Twelve

Just as I’d hoped, the flight to San Diego had given me time to think. I felt loved and rested after my visit with my dad. After his appointment with the gastroenterologist put us both at ease that the tumor was benign, we’d spent time together talking and reminiscing about Mom, even planning a trip for him to come out to Chicago.

By the time he kissed me good-bye, I felt as prepared as possible considering the situation. I was nervous as hell to face Mr. Ryan again, but I’d given myself my best pep talk. I’d done some online shopping and had a suitcase full of new power panties. I’d thought long and hard about my options, and I was pretty sure I had a plan.

The first step was to admit that this problem was more than just the temptation of proximity. Being a thousand miles apart had done nothing to calm my need. I’d dreamed of him nearly every night, waking each morning frustrated and lonely. I spent far too much time thinking about what he was doing, wondering if he was as confused as me, and trying to glean every bit of information I could from Sara about how things were going back home.

Sara and I had an interesting conversation when she’d called and informed me of the status of my replacement. I’d laughed hysterically hearing about the revolving door of temps. Of course Bennett was having a hard time keeping anyone around. He was an asshole.

I was used to his mood swings and gruff attitude; professionally our relationship ran like clockwork. It was the personal side that was a nightmare. Almost everyone knew it; they just didn’t know the extent of the situation.

I thought back often to our last day together. Something in our relationship was shifting, and I wasn’t sure how I felt about it. No matter how many times we said it would never happen again, it would. I was terrified that this man, who was all wrong for me, had more control over my body than I did, no matter how much I tried to convince myself otherwise.

I didn’t want to be the woman who sacrificed her ambitions for a man.

Standing in the arrival area, I gave myself one last pep talk. I could do this. Oh, God, I hoped I could do this. The butterflies in my stomach were working overtime and I briefly worried I might throw up.

His plane had been delayed in Chicago and it was after six thirty before he finally touched down in San Diego. While the time on the plane out had been good for thinking, the seven extra hours waiting afterward had only reignited my nerves.

I stood on my tiptoes trying to get a better view through the crowd, but didn’t see him. Looking down at my phone, I reread his text again.

Just landed—see you in a few.

There was nothing sentimental about the text, but it made my stomach flip anyway. Our messages last night had been the same. It wasn’t that we said anything special: I’d simply asked how the rest of his week had gone. That wouldn’t be considered unusual in any other relationship, but it was totally new for us. Maybe there was a chance we could actually get past the constant animosity and actually be, what—friends?

With my stomach in knots, I paced back and forth, willing my mind to switch gears and my heart rate to calm. Without thinking, I stopped midstep and turned toward the oncoming crowd, searching through the sea of unknown faces. My breath caught in my throat when a head of familiar hair appeared above the others.

Get ahold of yourself, Chloe. Jesus.

I tried once more to get my body under control and looked up again. Fuck. I am so screwed. There he was, looking better than I’d ever seen him. How the hell does someone get better looking in nine days, and coming off of an airplane no less?

He stood nearly a head taller than anyone around him, the kind of tall that stands out in a crowd, and I gave thanks to the universe for that. His dark hair was a nightmare as usual; no doubt he’d had his hands in it a hundred times during the last hour. He wore dark slacks, a charcoal blazer, and a white dress shirt that was unbuttoned at the neck. He looked tired and had a bit of stubble on his face, but that wasn’t what had my heart beating a mile a minute. He’d been looking down at the ground, but the moment our eyes met, his face split into the most genuinely happy smile I’d ever seen. Before I could stop it, I felt my own smile explode, wide and giddy.

He stopped in front of me, a slightly tenser look taking over his features, while both of us waited for the other to say something.

“Hi,” I said awkwardly, trying to ease some of the tension between us. Every part of me wanted to pull him into the ladies’ room, but somehow I doubted that was the proper way to great your boss. Not that that had ever mattered before.

“Um, hi,” he answered, his brow furrowed slightly.

Fuck, snap out of it, Chloe! We both turned, heading toward the baggage claim, and I felt goose bumps spread across my skin just being near him.

“How was your flight?” I asked, knowing how much he hated flying commercial airlines, even if it was first class. This was so ridiculous. I wished he would just say something asinine so I could go back to yelling at him.

