Category Archives: Trivial Pursuits

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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Chapter Twelve

CHAPTER TWELVE

“Look, here she comes now
Bow down and stare in wonder,
Oh how we love you,
No flaws when you’re pretending
But now I know she…

Never was and never will be
You don’t know how you’ve betrayed me,
And somehow you’ve got everybody fooled.

Without the mask where will you hide?
Can’t find yourself lost in your lies.”
“Everybody’s Fool” Evanescence

The gentle rubbing of one foot over the other was the first sensation Alessa registered in her waking mind. It was the same every morning, a gentle coaxing of herself from slumber by the sensuous pleasure of a foot-on-foot massage.

The second was the warmth of hands holding hands. Slowly, her brain began to tease out the sensations of herself, separating her hands and fingers from what was not her. Her eyes opened in languid stages, her focus sharpening in on the passive expression of the face that was inches from her own. It was a sight of beauty and strength, a reassurance. And for the briefest of moments, Alessa felt complete.

And then she blinked in alarm, a feeling of panic sharply running up her spine that such completeness should come from a source so transient and unreliable as Denton Ashbury sharply racing up her spine. Their hands were clasped between them as they both lay on their sides, curled in to face one another. He was apparently still asleep, his breathing deep and even. Cautiously, as though she were attempting to move through water without creating ripples, Alessa disengaged her hands and scooted out of the bed.

She stood next to it for several minutes, feelings of loss and fear and confusion warring inside her. And as warm and alluring as the bed had been, as comforting as his presence next to her was, falling for Denny was as fearsome as facing a ravenous lion. She knew she wouldn’t survive. Alessa grabbed her phone from the night stand and left.

When Denny at last heard the latch to the bathroom door quietly click shut, he opened his eyes. He stretched out his arm to lay in the empty warmth her body had left behind. He sighed, getting out of bed and putting a robe on. He admitted it was fanciful to imagine she would wake up and snuggle deeper into him, maybe ask him to kiss her. No, he lamented, it was only expected that she would withdraw the second she was able. He heard the shower go and so went ahead and ordered their breakfast and made another pot of coffee. He poured himself a cup and sat out on the balcony, enjoying the space of the gray cityscape, the call of gulls in the distance, the quiet murmur of Sunday morning traffic. From off in the distance came the chime of a church bells, playing out a melodic tune. And then he thought he heard a click that might have been a door inside the suite. Wanting to greet her, he got up and made his way inside, but she wasn’t there.

The door to the master was open, and when he walked in, the door to the bathroom stood open as well. Denny’s brow furrowed as he looked about the space, before calling to her. But she didn’t answer. And then he noticed that her dress, which had been laid over the back of a chair, was gone.

His focus snapped to the front door of the suite. He walked quickly to it, and peering out into the hall, listened for any indication she was out there. From around the far corner came another door shutting. Denny raced down the corridor in the direction of the sound. It was the stairwell door he had heard shut, he was certain. He yanked it open and almost immediately heard the footsteps pacing down the stairs. He could just see her slender hand on the railing as she skipped down. He jumped a few steps and gained half a floor on her before he called out.

“Alessa! Stop!”

She did, only to look up in the narrow space and reply, “Denny, just leave me alone. This is over.”

“Like hell it is,” he muttered as he picked up the pace, leaping two and three steps at time. She wasn’t exactly running from him, so he was able to overtake her on a landing between two floors, catching her by the arm.

“Where the hell are you going?” he demanded, confused and hurt and a little annoyed. She wouldn’t look at him so he kept on. “Our time isn’t up yet,” he managed to argue, though that was the least of his worries.

She finally looked at him, a sparking temper in her eyes. “Then we’ll just have to reschedule the remaining time. Though, in all honesty, it isn’t going to make a difference. I’m not dating you or sleeping with you or whatever else you want outside of working together.”

“Why are you fighting this so hard?” he growled. He stepped closer to her, his hand still around her arm as he wrestled with the desire to just subdue her with a kiss, pushing back the erratic primal need to conquer that he had once felt in a dark and cold alleyway.

“I don’t have to justify my actions to you or anyone,” she hissed furiously. “I’m not broken, Denny, just because I choose to live my life free of romantic entanglements,” she argued in a huff.

“But you want this. You want me.”

“I want a lot of things. We all do. But we make choices in this life, and sometimes we have to sacrifice things. But we’re fine. We survive, and we move on.”

“And just what the hell are you sacrificing us for? The guarantee that you’ll never be hurt or lonely or damaged? Trust me, Sweetheart, you’re already there,” he assured her cruelly.

Her eyes flashed a deepening blue, and he saw her jaw clench in indignant refusal. He now had her firmly pressed against the cold wall, his angry gaze on her pursed mouth. He wanted to brand her so that every move she took away from him would be like ripping off her skin. And so he did.

Alessa struggled against him as his arms tightened and his hard mouth descended upon her, and for a minute, she was able to resist, knowing to kiss him back would be to open the flood-gates of her desire. But it was a heavy thing to deny, and in his fiery persistence, her lips relented and became softer and more pliant, opening for his breath and tongue and passion.

She managed to miserably mumble his name into his mouth, pleading against him, against herself, to stop. But he seemed to only grow in furor, cupping her face, leaning his body dominatingly into hers. A hand gripped the back of her neck, fingering into her hair to hold her steady and open to his blazing mouth that bit and kissed its way down the smooth skin of her neck. Sparks were shooting through Alessa, but her moans carried undeniable tones of fear. She wanted him. But she didn’t want to want him. And when the spike of fear rose high enough, it empowered her to move, shoving her hands hard enough against his chest to create distance between them.

“Enough,” she rasped, panting heavily. “Denny, I don’t need this. I don’t want this. Let it end here. Please.”

“How can you ask me to stop? How can you expect me to give it up when I’ve never wanted anything this much? When I need you?”

“Needing someone is a dangerous place to be,” she argued, her breathing not yet under control. “I’m sorry you allowed yourself to imagine something could happen here between us, but I can’t do this. Not with you. Not with anyone. Whatever was between us,” she pursed her lips and shook her head, “is over. Leave it.”

She held his eyes as she took a step away from him, and then a step down the next stair and then the next. His gaze never left her, not even to get caught in the dazzling flicker of the gown draped over her arm.

His hands were grasped tightly on the railing as his eyes followed her down. He could feel the slam of his heart in his chest, its ferocity slightly moving his body in a rhythm. When her hand at last slipped from sight at the bottom, his grip tightened even more as he began to shake himself to and fro, working out the hot, angry energy to force her to stay.

Alessa was only a few steps into the hall when his furious bellow filled the stairwell and followed her as she fled.

Lou remained silent as she drove a distraught, sobbing Alessa to her home. When Alessa had begged her on the phone to come pick her up, Lou had wanted a thousand details, but a terse Alessa had simply snapped at her before apologizing and begging Lou to rescue her. And when she had pulled up to the curb, Alessa had emerged from a shadow along one of the exterior walls, jumped in without a word and promptly burst into tears.

Lou understood enough of Denny to assume he hadn’t done something horrendous, but she knew her friend’s distress was monumental. By the time they had pulled up into Alessa’s drive, she was only left with a few last tears, red eyes, and a deflated spirit. Without a word, she went to open the door, but Lou’s hand on her arm stopped her.

“What happened? What did he do?”

Alessa shook her head, but didn’t look back. She took a deep, shaky breath, and when she spoke her voice was hoarse and wet from her crying. “Nothing. Nothing happened.”

“Don’t give me that bullshit answer. I’m not daft, you know. Clearly, you spent the night with the guy, called me from the bathroom begging me to pick you up, and when I do you’re sobbing like a baby. Something happened. Please,” she entreated gently, “Alessa, you can trust me.”

She gave a mournful, throaty chuckle. “He wants me,” she shook her head uncertain, “he wants to be in a relationship. But I can’t. I turned him down.”

“But you didn’t want to,” Lou supplied knowingly. “You like him. A lot.” Alessa paused and then nodded. “Then why?”

She shook her head again and looked down at the rhinestones on her gown. “I don’t know,” she said in a voice breaking in despair. “That’s not true,” she amended and then sniffed her running nose. “I know why. I just don’t want to admit it.”

Lou frowned. “Why?” she prodded gently.

Alessa sighed. “Because, it’s the same reason he gave. And if he was right about that, then he was right about what it means if I don’t give him a chance.”

Lou paused too long in thinking about her answer, and Alessa seized it to stand up out of the car, throwing a, “Thank you for picking me up. See you tomorrow,” at her and then speed walking to her apartment.

Lou watched her friend ascend the stairs, and then, sighing, she turned her head to back out of the drive.

Alessa was wrapped only in her bath towel as she hit ‘send’ on the text for her sister. She had gotten out of the shower to see that Octo had sent her six texts begging to hear about last night. Alessa had replied about what she saw and the various events that had occurred, and left out anything mentioning Denny. Even thinking about him made her stomach churn.

She fell onto her bed, her long limbs sprawled out, half hanging off the corner, groaning with the thought of facing him in the office the following day. The phone was still in her hand when it rang. Thinking it must have been Octo calling to talk, Alessa answered without looking at the caller i.d.

“Hi.”

“Hello, is this Miss Allen?”

She recognized the Queens accent immediately. She sprang up into sitting, startled and excited. “Yes, this is she.”

“Miss Allen, this is Mr. Schecter. How are you today?”

Alessa’s heart beat rapidly though she tried to stay cool. “I am very well, Mr. Schecter. How can I help you?”

“I was hoping, if you weren’t busy this afternoon, you would join me at my home for a late lunch. Shall we say one?”

“Yes, of course, sir. I would be honored,” she accepted with an awed expression. Schecter gave her his address and instructed her to come around back to the veranda. Alessa sat on the edge of her bed frozen, her mind momentarily free of the weight of Denton Ashbury.

With giddy excitement, she got ready, drying her hair and fixing it to fall in gorgeous waves. She kept her makeup minimal, but with a slight edge to make her eyes stunning. She donned a simple heather gray dress and a cranberry cardigan over it. She wore her favorite nude heels and finished her casual, but professional look with pearl earrings her grandmother had given her when she graduated high school.

Alessa perfectly judged the distance to the home that was just up the hill from China Beach and came to a stop in front of the address he had given her with three minutes to spare. The house was set back from the street, and, given the several different levels of the red tiled roof, she could tell that it was most likely built into the cliff overlooking the ocean below, with various split levels to accommodate the topography of the land. Its Spanish Mediterranean style was evident in the soft vanilla stucco of both the exterior of the home and the tall wall surrounding the property.

She found the wrought iron gate in the wall he had instructed her to use, and stepped inside a hidden, lush world of exotic wonder. The trees were native to that northern California area, and were tall enough to form a sort of organic cathedral ceiling, dappling the ground in cool shade. The abundant and beautiful vegetation was evidence that either a master gardener lived there or was paid handsomely to come tend to it. She heard the melodious wind chime before she spotted it hanging from a branch, swaying in the gentle afternoon breeze.

After absorbing the enchantment of it all, Alessa followed the pebbled walkway that would lead her down the path to the other side of the house. As she made her way down the clever stairway, she heard the sound of waves far off and breathed deep the ocean air. And then she emerged from the cool shadow of the canopy of trees and stepped into a clear, sunny expanse. The echeloned back yard was green and structured by retaining walls made of a similar hued stone as the stucco.

“Ms. Allen, hello!” the familiar voice called to her from behind sheer fabric that hung like a thin veil from the roof of the veranda. It blew in the gentle breeze as Schecter waved her over. He was dressed less formally than the previous evening, though he sported a bowtie and white, button-up shirt. As she ascended the steps up to the elegant porch, she saw a table laid out with a scrumptious looking brunch.

He ushered her in, inquiring if she had found the place easily enough and if she had recovered from the party the night before. He pulled a chair for her and then went to the door into the house. “Lorraine!” he called, and then a moment later a woman, probably in her late sixties, appeared carrying a crystal pitcher filled with something that looked like mimosa.

Mr. Schecter introduce her as his beautiful wife, to which the older lady chuckled skeptically, but still presented her cheek when he leaned in for a kiss. Alessa was mildly nervous, eating a private meal with the head of her firm and his wife, uncertain as to what had merited this special treat. But her nerves fell away as the conversation and company were equally convivial and pleasing. Gone were previous night’s demand for performance, and instead an ease and sense of kinship permeated her time there. The older couple was clearly very much in love, and their open displays of affection created a niggling under Alessa’s ribs.

When a pleasant hour and half had quickly passed, Lorraine got up to clear the table. And though Alessa offered to help, she was turned away and left to continue conversing with Mr. Schecter. There was some small talk about her current caseload until at last Alessa broached the subject that had plagued her from the moment of his invitation.

“Mr. Schecter, it has been a real pleasure visiting with you and your wife this afternoon. But, I must confess, I’d like to know what prompted you to call me?” she questioned honestly.

He chuckled at her straight-forward curiosity. “I have a beautiful garden. One thing in Queens I didn’t have growing up was a garden. Worked hard in a stuffy office most of my life, so when I came out here, I worked hard to make it a paradise. Hired a Chinaman who didn’t speak a lick of English, he still doesn’t, but somehow we managed. Come, let me show you my garden,” he offered, standing up and holding his hand out in invitation.

Itching for an answer to her question, now made more mysterious by his apparent dodging, Alessa pursed her lips thoughtfully as she stood and allowed him to guide her from the covered terrace. He led her through the rose garden that covered two levels of the tiered property. He pointed out some of the rarer and more valuable bushes, as well his personal favorites that had nothing to do with how others valued them. Some smelled divine while others were merely pretty.

“Ms. Allen, I asked you hear today because I had something personal to discuss with you,” he began nonchalantly as he stood over one rose bush, pinching off the dead heads.

She swallowed and focused on maintain the same casualness he displayed. “Really? And what is that?”

“I’ve been watching you for some time. And I’ll admit, you’re quite captivating,” he answered honestly, still preoccupied with the plant before him.

“And how exactly am I captivating?” she questioned, uncertain where the conversation was leading.

“Well, you are bright and dazzling. Hard working and beautiful,” he listed. “Ms. Allen, I’d like for you to meet my son David,” he stated bluntly, straightening himself up from the plant to look her squarely in the eyes.

It took her a moment to process his request. And then a thousand things hit her at once. “Mr. Schecter,” she said slowly, with uncertainty in her voice and eyes though her posture had become stiff, “is it appropriate for you to ask me that? Wouldn’t the security of my job put me under duress to agree even if I didn’t want to?”

Mr. Schecter only laughed at the question and turned to continue slowly down the path. He gave a thoughtful smile as he looked off the property and across the Golden Gate Strait to the land on the other side that was visible on that clear afternoon. “Ms. Allen, I’m not so modest as to think you don’t know anything about my career, so I’m sure you are aware that I don’t prevaricate to get what I want. I’m sure it must seem a little unethical for me to approach you like this, and maybe it is. But I’m a husband and father first, a lawyer second, and I’ll fight for them to get them the best.”

She trailed behind him slowly, her admiration slowly fading in wary light. “You see, my parents were immigrants fleeing Poland, so when they came to Queens, they had nothing. I grew up poor. So poor. The sort of poverty that makes a man hungry deep in the gut. A hunger that never goes away.

“It drove me to work myself endlessly. I slaved not only in school, but had a night job, saving money for college. I never stopped, my life spent just digging after that success. I was so afraid of being poor like that again. I became ruthless, heartless. I’d do anything to win, and it earned me advancement. I left my humanity back in Queens when I came out here at thirty-five to be a senior partner. I’d been here in San Francisco about ten years, an old bachelor by then,” he chuckled, his raspy voice filling the sound with genuine mirth. “But I met this beautiful woman who made me stop in my tracks. She made my heart stop beating.” He clutched his hand to his chest as he smiled like a happy drunk.

“She changed me, Ms. Allen. She made me desire more than just my successful career. She made me want life, all of it, and made the life I had worth living,” he gushed. “She restored my humanity. So, I did what I had to do to woo her. But the wooing is the easy part. It’s the keeping that’s the hard part. But because I consider myself blessed every day of my life to have someone who makes me whole, I have worked harder at keeping her love than anything else in my life. More than this garden. More than my career. I’d give it all away in a heartbeat.”

They were still ambling slowly down the path, making their way back to the gate in the wall at the perimeter of the property. They stood covered by the speckled shadows of the leaves overhead when he stopped and turned to her.

“And that’s why I’d fight for them, a hundred miles more than any of my clients. So you see, it may be a little unethical, at the very least a little unorthodox, for me to ask you to consider dating my son, but I can’t help it. It’s who I am.

“But, rest assured, you have nothing to fear from me. No reprisal should you choose to decline. It was merely a happy thought I had. My son David hasn’t dated anyone since his divorce almost five years ago. I love my son, Ms. Allen. I want him to be happy. And it would warm my old days to see my son find something wonderful like I have found. Someone to make him whole. Someone special like you.” He was smiling gently at her, no questionable intent in his shining brown eyes, only sweet sincerity and unabashed optimism.

Alessa felt her face warm and her heart beat in the ardor of his hope. The acid wash was back, coating her stomach in discomfort. She faked a gracious smile, hiding all that was crumbling inside. “Thank you, Mr. Schecter, for your interest. I am very honored, very flattered. I’m certain your son is a wonderful man, if he’s anything like you. However, I’m not available to date your son.”

He gave a chuckling half-smile. “Not available or not interested?”

She took a deep breath. “I honestly couldn’t say interested or not as I haven’t met him, but as it is, I’m not available. But thank you for considering me worthy enough for him.”

He smiled and gave a shrug. “One can always shoot for the stars. Well, Ms. Allen, if you ever become available, let me know and I’d be more than happy to introduce the two of you. Until then, that man of yours is a very lucky chap.” He opened the gate to let her out. They said their goodbyes until at last she walked away, buzzing.

She sat in her car for untold minutes, her eyes staring ahead, unseeing. And then she turned a guarded gaze to her phone. Her mind was too preoccupied to notice the thumbnail she slid between her teeth to chew it as she searched her contacts list. And then she punched his name.

It rang twice before he answered.

“Denny? I think we should talk.”


Chapter Eleven

CHAPTER ELEVEN

“I need a love that’s strong
I’m so tired of being alone
But will my lonely heart play the part
Of the fool again
Before I begin

Foolish heart, hear me calling
Stop before you start falling
Foolish heart, heed my warning
You’ve been wrong before
Don’t be wrong anymore”
“Foolish Heart” Steve Perry

Alessa took a step back away from the car so she could bend down to peer into the dark, back seat and search with scowling eyes for the face that went with the familiar hand.

“Get in the car, Alessa,” Denny commanded. Her first reaction was to think he no longer appeared upset with her. Her second reaction was that she was now upset with him.

“What game are you playing?” she demanded through clenched teeth.

She heard his sigh, though she still couldn’t see much of his face. “Sweetheart, please, just get in the car and I will explain everything to you.”

She straightened herself slowly and looked back at Jacob Andrews. “The supply side, huh? You get whatever he wants?”

His expression was what one might consider stoic, but even in her anger she didn’t miss the gentleness in his eyes that offered a sort of comforting sympathy. For the time being, there was nothing to do but go along with Denny’s request, and so reluctantly she sat down in the car and slid in.

“Where are we going?” she demanded to know as Jacob got in the driver’s seat and pulled away from the curb.

“To The Ritz-Carlton.”

“What!” Alessa scooted back from him as she turned to square off. “Absolutely not. I don’t know what you think is going on here, but I am not obligated to do anything but carry on a conversation. I am not going to any hotel. Even the Ritz.”

“I am fully aware of the rules,” he answered, and as the lights of the city flickered past, she could see his triumphant smile.

“Then why a hotel?”

“Because I knew you certainly wouldn’t be comfortable going to my place, and it would be rude and presumptuous to expect to go to yours.”

“Then why not stay at the party? Or go to dinner?”

“Oh, we’ll have dinner, but for a twelve-hour, private conversation, we’ll need something more secluded and available for that long.”

“Denny, if you think I’m staying one minute longer than my obligated three hours, you’re insane.”

“Twelve,” he corrected smugly.

“What do you mean ‘twelve?’”

“I only refer to the contract you signed.”

“As do I. And I read that thing thoroughly. I’m only obligated for three hours.”

Denny reached into his inner jacket pocket. “Read it again, Sweetheart,” he instructed handing it to her. He flipped on the light in the back.

The first paragraph was exactly as she recalled, and Alessa was about to comment to the fact, but then she realized the second paragraph significantly changed the parameters of the date and her responsibilities. Denny was correct; the contract with her signature stated the date was to last no less than twelve hours, and what was more, Denny was allowed to ask her anything, to which she undertook to answer all his questions honestly and to the best of her ability.

“This, this isn’t the contract I signed,” she argued at last.

“But it is. See there? That’s your signature. It would hold up in any court. And given that it is just now midnight, that means you are mine until noon tomorrow,” he replied with a smile.

“Denny, this is some sort of a trick. You switched them!” she gasped when she finally realized what must have happened. “You purposefully spilled your coffee on the contract that I read and then had me resign this phony one!” she accused indignantly.

“You can’t prove that. What you can do, is make a very big ruckus, accuse me of actions you can’t prove, be held responsible for the full seventy-five thousand, lose face and possibly your job, and ruin everything you’ve spent the last fifteen years to build.” His tone was calm and cool and unaffected by the untenable plight he had maneuvered her in.

“Let’s face it. You got rattled, and you became sloppy. If you hadn’t been in such a hurry to get out of that copy room, you might have done a better job protecting your interests. But as it is, you’ve only set yourself up to look like the most irresponsible associate we have had in quite some time. I say associate, because anyone making this sort of bungle never made it to partner,” he remarked almost cruelly, taking the paper from her numbed hands and waving it before placing it back into his jacket pocket. “So, unless you want to derail that glittering career you’ve worked so hard for, I suggest you play along for the next twelve hours.”

Alessa was quiet as her mind scrambled to cope with her deleterious blunder. She was tempted to call him a name defaming his character, but the impulse faded as she wondered how she was going to fix her mess. But then she realized she didn’t even know what Denny had planned. Admittedly, twelve hours of conversation, though that seemed rather long, wasn’t such a horrific idea. She wouldn’t openly admit it to him, but she rather enjoyed being with him, even if she was simultaneously afraid of it. And it wasn’t as if she signed a contract to be his slave or to allow him any sexual liberties he could think of. It was just conversation.

Granted, the last time they had had a heart to heart, it had ended with her spilling her deepest secrets and making out with him in public.

“Denny, what do you want?” she asked at last, weary sounding.

“I’m not going to harm you,” he assured, inclining his face to hers. Alessa looked at him, seeking out his eyes in the darkness. “I’m not going to press my advantage. I just want you to fulfill the terms of your contract.”

“To what end?” she asked slowly. But his expression was all he offered, though she couldn’t decipher it beyond a tenderness that made something inside clench painfully.

She turned to look out the window. She didn’t quite trust him, and even more so, didn’t trust herself around him, and so held back any further argument as they pulled up to The Ritz-Carlton. An attendant rushed forward and opened Alessa’s door. When Denny stepped out behind her, the attendant welcomed him back. As Denny slipped his hand on Alessa’s back and guided her through the front door, she turned to look at him, raising a quizzical and scornful eyebrow.

“Settle down,” he whispered. “I checked in earlier this afternoon and he valeted my car for me.”

“So you don’t make a habit of bringing an endless string of women here.”

Denny’s smile was barely contained. “No, just you,” and then he punched the button to call for the elevator.

“You booked the Presidential Suite?” Alessa asked in surprise, reading the placard as he took out his card key.

“I told you,” he reminded her, “I wanted to pick something neutral. And as cliché as a hotel room is, I thought perhaps a suite with plenty of space and a variety of sitting areas, and two separate bedrooms should you wish to sleep tomorrow away, would seem less threatening than one with only a large king size bed taking up the majority of the room.”

Alessa understood that dealing with large, multinational corporations meant she would have to get comfortable with wealth, but the sumptuous, palatial décor of the suite wasn’t something she could take in unaffectedly.

It was hard to believe they were in a hotel at all, she thought, once she stepped into the large, open room. As she looked around, she figured she could fit her small apartment into it three times over, and she was only viewing the living quarters; the master suite was attached at the far right and the guest room on the left. It was richly decorated in woods and endless fabrics. All the furniture was exquisite and detailed, and perfectly adorned with pillows and throws. Through the windows Alessa could see the lights of the city, including the Bay Bridge. And then she saw the double doors that led out onto the expansive balcony.

Denny walked to the large round dining table. It was alight with dozens of candles per his instructions, and food was laid out on it, along with a bucket of ice and champagne.

“I hope you don’t mind,” he began once he knew she had at last turned her attention to him instead of the room, “but I went ahead and ordered dinner. It’s from the restaurant downstairs. One of the best in the city.” He uncovered the dishes revealing sumptuous looking plates underneath. “Please,” he invited, pulling out her chair.

Still uneasy, Alessa approached to sit in the offered seat. She mumbled a thank you as he helped her scoot closer. When he sat adjacent to her, she followed his lead, taking her napkin only when he did, picking up her fork only because he had. He offered her the chilled champagne.

“Not sparkling wine?”

“No, Sweetheart, this is Champagne. Not sparkling wine,” he answered with a grin. “I think this bottle is almost three-years-old. A very good year,” he commented before lifting up his glass to salute her and then taking a sip. Alessa followed suit, taking a sip of the bright and effervescent drink.

After they had eased comfortably into their meal, Denny spoke. “Did you enjoy the party?”

“Present company excluded?” she quipped with a sour smile.

Denny laughed at that, but then looked up from his food, his eyes sparkling in the candlelight. “Was I that bad?”

Her lip was curled in disdainful disbelief. “How can you ask that? You were a jerk, yet again. And we were having such a nice time. It’s…peculiar,” she admitted with some trouble finding the right word, “that you went to all this trouble, all this expense to get a date with me when you couldn’t be bothered to act civilly at the party. Don’t you think you would have gotten further by simply acting nice to me instead of bidding on me cloak-and-dagger style and secluding me away in a creepy, albeit nice, hotel room?” She arched an eyebrow, challenging him to defend his behavior. And then her frown deepened as she recalled their unpleasant interaction.

“You kissed me. Again. But you didn’t mean it,” she accused softly, but then she glared up at him. “You didn’t do it because you wanted to. You did it because you were angry. I didn’t like it. Don’t do it again,” she warned.

“What?” Denny asked leaning forward to place his elbows on the table, a light smile playing at the corners of his eyes. “Kiss you or not kiss you when I’m angry?”

Alessa opened her mouth to say when he was angry, but instantly recognized that for the trap it was. “Don’t kiss me unless I give you permission,” she clarified at last. “And stop smirking, because it won’t ever happen again.”

But Denny couldn’t help but smile, knowing he was going to make her rue her words.

She rolled her eyes. “So what was with you? You weren’t jealous that I danced with Hyun-Joong, were you?” she asked as she started in on her food once more. “After all, wasn’t that the purpose of the evening? To mingle with clients?”

Denny narrowed his eyes, recalling that the jealously he had felt wasn’t simply because she had danced with another man, but because he had believed she wanted to date that man after she had refused all his advances. But that was before he had stood in a candle-lit room watching hidden from a crowd. And he knew he had been wrong.

Max had claimed Alessa was riddled with insecurities, and as she stood there before a wealthy and elitist mass, head high and smile dazzling, he knew Max was right. For despite the bravado she displayed, her eyes darted to him on more than one occasion. Not with a smirk or taunt, but with a plea. He had seen her vulnerability then, and knew instantly that even though Hyun-Joong was bidding for her, it wasn’t his friend she wanted. She wanted him. And in that look, all his ire had faded away, and once again he felt like an ass.

“I thought you were trying to tell me you wanted…” but he wasn’t certain he wanted to admit what he had been afraid of.

“Yes?” she asked, not angrily, but a little sore, a little raw and waiting.

He pursed his lips and gave a short shake of his head. “I thought you were trying to tell me you wanted to date Hyun-Joong,” he admitted at last and lifted his eyes to hers. “That all the excuses you made to justify rejecting me were just hiding the fact that you simply didn’t want me.”

His candid answer left her feeling somewhat uncomfortable. She also felt a tinge of shame that she was not as honest, not as brave, with herself or him.

“You’re right,” she began. “I am attracted to Hyun-Joong. And I appreciate his attention.” She could see him tighten up, the line of his lips becoming firmer. “But, if I were interested in dating someone, and I’m not, I’m just saying if I were,” she interjected her confession with that false caveat, “he wouldn’t be my first choice.” Her words were somber and her eyes were clear and open.

