Arriving in the warehouse at ten past nine, Tate took up position just outside his office, watching through the open door as Percy interviewed the new intern inside. Or, at least, that’s how it was meant to go. The company had regular intern programmes, in several disciplines, and a few weeks in the warehouse was a critical part of every schedule.
Percy glanced at the paper in front of him. “So. Goodson.”
“You may call me Alex.”
Percy pointedly ignored that.
“Excuse me, but is this the right place? They told me I had to report in to the manager, Mr. Somerton, for training.” The guy in the chair peered at Percy’s name tag. “Mr. Grove, is it?”
“I’m doin’ the interview, boy.”
Alex Goodson raised his eyebrows. “Ah. Okay. As you wish.”
Tate could see it took Percy a lot of effort not to roll his eyes. He didn’t suffer fools gladly. This was possibly why Tate did many of the interviews and was official liaison for the interns. But no one could better Percy in sizing up a new guy within a matter of minutes, and he’d rarely been proved wrong.
At the moment, the new kid was concentrating on Percy and unaware of Tate’s scrutiny. Well, he was no kid really, which was the first surprise. They usually got school leavers or university graduates, whereas this man looked a similar age to Tate. Maybe he was making a career change or coming back into the workplace after a break. Watching the way Alex Goodson twirled the temporary security pass on its lanyard like a novelty toy he’d never seen before, Tate reckoned it was the latter.
And, shit, but he was good-looking. Tate could see enough of the guy’s face from his angled viewpoint and couldn’t resist taking a longer look than his role as training supervisor merited. Alex had lovely grey eyes, a strong jaw, and fine mahogany-brown hair with a slight curl. It was ridiculously shiny, like those heads on hair product adverts, and so evenly shaded Tate wondered for a random moment if he dyed it. Even more randomly, Tate’s fingers all but itched to run through it. What the hell? He shoved his hands into his pockets to try to redirect his attention. He hadn’t felt such an immediate, physical response to someone for a long time.
The second surprise was how confident Alex looked: no sign of the usual nervous desire to make a good impression common to most interns. He wore a pair of dark-rimmed spectacles, which he awkwardly pushed back up his nose a couple of times, but his gaze was bright and fixed steadily on Percy as if he were his equal. Not that Tate didn’t believe in equality for all, at heart, but there was a certain respect you were expected to show your supervisor. And definitely toward Percy, who had a whole bunch of opinions about how anyone younger than him—which included almost all the warehouse and probably Mr. Charles himself—should behave toward their elders.
Tate bit back a smile. He could see Percy was resisting glancing at Tate over Alex’s shoulder. Well, if that was Percy’s game, to ignore Tate’s presence for the moment, this could turn into quite an entertainment.
“Thank God,” Alex said cheerfully, with a nod at Percy’s chest.
“I’m sorry?” Percy’s tone was at its deepest, most no-nonsense best.
“No ghastly nylon overalls,” Alex said. “You’re wearing a branded polo shirt. I assume they do it in slim fit as well?”
Tate blinked, trying desperately not to laugh. Percy’s shirt strained over his broad chest and ever-increasing stomach. Percy’s favourite snack was donuts, and even he knew that was beginning to show.
Percy cleared his throat in what Tate knew—but this poor sap Goodson had no idea—was a menacing way. “Where’s y’ employee manual?”
Percy gestured dismissively at Alex’s empty hands, resting casually in his lap. “Y’ pick it up in HR before y’ start. Plenty of youngsters have already read through it before I meet them.” The disapproval was strongly implied. “Y’ don’t think y’ need to swot up on it, boy?”
Alex stared at him as if something hadn’t yet connected mentally. “What’s that word you keep calling me? Bye? Oh….” He nodded, as if praising himself for being so perceptive. “You mean boy. Is that a true Bristolian accent? That lilt at the end of a sentence—”
“Manual!” Percy snapped. “Y’ hear me?”
Alex seemed at last to pick up on the seriousness of Percy’s tone. “Sorry. I mean, yes, I have one. I picked it up before the weekend and have already perused it fully.”
“Perooosed it, have y’?”
Alex raised one rather well-groomed eyebrow. “I signed all the necessary forms, too. Did HR’s confirmation get lost in transit?” He glanced quickly over the messy pile of papers on the desk—filing was going to have been Tate’s first job this morning—and for a moment, his lips pursed. Then he glanced up again and caught the look in Percy’s eye. He had the grace to colour slightly. “Never mind. I’m sure you have it all in hand.”
