Close quarters have never been hotter in this peppy office romance by Susie Orman Schnall, author of WE CAME HERE TO SHINE.
Going back to work has never been more fun. Mia is thrilled to get off Zoom and return to her IRL workplace—until she discovers she’ll now be sharing her office with James. Too perfect, too confident, too distractingly hot James. At first close quarters is irritating, especially as Mia has sworn off ever dating a co-worker again. But things soon heat up…
“Hot Desk” is the first romance by Susie Orman Schnall, known for her historical fictions set in New York. I know you’ll enjoy this playful office romance just as much as I did!
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I can’t remember ever being excited to return to work the Tuesday after Labor Day. But today? I can barely contain my joy.
After two-plus fraught years of virtual work, my company, an online political and culture magazine called The Daily Word, is finally throwing open their brushed-silver elevator doors and ushering my colleagues and me back in. I feel like spinning around, Mary-Tyler-Moore-style, and tossing a beret in the air.
I glide past reception, exuberantly greeting coworkers whose faces have been burned into my monitor in two-by-two-inch squares. So what if my keycard didn’t work at the building entrance? So what if my work pants are tight? So what if my prized philodendrons are probably dead? I no longer have to work in my tiny, dark, lonely apartment. An apartment filled with pungent cooking smells from next door and painful memories of my last relationship.
When I enter my office, I'm surprised to find a very handsome man sitting at my desk. New IT guy perhaps? “Um, hello?” I say.
“Hey, Mia. I’m just in the middle of something,” the man says, quickly glancing up and then refocusing on the papers on his—my—desk.
“And you are?”
“It’s me, James,” he says, a confused look on his face.
James? Ohhhhh. James.
James McCall and I have only “met” via Zoom since he had started as a fellow advertising sales VP for The Daily Word while we were working remotely. He’d quickly become the leading salesperson at the company, which quickly led me to become jealous. It was petty, I admit, but it wasn’t only his strong sales numbers. The guy had a beautifully organized bookshelf background and impeccable grooming. No matter how high I turned my “Touch up my appearance,” no matter how many “studio effects” I added (soft arch eyebrows, 50% opacity peony lip color), no matter how precisely I organized my own bookshelf background by color, I always felt frumpy and Zoom-gloom compared to James.
We didn’t have too many meetings together—generally just the Monday sales meeting led by our boss, Ty. So we never got a chance to really know each other. No, it was more of me just staring at that tiny little square, thinking he was cute, and trying to make out the titles of the books on his shelves (thrillers and nonfiction business, mostly). Now, though, meeting him in person, he looks different than he did on Zoom. Taller? Better looking? Was that even possible?
“Oh, sorry,” I say. “I didn’t recognize you off Zoom. But why are you in my office?” I tilt my head and scrunch up my nose, a not-particularly-attractive thing I tend to do when I’m curious about something.
“Adnan told me this is my office,” James replies.
“The new HR guy.”
“What happened to Jan?”
“She had a baby.”
“Since it was born. I don’t know, Mia. Listen, I’m trying to get through this contract before our sales meeting, so, I don’t mean to be rude, but do you need something?”
“So many things,” I say. I sit down in one of the small guest chairs and tick off my fingers. “The secret to making a perfect cup of cold brewed coffee. A long weekend at a spa in Tulum. A more realistic Q4 sales goal. Oh, and the most important thing: I need you to vacate my office.” I smile sweetly. “Not necessarily in that order.”
He returns all this with a penetrating, unimpressed glare. His eyes are a piercing shade of green with a pronounced gold ring around the pupils, something I’ve read about in novels but always thought was made up. “I suggest you speak with Adnan.”
With a loud sigh, I dump my bag on the side chair and leave my office to track down Adnan in HR.
Fifteen frustrating minutes later, I know two things for sure: First, I liked Jan a lot more than Adnan, and second, due to a space shortage and a paperwork error in HR, every other office and desk are assigned, so James and I have to share. And there’s nothing I can do about it.
I return to my—our—office. “Looks like I’m stuck with you.”
He pauses and stares at me, narrowing his eyes.
“What?” I ask, trying to hold back a smile. It feels strange having him stare at me. I’ve stared at him plenty of times online, but this feels, too, I don’t know, up close and personal.