Denny was silent as he stared at her, feeling a rush of attraction and wishing for nothing more than the freedom to lean across the space separating them and kiss her. And so he eased the tension inside with humor instead. “Oh? And who would be your first choice then?” he leaned on his hand, smirking at her, his eyes batting once or twice.

Alessa gave a small laugh, the tension breaking. “You are so…”

“Charming? Handsome? Romantic?”

“Full of it?” she supplied tartly, before taking the last bite of her food. Denny laughed out loud, and reaching for his glass of champagne, sat back to watch her happily.

She was smiling at him and sighed contentedly as she finished. “Denny, thank you for dinner. That was wonderful.”

“Oh, we’re not finished yet.”

“Denny, I don’t think I could eat another bite.”

“Oh, tosh,” he chided softly. “This chocolate cake is a classic and I insist you eat every single bite,” he instructed as he lifted the serving cover of two small plates. A slice of layered chocolate cake sat on each one. He passed one to her and then started in on his own. After a few bites, he poured them both the last of the champagne and noticed she wasn’t eating her cake.

“It’s not going to wreck your figure,” he commented drily. Denny watched as she forked off a bite of cake but only shuffled it back and forth on her plate. She clearly had no intention of eating it. With a sigh, he reached over with his own fork, speared the chocolate piece, and offered it up to her mouth. When she only frowned at him, he raised an eyebrow in warning. “Open,” he commanded. But her mouth only tightened further. “Sweetheart, just take a bite.”

She rolled her eyes to cover her melting response to hear him call her sweetheart and opened her mouth. Denny saw the sharp flash of pleasure as the delicious cake hit her tongue. Alessa kept up pretenses of not wanting it, but kept chewing, and eventually resumed eating the cake on her own.

As their meal was coming to an end, Alessa dreaded not knowing what was to come next, and so hoped she could talk him into letting her leave. “There, I finished the cake. Can I go now?”

“Sweetheart, we are just getting started. Now, feel no obligation, but in planning for this evening I thought you might be more comfortable in clothes other than what ever dress you found to wear. They’re laid out on the bed, if you’d like to change.”

Alessa’s eyes slid to the open double doors of the master bedroom before looking back down at her gown. It was just slightly snug, especially after she’d eaten dinner, and the rhinestones were scratchy in places. It would be nice to change, but she didn’t know if she’d feel comfortable by getting more comfortable with Denny. But if she really was going to be spending the next twelve hours locked up in the suite with him, she knew she didn’t want to spend it in the dress. With a reluctant sigh, she stood to go change.

But as she did, Denny stood also, blocking her path and looking down at her. She glanced up questioningly.

“But, before you change, I was sort of hoping,” and he took a step closer, and for a moment just looked down at her. Then slowly, without any more words, he let the fingers of both hands trail down her bare arms until they were at last twining their fingers together. Slowly, as though with caution to not frighten her away, he pulled her to him, one hand slipping about her waist, the other locking their hands together. Alessa allowed herself to be pulled into his embrace, though with a weary caution. “Will you dance with me?” he whispered against her temple. “I didn’t get the privilege at the party,” he explained as his body began moving to the silent music in his heart.

Alessa fleetingly thought he only had himself to blame for his missed opportunity, but the feeling of his arm around her, their bodies moving gently together, was so irresistible in its perfection that she bit her tongue to not ruin the moment. Her lips were pressed against his collar bone as her slumberous eyes stared dreamily over his shoulder. She seemed to melt a little further into his embrace.

For Denny, he couldn’t recall a more fulfilling moment as her body pressed perfectly into his. Though he had known his pursuit of her was deeper than a simple need to satisfy loneliness and peruse female companionship, it wasn’t until that moment that he felt a swelling wave of something, wondering vaguely if it could be love. His arms tightened slightly more around her as he swayed their bodies rhythmically together.

At some point while she was in his arms, Alessa murmured with a trace of trepidation, “Denny, what are you doing to me?”

He pressed his lips against her temple. A hand cupped her cheek, turning her deep blue eyes to peer up at him, their bodies separating ever so slightly in order to look at her. It was there inside, the confirmation that yes, he did in fact love her. But at the moment, he knew it wouldn’t alter his course, only solidify his determination, and so he took it in stride.

Instead of answering, he gently shoved her away and murmured, “Go change. We’ll talk after.” She took a few steps around him, watching him until she could tear her gaze away and focus on escaping him for the present.

She was down to just her underwear when her phone chimed a text notice. She picked it up, and with a groan remembered her arrangement with her friend. Lou wrote she was sorry the text was late, she’d gotten distracted by Richard, and then asked how her date was going.

Alessa punched the phone symbol next to Lou’s picture. She stood in the dark room with only a cascading light falling from the bathroom en suite. “Hey!” Lou said from the other end, a smile evident in her voice. “How goes the date?”

“Lou,” Alessa whispered, “listen, I’m in a bad way here. I don’t know what to do.”

“Uh-oh, what’s going on? Did he turn out to be a monumental creep?”

“No, no,” she answered, keeping up the whispering so Denny wouldn’t hear her from the other room. “The guy wasn’t the real bidder. He was bidding for–”

“Let me guess. Denny?”

“Yeah, how’d you know?” She could hear Lou’s squeals of excitement and peals of laughter. “Shh! Keep it down. This isn’t funny!”

“Maybe not funny, but definitely exciting! Tell me, where are you at? What sort of romantic date has he planned?”

“It’s not a romantic date. At least, not in the traditional sense. Lou, he’s taken me to a hotel–” Once again she was interrupted by Lou’s whooping laughter. “Will you stop that? He’s gotten a suit at the Ritz. And he says he just wants to talk. I have to answer his questions. It’s part of the contract I signed. What am I going to do?”

“Why can’t you answer them?” Lou asked as her laughter died to a giggle escaping here and there.

“Because…well, there are things…I don’t even know what he wants to ask,” Alessa admitted at last.

“Alessa, listen. Denny’s a good guy. He’s one of the most professional, trustworthy, honest lawyers at the firm. I don’t think he would do anything horrible to you. He’s clearly interested in you. Just go with it and enjoy your evening. A suite, did you say?”

“Yeah, the presidential suite.”

“Oh my god, Alessa, you are so lucky. Enjoy it! Now that I know you’re safe, I’m not texting you anymore tonight, but I want all the details tomorrow, deal? Have fun, and if he tries to kiss you, let him!” and with laughter echoing through the line, Alessa ended the call, looking at it accusingly before dropping it down on the bed.

She picked up the t-shirt and read it. It was a Stanford rowing shirt with an emblem in the middle. It was well worn and soft from age. She lifted it to her nose and could smell faint whispers of his scent. She pulled it over her head, leaving on her lacy bra and satiny underwear. The shirt was rather large for her, but it was certainly a great deal more comfortable than the dress had been. The gray sweatpants were far too big as well, but the drawstring allowed her to cinch them tightly enough around her waist to keep them up.

When she emerged from the bedroom, Denny was in the kitchen making coffee. “Sorry, they only provide Peet’s here,” Denny explained.

“Oh, that’s okay,” she answered, not realizing her own predilection for one brand over the other. For a moment, there was nothing to say, so Alessa made her way out onto the large balcony. The night was getting cooler as it edged toward the late hours, and in only a t-shirt, she felt the chill immediately. But it was helpful to watch the mist roll in and swallow the lights of the surrounding city. Soothing somehow in its mesmerizing encroachment.

“Here,” Denny said from behind her.

She turned around to see he had a cup of steaming coffee in each hand and one of the plush throws from inside draped over his arm. “Would you like to stay out here?” he asked as she slid the blanket free and wrapped it around her shoulders.

“Maybe for a little while,” she answered and took the coffee he offered. “It’s kind of nice,” she murmured lifting the steaming mug to her face and inhaling the robust aroma.

As they sat in the comfortable deck furniture, she noticed he had removed his bowtie and unbuttoned the collar of his starch-white shirt. He was relaxed despite the formal wear he still wore. And aggravatingly sexy, she realized.

“Thank you, for the clothes I mean.”

“I hated to see you change out of that dress, but I’m sure it wasn’t as comfortable as it was beautiful.”

Alessa smiled into her cup, unable to ignore the pleasure of his praise or the accuracy of his words.

“Where did you find it?”

“Some shop Lou took me to last weekend. My sister came along and we made a day of it.”

“Cadence, right?”

She smiled. “Yeah, that’s right.” They sipped their coffees in the dark, watching the magic of the city’s lights mellowed by the pervasive fog.

Eventually, despite the comfortable silence that existed, she braved a question. “Okay, Denny, you have me here. Dinner is finished. I’m in comfortable clothes and have enough coffee to keep me awake for the next seventy-two hours. What did you want to discuss? What…questions do you have?” She assumed it had something serious to do with them and their relationship, or lack thereof. Her stomach was rolling in uncomfortable anticipation, her mind already scrambling to come up with a plan to fence him off.

Denny had waited for nearly two weeks for this moment, when he officially made his exact intentions known to her. His plan was a bold and complicated gambit, but he knew it would be worth it. He knew she was worth it.

“Alessa, I’m sure it won’t come as a surprise to you when I tell you I am interested in you. I’m attracted to you. I like you. And I want to be with you,” he began honestly. “Will you give me a chance?” He knew what her answer would be, but also knew this was how he had to begin despite her inevitable refusal.

“Be with me?” she was able to ask despite the immediate increase in her heart rate. “What does that even look like?” If she was going to refuse, she needed to know what she was arguing against. “Do you mean casually date? Be girlfriend-boyfriend? A committed, monogamous relationship? Be only sleeping partners? What?”

“C: a committed relationship.”

She gave a tight-lipped frown. Objection one. “I don’t date. You know that. Why would you ask? You spent seventy-five thousand dollars for a twelve-hour date when it only takes me less than a minute to reject you? I’m sorry to point out the obvious, but you clearly wasted your money,” she declared, making his attempt appear more ridiculous to bolster up her reasonable denial. Denny noted she was predictably not even looking at him.

“I know you don’t date. But I’m still trying to figure out why. Because when we talked the other night, you stated you had thought there was nothing to sex, that it was all some falsehood built up to lead people on. But you know better than that now, don’t you?” he asked with a drop in his voice, challenging her to deny his claim.

“Do I?” she asked, turning to him. It was a mistake, she realized, as she felt her body respond to the sensual and daring look in his eyes. She looked away again, afraid of showing her vulnerability.

“Yes. You do.” But even not looking in his eyes, she still reacted to his voice.

There was silence as Alessa struggled with the truth and hope and past.

“Fine. You kissed me. I enjoyed it. But that doesn’t mean I am able to get into a relationship with you right now.” Objection two. “After all, things are finally starting to go so well at work, I’m working so much, as are you, that I don’t have time for dating.”

Denny answered calmly, as though her protest was needless. “Our schedules are so similar that we should be able to spend enough of our free time to make it work. After all, since we’re cognizant of the obstacle lack of time will be, we can knowingly work around it.”

Objection three. “It isn’t good policy to date coworkers.”

“Maybe not encouraged, but with full disclosure at HR, there isn’t any rule against it.”

Objection four. “You’re my supervisor. How am I supposed to advance when I report to you? It will look like bias. And how do I know that any promotion I get is based on my merit and not because you feel obligated or like you have to bribe me with it?”

“Your work, as you have stated numerous times before, is good enough to stand on its own. And the decision for your advancement isn’t mine alone. The senior partners are the ones that ultimately decide how high you go. I merely report the good work you already do.”

She bluffed the last objection she could scrounge up. “And if I merely don’t want to date you?” she boldly asked, her voice tinged with the slightest amount of anger.

Denny was silent until she turned his way. Catching her eyes, he leaned forward and murmured, “Like I said, we both know that isn’t true. I know for certain you are very,” and his eyes dropped to her parting mouth, “very interested in me. So it makes me wonder why you keep shutting me out. Why can’t you move past what happened to you when you were just a kid now that you know how good it could be with me?”

“I’ve moved past it,” she argued with a frown. “I never think about that stuff. Not until you remind me,” she accused.

“Sweetheart, ignoring it isn’t the same as healing from it,” he stated gently.

“But I’ve already tried,” she informed him tersely looking away again and scowling. “And it didn’t work. That’s why I ignore it.”

Denny frowned. “What do you mean?”

Her lips were pursed angrily together. At length, she huffed, rolling her eyes up to watch the low-flying clouds illuminated by the lights of the city drift by. She knew if she was going to convince him to leave her alone, she was going to have to give him the whole truth.

“In college. This guy, he kept asking me out. But I knew where it would end, knew it wouldn’t be worth the effort. But, I don’t know, I was attracted to him, I guess. He was smart and funny and so damn persistent. So I went on a few dates with him. To the movies. And bowling. And then somehow we ended up back at his place, crappy little dingy apartment. And we were on his couch, making out. And it was getting exciting, and I thought this was it. This was going to be different. That I’d finally get what I wanted. And then…” but she couldn’t continue, a knot of acid twisting her stomach tight as the same panic from all those years ago threatened to come back up her throat.

Denny waited until it was clear she needed prodding. “Yes?” he said softly. “What happened?”

“His hands went down my pants, and suddenly I was fifteen again, and all I could feel was the sickening pain and disappointment. And it made me feel so detached from him. Like my boyfriend in high school,” she stated angrily, the strain of holding back tears in her voice. “I’d let him put his dick in my body and not a week later he was saying the most horrible things about me. I let a stranger have sex with me. And I was about to let it happen again, so I panicked. I thought I was going to be sick and so I started shoving him off me, freaking out like a nut case. I ran out of his apartment so fast.” She sounded forlorn and dejected. Defeated. “He tried to talk to me a few days later, but I just said I wasn’t interested. He tried a few times after that, but I kept blowing him off until he finally got the picture and left me alone.”

Denny ached to hold her, but was wise enough to realize at the moment she needed space. Especially given her history of panicking. “So you see, useless. Don’t waste your time on me.” She turned to look him square in the eye, her expression solemn and unwavering. But also tragic and lost. And he wanted nothing more than to be her hero in that moment.

They were quiet a moment as he studied her stoic profile. As it was the earliest hour of the morning, she was becoming too cold to stay there comfortably any longer, and with the anxiety and stress of their discussion, Alessa was visibly shivering.

Denny stood and reached out his hand. “Let’s go in,” he suggested gently. She rose, but didn’t take his proffered hand and instead walked stiffly inside, carrying the tension from the balcony with her like a fallen hero’s cloak. Silently, he followed her in and sat opposite her on the couch. She had curled herself into a large, over-stuffed, leather arm chair, the thick throw still wrapped protectively around her, her knees tucked up to her chest. She didn’t seem to acknowledge his presence as she sat mutely, vibrating from the increasing pressure of feeling caged.

“Alessa, talk to me, Sweetheart.”

“What do you want me to say, Denny!” she exploded, though it shouldn’t have been surprising. “What do you want from me? I told you, this is pointless. This is a waste of your time.”

“I just want to help,” he stated softly, defending his push into her discomfort.

“You think you can fix me? You think I’m broken? You think because I can’t let a man touch me that there is something wrong with me? I’m not broken. I’m strong enough to get back up when I get knocked down. But I’m also smart enough to not get knocked down a second time. Smart enough to not let a guy sweep me off my feet with a little romanticism. Or to think attraction equals love. I’m not going to become dependent on someone only to be abandoned years late after sacrificing my career and my heart.” She ranted, now unable to stop. “I refuse to allow myself to become so damaged and heartbroken that I’ll be prey for any loser that comes by, because I’ll just be so damn thankful for the slightest bit of attention. I’m not broken. I’m smart.” Tears had begun to fill her eyes and her chest was heaving in her rage.

Denny realized Alessa was speaking from experience. But he knew it wasn’t just her own experience, so it must have been…

“You’re talking about your mom, aren’t you?” he prodded gently.

Hot tears were falling down her disgruntled face. She swiped them away angrily. She wanted to deny it, but her mother was living proof that falling in love was a bad idea, and her own limited experience seemed to confirm it.

The final objection. “Fine. Yes. My mother was completely broken when my father left us. My poor, stupid mother was so devastated, now raising me by herself she was thankful when my creep of a stepfather came along and showed her the slightest bit of interest.” Her anger was growing.

Denny pressed, like a hound on the scent of its prey. “Why a creep?”

But she only continued to wipe away her tears, wiping her leaking nose over the back of her arm. “I don’t want to talk about this anymore,” she growled stubbornly.

“That seems to be your choice phrase about any topic that is personal,” Denny observed.

“And that’s my right. I don’t want to tell you every sad, little detail of my life. You have no right to make me feel so miserable and pathetic, so I’m not going to tell you.”

Denny’s brow creased, not understanding. “I don’t want to make you feel pathetic.”

“Well, how do you expect me to feel when I tell you I’m lame because I haven’t had sex since high school because the very thought of it sends me into a panic attack?”

Denny opened his mouth to say something but she cut him off, tears streaming angrily now.

“How do you expect me to feel when I admit my father left me, and the only way I could win time with him was if I won my races? How do you think I feel when I tell you that after I found my perverted stepfather had hidden an old cell phone in the bathroom with the video recording that I had to start showering and changing in the dark, scouring every possible hiding place for a hidden camera? How the fuck do you expect me to feel, Denny, when you make me tell you every little horrible thing about myself?”

She sobbed into her arms hugging her bent-up knees. Her shoulders were shaking, and her cries were destroying his heart.

“Alessa,” he groaned, and then crossed the space to sit on the very edge of her chair. He wrapped her in his arms, and for a second his body absorbed her misery, but then she wrenched herself from him and hopped over the armrest and out of the chair, the throw falling to the floor.

“Don’t touch me!” she hissed, still bating furiously at the fallen tears. “Leave me alone!” she commanded again when he stood.

“Alessa,” he said gently, hoping he could calm her down. “I’m sorry this is painful. It’s not my intent to hurt you. But this is good. We need to discuss this,” he insisted, still in his soft manner.

“What do you care?” she sobbed, still unable to curtail her tears.

“I care,” he asserted solemnly. “And this is exactly why we are here, because this,” he said with a gesture of his hand to her, “is robbing you of a life you deserve.”

“Who are you to decide what my life should be like?”

He sighed before replying. “You’re right, I can’t tell you how to live your life, but as someone who cares about you, I’d hope you could trust me to help you where I can.”

“You don’t care about me. You just want to fuck me,” she accused coldly through her tears.

His stomach tensed at the accusation. He looked her squarely in the eyes. “I may want to do every last dirty thing in the book to you, but that doesn’t mean that I don’t care for you. Deeply.”

Despite her crying state, his answer caused her insides to liquefy and her breathing to stall. But she recovered in the next moment and turned her face away, wrapping her arms about her protectively as her jaw clenched in irritation. They stood that way for some minutes while she calmed down and stemmed the last of her tears. She was still breathing heavily, a hiccup every once in a while.

At length, Denny tried once more to approach her. She tensed up, but didn’t move away when he slipped an arm behind her. “Come on, Sweetheart, let’s sit on the couch.” He guided her back to where he had been sitting earlier, picking up the throw on the way. He sat down and pulled her with him and then wrapped her up in the blanket. Alessa was tired, her rant and the late hour leaving her drained despite the coffee, and surely that was why she allowed him to pull her into him, his arm wrapping around her as she laid her head against his chest.

For nearly a quarter of an hour, Denny simply held her, his hand soothingly running up and down her back. Alessa had closed her eyes and was nearly asleep when a low rumble came from his chest as he started speaking.

“Alessa, Sweetheart, I want you to listen to me and just think about what I’m saying. Don’t speak, just listen. Okay?” There was a pause and then she nodded her head against his chest.

“What I’m asking of you, what I want,” he was silent as he tried to fully empathize with how she must have felt, “I understand it can be scary, to completely challenge your beliefs, to become more intimate with someone than you have ever been. I understand that, and I don’t want you to think I don’t care or can’t respect that.

“And you were right, I do want you. I want to screw you until we can’t walk straight. But sex isn’t all I want from you. It isn’t everything. But that’s exactly what is holding you back, this fear of intimacy. Don’t you see that? It keeps you from any type of relationship, not just a sexual one. And that’s not healthy.” He felt her stiffen as if she were about to argue.

“You can’t go through your whole life avoiding relationships. You can’t live on work alone. It isn’t healthy. Don’t you see that? I mean, think about how you treat your body. With a balanced diet. Not just vegetables, not just meat, not just carbs or fat. But all of it, in a healthy balance. Your body needs it all, just like your spirit needs it all. You need work, yes, but you also need friends and hobbies. And you need love. Otherwise, you’ll starve.”

Fear was seizing her insides, and she felt that old, trapped sensation creep back into her. “Denny, I don’t think I can do that,” she whispered.

“I know,” he responded with a sadness in his voice, his lips dropping down to the top of her head. “Alessa, I…” he took a deep breath, “I care about you, and because I care about you, I want to help you. I want to teach you how to be in a relationship, how to care for someone, to be cared for by someone.”

“But how? I’ve already tried. I’ve already told you how I panicked. I don’t even know that I want you to do anything,” she confessed miserably.

“You don’t want to be afraid anymore, do you? Now that you know what it could be like?” he questioned, testing her for courage.

He felt her tighten up against him, burying herself a little more into his side. “I honestly don’t know,” she answered softly. “I thought I was fine. I was satisfied with my life. Until you.”

He chuckled at the morose tone of her voice. “Sorry to rock your boat.” And then he kissed her on top of the head. “Actually, I take that back. I’m not sorry. If you give me this chance, I’ll be forever grateful.”

“How?” she asked again

It took Denny several moments before he answered her. “You lie, do you know that?,” he asked casually as if he had not just insulted her.

“What?” she asked tersely, sitting up away from him so she could frown. “I most certainly do not.”

He chuckled and reached out a hand to cup her disgruntled face. “You most certainly do. You, Sweetheart, are a walking contradiction. Don’t you know that? You are beautiful, dress well, take care of your body. Why? To be attractive. But what happens when you actually attract attention? You hide behind an ice wall of unavailability.

“Take tonight, for instance. You put on a convincing front; you were poised and clever and oh so alluring, but you didn’t feel it, did you? You smiled standing in front of that crowd, but inside, you wanted to be a million miles from that room. You fake confidence like a hooker fakes an orgasm. It’s a pretty, decorative balloon, filled with emptiness.

“So you see, it’s a lie,” he said with a great, concluding sigh. She looked away, bristled but reflecting. “So no more,” he stated, drawing her attention back to him. “You are not allowed to lie to me, understand? For one, I don’t believe it, so it’s a waste of time, but secondly, and more importantly, you do believe the lies you tell yourself, and that has to stop.”

Too quickly for her liking, her reason agreed with him. She sighed and rolled her eyes. “Fine. No lying, though I think you exaggerate,” she muttered under her breath.

Denny smiled ruthlessly at her. “Good,” he said with an evil gleam in his eyes. “So, let’s get to it, shall we?”

She looked at him warily. “Get to what?”

“You need to practice honesty. And do remember, this is part of the contract, undertaking to answer honestly to the best of you knowledge.”

Her distrustful expression grew, but she nodded cautiously anyway.

He gave a half smile. “I’ve nearly made a fool out of myself letting you know how much I’m interested in you. How about you? Do you want me? I mean, are you attracted to me?”

Alessa couldn’t look at him, but with pursed lips, she slowly nodded.

“Look at me and tell me,” he commanded softly.

She couldn’t stop the shiver of nerves in her stomach before she slowly slid her gaze to his. “Yes, I am attracted to you.”

“And when I kiss you, you feel it, your body responds?”

She cringed a little, but nodded and answered. “Yes,” she breathed.

“And if you weren’t afraid of this, you would let me do more than kiss you, right? If we were alone and I kissed you, would you let me touch you?”

She nodded, her anxious quiver growing.

“Would you let me take off your clothes?”

“You can’t seriously be asking me these questions,” she said incredulously, looking away.

“You agreed to answer any questions. Honestly. Completely.”

“I didn’t! You switched the contracts!”

“You still signed it,” he countered. “At this point, you don’t really have the option. Unless you can cough up seventy-five thousand and face the inevitable crash of your career because you bumbled a straightforward contract,” he threatened solemnly, watching her struggle to submit to the terms she was now bound by. He knew he was pushing her hard, digging deep and extracting her most private feelings, but he also knew she needed that nudge to take her over the edge and into his arms.

“Now, tell me, would you let me undress you?” his voice was smooth and rich and filling her veins.

Her breathing had increased, but she nodded.

“Would you let me kiss you here?” he murmured, lifting his hand to trail a finger down the middle of her chest, sliding between her breasts. He could feel her fine tremble. Again she nodded, her eyes closing to separate herself from reality.

“What about here?” he questioned, his finger sliding all the way down her torso until it paused right above her mound.

Alessa snapped her legs together, her eyes opening once more. “Denny, I don’t-”

But he wouldn’t allow her to deny him. “Answer the question, Alessa. Would you let me lick and kiss and tongue your sweet, little pussy?” he questioned vulgarly.

She moaned, her face scrunched in unbearable discomfort. “Denny,” she tried to avoid again, but his eyebrow arched in warning.

“Answer.” But when she could only barely nod, he commanded, “Say it. Tell me exactly what you would want me to do.”

A gust of breath rushed out from her as she felt deflated and melting all at once. “Yes, Denny, I would want you to-” but she had never said those words, despite all the many stories she had written, she had never actually spoken them out loud, and didn’t think she could start in his presence. “I want you to kiss me there.”

“Where?” he prodded.

She glowered at him, her internal state hardening from the new and inescapable desire blooming. “I don’t want to say it,” she ground out.

“Say it. Or I’ll consider it you reneging on your contract. Answer me honestly? Do you want me to eat you out?”

She couldn’t seem to stop shaking. “Yes, okay? I want you to put your mouth on my pussy.” Her face was an instant flame and she felt nauseous. She turned her body from him, effectively moving away from his reach and was able to look elsewhere.

Denny leaned in, his arm now resting behind her and his mouth positioned next to her ear. “And after I made you come in my mouth, would you let me put my cock inside of you? Would you want me to stretch you out as far as you could go and move in and out until you came around me, milking me until I came deep inside of you?”

Alessa jumped up from the couch and propelled away from him as though she had been scorched. “Denny, I don’t want-”

“To talk about this, I know,” he mocked. “But that’s too bad for you, because this is what I am talking about, and unless you want to default on the contract, we are going to continue this conversation until…I’m satisfied,” he declared, smiling villainously.

Alessa was on the other side of a chair, using it to shield her virtue from him.

“Tell me, if I put my hands down your panties right now, would I find them soaked?”

Her stomach swirled and she glowered at the increasing crudeness of his discussion. “I don’t know,” she bit out.

Denny frowned thoughtfully. “Really? Should I check, then?”

“No!” she nearly shouted.

He only chuckled. “Then how about telling me the truth. Did I make you wet? Did you get turned on just by listening to me describe what you would let me do to you?”

She swallowed, and begrudgingly admitted, “Yes, it turned me on.”

“It made you wet?” he prompted.

“Yes,” she answered honestly through clenched teeth.

Denny narrowed his eyes at her, new thoughts, dangerously sinful thoughts suddenly occurring to him. “Tell me, do you masturbate?”

“Do you?” she returned in a huff, not really wanting to know the answer, but tired of being stripped bare.

He laughed and said, “Of course. Especially lately.” She frowned in confusion. “You see, the woman I’m interested in hasn’t let me fuck her delirious yet, so I haven’t had sex in months, leaving me to…care for myself,” he finished with a smile.

Of course he had been talking about her, and she now felt silly for not catching on sooner. She lowered her eyes, her cheeks lighting up. “Alessa, come sit back down. Sweetheart, I’m not going to attack you,” he suggested lightly, a playful smile on his lips.

She was still weary of him, and of herself, not liking the intimacy of the conversation or his proximity, but she knew she couldn’t stand there all night and so slowly made her way back, choosing at the last minute to sit back in the large chair opposite him. She felt vulnerable, and so grabbed one of the large pillows and squeezed it to her chest.

“Comfy? Now, tell me, do you masturbate?”

She swallowed and reluctantly nodded.

“How frequently?”

“Once, maybe twice a week. Maybe more,” she answered, not really knowing herself.

Denny nodded, accepting her answer. “And do you orgasm every time?”

“Yes.”

“And how do you do it?” She looked up at him and quirked her head. “Do you use any toys or just your hands? Do you do it in any sort of position? What do you think about?” Denny was enjoying the conversation, but wished she was sitting on his lap kissing him as he performed the interrogation.

Alessa tried to make her answers as clinical as possible, hoping it somehow separated her emotionally from what she was disclosing. “I have a vibrator, like a back massager. It has a heating option. Usually I lay on my stomach with a pillow under me with it pressed against me, but sometimes I lay on my back.” She stopped her answering.

