Kelsey expected her pronouncement to be the end of the conversation about the software. She was sorely mistaken. It had merely been postponed.
She and Avery had purposely arranged the seating so that Micah and David could enjoy the splendor of Discovery Green. The first half-hour of the date was spent debating menu options and polite queries on how the men liked the city. It was no surprise that the traffic was their main complaint.
Though she'd made a personal vow to remain aloof – polite but cool - Kelsey found herself drawn in to a discussion with Micah regarding the wine selection. His initial suggestion was an expensive bottle of French chardonnay. Rather than keeping silent or agreeing with his choice, Kelsey countered with a Viognier from the Texas Hill Country. Not only was it a third of the price of the French wine it was, in her opinion, a tastier option.
"You can never go wrong with Becker Vineyards," she said. "Their claret is my personal favorite, but it's not an option here. You'd be surprised at how well the Texas wines stand up to wines from California, France, Italy and Australia."
"We tour wineries," Avery explained. "Every summer the women of our family take a trip out to several wineries. How the trips just happen to coincide with Kelsey's birthday, no one has quite figured out. Two years ago, for Kelsey's thirtieth, we went out to Fredericksburg. There's been nothing but Becker in the apartment since."
When the waiter returned, Micah ordered the Viognier. It was ridiculous, but a trickle of warmth swirled in Kelsey's stomach when she met his eyes across the table. Okay, so his company wrote shitty software, but he wasn't a shitty guy. She could work with that.
Avery entertained them with tales about a few of their past wine tours. On a trip to wineries northwest of Houston, their caravan of SUVs had gotten lost looking for the winery where they had lunch reservations. Hungry and more than a little buzzed, the women had stopped at what they'd thought was a park and had an impromptu picnic with wine and snacks they'd purchased at previous stops. It wasn't until they were packing up to leave that someone noticed a sign near the picnic benches. They'd been at the correct winery all along.
David admitted to a preference for Australian wines. He'd spent two years working for a company in Perth and had fallen in love with the region's Chenin blanc. Avery raved about the selection of white wines at the winery Bryan, which wasn't far from Houston.
"They take you on a tour of the fields and the production facility," Avery said, gaze firmly fixed on David. "Unlike a few other wineries, they don't just hand you samples to taste. They explain how you're supposed drink the wine and what flavors you should look for."
"I don't recommend wearing white," Kelsey advised with a wink at her cousin. "Trilling isn't as easy as it sounds."
Kelsey was surprised when Micah, not David, expressed interest in touring the winery. From the way David seemed spellbound by every move Avery made, she'd expect him to jump at the subtle invitation. Micah, who'd claimed an affinity for Premier Cru Bordeaux and Argentinean Malbec, didn't appear the type to want to tromp around muddy fields or trill local wine with strangers.
"Dave and I several appointments tomorrow, but our weekend is free, and I believe we've earned a break." Micah's words were for the table, but his attention was on Kelsey. "Are there multiple wineries in the area?"
"There are a few," Kelsey responded when Avery appeared to turn mute. "It'll take all day, but you can hit four or five in one day. You should time it – and make reservations – so that you can have lunch at Messina Hof. The restaurant is small, but the food is amazing."
"We can make the reservations," Avery, having found her tongue, offered.
Kelsey wasn't keen on agreeing to anything before the dinner was finished. Who wanted to spend an entire Saturday with someone you couldn't stand to have a meal with? Wasn't it more practical to wait a day or two before planning a second date?
"I didn't realize you and David worked together," Kelsey said, hoping the subject change stuck. It would likely lead to a discussion about ADMS, but that was better than committing to a road trip.
"OGA Investments is part of the Ashbury conglomerate," Micah answered. "David's recently taken over New Acquisitions. He is the first non-Ashbury to hold the position, so he requested my presence for this first round of meetings. I prefer to focus my attention on the software company."
Micah's eyes lingered on Kelsey. It was like a film that pulled her skin too tight. He wanted to ask about ADMS. Of course he did. She'd memorized the company's website. ADMS was his brainchild. And she'd trashed it.
"Avery teaches eighth grade science," Kelsey blurted. She gulped a mouthful of water in hopes that it would cool her flaming cheeks.
"I do," Avery chimed in gamely. "I teach at a private school for gifted children. Sometimes I feel like they're light years ahead of me. We're working on an oceanography project right now that is on par with a college-level assignment. It's nothing like the life or earth science classes I had when I was their age."