He thought about it for a moment before answering, “It was pleasant enough, once we actually got off the ground. I don’t like how crowded the planes are.” We stopped and waited, surrounded by bustling people, but the only thing I noticed was the tension building between us, and every inch of space between our bodies. “And your father’s health?” he asked a moment later.

I nodded. “Benign. Thanks for asking.”

“Of course.”

Minutes passed in uncomfortable silence and I was more than a bit relieved when I saw his luggage slide down the conveyor belt. We both reached for it at the same time and our hands touched briefly on the handle. Pulling back, I glanced up to find he was watching me.

My stomach dropped at the familiar look of hunger in his eyes. We both muttered apologies and I looked away, but not before noticing the slight smirk on his face. Fortunately, it was time to pick up the rental car, and we headed to the parking garage.

He looked pleased as we approached the luxury rental, a Benz SLS AMG. He loved to drive—well, he loved to drive fast—and I always made a point of ordering something fun for him when he needed a car.

“Very nice, Miss Mills,” he said, his hand sliding along the hood. “Remind me to think about giving you a raise.”

I felt the familiar desire to punch him spread through my body and it calmed me. Everything was so much clearer when he was being an outright douche.

Pressing the button to release the trunk I gave him a reproachful look and stepped aside for him to put his things away. He took off his jacket and handed it to me. I shoved it into the trunk.

“Careful,” he admonished.

“I’m not a bellhop. Put your own damn coat away.”

He laughed and bent to lift his suitcase. “Christ, I’d just wanted you to hold it for a moment.”

“Oh.” With cheeks flushed at my overreaction, I reached in and grabbed the coat, smoothing it over my arm. “Sorry.”

“Why do you always assume I’m being a jerk?”

“Because you usually are?”

With another laugh, he hoisted the suitcase into the trunk. “You must have missed me a lot.”

I started to answer but got distracted instead watching the muscles of his back tighten his shirt as he placed his luggage in the trunk next to mine. Up close, I saw that the dress shirt had a subtle gray print and was tailored to fit his broad shoulders and narrow waist without any extra fabric bunching anywhere. His pants were dark gray and crisply pressed. I was pretty sure he’d never done his own laundry—and damn, who would blame him when tailored, dry-cleaned clothes made him so completely fuckable?

Stop. Stop!

He closed the trunk with a slam, breaking me out of my daze, and I placed the keys in his waiting hand. He walked over and opened my door, waiting for me to be seated before closing it behind me. Yeah, you’re a real gentleman, I thought.

We drove in silence, the only sound provided by the purr of the engine and the GPS calling out directions to the hotel. I busied myself going over our schedule, trying to ignore the man next to me.

I wanted to look at him, to study his face. I wanted to reach out and touch the slight stubble on his jaw, to tell him to pull over and touch me.

All these thoughts ran through my mind, making it impossible to concentrate on the papers in front of me. The time apart hadn’t lessened his hold over me at all. If anything it made it stronger. I wanted to ask him how the last two weeks had been. I actually wanted to know how he was.

With a sigh, I closed the folder in my lap and turned to look out the window.

We must have passed ocean and navy ships and people on the streets, but I didn’t see a thing. The only thing on my mind was what was inside the car. I felt every movement, every breath. His fingers tapped along the steering wheel. The leather squeaked when he shifted in his seat. His scent filled the closed space and made it impossible to remember why I needed to resist. He completely surrounded me.

I needed to be strong and be my own person, to prove that I controlled my path in life, but every part of me ached to feel him. I needed to regroup at the hotel before this conference, but with him so close, all my best intentions got away from me.

“Are you okay, Miss Mills?” The sound of his voice startled me and I turned to meet his hazel eyes, my stomach fluttering at the intensity behind them. How had I forgotten how long his lashes were?

“We’re here.” He motioned to the hotel, and I was surprised to see I hadn’t even noticed. “Is everything all right?”

“Yeah,” I answered quickly. “Just been a long day.”

“Hmm,” he murmured, continuing to look at me. I saw his gaze flicker to my mouth, and God, I wanted him to kiss me. I missed the command of his mouth on mine, as if there were nothing in the world he wanted more than to taste me. And sometimes, I suspected that might actually be true.

