Chapter Thirteen

CHAPTER THIRTEEN

” I wanna feel your touch
It’s burning me like an ember
Pretending is not enough
I wanna feel us together

So I’m giving in
So I’m giving in
To the trouble I’m in”
“Trouble I’m In” Twinbed

*********

Alessa’s internal alarm, which had been developed from years of habitual nightly runs, had just given her pause in her work when her actual phone alarm did sound, alerting her to the time. Six o’clock. Her stomach dropped as she bumbled to quickly switch off the electronic beeping, and gave a guilty glance about the still bustling office. But no one seemed to notice her actions, and so she picked up her purse and dug for the unopened circular package that fit securely in her hand.

Her eyes darted up again as she reassured herself that no one witnessed her pop a pill from the packet. She put it in her mouth and then downed it with her pre-run water. So quickly over, but so jagged going down. And then it was gone, protecting her from the inside.

The first pill down, she grabbed her gym bag and left the office for her run, hoping it would quiet her mind for an hour. But given the preoccupation of her thoughts the past two weeks, she didn’t think it was likely. She walked briskly down the street to her gym, wrapping herself in her jacket to ward off the cold, wet autumn wind.

Just two weeks ago, summer was still clinging to the evening air, but so much had changed since then. She recalled that Sunday evening after she had phoned Denny, asking to speak with him. Just twelve nights ago, she had met him at the bar he had given her directions to, dressed casually in jeans and a few thin layers of shirts and a cardigan.

And though Denny was likewise comfortably dressed, his unwelcoming and guarded countenance made her instantly fear she had destroyed her opportunity. He was seated at a booth, and without any words exchanged, she slid in the opposite side, her eyes finding it difficult to meet his muted gaze. She was about to say something when an older woman came over asking for her order. She stuttered a vodka rocks, calling to mind the drink Macrae had ordered. Denny raised an eyebrow, but said nothing.

When they were again alone, she finally braved breaching the silence. “Thanks for meeting me.” He only nodded once. All afternoon she had worked at constructing an elegant and humble speech, but suddenly her eloquent monologue fell out of her head, all the words crumbling into jumbled nonsense, and so she blurted, “I’ve reconsidered.”

He gave her a questioning look that she read as a confused request for an explanation.

“As hard as it is to admit, you were right,” she began with a bitter swallow. “I realize that I’m…I’m stuck and missing out on a full life. A life that I want.”

Denny’s expression was slowly morphing into guarded interest. “And what led to this epiphany?”

Alessa pursed her lips together and shrugged an uncomfortable shoulder. “Does it matter? Let’s just say lots of things have happened lately, made me start thinking.”

Denny narrowed his eyes at her, ever the hound sniffing for the last morsel of truth. “But what changed from this morning when you were so adamant about moving on to three this afternoon when you called asking to talk?”

Thankfully, she was momentarily saved by the waitress bringing over her drink with the slice of lime. Alessa took it and swallowed a giant gulp before giving a dramatic gasp. Denny only smirked at her reaction. When the burn of the straight alcohol dissolved away, he nudged her with his foot under the table and then gestured with his head for her answer.

“Mr. Schecter invited me to his home for lunch today,” she admitted finally, watching Denny’s slowly growing reaction. “He asked if I would be interested in dating his son.”

“But you turned him down, right?” he concluded. “Why? At the very least, it would have gotten you your advancement,” he observed rather cruelly. “Plus, David’s a great guy. Who knows, you might have liked him.” He took a swig of his beer.

Though she glared at him, he could see the hurt in her eyes. “I’ve already told you, that’s not how I want to get ahead.”

There was silence between them as she pushed back the cuticle on her thumb while trying to dissect her own response to Mr. Schecter’s offer and the compulsion to call Denny. It wasn’t easy to put all the thoughts and feelings into words, but she tried, understanding on some level that she would have to if she was to ever stop lying to herself. “And any way, even if I had been interested in dating his son or Hyun-Joong, or anyone else, I couldn’t. Not really, not with any success. Not as tied up and held down as I am.” And then she looked up at him and gave him the one certainty she knew. “You see, I can’t keep fighting the truth: I need you.”

There was a flash in his eyes of fiery intensity, but it eventually quelled into a subdued gloat. And then before she could say anything, Denny cut in. “I don’t know,” he began slowly, sitting back and stretching his arm out casually along the top of his booth, before looking nonchalantly out at the bar. “This has already taken so much of my time, and now that I’ve had a chance to think about it, I’m not so sure I have the patience for a strong-headed, uptight control freak. Not even for one who can kiss as well as you.”

Alessa tensed under his insult before she caught the sly, half smile he gave as he cut his playful eyes back at her.

Her glower was tinged with amusement. “I see. And here you had me fooled into believing you were a thoughtful, considerate gentleman capable of single-handedly bringing back chivalry. I’m glad to discover you’re just a cowardly, dirty-minded weakling before it was too late.” She wasn’t exactly fighting a smile, but Denny could see the fleeting relief of humor in her eyes.

At last he sat forward, putting his arms on the table. “Well, if you put it that way, I guess I’d better give it the ol’ college try. After all, I couldn’t bear the guilt of failing as the last hope for chivalry.” He gave her a warm smile and she too responded in kind as the tension began to bend and break.