The arrival of the wine provided a welcome respite from the current topic. David and Micah agreed that the Viognier was an excellent choice. Kelsey preened under Micah's effusive praise. She hadn't actually made the wine herself, but she'd suggested it and Mister-I-prefer-French-wines liked it. Score one for Texas winemakers.
It wasn't until after their orders had been placed, that Micah maneuvered the conversation back to places of employment. "I like to visit all the companies that use ADMS, but I have never made it this far south. Which of my customers do you work for?"
"QuinnTech. Look, what I said earlier about the software – I didn't mean…." Kelsey shook her head sharply. No. There was no point in lying. If by telling him the truth she ruined the date and never saw Micah again, that was a risk she was willing to take. "I did mean it. The software is horrible."
"Is there any particular part of it that you have a problem with or is it a general, all-encompassing hatred?"
"The latter." Kelsey tried to smile. "I promise I won't hold it against you. No software is perfect. Yours just happens to be more imperfect than others."
Micah retrieved a small notepad from the inner pocket of his suit jacket. "ADMS was designed to meet all distribution and manufacturing needs for small businesses. Is your problem primarily with the distribution or production module?"
Kelsey shot Avery a mild glare. Kelsey had tried to be nice and dismiss her problems with Micah's software. She didn't want to spend the entire date bitching about ADMS, but if he kept pushing, she would have no choice.
"The production module. It is… unwieldy and practically useless. I use third-party spreadsheets and databases for my reports. Exporting information correctly requires a voodoo ritual, holding my breath, and praying to every god in every pantheon. I worked for a company that used accounting software for its manufacturing data. It was a pain in the ass, but it was still better than ADMS."
"Are you experiencing any lag issues?"
"Yes." Kelsey held up a hand to stop him when his mouth fell open. "Don't tell me it's a problem on our end. We have two new servers and have upgraded all workstations to Cat6 cables. Most of the time, I only keep open my email client and ADMS. It lags when I work from home."
"Is there anything you like about ADMS?"
"The uninstall button. I hit it sometimes just for fun." Kelsey sipped her cool, crisp wine before flashing an indignant Micah a winsome smile. "Come on, let's talk about something fun. I spent nine hours with ADMS today. I really don't want to have to think about it until tomorrow morning."
"Fair enough," Micah conceded grumpily. "But I would like the opportunity to discuss your issues with ADMS."
"You should really talk to our office manager or our CEO. They know more about the problems others have. I restrict myself to the production, purchasing, and warehouse modules whenever possible."
"You misunderstand, Kelsey." Micah tilted his head so that he could meet Kelsey's eyes. "I would like to discuss your issues."
Avery leaned over, lips pressed against Kelsey's ear. "He wants your number, doofus!"
A handsome, successful, smart man wanted her phone number. Most women would have been thrilled. Kelsey had never considered herself "most women". Her fingers and toes went numb. For a moment, she was a giddy eighteen-year-old with a crush on the cutest guy on campus. Not an entirely positive feeling. Not when she knew how the fairytale ended.
"I should have time tomorrow afternoon," Kelsey said. "I can work up a list of problems and give that to you. I can even get screenshots and details on other applications I use that may interfere with ADMS."
When David brought up Discovery Green and Hermann Park, Kelsey could have kissed him. He, like Avery, was an avid biker and wanted tips on the best biking trails. Kelsey was content to sit back and let the two of them debate wide paths and well-maintained greenery. She occasionally jogged on the various trails around the city, but she wasn't a fanatic. During the summer months – from mid-April to mid-October – the only walking or jogging she did involved a treadmill.
Lulled by the buzz of alcohol in her veins and the din of conversation around her, Kelsey's mind wandered. Her gaze was drawn to the man seated across from her. In Micah's large, tanned hands, the wineglass looked like it had come straight from Barbie's dream house. Too much pressure from his fingers would snap the fragile stem. She watched as he lifted the glass to his lips. Her eyes followed the bob of his Adam's apple as avidly as she watched college football red zone plays.
A bony elbow jabbed her in the ribs. She jerked, barely managed to keep from knocking her drink and silverware to the floor. She scowled at her eye-brow raised cousin.
"I was just telling David and Micah that you are working on a new project. It's for a geothermal plant in Turkey, right?"
Kelsey had to force her brain to process Avery's question. Work. Avery was talking about work. If she was very, very lucky, Kelsey could try to avoid all mention of software.
"Yes. QuinnTech specializes in control panels and engineered integration services." She could have kicked herself for sounding just like the brochure. Her job could be a little routine at times, but she loved it and the people she worked with. "We were just awarded a refrigeration skid for a geothermal plant in the mountains of Turkey. Given the cooling and heating requirements, it'll be a nice challenge for us."
