What if…?

Mondays sucked. There was no getting around the fact, and it had nothing to do with the start of the work week. In fact, if she was honest, she would have to admit that she liked her job. It was nothing flashy, nothing overly exciting; she simply designed graphics for an advertising company, but she was good at it, she enjoyed the company of her coworkers, and the job afforded her the opportunity to live a comfortable lifestyle on her own. No, what sucked about Mondays was the cafeteria and the slop they tried to pass off as edible food.

Tuna melts, meatloaf, salisbury steak, and liver and onions were the offered wares every Monday afternoon, and, no matter what she tried, Marissa Cooper just could not bring herself to eat any of them. Instead, she packed a lunch, something she had stopped doing in elementary school, and waited patiently in her favorite corner at a two person table by the windows that overlooked the bustling San Francisco metropolis for her best friend to join her.

"Don't look, but there's this really cute guy staring at you from a couple tables over," Conni informed her as she dropped her florescent yellow tray onto the Formica top of their table and sat down with a huff and a flourish that screamed of annoyance.

Conni Irving (born Constance, but if you called her that you'd walk away from the conversation with a broken nose) was the company's receptionist, and she knew everyone in the building and everything about them. She was the woman you went to when you needed to hear or spread gossip, but she was also the most sympathetic and kind person in the world, and, if Marissa asked her to keep a secret, no one, not even Oprah, would have been able to pry the secret from her. Even when she was in a bad mood, Conni was a woman who smiled. She never looked completely put together, always flustered and slightly in a hurry despite her pleasantly plump frame (her own words), and she rarely did anything more with herself than throw her hair up in a ponytail and brush on some practical chapstick. She was Marissa's complete opposite in every way imaginable, both looks and personality, but they both agreed that their differences were the reason why they got along so well in the first place.

"Quick," the blonde advised, blushing at the very idea that some stranger was letting his eyes eat her for lunch instead of his food, "flirt with me so that he thinks we're a couple."

"No way! There's already enough rumors floating around the office that I'm a Lesbian. We don't need to add fuel to the fire."

"That's your own fault," Marissa stated in an unforgiving manner. Holding her spoon out towards her best friend, the spoon she was eating her yogurt with, she explained, "maybe if you would go on a date once in a while, no one would say that about you."

Conni shrugged her shoulders, dismissing the claim. "I'm not interested in dating right now. I've been there, done that. All men are assholes."

The receptionist was one of those women who hated all men, refused to date them despite being attracted to anything with a pulse, but still tried to set her friends up all the time. While she might not want to be in a relationship, that did not mean that Marissa or any of the other girls in their office had to go without what she purposely denied herself. The amazing thing was that, despite her lack of experience in the dating world herself, there was no one better at hooking potential couples up or giving advice when it came to the opposite sex and how to understand them. It was just another one of those examples where those who can't do themselves, teach.

"But, seriously," she interrupted Marissa's train of thought, "you should go over and talk to him."

"Do you think this one could actually sustain a conversation?"

The last time the brunette had attempted to set her up with someone from work, Conni had invited him to join them for lunch, added a third chair and overcrowding their made for two table, and then they had suffered through thirty minutes of intense and awkward silence.

"Well, he's talking to his friends."

"Use your man-dar," Marissa instructed, "and listen into their conversation. Tell me what they're talking about, and then we'll go from there."

It took the shorter woman several seconds of silence to accomplish her feat, but, triumphantly, she turned back to the blonde sitting across from her and announced, "fantasy baseball, that's what they're talking about."

"Ugh," the graphic artist groaned.

"Don't 'ugh' fantasy baseball," Conni chastised her. "That's a good sign. He's a man's man, interested in sports and competitive, but he's still intelligent enough to engage in the online, nerd version of the game." Tilting her head to the side, her best friend regarded her carefully for a few moments before continuing. "Do you know what your problem is?"

"No, but I'm sure you're about to tell me."

"You're too picky. No guy is ever good enough."

"That's not true," Marissa defended herself, and, yet, as she heard the words leave her mouth, she knew she was lying. She was demanding, hard to please, and almost never attracted to any man. It wasn't as if she didn't enjoy the company of the opposite sex; the problem was that she was still very much hung up on a guy from her past, a guy who had, when they had known each other, paid very little to no attention to her. However, she knew better than to bring him up with Conni. The receptionist would just get frustrated with her and demand that she go on a date immediately to purge herself of her unrelenting and unrealistic feelings. "He's probably not even my type," she continued to deny the other woman's attempts to fix her up.

