stared into her coffee cup.
"Arthur left right after that to take Merlin home." Lancelot tried a grin. "Who was about to throw up or pass out or both."
She laughed; Merlin could never hold his liquor.
"It's not just Tuesday," she said, staring into her coffee cup. "Arthur and I have been going out for three years now and he has yet to mention the possibility of anything serious."
"Well, he's an idiot if he doesn't do that and soon."
Gwen looked up at the brown eyes in the handsome, olive-skinned face. The admiration she saw there from a man so many of her friends and coworkers lusted after was a boost to her ego. She was suddenly glad to be wearing her blue blouse with its scoop neckline, her hair swept to the side in a flattering style.
"Tell me more about your band." Gwen pushed open the lunch room door and started down the hallway.
Lancelot fell into step beside her, talking about how the group had gotten back together. When they reached Gwen's office, Lancelot leaned against the doorframe.
"I can't wait to hear you play Wednesday night," Gwen said.
"I can't wait to read the rest of that poem."
Gwen laughed. "It won't be done by next week."
Lancelot smiled. "I'll be patient."
He had a sexy smile. She did not plan it, she did not even think about it, she simply leaned forward and pressed her lips against his. The coffee cup in her hands bumped against the mug he was holding and they both pulled back.
"Gwen," he said in a tight voice, "Arthur is a friend and I know how he feels about you even if he hasn't put it into words."
Guilt warmed her face at his distraught expression. "I'm sorry. I don't know why I did that."
"Not too sorry, I hope," he said with an attempt at a smile.
A tiny laugh escaped her.
At that moment, while they stood close to touching, her smiling up at him and him looking down warmly at her, Gwen heard someone loudly clear her throat. She jumped guiltily.
Her boss stood in the corridor, hands on her hips.
"Gwen, you are still here," Morgana said with an expression of mocking contempt. "I assumed you had gone home or wherever you were going." Her gaze switched to Lancelot and she raised an eyebrow.
"I should let you get back to work," Lancelot said to Gwen. With a cold nod for Morgana, he turned his back on her and took one step down the corridor before he stopped in mid-stride.
Gwen saw Merlin and wondered how long he had been standing there. Lancelot nodded at him in greeting before he continued down the hall.
Merlin returned Lancelot's greeting as he passed. Gwen sent Merlin a self-conscious half-smile before she disappeared into her office which he did his best to return but his mind was spinning.
Gwen had kissed Lancelot. It was hardly clandestine; they had been standing practically in the hallway. In fact it had seemed as innocent as the kiss Gwen had witnessed between Arthur and the woman in the bar. It was probably nothing and most certainly it was none of his business.
Merlin realized he was standing motionless in the corridor and Morgana was watching him with a smirk. He forced himself to walk casually down the hall toward the coffee room but as he passed Morgana her hand grasped his forearm.
"They make such a sweet couple," she said, her head tilted to the side and her full red lips turned up in a smile that belied the malicious look in her eyes. "Much better than Gwen and my dear brother."
"I think Arthur and Gwen are made for each other." He did his best to ignore a tingly sensation where the heat of Morgana's fingers burned through the thin material of his shirt sleeve. She was closer to him than she had ever been with her face lifted toward his.
Her green eyes narrowed and she withdrew her hand. "There is no such thing."
With that, she brushed past him and entered Gwen's office. As soon as Morgana was out of sight, Merlin sagged against the wall and scrubbed a hand across his face, trying to erase the image of Morgana's red lips close up. He took several deep breaths before he straightened and continued on his way.
He returned to his office with his coffee but sat at his desk staring at the wall rather than working. He leaned his head on his hands and massaged his temples, then pushed aside his worries about his friends and opened the long, detailed report George had given him. It was 6:23 p.m. on Friday with the weekend stretching endlessly ahead. He had nothing better to do.