But the ease couldn’t last as they stared at each other with so much left unresolved. Alessa finished off her stringent drink before getting down to business. “So what is your plan?”

“For what?”

“You know for what. For us. Given how you were going on about my deeply flawed outlook last night, I’m fairly certain you have a strategy to fix me, right?” she asked, an edge of vexation creeping in her voice.

Denny eyed her with a playful smile. “My plan is just to date you. To be with you every conceivable free moment of our lives, and do every inconceivable thing to you.”

Her cheeks blazed red as she looked away, though the flush could have been attributed to the alcohol. “That seems like a little much,” she muttered, an eyebrow raised.

“But it’s exactly what you need,” he concluded confidently.

“For how long? I mean, what if I want out? What if I can’t handle it, or what if I just don’t like you as much as I thought? Or you get tired of me?”

He took her hand, drawing her uncertain gaze to him. “Sweetheart, this sort of attraction doesn’t fade. It’s deep and real. All we have to do is respond to it.” He could see her discomfort at his claim and so laid out parameters that might make the situation more manageable for her. “Give me a year. Give yourself a year to learn how to respond, to learn what it feels to be happy because of someone else, to need someone else, to fight with someone and then make up after. Give yourself time.”

But she was still tense as she considered it. “A year?” she questioned doubtfully “Why a year?”

In all honesty, it was just the first amount of time that he had thought of without much reason other than it seemed long enough to make her fall for him, so his clever brain scrambled to come up with something plausible. “Because I don’t want to rush you. I don’t want to throw you into something I know you’re afraid of. Plus, each new season, each new month brings something novel that hadn’t been there before. There’s something about being with someone through the holidays, and on Valentine’s and through the spring and the summer. It’s long enough to grow and short enough to fly faster than you would have thought.”

She looked at him speculatively. “I’ll make it the best year of your life,” he promised. But she didn’t capitulate immediately. “This is what you want, right?” he guided.

“Yes, at least I think so, but it scares me.”

“That you’ll be disappointed?”

But that wasn’t everything. “Maybe.”

“Then that’s just something we’ll have to address when we get there. Though, given how it feels between us, I’d bet my last dollar that you won’t be.” His smile was warming, tempting, melting just a little of her apprehension.

In some ways, she struggled with the prospect of relinquishing her autonomy, hiding behind arguments of equality and independence and the perception it was all so pathetic to rely upon him. But deep down she knew that wasn’t reality. As uncomfortable as the arrangement was, Denny was her guide, and like on any tour, it was the guide who knew the way. And so she had promised him a year to plan their time together as he saw best, agreeing to cooperate with him.

Alessa had made it to the gym and was finally on the treadmill, but even as her feet pounded fast on the machine, she couldn’t stop thinking about Denny and their first two weeks together. The first item on his agenda had been for them to meet with Macrae the following morning to fully disclose their relationship with the firm. At first, Alessa had adamantly refused, stating she didn’t want anyone to know. After all, she didn’t want anyone to have reason to attribute her success to the fact she was sleeping with her boss. But Denny insisted it was a requirement of both their employment contracts, and he wasn’t going to jeopardize either of their careers by simply failing to follow protocol.

With little other choice, Alessa walked bravely into Macrae’s office, her mien cool and distant. Macrae didn’t miss the twinkle in Denny’s eyes, though he didn’t smile outright. Jude offered a chair to both the junior employees before taking her own seat on the other side of her smooth birch desk.

“How can I help you, Denny?” she asked, though she had no doubt the slick little bastard had finally succeeded.

“Ms. Macrae, we are here to officially notify management that we are a consensual couple.”

“Is that right?” she asked slowly. Her gaze slid to Alessa.

Though her question was more rhetorical than anything, Alessa could feel the pressure of Jude’s gaze and the responding urge to press back. “Yes, that is correct. Mr. Ashbury and I are interested in dating one another. And as it is our responsibility to disclose our relationship, we thought it best to do it this morning,” she explained succinctly, if a little needlessly.

Macrae wondered about the hesitation she saw in Alessa’s eyes. “Completely consensual?” She refused to look at Denny, certain he was smirking at her.

Alessa seemed taken aback, her eyes wide for a moment before she deftly hid her discomfort. “Yes, of course.”

“You understand why we make you disclose your relationship, right? To avoid accusations of harassment weeks or months or years after the relationship goes to pot,” Macrae informed her bluntly.

“Yes, I’m aware,” Alessa answered, feeling as though she were in the principal’s office for misbehaving.

“Then I’m to advise you that the protocol for terminating a relationship and actions to take if said relationship becomes hostile in nature are in your employee handbook, and if you ever have any questions, you are to speak directly with me. Understood?”

Alessa nodded, but Denny responded with a smug, “Of course.”

Macrae watched the two for a minute more, noting that Alessa seemed to struggle to ignore him, as though he weren’t even present.

“And I’m sure you also understand, as delineated in your contract, that if you do engage in a relationship, one of you will need to be transferred to a different department. We can’t have your relationship interfere with our work. And as you hold less seniority and nowhere near the clients, Alessa, you will be moved.”