“So only clitoral stimulation?” She nodded. “So no penetration?”

“No,” she said softly.

“And what do you think about?” he prodded.

“Denny, I really don’t want to talk about this.” Her face was very red, and her eyes were cast down. He thought he saw them water.

“You can do it, tell me,” he pressed, not quite certain why he was making her share when it was clearly so stressful to her.

It was a few moments before she was able to speak, and when she did, her voice was low and soft and full of shame. “Someone usually rescues me from someone attacking me. And I’m so scared and so grateful, that I confess how I feel about him, that I’ve always loved him and wanted him.”

Denny furrowed his brow. Her confession didn’t seem so bad. He wondered why she should be embarrassed about her vanilla answer. And then a thought occurred to him.

“And who is the guy who saves you? And who does he save you from?”

She was trembling again, the tears were definitely back as she looked up at him pleading silently to not answer.

“Alessa, come here. Sweetheart, come here,” he coaxed gently. “It’s okay, I’m not going to attack you.” Reluctantly, she stood and sat next to him on the couch, her back stiff and her hands fists in her lap. But he didn’t allow her to stay so distant, and in a bold move he reached for her and lifted her up, placing her so she straddled his lap. Her hands were instantly on his shoulder, pushing against him to dislodge herself from his grasp.

“Relax,” he commanded softly.

“This is only supposed to be about conversation,” she argued as she struggled against him.

“Shh, you’re fine, I’m not going to do anything you don’t want.” One hand stayed on her hip while the other drifted under her shirt and up the skin of her back. Her lips were pursed angrily, but she couldn’t control the shudder his caresses elicited. And so she stilled, for a moment feeling no immediate danger, but keeping a wary eye on him.

“It’s hard to say, huh?” he murmured thoughtfully when he felt the change in her, trying to think of a way to put her more at ease to tell him. “Whisper it in my ear, if you want,” he suggested, figuring if she wasn’t being looked at she would feel more in control. He could feel her fingers flex into his shoulders before she swallowed and leaned forward, her torso coming into full contact with his.

Her lips brushed the shell of his ear, and then her warm breath on his skin as she spoke. “The man attacking me is…my father. Not my father, but my father in the fantasy. And the man who rescues me is…” her fingers were nearly painful in his shoulders, “my brother,” she admitted, her voice quivering with her shameful admission.

Denny recalled one of her stories that had been about a brother. And while he knew the relationship was not a viable one, he understood the need behind it. An unconditional lover, someone whose love for her surpassed the parameters of any common romantic relationship. Something that existed at birth and lasted until death.

And suddenly, despite the arousal their conversation had stirred and the pleasure of her body against him, Denny just wanted to hold her. His arms wound tightly around her, pressing her into him. Again, he just held her in silence, feeling his body absorb the tremors of hers. One hand slid up her back to thread into her hair, but its progress was impeded by the up do she still wore.

“Sweetheart,” he coaxed gently, drawing her attention to lift her head, “sit up for me.” Her eyes were tinged with redness, uncertainty creased her brow. She needed that acceptance now, he could knew, needed that unconditional support, despite her less than normal proclivities. His eyes were loving as they caressed her, his hands familiar and confident as one stroked up her arm to cup her cheek and then slide round back to begin pulling at the many pins holding her brunette locks into place. The large knotted mass sagged, and then with one last stopping pin removed, gave way and cascaded around her shoulders, curtaining them in as she was looking down on him. The large braid still remained, and with ever-tender fingers, he slowly unwound it until he could stoke his fingers through her mane unfettered and unhindered.

“You have gorgeous hair,” he murmured. Eventually his fingers moved on from her hair to trace the lines of her face. “And gorgeous eyebrows, and gorgeous eyes. And a perfect nose,” he commented as his finger stroked down it to run over her lips, “and the prettiest, sexiest mouth I’ve ever wanted to kiss.”

But then that mouth tightened. Denny looked up into her eyes questioningly.

“I know I’m gorgeous,” she stated unamused. “That’s why everyone likes me.”

“You don’t seem happy about that fact.”

“Why would I be happy about being liked for something that’s not going to last? I’d much rather be liked for the things I have accomplished.”

Denny’s eyes widened in understanding before he gave a knowing nod. “Of course. You think if people like you for the things you can control, then you can control if people like you. You can keep them from not liking you, from leaving you,” he pieced together.

Alessa’s brow furrowed, her mouth set in an unhappy line. “As riveting as your questions are, I’m getting rather tired of them.” She made to move off his lap, but his fingers tightened around her.

“Well, if you don’t want to talk, I’m okay with that. I’m sure I could find a much more…pleasurable use for your mouth,” he confessed huskily, reaching up to run his thumb over her lips.

But her hands were against his chest, her back arching her away. “Denny,” she attempted to say in warning, but it came out with a needier uncertainty that wasn’t convincing.

“What if I said I liked you for more than your pretty face and figure?”

“I would say, eventually you would like those same qualities in someone else who happened to be younger and prettier,” she predicted.

For a minute, they only stared, both realizing they were at the proverbial stale mate. Alessa sighed, and was relieved when he allowed her to slide of his lap at last.

“Denny, this isn’t getting us anywhere,” she groused.

And he knew she was right. Alessa was tired and irritable, and he had pushed her beyond her comfort level several times. He chuckled dismally.

“I know I gave us more time for this date in hopes that we could finally settle it, but perhaps it was hopefully to think we could work through the night and be at our best. After all, the Great Wall wasn’t built in a day. Well, at least we’ll have a few hours in the morning,” he sighed getting up to stand before her. He took her hands, “Sleep with me,” he requested softly.

Alessa jerked her hands away and scowled at him. “I’m not sleeping with you.”

He smiled mirthlessly and reached up to cup her cheek. “I’m not asking you to have sex with me, just to lay down with me. I know it’s a lot to ask, but I’d like to wake up with you in my arms. At least just once.”

He seemed so forlorn, and so sincere in his intentions, that it was a struggle for her to not immediately grant him his wish. Her lips still pursed together, her mind batting away the rolling pleasure of his tender hand on her face, the needful look in his eyes, she begrudgingly decided it would be equally nice for her to wake up in his arms. Just once.

“Fine,” she mumbled.

He clucked his tongue at her three times as if she were a naughty school girl, and stepped to her, filling the last of the space between them. “Don’t be petulant.” His leaned in as if for a kiss, but her hands came up to his chest.

“Denny, I haven’t given you permission,” she reminded him.

His eyes, smiling, lifted to hers. “Yet. Tell me, can you define a kiss?” he asked.

“Hmm?” she hummed confused as his head continued dipping to hers, but his mouth falling to the side to glide against her cheek, down along her jaw, to rub against the sensitive skin under her ear. The scrape of his stubble was a thousand erotic sensations skittering up her scalp and down her spine.

“A kiss. Its definition. If you want to control the parameters of a kiss, you have to be able to define it,” he instructed, reminding her of basic legal principles.

“Mmm,” she began, trying to think in face of the murmuring warmth in her body Denny’s mouth produced. “Lips. Pressing lips against another surface, most commonly another person’s mouth, but not limited to. Common surfaces also include another person’s skin such as the cheek, forehead, or, oh,” she gasp as she felt his tongue stroke that very sensitive surface on the side of her neck. “The neck,” she breathed at last. “Tongues may also be present,” she added in hind thought, “though tongue alone is not a kiss nor is its present required to be considered a kiss.”

“Very good,” he purred against her. “Anything else you would like to add?” he asked as he took her ear lobe into his mouth and suckled just enough to make her gasp and bend herself into him, giving him even greater access.

“Why do you do these things to me? Why do you make me feel this way when I don’t want to?”

“Oh, Sweetheart, because you do want it. You’re just afraid. I just have to win your trust that I’m not like anything you’ve ever known.” And then he was kissing her neck again before he pulled back to look into her eyes. “And because there’s nothing I want more.” He kissed the tip of her nose lightly and then pulled her into the bedroom. Wordlessly, he guided her to get ready, showing her the supply of guest toothbrushes and face washes while he changed. When they were at last scrubbed and ready for bed, he pulled back the sheets for her.

Alessa got in cautiously, watching him walk around to the other side and slide in comfortably. She lay on her back, her eyes cast to the side watching him as he rolled to face her, his head resting on his propped hand. He was grinning at her like a rascal.

“What?”

“You really never have slept with anyone have you?”

She moved her torso away from him and turned to look at him squarely. “Why do you ask that?”

Denny laughed, finding humor that in their massive king-size bed Alessa lay on the very edge, looking like a princess sleeping under a spell with hands clasped protectively over her chest. Without warning, Denny reached across the space to pull her toward him and firmly position her spooned against his body.

“Denny! What are you–”

“Shh,” he soothed, settling down against her. “When you sleep with someone, this is how you do it,” he murmured into her ear. Denny felt Alessa’s deep breath and slow sigh.

“Now,” he teased lightly, “if you are overcome in the middle of the night with the need to ravish me…” he could feel her tense up, “wake me up first because I don’t want to miss hearing you give me permission for that kiss.”

“Why, you-” but again she was cut off as he dropped a kiss behind her ear and nuzzled into her, deeply inhaling the fresh and sweet fragrance of her.


Chapter Ten

CHAPTER TEN

“Dance me to your beauty with a burning violin
Dance me through the panic ’til I’m gathered safely in
Lift me like an olive branch and be my homeward dove
Dance me to the end of love
Dance me to the end of love.”
“Dance Me to the End of Love” Leonard Cohen

“And. I. Think. That. Will. Do it,” Lou announced slowly, placing the very last touch to Alessa’s face. “Well, what do you think?” she asked as she allowed her to look at herself in the mirror.

For a moment, Alessa only sat with wide eyes and slightly gaping mouth. “Um…wow,” she finally responded.

“Let me see,” Octo begged, and came round to view her sister who was sitting in the chair at the small table in her over-the-garage apartment. “Oh! Alessa! You are the most beautiful woman I’ve ever seen!” she exclaimed, awed by the dramatic look Lou had given her. “Oh, I wish Lou could do my makeup!” she nearly pouted, plopping down adjacent to her sister.

“You don’t wear makeup,” she reminded her sister. “You’re too young and far too pretty to need it.”

Octo raised an eyebrow at that. “I’m not near as pretty as you.”

Alessa laughed out loud, wondering if there was a modest gene that kept people from realizing the extent of their own beauty. “Be that as it may, I think you are pretty and know you will be beautiful. And your flawless skin does not need any makeup.”

Alessa looked back at herself, rubbing her lips together and scrutinizing Lou’s truly talented hand. “I gave you a nude lip so you don’t have to worry about reapplying every ten minutes throughout the night. Plus, with as dramatic as I made your eyes, it would have been too much to give you a bold lip as well,” she explained.

Alessa nodded her head, understanding and agreeing. “I’m quite impressed. Makes me realize how silly it was to think I could have done as good a job with what measly supplies I have,” she admitted, knowing now there was a reason makeup artists had so many utensils and shadows and blushes. For as dramatic as her look was, it didn’t feel or appear heavy. She knew she was beautiful.

She looked back over her hair, making sure nothing had fallen. Lou had taken a thick portion from near the front of her hair and given her a fat Dutch braid, which she then took back loosely with the rest of her hair to wrap up in a slightly messy and easy, heavy knot near the base of her head. Lou explained a simple, mildly deconstructed up do was best with the high collar of her simple gown.

Lou took off the towel she had wrapped around Alessa’s shoulders to keep her silver gown clean during the process and gathered up the last of her supplies. Alessa then offered her a glass of white wine while they waited for her father to pick up Octo and the hired driver to arrive for them.

“Will there be dancing?” Octo asked as they were all seated on Alessa’s two pieces of over-stuffed furniture in the modest sitting area of her loft-style apartment. The gangly teen girl sat on the large, round arm of the small sofa and leaned on her sister, her face pressed gently against Alessa’s hair and her fingers playing fleetingly with her sister’s.

“Sure,” Lou answered. “They hire a great string quartet every year. And people dance and mingle about.”

“Do you eat dinner?”

“Not a full course meal, no. But there’s tons of food passed around by the servers. You just grab what you want. And the best champagne,” Lou said with a dreamy smile. “Or should I say sparkling wine, since Wiles, Mayer, and Schecter uses Farella Vineyard wines exclusively. I think it is part of their agreement in representing the Napa vineyard. And do they make the best sparkling wine money can buy.”

Just then Octo’s phone chimed. She read the text and announced her dad was there. She grabbed her bag and Alessa escorted her to the door. As she gave her a hug, Octo whispered, “Sweep him off his feet so he bids for you. I want to hear about your date. Call me tonight?”

Alessa could only manage an indulging smile, telling herself she was not going to tempt Denton Ashbury to bid for her. “It will be too late tonight. I’ll call you tomorrow.” She kissed her little sister on the cheek.

“Bye Lou!” she called as she left out the door and hopped down the stairs.

Alessa stepped out on the small landing to wave at her father. She saw his hand out the window wave back, and when her sister was settled in the car, he backed out and left.

She hadn’t gone to her senior prom, using the state track meet that took place the same day as an excuse to turn down the few offers she’d had. And though she didn’t have a prom dress, she remembered seeing her father at her meet that day, waiting for him to ask who she was going with, what her dress looked like; would she send him a picture? But he never mentioned it, seemingly oblivious that all of teenagedom was currently absorbed in the single most exciting party experience of their lives. But not her. And because he’d never asked, he’d never known she hadn’t gone.

Alessa finished her white wine, hoping the familiar discontent in her chest would settle like heartburn after a Tums. Not twenty minutes later their driver also arrived, and together the two colleagues-turned-friends settled back and enjoyed the dark drive into the heart of the Financial District.

Every year, Lou explained, the party was held at the Banking Hall at the Bently Reserve. It was a classic space, and as the bank was one of Wiles, Mayer, and Schecter’s most intimate clients, the gala was another example of the very symbiotic relationship in the business world.

Despite the heavy Saturday evening traffic, the driver pulled up relatively timely. The moment Alessa spied all the dazzling lights lining the actual red carpet up the steps of the white-stone building, her stomach dropped and flipped and never seemed to settle. Lou, dressed in a gorgeous and playful lavender dress with yards of gossamer fabric and a neck line plunging nearly to her navel, had her face plastered to the window just like a kid. Tall white columns lined the front of the building, and streaming from them were long red banners announcing the event taking place inside. The entire display was about as much pomp as Alessa thought the occasion could bear.

And much to her immediate discomfort, Alessa noted a slew of photographers lining the red carpet, snapping widely at the many people ascending the stairs. “What are they doing here?” she squeaked, as their car slowed and queued behind a short line of others waiting to unload their passengers.

“The photographers? Alessa, this is one of the events of the season here in San Francisco. Hell, in the nation. This is Omniliance. These parties are legendary. And the crème de la crème are all here. They’re going to raise millions tonight. This is news worthy.”

Alessa tried to breathe out her anxiety, and attempted to convince herself that this was what it was to represent Fortune Five-Hundred corporations. It was a reasonable expectation that she would have to mingle with people who the public at large found to be of entertaining and news-worthy value. And tonight, she was going to fake her way into their ranks.

Eventually, their car stopped and two men stepped forward to open their door. As Lou was sitting next to the door, she was the first to step out, smiling for the snapping photographers. Alessa’s stomach was warning her that she was about to be sick, but she took a deep breath, refusing to fail. And when a hand appeared in the doorway to offer her assistance out, she scooted closer, took it, and stepped one black, satiny foot out onto the pavement.

She was nearly knocked over by the force of the bright lights firing rapidly at her until they all melded into one bright and constant light. She was looking down at the radiant glitter of her dress in the perpetual luminance of the cameras’ flashes. And then she looked up and braved a smile and tried to feign an ignorance of the photographers’ presence, instead focusing on Lou who was posing unabashedly. She took a few steps to join her at the bottom of the steps. Lou encouraged her to look at the photographers and smile, to which she did with a shy smile at first, but before long was smiling widely, unable to keep her embarrassment down. And whenever Alessa was embarrassed, she had a tendency to laugh.

“Okay, I don’t think I can stand anymore,” she whispered through smiling lips and clenched teeth. “I think I’m going to melt under all these lights,” she admitted.

Lou only laughed and, waving to the photographers, led Alessa up the steps to the entrance. In the main lobby of the grand bank was a gallery dedicated to all the projects the Ominliance Charity and Trust was dedicated to managing. Its interests were wide and varied, ranging from women’s rights in Middle East countries, to saving the rainforests in South America, to fighting global poverty, to providing aid to after-school programs in the urban areas. There were people assigned at each charity project booth to give a talk about the importance of their particular endeavor and, of course, to convince the patrons to donate as much as possible to it.

Alessa and Lou made their way through the displays, listening here and there as their interests were piqued. Lou was busy looking for her boyfriend who was supposed to meet her there, as well as any coworkers she’d be interested in talking with, while Alessa furtively kept an eye out for Denny, wondering if he had brought a date, and if he had, what her feelings would be about it.

Eventually, they made their way through the crowd and entered the massive and equally impressive hall where the main festivities were to take place. It was romantically decorated with long, curtaining swaths of endless ethereal fabric. Thousands of candles were placed around on various tables, and along the ceiling, up lighting glowed warmly to make the room feel like a space between heaven and earth, illuminated by an unseen lighting source.

People milled. People laughed. People moved as though part of a larger, swarming organism. The music was moving smoothly in the background just under the consciousness of the party-goers. Alessa and Lou found a group of colleagues who were speaking with some of their clients. The two women fit easily in. At some point, Lou’s boyfriend, Richard, arrived. His suit pants were skinny trousers. He wore a blue bow-tie that had teeny skull and cross bones on it, and his hair looked like it had been cut with a weed whacker and then heavily moussed to lay heavy and flat in a scarecrow mop top. Alessa also noted he had five hoops in one ear and too many in the other to count. She watched them a moment as they kissed and mumbled sexy-nothings to each other.

At last, Lou introduced her to him and the three chatted as a waiter came by to offer the group champagne. They continued speaking until the couple’s drinks were emptied and Richard insisted on pulling Lou out onto the dance floor. He mumbled something about being able to dance, even to dinosaur music.

Alessa was left alone as she watched them get swallowed up by the crowd, and then turned her back and downed the last of her drink.

“Careful there, don’t forget what happened the last time you drank too much,” Denny’s warm voice warned her teasingly.

Alessa spun with wide eyes, surprised at seeing him at last. Her heart gave a hard slam in her chest as she took in how handsome he looked. His black suit was exquisitely cut to his tall and athletic frame. The narrow lapel was in a shinier fabric than the rest, giving just a gleam of sophistication. He wore a black bowtie, that, even though it was crisp and perfect looking, she knew was not merely a clip-on, but had been tied by a skillful hand. And his hair, she noted, looked even more coiffed than was typical, as though he just came from the salon.

“Yes, well,” she breathed, trying to find her voice, “I would argue the amount I drank last time was proportionate to the amount of duress I endured.”

“Funny,” he mused, stepping closer to her so their conversation was more intimate, “I wouldn’t have considered you a coward in need of a little false courage to face any amount of duress,” he said shaking his own champagne flute before finishing it off. Quickly, he placed their glasses on a passing waiter’s tray and took two more. “And to clarify,” he added as he handed her a new glass, “I don’t think you endured anything. As I recall, we had a very pleasant time.”

But Alessa said nothing to his bait as he lifted his new glass to his lips to take a sip, keeping his glittering gaze on her all the while. “I must say,” he continued, “you look absolutely stunning,” he commented, making a point to scrutinize her intently. He loved the simplistic, yet glamorous gown she wore.

The sleeveless gown had a high collar that encircled the base of her neck, highlighting its delicacy, and the fitted torso perfectly accentuated her curves. The bodice of the dark gray, silk chiffon was solidly covered in inch-wide bands of sparkling silver, crystal beads, but as they ran down the torso and continued on down the skirt, the bands began to separate out to create heavy pleats so the silky fabric underneath could be seen. It also seemed, he thought, that though it was silver, it faded here and there into a darker hue to remind him of the Milky Way waving in a magical night sky.

“You are a dream made real,” he breathed poetically, momentarily lost at the difficulty of containing his attraction. Alessa couldn’t help but squirm under his gaze, her body feeling warmed just by the touch of his eyes. At last, Denny regained his senses and took pity on her. “Now, stop looking uncomfortable. I’m about to introduce you to some very important clients, and I want you to do what you do best.”

“And what is that?” she whispered, still burning from the desire and approval radiating from him.

He steered her to a group of distinguished looking people. “Dazzle,” he whispered in her ear, hitching the burn on her skin higher and creating an itch in her belly so deep and novel she struggled to not appear affected.

“Ralph, Gregory. Mrs. Landon, how are you this evening?” Denny schmoozed, taking the gentlemen’s hands and shaking them. “Will you allow me to introduce Alessa Allen, our newest, and I think most promising, associate.” He then went about the group introducing each person to her so she could shake their hands and give some sort of greeting.

“Promising, huh?” Mrs. Landon asked. She was a tall, stoutly woman with large gray hair that was in some puffed style atop her head. Her makeup was severe and her eyebrows were hilariously colored in solid black.

“Absolutely. Not only is she single-handedly leading my latest venture in the Korean market, she recently helped uncover an embezzling scam involving property around the Bay Area.”

“Really? That wouldn’t happen to be old Sloan, would it? I heard talk that he was in trouble for his latest methods of funding his redevelopment projects,” Gregory Lancaster spoke.

“We aren’t at liberty to say just yet,” Alessa answered smiling reluctantly.

“Aw, certainly you can let us in on it, can’t you? Just between friends?”

“Mr. Lancaster,” Alessa said with a smile, “if I were to tell you case-sensitive information, how can I earn your trust that I would keep your own business information confidential and not share it with all my other friends?” Her rebuttal left the older man with a begrudging smile, and the rest of the group chuckled.

“Tell us, Alessa, where did you go to school?” Mrs. Landon.

“Alessa graduated top of her class at Boalt House,” Denny supplied, seeing the cutting calculation in the woman’s eyes.

“Berkeley?” she asked, slightly taken aback.

“Absolutely, I loved it,” Alessa replied coolly, lifting her champagne glass to her mouth and looking around the room.

“Yes, but Berkeley,” the woman kept on puzzled.

“Is an excellent school. It prepared me perfectly for the Bar and to work at Wiles, Mayer, and Schecter.”

Just as Denny was to cut into the conversation, Alessa looked at the woman, as if trying to place her. “You aren’t Joanna Landon of the Landon-Hugh Charitable Trust, are you?” When the woman gave a very dignified, if not slightly smug nod to confirm Alessa’s suspicion, she continued on. “Did your trust not donate nearly two million to build the new wing at the library at Berkeley and stock it with rare anthropological volumes?”

“Yes, that is correct,” the woman smiled proudly.

“Then, I hope, ma’am, if you find Berkeley a worthy enough institution to give it two million of your dollars, you would find it worthy enough to train the lawyers that protect your and your trust’s interests,” Alessa concluded sincerely.

There was silence in the group as they looked at the matron of one of the wealthiest trusts in the state as she coolly dissected Alessa. “I do say, Denny,” she spoke at last, “this one has spunk. I have a feeling, regardless of your education, Ms. Allen, that you will make a fine lawyer with a tongue like that.”

Alessa swallowed while trying to hold onto her mild smile, not certain if she had been praised or chastised. She had a feeling it was a little of both.

Denny spoke up finally, trying to cut the tension by asking one of the men how his new yacht was performing. As the man carried on about it, Denny slipped a hand onto the small of Alessa’s back, meaning to comfort her, to praise her for standing her ground. It occurred to him to wonder how she felt for constantly defending her choice of schools, especially now that he knew she did it for personal reasons, and not for lack of ambition or academic merit.

“And what about you, Miss. Allen, do you enjoy sailing?” Gregory had asked.

Alessa gave a nervous, breathy chuckle. “Heavens, no.”

“Oh, really? And why not?” another one of the men asked.

She looked around the inquiring faces peering expectantly at her. “If I must admit to any weakness, I suppose it would be a fear of the open water. Of drowning.”

Denny narrowed his eyes at her, a wondering smile on his mouth. “I didn’t know that,” he stated.

“Denny, you should take this girl out on your boat and teach her to get over her fear. After all, such a perfect girl can’t be allowed to be afraid of anything,” Ralph, a portly, seventy-something CEO of a retail giant instructed as he smiled flirtatiously at Alessa.

“I’m not certain about that, Mr. Hyght,” she stated. “After all, every great hero has some hamartia. It’s what made all those tragedies so relatable. And as flaws go, I don’t consider not feeling comfortable on the water to be all that bad,” she concluded.

Denny chuckled and then excused them, giving some sort of explanation that he should introduce her to other clients who were lacking in entertainment. As he pulled her away, she stiffened slightly. “Entertainment?” she asked through clenched teeth.

“Absolutely,” he answered her, scanning the crowd. “You probably failed to notice, but most eyes in this room have turned to you more than once. It’s only right that I make sure to show no favoritism among our clients,” he explained as he led her along, keeping his warm and intimate hand on the small of her back.

“You make me sound like a new toy you’re proud to show off. And besides, who appointed you my tour guide?” she continued on in her petulant manner. She was tired of performing and she had been there only thirty minutes.

“I did. After all, you are mine,” he answered unaffectedly.

“What?” she asked sharply, glowering up at him.

“My associate. I hired you, so there is a certain amount of responsibility I have for how you reflect on the firm, not to mention the credit I get for being clever enough to hire you,” he finished with a wide grin. “Now, smile,” he whispered as he steered her to another group of people.

This time, they weren’t all strangers as she saw Jude in a breathtaking satin gown. The golden-beige fabric was draped over one shoulder, leaving the other bare. There were pleats and gatherings at asymmetrical angles making her highly reminiscent of a roman goddess. The only jewelry she wore was a wide, heavy gold band high around her bare arm. Her hair was long in its typical fashion, curling down her back.

She also noted in the group was a short, slightly round man who was balding at the top of his head. The white hair that ran round the perimeter was downy and longer than she would have thought was professional. He had a matching, thick mustache and thick glasses so his eyes appeared larger behind them than they really were. She had seen pictures of him frequently enough round the office to know he was the chairman of the board of Wiles, Mayer, and Schecter LLP.

Mr. Schecter’s pleasant, beguiling appearance belied the daunting fact that the senior partner had been the preeminent negotiation lawyer in the state, and quite possible the country, with candid and sometimes shockingly blunt tactics. He was shorter than she would have imagined, but the moment he spoke, his Queens accent was exactly as she expected. His Jewish heritage was evident in his eyes, his nose, and his voice and made her instantly smile. He was charm itself, and when they were at last introduced, she knew it was love at first sight.

“So you are the very talented Ms. Allen I have been hearing so much about. Ms. Macrae has nothing but the best to say about you.”

Her eyes darted to the tall and svelte Jude who stood with her champagne flute in her hand as though it were a glamourous cigarette holder. A golden eyebrow arched at Alessa, a smile playing just on the other side of her lips.

“I am so very pleased to hear it, Mr. Schecter.”

“And how are you liking working at our firm?”

“Very much. It is exactly as I had hoped for.”

“Finding enough to keep you interested?”

Alessa checked the impulse to look at Denny, knowing he was smirking at the answer that was doubtless at the front of her mind. Yes, she was very interested in what she had found at Wiles, Mayer, and Schecter, but she didn’t think that was the answer the old partner was after.

“Alessa has the best dedication to her case load I have ever seen,” Denny offered chuckling. “Puts the rest of us to shame.”

She barely held back the blush that was just on the inside of her skin, while struggling to ignore him and any unease he caused.

“And are you enjoying your time this evening?” a middle-aged man with salt and pepper hair asked. Denny had introduced him as Peter McConnell, a member of the Omniliance board, and a client of her firm.

“It is certainly a gorgeous party, that can’t be argued,” she replied with a smile, hoping some amount of dazzle showed through to give her words credence.

“Any particular charities you are found of?”

Alessa was caught a moment as her brain quickly scrambled to form a suitable answer. After all, she didn’t generally donate to any charities. She wasn’t comfortable with the idea of handing over money to nebulous enterprises where the majority of her contribution went to overhead costs for running the charity, instead of addressing the actual purpose of the charity. But she knew of one that she had given money to in the past and would do so again in the future.

“The Alameda food bank I think is a very well-run institution. With your donated finances, they are able to buy fresh, whole foods and distribute them to populations who don’t have access to healthy food. Unlike other food banks where people simply donate food already bought, most often cans or unhealthy, easy-to-make dinners, this food bank pools the financial resources and can buy vegetables and such at whole-market price. That means the money you donate actually goes further than if you were to just buy some extra cans from your grocery store and donate them. They also run on a large volunteer basis so there is less over-head.”

