Eleven

When Thursday morning dawned, I knew we needed to have some sort of discussion. I would be away from the office all day Friday, so today was our last day together before she left town. She’d been meeting with her advisor all morning, and I felt myself getting more and more anxious about . . . everything. I was pretty sure the interaction in my office the day before revealed to us both that she was slowly taking more and more of me. I wanted to be with her almost all of the time, and not just naked and wild. I just wanted to be near her, and my own need for self-preservation had been plaguing me all week.

What had she said? I don’t want to want this. This isn’t good for me. Only when Mina discovered us had I truly understood what Chloe meant. I’d hated my desire for her because it was the first time in my life I was unable to push something out of my head and focus on work, but no one—not even my family—would really blame me for being attracted to Chloe. In contrast, she would forever be tainted with the reputation of being the woman who slept her way to the top. For someone as brilliant and driven as she was, that association would be a constant—and painful—thorn in her side.

She was right to put distance between us. This pull we felt when we were together was entirely unhealthy. Nothing good could come from it, and I decided once again to use our time apart to regain my focus. When I entered my office after lunch I was surprised to find her seated at her desk busily working on the computer.

“I didn’t know you would be in this afternoon,” I said, trying to keep any emotion from my voice.

“Yes, I had some last-minute arrangements to handle for San Diego, and I still needed to discuss my absence with you,” she said, never looking up from her computer monitor.

“Would you like to step into my office, then?”

“No,” she said quickly. “I think we can handle this out here.” Peeking up at me with a sly look she motioned to the chair opposite her. “Would you like to have a seat, Mr. Ryan?”

Ahhh, home-court advantage. I sat down across from her.

“I know you’ll be out tomorrow, so there’s no reason for me to be here. I realize you don’t like having an assistant, but I’ve arranged for you to have a temp while I’m gone for two weeks, and I’ve already given Sara a detailed list of your schedule and the things you’ll need. I doubt there will be any problems, but just in case, she’s promised to keep an eye on you.” She raised a brow in challenge and I rolled my eyes in return.

She continued, “You have my numbers, including the number of my father’s home in Bismarck, if you need anything.” She began going through a list in front of her, and I noticed how cool and efficient she was. It’s not that I wasn’t already aware of these things, but somehow it seemed a bit more apparent to me right now. Our eyes met and she continued, “I’ll get into California a few hours before you, so I’ll just plan on picking you up at the airport.”

We continued to stare at each other for a few moments, and I was almost positive that our thoughts were the same: San Diego would be a colossal test.

The atmosphere in the room began to shift slowly, the silence saying more than words ever could. I clenched my jaw tightly as I noticed that her breathing had picked up. It took every bit of willpower I had to not walk around the desk and kiss her.

“Have a nice trip, Miss Mills,” I said, pleased that my voice betrayed none of my inner turmoil. I stood and lingered for a moment, adding, “So, I’ll meet you in San Diego then.”

“Yes.”

I nodded and walked into my office, shutting the door behind me. I didn’t see her for the rest of the day and our terse good-bye for once felt completely wrong.

.

All weekend I thought about what it would be like to have her gone for two weeks. On the one hand, it would be nice to enjoy a full day at work without the distraction. On the other, I wondered if it would feel odd not having her there. She’d been a near constant in my life for almost a year, and regardless of our differences, it had become comforting to have her around.

Sara entered my office on Monday at nine o’clock sharp, smiling brightly as she approached me. She was followed by an attractive, twenty-something brunette who was introduced as Kelsey, my new temporary assistant. She looked up at me with a somewhat timid smile, and I saw Sara place a reassuring hand on her shoulder.

I decided that I would use this as an opportunity. I would prove to everyone that my reputation was simply a result of working with someone as headstrong as Miss Mills.

“It’s very nice to meet you, Kelsey,” I said, smiling widely and offering her my hand to shake. She looked at me strangely, with a sort of glazed expression.

“It’s nice to meet you too, sir,” she said as she glanced back at Sara. Sara looked down at my hand quizzically and back up to me before speaking to Kelsey.

“Okay. Well, we’ve already gone over everything that Chloe left. Here’s your desk.” She led the temp over to Miss Mills’ chair.

A strange feeling crept over me at the image of someone else sitting there. I felt my smile falter and I turned to Sara. “If she needs anything she’ll let you know. I’ll be in my office.”

Kelsey quit before lunch. Apparently I came off “a bit gruff” when she managed to start a small fire in the break room microwave. The last I saw of her, she was in tears and sprinting out my door, wailing something about a hostile work environment.

The second temp, a young man named Isaac, came in around two o’clock. Isaac seemed highly intelligent, and I looked forward to working with someone other than an emotional female. I found myself smiling at the sudden turn of events. Unfortunately, I spoke too soon.

Every time I passed Isaac at his computer he was online, looking at captioned pictures of cats or watching a music video. He would quickly minimize the window, but unfortunately for Isaac I wasn’t a complete idiot. I diplomatically asked him to not bother returning the next day.

The third was no better. Her name was Jill; she talked too much, her clothing was too tight, and the way she gnawed on the cap of her pen made her look like an animal trying to free itself from a trap. It was nothing like the way Miss Mills would pensively hold the end of her pen between her teeth when she was deep in thought. That was subtle and sexy; this was nothing short of obscene. Unacceptable. She was gone by Tuesday afternoon.

The week continued on in much the same way. I went through five different assistants. I heard the booming laugh of my brother in the hall outside my office on more than one occasion. Jackass. He didn’t even work on this floor. I began to feel that people were enjoying my misery a bit too much and maybe even saw it as a case of reaping what I sowed.

Although I had absolutely no doubt that Miss Mills had already been informed of my temp nightmares by Sara, I received several texts from her throughout the first week, checking on how things were going. I began looking forward to them, even checking my phone periodically to see if I might have missed an alert. I hated to admit it, but at this point I would have traded my car just to have her and her harpy disposition back.

Besides missing her body, which I did desperately, I also missed the fire between us. She knew I was a bastard, and she put up with it. I had no idea why, but she did. I felt my respect for her professionalism grow during that first week apart.

When the second week went by without a single text from her, I found myself wondering what she was doing and with whom she was doing it. I wondered briefly if she’d had any more phone calls with Joel. I was pretty sure they hadn’t seen each other again, and she and I had managed to reach a precarious cease-fire regarding the flower incident. Still, I wondered if he’d ever called to follow up and whether he would try to begin something when she was home.

Home. Was she at home now, with her father? Or did she think of Chicago as home? For the first time, it occurred to me that if her father was very sick, she might decide to move back to North Dakota to be with him.

Fuck.

I started packing for my flight on Sunday night and heard my phone chirp from the bed next to my suitcase. I felt a small thrill reading her name on the screen.

Pick you up tomorrow 11:30. Terminal B near arrival screens. Text when you land.

I paused for a moment as it sank in that we would be together tomorrow.

I will. Thanks.

You’re welcome. Everything go ok?

I was a bit taken aback that she had asked about the rest of my week. We were in such uncharted territory here. While working, we texted and e-mailed frequently, but it was usually restricted to simple yes or no answers. Never anything personal. Was it possible she’d had a similarly frustrating week?

Great. You? How is your dad?

I laughed as I pushed send; this situation kept getting stranger. Less than a minute later I received another one.

He’s doing fine. I’ve missed him but am excited to come home.

Home. I noted her word choice and swallowed; my chest was suddenly too tight.

See you tomorrow.

Setting the alarm on my phone, I placed it on the nightstand and sat next to my luggage on the bed. I would see her in less than twelve hours.

And I wasn’t entirely sure how I felt about that.

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