"How do you know?"

"I don't, but we'll put him to the test," she suggested with a small smile. The grin wasn't there because she had hope this new man would meet her qualifications; it was there because she knew he wouldn't – only one guy could. "Hair color?"

"Light brown."

"Took dark," Marissa responded, waving her hand and wrinkling her petite, freckled covered nose in disgust. "I like blondes. What about his eyes?"

"Dark as well."

"You know my mantra."

"Brown eyes make you feel pitied, green eyes are shifty, case in point, me," Conni reiterated the taller woman's diatribe verbatim, "grey eyes are always sad, hazel are simply boring, but blues eyes, clear blue eyes that remind you of the pacific ocean make you feel at home and as if you can see to the other person's soul. Yeah, I know the mantra," the older woman grumbled, practically growling, "and it's complete bullshit."

"It's never led me astray before."

"Whatever," the receptionist announced with a roll of her cat like eyes. "Just ask your next question, so we can get this over with. It's not as if you're going to actually agree to talk to this guy anyway, so I don't even know why I waste my time."

"Because you love me," Conni stuck her tongue out at that, "and because you're too stubborn and afraid of getting hurt to put yourself out there on the line, so you insist upon doing it to me instead." The brunette could only nod in agreement at the second part of the statement. Taking a deep breath, Marissa inquired, "how tall is he?"

"Uh…that's kind of hard to tell seeing as though he's sitting down."

"Guestimate."

"Oh my god," the shorter of the two women complained, "how old are you? I feel like I'm back in fifth grade right now."

"Damn it, Conni, just tell me."

"Alright," her best friend groused, folding her arms over her chest as she covertly observed the man in question. "Based upon his build and how high he sits in his chair, I would bet he's around six-three."

"That's too tall," Marissa replied. "You know I like to wear flats, and what woman wants to have to stand up on her toes to kiss her boyfriend?"

"I never said you had to marry the guy," Conni defended. "All I said was that he was checking you out, that you should talk to him and see where it led. Hell, get a good, free meal out of him - your fat cells would thank you – and then get laid a few times. When the novelty wears off or he starts to grate on your nerves too much, dump him and move on to your next conquest. You take everything too seriously."

"Maybe you don't take things seriously enough," she suggested. When the older woman went to dispute, she pressed, "Casual sex is all well and good, but I've never been able to have it. When I give that part of myself to someone else, I want it to mean something, for it to be special."

As Conni digested the graphic designer's comments, she remained quiet, her eyes snapping and popping with questions while her quick wit answered them silently. Finally, she exploded. "Oh for fuck's sake, you've got to be kidding me!"

Innocently, Marissa asked, "what?"

"It's him," the brunette exclaimed, pounding the table in emphasis and drawing the entire cafeteria's attention. "It's the guy from your past again – the rebel with a cause, the bad boy with the heart of fool's gold. You've still got a thing for him, after all this time!"

"It hasn't been that long."

"You haven't seen him since you graduated from high school, and that was nine years ago," her best friend retorted smugly.

"Alright, fine, so maybe this whole crush thing has gone on for long enough, but I can't help the way I feel," Marissa protested. "I've tried it your way; I've gone on countless dates with guys whom I'm not really attracted to, with men who I have nothing in common with and do not want to waste an entire evening getting to know them, and each time, do you know what happens?" Answering the question herself, she continued, "I go home even more hopelessly infatuated with someone who, when we were eighteen, had no idea I even existed. It's hopeless!"

"No it's not," Conni contradicted her. "but, if you want to get over this guy, you're going to have to do everything I tell you to do. Are you willing to put yourself in my hands; are you willing to trust me completely?"

"If I have to."

"At this point, I think you do." Leaning in across the small table, the shorter woman lowered her voice to a conspiratorial whisper. "Alright, this is what we're going to do. We're going to play a little game I like to call 'What if…?'. What if this guy is really as special as you think he is? What if Ryan Atwood is it for you, and, if so, how are we going to get you over him?"