As if drawn to him, I leaned forward in my seat. A hum of electricity buzzed between us, and his gaze flickered back to my eyes. He leaned in to meet me, and I could feel his hot breath against my mouth.

Suddenly my door opened and I jumped back into my seat, shocked to see the valet standing there expectantly, hand outstretched. I stepped out of the car, inhaling the air that wasn’t permeated by his intoxicating scent. The valet took the bags, and Mr. Ryan excused himself to take a phone call while I checked us in.

The hotel was packed with fellow conference attendees, and I saw several familiar faces. I had made plans to meet up with a group of other students in my program sometime on the trip. I waved to a woman I recognized; it would be great to get out with some friends while we were here. The last thing I needed was to sit alone in my hotel room and fantasize about the man down the hall.

After receiving our keys and seeing that the bellhop would take our bags to our rooms, I headed to the lounge in search of Mr. Ryan. The welcome reception was in full swing, and when I scanned the large room I found him standing next to a tall brunette. They stood close together, his head bent slightly as he listened to her.

His head blocked her face from my view, and my eyes narrowed when I noticed her hand reach up and grip his forearm. She laughed at something he’d said and he pulled away slightly, allowing me a better look.

She was beautiful, with shoulder-length, straight dark hair. As I watched, she placed something in his hand and folded his fingers around it. A strange look crossed his face as he bent his head to examine the object in his palm.

You have got to be kidding me. Did she—did she just give him her room key?

I watched for a moment more, and then something inside me snapped as he continued to stare at the key as if he was considering pocketing it. The thought of him looking at someone else with the same intensity, the thought of him wanting someone else at all, made my stomach twist with anger. Before I could stop myself, I was moving across the room until I stood beside them.

I placed my hand on his forearm, and he blinked over to me, a surprised, questioning expression on his face. “Bennett, are you ready to head upstairs?” I asked quietly.

His eyes widened and his mouth opened in shock. I’d never seen him look so utterly at a loss for words.

And then I realized: I’d never said his name before.

“Bennett?” I asked once more, and something flickered across his face. Slowly, the corner of his mouth lifted into a smile and our eyes locked for a moment.

Turning back to her, he smiled indulgently and spoke in a voice so smooth it sent a tremor through me. “Excuse us,” he said, discreetly placing her key back in her hand. “As you can see, I didn’t come here alone.”

The bright pulse of victory in my chest completely overshadowed the horror I should have been feeling. He pressed his warm hand to the small of my back as he led us out of the lounge and down the hall. But the closer we got to the elevators, the more my elation was replaced with something else. I began to panic as I realized how irrationally I had acted.

The reminder of our constant cat-and-mouse game exhausted me. How many times a year did he travel? And how often would he get a room key pressed into his palm? Would I be there every time to pull him back? If I wasn’t, would he happily skip upstairs with someone else?

And, truly, who the fuck did I think I could be to him? I shouldn’t care!

My heart was racing, the sound of my blood rushing in my ears. Three other couples joined us in the elevator, and I prayed I could make it to my room before I exploded. I couldn’t believe what I’d just done. I glanced up to see him wearing a triumphant smirk.

I took a deep breath and tried to remind myself that this was exactly why I needed to stay away. What happened down there was completely out of character for me, and completely unprofessional of both of us in such a public work setting. I wanted to scream at him, to hurt him and enrage him like he had me, but it was getting harder and harder to find the will.

We rode up in tense silence, until the last couple stepped out, leaving us alone. I closed my eyes, just trying to breathe, but of course all I could smell was him. I didn’t want him with someone else, and that feeling was so overwhelming that it took my breath away. And it was terrifying, because if I was to be honest, he could break my heart.

He could break me.

The elevator stopped and with a quiet ding, the doors opened at our floor.

“Chloe?” he prompted, his hand pressed to my back.

I turned, rushing out of the elevator.

“Where are you going?” he shouted after me. I heard his footsteps and knew there was going to be trouble. “Chloe, wait!”

I couldn’t outrun him forever. I wasn’t even sure I wanted to anymore.

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