Percy’s raised eyebrows spoke far more eloquently than his words. “So now we’ve cleared that up to y’r satisfaction, y’ can get on with the work. Y’ll shadow Jamie today, under my close supervision.”
Tate knew that look of Percy’s. It was the one that made new staff feel twelve years old, caught with an illicit smoke behind the bike shed. Alex Goodson, intriguingly, just smiled. Was he brave, or genuinely clueless?
“And when will I meet Mr. Somerton?” he asked.
Percy stood, straightening his shoulders. “Mr. Somerton is busy elsewhere.”
I am? Tate assumed this was another of Percy’s games. It seemed Alex Goodson had really rubbed the old man up the wrong way.
Alex stood as well. He looked a bit bemused. Percy leaned forward on the desk and spoke more slowly to him. “They told y’ about the trainin’ programme, right?”
“Right. Training. Of course. Is that before or after lunch?”
Percy’s swallow of disgust was audible. “The programme will extend over several weeks. Mr. Somerton insists on it.”
“He does. Jamie’s only a new boy himself, but I can’t spare anyone else to keep an eye on y’ today. We’re expecting deliveries. I suppose if y’ pick up any bad habits today…” Percy’s resigned expression showed just how very certain he was of that. “… Mr. Somerton’ll have to retrain y’, however inconvenient that’ll be for him.”
“Mr. Somerton sounds a pain in the arse, right?” Alex grinned.
Tate bit his lower lip, the chuckle inside him begging to be let out.
Percy scowled. “Better watch y’r p’s and q’s, Goodson. We respect management around here.”
To give Alex his due, he realised his mistake quickly. “Of course. I’m totally sure I’ll soon pick it all up, Mr. Grove.”
Percy paused, probably just long enough for Alex to start wondering what he’d done wrong now, then he nodded. “Percy.”
“Call me Percy, for God’s sake. Mr. Grove sounds like y’re talking to my old dad.”
To Tate’s surprise—again—Alex grinned. “I know the feeling.” He stuck out his hand and firmly shook Percy’s. “Thanks, Percy. I look forward to working with you.”
Percy growled in the back of his throat. “For me, boy.”
“Yes, that’s what I meant. For you.” Alex nodded, but nothing in his tone suggested he was apologetic.
Tate couldn’t help it—he laughed softly.
Alex spun around. From the startled look on his face, he’d only just realised someone else was behind him. “Sorry, who are you?”
Tate gave his most cheesy smile and took Alex’s hand in a formal shake. “I’m Tate Somerton, Percy’s manager. Percy’s just been keeping my seat warm.”
Alex gaped. “Mr. Somerton? But you’re….”
Too young? Tate mentally filled in the gap as Alex’s sentence trailed off. It wasn’t the first time he’d been mistaken for nothing more than the tea boy. He knew he could look younger than his age, and—yes, Lou was right—he could have had a smarter haircut and worn more professional clothes. But he spent his days driving forklifts and climbing over and under pallets, and as long as he did a good job with the warehouse staff, no one minded him dressing in the same smart casual wear.
“Um. What I said earlier?” Alex looked a little disturbed, obviously not sure how much Tate might have overheard. “I suppose I may have been a tad out of line.”
Tate shrugged. It was an apology of sorts. “What matters to me is that everyone does their best in the job. If you shirk, or cause trouble, well… that’s a different matter.”
Alex was still staring at him. He also hadn’t let go of Tate’s hand. For one long, pregnant moment, their gazes locked.
Tate knew he shouldn’t be devouring Alex’s attention like he was—it was rude, he didn’t behave like this, at least he hadn’t before, he didn’t even know if the guy was gay, and he’d never thought about dating a fellow employee before, that would be unprofessional, right? And oh God, even his mind was rambling—but he couldn’t seem to look away.
Alex’s hand shifted very slightly, but enough for his thumb to brush the palm of Tate’s hand as he let go, almost reluctantly. A small smile teased the edge of his handsome mouth. “Mr. Somerton, may I say—?”
“No, y’ bloody may not!” Percy snapped into his ear, having borne down on him without either Tate or Alex noticing.
Alex gave a small, embarrassing yelp.
Tate bit his lip to stop from laughing. “Welcome to the firm, Alex,” he said briskly, and turned away.