Ryan Atwood hated Saturdays. Correction – he hated Saturdays during an election year, because what was supposed to be a day off of rest inevitably turned into another PR opportunity, and, as the public relations director, a glorified spin doctor, for a state senator running for governor of California, the sixth day of the week always seemed to be taken over by this charity event or this team outing. Sometimes they worked together to clean up the beach to show the millions of voters that his boss cared for the environment, sometimes they went to the underprivileged parks to play pickup basketball games (a nuisance in an of itself due to his height) with the local kids to tell Californians that his boss was both a supporter of children and of the poor, and sometimes, like that particular Saturday, they had fundraisers for the wealthy and powerful in an attempt to sucker their money out away from them for the campaign.

Those Saturdays were the worst, because they always ended with Ryan having to do damage control. At the latest event, a barbeque at the senator's house, he had been responsible for keeping a muzzle on his employer's alcoholic wife. After all, they couldn't very well have the future first lady of California telling the richest men and women in the state that her husband had an uncanny affinity for fishnets…especially when their pool boy was wearing them. Then he had to defend the senator's children, excusing their excessive spending habits and penchant for all things illegal because of their young age and soon-to-be outgrown immaturity. If he actually didn't believe in his boss' ability to be a good leader of the state despite his personal issues, he would never work for him, but what bothered Ryan the most was having to defend himself and his own past actions.

He had never been one to try and hide his former arrest record. In fact, he had always used it as a positive, showing those like him that one could leave poverty and desperation behind and make something of themselves with a little hard work and good people standing behind them, but, after more than ten years, he had hoped one count of grand theft would not be as big of a sticking point for those his employer depended upon to back his campaign, but it was. With every conversation the PR director had with possible patrons, he had to explain his background and share with men and women he didn't particularly respect let alone like how he had managed to become a success. It galled him, and all he wanted to do was scream 'you've done worse' at the top of his lungs, but that just wouldn't do.

So, instead, he put on a fake smile, glad handed all the crooked businessmen and lying politicians around him, and got the job done. When he had taken a sabbatical from college his sophomore year to help out his adoptive father when he first ran for office, Ryan had not expected to make a career out of public relations, but he did, and he did it well. Now, many elections later, Sandy was in the state's House of Representatives, and he was working for the most powerful men on the west coast, aiming his sights, eventually, towards Washington D.C..

The only problem was that he was a workaholic, leaving himself no time to socialize or find a life of his own. He didn't date, he rarely spent time with the few friends he managed to maintain relationships with, and he barely had any chances to even do the simplest things for pleasure such as play video games or read a good book. One night stands were out of the question, because that was all he needed - a scandal from a woman scorned or tossed aside, so it had been way too long since he had been in the private company of someone of the opposite sex. Hell, he didn't even have time for a pet. He was that lame, and that was only compounded by the fact that it was his birthday, and he had no one to celebrate the occasion with.

Sure, his adopted parents and his brother had left messages on his answering machine sending him their best wishes, Nana Cohen had sent him a card, and his boss had given him the customary politician's gift – a year's membership to the local country club which was just what Ryan wanted seeing as how he hated fine dining, dancing, cigars, and, most of all, golf. As the icing on the cake, he had even gotten stopped by the police on his way home that evening for reckless driving. He had explained to the Highway Patrolmen that they should try driving with three beepers going off on their belt simultaneously while both their personal and professional cell phones vibrated in their pockets. It was quite…distracting. (Especially to a man whose extent of intimate action for the past six months had consisted of a laughed off gag gift of porn for Christmas, but he had refrained from telling the cops that much personal detail.) With a warning, they had let him off, but he just couldn't wait to see how the other candidate's party spun that one Monday morning. Happy frickin' Birthday to him.

Stripping off his suit jacket and tie before rolling up his shirt sleeves and kicking off his dress shoes, Ryan collapsed onto his couch, sinking into the worn out cushions and letting them lull him into a false sense of comfort and peace. Quickly, so as to avoid any further distractions or work obligations, he turned off all his not-so-affectionately-coined electronic leashes, and sighed in relief when the quiet of his apartment finally had an opportunity to wash over him. For the PR director, there was nothing as therapeutic as silence.