“I didn’t know that,” said Mr. Schecter. “The poor are important to you?”

She opened her mouth but paused, daring to take a leap. “As cliché as it may sound, there are a lot of hard working people in the world who struggle to make ends-meet. And sometimes, it’s not so much that people are completely destitute despite their hard work, but that in spite of it, they can’t advance; there is no wiggle room to make just a five dollar gain a month. Organizations like the food bank are tools for people to make small steps up in the world.”

“But the poor will always exist,” someone commented.

“True, but so should generosity and the unflinching resolve to ease the lives of those around us,” she countered. “I’m not saying the food bank will end poverty for all time, but it will be a great benefit to some, and who knows what future Einstein or Schweitzer or Salk will have a chance to contribute to the world because they were supported by their community.”

“I hope I am not interrupting,” someone spoke from behind Alessa. She turned and smiled at seeing Hyun-Joong standing there smiling down at her.

“Denny, good to see you,” he greeted smiling at his friend, giving him a firm handshake.

“Hyun-Joong, glad you could make it. You know Mr. Schecter and Jude Macrae,” Denny said before introducing him to the other people standing around. Questions were asked and chit-chat was made, until eventually Hyun-Joong turned his attention down on Alessa.

“Actually, as nice as it is to meet you all, I came over to ask Ms. Allen if she would dance with me,” he said smiling.

Alessa smiled immediately, but then glanced at Denny to see his reaction. His expression was contained, with a mixture of amusement and challenge glittering in his eyes. Though it should have meant nothing, after all, she was attending the party for the very purpose of mingling with clients, she could feel the tension rising in him.

“Yes, thank you Mr. Park, I think a dance is exactly what I need,” she accepted with a smile, and as she placed her hand in his, she turned back to Denny, giving him a look of smiling defiance.

“You were having quite a lively conversation,” Hyun-Joong commented as he pulled her into his arms, leading their bodies to sway in time with the music.

“Yes, and thank you for saving me.”

“Saving you? It sounded as if you were doing quite well for yourself,” he commented, pulling her deep into the swirling crowd.

“Well, exactly. My purpose here is to prove that I belong. It’s all a big test, really, and quite frankly, I needed a break from being so damn clever,” she grumbled, tired of being forced to converse with strangers.

Hyun-Joong threw his head back and gave a shout of laughter. He knew she hadn’t meant to sound like a braggart, but that was exactly how she had come across. His arms tightened around her. “Well, in that case, I promise you don’t have to perform for me. Just be yourself and I’ll be satisfied.” His embrace was firm, and as Alessa looked up into his smiling brown eyes, she felt the light tingle of butterflies.

“Thanks. It means a lot to me. You know,” she said after she had given it some thought, “my firm has selected me to be one of the lucky participants of the date auction later this evening.”

“Actually, I did know,” he answered with a mock-calculating smile.

“You did? But how–“

Hyun-Joong pulled out the pamphlet for the fundraiser. “They have all the dates listed on here with a short bio. And a photo,” he said smiling.

Alessa raised her brows and rolled her eyes. “Of course. I just hope I don’t embarrass myself by not getting any bids.”

“I wouldn’t worry about that,” he intoned.

“And why not?”

“It seems as though you are to be the headliner.” When she gave him a puzzled look, he explained. “You’re going last. They always save the person they expect to get the most bids for last.”

“Good grief,” she moaned, “I really am nothing more than a show pony, or worse, a freak in a circus,” she mumbled miserably. “Still, it is a little scary to think about, knowing you could so easily be mortified by receiving no bids,” she mused.

“Will you allow me to put your fears at rest? It just so happens when I saw a date with you was being auctioned, I made certain I had seventy-five thousand transferred to my slush fund account.”

“Seventy-five?” she repeated flabbergasted. And then she was horrified. “Oh, Hyun-Joong, you cannot spend that much money on me. It’s too ridiculous. It’s a waste.”

“How is it a waste if the money is simply for charity’s sake? After all,” he murmured, pulling her a little more tightly, “you haven’t exactly promised me a date yet. This could be my only chance.”

Alessa could feel a reaction rising within her body, and was disconcerted at its presence. “Hyun-Joong, tonight’s date is merely for the sake of networking. To socialize and make connections within the business world. It isn’t supposed to be…personal. I wouldn’t want you to spend your money on false hopes.”

“You just smile as we dance, and leave the hopes to me.”

For the remainder of their dance he asked her about her dress, which led into a discussion about her shopping outing with her sister and Lou. When the music stopped, Hyun-Joong looked back to where he had taken her from and debated escorting her to the opposite side of the room.

“Enjoy the dance?” Denny asked from behind them.

They turned to him, Hyun-Joong’s arm slipping from her waist. “Yes, as a matter of fact. Alessa’s a great dancer.”

She gave a nervous chuckle. “I don’t know how I managed that. I really don’t ever dance. Must have been my partner,” she supplied, smiling up at Hyun-Joong.

“I’m sure that’s it. Well, as much as I hate to drag you away from your partner, I should introduce you to other clients,” Denny stated, holding his arm out for her. Despite the mild attraction she had felt towards Hyun-Joong, she didn’t feel threatened by him as she did with Denny, and so she was reluctant to part from the ease in his presence. She smiled at him in as she slipped her hand on Denny’s arm.

“Don’t forget your promise,” she called as she was pulled away.

“You have my word,” Hyun-Joong answered cryptically.

When they were some distance from him, with tens of people in between, Denny asked to what promise she referred. She was tempted to not tell him, to goad him with keeping secrets, but something inside thorned her to tell him. Maybe to let him know she was getting along well with one of his clients. Maybe to make him jealous that someone else valued her. Maybe to hear he wanted to bid for her. Maybe.

“He said he planned on bidding for me.”

Denny was silent.

“He said he was willing to go to seventy-five thousand.” When they were alone against a wall near the draping, sheer curtains that thinly veiled the city lights outside the window, Denny at last looked down at her.

“And you want to go on a date with him?”

“I told him the date for tonight was not the sort of date he was after,” she confided, though she wasn’t certain why.

“And what sort of date is he after?” Denny remained strangely calm.

“He took me to lunch one day. He asked if he could see me again. I told him that he was a client, and it was a tricky road to navigate dating a client.”

“That’s all that held you back?”

She could just discern a tightness to his voice.

“No. That wasn’t all.” She looked up at him, her eyes held by his sharp gaze. And as she blazed in the fire she saw there, all the attraction she had felt towards Hyun-Joong seemed to burn away. “Denny, I–”

But his hard mouth against hers cut off whatever she was going to say. His kiss was angry and she felt heartbroken that though they were kissing, they weren’t connecting. His firm hand on the nape of her neck held her to him until at last he yanked his mouth away to stare into her eyes. But he didn’t explain himself as she had expected. Instead he pulled away, taking her by the hand and mumbling something about leaving her with Macrae.

They wove through the crowd like a needle and thread; Denny was sharp and decisive in his movements, and Alessa trailed numbly behind wherever he led. They at last found Macrae in the midst of several distinguished looking men. They were all laughing at something she had said, but when Denny cut in, her eyes narrowed at Alessa.

“You’ll look after her, won’t you?” was all he said before he turned to leave her there under the supervision of Macrae as though she were a child in need of a babysitter.

Alessa was reeling by his behavior, feelings of mortification, indignation, and heartbreak all swirling wildly in a tangled maelstrom. Macrae put a soft hand on her shoulder, drawing Alessa’s attention back to her surroundings.

“Gentlemen, may I introduce Alessa Allen. She’s one of our new associates. She’s already made quite a name for herself.” Jude took turns introducing the young associate to the rich clients. Mild conversation was made until Macrae excused them.

She looped her arm through Alessa’s and led her to other groups of people mingling. The evening was interspersed with various presentations to highlight the many projects Omniliance was involved in followed by an auction of some category of items to raise money to support it. They auctioned vacation packages, cars, jewelry, paintings, and the affair was to culminate with the date auction.

Alessa felt somewhat brittle after her confrontation with Denny, of whom she hadn’t seen but glimpses here and there since. She spoke with Hyun-Joong again, but the conversation was empty and tense. She was asked to dance several more times, even gracing a very eager and not overly-subtle Josh Caplin with a song, and did her best to fake an interested and charming demeanor, though she assumed she failed miserably.

Denny had officially ruined her evening.

It was nearing eleven when Lou found her in a flurry of excitement. It was time to start the bidding for the dates the excited friend announced. Alessa’s stomach dropped as Lou ushered her to the far end of the room where all the participants were to meet. Even though she knew it was coming, Alessa somehow had managed to place it from her mind. But now that it had arrived, she was suddenly awash with endless doubt and fear and nerves.

The ten employees were split into male and female factions and seated on either side of the small stage that had been erected. One of Macrae’s assistance was there to organize them all according to the order they would appear on stage, and as Alessa took the seat on the end, she scanned the gathering crowd for Denny.

It was some minutes before the auction began, with Jude Macrae and a senior VP from Omniliance performing the small introduction, the niceties of the event explained by the VP and the guidelines for the dates delineated by Macrae. They at last turned the final auction of the evening over to the hands of the distinguished auctioneer who worked at the city’s finest auction house.

The first person up was a rather good looking young man Alessa had seen around the office. The auctioneer detailed that he was in the IT department, liked to play rugby, and enjoyed dancing into the early hours of the morning. Much to Alessa’s surprise, a woman, perhaps old enough to be his mother, made the final bid at fifteen thousand. There was a great amount of cheering and applauding as the woman stepped forward to escort her young date to the back of the room where all transactions of the night were being completed.

Despite her nerves, Alessa caught herself smiling a few times, and even laughing once when the auctioneer disclosed the current date’s secret obsession was volunteering for date auctions. By eleven thirty, only one man was left as Alessa sat alone on her empty row. When she realized she had crumpled the fabric of her dress up in her hands so much the rhinestone were making them sore, she immediately released the skirt and smoothed it out.

When she looked back up, she saw Hyun-Joong make his way toward the front of the crowd, his eyes on her, his mouth smiling reassuringly. Thus far the top bid had only been thirty-five thousand, and she was a little disappointed that she wouldn’t see just how much he was willing to pay for her. Her eyes still wandered over the crowd, and when she looked across the room, she saw him.

Denny was two people deep at the far side of gathering. Despite the distance and dim lighting, the intensity of his eyes was like a spike of heat driving straight through her. Alessa didn’t know how long she held his stare, but when the applause roared, she looked around and realized the auctioneer had called for her to come to the stage.

Alessa masked herself with a smile of charm and ease. She walked gracefully to the spot all the others had taken before her, shook hands with the auctioneer and turned to smile out over the audience. Her ears were trained to his words and she felt herself mildly blush at hearing all he had to say.

“Alessa grew up right here in the Bay Area, ran track for UC Berkeley, loves Korean food and oysters, and is the newest associate at Wiles, Meyer, and Schecter. She specializes in international business law, but finds the most enjoyment pretending to be Perry Mason.”

While the crowd laughed at her unauthorized bio, she shot Denny a quick, terse look, knowing only he could be responsible for sharing such personal information. But she quickly schooled her expression to smile pleasantly back at the crowd as the man got on with the bidding.

Much to her surprise, and everlasting relief, the bids instantly moved up, and quickly surpassed the thirty-five thousand mark. Alessa beamed at Hyun-Joong when he bid, but she couldn’t keep her eyes from drifting to Denny and watched as he only stood there observing the action but not participating once.

She didn’t realize she was doing it, but Alessa tried to console herself by assuming he was more than likely waiting until the end to bid. But eventually, when the bid reached fifty-thousand, only three remained and Denny hadn’t once given any indication that he was interested. Soon, it was down to Hyun-Joong and a man Alessa hadn’t yet met. She watched with growing anxiety as the bid crept ever upward to Hyun-Joong’s limit of seventy-five, and still Denny hadn’t participated.

She finally understood how much she had not only wanted him to bid on her, but to win the bid when she realized her stomach was knotted because she was waiting for him. And though the two bidders were to her center and right, she couldn’t keep from looking to Denny at the far left of the room, her eyes questioning.

“I have seventy-five thousand, do I hear eighty?”

Alessa turned her attention back to the action. She looked at Hyun-Joong who gave her a lopsided, sad smile and then he shook his head no.

“Seventy-five thousand once. Twice.”

The auctioneer held his hand high with the small wooden gavel in his fist. Alessa felt every muscle tighten. She refused to look at Denny again. And then an unpleasant jolt went through her as the hard little piece of wood banged down, declaring an end.

“Sold to the man in the blue suit at seventy-five thousand dollars, ladies and gentlemen!” And the crowd erupted. There was a bevy of movement, everyone stirring excitedly. Alessa stood frozen at the unexpected turn-of-events and attempted a calm smile as the nameless man with brown hair walked forward to the stage to collect his prize.

“Ms. Allen, it is very nice to meet you. My name is Jacob.” He stretched out his hand to assist her from the low stage.

“It is nice to meet you. Thank you–” but she was interrupted by a squealing Lou who nearly bowled her over in her zeal to hug her in congratulations.

“What did I tell you! They’d have paid a million dollars for you if they’d had it,” she boasted, nearly squeezing the life out of Alessa.

“I thought they were millionaires,” Alessa mumbled as she tried to extricate herself, but Lou squeezed on.

“You looked so gorgeous. You did amazing! Fantastic! I think that was the highest bid anyone’s received. Like. Ever!” she finally released her to smile brightly and then get introduced to the man who paid such an extravagant amount for a single date. “And who are you, then?” she asked, sticking her hand out to shake. “I’m Lou. I work with Alessa.”

“Nice to meet you,” he greeted politely, if not a little stiff. “I was just about to ask Ms. Allen if she would like to accompany me now so we can get ourselves checked out.”

Alessa was a little surprised at how quickly he wanted to leave, but nodded her head at any rate. “You already have a date in mind? I mean, something you want to do?”

“Actually, yes, if you don’t mind. We can discuss it in the car. I believe it is waiting out front,” he explained as they pushed their way through the crowd. Everyone was clamoring to speak with her, and he had to gently, but firmly place a hand on her arm. She heard a few comments about how eager he was to make good on his date, followed by chuckling.

Though he was polite, he didn’t seem too interested in her, and considering how much he had just paid, she was beginning to think his behavior odd. “And what do you do, Mr-?” she asked as they stood in line.

“Anderson, Ms. Allen. And I am involved in the supply side of the market.”

Alessa’s smile tightened as her eyes narrowed. “That is a little vague, isn’t it?”

“Generalization allows for a greater variance in what I do.”

Alessa chuckled. “Sounds as ambiguous as working for the mob.”

But Jacob Anderson only looked at her with a rather bland expression.

Somehow, this date for mingling was suddenly careening out beyond the parameters she could control. And so she kept trying to uncover the root of her suspicions. “I was quite surprised the bidding got as high as it did. Tell me, why me? I mean, had you planned on bidding on a me specifically, or was I just the last one and you didn’t want to leave the party alone?” she tried to ask with a teasing laugh.

“You specifically, Ms. Allen.”

Her forced laughter faded easily in the sobriety of his answer. They were at last to the table to check out. Alessa no longer felt safe with this man. He pulled a silver credit card from his wallet and handed it to the blonde sitting there to take his payment. Alessa opened her mouth to speak to the woman smiling in congratulations at both Mr. Anderson’s high bid and Alessa’s honor at such a price, but nothing came out as she immediately remembered she would be responsible for covering the cost of the bid should she choose to not fulfill her end of the agreement. And after all, she had nothing concrete to object to, no rules he had broken.

Suddenly she was searching around for Lou. “Excuse me,” she said to Jacob when she spied her friend, cutting off the blonde who was asking what fun they were going to have that night, and then dashed to Lou before he could stop her.

“I know it’s silly,” Alessa explained immediately without allowing Lou any chance to speak, “but I really don’t know this guy from Adam. I want you to text me every thirty minutes, so for a three hour date that should be six times by the time I get back to my home. I’ll just text you back a name of each of the shops we went to, how does that sound? So if I don’t answer or don’t text back only the names, then can you do something?”

Lou’s brow was furrowed. “Sure thing, but you really don’t think anything will happen, do you?”

“No, of course not, it’s only–”

“Ms. Allen, are you ready?” Jacob spoke from behind her.

She had been leaning down to whisper in Lou’s ear, and when she heard his voice, she straightened up, with a resigned look.

Lou smiled at her. “You’re just imaging things,” she whispered. “You’re trying to get out of it because you’re a stick in the mud. Now, go have fun!”

“Promise?” Alessa demanded undeterred.

“Yes, I promise,” Lou swore with an indulging shake of her head and smile.

Alessa tried to tell herself she was being dramatic as she turned with a tight-lip smile to Jacob. He held his arm out to her, and she slowly slipped her hand onto it. She was silent as they departed the main hall and walked back through the large, sunken lobby. Her eyes drifted over the many booths people were once again standing around discussing the various projects.

“It was very kind of you to pay such a large amount. The money will hopefully go to one of these good causes,” she mused.

“I didn’t pay anything.” They were outside, once again heading down the red carpet stairs to a line of black limos parked along the curb.

He stopped at one of them and opened the back door.

“What did you say?”

“I paid for nothing.”

“I don’t understand, how could you not–”

“It wasn’t my money, Ms. Allen. It was his.”

And then Alessa saw the hand reaching out from the dark of the car through the open door, waiting for her to accept.


Chapter Nine

CHAPTER NINE

“Beautiful loser
Where you gonna fall?
When you realize
You just can’t have it all”
“Beautiful Loser” Bob Segar

“Listen,” Jude cut in for the last time, wondering how Denny had managed to make any head way with the stubborn woman, “right now, you are no good to anyone. You’ve worked yourself to the bone. From one woman to another, you look awful. And from a senior partner to a new associate, you’re about to burn out that bright little light. You won’t last a year here, let alone an entire lifetime if you can’t learn to stop and take a deep breath when you need it. So, stop arguing with me and get on the elevator,” Jude commanded a reluctant Alessa, waving her arm through the open door to usher her in.

From the moment Jude had said she was taking her for a drink, Alessa had done nothing but raise objection after objection. Her stamina to argue was impressive, but Macrae wasn’t going to allow her to win this time, and therefore was in no mood to hear her many refusals.

Alessa wondered if she should speak up and admit that her current haggard state had nothing to do with her ability to manage her work load, and all to do with her torment under Denny’s hand. But she didn’t think that answer improved the situation any, and so remained silent as she followed Jude down the street to the small, local bar.

It wasn’t too crowded, as many in the financial district had headed home by that late hour, but there were a few patrons scattered about, drinking their choice unwinder before heading home to familial obligations. Alessa followed Jude to the bar where she ordered a Vodka on the rocks with a twist of lemon. Alessa thought quickly, and remembered the tasty cocktail she had ordered with Denny. But she frowned and dismissed the idea, instead ordering the same as Jude.

In the beginning, they only sat in silence as Jude cast a scrutinizing eye over Alessa, taking in her beauty, but also the weariness, the darkened circles under the eyes, the hair pulled up in a ponytail, and the unease of sitting under the older woman’s inspection.

“So, the easiest question, though perhaps the dullest: how are you liking working at the firm?” Jude began, taking a sip from her clear, refreshing drink.

Alessa opened her mouth to speak, but Jude cut her off. “And since I took the effort to ask, you can at least give me an honest answer, not a canned one,” she preemptively chided.

Alessa looked down at her little glass, watching the condensation slide down the outside like tear drops. “I don’t regret working here, becoming a lawyer. It isn’t always easy or pleasant, but I think I am doing a good job, and I am satisfied with it.” She looked back up at Jude levelly, her expression neutral, but her eyes carrying the balance of both success and the sacrifice required to obtain it.

“But you’re so young,” Jude commented casually. “Don’t the long hours cut into your personal life?”

“I don’t have as much time available to be idle as I’d like, but I believe my time is well employed. And my lack of time only forces me to appreciate the time I am with my family more.”

“How very politic of you,” Jude said with narrowed eyes. “But what about relationships? Surely your boyfriend objects.”

Alessa took a deep breath. “I’m not dating anyone. I’m not looking to date anyone. At the moment, my career is paramount. I’m sure a boyfriend would object to my lack of time with him. It’s only another good reason to not date,” Alessa replied confidently.

“I think many people were surprised when I became a lawyer,” Jude supplied, seemingly off topic. Alessa was finally becoming interested in the conversation as she listened to the senior partner, and former super model, discuss her own private life. “It was probably because everyone thinks models are dumb, or at the very least, if you did as well as I did, surely you don’t really need to work for a living. But the truth of the matter is, I wasn’t ever overly keen of the whole industry, and so only used it for what I could get out of it.

“When I was twenty-five, I had plenty of money, had connections all over the world, had seen and travelled and done. I was perfectly content. Until I realized I was only twenty-five. That was only a quarter of my life. I’d been married for two years to Keith by that time, but I was beginning to not want to be part of the lime-light. After all, I’m actually rather shy when it comes down to it and the fame of being a supermodel and married to a rock star wasn’t an easy side-effect to bear. So I had to decide. What did I want to do with the rest of my life?

“I certainly didn’t want to segue into being a designer or photographer like so many others do when their looks start to go. I didn’t want to be pushed to the periphery of the inner circle, always remembering what it used to be like when I was the center. So I needed something altogether different. Ran, Randol my manager, always said I had killer instincts when it came to working out the details of my contracts. He made me believe I could be a lawyer. He used to work here before he started his own firm and so he got me a meeting with Mr. Mayer. He convinced him I would be worth it, and so Mayer promised, if I got into Harvard, passed within the top ten percent, he’d hire me.” She took another drink, her ice rattling.

“That seems awfully unrealistic.” When Jude raised an eyebrow, Alessa hastily explained. “I only mean that’s an extremely high expectation. Unrealistic, even, especially considering others who have been hired by the firm don’t even come close to that level of success in school.”

Jude shrugged, crunching her ice. “I think it was just his litmus test to guarantee I was serious about law, not just moving on to my next fad.”

And if after two years I made good on my education, he’d allow me to buy in as Senior Partner.

“If anyone thinks being a celebrity is hard work, with grueling hours and endless pressure while constantly being under the scrutiny of the public’s eye, they haven’t seen anything like a first-class lawyer. In a way, I was probably a lot like you. Very driven to do something else. But I did keep three of my most lucrative contracts, and yet managed to graduate fourth in my class and then put in eighty-hour-work weeks here. But that was a lot of strain to keep a marriage to a musician. His band was on tour a lot of the time, and in the end, we lost the connection. Anyway, I went on to have a string of lover’s, and put my hand in at a serious relationship here and there. But no matter how much I wanted them to work, they usually didn’t last in the fervor of my career.

“I’ve never regretted it, though, even after the death of my marriage to a man I still love to this day; even after countless failed relationships and heartbreak; even after not being there when my father passed away from cancer back in Australia.” She let all her losses hang in the air between them as she finished her drink, the thin ice rattling ever so slightly.

Alessa eventually spoke up, her resolve returning to her. “Thank you for sharing. You’ve certainly convinced me.”

Macrae’s eyes narrowed into slits. “And just what have I convinced you of?”

“Well, that relationships can’t work. Not if I want to be successful here. They just turn out to be a waste of time and a source for endless heartache and strife.”

Jude wore a disbelieving, incredulous half smile. “Little girl,” she almost sneered, “my story wasn’t to warn you to not get involved. I said I didn’t regret the effort I put into my career. But that doesn’t mean I don’t regret the effort I didn’t put into my relationships.”

“But if you couldn’t make them work, numerous times, then I doubt it’s possible,” Alessa defended.

“It is if you realize what is valuable and worth the effort and then if you act accordingly,” Jude countered, looking thoughtfully into her empty glass. “As great as it is, love isn’t enough, especially with our high-demanding careers. It doesn’t mean we put less effort into it, it means we put more. I mean, after all, a career isn’t enough. You need something to restore what this job strips from you.”

Alessa made no reply.

“And while I regret making the wrong choices in my relationships, I never regret loving them or being loved by them,” Jude finally concluded, taking Alessa’s untouched drink and downing it for herself. “No. If you love them, then it is worth all the effort it will take.”

The next morning Lou came to sit at Alessa’s desk while she had her mid-morning snack. “You look awful,” she said instantly. “How late did you stay last night?”

“I think I left around one,” she admitted, her voice heavy with nasal congestion.

“Ew, you sound awful, too,” Lou pointed out. “Why so late? Working on a new project?”

Alessa shook her head, too many things wrong and happening to list at once. “I sort of got side tracked.”

Lou grinned. “Really? By what? Or should I say whom?” she teased, hoping to hear something about Denny.

Alessa finally admitted to being taken out for a drink with Jude.

“Macrae!” Lou whispered loudly. “And here I thought this whole time you were simply waiting on Denny to make a move. I didn’t know you were a lesba,” she continued to whisper.

“What?” Alessa was surprised and confused. “I don’t know what you’re talking about. Jude took me out because I was in a rotten mood. I’m not a lesbian,” she explained. “Why would you think that?”

“Well,” Lou began, suddenly realizing Alessa must be ignorant of Macrae’s preferences. “It’s just that, well, Macrae is into women.”

Alessa frowned. “I don’t think so. I mean, she was married. To a man. And she said she still loves him.”

“Yeah, but just because she loves men doesn’t mean she can’t also be into women. And I think you’d be just her type, too.”

Alessa rolled her eyes at that and turned back to her paperwork.

“Why were you in a cruddy mood?” Lou asked.

Alessa gave a big sigh and looked around. “I’ve been asked to be part of the date auction at the fundraiser.”

“What! Congratulations! That’s a big honor around here. It means the firm thinks you’ve got talent. They want to show you off.”

“Yeah, that’s what I’m afraid of. And I haven’t even gotten a dress yet,” she mumbled miserably.

“Then I know what we are doing this weekend,” Lou said with a big grin. “And I also know that this means you must let me do your hair and makeup. Agreed?”

“I don’t know, Lou,” Alessa hedged, not entirely comfortable leaving her appearance into the hands of another. Especially when she was to be put on display, as it were.

Lou wore a wounded expression. “What? Don’t you trust me to make you look beautiful?”

Alessa bit the inside of her lip, thinking. “You’ve seen my blog, right? You know I can do a good job,” she pressed. Eventually, Alessa bent, and nodded her concession.

“Fine,” she muttered, “but you’d better not make me look like a clown.”

“Perish the thought, my good lady. You shall be the most enchanting creature there.” A slow and devilish smile crept across her face. “I even bet you a hundred bucks that Denny asks you for a dance.”

“Shh!” Alessa hissed, looking around. “Will you keep your voice down when you say inflammatory things that can damage my career?”

“I find it interesting you’re not denying it,” Lou replied with a smug smile.

“You’re delusional, and your fantasies are not appropriate for the work place,” she scolded, trying to dissuade her friend that anything was happening between her and her supervisor.

Lou’s generally sweet eyes narrowed in calculation, her mouth displaying a slow and knowing smile. “Admit it,” she said slowly, her determination to know all evident in the strength of her voice.

“I am admitting to nothing. You’re just drumming up nonsense that isn’t there,” Alessa continued to deny.

But Lou wasn’t to be deterred. She knew attraction when she saw it, and her friend’s refusal to even allow the idea that she was attracted to Denny, as he was to her, wasn’t going to convince her otherwise.

“And besides, I can’t go dress shopping with you this weekend. I’m taking my little sister to help me find one.”

“I don’t mind tagging along. I insist on being there to see the dress. That way I can be thinking about hairstyles. So where shall we meet?”

“I had just thought of going to a Sak’s or–”

“What? No, no, no, my dear, simple girl. This is a big to-do. The richest of the rich will be at this party. And the company is expecting them to pay for your time. Big bucks. You can’t just go and pick something off the rack. I know. Leave it to me. I’ll text you the address tomorrow. I assume you’re working in the morning?”

“I’d planned on it, yeah. And then I’ll pick my sister up around one or so.”

“Sounds perfect.” And with that, she promised to text her the following day and left to get back to work. Alessa was thankful Denny was out of the office, and for once, all week long, she was able to concentrate and accomplish quite a bit of work. Saturday followed just the same, and the feeling that some amount of control was restored empowered her stride. She picked up her sister that afternoon as planned. She was able to get away without any degrading remarks from Shelly, and before long the two sisters met up with Lou at the address she had given Alessa. The first shop was a chic boutique done all in white marble and plush furniture in the sitting area.