“Wait. What?” Alessa asked sharply, looking to Denny with a scowl. “No. I don’t want to be transferred.”

Macrae’s sculpted eyebrow shot up.

“I am exactly where I want to be, doing exactly the sort of work I want to be doing.” Alessa argued. “I’ve worked long and extremely hard to get here, and I shouldn’t have to give up the career of my choice just to be with the man of–” but she caught herself before she said anything too telling. “In order to have the personal life I choose,” she patched.

“You do understand you can’t be supervised by the man you’re sleeping with?”

“I’m not sleeping with anyone,” she defended, though her stomach gave a little swoop as she recognized it was only a matter of time.

Before Macrae could return, Denny spoke up. “What if Alessa stayed in my department but we reassigned the role of her indirect supervisor and annual performance reviewer to another junior partner? That way, she can continue the work she wishes and I have no direct impact on any promotion she’s likely to receive. After all, her talents uniquely qualify her to work with our clients in the Asian markets, and we are quite a good team,” he added with a smile. “It would be a detriment to the firm to change anyone’s placement at this time.”

Macrae eyed him shrewdly. She wasn’t falling for his reasoning, knowing full well he only wanted to keep Alessa close to him. However, she also agreed with his assessment of the rightness of Alessa’s placement in his department. The girl had thus far been an undeniable asset with all the cases she had handled. Though it was likely she would be an asset anywhere, Macrae admitted there was no reason to make her unhappy in her work if an arrangement could be made to lessen the favoritism and avoid the drama of an interoffice romance.

“Very well, I’ll assign Kenneth or Rebecca, perhaps, to perform the annual review for Alessa. But that doesn’t excuse the two of you from the responsibility to comport yourselves in the utmost professional manner at all times. If either one of you causes even a hint of drama that disrupts the workings of this office, you will be terminated. Any harassment, any inappropriate behavior during office hours, any creation of a hostile environment by either making all the men jealous that she’s taken or any women grumbling because she’s sleeping her way to the top, and you will have serious consequences to deal with, including hitting the pavement for another job. Am I understood?” she asked brutally, her smooth guile replaced with a drill sergeant’s directness.

Denny was all ease, but Alessa sat straight, her slim hands folded in her lap. She nodded eagerly, wanting a scandal the least of anyone, and made silent prayers that this relationship wouldn’t be the undoing of her professional life.

“Very well,” Macrae said at last, apparently satisfied that all the necessary aspects were covered. She stood to usher them out. Alessa, eager to be free of the embarrassment of what essentially was a lecture to not let sex interfere with her work, scuttled from her chair, gave one quick fleeting look at Jude, and walked swiftly from the room. Denny slowly trailed, his hands in his pockets. When Alessa was gone from sight, he turned back to his superior.

Macrae had expected a smirk, but was rewarded with a calm, pleasant expression instead. “Took you long enough,” she dug. Resentful.

“It’s not a dash, Macrae. Love is an endless marathon. You give it all the time it needs.”

“Love,” she said derisively. “What do you know about love?”

“Enough to recognize it when it slams into my chest.” He tipped his head at her and strolled out of her office, leaving her behind to eye him speculatively.

Late Tuesday evening, Alessa was in the library finishing research for a senior partner when Denny walked up, and she was awash with emotion. It was different now when she saw him, gentle feelings of ownership and belonging shaping the reactions of interest and attraction and arousal that before she had always wrestled against. Now that she was officially dating him, she had to remind herself that it was okay to be attracted to him, to return his flirting banter, to allow his body to slip distractingly close to hers. There were moments she still felt flighty or nervous, but always so curious as to his next move.

“Hey, Sweetheart, finishing up?”

And it was still a struggle to not ward off his familiarity with hostility or ice-capped distance as he had once called it. But each time she readjusted her mind-set to welcome instead of shun his attentions, the feeling was less foreign and more natural.

“Yes, actually. Just need to reshelve these few volumes.” She stood, gathering the papers she had copied and taken notes on into a pile, before collecting the five thick books.

“Here, let me help you with that,” he offered instantly, stepping forward to take three of the books. Her eyes flittered up to his and she gave him thankful smile. They were silent as they walked down the narrow aisles, finding the empty spaces for their books.

Alessa’s last book belonged on the very top shelf, which was too high for even her tall stature. The short stool that she had first used to retrieve it was still there, and so stepping up, she stretched high, sliding the book into place.

“Careful,” Denny murmured as his hands slid onto her hips to keep her steady. Alessa immediately tensed a moment before she willed her body to turn to him and step down. Though her feet were safely on the floor, he didn’t release his protective hold on her. He peered down at her, his eyes roving over her face, eventually stopping at her lips. She involuntarily tightened them, drawing them protectively in.

“You know,” he commented, “I haven’t kissed you today, even though I thought of nothing else,” he murmured, his head dipping to hers at last.

Her stomach tightened in anticipation, but unlike all the stolen kisses before, Alessa knew she was absolved of the need for protestations. After all, they were to be lovers, and lovers kissed. So she only braced herself for the swell of arousal that always accompanied his mouth upon hers, the intoxicating taste of his tongue, the answer to her need just out of reach.

