Six

The burning in my chest was almost enough to distract me from the mess inside my head. Almost.

I increased the incline on the treadmill and pushed myself harder. Feet pounding, muscles on fire, it always worked. That was how I lived my life. There was nothing I couldn’t accomplish if I just pushed hard enough: school, career, family, women.

Shit. Women.

Disgusted, I shook my head and turned up the volume on my iPod, hoping it would distract me long enough to get some fucking peace.

I should have known it wouldn’t work. No matter how hard I tried, she was always there. I closed my eyes and it all came back: hovering over her, feeling her wrapped around me, sweaty, aching, wanting to stop but not being able to. Being inside of her was the most perfect torture. It satiated the hunger I felt at that moment, but like a junkie I found myself consumed by the need for more as soon as it ended. It was terrifying, because in those moments with her, I’d do anything she asked. And that feeling was starting to bleed into moments like this too, when I wasn’t even with her and still wanted to be what she needed. Ridiculous.

My earbud was tugged free, and I turned toward the source of the annoyance. “What?” I said, glaring at my brother.

“You keep that up, we’re gonna be peeling you off the floor, Ben,” he replied. “What’d she do to piss you off this time?”

“Who?”

He rolled his eyes. “Chloe.”

I felt my stomach tighten at the sound of her name and focused my attention back on the treadmill. “What makes you think this has anything to do with her?”

“Because I’m not a fucking idiot.”

“Nothing’s bothering me. And even if something was, why on earth would it have anything to do with her?”

He laughed, shaking his head. “I’ve never met anyone who gets this kind of reaction out of you. And you know why, don’t you?” He had shut off his machine and was now focusing all his attention on me. I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t a little unnerving. My brother was perceptive; too perceptive at times. And if there was ever anything I wanted to keep from him, it was this.

I kept my gaze forward as I ran, trying not to meet his eyes. “Enlighten me.”

“Because you two are too much alike,” he said smugly.

“What?”

Several people turned to see why I was yelling in the middle of the crowded gym. I slammed my hand down on the stop button and turned to face him. “How could you even think that? We are nothing alike.” I was sweaty, out of breath, and ramped up from running ten miles. But right now, the rise in my blood pressure had nothing to do with my workout.

Taking a long drink from his water bottle, Henry continued to smirk. “Who do you think you’re talking to? I’ve never met two people more alike. First of all . . .” He paused, clearing his throat and bringing his hand up to dramatically tick things off on his fingers. “You’re both intelligent, determined, hardworking, and loyal. And,” he continued, pointing at me, “she’s a firecracker. In fact, she’s the first woman in your entire life who can stand up to you and doesn’t follow you around like some lost puppy. You hate how much you need that.”

Had everyone lost their mind? Sure, she might be some of those things; even I couldn’t deny that she was incredibly intelligent. She was a hard worker; I was often surprised at how well she kept up with things. She was definitely determined, although I would describe it more along the lines of pigheaded or stubborn. And there was no question of her loyalty. She could have sold me out a hundred times since we’d started this sick game.

I stood glaring at him as I tried to formulate my response. “Yeah, well, she’s also a raving bitch.” Nice. Very articulate, Bennett.

Stepping down, I quickly wiped off my machine and made my way across the gym in an effort to escape.

He laughed happily behind me. “See? I knew she was getting to you.”

“Fuck off, Henry.”

I settled in to do some sit-ups when he stood over me, grinning like a cat that swallowed a canary. “Well, my work is done here,” he said, brushing off his hands and looking increasingly pleased with himself. “Guess I’ll be heading home.”

“Good. Go.”

Laughing, he turned to leave. “Oh, but before I forget, Mina wanted me to see if you managed to convince Chloe to make it to dinner.”

I nodded, sitting up to fiddle with my shoelaces. “She said she’d be there.”

“Am I the only one who thinks it’s hilarious that Mom wants to set her up with Joel Cignoli?” There went that feeling in my chest again. Henry and I had grown up with Joel, and he was a pretty decent guy, but something about the thought of the two of them together made me feel like I wanted to punch something. “I mean, Joel is great,” he continued. “But Chloe’s a bit out of his league, don’t you think?” I could feel him staring at me a beat longer. “But hey, good for him if he thinks he stands a chance.”

I lay back, began doing sit-ups a bit faster than was necessary.

“See you later, Benny.”

“Yeah, later,” I mumbled.

.

Sunday night as I lay in bed I replayed the plan in my head. I was thinking about her too much, and differently. I had to be tough and make it a week without touching her. It was like detoxing. Seven days, I could do that. Seven days of not touching her and this thing would be out of my system. I could finally move on with my life. There were just a couple of precautions I had to take.

First, I couldn’t be goaded into arguing with her. For some reason, the two of us arguing was like some sick form of foreplay. Second: no more fantasizing about her, ever. That meant no more reliving sexual encounters, no more fantasizing about new ones, and no more picturing her naked or with any of my body parts coming in contact with any of hers.

And for the most part, things seemed to go according to plan. I was in a constant state of discomfort and the week seemed to drag on, but aside from a lot of dirty fantasies, I remained in control. I did my best to stay busy outside the office, but during the times we were forced together, I kept a constant distance, and for the most part we treated each other with the same polite aversion we had before.