When all three arrived there, introductions were made and a game plan was formed. Lou’s naturally child-like enthusiasm and care-free attitude, coupled with her love of fashion made her and Octo extremely well paired to take on Alessa and her conservative taste, which they interpreted as boring. Eventually, it was finally decided that everyone could make their own selections, and Alessa agreed to try them all on. Though she obviously had the last word, she promised to sincerely consider their opinions.

By five that afternoon, they had been to four shops, drank five lattes between them, and she had tried on a thousand dresses. One came very close, but something in the white embroidered flowers that lined the top of the bodice and cascaded down to accentuate her breasts felt slightly juvenile, as though she might see it in a prom magazine, and so had passed. Her feet were aching and she was ready to just take whatever fit best at the latest shop she was at. She was taking off her last gown and could hear her sister and Lou laughing hysterically at something out in the waiting room, when the gray-haired saleswoman assisting her knocked and asked to enter.

“I think this might be what you are looking for,” she said, trying to hide a smile. “It’s a vintage piece we had in storage, and I nearly forgot about it. Tell me what you think,” she said hanging the covered garment on a free hook and then unzipping the bag that appeared to be made from black velvet. When she peeled back the sides to reveal the sparkle underneath, Alessa felt her heart leap.

She took a mesmerized step forward. “Oh my,” she breathed, every girly fiber in her being vibrating happily at what she saw. The sales woman helped her into it, zipping up the back all the way to the base of her neck. Alessa moved her torso around, getting it to fit just right.

“As you can tell, women used to be a lot more petite back in the day, but I think it just fits. How does it feel?”

“Divine,” she answered, spell-bound by her reflection in the large mirror before her. She then broke out in a huge smile. “I don’t think I need their approval, but I better go show them which one I’ve chosen.”

“Oh, god! You’re gorgeous,” Lou announced, hopping to her feet when Alessa emerged from the dressing room hallway.

“Alessa, it’s beautiful,” Octo agreed, coming forward to touch the magical gown. “This is it, isn’t it? It has my vote,” she stated.

All three girls stood looking into the mirror at her dazzling reflection. “Well, ladies,” she said smiling, “think I’ll get any bids?”

Everyone, including the saleswoman, unanimously voted on the vintage gown. Alessa nearly choked out loud when the saleswoman rang up her bill and the dress was priced at seven-thousand. Thankfully, she was well paid by the firm and her frugal manners had ensured she saved more than she spent.

Once they had exited the shop, Lou commented Alessa was still in need of a new bra to form a more fitting silhouette in the dress. Octo was eager to go to a lingerie shop, and despite her reluctance, Alessa allowed Lou to drag her to one more store.

Octo was enthralled with the lingerie boutique, wanting to touch all the silky, lacy, strappy pieces she could. And the saleswoman at that shop seemed just as eager as Lou to get the beautiful young woman into some very expensive, very alluring underwear. As at the dress shops, Lou insisted on seeing each piece, arguing it was the only way she could judge which would look best under the dress. Eventually Alessa gave in, trying to convince herself it wasn’t any different from being viewed in a bathing suit. Though, she thought with a grimace looking in the mirror, she never wore sheer bathing suits that so fully exposed her body underneath. And as Lou was going into the dressing room once Alessa had something on, Octo insisted, too. For the most part, the comments were kept to the task at hand, but Lou still managed to slip in a mumbled sentence about wondering if Denny would like a particular piece.

“Who’s Denny?” Octo asked with a grin.

“No one,” Alessa answered with a tired, annoyed sound to her voice.

“Only the man your sister has the hots for,” Lou countered.

“Lou!” Alessa hissed.

“The hots! I didn’t know Alessa got the hots for anyone. Is he a lawyer? Do you work with him?”

Alessa sighed and glowered at Lou as she cackled. “Yes, I work with him. He’s sort of my supervisor. And no, I don’t have ‘the hots’ for him,” she finished, rolling her eyes.

“He must be cute,” Octo said with a grin, wishing she could meet him. “Has he kissed you?” she asked mischievously.

“Cadence Anne! Stop asking silly questions.”

Octo was laughing and pointed out, “Hey, you didn’t deny it!”

Lou was instantly on her feet taking a quick predatory stride. “That’s right, you didn’t,” she agreed, her voice full of tease. She poked Alessa in the ribs. “Come on, now, admit it. You kissed Denny.”

Alessa jerked from her finger, turning her body to shield her exposed and ticklish torso. “Don’t be ridiculous. Why would he do that? You’re letting your imagination run away with you.”

“See there!” Octo pointed out, “she did it again! She didn’t deny it.”

Lou gave Alessa a hard, scrutinizing look, a wicked smile plastered on her pretty face. Suddenly, she burst into movement, her fingers rapidly attacking Alessa’s sensitive flesh. “Come on Cadence! Help me torture the truth from her,” she commanded as she tickled Alessa for all she was worth. “Tell us the truth! Did you kiss Denny?”

Cadence had joined in, and in the throes of laughing at the tickling, Alessa could only writhe away from them, her arms attempting to fight off twenty tickling fingers.

“Stop! Stop! Please,” she begged, beginning to laugh so hard tears were forming in her eyes.

“Not until you give us the truth! We deserve it! You can’t keep something like making out with Denny a secret. Tell us! Tell us!”

“No! Please, stop, please! Okay, okay! Fine! I admit it. He kissed me. But that’s it. Nothing else. I swear. Stop tickling me!” She was sobbing now in her laughter, tears streaming down her pink cheeks. The two attackers at last relented, Lou with her mouth agape and eyes wide while Octo could only smile at their orneriness.

“You actually did it?” Lou asked amazed.

Alessa had sat down on the plush settee to lean against the wall, dying chuckles and harsh breathing causing her chest to rise and fall deeply. She wiped the tears from her face and looked at Lou. The humor didn’t fall away completely, but a seriousness had crept in.

“Yeah,” she breathed at last. “Yeah, he kissed me, and I let him.”

“I was only guessing,” Lou continued on in amazement, sitting down next to Alessa.

“You actually kissed him?” Octo asked with a smile, more pleased than anything.

Alessa took a deep breath, sighing as she faced her predicament. “Denny took me out to dinner one day after we had been out working on this case. I had a bit too much to drink, and we got talking about things…” she trailed in recalling their conversation. “Anyway, he was trying to convince me, and said he could with a two-minute kiss.”

“Of what was he convincing you?” Lou asked confused.

Alessa opened her mouth to speak, but then looked at her sister who had joined them on the little cushioned bench, and only shook her head. “To give him a chance, I suppose.”

“And did you? Is he your boyfriend?” Octo asked, her hand clasping her sister’s, and her head leaning on Alessa’s shoulder.

Alessa was silent the longest time until at last she simply shook her head, a forlorn expression on her face. “I thought that maybe, when he kissed me again–”

“Again? He’s kissed you twice? When did that happen,” Lou asked in surprise.

Alessa was beginning to wonder if saying anything at all had been a monumental mistake, but it was too late now to deny anything. “The other night, Thursday. It was late and I was in the copy room down in the library. He came in and said I had been chosen to be part of the date auction. I’m not certain why, but I was upset with him. Maybe because I didn’t know how I felt about the first time he kissed me. And I think he was deliberately pushing my buttons. Anyway, I had thought he was going to stop this silly game, but he just kissed me again, saying he had never said that he had any intention of stopping.” Unknowingly, Alessa was touching her fingers to her lips, remembering the sensation of Denny against her mouth.

Lou and Octo both silently stared at her. She was still clearly lost in a pleasant memory, and they shared a knowing look. Alessa stood to pace around the small, but luxurious fitting room, and the two girls adjusted their positions, filling the bench.

“You know,” Lou began, “I bet it was all Denny’s doing to get you to participate. That way, he can win a date with you and sweep you off your feet,” she surmised.

“How romantic,” Octo cooed.

“Oh, please. Denny is a work colleague. And regardless of any interest he may or may not have, he is not going to cause a scandal by publicly bidding for me just for a measly date,” Alessa countered. “Okay, now you two, you’ve given your opinion on this piece, though it was hardly necessary. I’d like to just buy it and go, so will you please leave so I can get changed?” she commanded more than asked.

“Sure. Come on, Cadence,” Lou ushered, feeling hungry and ready for food. After Alessa had changed and paid for her items, Lou offered to take the two sisters out for dinner as thanks for allowing her to crash their sister-bonding time. Alessa was going to refuse, but decided if Lou wanted to, she could.

Dinner was fun, and to Alessa’s relief there was no more talk of Denny or his kisses the rest of the evening. Lou entertained the two with her wild stories, and late that evening, Alessa and Octo poured themselves into her bed.

As they lay in dark with the moonlight filling the sky window above their heads, Octo reached under the blanket to hold her sister’s hand.

“Tell me about Denny,” she requested softly, with none of the lascivious interest Lou had displayed. Alessa could hear the interest and concern in her voice, and smiled that her sister cared.

“What do you want to know?” she whispered softly, somehow not wanting to break the magic with her voice.

“What does he look like?”

Alessa chuckled, finding a fourteen-year-old’s priorities to be somehow shallow and meaningful at the same time. “Well, he’s tall with dark brown hair. He has glittering hazel eyes. His mouth is…nice,” she supplied instead of her original thought of ‘sexy.’ “He smiles a lot.”

“Is he strong?”

Alessa smiled. “Yeah, I’d say he’s pretty strong. I’m sure he goes to the gym.”

“Is he smart? What’s he like? Is he arrogant? Do you guys fight?”

“Yeah. He’s very smart. He’s a hard worker, too. And remember, hard work–“

“Is more important than intelligence. I know, you’ve told me a million times.”

“That’s only because it’s true, and I don’t want you to forget it. Anyway, he’s a junior partner. I think he knows Japanese. He’s into architecture. He draws. He’s brave. He’s clever. He’s caring and interested and concerned. He smells warm and spicy. He wears suspenders,” she admitted with a smile in her voice. “He makes my stomach curl like a large wave coming out from sea.”

“And when he kisses you?” Octo whispered.

“When he kisses me…I can’t think of anything or anyone else in the world.”

“Like he was made to kiss you.”

“Yeah, like he was made to kiss me,” she ended in a whisper, her eyes long closed, her head now filled with thoughts of Denny, and oysters, and late nights with kimchi soup.

The weekend was over too quickly, and after a run together in the park and brunch at the local cafe, Alessa drove Octo home with a promise to think about allowing her to come over while she got ready for the party. On Monday, she was back at work early, the knowledge that she was already making a noticeable wave in the pool of the higher ups spurring her on to continue excelling at her work. And though the office climate was abuzz with the upcoming fundraiser, Alessa’s work seemed to continue to pile in; every morning she arrived her task list seemed to have doubled.

Despite her initial repulsion to the idea, her opinion of the upcoming auction began to morph as she experienced an ever-increasing excitement whenever she thought about herself in that dress and her mystery date.

Granted, the idea of the date made her stomach tighten in apprehension, but she always reminded herself that it was no more than a business dinner, and not an actual date. There were no romantic expectations, and it was merely a fun way to mingle and raise money. And though she officially told herself she hoped Hyun-Joong was her highest bidder, her mind, on occasion, would slip into fantasy of Denny paying the most for her. Thoughts of his kisses were never far from her conscious, working mind, and she recognized that she was spending a great amount of her energy roping her attention back to the task at hand.

And though Denny strangely kept a professional distance, he had caught her, on more than one occasion, staring at him. And he knew it too, damn it, knew exactly what she was thinking. She saw it in the just-perceptible turn up of the corner of his mouth and the sparking of his eyes. He knew exactly what her thoughts were, and she couldn’t stop the simultaneous jumping of her heart and burning of her anger.

Octo had texted her nearly every single day, begging to let her come over, until at last Alessa relented and arranged with Lou that if she wanted to do her hair and makeup she would need to come over to Alessa’s. Alessa also stated she would hire a car for them to get to the party. That way, Octo could spend the night Friday and spend the day with her, and their father could pick her up just before she and Lou left for the fundraiser. All parties involved were in agreement, and with a plan in place, Alessa realized there was nothing left but to prepare herself to mingle and dazzle like a glittering cosmopolitan.


Chapter Eight

CHAPTER EIGHT

“A friend is always good to have,
But a lover’s kiss is better than angels down on me.”
“#40 (Always)” Dave Matthews Band

Apparently, Denny thought, forty-eight hours was long enough for Alessa to regroup and return to her original confident, cool, and unaffected persona. But he wasn’t hurt. He saw what the others did not: underneath her comely smile was a young woman drowning. On his way to his office, he took just a moment to appreciate her graceful appearance. She was dressed in a flowing, maroon, long-sleeve silk blouse tucked into a form-fitting, gray pencil skirt that hit just above her shapely knees. The waist was high and accentuated her amazing figure. Despite her height, she was wearing nude heels that made those amazing legs go on for an age.

Denny felt the burn low in his gut, anguish and desire broiling together. He continued on to his office and locked himself inside, burying himself in his work. Later that morning he finally received the information he had been waiting on. His hunch on the restoration trust fund case had proven correct, and though he was aware there would be no comfort in the interaction, he knew Alessa deserved to be informed of the development. He calculated the best way to speak with her would be with a directly-worded IM, knowing it would give her a moment to prepare herself.

Alessa’s heart pounded in her ears when she read the message she’d just received.

Development in Sloan trust case. My office ASAP.

She stood, all the knots in her stomach she thought she had managed to forget about now squeezing her insides with a new ferocity. She smoothed her appearance, but when she realized she was combing her fingers through her hair, she pulled her hand away tersely. With a mild glower she marched off to his office. Her temper at herself fell away somewhat as she approached his door, a returning dread taking its place. She simply pointed to his office to let Clare know she was to see him. His secretary smiled and nodded, and Alessa knocked lightly and stepped in.

“You wanted to see me?” she spoke into the extreme silence of the room.

When Denny lifted his eyes to her, she felt the shockwave through her, and had to force herself to stand tall and not stagger back. How could he do that to her?

“Yes. Have a seat.” He watched her approach warily, as if she thought he were a tiger behind the bars of a cage and could swipe out to claw her if she got too close. “I never told you Friday what I was thinking about the properties we saw. I began to suspect that the accounts that received payments were bogus claims of restoration, just fronts. I mean, clearly, all the places we saw were either being torn down or redeveloped. I just received information back on the owners of those contractor companies. I’m sure it won’t come as a surprise to hear they are all three owned by Jipps and Jones, LLC. And who would be the CEO of that company?”

Alessa smiled. “Arnold Sloan.”

“Very good. I think it’s becoming evident that he is taking money in the fund meant for restorations and using it for his own private redevelopment endeavors. In a way, according to the books, the fund is pretty much operating as it should, by paying out to various restoration jobs. But in reality, he’s using the trust to buy dilapidated properties to develop or just flat out sell for a significant profit. He then deposits a portion of that profit back into the fund so no one is the wiser, at least at a precursory look.”

“So, he’s been embezzling the money,” she stated thoughtfully. “But he’s been clever by not draining it, using it more like his personal loan account.”

“Something like that. I’m just about to call over to the D.A.’s office and let them know what we’ve found and to begin proceedings to get the fund frozen until a new manager can be appointed. I just wanted you to know, this is because of you. You did excellent work.”

Alessa held her cool and dispassionate expression, ignoring the racing tingles his approval sent through her stomach. She gave an accepting nod. “Thank you. And thank you for the opportunity to work on it. It has been a nice change of pace.”

“I’ll be informing the senior partners this morning on our status and on your contribution. You can expect many more changes in pace,” he promised, and she could have sworn his eyes warmed slightly. Just as apprehension was building that he was about to mention what had happened Friday night, he smiled and told her he would let her know if he needed her to do anything further for it. Again she nodded and then left.

Alessa was lost in her thoughts, unable to stop wondering what would have happened if she hadn’t refused him so much, when a slightly familiar voice pulled her to.

“And what are you concentrating so hard on?”

Alessa blinked and looked up to see Hyun-Joong standing before her desk. Before she checked the response, she smiled brightly up at him.

“Only the very tedious,” she answered. “What brings you in?”

He lifted a file. “Wanted Denny to look over some of my board’s ideas for a new branch of service. We’re hoping to get started in maybe six months, but I wanted my shadow king to look over it for me, make sure it will be more of an asset than a liability,” he answered with a large, charming grin.

Alessa only gave a tight-lipped smile and nodded her head understandingly. “Good luck,” she offered.

Hyun-Joong turned to leave, but paused when he was only a step away. Alessa was already looking back down at her desk, but when he spoke her name, she looked up. “Yes?”

She could see he was struggling with something until he at last broke out into a disarming smile. “I don’t suppose when I’m done meeting with him you’d consider allowing me to take you to lunch?”

She was caught momentarily, her brain frozen as to what she actually did want to do. Before she could speak, he continued. “It’s just I have some time this afternoon that I need to fill and I think scouting out possible talent is always a good way to spend free time.”

Alessa was silent, wrestling with both the desire to network with the ideal client, but also the discomfort of not knowing how to interpret his outgoing and interested manner. Her ambition won out and with a forced smile and conceding nod, she agreed: if he had time she would have coffee with him, explaining she had brought her lunch.

His smile was genuine as he said, “Great! Then we’ll go down to that coffee shop. They let you bring outside food in, and I can order a sandwich there. Not the four star restaurant I was thinking, but anything will do if you agree.”

Alessa hated the way her heart beat, hated even more that her reaction somehow felt like a betrayal to Denny. When he had gone on his way, she forced herself back to work like mad and to make up for her time day-dreaming about Denny. It was just over an hour later when Hyun-Joong came back to collect her, and together the two walked down the street for coffee.

She ate her salad and drank her skinny latte while Hyun-Joong did most of the talking in between bites of his tomato and mozzarella sandwich. In the past, when she had been in any situation with a man that flirted with her the way Huyn-Joong was, Alessa spent the majority of her time thinking silently to herself how to turn the guy down, what she was going to say when he asked her for an official date.

It was the third time he had made her genuinely, heartily laugh, that he said, “You know, you’re very beautiful when you laugh at my jokes.”

Her face instantly flushed and she wiggled in her seat. “Then I will be certain to look out for whenever you decide to make one,” she replied with a sassy smile.

“Oh, my heart!”

“What?” she asked chuckling at his dramatics of throwing his head back and clasping his hands over his chest.

“You’ve mortally wounded me with your barbed tongue.”

“More painful than being turned into stone from a glimpse of Medusa?”

“Much,” he replied smiling warmly, “though as this death contains a last view of you, I’d much prefer it,” he admitted.

Again, Alessa’s cheeks warmed and so she turned her focus on the last of her latte. Her lunch hour was almost at an end and so she focused on rounding out any questions she had for him regarding his company and the offices in Seoul.

When it was at last time for her to return to the office, he stood and offered to walk with her. She had no valid reason to decline and so gave a smile and nod. They were outside on the busy street when Hyun-Joong spoke.

“Please forgive me if I misinterpreted anything, but would you say yes if I asked you out on a date?”

And here it was, the moment she always dreaded in any relationship she ever had with a guy who wasn’t already attached or gay. But unlike most of the times before, her words flowed easily, honestly.

“Hyun-Joong, as much as I might find you attractive, I firstly don’t think it’s wise to date clients of the firm and secondly, I really don’t know you enough to feel comfortable dating. Today was pleasant, but only because it was just us, you know? Just two people having coffee.”

“So, maybe in the future? If you get to know me more and decide you like what you know?”

“Yes,” she heard herself agreeing, “maybe in the future. Provided it isn’t against company protocol,” she amended.

He nodded as he thought. “What about the fundraiser? Will you be attending that?”

“Yes. We’re all encouraged to go. Are you going?”

“I had planned on it, and if I know you’ll be there, I’ll make the effort. It would be nice to see you again…outside of work.”

“Right. Well, if you see me there, you can say hello,” she conceded. They stood at the doors to her building. She turned and gave him a quick flirting smile. As she walked into the lobby alone, she rolled her eyes, wondering what in God’s-green-earth had gotten into her. Despite her unusual lunch, she returned to the office in a slightly elevated mood from when she had left and was able to concentrate on her work for the remainder of the day.

Denny, however, was not faring as well. All Sunday he had plagued himself with figuring out how to convince Alessa to agree to give him a chance while giving Max’s warning due consideration by contemplating if the endurance to pursue her was within him. But just seeing her that morning had ignited his determination, and though the plan was yet unseen, he would not give up until he found it.

It was nearing four when Macrae entered, knocking on the door but walking in without pause. She wore her black, rectangle reading glasses, and slid them on top of her head as she said, “Denny, I’m finalizing our list for the staff date auction.”

“Yeah?” he asked disinterested. “How can I help?”

“Well, Schecter had two specific ideas, but I wanted to run one of them by you,” she began slowly, sitting down and looking up from her list. Denny gave her an expression of ‘let’s hear it.’ “Apparently, he’s been very taken with…Alessa. He thinks she’s probably the best new associate we’ve hired in years. And now with this latest case you emailed the senior partners about this morning, he’s quite giddy with parading her out, showing off our talent.”

Macrae watched him carefully, noting the nearly imperceptible tightening of his features, the mild drain of humor from his face. She continued to prompt him into speaking. “I wondered if you thought she would be willing to do it. I don’t want to offer it to her if you think she’d rather refuse. I have a feeling she would feel obliged, and for the sake of her career, would do something she was extremely uncomfortable with,” she explained, still watching him. It was his quick change in demeanor, as if he finally understood the great, unexplained mysteries of Ancient Egypt that marked a change in his interest in her question.

Denny finally knew how he was going to get Alessa to agree to give him a chance, to force her to listen until she relented. He quickly formed his plan and then answered Macrae who was waiting with growing intrigue.

“Actually, she might be a little averse to it, but I think ultimately she would appreciate the opportunity to network. Why don’t you give me her contract and I’ll discuss it with her and talk her into it so she feels more comfortable. How does that sound? You can tell Schecter she’s on board,” he instructed with a civil smile.

Macrae was silent, trying to figure out what he was about, but eventually only nodded and said she’d have a contract sent to him when she’d finalized it. The contracts the staff members signed to guarantee their fulfillment of requirements on the date didn’t change much from year to year, but it was always prudent to clean it up and modify it based on any issue that arose from the year prior.

“I need her contract by Friday so we can have her name and bio printed on the auction listing.” She thanked him for his help and left.

Quickly, Denny pulled up his laptop and began sketching a rough idea of his plans, amazed and eternally grateful for the sudden release of ideas that poured effortlessly forth. He filled the rest of his afternoon quite pleasurably, though not turning his mind to his job. Now, just to convince her to agree to participate in the auction and pull off the scheme of the century.

It was Thursday evening, and Alessa, having returned from her run not thirty minutes ago, found herself in the quiet and dimly lit copy room of the law firm’s library. Over the past week her nerves had become more frazzled than she was aware, and when the copier jammed for the third time, she shouted, “Damn! Damn! Damn!” in rapid succession and then slammed her right foot into it.

“Tsk, tsk, tsk,” Denny chided from the doorway.

Alessa turned murderous eyes on him. He was relaxed, leaning against the doorjamb, a manila folder in one hand and a cup of coffee in the other. His ease only made her more infuriated.

“Stay out of it,” she growled, before turning to the machine, opening one of its many doors, and tearing the crumpled paper out. “The damn thing is broken.”

“Hm, I can’t imagine why, Sweetheart. Electronic machinery always performs better when treated with such abuse,” he snided, putting down the items in his hands on the table and then stepping in to give her his aid.

Alessa stood back, her hands fists at her side, her jaw clenched in irritation at both his seeming condescension and his mere ease of mind in the face of her quickly down-spiraling state. “I didn’t ask for your help,” she bit out.

“No, but you need it all the same,” he replied with gentleness, and then reached his arm deep into the machine and gave a tug, pulling free yet another piece of destroyed paper. “Here, I think I’ve found your problem. It was just so buried, you couldn’t see it,” he explained, standing up, closing the little door and resetting the copier. When he hit ‘start’ and the machine purred happily, he turned a smiling face towards Alessa.

“I can see your education was wasted on you. Clearly you should have just been a repair man,” she grumbled meanly as she went back to stand in front of the copier to continue on with her work.

But Denny only gave a sharp laugh, before crowding in on her space one iota more. “I’m good at a lot of things, Sweetheart, including fixing things that are broken,” he murmured.

Alessa looked up to stare blindly at the wall before her, her eyes not seeing the many notices on the little bulletin board above the copy machine. She could feel his breath on her neck made visible by the ponytail she wore. Her stomach was boiling as she closed her eyes to calm her rapidly accelerating desire.

“What’s the matter, Sweetheart? Cat got your tongue?” he murmured in her ear.

Alessa turned abruptly on him, sharp violence in her eyes. “Stop calling me that,” she hissed.

“It’s fitting,” he answered unfazed and unmoving.

“It’s condescending.”

“It’s an endearment,” he replied, his eyes sweeping caressingly over her face. She felt herself light up, hating what he could do to her with just one look. “And I find you very endearing.”

Her mouth tightened. “I thought you were going to leave me alone.”

“When did I ever say that?” he purred a moment before his mouth descended upon hers.

She stiffened immediately, but his hands pressed her into him regardless. His mouth was moving against hers, almost soothingly, and though she knew it was a mistake, she couldn’t help but to respond, to move in return. And when his tongue swept against her lips, her mouth parted automatically to allow him the very access she had so long tried to deny.

When Denny felt her body relax into his hold and her hands come to rest against his chest, he struggled with following through with his plan and not seducing her right then and there. But his reward wasn’t a short term, one-score encounter. He was after her heart, and it would require more wooing than a quick fumble in the copy room. His hands ran down the length of her arms until he clasped her hands in his, bringing them to his face. He peeled his mouth from hers, only to turn into her open palms and place reverent, but erotic, kisses in them.

Alessa was trembling, and she couldn’t seem to stop. Denny’s kisses were like the breath of life, invading every cell in her body and causing them to hum just for him.

“You have no idea how tempting you are, do you?” he murmured tenderly. “I could spend eternity kissing you.” His gaze dropped to her lips again before looking back up. “But I can’t,” he stated almost flatly, before releasing her hands and stepping back. He didn’t stop moving until he was leaning against the table he had set his things upon. “I actually came looking for you because I have something to tell you.”

Rattled by his sudden withdraw, Alessa brought a shaky hand up to her mouth to wipe it and turned back to her copies. “Really?” she asked in a quivering voice she couldn’t hide, attempting, but failing, to act as if he hadn’t just stolen her sanity.

Denny felt guilty for her shaken state, but reminded himself it was all part of his plan. “Yes. At the risk of dangerously inflating your ego, I’m here to tell you you’ve made quite a name for yourself so far. And with this latest bit of…Perry Mason-ry,” he said with a teasing smile, referring to their expedition to scour the status of the supposed renovation properties, “you have been selected as one of several to represent the firm at the date auction at the fundraiser next week.”

Alessa turned around at that, her eyes wide with horror. “How can my good work possible have earned me such a punishment?” she demanded to know.

Denny understood her trepidation, her proclivities of the introverted, but refused to give her an ounce of pity. “It’s simple. The entire fundraiser serves many purposes. One of the more subtle, yet nevertheless pervasive is the goal of networking. Those who get chosen to represent the firm in the date auction are very lucky as they get to privately mingle with our clients in a relaxed venue that would otherwise be unavailable to them. Think of it as the mortar around the paving stones of advancement.”

Alessa could feel herself recoiling inside. The thought of being paraded out like a show pony was beyond mortifying. But Denny was correct. Her talents and her value to the firm would be highlighted, even if through slightly tawdry means, and though she hated ‘mingling,’ she would have the best opportunity to do just as he suggested.

“What are the parameters of this date?” she asked with suspicion.

“Nothing so sinister.” He reached around and opened the folder and pulled out the top sheet. “Here is the contract with all the stipulations.” But then he pulled it back and gave her a questioning look. “But perhaps you just want me to tell you and you can sign without having to read it?”

Alessa snatched the paper from him and glared, knowing by his infuriating smile he knew he was being offensive by suggesting she was a sloppy lawyer who didn’t know how to read a contract. Or worse, she was just lazy. “I wouldn’t trust you,” she informed him grimly.

“That’s probably best,” he intoned with a wicked smile.

She walked about the room as she read the short, single-page document. She quickly analyzed the general rules of the date, which were that anyone could bid on any person; the person bid on was contracted to the bidder for three hours to begin at a reasonable place and time of the bidder’s choosing; that all expenses of the date were to be covered by said bidder; and there was no obligation to the bidder beyond conversation. Alessa’s brow furrowed when she read that if the person bid on failed to appear without a reasonable excuse or failed to comply with a reasonable rescheduling for the date, or failed to fulfill the three-hour stipulation, she would be required to indemnify the firm against the refund of the full bid to the bidder. She didn’t know how much the bids usually ran for, but all her money was budgeted away for other purposes, and spending it on repaying the firm was not for what she had designated its use.