Alessa presented herself to his gentle onslaught, moving her lips as he guided, opening her mouth for his stroking tongue. At the first flick of his against hers, her breath hitched, and then she slowly began to move in concert with him, her mouth, her slanting head, even her feet compelled her to surrender, shifting and stepping a whisper closer so that they were straddled by his.

In her wild and paradoxical existence, Alessa struggled to allow in just enough of the pleasure he offered without being swept away by the strong current. It was as if he created a sea of sensation, and her task was to mind the dam, letting in only the smallest amount while holding back the rest of the ocean. As a result of the monumental endeavor within her, she rarely left her worrisome thoughts too far behind.

As she was musing the irony that she was thinking about how she thought too much, the shelf cut across her back and Denny pressed himself intimately against her. He cupped her face and spoke into her mouth as he kissed her, his rough voice sending little sparks of pleasure through her.

“We have an appointment tomorrow.”

Addled as she was, it was more than a minute before realized he had spoken. “Appointment? For a case?” she mumbled back against his roving lips.

“No. At the clinic.” He continued kissing her without further explanation, and when she pulled back, he simply kept himself occupied by moving down her neck.

“Clinic?” He hummed affirmatively against her skin, eliciting a shiver down her spine in response. “What clinic? What for?”

“For us. To get tested.”

Alessa slowly froze against him. Denny reluctantly lifted his face from her neck. His fingers were sweeping a few stray strands of her hair from her temple before he placed a pacifying kiss there.

“What’s the matter?” he asked softly, though he knew the answer.

“Tested? As in a blood test? For…STDs?”

He nodded gently. “It’s important to not have any unresolved barriers between us. That reminds me, you should probably set up an appointment with you doctor,” he suggested, again in a casual and unaffected manner.

Alessa was still reeling from the reality that sexual intercourse was imminent, that she would soon be sharing body fluids with another human, and so was slow to understand his meaning. “My doctor?” Denny was fascinated by her disoriented response to the conversation. “What for?”

He smiled wickedly as he leaned in to growl in her ear, “Because when I fuck you, I want to come inside you. Without a condom.”

Alessa’s cheeks instantly pinkened and her breath caught. He started placing warm kisses below her ear and along her jaw line and neck as he continued arousing her with his words. “Can’t you imagine what it will feel like from the inside? To feel every inch of me so deep inside you that you don’t know where you end and I begin? Don’t you want me to fill you up when I come?”

His lips were grazing her ear, his hot breath causing her to shiver. “No condoms, Sweetheart.” And then he was stealing her breath once more, pulling the life right out of her. When he eventually broke away, they were both breathing harshly, his forehead resting against hers. “I don’t know how much longer I can wait,” he confessed, his voice raw as he stroked her hair back. “Go to the doctor. This week if you can. Okay?”

Though apprehension was thick in her gut, she nodded, no other reply coming to mind.

Late the following afternoon, Alessa found herself sitting stiffly next to him as he thumbed through a report for one of his cases. She too had brought work to the clinic, but unlike him, she had no capacity to think of anything in the sterile environment. That all their physical intimacy should be founded on clinical procedures made a dispassionate whiteness settle cold and heavy inside, a second-guessing, surreal disconnect.

The night before she had lain disquietly in bed, tossing and unrestful. It had begun to surface gradually, the vague notion that she was his experiment, merely a woman he wished to sleep with, a challenging psychology project to rehabilitate, much like a traumatized pit bull. She accepted that whatever relationship he planned on building with her, it wasn’t quite real, just practice, just a case study. And somehow, that belief provided a layer of protection around her heart, a framework to distance herself just enough. In spite of the unacknowledged sting. She continued to wrestle the confluence of such pulling and uneasy thoughts instead of looking at the files on her lap.

But then his hand, which had been draped around the back of her chair, was running along the her neck, up and down, pacifying her anxiety without the light banter that she would have thought characteristic of him. She looked at him, but his eyes were roving over the pages before him, his hand seemingly acting of its own volition. And for a moment, she felt the sharpness leave her stomach, the cold knot melt as her eyes closed and she focused on the newly appreciated pleasure of another touching her.

And then his name was called by the round woman in dowdy scrubs, and blinking at the disturbance, she watched him pack his things and disappear behind the closing white door, leaving her to uphold the weight of all the things in her head in the cold, white room. Eventually it was her turn, and when all the violating samples had been collected and she was freed to leave, Denny was waiting for her. In silence they drove back to the office, where she said her dinner and a ton of files awaited her.

Denny left her to get as much of her work done as possible, but when he was headed out at ten and saw her desk lamp on, he walked over, expecting to find her busy with some report. Her fingers were clacking rapidly on the keys, but when he was within eye shot, he saw it wasn’t a document she was typing. His surprise was evident in his voice.

“Is that Mario Brothers?”

His abrupt question made her jump, before she slammed the lid of her laptop closed and spun around to face him. “Don’t do that!” she admonished breathlessly.

She was clearly surprised, but he was more interested in the fact that his straight-laced, bookish girl played video games. “Open that back up,” he instructed, pulling an adjacent chair around to sit next to her.