"What the hell," he swore to himself when the sound of his buzzer went off. Someone was there to see him, probably a reporter or a coworker demanding his attention, and he just didn't want to give any more of himself that evening, but, after a full minute of constant noise, he climbed up off the couch, stomped his way towards the intercom, and angrily barked, "what?" into the speaker.

"I'm Ash Dustin," a woman's voice responded back, answering his one word inquiry, "a private investigator. I wanted to see if I may ask you a few questions, Mr. Atwood."

"Ask."

"They're of a personal nature," she paused momentarily before lowering her voice several notches, the deeper, almost seductive quality to her tone making his mind wander to thoughts better left alone and buried, "a very personal nature."

"Fine, I'll buzz you up," he agreed, "but we're going to do this quickly."

"Fast or slow, Mr. Atwood," she allowed, almost chuckling, "I'll allow you to set the pace."

As he waited for the stranger to make her way up to his twelfth floor apartment, he reflected back over the things she had said and the way in which she had said them. If he didn't know better, he would have to say that everything that came out of her mouth was a double entrendre, and that, in turn, made him feel as if he had just allowed trouble to waltz straight up to his doorstep.

Her knock was short, succinct, proficient, all things that reeked of professionalism, but, on the other hand, she already knew that he was there and that he had agreed to answer the door, but, when he did said action, the sight before him was the last thing he had been expecting. Even without the heels the woman was wearing, she was tall, perhaps his height or an inch or two shorter. Her dark blonde, honey locks were pinned up in a harsh bun, leaving her long and slender neck bare and free. Sunglasses hid her eyes and much of her face from view, but he could tell that she was an attractive, young woman. Finally, to finish off her appearance, she wore the detective's ubiquitous tan trench coat, collar up and jacket fastened, a physical reminder that she would be emotionally distant and closed off, demanding him to be the very opposite while she questioned him. He didn't like it, but, at the same time, there was absolutely no way in hell he was asking her to leave. It was the damn black, back-seamed pantyhose she was wearing; they did him in every time.

"Can I offer you something to drink…," he started only to stop in order to clear his throat and regain some control. "A seat," he continued, motioning towards the hard backed dining room chairs off to the side of the entryway.

"No, thank you," she refused. "I prefer to stand, but, if you want to sit, be my guest. In fact," the stranger changed her mind after a second's thought, "you sitting might be easier."

"Easier," Ryan parroted while doing as she suggested and sitting down. "How so?"

Before replying, the woman slowly walked around him and came to stop behind his chair. By the time he twisted around to watch her, it was already too late, and she had him handcuffed – tightly.

"What the hell do you think you're doing," he exclaimed loudly, frustrated and slightly fearful that his curiosity and then his attraction to the private investigator had gotten him into a mess he wouldn't be able to talk his way out of. "This is highly illegal!"

"Wanna call the cops? The press?"

"Of course not," he blustered. As she rounded back around to face him once again, letting her hand trail down his shoulder in a teasing manner, the public relations director struggled to focus and attempted to follow her train of thought. It wasn't an easy task. "What I want you to do is release me."

"Sorry, Ryan, I can't do that."

"Why the hell not?"

"Honestly," she queried. He could see a finely shaped brow quirk above the sunglasses she was wearing in silent challenge. Answering without a response from him, she stated, "I don't want you to have a chance to get away from me until I'm finished with you."

"Then ask your damn questions and get the hell out of my apartment!"

"Alright," she agreed, surprising him even further by reaching up and unpinning her hair. Once it was flowing freely down her back, she cocked her head to the side and watched him for several long, seductive moments. "On second thought, I do think I want to sit down." And, with that, she straddled his lap. His body reacted immediately, and he watched her smirk…almost as if in appreciation. "First of all," she drawled out, lifting one long, nude nail to scratch delicately down his stubbled jaw line, "are you single?"

"Of course I am," he spat out, annoyed with her inane question. "Any decent PI would be able to find that out by googling my name."

"I'm just making sure that you're being honest with me. Geez, Atwood," she giggled, "don't get your navy boxer-briefs in a tangle."

"What…how do you," Ryan started to ask, downright shocked that she actually knew exactly what kind of underwear he preferred, but, instead, he switched tactics. "Who the hell hired you?"