“You look different in person than on Zoom,” James says.
I wonder how, considering my wavy, shoulder-length brown hair pretty much looks the same every day. Perhaps I overdid the Zoom filter zhuzh-up? “So do you.”
“How?” he asks.
“Hard to say. Just different. Not as quiet.”
“I look less quiet on Zoom?”
“Seem less quiet. But quiet’s not the right word,” he pauses. “Aggressive. On Zoom you seem less aggressive.”
“Aggressive?” I ask, taken aback.
“That’s not a bad thing,” he says defensively, clearly sensing my negative reaction.
“It’s a pretty loaded word for a woman—”
“I didn’t mean it like that—”
“I don’t have time to discuss semantics or third wave feminism right now, James, so—
“Hey guys,” Adnan interrupts, pushing a tiny desk on wheels into the office. “Here’s an extra desk.”
“Ah, James,” I say, smiling widely, “Your desk has arrived!”
James looks at me and laughs. To his credit, the desk is ridiculously small. Too small for a man of James’ size.
“Maybe, Mia,” James says in a teasing voice, “this tiny, albeit quite fantastic, desk, with all those amazing drawers, is for you.”
“It is not, actually,” I say, smiling and shaking my head. “Our friend Adnan specifically told me that he’d be right in with a nice desk for you. And look! He’s kept his word. Thank you, Adnan.”
“No prob,” Adnan says as he walks out of the office, returns with an ergonomic Aeron desk chair, and leaves again, this time for good.
“Now, James, if you don’t mind,” I say, gesturing to my desk with a sweeping motion meant to indicate that he should sweep up his shit and make haste. “Time to gather your stuff.” I raise my eyebrows in anticipation.
James looks at me with a pouty expression, and, I guess, sensing my aggression, does as he’s asked.
We both begin setting up our spaces. But as James pushes my two guest chairs closer to the window to make room for his Aeron, and as he slides my large collection of windowsill books over to fit in some of his own, it hits me how tricky it’ll be sharing my office with James. And it’s not because it’s James. It’s just that, two people in this already cramped office? Yikes.
Picture a typical small square office. The wall with the door is the south wall and the north wall is all windows. I sit with my back to the east wall, my desk in front of me. On the other side of my desk, I have–er, had–two tiny armless side chairs, each with its own needlepoint pillow that Elisabeth, another sales VP and my closest work friend, sewed for me. One says “NEVERTHELESS, SHE PERSISTED” and the other says “NOLITE TE BASTARDES CARBORUNDORUM.” (Yes, I love them, and Elisabeth, so much.) Between the backs of the chairs and the west wall, which I face, there’s barely room for someone to maneuver. Now, that wall holds James’ tiny desk. Luckily, James faces that wall, so I don’t have to worry about catching his eye every time I look up from my computer.
“This isn’t gonna work,” I say to James, waving my hand between the two of us.
He turns around to face me and flashes an expression I can’t decipher. “Oh, I know. I don’t date coworkers either.”
“Don’t flatter yourself, James McCall,” I say, surprised to feel a blush in my cheeks.
I should tone it down. It’s not like I’m gonna date the guy. I tried that once, the whole office romance, trying to be sly, trying to act like it wasn’t a big deal to work with my boyfriend. Never again. No freaking way. “I meant—”
He reddens, too, glancing away. “I was kidding. I know what you meant.”
“So, you agree that sharing an office won’t work?” I ask.
“I do, but I don’t think it matters. There’s nowhere else for me to go. Besides, I’m starting to like my tiny desk,” he says, Vanna White-ing his hands across the selection of drawers.
“Well, I get distracted easily,” I say.
“They give me ear infections. I tried them because my boyfriend, and the snoring, and I—”
“You’ve got a boyfriend?” James asks, turning his chair all the way around to face me. He leans forward with one leg crossed over the other, as if he’s settling in to hear all the tea on my relationship status.
I can’t help noticing how much I like his camel color suede Chukka boots. He’s got a great style: a cross between outdoorsy J.Crew guy and hip Bushwick guy. “No, I do not have a boyfriend, even though it’s none of your business. I did have a boyfriend, but he broke up with me during Covid, leaving abruptly with both our pandemic puppy and my shredded heart.”