“Denny, I–”

“Don’t argue, Alessa, and just do it.” He had briefly wondered when she would simply begin to comply instead of automatically raising an objection to everything.

With an uncomfortable reluctance, she opened her laptop back up and signed back on. Her screen was flashing with a paused game.

“It is Mario brothers,” he said with a grin full of wonder. “I wouldn’t have thought you would waste your time with this sort of thing.”

“I don’t consider it wasting my time,” she defended. “It’s just a break to free my mind a moment.”

“So you’re not a gamer?” he teased.

Though she rolled her eyes, he saw her smile. “Hardly.”

“I think I remember this game. From the first Gameboy, right? I didn’t realize you could play it on the computer.”

She shrugged. “It’s not the greatest quality, but it’s kinda fun, you know, reminiscing.”

“Okay, Allen, I challenge.” When she frowned and made a confused sound he expounded. “Me. You. This game. Top score in five minutes wins.” He turned to look at her thoughtfully, a devilish gleam in his eyes. “But what to wager?”

But she balked. “Denny, I really have to get back to work. I was just about to stop any way.”

“Nonsense,” he countered, not allowing her to miss an opportunity to spend a little fun time with him. “It’s past ten, unless you have something due first thing in the a.m., you should stop. And don’t argue,” he cut her off. “If you won, what would you like?” he offered, luring her in.

She studied him a moment, her features tinged with apprehension. Denny saw an answer flitter across her eyes before she contained her expression and shook her head. “Nothing. Just to be left alone to get my work finished,” she answered, turning back to her desk.

“What did I say about lying?” Denny asked lowly as he leaned in, his voice dropping in pitch until it vibrated through the pit of her stomach.

She couldn’t look at him immediately, but when she finally gathered her courage, she turned her flushed face to him. “My feet hurt from these heels,” she supplied honestly. A small smile curved the corners of his mouth as he tilted his head in question. She breathed deeply before finishing her request. “I want a foot massage,” she forced out.

Denny didn’t smile, but Alessa could see the pleasure there all the same. “Very well, we wager your foot massage against my neck massage.”

“Time?”

“Five minutes per foot, ten minutes total on neck, and we better make that shoulders, too.” There was a pause before she gave a single, conceding nod.

“Okay. Best score in five minutes.”

“Deal. And since you’ve been playing, and I don’t remember this game very well, I reserve the right to go second.”

“Fine,” she agreed and turned to restart the level. Over the next five minutes, Denny’s attention was split between making mental notes of obstacles and appearances of villains and watching Alessa’s expressive face as she concentrated at the keyboard, her eyes glued to the screen, her bottom lip caught between her teeth. He chuckled a few times when she made a mistake, her nose crinkling in disappointment. At the end of her run, he admitted he had quite a challenge ahead of him, and despite the competitive nature that cringed at the prospect of being beaten by a girl, his desire to freely touch any part of her body consoled him greatly.

In the end, he fell short by several thousand points, and with a great sigh, reclined back in his chair. When he looked over at her, he was surprised by the excitement she barely seemed to contain. She was biting her smiling lips, and her body was nearly humming. And then she cracked the first, gloriously youthful smile he had ever seen. She struggled to hide her glee, but failed, and on impulse, he congratulated her by grasping the back of her neck and leaning forward to kiss her full on the mouth.

When Denny pulled back, her smile had melted to apprehensive uncertainty, which she attempted to recover from by clearing her throat and looking back at her computer. Though he wasn’t quite certain why, there was something decidedly delicious about her startled responses that made him ravenous.

“I suppose to the winner go the spoils. Massage?” he asked.

She shook her head. “I’m not really in the mood for one right now. Besides, I think a foot massage at the office would fall under one of those behaviors Macrae warned us against.”

“Nonsense, you wanted a foot massage because your feet hurt now. And to hell with Macrae. No one else is here.”

“I’d rather not,” she continued to argue, still not looking at him.

“Too bad, all prizes must be claimed at time of winnings.”

“A. that wasn’t part of the original deal, and b. if that is the case, then I’d rather just forget about it altogether.”

“That’s not happening,” Denny stated, disallowing her attempt to avoid the mild intimacy. “In fact, I think we should go into my office, shut the door, and you should let me reward you properly.”

Her stiffening body language clearly stated that was at the limit of her comfort, and so, before she could deny him outright, he stood and, taking her by the hand, pulled her with him.

“Denny, what are you planning?” she asked nervously.

“Only rewarding you, my little gamer.”

“Yes, but how exactly?”

“With my hands.”

Alessa took a deep breath as he guided her into his office and closed the door behind them. With a flick of his wrist, the privacy shade rolled down, covering his wall of windows facing the office. For a moment it was dark, and then a light at the opposite side of the couch went on, casting him in gold and shadow.
“Come,” he invited.

She was still uncertain about the entire notion, preferring to not engage in any type of intimate act, let alone in the office when they had been specifically warned against it. But perhaps she could keep him to only a ten minute foot massage and then could make her excuses and leave before anything got out of control.