"A private, concerned citizen," the minx shared, "but she prefers to remain anonymous at this point in the investigation. However," she lifted her stiletto clad foot and pressed the sharp heel into his left calf muscle, "I'm the one asking the questions here. Be a good boy and refrain from returning the favor, please." He nodded his head in agreement, not trusting his own voice to not betray him. There was such a fine line between pain and pleasure, and, apparently, Ash Dustin liked to straddle it right along with those she investigated. "Now, tell me about your experience in high school."

"High school," he repeated, blown away by the PI's request.

"Yes, high school. There's no need to reiterate everything I say."

"Fine," he conceded, "but what exactly do you want to know about it. That was four years of my life. Can we narrow it down some?"

"Tell me about the girls you dated."

"I didn't really date." To display the nonchalance of his answer, he attempted to shrug his shoulders, but his hands handcuffed to the chair prevented the movement. "I…you know," he admitted, cursing himself when he felt his ears warm and turn red from embarrassment, "hooked up with a bunch of girls, but none of them really meant anything to me, and I doubt I meant anything to any of them."

She nodded her head to let him know she comprehended what he was telling her. "Good, that seems to coincide with the information I already know, but, tell me this, why didn't you ever engage in an actual relationship?"

"I was young," Ryan responded, "and the girls who seemed interested in me weren't the type of girls you took home to meet the family, if you know what I mean."

Suddenly angry, the stranger abruptly stood up from his lap and shoved him lightly. "Well, maybe if you would have looked a little harder, you would have been able too see what was right in front of you!"

"I have no idea what you're talking about," he defended, becoming aggravated. "High school was years ago, and, even then, it didn't really matter that…" His words trailed off when the woman before him started to unbuckle and unbutton her trench coat, slowly revealing to his starving eyes the scantily clad form she had hidden underneath the long jacket. Mumbling under his breath, he commented, "I sure as hell can see what's in front of me right now though."

"That's good, Ryan, but I don't want you to talk anymore."

"Is this some sort of joke," he demanded to know. Laughing, he realized, "Seth set this up, didn't he? I can't believe he hired me a stripper for my birthday."

"I'm not a stripper," she whispered, suddenly becoming shy and reticent. Blushing, she continued, "and I'm not a…," she swallowed roughly, "you know what either."

"Then what the hell are you, because you're sure as hell not a private investigator," he realized, demanding some answers.

Sitting back down across his lap, she reached around him, unlocking his handcuffs. "Just shut up, Ryan," she ordered. "Shut up and, for once in your life, accept some help. I promise I'll make it worth your while."

She knew him. Somehow, someway, she knew him, and it wasn't just because he was a public figure. She knew about his past, about his childhood and the struggles he had been through when he first was adopted as a teenager. She knew what buttons to push in order to get a reaction out of him, and she knew when to back down, but he still had no idea who she was.

"Am I allowed to touch you," he asked, his fingers practically itching to do so.

In response, she bit her lip and nodded yes.

All he did was remove her sunglasses, but he could visibly see a shudder of pleasure course through her lingerie clad figure. As their gazes locked together, instant recognition slammed into him. "Marissa Cooper."

"Guilty as charged," she smirked, blushing profusely for the second time that night.

But he continued as if he had not heard her. "I sat beside you during senior year in…eighth period art. You loved to draw," he recollected, "and you were good at it, too, so good in fact that you never paid any attention to me."

"That's what you think." Squirming on his lap and causing him to react even more to her almost nude form, she fidgeted before admitting. "I actually had a huge crush on you in high school."

"And now?"

"Let's just say that once and for all I needed to know what you were really like. You were the big 'what if…?' experience of my life, and I guess I needed the answer to that question before I could fully move on."

"You know, back then," the public relations director found him confessing, "I always thought you were cute."

"Ryan," Marissa teased, "I'm already practically naked and sitting on your lap holding handcuffs. I don't think lying to me in order to get me to sleep with you is really necessary at this point. I'm already willing."

"I'm not giving you some line to get you into bed."

"Then why didn't you talk to me all those years ago if you were really attracted to me?"

"Talk to you," he parroted, "why would I? You, perhaps the smartest girl in our class, not to mention one of the most beautiful girls in the entire school, intimidated the hell out of me."