Other than that concern, the rules seemed fair and straightforward, and none of them were beyond what Alessa would feel comfortable binding herself to. She only mulled it over an extra minute, taking a small amount of gratification in the fact that being asked to stand in as a date was an honor in the firm, even if it somehow felt like she was being reduced to the equivalent of a prize cow. She also took a small amount of hope that someone would bid on her and make Denny green with envy. Perhaps Hyun-Joong.

“Fine. I’ll sign,” she relented and walked back to him.

“Here, Sweetheart,” he offered holding out a pen.

She scribbled her name quickly. When she finished, she slammed his pen down, and looking up to glower at him, she demanded, “Stop calling me sweetheart and stop kissing me.”

Denny only looked at her frowning mouth that was within reach. His hand went up to caress her neck and then her jaw before he looked into her startled, rabbit-like eyes. “I would if I could, Sweetheart.” Mesmerized as she was by the delicious sensation of his fingertips on her skin and the look of tenderness in his eyes, she didn’t pull back when he leant forward and gave her a warm, but gentle and chaste kiss on her mouth.

Again she was shaken. Again, she was unnerved. She turned to get her copies to flee, but then Denny cursed loudly.

“Damn!” he hissed.

When she turned around, she saw that his coffee had spilt and was flooded across her contract.

She reacted to the immediacy of his voice and stepped closer to him, looking at his hands. “Did you burn yourself?” she asked with concern evident in her voice.

“No. Why? Worried about me?” he asked with an exasperating, cocky smile.

She straightened herself back, her alarmed and caring expression melting into shuttered indifference that he was instantly sorry for. Alessa looked down at the pool of coffee on her contract.

“It’s ruined,” she stated flatly. “My name’s blurred out. Aren’t you supposed to use indelible ink?” she muttered, aching to leave, but now being caught to lag behind.

“Sorry. Clumsy. I guess a kiss can do that,” he admitted with no amount of shame. She scowled at him while he opened the dry folder and pulled out a clean contract. “Don’t worry. I have more copies. Just sign it again.”

Sighing, she took the pen from him, inked her name quickly. She grabbed the book and her copies from the machine and fled, not even saying goodbye.

Denny watched her flee, and then lifted the newly signed contract to skim over it, a smug look of triumph glittering in his eyes.

A rattled Alessa marched off to her desk where she unceremoniously dumped the several large volumes and numerous copies before dashing to the ladies’ room. Flinging the door wide, she nearly collided with a person leaving.

“Fuck!” she hissed, startled in her already upset state. When she realized it was a senior partner, furthermore the head of personnel, her hand snapped up to her gaping mouth.

“Oh, Ms. Macrae! I am so sorry. You frightened me,” she rushed to explain.

Macrae wore her typical cat smile as she took in Alessa’s distressed state.

“No worries. No harm done. Besides, I like the occasional ‘fuck’ myself,” she replied coolly, meaningfully, her swaggering smile growing.

Alessa gave out a breathy laugh of relief and nodded, the former weights of her mind coming back quickly. She mumbled an ‘excuse me’ as she stepped past Jude and walked into the bathroom. Her heels clacked on the black tile floor, sounding dense and hollow at the same time. She stopped in front of the sink and began running the cold water. She splashed some on her face, and then wiped away the stress.

“What’s wrong with you?” Macrae asked bluntly as she came back to stand by Alessa.

“Nothing,” Alessa assured, frowning as she shook her head. “I’m just…”

“Stressed?” Macrae asked, lifting an eyebrow.

“What? No, of course not. I’m fine. Absolutely fine,” she continued shaking her head, a silent denial to what her words were proclaiming. “I can handle anything,” she firmly stated, looking Macrae’s reflection in the eyes.

Despite the bravado Alessa attempted, Macrae knew the truth. “Come on, then-grab your coat.”

“What?” Alessa could only ask confused.

“Your coat. It’s still raining out. You’ll need it. I’m taking you for a drink.”


Chapter Seven

CHAPTER SEVEN

“Tell me what you want to hear
Something that will light those ears
Sick of all the insincere
I’m gonna give all my secrets away
This time, don’t need another perfect lie
Don’t care if critics ever jump in line
I’m gonna give all my secrets away”
“Secrets” OneRepublic

It was the alcohol’s fault. That was the only plausible explanation for why Alessa didn’t pull out of Denny’s arms as he murmured her name and dipped his head toward hers. It was the only reason she lifted her face in welcome. The only cause for the whimper she gave when a sensation warmer than the sun poured through her as his firm lips finally touched hers. Her last coherent thought was that she should have never drank so much.

Denny was joyously grateful for Alessa’s momentary capitulation. In this one twinkling of time in which she had granted him his desire, he became desperate to seduce her, to imbue her with such great pleasure she would never want to leave him. He moved his mouth gently over hers at first, cognizant that she most likely didn’t know how to kiss. He was cupping her face with one hand and cradling her head with the other, his fingers imbedded into her glorious hair rubbing her scalp.

Alessa was instantly lost in the sensations Denny’s mouth and hands afforded her. It was the most natural movement in the world to follow the guidance of his mouth, and before long, his moving lips were parting hers so he could stroke her with his velvety tongue. The taste of another human made her gasp and then moan as she became an instant addict. Needing more, she answered his seeking tongue with an eager stroke of her own, whimpers of hunger filling her throat. Denny caught each one with his mouth.

The erotic sounds Alessa was making were like punches of pleasure straight into Denny’s gut. He could feel the need blossom in his groin, and so pressed himself more tightly against her, desperate for pressure to relieve his ache.

Alessa responded by sliding her body sensually against his, mindlessly searching for more sensation. Denny’s hands caressed their way down her lithe body until he was filling his hands with her firm bottom, using his grasp to rub her body against his. Her arms had trailed up his chest and were now clinging to him, pulling herself in tightly to mash her breasts against him.

Though Denny had only meant to give her a pleasurable kiss, what passed between them was like a flame of need and he was burning alive. Without much thinking, Denny turned them so he could press her against the wall, suddenly needing more than what a simple kiss could offer. One large hand guided a silky leg to lift, forcing her skirt to slide high up her thigh. Holding beneath her knee, Denny leaned into the junction of her thighs and pressed his arousal into her.

The whimper she gave turned into a moan, and Denny wanted to come when her hips began moving against him. He wasn’t ashamed to answer her with small thrusts of his own and abandoned her mouth to move down her neck, craving the silky feel of all of her.

It was the cat call whistle of the two passers-by that caused Alessa to freeze with Denny’s mouth buried against her neck. The giggles of the small group faded as they walked on, but the spell was already shattered. “Fuck,” she heard Denny mutter into the crook of her neck, and then her hands were frantically pushing him away. She pulled her raised leg back and half twisted her body away from him. He reluctantly stepped back to give her space. She was running her fingers through her hair and wiping her mouth. She was breathing rapidly in an attempt to calm herself, though to Denny she sounded as if she were on the verge of hyperventilating.

He watched her, his haze of arousal evaporating as he tried to regroup and salvage what was left of the momentum of their kiss. But he could see her rapidly shutting down, her arms tightly around herself as she corseted up her fraying emotions. He knew in some estimations he had succeeded, that he had given Alessa the elusive pleasure she had claimed didn’t exist in reality, but he also saw her shuttered expression, which mournfully conveyed he had failed to tear down the wall against intimacy she had spent years erecting around herself.

He took a step toward her, but when she took a quick step away, he paused, so much of his disappointed hopes suffocating his heart. “Don’t be afraid of how you feel, Sweetheart.”

She gave a harsh sigh, her arms still tightly wrapped around her. She felt submerged in a raging tempest, and wave after wave of desire and fear and regret and despair were capsizing her sanity, throwing her into a scrambling panic to survive the looming pain. “That was such a mistake,” she declared, a quiver of strain in her voice laced with an edge of anger.

“Alessa, I don’t regret kissing you,” Denny stated confidently, refusing to agree with her.

“Well, I hope it satisfied you because you won’t get another,” she returned emphatically.

Denny took another step, not stopping this time despite how she momentarily cowered away again. He placed his warm palm on her cheek and turned her face to him. “I assure you, it came nowhere near satisfying me, and I can promise you, Sweetheart, I will get another.” Denny wasn’t prepared to let his pursuit end yet, but he knew she had had enough for one evening. “Come on,” he coaxed gently, “let me take you home.” He slipped his arm around her, and counted it a small victory when she didn’t try to pull away.

But she did argue. “You don’t need to take me home. Traffic will be murder for you. Just take me to my bus stop.”

“Nope. I’m taking you home.”

“Denny,” she groaned, “I really don’t think that’s such a great idea.”

“Alessa, shut up for once. I’m just going to make sure you get home safely. Nothing more. After the state I’ve put you in, it’s the least I can do for you.” By the end of his speech, they were back at his car. Neither said a word during the thirty minute ride across town.

She gave him directions to her home, and when he pulled up in the drive, though it was dark and only his head lights illuminated it, he commented on how nice it looked.

“Oh, this isn’t my house. It’s Mr. Cho’s.”

“Cho?” Denny asked a little confused. “You rent it from him?”

“No, he lives in his house. I rent the small apartment above his garage.” As she pointed, Denny could just make out a two-story, detached garage at the back of the property. “One of my colleagues at the Asian Museum got me this place,” she explained, eager to leave but desperate to avoid an awkward goodbye. “Thank you for dinner. I enjoyed the oysters.” And then her door was open and she was out, not daring to look at him, not wanting to be tempted into another kiss.

Denny watched as she rapidly made her way to the stairs on the outside of the garage. When he saw her slip inside, he finally pulled out of the drive, his mind churning over the problem that was Alessa. He pulled out his phone, punched a contact and dialed. When a husky voice answered on the other end, Denny spoke. “Max, can we get together? Tomorrow night at eight is fine.” And then he hung up, knowing if anyone could help him gain a little peace of mind, it was Max.

It took less than a minute for Alessa to drop her bag, strip off her clothing and submerge herself in her hot shower, the water streaming down her face mixing with her tears. Though she hadn’t told him the whole of the truth, she had confessed more than she had ever wanted. And then, like a fool, she had allowed him to kiss her. But unlike the last time she had given a man a second chance to woo her, Alessa had completely lost herself in Denny’s kiss that seemed to burn away all the insecurities in her soul. She experienced only drugging euphoria and none of the panic. And desperately, she felt hope that with Denny it could be different. But that hope was just as frightening as the disappointment of times past.

Why hadn’t she realized she was too fragile just to kiss?

Alessa took some Ibuprofen, downed a glass of water and slunk into bed. She didn’t allow herself to sob, but she couldn’t keep back the hot tears of misery as she fell asleep under the heavy hand of the earlier-consumed alcohol.

Denny assumed Alessa would be working in the office Saturday, and so worked from home, not ready to confront her as he himself was at a bit of a loss as to how to proceed. Around noon he took his small sail boat out; the sunny sky was sure to ease his mind, if only for a few hours. He showered that evening and headed to the bar where he and Max always met. It was crowded, and when a bar stool opened up he took it, still no sign of Max. He was on his second beer when a feminine hand touched his shoulder.

“Hey, there. Sorry I’m late,” the short brunette apologized as she squeezed in next to him. Almost instantly the bartender brought her a beer, knowing the two regulars always ordered the same drinks. Before she had taken a swig, the man on the other side of Denny stood to leave, and Max quickly grabbed his seat.

Denny noticed that Max’s cheeks were pink, her makeup was fresh but minimal, and her hair didn’t look as styled as normal. Her clothes were casual, though with that dark, sexy edge of a black leather jacket, skinny jeans, and a rock t-shirt that she wore effortlessly ever since college.

“So, what were you doing?” he asked, the stress of his own personal situation leaking out to irritate everything else in his world.

“Eager to see me, huh?” she teased with pseudo-sultriness in her voice.

“Something like that. So where were you?”

She paused. “I had to take a shower,” she answered, and took a drink, looking around the crowded bar.

Denny frowned. “Well, why were you late?”

She shrugged, and as if reluctant to answer, mouthed into her beer, “I was with a client.”

“A work dinner?”

She seemed to hesitate, shaking her head. “No, we were working.”

“Huh,” Denny grunted thoughtfully.

Max turned to him with a small frown, perhaps defensiveness. “What?”

“Well, I was just thinking. You never really talk about your work. It’s a little weird, especially considering how close we are. It’s like you work for the CIA or something.”

Max only nodded slowly, thoughtfully, but chose not to comment on his observations. “So what’s with the secrecy? Or do you not enjoy your work enough to talk about it?”

“No, I love my work,” she replied instantly.

“So tell me about it then. I feel a little like an incompetent hack since I’m always asking your advice, but you never seem to have any problems. Just what sort of work do you do for them? Do you handle their criminal defenses or something? Assets management?”

Max was silent so long, Denny thought she wasn’t going to answer. But then she pursed her lips together and spoke. “It’s more like…I handle them,” she admitted slowly, casting him a sideways look.

“You mean like PR?”

“Sorta the opposite.”

“Opposite?”

“Of public. More like private relations…”

“You mean you’re their…what? Marriage counselor?” he asked confused, still not understanding.

She swiveled round on her bar stool to square up on him, her hands on her knees bolstering her up. Her face was pensive. “Denny, I have something to tell you. Aw, fuck, I don’t know how to say this. Damn, I’ve thought about telling you since we graduated.”

Denny frowned. “Do you give legal advice to the mob or something?”

She chuckled miserably. “No,” she sighed. “Okay, I want to tell you something, but I don’t want you to judge me, and you really can’t tell anyone.”

“Max,” he said with a solemn frown, “you know I would never judge you.”

Knowing he spoke the truth, she took a deep breath and blurted out, “Denny, I never took the bar.”

He frowned again, baffled. “You mean you’ve been practicing illegally?” he whispered.

“No,” she groaned, rolling her eyes at his lack of imagination. “I don’t practice law at all.”

“Oh, okay,” he paused baffled, “then these clients are…well you said not PR? I don’t get it, what is it? You know you can trust me, right? Just tell me.”

She bit the inside of her lips. “Denny, I am what you might consider a…domina.” He could see, even in the dim light of the bar, her flushing face. He could only sit with his mouth agape and brows knitted in befuddlement.

“You mean you…” he trailed.

She took a deep breath, “Yeah, my clients, they’re men…for the most part, and I…do things…for them. To them.” Her eyes were full of uncertainty as she waited for his response, but when his awed face slowly morphed into a cocky, male grin, she felt the tension break and reached out to slap him chidingly on the arm.

“You’ve got to be fucking kidding me,” he laughed in amusement. And then the full meaning of her revelation began to settle in his mind. “So you’re not a lawyer. All these years, I thought…Why? Or how? How did this happen? How did you get into that?”

She took another breath and turned back to her beer. “Well, it sorta just happened. It began my last year when I was interning at that little law firm in Daily City, remember? It was one of the older partners.”

“How much older?” Denny asked with a cheeky grin

“Nothing too pervy…he was in his fifties, and just barely at that. Anyway, one thing led to another and before I knew it we were sleeping together, and bit by bit he revealed his proclivities.”

“Yeah? Like what?”

“It started out with light bondage, spanking, name calling…and he just kept pushing and I just kept letting myself be dragged down, down, down.” She sighed almost wistfully. “I fucking loved it. I’d finally found my sex life. Hell, I found my life. Eventually he taught me a lot about the whole scene, even took me to a few clubs.”

“Clubs?”

“Yeah, a swingers’ club and then a club specifically for BDSM. I met a guy there and when my relationship with Mitch finally ran its course, I sorta hooked up with Brett…at least, I began a sexual relationship with him. And he really knew his stuff. Helped me discover ab-so-fucking-lutely everything about myself. And it was he who convinced me to try becoming a professional at it.”

“Like…a hooker?” he ventured carefully, not quite understanding the distinction.

“No, more like a therapist. Like a fucking life-style guru. He even found me a backer, so to speak.” She looked at him honestly. “You’d probably call him my sugar daddy, but it’s really more like a business deal. He set me up with my business for fifteen percent of my profit and free sessions twice a week. And he was enjoyable to be with, though he prefers to be the dominant, so it wasn’t a bad deal at all.”

“So you don’t feel like a prostitute?”

She scrunched her face. “No, not really. I mean, technically I guess that’s what I am, but in some ways not. I certainly have a choice, hell, I have all the choices. I interview and select my clients. It’s not as if I’m in the phone book and any random guy can call and book a session like a cheap massage parlor. These are relationships, and they bring me fulfillment. Like I said, it’s not always about sex. It’s generally deeper than that. It’s therapy; it’s finding little spots inside you and rubbing the kinks out.”

“More like rubbing the kinks in,” he jabbed.

“Ha!” she chortled. “Good one. Yeah…it’s more than sex. It’s not a subset of sex. Sex is a subset of it. A lot of times I don’t even have intercourse or get to orgasm.”

“Well, now, that just sounds like bad sex.”

She smiled softly. “Not really, because the whole thing is about something else.”

Denny was silent as he thought for a moment and then had a disturbed expression. “And that’s where you just were?”

Max seemed to blush as she nodded while taking a drink of her beer.

He just studied her a minute before he could collect his thoughts and continue with his questions. “You don’t find monogamy to be an issue? You don’t want a relationship with someone?”

Again she screwed up her face in thought. “Honestly? I might if I ever found someone I was in love with. But even then, he would have to provide me with all these things I need. But, like I said, it isn’t necessarily about sex. It’s just…”

“Exercise.”

She chuckled, “Maybe something like that.”

Denny was thoughtful for a few minutes as they each nursed their beers. The ramifications of her confession bleeding into his own present predicament. “So, you’re an expert on the human condition, as far as sex is concerned? An expert on relationships, too?” he ventured.

“I don’t know about that. But I think the foundation of any relationship, any good and solid relationship has to come from mutual understanding. To know the motives and needs of your partner. And now that I am good with. I mean, yeah, that’s my job.”

“Hm, and how do you get there?”

“You mean knowing a person? Well, in my professional setting, we usually have a session or two where we just talk, maybe a little research lab where I test certain reactions, but a lot of talking. I need to know what desires are there. When you first had them. How they developed and evolved over the years. What turns you on, what turns you off, what gets you off, moments of panic, moments of elation, any sensory enjoyments. What do you do in your down time? How do you see yourself? How do others see you? All sorts of questions. Like I said, therapy, digging down deep inside and discovering what’s hidden under your skin. And from there I usually have them tell me their go-to get-off fantasy, and we usually recreate it and then feedback. Lots of communication. I have to know what’s working for you, what are your internal responses.”

“And if not in your professional setting?”

She frowned in thought. “Communication still goes. It’s essential. You must know what you can’t see because so much more happens on the inside. If we keep it bottled up, our partner will never know. In a way, it’s wrong to not share, to not reveal ourselves. Especially if we expect the other person to give what we need.

“On the flip side of that is observation. While we expect our partner to disclose everything they can, we must always remember that we’re not all fully aware, not of everything. We don’t always know why we like to have it from behind instead of on the bottom, but we do, and as much as it’s our partner’s responsibility to tell us what they can, you have to be committed to observing and watching what can be seen. You can learn a whole lot from watching your partner as you touch them, or kiss, or say something or wear something. It’s all there. You just have to watch for it. And that’s what makes a good dom. Someone who is able to sense what the other person is unaware of.”

“I assume everyone comes to you willingly,” he broached.

She frowned at that. “Of course. What, you think I get off on raping men?” It was finally her turn to give a lopsided grin. “Well,” the smile grew, “I do, but they’re always agreeable to it…at some point at least. That’s part of it, too; being out of control, not responsible. But you gotta give consent to start with. Is that what you mean?” she asked.

Denny sighed. “Have you ever pursued someone? You know, someone who resisted being with you?”

“You mean for an actual relationship, traditional, monogamous sort of thing?”

He nodded.

“No. I usually have to stun-gun them to keep them away.”

Denny chuckled, agreeing it would be absurd that anyone wouldn’t be interested in her.

She studied him a moment. “Were those just idle curiosity questions, or do they have anything to do with this stressed state you’ve been in lately?”

Denny continued to think for a while, and then after downing his beer turned to her. “I have a situation,” he confessed.

She raised her eyebrows. “Don’t tell me you’re a closet dom?”

He frowned. “What? No.”

“Well, just saying, if you’re looking for advice, it’ll cost you.” She gave another half grin and lifted her empty bottle. “Another round and we’ll call it even.” Denny chuckled and then motioned for the bartender. When their beers were delivered and they’d both taken another satisfying drink he continued.

“I’m fucked,” he sighed lamentably. “I’m completely hooked on this girl from work.”

“Ah,” she said with a Cheshire grin. “Go on, tell me all about her. Don’t leave anything out.”

Denny only thought a moment before the existence of Alessa poured from his mouth in unhurried, often poetic and rhythmic tones. “She’s the new associate at the firm. She’s intelligent as fuck; driven. She excels like a fucking Bugatti. She’s fluent in Korean, Cantonese and French. She’s been my right hand in the new overseas expansion for one of my clients. Partners are itching to groom her. Went to Berkeley when she could have gone to Harvard. She’s a control freak. Runs every evening at six straight up, though I think she sneaks off during the day if I’ve irritated her. She’s frugal and healthy. She’s reserved, but when she smiles…like diamonds in the sun.”

“She sounds nauseatingly wonderful,” Max commented drily. “So the problem is…”

“I can’t get her to give me a chance.”

“You’re not good enough for her?”

“No, that’s not it.”

“Denny, if someone isn’t attracted to you with all your good looks, intelligence, success, charisma, then it’s not going to happen, no matter how much you may be into her. I mean, you are probably attractive to seventy-five percent of the population, and if she’s in that narrow margin that just doesn’t appreciate you, then she never will be. You should let her go.”

He gave a self-deprecating smirk. “Only seventy-five percent, huh?” Max laughed at that and reached over to rub his shoulder. “Being attracted to me is not the issue. She does want me, just as much as I want her.”

“Then what’s the problem?”

Denny was silent, staring at the city scape of glass liquor bottles lining the bartender’s shelves. He had a few false starts, trying to figure out how to explain. “It’s long; it’s complicated.”

“Well, I’ve got time as long as I’ve got beer,” Max encouraged with a sly smile.

Denny sighed and began. “I first met Alessa–”

“Alessa? That’s her name?”

“Yeah.”

“It’s pretty.”

“Thanks.”

“I wasn’t complimenting you, you Neanderthal. But go on.”

“I first met her back in college. She was in one of my summer classes.”

“She reject you then, too?”

“No. I didn’t even approach her. She was just seventeen, a kid. She’d gotten a scholarship to attend a few college courses over the summer. When I found out she was still in high school I passed. But then a few years later I saw her again. You know how Tom and Jake and some of the guys and I like to play trivia at The Colony?”

“Yeah, you never invited me to go,” she pouted angrily.

“Well, you can’t pick up a girl when you’re already with the hottest one there, now can you?” he defended, knowing she’d appreciate his indirect compliment. When she smiled, he continued. “Anyway, she was there with this obnoxious group of girls and they beat us. Correction. They didn’t beat us. She beat us. She was their ringer.”

Max gave a sound that indicated she understood the hit to his masculine pride that would’ve been.

“When I recognized her from class, I don’t know, something just snapped. Afterwards, I cornered her out in the alley. We had some words. I thought she had been cheating ‘cause she kept looking at her phone. But when I stole it from her, I realized she hadn’t cheated. She’d been looking at this website; a porn website. She wrote erotica, Max, and I think she was checking the status of her latest story.”

Max expression satisfyingly changed to one of awed shock.

“She grabbed her phone from me and fled. I was too stunned to do anything, and that was the last time I saw her. Seven years ago. That is, until she walked into my office last month. She was one of the applicants for the new associate position.”

“But now she works in your office, so that means she was hired…by you?”

“Yeah.”

“Well, no wonder she doesn’t want to date you. You were an asshole, probably scared her silly.”

“No, she didn’t even remember it at the time. But during her interview, with the way I treated her–”

“How did you treat her?” Max cut in again with a furrowed brow.

Denny’s head slunk on his shoulders. “Well, you could say I was a bit…aggressive.”

“How would she describe it?” she questioned knowingly.

“She called me a jerk.”

Max lifted her eyebrows. “I’ve never known you to be a jerk. Or mean or unfair. Why would you treat her that way?”

“I don’t know,” he admitted uncomfortably. “Her confidant, know-it-all attitude just made me want to…I don’t know, pinch her or something.”

Max had no immediate reply, but narrowed her eyes at him thoughtfully. “Go on,” she encouraged.

“Well, in her interview I realized I did want her; that for as riling as she was, I…liked her. I was attracted to her. And I thought hiring her would be my only opportunity to get close to her. Of course, Macrae saw right through me.”

Max snorted. “I bet Macrae just wanted her for herself.”

“You are too damn good,” Denny admitted with some amount of cynical awe that Max saw straight to the heart of any person’s motives. But he supposed that’s what a double major in pre-law and psychology would get you. “But, yeah, you’re right. Not long after Alessa started, Jude came to my office and wanted to know my intentions.”

Max smirked with a knowing lift of her eyebrows and a cocky shake of her head as she tilted her beer back, before steering their conversation back. “So why’s Alessa giving you such a hard time? I mean, if she didn’t remember you were the jerk from the alley, and if you’ve done all you can to be the charmer I know you are, and if she’s interested as you claim she is,” Max summarized shaking her head, failing to understand the problem, “why are you fucked?”

Denny sighed dejectedly. “I’m fucked, Max, because she’s fucked.”

“What does that even mean?”

“Because, she’s so screwed up; she’s terrified of giving me a chance because she doesn’t date anyone, at any time. No hand holding, no chocolates, no late nights on the couch, no kisses, and definitely no sex.”

Max frowned as she tried to figure out Alessa’s possible motives. “What’s her story? I mean, has she ever been involved with anyone?”

“Hardly,” Denny scoffed. “She hasn’t dated since high school. She gave it up, twice, to some jerk of a boyfriend who didn’t do anything good for her,” he accused miserably.

Max snorted. “Ha! Listen to you talk! As if you were Don Juan at fifteen.”

Denny bit the inside of his cheek to keep the frustration down, though he knew she was right. “At any rate,” he bit out, “the experience ruined sex for her. And because of that, she hasn’t dated anyone since, which you can read as she also hasn’t slept with anyone else.”

“How old is she?”

“About twenty-seven, I think.”

Max frowned. “That’s a rather long time to not give it a second chance,” she mused. “Especially if she’s clearly interested in sex. I mean, why else would she write erotica? Would you describe her as an all-or-nothing sort of girl?”

Denny nodded in confirmation.

“I suppose that could explain it. One try at it was enough to convince her. But still…an awfully long time to not try again if she’s still interested.”

“There’s more. I think to some extent, she’s severely limited all her interactions with others, not just in dating, but in everything. She hides behind this veneer of confidence and enthusiasm for her work, but really, she’s empty. So she uses work to fill it up. To keep herself going and find some sort of meaning, some sort of satisfaction. And like I said, to use it as a shield, an excuse for not getting involved. I mean, after her parents divorced–”

“Aw, now we’re getting somewhere. How old was she?”

“Alessa was probably in the eighth or ninth grade.” Max responded by slowly nodding, but said nothing. “Well, she became driven in school, in her running-she ran track in school and college-to win her father’s approval.”

“So he left and got remarried, am I right?”

“Yeah. I think they had a kid almost immediately. A sister. Alessa dotes on her.”

“So she’s probably insecure. You said she’s pretty?” Max guessed.

“Here, let me show you,” he said taking out his phone and pulling up the firm’s photo directory of the lawyers. “But she’s not insecure. Not only is she annoyingly confident, she doesn’t really care about her appearance. Sure, she looks nice, but she isn’t vain. You know, there are those women who are all about fashion and their makeup and hair. Alessa’s completely oblivious to how gorgeous she is,” Denny professed.

He handed Max the phone when he found Alessa’s photo.

Max took one look at the stellar beauty and made a snort of unbelief. “Men are such idiots,” she muttered. “That hair takes time,” she informed him, passing the phone back. Denny took it and looked at the photo again.

“What does that mean?”

“That hair is flawless. You don’t get killer volume and sleek waves like that by just waking up and running your fingers through your hair, my dear boy. Either she went and had it professionally done that morning, which means she does know how to use her looks to her advantage, or this came from years of practice, which indicates she’s spent hours of her life to perfect her look. Either way, trust me, she cares,” Max assured.

Denny overlaid Max’s words with what he saw, the understanding once again reshaping Alessa in his mind.