Micah seemed the most interested in QuinnTech. "Is this the only project you are working on?"
Kelsey laughed. Only project? She hadn't had fewer than ten projects on her schedule in over two years. "No. We currently have six projects in our shop, three that are in the engineering process, two that we're waiting on components for, and this one."
"Do you have a project manager for each project?" David asked.
"Oh, no. We have a tech that takes the lead when we get to the fabrication stage, but no dedicated project manager. The production planner is the one who manages the schedule, liaises with other departments, and generally oversees the project."
"You're the production planner," Micah guessed.
"Yes. Though at times I feel like head cat-herder."
Micah waited until the laughter around the table died down to pose his next question. "That sounds like a busy schedule for one person to manage. You don't mind adding another project?"
Kelsey ignored the sting to her pride. There was no condescension in his tone, so she couldn't take offense. "Not at all. I'm an organized person, and I don't mind bossing people around. The projects are like puzzles to me. You just have to make sure the pieces fit together right and that you have all the pieces at the right time. Last fall we had seventeen projects all due within a sixty-day period."
"I think I only saw her when she needed her laundry washed," Avery joked. "And then when her boss made her take three days off, she slept for twenty-four hours straight and rearranged our kitchen."
David shot Micah a knowing look. "That sounds like a certain someone I know. The head of HR forced him to take his vacation time because he was setting a bad precedent. Security caught him sneaking into the building in the middle of the night."
"I had forgotten an important file," Micah protested with a grin.
"One that your assistant could have easily emailed you," David countered.
"Not me. Once summer vacation rolls around, I don't want to think about teaching until August." Avery shrugged. "They ask me to teach summer school, but I just can't do it. I need a break."
"When it comes to unpaid overtime, you win," Kelsey said. "The amount of time you spend on lesson plans, grading papers, and preparing for class boggles the mind."
Avery threw an arm around Kelsey's shoulders. "Just think of all the young minds I'm preparing. I am teaching the next generation of Einsteins and Teslas."
"God help us all," Kelsey deadpanned.
ADMS wasn't mentioned for the rest of dinner. The conversation topics ranged from favorite vacation spots to favorite childhood cartoons. The exchange was light. Amusing. David was a gifted storyteller, but Micah's wry humor had Kelsey grinning until her cheeks hurt.
It was the most enjoyable evening she'd had in months. Every time her eyes lingered too long on Micah, she reminded herself that she needed more friends. There wasn't room in her life for any other complications. Especially not ones that intersected with her professional life.
As pleasant as she found his company, Kelsey was glad Avery declined David's invitation to walk around Discovery Green. Avery's laws-of-physics-defying high heels came in handy from time to time. Kelsey really did have work to do, and she needed distance from Micah. He was too nice. Too witty. And when you added in killer dimples, it was the perfect recipe for Kelsey's kryptonite.
The foursome waited for their respective vehicles together. Kelsey's SUV arrived seconds before Micah's rented sedan. She and Micah wandered closer to their cars when Avery and David indulged in a goodbye kiss.
"I had a really great time," she said, eyes on her toes. God, she really was that shy, star struck eighteen-year-old. "Thank you for dinner."
"My pleasure. Your cousin has excellent taste in sandwiches and restaurants."
Kelsey glanced back to where Avery and David were still attached at the lips. "I only hope this means that her taste in other things has improved, as well. I'll make that list for you tomorrow. Is there any additional information you need?"
"Whatever you give me will be enough," he said.
"Good." Hands in her pockets, she rocked up on her toes. How did one end a date without a hug or a kiss? Was a handshake too impersonal? "Good. I -, well… do you know how to get back to your hotel?"
"I've programmed the address into the car's navigation system."
"Good." Her cheeks flamed. She was an idiot. A total dork. "Just don't take Allen Parkway. The construction has that road completely FUBARed."
"I believe we took Travis."
She bit her tongue before another good could pass through her lips. "Okay. That'll work. Goodnight." She turned to head to her car. A hand on her arm stopped her mid-pivot.
"Kelsey," Micah's voice was as warm as the hand cupping her elbow.
"I really would like your number."
Despite her resolve and the layers of protection she'd spent over a decade building, the earnestness in his plea made her knees go weak. The hands that reached for the pen in her purse trembled. The only things that kept her from melting into a puddle of embarrassment and bliss were the hand on her elbow and the way his hand trembled just a little, too.