“Damn,” James says, making a face as if he’d just eaten a lemon. “He took the puppy?”
“He took the puppy,” I say, nodding.
“Total monster. But the puppy had a penchant for peeing in shoes, and the boyfriend had a penchant for Gucci loafers, so there’s that.”
“Why are you smiling at me?” I ask, suddenly feeling self-conscious. I tuck my hair behind my ears, which feel warm.
“You seem like someone who needed a smile at that moment.”
“What I need,” I say, putting my hands flat on my desk, and acting very serious, “besides the aforementioned cold brew recipe, trip to Tulum, etc., is for you to turn back to your pathetic little desk so I can get some work done before our sales meeting.”
“Fine,” James says, “but any more terms I should know about for this office-share situation?”
He seems so earnest. And kind. Like he’s not being a dick and making me seem difficult. More like he wants to be courteous and make this work. “Well, since you asked,” I say, starting to laugh.
“Oh boy,” James says, melodramatically grabbing a pen and a pad.
“If you want to listen to music, wear headphones,” I say.
“Got it,” he says, making an exaggerated effort to write it on his list. “Do I get to have any terms?”
“Be my guest,” I say, holding out my palms.
“No tuna fish sandwiches,” James says.
“Or eggs of any variety,” I say.
“Can you get rid of some of this clutter?” James asks. “I focus better in minimalist spaces.”
I can’t tell if he’s joking or not. “Clutter?”
“These plants, and all this other,” he says, waving his arms around the office, “…decor.”
I see his eyes land on the pillows. “The plants and the pillows stay. Buy blinders.”
“No perfume. It gives me headaches.”
“How do you feel about aromatherapy diffusers?” I ask.
“I can work with that. What about phone calls?”
“We use the privacy booths as much as possible.”
James extends his hand over my desk, and I shake it. He has a firm grip, but his hand is unexpectedly soft. I feel like a light switch has turned on inside of me, heating me up from the top of my head down to the tips of my tingling toes.
Don’t even think about it, a voice on one side of my head shouts at me as James and I smile at each other. But the voice on the other side? Back-to-the-office might be more fun than you could have even imagined.
A week later, Elisabeth and I are whispering at one end of the conference table, while we wait for our boss Ty to arrive and start the weekly sales meeting. There are seven of us sales VPs, and being around them all again makes me realize how much we missed out on during Covid.
“How was week one with your new office mate?” Elisabeth asks me, raising her eyebrows and surreptitiously glancing across the table at James.
Elisabeth had a front-row seat to my unceremonious uncoupling with my ex. Since then, she’s set me up on numerous occasions—with her husband’s coworker, with her cousin, with the guy in her HIIT class—but each time, there was something missing. That perfect combination of joy and lust and electricity and sparkle I feel in my gut when I’m with a guy who I have a true connection with. Kind of like the feeling I’ve been telling myself I’m not actually feeling when I’m with James. I haven’t mentioned any of this to Elisabeth. She would be vehemently opposed to me engaging in another work relationship. (Vehemently might not be a strong enough word.)
I laugh, speaking loudly enough for James to hear. “My new office mate is wonderful! He’s a loud chewer, his phone never stops ringing, he bangs on his keyboard…”
“Well, she taps her foot when she’s concentrating,” James says from across the table, looking straight at me. “Never neatens her desk, and seems intent on turning our office into a greenhouse with all those damn plants.”
I can feel Elisabeth’s eyes on me, but she doesn’t have a chance to comment because Ty starts the meeting.
WTF was that? Elisabeth scribbles on a pad and juts her chin at James.
I shrug and direct my attention back at Ty, who’s reviewing the redesigned media kit we’re launching next week.
Before they end the meeting, Ty reminds us that they’ll be setting up times to meet with us all individually to review our Q4 sales goals. There are several groans around the conference table. Ty is known for having demanding expectations.
After the meeting, I hurry back to my desk because I want to avoid Elisabeth’s questions, and I’m waiting for a call from my biggest client, Viola. She refuses to call me on my cell, claiming the audio quality is inferior to the landline. But she’s been threatening to cut her budget, which will destroy my chances of meeting my sales goal, so I’m at her mercy.