“But why insecure?” he asked. “If she is concerned with her looks, wouldn’t she know that she’s gorgeous?”

Max shook her head. “I’m sure she’s aware, but in a way, it’s probably a lot like anorexia. People who are anorexic are already thin, right? But they don’t see themselves that way, or don’t see themselves as thin enough.”

“I thought anorexia was about control,” Denny said.

Max shrugged. “Yeah, it is, and this is probably what it is for her. Her appearance is the easiest thing she can control, but I bet it’s a point of some deep-seated insecurity. Think about it. Her father left during a critical time in her development. At fourteen, her body was beginning to really develop. No matter how amicable it may have been between the parents, I bet she felt like she was being abandoned by her father, or even worse, she was the reason he left. She was powerless to stop it, and felt like her father’s approval was something she had to earn, instead of the well-adjusted belief that a parent’s love is unconditional.”

“Looking for love,” Denny mumbled, staring into his empty beer. Max asked him to elaborate. He shook his head. “When she told me about her first time, she said she had just wanted the guy to love her.”

“Exactly,” Max agreed sadly. “But in the end, what happened? She had a terrible experience and was left in even more pain than before it ever happened. And so what did she do?”

“She became an overachieving, workaholic, control freak,” Denny answered.

“All the while lying to herself that she didn’t want sex or need a relationship. But all of her achievements can’t erase her maladapted feelings of insecurity, and that innate need for connection we all share. They just drive her to keep going, to be better and better each time. But each success just becomes like a bite of an empty calorie. She feels satisfied for a time, but really, it just leaves her hungry for more.”

“So what the fuck do I do?” he finally asked. “How do I get through to her?”

“Denny, I’m afraid to tell you this, but you’re not going to win her over by simply asking her out. She’s not going to just suddenly realize ‘hey, I like you. Let me drop off all my baggage and we can live happily-ever-after.’ It’s going to take work.”

“Tell me about it,” Denny muttered finishing the last of his beer and waggling his bottle to the barkeep.

“What’s that supposed to mean? Has something happened?”

“Last night.”

“Oh? When you called me?” Max surmised.

“Yeah. I’d just dropped her off. We’d been in the city working and I talked her into letting me take her to dinner.”

“So then what happened?”

“She told me about her previous experience, how she hadn’t had sex since high school. And then I kissed her. Fuck,” he groaned, rubbing his face, “I think I just messed it up worse.”

“You kissed her? What was that like?”

“Wanna a play by play?” he asked cynically. But Max only nodded.

Denny reluctantly detailed his kiss with Alessa, telling Max about the whimpers she made when he did something she liked. When Max asked if it made him hard, his face was a mixture a frown and smile, but he admitted the truth despite any embarrassment. He explained how they ended up with him pressing her against the wall grinding into her, but how she had frozen when those people walked by whistling at them.

“I was so certain that if I could just kiss her,” his voice trailed. “In the end, she was just as closed off as before. Maybe more so.”

“Because you destroyed her reality, no doubt,” his confidant supplied. “You made her want sex, even though she’d dedicated her adult life to the belief she’s immune from its allure.” Max was silent for many minutes before she declared she was done and wanted him to walk her home. Denny paid for the drinks and together they walked out into the cool, fall night. Max looped her arm through his and eventually spoke despite their comfortable silence.

“If you are serious about a relationship with this woman, like I said, it’s going to take work. And she’s going to need to actively participate in healing herself. Despite how much she may want you, those burdens are strapped to her back like barnacles to a ship, and they’re not coming off because of one good kiss. Hell, because of a thousand. But short of going to therapy, I think you could help her.”

“And how do you suggest I do that?” he questioned incredulously, his pain that she continued to shut him out evident to Max.

“There are elements of what I do, of what I already talked to you about that I think could be very helpful,” Max began. She could tell by the disgruntled, disbelieving expression he wore that he didn’t agree.

“I’m not suggesting you turn into a dom and make her your sub. Developing those sorts of relationships takes years of training and a dedicated lifestyle that isn’t for everyone. But I do think the approach to relationships and sexuality, like the communication, speaking frankly about her issues and devising little therapeutic scenarios, can help you. Help her. It will take time, gentleness, and a whole hell of a lot of skill, but I think you could pull it off. If you care enough about her to want to put in the time and effort, if you always believe she’s worth it, I think you could do it.”

They walked several blocks up a steep hill before Denny spoke again. “But how do I even begin? How do I get her to give me a chance?”

Max was silent as she thought about a million different scenarios until at last all she could offer was, “She can’t be forced to do this, to enter into a relationship. But she may need to be…maneuvered into discussing it, for you to present your plan to her. But no matter what, the most important thing for you to remember, is that she has to know you will be dependable. You can’t get tired of her in a few months or you’ll just wind up doing even more damage to her. Denny, if you want this to work, you have to convince her you’re as committed as the light is to the sun.”


Chapter Six

CHAPTER SIX

It was a little after one the following afternoon when Denny pulled up to the address Alessa directed him to. On the corner lot sat a dilapidated convenience store with boarded up windows and black graffiti scrawled irreverently across the faded blue store front.

“This is supposed to be a historical building? It was probably built in the seventies.”

Alessa looked back down at the open folder in her lap. “This is the correct address. Property description states it’s a turn-of-the-century building. Two-story. Priced at two-point-four.”

“Million? Turn of this century? Is one of the stories underground?” Denny asked disbelieving. “Come on,” he said at last, opening his door and getting out. Denny pulled out his phone and started snapping pictures, getting angles that included the street signs and surrounding buildings. He heard Alessa talking on the phone and could tell by her questions that she had dialed the development company on the sign announcing plans to build something else.

“Okay, great. Thanks for the info,” she spoke into her phone. She came to stand next to him as he peered between the boards on the windows. “Spoke with one of the managers at the development company. Plans are to make this into three commercial units. One an eatery, one a health food store. Said he didn’t know what the third one was. Thought maybe it hadn’t been settled yet.”

“Did he say how long ago the property was bought? Or when development would start?”

“Only that this building was to be torn down by the end of the month. They were still working on construction permits from city hall.”

“Well, I think we’ve seen all we can at this one. Let’s go to the next property,” he suggested, turning back to his car.

Alessa slid back in, again thinking about how luxurious the leather felt against her skin. Denny’s Audi sedan had been a surprise when he’d led her down into the garage and hit the unarm button on his key fob, the gray car’s lights flashing. She had assumed a flashy lawyer would have an obnoxious sports car. But there was nothing flashy about his. It was elegant and understated, and purred like a fat cat that just drank all its milk. She tried to tell herself to not fall in love with him simply because she liked his car, but it was hard to do.

Scolding herself, she flipped to the next file and punched the address into her phone’s GPS. For the rest of the afternoon they went from one property to another, and at each one discovered that no buildings were being renovated. They were all in various stages of redevelopment: at a few lots, dilapidated buildings stood, ready to be demolished; one old house was being razed; one had undergone fire and had yellow tape around it; two were vacant lots; and two others had new buildings going up. Denny was muttering to himself when he told her to get back into the car.

It was twenty minutes before they pulled up in front of the last property. A structure, outlined in a red steel frame was being erected. Construction fencing closed off the lot as there were several work vehicles parked around the building with workers in white hats busy welding, moving, talking.

“And what is this supposed to be?” Denny asked.

“A Jewish Temple. This is one of the older projects,” she commented as she looked at the notes.

“Obviously,” Denny muttered, scanning all that was going on. “What was the date on the burnt building we saw, and the vacant lot you went by?”

After looking back through her files, she scanned for the information. “A payment was made…three weeks ago for the burnt building and the vacant lot was just over two months ago.” She looked up to see his eyes calculating. “What are you thinking?” Just then her stomach growled. Denny’s face lightened.

“Tell you what, you’ve done an excellent job. Let me treat you to dinner; and I’ll share what I’m thinking,” he offered, no smile, but a playful glint in his eyes.

Alessa’s mouth was open to decline, but he cut her off. “Come on. Just dinner. Plus,” he said, his eyes turning back to her mouth, “we still need to talk.”

At his reminder of the growing complications of their relationship, Alessa groaned and looked back out the windshield. “Denny, there isn’t anything to talk about.”

“I don’t believe that.” He studied her a minute. “And neither do you. I’m not propositioning you, but we need to have a conversation. No arguments. Agreed?” he asked firmly, starting the engine. With something of a pout, Alessa nodded her head, but didn’t look back at him. When they were on the road, Denny called ahead to have his usual table ready for him, though she had no idea where he was taking her.

Then, fifteen minutes into their drive back, Alessa’s phone chimed. She pulled it free and read the text she had received. When Denny heard her sigh, he looked over and asked if everything was alright. She merely shook her head, not necessarily in answer, but simply indicating that she had something to deal with. She was dialing her phone and then waiting for the other person to answer.

“Hi, Shelly, it’s Alessa. Hey, listen, Cadence just texted me that she can’t spend the day with me tomorrow.” She listened for a moment, and Denny could tell by her repositioning herself, and the small noise she made she wasn’t happy with whatever was being said. Eventually she spoke again. “No, I understand, it’s just I think Cadence is disappointed. We’ve been looking forward to hanging out—no, of course I’m sure she wants to spend time with Gram, it’s only—no, I understand. Yeah, that’s fine.” And she hung up, a large and resentful sigh filling the air.

“Something wrong?” Denny nosed in.

Alessa only half shook her head. “It’s just my stepmom,” she said in a large sigh, and held up the phone as if the device carried the guilt of connecting her with others. “Cadence, my sister I told you about, well we were supposed to spend tomorrow together. She was going to spend the night. I was hoping I’d have her along to help me pick out a dress for that fundraiser Lou told me about. My sister has pretty good taste. Anyway, her mom said Gram—that’s Shelly’s mom—is insisting on taking Cadence out of town on a little mini vacation for the weekend.”

Denny could hear the resentment in her voice, the disappointment and anger. “I’m sorry. That sounds like a very disappointing situation.” He was silent after he offered her his condolences before deciding to breach the tension. “You sound as though you’re used to this sort of thing.”

Alessa gave a cold, cynical chuckle. “Funny, right? I have to be the most responsible adult I know—”

“Agreed.”

“And yet, I’m treated…but I really shouldn’t be surprised. It’s been like that from day one.” She stopped her explanation and looked angrily out the window.

Denny wanted to touch her, to rub her arm or pull her into an embrace. His chest was beginning to ache with his inability to console her.

She spoke eventually. “Well, she’ll only be their responsibility another four years and then off to college. If it’s somewhere local maybe she can visit me more often,” she stated, hoping she wasn’t setting herself up for continued disappointment.

They didn’t speak much after that, and almost an hour later they reached their destination. At first, Alessa assumed he was taking her to the office as they drove by their building, but he kept driving a few more blocks. After finding a parking spot, Denny held out his arm to her, indicating she was to start walking.

“Where are we going?”

“Bix. Ever been?”

Alessa shook her head.

“Well, they have the best oysters,” he sighed with a smile.

“Oysters?” Alessa asked with a small amount of trepidation.

“You’ve never had oysters?”

She frowned and shook her head.

He guided her down a wide alley. “How are you with sushi? I mean real sushi, not that cream cheese and fried shrimp stuff. Raw fish. You like it?” When she nodded, he said, “Well, then oysters won’t be too far of a leap. They certainly have a more intense flavor than tuna or salmon, you can tell they came from the sea. But I wouldn’t say they’re gross.”

He opened the door in the brick wall, and Alessa was momentarily taken aback by the restaurant teeming with life. He guided her to the hostess who seemed to know him. When he mentioned he had called earlier, she said, “Of course, Mr. Ashbury. We have your booth ready for you,” and with that she led them through the restaurant and up the stairs. Alessa was scanning all about her, enjoying what she saw. Sure enough, the hostess led them to the very last booth on the upper balcony, tucked away in the corner and as intimate as could be.

She could feel her anxiety rising, but calmed herself by reaffirming she wouldn’t tell him anything, she wouldn’t give anything away, and that she would masterfully steer the conversation to their case and deny anything else. She slid in, and when Denny slid in next to her, she readjusted her position to put a small amount of space between them.

When they were alone Denny spoke. “I know it may sound extremely misogynistic, but would you allow me to order for you? It’s only, there are a few things I’d like for you to try,” he explained.

Alessa didn’t know if she should interpret his request as sexist or thoughtful, and didn’t know if she should feel wary or flattered. But he seemed sincere enough and so she relented. After all, if he was treating her to dinner at his home, he would pick the menu there, so she chose to not be difficult. Then she thought of a compromise. “Could you give me your suggestions?”

Denny’s concerned expression broke into a gentle smile. He seemed to understand her dilemma. “Sure, I’d love to. First, as I said,” he began, pulling open their menus, “I think we should do oysters on the half shell. When our server comes, we’ll ask what they have tonight. Now, what would you like to try? The caviar on the potato pillows or the steak tartare? Both are excellent.”

Alessa read the description of both. “Raw beef?” she asked, slightly disgusted by the sound.

“Sweetheart, trust me, you can eat anything raw,” he stated, and then gave her a sideways glance before looking back at his menu. “You should try it. It’s my philosophy you should try anything you’re afraid of.”

Just then their waiter, who introduced himself as Mike approached. After greeting them, he asked what they would like to drink. Denny ordered glasses of the Sauvignon Blanc for the both of them, telling her it paired well with the oysters, and then made a recommendation for a few of the cocktails. He smiled when he heard her say she wasn’t really a drinker, but would try Denny’s first suggestion. The waiter left them to return to their conversation.

Alessa agreed to the try the steak tartare and then they looked over the main courses. Denny stated he wanted steak with the truffle fries.

“Don’t you worry about a heart attack?” Alessa muttered, to which he chuckled.

“Trust me, I have excellent cardiovascular health,” and smiled as if he knew some joke she did not.

After studying the menu, she at last decided on the chicken. Denny looked down at the menu, and then smiling and rolling his eyes, he leaned over to whisper in her ear, “It’s okay, you don’t have to get the cheapest thing on the menu. I can give you whatever you want.”

Alessa was stunned into immobility, his warm breath and sexy voice too intimate for her to ignore. Denny pulled away to look at her, aware of his effect on her. But before either could say anything, their waiter had returned with their drinks.

Denny ordered their starters and his main course, but gave her an indulging nod to allow her to order for herself. With a shaky voice, Alessa ordered the duck and creamed spinach. The waiter nodded, took their menus, and left them alone once more.

He watched her pick up her cocktail, her hand as trembling as her voice had been, and take a long gulp of it. “So no men?” he asked casually.

“Huh?” she asked, looking up with a confused frown.

“You’re not dating anyone, not in a relationship with anyone,” he clarified, also tasting his cocktail.

Alessa was silent, uncomfortable at the information he was keen on extracting. She studied her hands, feeling the edges of her nails for snags. “What is there to say?” she resigned at last. “I don’t date,” she stated, punctuating each word. “I don’t date so there isn’t anything to talk about.” She hoped her explanation would be the end of the discussion.

Denny was quiet only a second. “And why don’t you date?” he prodded gently. When she sighed, he continued. “It can’t be because men haven’t asked. Caplin’s evidence enough of that,” he remarked drily, “so that must mean that when they do, you turn them down. Why?”

She gave an exasperated sigh. “Because I have better things to do with my time. I’m busy, you know? I work nearly sixteen hours and usually most of Saturday. There is no time for someone. And before this job there was school. You don’t make it through undergrad in three years if you frivolously waste your time dating. And you don’t get early admission into one of the best schools if you’re lazy in high school. I’ve been busy working hard to be successful.”

“So does that mean you’ve never dated? Never had a boyfriend?”

Her look indicated she really didn’t want to talk about this, that she was annoyed with his persistence, but she answered anyway. “Yeah, I’ve had a boyfriend before.”

“A boyfriend? As in one?”

Alessa took in a deep breath and held it in apprehension. She knew she couldn’t keep from answering, knowing he’d strip the details from both experiences, so she decided to misdirect with the half-truth. “Kinda. Sorta. Yeah,” she equivocated, squirming uncomfortably.

Denny’s head cocked. “And just when did you date this one, lucky man?”

She felt some relief that he was following her line of answers. “He wasn’t a man,” she mumbled, taking another sip of her drink, but Denny heard her and for a split second thought she was about to say it was a woman, but she continued. “He was only sixteen, and I wouldn’t qualify him by calling him a man,” she clarified.

Denny was stunned.

“You’ve only had one boyfriend in your life, and it was in high school? At least, I’m assuming you were sixteen also, when you dated him.”

“Of course I was in high school. But I was fifteen. I’d had boyfriends in middle school, even in the fourth grade, but, you know what childhood dating,” she said with air quotes, “is like. They last a week and you just sit by each other at lunch. Anyway, I’ve answered your questions. Can we just drop this now?”

Denny was considering what she had said when their waiter brought their starters. Despite the growing intensity and shocking revelations of their conversation, Denny couldn’t contain his smile when he saw the oysters. For the moment, he allowed the conversation to be put on hold.

“Okay,” he instructed, “you have your various condiments—this one is my favorite, but they’re all good. You can have lemon, tobacco, whatever, but don’t try to bury the oyster’s flavor. I mean, you’re eating it so you should taste it. That’s why I like this one. It just brightens everything. Talk about bite. Now, take your fork, that’s right,” he coached, his voice matching his intent, watchful eyes, “now, open your mouth, place it on your tongue, and just hold it. Let it burst. That’s right,” he murmured and then smiled at the explosion of pleasure on her face as she tasted her first oyster. He even heard her little moan.

“Good girl,” his voice still low. “Oops, got some on your lip,” and with a free hand he reached up and slowly wiped her wetted lip, and then put his thumb in his mouth to suck off the moisture he had captured. Alessa’s body contracted when he gave a moan she more felt than heard. “I was right, wasn’t I?” he asked, noticing her blush.

Alessa nodded, her eyes flittering to him. “Yes, very,” she breathed when she swallowed.

“Now, try the Sauvignon Blanc. Tell me it’s good.”

Again, Alessa did as instructed and again agreed with his selection. Next he showed her how to eat the steak tartare, which she relented was good as well.

“Now, back to our discussion.”

“Denny,” she whined, “I really don’t want to talk about myself. Besides, I’ve answered all your questions.”

“No, you’ve merely made the topic vastly more interesting than I had ever imagined. Now I have ten times as many questions.”

“This isn’t fair. Why don’t you have to answer any questions?”

Denny smiled and ate another oyster. “Ask away. I’ll answer anything you want.”

“Really?” she asked, surprised. For a moment she was stumped but then begrudgingly admitted to herself she actually would like to know more about him. “No ring,” she observed, “so…girlfriend?”

“Nope.”

“Boyfriend?”

He chuckled and slowly shook his head.

“Divorced?” Again, another shake of his head.

“Well, why not?”

“You have to get married before you can get divorced,” he returned with cheek.

She narrowed her eyes in annoyance. “Why don’t you have a girlfriend? Why haven’t you gotten married?”

“Relationships, good ones at least, require work, and so far I’ve been pretty dedicated to my job.”

“So you’ve never dated?” she asked, mocking what he had said earlier.

Denny kept smiling as he stretched and leaned back further. “Well, I meet women, we…do what I need,” he stated delicately, “and we move on.”

“Do what you need?” she repeated with mild disdain.

Denny laughed. “Yeah. Sex. We have sex. There, is that phrasing more palatable to you?”

“I didn’t disapprove of your wording, merely the behavior you were describing.”

“What? Don’t like sex?” his eyes glinting with mirth and a dark dare.

Her mouth tightened before she skirted around the issue. “Isn’t sleeping around dangerous? Aren’t you afraid of catching diseases?”

Denny was slowly beginning to sober as he was piecing together what she was inadvertently saying. “Protection. It’s an easy habit. Plus, it’s not as if I sleep with a new woman every night. I wouldn’t describe myself as a man-whore.”

There was a pause when she had nothing more to say, nothing more she wanted to know. Denny’s gaze was becoming more intense, and he was staring at her, as if to compel her to reveal herself.

“Alessa,” Denny spoke calmly, drawing her wary eyes to him. “If you don’t sleep around, but you haven’t been in a relationship since high school, I’m led to come to two possible conclusions. Either a. you haven’t had sex since high school or b. you haven’t had sex at all. Which is it?”

Alessa opened her mouth in exasperation and made to answer several times, but each time stopping short of producing a sound. Denny could see the answer building up behind her lips as she shook her head as if speaking only in her mind. “Fine,” she gasped at last, making a gesture with her hands, “fine, I had sex in high school. It was awful, and I never wanted to do it again and so I didn’t,” she admitted and then finished off her cocktail. She could feel the effects of the alcohol and felt her cheeks warm. For once, she was thankful her pink cheeks weren’t because Denny was making her blush.

Denny studied her, his body half turned to her with his arm over the back of the plush booth. “Why awful?”

But pink cheeks weren’t the only thing the alcohol affected. Suddenly, she didn’t care if he knew, in fact, a little part of her wanted to be free of her secret. “I thought we were in love. All of our friends were doing it, even though I was just a freshman. I just wanted him to love me. And I thought it would be good, you know? I had all these feelings, I wanted him to touch me. I wanted to feel good, to have all his promises. But when it actually happened, I don’t know. It hurt. It was awkward. It was embarrassing. It was kind of gross. And the moment he was in, it stopped. All the sexual feelings I was having just stopped. He came before the pain even went away. Less than a minute,” she concluded morosely.

She took her wine glass and slowly twirled it back and forth, watching the last of the liquid remain motionless even though glass moved about it.

“It was one of the most devastating disappointments in my life,” she admitted with definite regret in her voice. “A week later he talked me into letting him try again, promising he would make sure I had an orgasm,” she laughed morosely. “But it was just as boring the second time. Either there was something wrong with me or the entire mystique about sex had been grossly exaggerated. Maybe it’s great for the guy, but for the woman? Waste of freaking time.” She downed the last of her wine and looked to the stairs, eager for the waiter to come back so she could order another.

“Alessa,” Denny began, but she cut him off.

“No, don’t try to change my experience for me or try to convince me I had somehow missed something that was there, because I didn’t. Besides, I dumped him the next day, was miserable for about a month while he spread rumors of me being a cold fish, threw myself into school, and never looked back. I was just thankful I’d figured it out before wasting my life chasing after something that didn’t exist.” A memory fluttered in her mind, but she managed to shove it aside, lock it away to keep up her resolve.

Alessa was relieved when the waiter brought their food. She ordered another drink, as did Denny, and dug in to her duck. The new distraction of their food allowed Denny time to contemplate everything she had thus far shared. Intuitively, he realized there was a disconnect in what she claimed and yet what she did, and eventually he began to wonder about her old penchant for writing erotica and why she ever stopped. But in order to discover the cause, he would have to confess to her his own marred past. And so, when he had made a considerable dent in his food, he braved what he had been holding back since she first walked into his office so many weeks ago.

“When you came for your interview, didn’t it feel as though we had met before?”

Alessa’s eyebrows drew down in suspicion. “Actually, yeah, it kind of did,” she cautiously agreed.

Denny’s mouth was tight for a moment before he took a deep breath and continued. “The first time you probably didn’t notice me. It was when you took those classes at Stanford. I was in your poli-sci class.” He gave a begrudging, half smile. “I was impressed by how intelligent you seemed, by your answers and your drive to impress the professor. And I thought you were cute then,” he admitted, a quick glance up at her before looking back down at his steak.

Alessa blushed, and though she didn’t want to, she couldn’t keep from smiling. “You did?”

“Yeah, but you were just a teenager so I didn’t bother.”

“Oh.” When he remained silent she asked him about the second time.

“What if I told you I have a history of acting like a jerk to you?”

She frowned. “I’m not sure I follow. When else have we met?”

Again he was silent, each step of his confession required a monumental reaffirming of his desire to be completely honest. “Do you ever play trivia?” he asked in a new direction of questioning.

Again she looked puzzled. “You mean like Trivial Pursuit, the game?”

He shook his head and downed his drink. “No, like trivia, quiz bowls, at pubs and stuff.” His eyes lifted to hers.

Denny could feel the immediate change in her, her body stiffening and her expression taut, and his gut tightened. She spoke slowly, cautiously. “Not really. Not for a long time. I played a couple of times with a group of girls I was acquainted with back in college.” They were both silent a moment before she spoke again. “Are you saying we met one of the times I was there playing?”

Denny slowly nodded.

Her expression screwed up in even more discomfort. “And you’re saying we interacted and you were a jerk?” she clarified, not wanting to believe her suspicions.

Again he nodded.

“The alley,” she breathed.

He gave one, single, solitary nod.

She was silent while she processed all the implications of his wordless confession. Denny watched in near anguish as a myriad of emotions passed across her expressive face. He saw shock, despair, anger, fear, and then guarded calculation. When she at last spoke, he began carefully rebuilding his bridge to her.

“Why are you telling me this now?”

He was thankful that she didn’t slap him or demand he get away from her, and to him, that was a welcome sign. “What I did was wrong, believe me, I regret it fully. I had too much to drink, and your team…well, they annoyed the shit out of me and I just wanted to punish the lot of you for winning. And you, you were just this aloof, unattainable ice princess and you didn’t even care you were single handedly beating us, beating me. And then I figured you must be cheating, you know, looking on your phone for answers.”

Alessa groaned at the mention of her phone, doubtless remembering when he had taken it from her. She put her forehead in her hand. “Denny, I really don’t want to talk about this.”

“Too bad, because this is exactly what we’re talking about,” he said firmly, scooting closer so they were touching, his arm still on the back of the booth. “I don’t get it. I checked you out. Checked your stories out,” he admitted, confirming her deepest fear. “Not only are you a good writer, but you were writing erotica. Fucking-hot erotica. How can you say you aren’t interested in sex when clearly you are. Or at least were.”

Alessa looked up at him, her angry eyes spearing him. She didn’t pay any mind to the fact she was practically nestled into his side. “That’s right. I was until I was nearly attacked in an alley and scared out of my friggin’ mind.”

Denny was quiet a moment. “Really? You stopped writing because of me?”

“What do you expect? You come out of nowhere in the middle of a dark alley to verbally abuse me, libel me, falsely accuse me of cheating, and then you steal my phone and discover my mortifying secret. Yeah, how the fuck do you think I felt?” she whispered harshly, her eyes shifting down the way to other booths to make sure no one overheard their conversation. “I couldn’t keep writing after that.”

“What do you mean?”

She gave an exasperated sigh and stared angrily across the table to the half wall partitioning them from the restaurant. “Did you read those stories?”

“Of course. How could I not? They were very good.”

“Did you notice what they were about? What their theme was?”

“You mean sex?”

“No, you idiot.”

“Oh, you mean the fact that they were about rape sort of stuff?”

“It’s called non-consensual,” she corrected. “Growing up in high school, in college, I thought that’s what I liked, that’s what turned me on. But when it almost happened, it made me sick. When I got home that night, I puked and couldn’t stop crying because I was so scared. I couldn’t sit at my computer and write any more of those stories. It just wasn’t the same. The only thing that was left after that night was nausea. It wasn’t a fantasy anymore; it was real. And I realized real life isn’t as good as fantasy sex. It’s a lie we build up because we need something, but it never does it for us. And so, after that, my lingering desires for sex effectively died. Real life is awful,” she surmised bleakly.

“Alessa, sweetheart,” Denny said, his heart breaking at what he had done. “It isn’t awful.”

“That’s what you think,” she intoned drily, and turned to finish off the second cocktail the waiter had brought her.

“Sweetheart, listen, sex can be uh-mazing. Now maybe you don’t turn into a crazed, sex maniac, but it’s about the best feeling, and not just the orgasm…all of it: connecting with someone, touching someone, having them touch you. Sex is the ultimate pleasure.”

“That’s a complete lie,” she refused to believe.

“If sex is such a lie, why the stories at all?”

The alcohol was coursing through her like a truth serum, but even that truth was too painful to admit to, too confusing and full of despair, and so, despite the pull to confess everything, she kept it back and instead glossed over it, giving more half-truths and general lamentations. Alessa’s expression was dismal as she looked into her empty glass.

“I tried to leave it alone. When I broke up with him, I did nothing but study. I thought I could get past it. But those urges wouldn’t leave, not when I was silent and still. So I turned to erotic stories. It started with romance novels, but as I got older my need seemed to morph, and I craved stories about, well, you know. And, of course, I put myself into the characters, no matter how much bullshit nonsense it was. It was my therapy, I guess. Living my fantasy from a safe distance. But after you and the alley, I couldn’t believe the lie anymore, that even though it wasn’t real it was just as good. So I stopped writing and just focused on school.” Denny didn’t miss her quiet tears that were rolling unannounced down her pink cheeks.

