“Once upon a time, I had everything: money, power, a multimillion-dollar company, a loving family. Well, at least I thought I had everything. Then my parents died, and I found out my whole life was based on a lie. That’s pretty much the moment when I went numb. Told the world to f*** off and went on a bender of epic proportion, just to see how far I could fall before I hit rock-bottom. Now I’m back and all I want in this world is my morning—okay, afternoon—coffee. Then one of my employees has the nerve to call me out for cutting the line at the coffeehouse at the company I own. Sure, I’m a little scruffier than usual, but come on, bitching out the CEO? Not a smart career move. Just who does this smart-mouthed ball-buster think she is? And more important, what do I have to do to get her number?”
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“You’ve led a pretty sheltered life if you think that’s the worst thing that could happen.” His voice was dark, and he said this staring into his cup. But he was way off target.
“My life hasn’t been sheltered,” I told him.
“Tell me,” he said, inviting a complete change in topic.
There were other people in the restaurant, but Hale was so close to my shoulder that our space by the window felt sheltered and intimate. He’d moved close so we could look at my laptop screen together, but it also served to create a shield between us and the rest of the customers. We could talk quietly without being overheard, and the dark soulful eyes staring at me now almost had me wanting to talk. I’d never really talked to anyone about my past, about how I’d grown up, how lonely I’d always been. Delia knew, and that had seemed like enough. But now I had an urge to talk, and it wasn’t a completely uncomfortable feeling.
“Let’s just say my childhood wasn’t textbook,” I tried, watching his face. His eyes were intent on mine, and he leaned into me slightly. I could smell his soap—or his cologne—clean and woodsy. I had the fleeting feeling of being protected again, sheltered by his sheer size, by his dominating presence. I had never—not since I was at least ten years old—had the desire to be taken care of. Uncomfortable suddenly, I cleared my throat and pushed my chair away from him slightly.
My quick movement broke the tension between us and Hale sat up straighter, his face clearing and retaking the passive mask he seemed to wear most of the time. “Fair enough,” he said. “We have that in common.” He didn’t offer anything else, just an edge of anger in his words that surprised me.
“Should we focus, maybe?”
“I’ve been trying,” he said, his voice suddenly lighter. “You keep distracting me, wanting to know everything there is to know about me. Not that I can blame you. I delightful. And interesting.” He pulled the laptop nearer in an exaggerated motion and I couldn’t help but laugh.
“Ha,” I laughed. “I’m distracting you?”
He shot me an indignant look, wide-eyed with those incredible lips pressed primly together. “Yes,” he said. “And I have important work to do here.” He waved a hand at the screen and then turned his attention pointedly toward it.
“Right,” I said, happy to have the air between us less serious suddenly. “Let’s get to it.” I leaned in and explained the first few slides, giving him an idea of the narrative I imagined myself putting with them as I presented. I let my brain turn as I talked, making notes as I thought of important points to hit as I introduced an old technology with a new twist, tried to build the anticipation for my idea. After a moment, I trailed off. Hale wasn’t looking at the screen, he was watching me, and his dark eyes were fixed intently on mine.
“You really are distracting,” he murmured, his voice deep and low. “Everything about you,” he added.