She sat warily and then watched him position himself at the opposite end of the couch. His body was angled to hers and he held open his hands, obviously indicating she was to lay from one end and rest her feet on his lap at the other. Gingerly, she turned herself, bringing her feet up as she kicked off her black heels. Thankfully, she was wearing black stockings, offering at least a veiling coverage.

But to Denny, the shapely legs that had been his long-held obsession were finally stretched out before him, and dressed in the sexy, black hose he thought the scene was anything but modest. He kept his approval to himself, knowing it would only make her self-conscious, if not right out refuse the offered massage. He found her feet cool, but not ice cold, and felt a whiskey-burn in his gut as his fingers finally touched her.

Alessa was tense as she felt the first graze of his fingertips making the initial contact, somewhere between a tickle and an itch. But then his teasing fingers trailed around to her arch and applied more pressure, effectively digging in to the aching places. Within seconds, she was melting under his masterful hands that rubbed the ache and pain away and replaced them with warmth and pleasure.

Though it was perhaps a dangerous position to be in, she couldn’t help the closing of her eyes as her body flooded with the delicious sensation of his massaging hands. It had been ages since she’d had a proper foot massage, maybe over four months since the last time she’d taken Cadence to get pedicures as a reward for her spring track season. And now, to have such pleasure gifted from another human, her defenses were melting fast. Each deep stroke created a glowing pleasure to wave through her.

Denny’s strong fingers even worked the sides of her feet and up onto her ankles, manipulating the often tight tendons developed from her nightly runs. And then his firm fingers were on her shins, kneading the small ancillary muscles alongside the bone before wrapping around to the back to dig deeply into her calves, hitting small knots here and there, pushing and circling to release the built-up tension.

She had never realized how stiff the tissue around her knees was before his fingers were there, rubbing loose all the tightness until her skin could glide over the hidden structures freely. And how had she neglected the sides of her thighs, she pondered, as his hands found the tight bands there and pressed firmly to glide up and up.

And then Alessa’s head snapped up as her hands grasped his when she felt his fingertips hit the edge of her skirt that had ridden up her legs.

“That’s not my foot,” she husked out in alarm.

“No, but I bet it would do you little good for just a foot massage if we neglected the rest of you,” he murmured, his eyes never leaving her legs.

Alessa watched him for a few heartbeats. “Stay out of my skirt,” she warned as her hands slowly released their grip.

His mouth did a conceding twist, as if indicating he could work with that, and so she lowered her head back to the arm rest, but kept a watchful eye on him. Still focusing on her legs, he resumed his massage, pushing in deeply to the supple flesh. When he was satisfied with the tight band down the sides, his hands moved to the tops, pressing no longer with the heel of his hand, but squeezing with his fingertips.

Though her muscles were melting like butter under his ministrations, the touch was becoming decidedly more erotic and she thought more than once she should stop him. And then she felt the edge of her skirt catch on his fingers and move up her thighs, exposing the tops of her stockings and the straps of her garter belt.

Again her hands caught his, and when Denny finally looked up at her, her breath stopped and some deep part of her liquefied.

“You said to stay out of your skirt. You didn’t say anything about moving it out of the way.”

“Denny,” she warned, but couldn’t quite muster a firm rebuke.

“Trust me,” he whispered. At length her grasp loosened again, but her hands never left his. He began to slowly rub her again, the skin of his fingers finally meeting the skin of her thighs. He squeezed and kneaded the silky flesh, moving up her legs and closer to the juncture there, all the while her hands stayed atop his. He assumed it was to stop him if need be, but there was something absolutely erotic about her hands on his as he touched her.

At last his hands lay at the tops of her legs, his thumbs stroking her skin just under her bunched up skirt. He knew he was close as he could feel the large tendon of her inner thighs that connected to her pubic bone. So close, he could feel heat spilling from her core. He felt the slight tremble of her legs under his hands.

She was watching him, her eyes half-closed but wary, her mouth opened slightly, her breath kicking out a wisp of her hair with each rough exhalation. She wasn’t ready, he realized that. He didn’t want her to just feel good, he wanted her to crave it, to demand it.

He wanted her ravenous.

And so he kept his touch relatively tame, only stroking to fan embers, to soothe discomfort with the intimacy, but not press his advantage. And after a time, she seemed to calm under him, even her hips with the slightest of undulation gave her away.

He pinched the edge of her skirt and pulled it back down to cover the top of those fucking sexy stockings.

“I’d say that’s been your ten minutes,” he said, trying for levity but the huskiness of his voice betrayed him. “Let me take you home,” he asked, siting up from between her thighs.

Alessa watched distraught as he righted his appearance, rolled down his sleeves, straightened his black suspenders and stood ready to leave.

“I think I can manage,” she said, swinging her legs off the couch and slipping on her heels. She was embarrassed with how easily he aroused her, how close she was to giving in.

“Not doubting your capability to look after yourself. I simply want to do something nice for you. And I want to see you home safely.”

“I’d rather not,” she murmured, standing. She was striding away from him, intent on going back to her desk and gathering her things, when a hand grasped her about the arm and swung her around. She looked up shocked as she nearly collided with his chest.