“How are you feeling about your sales goal?” James asks, walking into our office carrying two coffees and handing me one.
“This isn’t that decaf crap you drink, is it?” I ask, tipping the cup toward him.
“Nope. It’s full-on dark roast. I only got the decaf crap for myself,” he says, taking a sip and making an exaggerated mmmm sound.
“That can’t taste good, and thank you,” I say, laughing and holding my cup up toward him.
“What do you say to a little bet?” James asks, setting his coffee on his desk and standing up straight. He’s about six foot two and has the body of a swimmer, which means that not only do clothes look amazing on him, but it looks like he’d be a really good person to spoon with. Him being the big spoon and me being the little spoon in this scenario.
I glance down at my computer, not wanting to give him the satisfaction of thinking I’m checking him out. “What did you have in mind?” I ask, scrolling through the emails that came in while we were in the meeting.
“Whichever one of us makes their Q4 goal first gets to keep this office. Loser moves out,” James says, leaning back against his desk and crossing his arms smugly as if he’d already won.
“Where would you move to?” I ask, looking up at him.
“The loser,” James says, maddeningly ignoring my dig, “could move to one of the unoccupied hot desks I’ve seen in random corners of the office. I guess there were some extra after all.”
“Why don’t you move there now?” I ask, crossing my own arms smugly.
“Why don’t you?”
“Because by New York City tenant and real estate law, the person who exclusively occupies an office first has technical land deed possessory right to said office.”
James arches a brow. “You just made that up.”
“Fine, I’ll take your bet.”
And for the second time since I’ve met James McCall in person, we’re shaking hands. And I don’t want to let go.
A few days later, after a quick falafel lunch in the park with Elisabeth, I walk into my—our—office while stress-reading an email that just came in on my phone. “Did you pick up a call from my client Viola yesterday?” I ask James, who’s sitting at his tiny desk. “Because she just sent me a furious email asking why I didn’t return her call.”
James freezes, holding the turkey sandwich he’d just taken a bite of. “Oh, shit,” he says, his mouth full. He swallows and then turns to me. “I’m so sorry, Mia. Yes, Viola called while you were in Ty’s office. I meant to tell you, but I got distracted and—”
I sit at my desk and put my head in my hands. It’s not the biggest deal in the world. It’s just that Viola is difficult, and I don’t want to get on her bad side right now. Not when this account is tenuous to begin with.
“Mia?” James asks.
I lift my head abruptly and glare at James. He’s looking at me worriedly with his gold-rimmed apologizing puppy dog eyes. “I get it now. I see what you did,” I say, with mock indignation. “You’re trying to sabotage me so you can win the bet. You know that if I lose Viola’s account, I’ll have no chance to meet my Q4 goal and—”
“Absolutely not,” James says contritely, getting up from his chair and placing his palms on my desk. “I would never do that to you.”
“I’m fucking with you. Mostly. But it’s fine. I semi-forgive you,” I say.
He sighs with relief. “Can I make it up to you?”
“It depends on how. If you want to throw some ad revenue my way, I certainly wouldn’t complain.”
“I was thinking more along the line of drinks tonight. Downstairs at Murph’s?”
“Strictly business, of course,” James says, sounding nervous and running his hands through his thick brown hair. “If you’re okay with that and all.”
Don’t blush, Mia. “Of course,” I repeat, nodding, making it very clear, very clear indeed, that I wouldn’t have supposed anything else. But is this something else? What if he were asking me on a date? Would I say yes? Would I even consider breaking my self-imposed but currently inconvenient no-shagging-coworkers rule? “Hmmm,” I say hesitantly, shaking my head.
“Why hmmm?” James asks.
“I have a blind date tonight,” I say.
“Elisabeth’s handiwork again?” James asks, rolling his eyes.
“Yeah, this time it’s with her accountant. She’s adamant I don’t enter my thirties without a proper mate.”
“Proper mate?” James asks, raising his eyebrows.
“What? You don’t think I should have a proper mate?” I ask, half laughing, half resolved.