But I swear she was trying to break me. Each day it seemed that Miss Mills looked sexier than the day before. Every day there was something about what she wore or did that brought my mind back to the gutter. I’d made a deal with myself that there would be no more lunchtime “sessions.” I had to stop this, and imagining her while masturbating—hell, imagining her masturbating—wasn’t going to help.

Monday she wore her hair down. All I could think about as she sat across from me during a meeting was wrapping it around my hands as she went down on me.

Tuesday she had on a formfitting knee-length skirt and those stockings with the seam up the back. She looked like some sort of hot secretary pinup.

Wednesday she wore a suit. That was unexpectedly worse, because I couldn’t get my mind off what it would feel like to slide those pants down her long legs.

Thursday she had on a perfectly ordinary V-neck blouse, but twice when she bent over to pick up my pen I got a good look down her shirt. Only one of those times was on purpose.

By Friday I thought I would explode. I hadn’t jacked off once all week and was walking around with the worst case of blue balls known to man.

As I walked into the office Friday morning, I was praying that maybe she would call in sick. Somehow I knew I wouldn’t be that lucky. I was horny and in a particularly bad mood, and when I opened the office door I almost had a heart attack. She was bent over watering a plant in a charcoal gray sweater dress and knee-high boots. Every curve of her body was on display. Someone up there really hated me.

“Good morning, Mr. Ryan,” she said sweetly, stopping me as I passed her. Something was up. She never said anything sweetly to me. I eyed her suspiciously.

“Good morning, Miss Mills. You seem to be in an exceptionally cordial mood today. Did somebody die?”

The corner of her mouth lifted in a devilish smirk. “Oh, no. I’m just excited about dinner tomorrow, and meeting your friend Joel. Henry’s told me all about him. I think we really might have a lot in common.”

Son of a bitch. “Oh right. Dinner. I’d completely forgotten. Yes, you and Joel . . . Well, since he’s a mama’s boy and you’re an overbearing shrew, you two should find a pretty solid love connection. I’d love a cup of coffee if you’re getting one for yourself.” I turned and headed into my office.

It occurred to me that it might not be in my best interest to let her make my coffee. One of these days she was likely to put something in it. Like arsenic.

Before I’d even sat down, she knocked at my door.

“Come in.”

She set my coffee down hard enough that some of it spilled on what she knew damn well was a custom-built fifteen-thousand-dollar desk, and turned to look at me.

“Are we having the scheduling meeting this morning?” She was standing near my desk in a pool of sunlight. Shadows draped across her dress, accentuating the curve of her breasts. Fuck, I wanted to pull her tight nipple into my mouth. Was it cold in here? How could she be cold when I was sweating bullets?

I had to get the hell out of here.

“No. I forgot about a meeting downtown this afternoon. So I’ll be leaving for the day in about ten minutes. Just e-mail me all the details,” I replied quickly, heading for the safety and coverage of my desk chair.

“I wasn’t aware of any off-site meeting today,” she said skeptically.

“No, you wouldn’t have been,” I said. “It’s personal.”

When she didn’t respond I chanced a glance up and saw a strange expression on her face. What was that look? She obviously looked mad, but there was something else. Was she . . . was she jealous?

“Oh,” she answered, chewing on her lower lip. “Is it with someone I know?” She never asked questions about where I was going. “I mean, just in case your father or brother need to get ahold of you.”

“Well . . .” I paused, trying to torture her a bit. “In this day and age, if someone needs to get ahold of me, they can call my cell phone. Is there anything else, Miss Mills?”

She hesitated for a moment before lifting her chin and straightening her shoulders. “Since you won’t be here, I was thinking that I’d like to start the weekend early. Maybe do some shopping for tomorrow night.”

“No problem. I’ll just see you tomorrow.” Our gazes locked across the desk, and the electricity in the air was so palpable I could feel my heart rate increase.

“Have a nice meeting,” she said through clenched teeth, leaving and closing the door behind her.

I was relieved when I heard her leave fifteen minutes later. Deciding it was now safe to go, I gathered up my things and headed out. I was stopped by a man carrying a large flower arrangement.

“Can I help you with something?” I asked.

Looking up from his clipboard he glanced around before answering, “I have a delivery for a Miss Chloe Mills?”

What the—? Who the hell would send her flowers? Was she seeing someone while we were . . . ? I couldn’t even finish the thought.

“Miss Mills has gone for lunch. She’ll be back in about an hour,” I lied. I had to get a look at that card. “I’ll sign for those and make sure she gets them.” He set the arrangement on her desk.

Signing the clipboard quickly, I handed him a tip and mumbled a good-bye as he left. For three long minutes I stood and stared at the flowers, willing myself to stop being such a pussy and to definitely not look at the card.

Roses. She despised roses. I snickered because whoever sent her these knew nothing about her. Even I knew she didn’t like roses. I’d overheard her telling Sara one day about how one of her dates sent her a bouquet. She’d immediately given them away, disliking the pungent scent. Finally, my curiosity got the better of me and I ripped the card away from the arrangement.

Looking forward to dinner,

Joel Cignoli

That foreign sensation slowly spread through my chest again as I crumpled the card in my fist.

Retrieving the flowers from her desk, I walked out the door, locking up behind me, and made my way down the hall to the elevator.

Just as the doors opened I passed a wide chrome garbage can, and without a second thought I dropped the vase and all of its contents inside.

I didn’t know what the fuck was going on with me. But I did know there was no way in hell she was going out with Joel Cignoli.

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