“Stop arguing,” he instructed tersely a split second before his mouth landed on hers. His lips instantly slanted over hers and his tongue was there, stroking for admittance. Aroused as she had been, Alessa put up little resistance and allowed him to overwhelm her. When he pulled away, he growled, “Now, get your things, I’m taking you home.” He pecked her once more and turned her to send her off. She blinked in irritation at how easy it was for him to get his way. Though, as she went to do as bid, she wondered what was wrong with his way.

On the drive to her place, Denny tried to make tentative plans for both of them over the weekend. She didn’t know if she was grateful for the out or not, but she declined stating she had plans to go to Walnut Creek to spend time with her mother. He spontaneously reached out to hold her hand. She didn’t know how to interpret the action and so remained quiet as he brought it to his mouth to kiss it. He then asked to keep the next weekend opened for him.

Her immunity to him must have been building, because, though swirls swept through her stomach, she recovered enough to fake disinterest and state she would have to confer with her calendar. He only chuckled and kissed her hand again, before resting them together on the console between them.

He texted her throughout Saturday and Sunday, sharing random tidbits from his days, asking her questions that made her think, or giggle, or roll her eyes. It was her fifth text Sunday morning when her mother, Eileen, finally asked, “Who are you texting that keeps making you smile?”

They were laying on her mother’s bed, both full from the delicious breakfast Alessa had made her. Though she offered her mother a smoothie with plenty of veggies, Eileen had opted for Belgian waffles with homemade maple syrup instead. Alessa was dressed in baggy gray sweatpants, a white tank and a loose, unbuttoned plaid flannel shirt. She looked up from her phone, her smile dimming. She instantly tucked it under her leg on the other side of her and looked at the TV.

“No one. Just someone from work.”

“Really? A male someone from work?” Eileen pried.

Alessa attempted a disagreeing smile that came out more like a grimace. “A friend. I told you about Rachel Louise, Lou, right? Well, she was the one who helped me with my hair and makeup for the party,” she replied, still not looking at her mother, seemingly distracted by the cooking show. Eileen’s eyes were skeptical, but she didn’t push the matter further, understanding her daughter had secrets that weren’t easily prized from her.

Her weekend with her mother was over too quickly; it had been nearly a month since she had made the twenty-five mile drive out to see her. And as Eileen wasn’t feeling well, they had spent the majority of the time in her cluttered, tiny room, much to Alessa’s relief, and out of the company of Bill.

It seemed either fitting or unfair that her mother’s health was failing and yet her misery should be compounded by marriage to a creep and an unhealthy attachment to crap. Her bedroom was beginning to look like a hoarder’s, and every time Alessa offered to help clean it up, Eileen only made some slightly irritated excuse that she simply didn’t have enough storage for everything.

And so she left Sunday afternoon with something of a burden in her heart, a vague notion twisting in her gut that somehow her mother’s life would have been different, better, if her father hadn’t left. But she didn’t know if she believed that anymore. It was at least the fifth time she had checked her phone for a text that she decided to be the first and contact him.

Alessa: Staying busy?

Denny: Just about to make dinner. Gotta keep a hungry boy fed

How was your mom?

Alessa:What have you been doing to make you so hungry?

Fine. We just hung out.

Denny:Went out on the sailboat. Got rained on, but then the sun came out. Nice. Lots of hard work, but worth it. I should take you out soon.

I’m sure she was happy to see you. You work too much 

Alessa: Not likely

And don’t make me feel worse than I do

Denny:To which part?

Alessa:All of it actually

Denny:Why do you feel bad?

And I will get you out there. It’s too beautiful to not at least TRY once.

Alessa:She’s not really feeling well, so we sit in her room and just watch movies and talk. Its good quality time, but I wish she didn’t feel so bad and that she could do more with her life.

Sorry to overshare.

Just depressed.

I should go for a run.

See you tomorrow

Alessa snarled at the plethora of unsolicited texts she had unloaded on him. Pathetic, she berated herself and then went to change into her running gear, despite the waning evening light. She ran fast, knowing her time would be short, and when she arrived back at her place thirty minutes later, there was a car in the drive.

It was Denny.

She walked up to his window and knocked. He rolled down the window.

“What are you doing here?”

“You never answered my texts.”

She frowned. “I went running, I told you. I turn notifications off so they don’t bother me.”

“Well, I wanted to cheer you up,” he explained, opening his door. She took a step back and watched him pull a paper sack out. “I brought food. I thought we could do dinner together.”

She blinked. “You’re kinda pushy, you know that?”

“Yeah, but I think I’m exactly what you need,” he quipped with a cocky grin. “Come on, show me your pad.”

Fighting a smile, Alessa rolled her eyes and turned to lead him up the stairs to her apartment. Denny was unsurprised to find it clean and clutter free, wondering if she owned anything but the bare furniture, her wardrobe and the books on the one bookshelf. The space was rather self-explanatory, with little separation between the living, dining, and bedroom, only the furniture in each section designating its function. A kitchen was to the back left, and her bathroom around a nook out of sight.

“This is it,” she stated, a note of uncertainty in her voice.

He glanced once about the white-washed space, noting little color but plenty of variety of texture. “It’s nice. It’s you.”