“No, no, I do,” James says, with a mocking seriousness. “I want more than anything for you to have a proper mate.”
We both stare at each other for a beat.
“What time is the date?” James asks.
“Then let’s go downstairs at six-thirty and pre-game so you can be good and liquored up for your date.”
What’s one little drink? It’s not a date. It’s one drink! “Fine,” I say. “One drink.”
The bar was packed when James and I arrived, but we found a small high top to stand around, its stools having been commandeered by a large rowdy group near us. After my first glass of pinot noir, I’d texted my date and we agreed to meet at nine. I was having too much fun listening to James’ hilarious stories about his grandma’s dating life in her swanky retirement home in Florida.
I’m laughing so hard I’m practically snorting my second glass of pinot out of my nose when a man careens into me at full speed, clipping my shoulder with his own. The impact causes me to spill my wine all over his shirt.
“What the hell?” the guy, clearly drunk, yells at me, holding his wet t-shirt away from his chest and angrily splashing what was left of his beer onto my blouse.
“Dude!” James yells as he quickly positions himself between drunk guy and me. “Back off.”
“Then tell your girlfriend to hold her drink more tighter.”
James sneers at the guy and then guides me, his hand barely touching my back, out of the bar. “Are you alright?” he asks, in a concerned tone, when we’re finally outside.
“I’ll be fine,” I say, taking a deep breath and trying to slow my heartbeat. “I’m more upset about that guy’s terrible grammar.”
“But your top is wet…and you have that date,” James says, taking tissues out of his work bag. “May I?” he asks, holding up the tissue.
I nod and he dabs at the wet splotch near my right shoulder. He’s so gentle, and so gentlemanly careful not to go any lower than my shoulder, and I’m so rattled from what went on inside that I feel as if I might start to cry—something I tend to do when I drink red wine and something I decidedly do not want to do in front of James. But he’s being so nice. And the gold of his eyes is so glowy. And—
“Yeah?” I say, breaking out of my thoughts.
“I asked if you wanted me to walk you to your date.”
“Oh, for sure,” I say, sarcastically. “Hot guy walks frazzled drenched-in-beer girl to first date. That’ll go over well.”
“You think I’m hot?” he asks in a teasing voice.
“No. I never said that.”
“Oh, yes you did. You said I was hot.”
“Well, I didn’t mean it,” I say, my heartbeat picking up. “It’s PTSD. I say random things I don’t mean when large drunk men shout at me in bars.”
“So, it’s a regular thing with you then? Large drunk men shouting at you in bars?”
I take another deep breath and smile at James. “You’ve been so nice, and I’m glad we got to know each other a little better, but I’ve been putting off this date for a while. I gotta get back on that horse. Or bicycle. Or whatever you’re supposed to get back up on when the love of your life breaks your heart.”
“Gucci loafer guy could not have been that great if he didn’t recognize what he had in you.”
I feel like I might cry again. “That’s very kind of you.”
“I’m not being kind. I’m being honest.”
“Thanks,” I say, staring at James. At his full lips, at the adorable ruddiness in his cheeks. At those eyes. I hold out my hand to give him a shake goodbye. He leans in to kiss my cheek but as he does, I accidentally turn to the wrong side, or the right side, and his lips stop on mine. Warmth spreads throughout my body. I feel the joy and sparkle in my gut that have never let me down at the beginning of every relationship I’ve ever had. And I suddenly want to be that little spoon. I desperately want to be that little spoon. Then I feel James pull away.
“Oh, sorry,” I say, pulling back, embarrassed. “I turned the wrong way, and I—”
“No, I’m sorry,” James says, seeming a bit flustered. “I didn’t mean to—”
“I guess I drank more than I had thought and—”
“It’s fine. Have fun on your date, Mia,” James says, biting his lip and shoving his hands deep into his pockets. “I’ll see you tomorrow.”
“Thanks, I’ll see you tomorrow,” I say, practically skipping away, restraining myself from turning around.
“I’m going back to work,” he shouts to me once I’m halfway down the block, “so I can win our contest and boot you out of my office!”
“It’s my office!” I shout back.
What I’d really like to do instead of go on this date is run back and turn to the wrong side—or the right side—again and see what kissing James would really be like.