"So I guess there's hope for nerds like me after all." Chuckling at her own comment, she leaned in to finally kiss him, but, with one question remaining that he needed her to answer, he pulled back, eliciting a groan of complaint from deep within her throat. "What now?"

"How did you ever come up with the name Ash Dustin?"

"It's my stripper name," she revealed, making him practically choke in surprise. "You know, they always say you take the street you live on and pair it with the name of your first pet, and that's your stripper name."

"Actually, no, I've never heard of that before."

As she wrapped her arms around him and moved her lips across his in an erotic invitation, she whispered, "You learn something new every day, don't you?" Smirking, she added, "happy birthday, Ryan," and, for once, it really was.

It had been more than two weeks since she had conquered the unconquerable and scratched the itch that refused to be satisfied, as Conni put it, by seducing Ryan, but still Marissa could not get him off her mind. Sitting in her tiny office, her work spread out across her desk despite the fact that she could not focus upon anything productive, she found her thoughts floating back to the one amazing, spine tingling, toe curling night she had spent with Ryan, the boy that every girl wanted but hardly anyone could get. It wasn't supposed to be like this though.

According to her best friend's plan, she would sleep with the man who had haunted her during her entire adult dating life, get across that hurdle, and be able to move on with someone else and get past her decade long crush. However, all she found herself getting past was her previous shyness in bed. Instead, her crush had now progressed into, if not love, than extreme liking of the affectionate nature. In fact, her feelings for Ryan were so strong that she feared she was now ruined towards any other man for the rest of her life.

Damn Conni and damn her stupid – incredibly satisfying – plan.

Startling her out of her thoughts, her work phone buzzed, alerting her to the fact that she had a phone call. Lifting the receiver, she said, "Marissa Cooper."

"Did you shave your legs this morning?"

"What are you talking about," she asked the receptionist, baffled by her mystifying question. "And why are you whispering?"

"I'm hiding under my desk to buy you some time, but, if I raise my voice, the CIA will realize I'm here, and they'll have me page your office."

"The CIA? My office? What the hell is going on?"

She heard the brunette sigh in exasperation before she explained. "The boss got this important phone call this morning from one our state's most esteemed senators."

"Holy shit."

"It seems as if his PR Director is interested in hiring one of our firm's graphic design artists to help on the campaign. He or she will be responsible for every piece of advertising and propaganda used by the potential future governor of California."

"He didn't!"

"Our boss was so honored by the Senator's request, he invited him here this morning to help tell this lucky designer the good news," Conni continued on a murmur. Marissa could hear the amusement coloring her voice. "There's just a bit of confusion though on who exactly this designer is. You see, apparently, outside of work, they go by the name of Ash Dustin, and the Senator seems to believe it's the artist's alias, the name they use on their artwork to avoid notoriety and to guard their privacy."

"I'm going to kill – K-I-L-L him! Do you hear me?"

"I heard you, Death Row Sally," the older of the two women complained, "and so did everyone else, including the Senator and his team, who are all currently standing in the lobby watching my desk as if it is possessed. Thanks for that, by the way."

"Sorry," the blonde apologized despite not feeling very contrite. "What are they doing now?"

"Oh, they're about to enter your office, but you still haven't answered my question."

"What question?"

"The legs – are they as smooth as a baby's bottom or are you trying to grow a duplicate of the redwood forest on those shapely stems of yours?"

"I hate you," Marissa seethed out at her best friend. It was as much of an answer as the receptionist was going to get, but, yet, it was all that she needed.

The last thing she heard as she hung up the phone was the sound of her best friend's laughter, but, before the graphic designer had a chance to regroup, her office door was pushed open and a barrage of suit clad men filed in, quickly obliterating any of the available oxygen in the room. Unable to breathe and starting to hyperventilate, Marissa's eyes roamed the assembled group, quickly taking in everyone she didn't know and passing over them until she met his gaze's – Ryan's gaze. His eyes were twinkling full of mischief and humor, and she knew her embarrassment was only going to grow exponentially in the next few minutes.

"We have to do a small, routine interview to make sure that you're an acceptable candidate to work on the Senator's team. So," he drawled out, bringing everyone's attention to her, "tell me, Miss Dustin…or is it Cooper?" Not giving her a chance to respond, he pressed on, "how do you feel about private investigators?"