She eyed him as if she wasn’t quite certain how to take his remark and then held out her arm to gesture to the kitchen. She followed behind and watched him unload a bunch of spinach, bell peppers, mushrooms, sausage, eggs and a baguette.

“Omelet?” she guessed.

“I thought it’d be an easy whip up,” he explained. She nodded and then watched a little uneasy, a little surprised at how easily he found his way around her efficient kitchen, pulling cutting boards, knives, skillets, oil, and seasonings from the many hidden crannies.

“Wanna help me cut while I get the sausage going?”

She only nodded before washing her hands and then began to dice her way through the produce. They worked in companionable silence as they each went about their respective tasks, and before long, had compiled two delicious looking omelets.

They each took a plate and started for a seat, but Denny paused in his march as Alessa passed the small dining table and headed for the overstuffed couch, and then slid to the floor, leaning her back against it. He cocked a grin and joined her.

“Oh, the wine,” he said suddenly, and hopped up to retrieve it. He brought back two glasses, handing her one. And then they were silent again.

“This is pretty good,” she commented, the beginnings of a smile on her lips. “They’re so fluffy.”

Denny nodded taking another bite. “Gotta whip them really well, get loads of air in there.” After a pause, he opted for conversation. “So your weekend was okay?”

She shrugged a shoulder. “Well, like I said, we didn’t do anything. Which, in a way, was nice to be able to decompress given…last week,” she cast him a sideways glance and suppressed a rising blush.

He nodded in understanding. “But it’s hard.”

She nodded. “It’s hard.”

“She’s sick?”

Her answers were slowing in coming. “Yeah. She has an autoimmune disease. Lupus,” she said with a lilt in her voice, wondering if he’d heard of it.

“Are you asking me or telling me?” he teased.

She chuckled. “No. Just curious if you know anything about it.”

“No, not really,” he admitted.

“Well, it’s no fun. She has really bad inflammation throughout her body, especially her joints. Gets bad headaches that last for days. Her tendons get all irritated, so she can’t really move too much. And then she just has pretty severe chronic pain. Maybe not unbearable all the time, though it can be, but she’s in some amount of pain all the time, as in never not hurting somewhere.”

“Sound pretty rough.” Again there was silence, Alessa unsure what, if anything, should be said further about it. “So, it gets you down, seeing her like that,” he observed.

She nodded, finishing the last bite of her omelet. “And you know, I want to spend time with her, but we just stay cooped up in that room, and we talk about how she feels, and what the doctors are doing and when her next appointment is,” all the while cramped in that room surrounded by all that crap, she groaned inwardly.

Her knees were drawn up now, her arms around them and her chin resting thoughtfully on top. And then she felt an arm circle around her, pulling her into his side. “Sorry,” he murmured, placing a kiss at her temple. Her response at first was stiff, but he noted with some amount of satisfaction that she quickly relaxed into him, not fighting his hold.

Eventually, he was able to move them up to the fat couch where he stretched out and pulled her on top of him. As expected, she had a moment of objection, but his strong arm and gentle words were enough to gain her compliance. As she lay against his chest, her ear listening to his heart beat, he told her about his cousins back in Texas and the many misadventures they prodded one another into. He revealed he was named for the town of Denton where his father was from, that his favorite color was a cool jade, that he frequently flew in his dreams, and he did regret not designing buildings for a living.

They awoke in the early hours of the morning with a start, neither knowing who jolted first or at what time in the previous evening they had fallen asleep. Either way, Denny got up to leave, kissing her sweetly before he departed. She watched him walk for the door, wishing he would stay, but knowing she wouldn’t ask. And so she locked the door behind him and checked the time. As it was only four-thirty, she plugged in her dead phone and crawled into bed for another hour and half.

That Monday morning started out frantically, and she instantly regretted not arriving at the office before seven-thirty. There was an error in one of the reports she had sent to a senior partner, to which she had to explain herself and come up with a solution on the spot while standing in his office. Then she had to yet again turn Josh Caplin down when he asked to take her out Friday. She made the excuse that she was already seeing someone else, and was about to add to the argument dating colleagues was a bad idea, but then thought against it should her relationship with Denny ever become general knowledge. On top of all that, she was a little dehydrated and the wine from the previous night had left her with a groggy and slightly pained head.

Aside from the upsets at work, she still had the doctor’s appointment to deal with, the earliest availability being that Wednesday, much to Denny’s chagrin when he asked. She braved it with the same cool veneer she had used at the clinic, glossing over any intimate questions with clinical detach, removing herself from her person and the related discomfort. Her doctor gave her several options, one being a diaphragm, a second a shot that would last for three months, or the daily pill. At first she was inclined to go with the shot so she wouldn’t have to face the daily reminder, but that felt cowardly and unsettled her for some reason. As if it was a deliberate act to escape her culpability for the relationship, and wasn’t learning to take on the onus of being involved with another the entire purpose of their relationship? So in the end, she opted for the pill, which was ready for pick up Friday morning.

And so it was, with that one pill taken, her run at the gym over, and her work for the time being complete, she headed back to the office where Denny waited to take her home for their first weekend together.

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