“How was the date?” James asks the next morning as I walk into the office.
“Well,” I say, pausing at the doorway, “if we had been playing Bad Date Bingo, I would have filled my card. Everything from a detailed recounting of his last three relationships, to being rude to our server, to, are you ready for this one?”
“One long pinky nail.”
“No…not the long pinky nail.”
I nod, trying not to laugh. Or cry.
“He’s not the horse, then, huh?”
“Or the bicycle,” I say, taking my backpack off my shoulder and leaning on my desk right in front of James’ chair.
“I brought you something,” James says, gesturing toward the windowsill. “Another apology for the Viola thing.”
It's a beautiful succulent arrangement in a white lacquer box. Exactly like one I’d been admiring in the window of a nearby shop but had convinced myself that I didn’t really need. I light up realizing James thought I did, especially knowing how he feels about the number of plants we already have in here. “It’s beautiful,” I say, walking over to admire it. “Thank you.”
“And it’s low maintenance,” he says proudly. “So, when this is my office, I’ll have no problem taking care of it.”
“You suck,” I say, tossing one of the needlepoint pillows at his head.
James catches the pillow and reads the stitching, “Nevertheless she persisted.”
“Because she was an aggressive woman,” I say, smirking at James.
“I take back that cringy statement,” James says, standing up and placing the pillow back on the side chair. “Aggressive was entirely the wrong word. I meant to say you seemed bolder, more confident than you had on Zoom.”
“Ah, that’s better. I can work with bold and confident,” I say.
Now James is standing right in front of me, and I’m suddenly very aware of my heart beating. I take a deep breath and look into James’ eyes. “Did we, um, kiss last night?” I ask.
“I think so,” James says, nodding. “I meant to kiss you on the cheek, but then you turned your cheek the wrong way so you could kiss me.”
“Oh, yeah?” I say, laughing. “You think I did that on purpose?”
The gold in his eyes is glowing again, and I feel something twist inside of me. I walk over to the door and close it gently. Then I walk back over to James and kiss him.
It starts slow and gentle, and I can’t believe, after all the times I’d imagined this moment, we’re actually kissing. I hear him make a small sound, and then James puts his hands on my cheeks and pulls me closer, kissing me more deeply. I put my arms around his back and, again, I feel that urge to spoon with him, to feel his long body curling around my own. We stay like that for several moments, and then he pulls away, lifts me up so I’m sitting on the edge of my desk, and wraps me in his arms. It’s in that moment that I finally realize I should—that I will—embrace all the joy and lust and electricity and sparkle I feel in my gut.
Sometimes rules are meant to be broken. Sometimes when you find the right person, even if they’re in the wrong place, you have to go for it with all your heart. And sometimes that becomes the best decision you’ll ever make.
Next week on Heartbeat, get ready for a short story from De Elizabeth.
Follow Heartbeat on Instagram at @storiesbyheartbeat for upcoming behind-the-scenes sneak peeks at De’s story!
Thank you so much to everyone who shared Heartbeat this past week. We really appreciate your support for our weekly love stories! Our winners will be announced on Instagram soon!
Three quick things from Georgia:
New Yorkers, come see my new live show, Erotic Fan Fiction, at Caveat (Lower East Side) on Friday, November 4th! EFF invites NYC’s best comedians to turn their fandom into stories of smut on the fun side of filth. Starring Jo Firestone, Karen Chee, Aaron Jackson, and Dan Fox. Tix are $15—grab them now!
I mentioned I was planning in seeing Bros in my Three Things last week—I saw it and am compelled to say RUN DON’T WALK to see this fantastic movie! I loved every second—it’s funny, sexy, smart, relatable, and insightful. It’s everything I want in a rom-com and everything I believe the genre can be.
My dear friend Nora McInery has an essay collection out last week called Bad Vibes Only: and Other Things I Bring to the Table. It’s smart, funny, relatable, and a little bit weird, just like Nora herself. As well as being a terrific writer, Nora is also a wonderful literary citizen (i.e. a book person who helps other book people): she interviewed me on her Insta for my last book, Island Time: check it out.
What did you think of this week’s story? Let us know in the comments below!