“Alessa, sweetheart,” he murmured, his arm dropping to nestle around her shoulders and pulling her a few inches closer. The moment his arm was around her, she turned into him so her head rested under his chin. He could feel the small shake of her shoulders though she didn’t make a sound. After a time, Denny lifted his hands to her face, cradling it and brushing away her tears with his thumbs.

He kissed her temple, comfortable and natural. When she raised no objections, he placed another at the side of her cheek, and then under her eye, and down along the side of her nose. His lips stopped just before they touched hers. He was staring at her when her eyes drifted up to his, red with tears dotted on her lashes.

“Alessa,” he whispered again, but she began to pull back, weary from it all.

He watched as she smoothed out her clothes and cleared her throat before reaching for her water glass. He saw the waiter coming and pulled out his wallet before he arrived. “Alessa, would you like any dessert?” he asked, though knew she would decline.

He gave the waiter his card, and the two sat in silence while the waiter took care of their bill. As soon as he returned they stood to leave, and Alessa was grateful Denny was behind her as she swayed on her feet. “I guess I don’t typically drink so much,” she mumbled in defense when his two hands landed on either of her hips to steady her.

Denny then took her by the hand and led her down the stairs, ready to grab her if needed. But Alessa made it to the door without incident. When they stepped out into the cool night air, she looked down at their joined hands, and when she lifted her eyes to his, Denny waited for her to pull away. She surprised him when, instead, she turned to head back toward the car, their hands still clasped.

Denny was lamenting how all her defenses would fall if only he could kiss her, when they passed a particularly dark section of the path. Suddenly, he had a plan.

“I know you think sex isn’t thrilling, but give me a chance to show you how good it can be. I know I can convince you in two minutes that sex, and all you’ve fantasized about it, isn’t overrated,” he challenged, pulling on the hand he was holding to bring them to a stop in the darkest shadow.

“Two minutes? Talk about premature ejaculation,” she muttered, to which Denny chuckled. “I’m not letting you sleep with me just so you can prove a point,” she replied incredulously.

“Hell, who said anything about sleeping together. Just kissing can be phenomenal. Didn’t you ever make out?”

“A couple of times,” she responded.

“Yeah, but you were just in high school, and if he was as bad as you claim, I bet he didn’t have kissing down either. Let me convince you; just a two minute kiss can change your mind; I know you want to. I know you’re attracted to me just as much as I’m attracted to you. Don’t try to deny it, you’re not a good enough liar. Besides, if you’re right and reality isn’t as good as fantasy, if there is nothing there, then what do you have to worry about?”

She leveled a hard gaze at him. “Okay, you got me. I’m attracted to you. But Denny, that’s where it has to end.”

“Why? Who made all these silly rules that are keeping you bound up? What’s their purpose? Because from what I can tell, you aren’t happy because of them. Not really happy.” He took a step closer. “Come on, Alessa, just one kiss. Let me convince you. Let me show you.” His hands were gentle on her as he pulled her tightly into him. “Just two minutes can change your life.”

“Denny,” Alessa sighed, her heart tearing in two. And though she wanted him to be right, she was just as frightened of that possibility as she was as if he was wrong. For if he was right, where would that leave her?

Holding onto a desire with no promise it would last.

“Just one kiss, Alessa,” he begged softly, his mouth but a whisper away.

She whimpered, caught and miserable, knowing that by the need for that one kiss he pleaded for, it would be her undoing.

One hand was cupping her face, his thumb rubbing over her parting lips. “One kiss.”


Chapter Five

CHAPTER FIVE

“I know a girl
She puts the color inside of my world
But, she’s just like a maze
Where all of the walls all continually change
And I’ve done all I can
To stand on her steps with my heart in my hand
Now I’m starting to see
Maybe It’s got nothing to do with me.”
“Daughters” –John Mayer

“You look like shit,” Macrae announced from his doorway, giving a cursory knock as she entered.

Denny looked up from the documents in front of him, ran a hand over his face, and gave a loud, manly growl as he lifted his arms back over his head in a stretch. “Yeah, well you would too if you put in as much time as I do,” he glibbed, before looking back down at his work.

Macrae smirked as she settled into the chair across from him. Denny knew that look. “What?” he asked.

“You’ve been working out, too,” she smirked, noticing not for the first time how attractive he was. “I just wonder what’s the cause for not only a resurgence in such long hours, but also fitting in work outs? And from the look of it, you’ve been working out a lot,” she teased, raising her eyebrows up and down in a mock-leering fashion.

Denny wanted to pinch her. “Why, whatever could you be implying?”

“I think we both know exactly why you’re working late again and why you’ve gotten into such great shape. Don’t get me wrong, this Mingo client will be another feather in your cap, and I don’t mind risking a little sexual harassment to say you look hot enough for me to eat, so kudos to you. But don’t try to bullshit me as to your real motives.”

For a time, the two just stared each other down until Denny finally gave up trying to convince her his reasons were nothing more than his job. “What do you want, Macrae?” he asked returning to his work.

“Just curious how it was going?”

“Clearly, my exercise regime is going very well if you’re hitting on me. Or did you mean my motivation?” he asked with a snotty smirk.

“I don’t know why you’re being so nasty. Oh,” she drawled, a slow, knowing smile dawning, “unless, your motivation isn’t as motivated as you had hoped. Is that it? Poor Denny boy striking out?”

“Shut up, Macrae,” he growled, continuing to attempt focus on his work.

“Oh, you really are in a sour mood. But I guess not getting any would do that to a guy. Maybe it’s possible you were wrong all along, and I would have better luck with her,” she suggested.

“In your dreams. Trust me, she’s very much interested in me, she’s only…” but Denny wasn’t quite certain yet what the holdup was. It was definitely a pattern of stand-offish behavior, for as long as he’d known her. It made him more and more curious what her past relationships were like, if any of them had ended in disaster and that was the cause of her reluctance.

“What? Already taken? Uninterested in office trysts? A virgin?” she laughed scornfully.

Denny’s brow knitted. Now that he thought about it, it wasn’t an unreasonable guess. But why would she still be a virgin? She didn’t behave as though she were merely holding out for marriage. What would she be afraid of?

“Macrae, as entertaining as you always are, I really do have work I need to get done, so unless you’ve something constructive to say, save it for the next time we have drinks.”

Macrae pursed her lips in disappointment. “No, I was simply filling idle time. But drinks sound good. Soon. This week,” she was up and heading out the door before she turned back. “And Denny, if this case is proving tougher than you originally thought, remember my warning when it all started: don’t get yourself into trouble.” She gave him a pointed look and left.

Denny stared after her, knowing she wasn’t far from the truth, that opening Alessa up and getting inside was proving to be more difficult than he had originally considered. He felt like his whole undertaking was as delicate as an egg shell, and he was trying desperately to not crush it. He admitted that simply feeling the attraction between the two of them wasn’t enough to draw Alessa in. He still needed more. More information, more understanding, a more potent plan of attack.

Thus far, the formula to gather information during late night work sessions was working, despite any resistance Alessa cunningly displayed. Denny would keep at it until it didn’t work, deciding she was too skittish at the moment to rock the boat by trying a new tactic. He wondered if she wouldn’t have her guard up even more, now that, like a fool, he’d tried to kiss her. Only one way to find out.

Alessa finished writing the sentence she was in the middle of before turning to her computer to find the notification that had just chimed at her. It was another instant message from Denny.

How did you enjoy your first deposition?

Aside from the company I was forced to endure?

Perhaps another apology is in order?

Perhaps you should abstain from behaviors that require a following apology

Touché. Unpleasant company aside, interested in being assigned to the case?

You’re giving me the choice?

Considering my behavior, I thought I would allow you the option, yes

So whatever follows is at my own risk as it was my choice. My culpability

Something like that

Alessa didn’t have to consider whether or not the case interested her because it did, enormously. However, she wasn’t certain she wanted to willingly enter into another project that would require further contact with Denny than was absolutely necessary. But she felt the tug, which she mistakenly put down as motivation to succeed, advance, and the desire to prove to him her worth, and so reasoned that if she couldn’t indefinitely put off working with Denny, she might as well take every opportunity he provided to work for her promotion.

I should throw in a few stipulations, but considering I am interested, I’ll agree. First assignment?

Denny couldn’t contain his smile when he read her agreement.

Stay late tonight. We have tons of files to go thru

Denny waited, staring at the screen, tapping his pen impatiently against his desk. Just as he looked away, he heard the computer chime.

Ok. Your office or conference room?

My office is more comfortable. Plus all the files are in here already.

Alessa sat back from her desk, waiting for the panicked feeling to arise. But it never came. Not as before when she was trapped into working with him. Maybe because this was her choice? She wondered, but didn’t quite know for certain. She turned back to her work, the need to go for a run abated by an unexplainable contentment.

The remainder of her day was of no consequence, and at six, she left for her run. Alessa was reaching the thirty-minute marker on her treadmill when she realized she had spent the last half hour trying to negotiate with herself to only go that long, an unrecognized impatience to get back to the office for her evening with Denny drawing her away from the one constant in her life. Realizing that was what she had been doing, Alessa pushed herself another forty-five minutes. When she finally did step off, her legs were wobbly with the punishment she had just put them through.

She arrived back at the office, pink cheeked and sleepy. She sat down only a moment at her desk, her forehead resting on her hand.

“You okay?”

She looked up to see Denny propped on the corner of her workstation. She hadn’t even heard his approach. “You look flushed.” Because of her sluggish mind, Denny was able to reach a hand to her cheek and lay the back of it gently across her red skin without a protest from her. At least, that’s what she tried to tell herself.

“No, I’m fine. I’m just…just tired.”

Denny looked at her squarely. “What have you been doing to make you so red?” He knew exactly where she had been, but wondered if she would open up. He was surprised to see the struggle in her eyes as she stalled. He decided to twist her arm. “If you don’t tell me, I’m going to make a reasonable assumption that you look sick and send you home.”

Alessa sighed. “I’m not sick. I’ve been to the gym, that’s all. And besides, I can work if I’m sick. This isn’t elementary school, and you aren’t the principal.”

Denny held his triumphant smile in check. “So that’s where you go every evening. And I have every right to send you home, principal or not. Sick people make mistakes, costing us money. Sick people infect others, costing us more money.”

She ignored his rebuttal, focusing on his comment about her running habit. “You noticed?” she asked, looking concerned.

“It’s hard to not notice what you do,” he replied, and then added warmly, “especially when your habits are like the ticking of the Greenwich clock.”

She wanted to correct him in the assumption that the clock wasn’t as accurate as an atomic clock, but she couldn’t move past the gut-warming detail that Denton Ashbury noticed her.

“So you haven’t eaten, then, I take it?” he pried when she had nothing to say, making an opening.

She looked up at him, her mind scrambling to capture a reply. “I have my dinner in the break room.”

“Did you want to eat it now?” he asked banally.

His question no longer seemed like a trap. “Actually, I am getting hungry, so yeah. Why not?”

“Good. Then you can grab it and bring it to my office,” he instructed and got up to leave.

“Your office?”

“Yeah. Lots of files to get through,” he called out, not bothering to turn back, but continuing on his way. Alessa frowned. There was something about the sharing of mealtime that broke down the walls that defined simple relationships, blurring the borders until one was no longer merely a classmate, but now an acquaintance, or a colleague now a friend. Throughout her life, she had strived hard to keep all those people in their correct categories, but Denny had a knack for pushing himself into areas she did not want him, coming to her in thoughts she did not invite. Eating in his office was becoming a habit that was taking on a new meaning inside of her head, and she wasn’t certain she liked it.

Grabbing her bag from the fridge, she made her way to his office. She stopped abruptly at his door. There he sat on his designer couch with a leg crossed, an arm across the back, a file in his lap, and of course, his sleeves rolled up. Manila folders were scattered about him on the floor, with three filing boxes sitting in front of the couch to his side.

He looked up at her. “Alessa, sit,” he instructed, moving a file from the far edge of the sofa, indicating she was to sit there with him. She was trying to formulate a protest, but it died on her tongue. Reluctantly, she did as bid, and slowly made herself comfortable as far from him as possible. She was eating a black bean and chicken salad on a bed of fresh spinach with a spicy dressing. As soon as she had her bowl open and a bite taken, Denny picked up a file and tossed it to her, silently encouraging her to work while eating. She looked up at him and saw the smile in his eyes and did her best to ignore her natural response to it.

“What are you eating?” he asked with his mouth full.

When she told him, he questioned, “Do you always eat healthy?”

She frowned in thought. “I certainly care about what I put into my body, if that answers your question.”

He only smiled as he chewed. “And what are you eating?” she returned the interest.

“A wrap. With sliced beef, cheddar, horseradish mayo and green lettuce. Wanna bite?” he casually offered, holding his hand out for her to take a bite.

Her eyes widened a second. “No, thank you.”

“Don’t like sharing food?”

“Not with men I hardly know,” she returned with a mock-chastising tone to her voice.

“Then who do you share with?”

That intimacy of the question caught her off guard and she fumbled a moment for an answer. “Well, my sister, I suppose. And my mom.”

“So no men at all. Whether you know them well or otherwise,” he concluded, an almost swagger to his expression as he took another bite. Her eyes were caught watching his lips as he chewed, before her mouth tightened and she narrowed her eyes. She didn’t want to have that conversation with anyone, least of all him, so she ventured no comment.

Denny, watching her watch him eat, extended his arm to again offer her a taste. “I insist, take a bite,” he commanded, a smile on his lips. “I don’t have cooties, I promise.”

“No, really, I-“

But he wouldn’t let her refuse. “I insist. You need to expand your experiences, remember? Wasn’t that your excuse for not working immediately after college? You wanted new experiences,” he argued. “Well, here it is; sharing food with a man.”

Alessa’s expression was one of trapped, mild discomfort, before Denny saw her relent and lean forward. She placed her hand on his, guiding the food to her mouth before taking a slow, cautious bite. He watched with amusement as she chewed, at first warily, before he saw the break in her countenance and a nod of her head suggesting she liked it.

He took another bite himself. “It’s good, isn’t it?”

“It’s got bite,” she conceded, her hand covering her mouth as it wasn’t quite empty yet.

“Horseradish. Gotta love it.”

Alessa shrugged in general agreement before looking back down at the file on her lap. For a time, they were content to sit silently while eating and reading. After her fifth file, he spoke. “So you run?” She glanced up at him, noted his casualness as he had posed the question, not even looking at her. When she answered, he kept talking.

“How long have you done that? Did I read in your file you ran in college?”

“Yeah, that’s right,” she answered, looking up again, this time unwilling to turn back to her work until he looked at her.

“And how did you get into that?” he asked, finally lifting his eyes from his document to look at her.

“Started running track in high school,” she supplied, and then smiling, replayed in her mind one of her favorite races.

Denny noticed her expression. “You must love it quite a lot,” he observed, beginning to realize how much he appreciated her expressions when her walls were down.

Her smile showed her straight, white teeth. “Yeah, I love it a lot. My dad and I were walking around the Palace of Fine Arts-”

“Go there a lot?” he interjected.

“Yeah, he and Shelly, that’s my stepmom, they live across from there.” Denny raised his eyebrows at that, but didn’t interrupt. “Anyway, it was the day of the marathon and there was an endless tidal wave of bodies bobbing by, and I made some sort of glib about what a waste of time it was. My dad lectured me pretty sternly. He loved track and field, you see. Then he made me a promise: if I made it on the high school track team and consistently placed in the top three, he would take time off and come watch my meets.”

“The top three?”

“Well, yeah,” she shrugged, “I mean, you wouldn’t want to waste your time if the kid wasn’t going to win,” she argued, switching over into hypothetical speech, instead of answering directly for her father. Denny didn’t miss it.

“If it were my kid, it wouldn’t matter if they came in dead last. I’d be happy to support them in whatever they did.”

“Yes, well, that’s nice for you to espouse now, but in reality, when you work for the bureau-”

“Bureau?”

“Yeah, the feds, my dad’s an agent. Any-way, in the Bay Area traffic to watch your kid suck it up? Yeah, that’d be a waste of time if you’re very busy. Besides, it motivated me. I did two-a-days for the longest time. Had to watch what I ate, realized that if I wanted to excel, I had to focus, to become a disciplined athlete. To take my running seriously.”

She was turning thoughtful as she spoke, her words slower, pulled from deep, as though they had been stored in the recesses of her mind for an age, only now coming out in her explanation. “And once I started running, it just fit, you know? I found the greatest peace when my legs were burning and numb with fatigue, my lungs ached. I found, despite the pain and discomfort, that I was stronger than any of it, that it couldn’t stop me. Every run I completed, I felt invincible. So I was grateful for it, I suppose. And because of it, I got to spend time with my dad. And I guess after he left…it was nice to see him.”

Neither of them spoke, Denny had no more questions he felt comfortable asking, and Alessa was raw from introspection and Denny’s opinion of it. They transitioned into their work, reading through the files again until Denny’s eyes ached.

“Anything?” he asked with a yawn, stretching his long arms overhead and arching his back.

Alessa grimaced, not certain if she had anything of weight. “Well, the only thing I’ve noticed is that only three companies have been paid from the trust. From what I can tell, they’re contractor companies, and over the last eighteen months they’ve received a total of nearly twenty million. That seems like a lot.”

“It also means the trust has had enough money to cover what Philip was supposed to be paid.”

“Yes, except at every pay out, it nearly wipes the account, before a substantial deposit is recorded. But then it’s not long before nearly all that sum is paid to one of the other two companies.”

Denny was thoughtful a minute before scooting closer to her to look at the notes she had jotted down. There appeared to be a patterned rotation as to which company received payment, the changing quantities. He also saw that all companies were based in the Bay Area with the same exact area code and prefix number, which struck him as highly suspect.

“Well, first, let’s run the business licenses of these companies and see what we can learn about who owns and manages them. Also, why don’t we look into some of the project addresses each company was contracted to complete. Maybe the choice of paying these companies is about the project and not the company themselves.”

Alessa nodded, and then offered to look into the properties. Denny agreed and stated he would check into the companies. She was smiling as she continued to peruse the documents.

“What?” Denny asked, grinning at her amusement.

She shrugged and was thoughtful a moment. “It feels good to make headway,” she concluded.

Denny gave a short chuckle. “Yeah, I suppose it does. Though, we really haven’t done anything yet,” he countered.

She turned to look at him. “The first step onto the right path is always making progress,” she returned.

“Yes, but sometimes you don’t know if you’re on the right path until you reach your destination. This may turn out to be a red herring.”

“But sometimes you do know. And I happen to believe we’re on to something,” she confessed with growing confidence.

Denny smiled gently at her optimistic outlook. “You might be right,” he conceded at last.

“Thank you,” she said softly, content to have his agreement. Together, with a direction to follow, the rest of the evening, they scouted through the rest of the files, pulling out relevant information related to the three companies and the various properties attached to them. It was nearly midnight before they finished the last box of files, both preferring to push through and have the information gathering out of the way so they could then delve into their leads.

As they were gathering their things to leave the office, Denny was swinging on his jacket when Alessa commented on his habit of wearing suspenders. “What’s with the suspenders?”

“What? You don’t like them?” he asked chuckling, looking down at himself, assessing them.

“They’re just…unusual, you know, for someone your age and with your…physique,” she finished quietly.

Denny continued smiling, but said nothing about her inadvertent compliment to his body. “What can I say? They look sharp. I’m not really too flashy in the way of fashion, but I think it’ good to have something signature about me.”

Alessa smiled unconvinced. “Looks are important to you?”

“Aesthetics are important,” he corrected, “whether clothing, cars, buildings,” he indicated nodding to the art on his walls. “We all like something pretty to look at. Nothing wrong with that,” he stated ushering her out of his office and toward her desk so she could grab her things.

“But when beauty is all a person thinks about…” she semi-argued, grabbing her bag.

“Did you know you can die from drinking too much water?” he commented obtusely.

She frowned, not seeing the connection. “Yes.”

“But you need water. You would die without it, so it would be safe to call it a good thing. So like water, beauty, or rather the focus on it, is the important factor, not beauty itself. So, a little appreciation is hardly a vice.”

“Point taken,” she conceded, punching the down button. When they stepped on the elevator in silence, Alessa suddenly became very aware of how close he was, his cologne at the forefront of all her senses. She closed her eyes as the elevator started down.

“You okay?” Denny asked, his warm voice slipping around and inside her.

She nodded and opened her eyes, only to find him exceptionally close, looking down at her. Denny’s eyes dropped to her mouth when her lips parted and her breathing increased. His gaze was heated and undisguised. She felt scorched.

Alessa stood more erect and looked forward. She cleared her throat and tugged her raincoat more securely around her.

“Alessa, maybe we should discuss this,” he suggested, his rough voice adding to her frustrating attraction.

“Discuss what?” she asked, hoping ignorance would discourage him.

“We almost kissed the other day,” he reminded her. “I want to kiss you now,” his voice dropped gently.

The elevator stopped. She shook her head dismissively. “You’re imaging things. Besides, it would be a mistake,” and then quickly stepped off as soon as she could squeeze through the slow-opening doors.

Staying on the elevator to go down to underground parking, Denny watched her flee through the lobby, uncertain about his next move, regretting not simply grabbing her and kissing her as he had wanted. Damn her refusal.

The following days kept both busy as they went about their other various tasks. Alessa was thankful she had successfully avoided him, but on Thursday, she had news she knew he needed to know.

“The lot’s empty,” she informed him, standing before his desk. Clare hadn’t been at her post, so Alessa simply knocked on the door, hoping what had been there would have been settled and forgotten. Of course, the moment he looked up and saw her, Alessa could feel the residual tension and knew nothing would be forgotten so easily. But, stiffening her spine, she walked to him to share with him what she had discovered.

“I was looking over some of those properties last night, and I realized that one was quite close to where I live, so I stopped by this morning on my way in. Denny, the lot is vacant. Whatever was there previously has been completely removed. There’s no historic building there at all. The only thing on it was a real estate sign.”

“So it’s for sale,” he mused. “Do you know what was supposed to be there?”

“According to the file, a house. Renovations to return it to a one family home. Specs on it valued the home around two-and-a-half million.”

“Price of the lot on the sign?”

She slowly smiled and shook her head. “No, but the number of the agent was. So I just called her. She wouldn’t give me the name of the seller, but said the lot’s asking price was one-point-five million.”

Denny whistled. “That’s a little pricy for just the land. In a good location?”

“It’s not bad. Residential. So, what do we do now?”

Denny was silent a moment as he stared at his desk. “Well, I’m still waiting to hear back on the ownership of those three companies. I’m kind of under the gun right now for this other case, but what if tomorrow we clear our schedules and go do a little investigating?”

She raised an eyebrow at him and cocked her head. “Doesn’t the firm hire investigators for that sort of footwork?”

He gave a half smile. “Not afraid of a little hard work, are you? Besides, sometimes it’s just nice to have an excuse to get out of the office,” he confessed.

Her expression was contained for a moment, but a twinkling in her eyes gave her away before her answer did. Alessa smiled. “I did always want to be Perry Mason,” she relented.

“MacGyver,” Denny admitted with a shrug.

Alessa laughed at that and then the amusement faded, the unresolved emotions of their almost kiss surfacing again. Denny sat waiting for her to speak, those intense eyes making her stomach burn, but Alessa was unwilling to face it. “Okay. Well, then why don’t we get a lot cleared in the morning, and we can go after lunch tomorrow.”

Denny nodded in agreement.

“Alright, then. Sounds good,” she nodded also, and after standing before him for a few awkward seconds turned and left.

****

“And do you know what the strangest thing was that should have been a big, red flag?”

Alessa shook her head and took another bite of her salad. Lou was sitting at her desk munching her salsa-flavored chips and sharing stories of her past boyfriends. “He said he wanted to go camping,” she said incredulously.

“Why should that have been a warning?” Alessa asked.

“I told you. He was into the whole Goth scene. He wore more make-up than me, wore so much metal he could set off a metal-detector a mile away, and he was frightened of spiders. Anyway, his camping was just a cover story. He was boffing some trashy girl in a punk band.”

“Spiders?” Alessa chuckled. “I thought you said he was a Goth.”

“Yeah, well, he might have said he liked the whole dark side, but in reality he was a wimp. Screamed like a six-year-old girl,” she laughed.

“What did you see in him to start with?” Alessa asked, stabbing the last of her veggies with her fork.

“You know, there was just something about him. Of course, when I found out what he was doing, I realized he was just a creepy, cruddy boy. Nothing special.”

“I’m sorry,” Alessa offered.

“Don’t be. I am definitely better off without him.”

“Definitely,” Alessa agreed with a nod.

Lou crumpled up her chip bag and took a drink of her soda. “So, what are you wearing to the auction?”

“The what?”

“You know, the fundraiser? One of our more prestigious clients is Omniliance.”

“The charity?”

“Right. Every year, Wiles, Mayer, and Schecter holds a fundraiser for them, partly to cover our expenses in representing them, but primarily as a public relations event, for both the firm and them. We invite a gaggle of our best clients and most of our staff is highly encouraged to attend. The fundraiser is an auction of the best things the rich can buy. And at the end of it, several of the firm’s elite are asked to participate.”

“How do you mean ‘participate’?”

“It’s a date auction. Our staff, usually I think they choose about ten, five men, five women, go up on stage one at a time, the attendees bid on them, and whoever wins gets a date that evening with the staff person.”

“That’s a little barbarous and tacky, isn’t it?” Alessa said, her face a picture of mild disgust.

“Not at all. You are such a prude,” Lou admonished. “It’s just fun. It’s not as if it is illegal, no dirty or scandalous expectations. It’s just a way of raising money and finding avenues for everyone to network, basically. Nothing has ever happened,” Lou informed her. “So, I therefore assume you haven’t picked out a dress.”

Alessa shook her head. “When is it?”

“Not for another three weeks. But you’d better get on it. Especially if you’re going to have your hair done.” Then Lou’s face brightened and her excitement grew exponentially. “Oh! Please let me do your hair! You have such gorgeous hair! Oh, and I could do your make-up!” she squealed and wiggled excitedly in her chair as she clapped quickly. “Yes, yes, please say you’ll let me. It will be such fun!”

Alessa was momentarily stunned, but she couldn’t think of a reason why Lou shouldn’t and so gave an acquiescing shrug, which produced yet another high-pitched squeal.

There was talk of Lou videoing the session and putting it up on her blog. Alessa was slightly concerned, and said she would think about it.

“Who are you going to take?”

“Take?” Alessa asked confused.

“You know, as in a date. For the party.”

“Oh,” Alessa was stuck on an answer. “No one, probably. Go stag.”

“What?” Lou asked aghast, as though such an idea were impossible. Then her expression turned to one of mischief. “Why not ask Denny?” she suggested with innuendo.

“What?” Alessa asked in a hush voice of surprise. “Why would I do that?” she whispered and looked around quickly.

“Because you have a thing for him,” Lou answered, whispering, too.

Alessa was stunned, words failing her. “That’s ridiculous! I most certainly do not. And I don’t date. Especially colleagues. I think he’s a good lawyer, and sure he’s attractive and smart with incredibly intense eyes…” she realized she was rambling away all the reasons she had been fighting against. “I don’t like him. And that’s that,” she ended firmly.

“Me thinks the lady doth protest too much,” Lou quipped. “If you don’t like him, then why are you blushing? Admit it! You think Denton-sexy-pants-Ashbury is dreamy.”

“Oh, good grief,” Alessa groaned, slouching back in her chair and lifting her eyes to the ceiling in great exasperation.

“And what secret are you two sharing?” Denny asked, stopping in front of Alessa’s desk.

She gave a surprised yip. Lou was barely containing her laughter, but she refused to answer Denny. He watched as Alessa’s already pink cheeks turned positively red. She wouldn’t even make eye contact with him. He could only smile at her strange behavior. “Well, I’m sorry to interrupt whatever it is, but Alessa, I have a video conference with the Mingo team in Seoul. I may need a translator. Would you mind sitting in with me? It’s set for four this afternoon.”

Alessa’s mouth was a tight line and she still wasn’t looking up at him, but she managed to vigorously nod her head, hoping the sooner she agreed, the sooner he would leave. He smiled, still baffled by her embarrassed behavior, and thanked her and left.

“I could slug you,” she glowered at Lou who finally let out a loud laugh. She sat giggling hysterically in her chair, leaning back and holding her stomach.

“I wouldn’t have thought it possible, but you got even redder!”

“This isn’t funny!” Alessa hissed, whispering again. “Keep your voice down. We’re not in sixth grade.”

When Lou’s laughter finally tapered off, she answered. “Maybe not. But males and females never change, no matter how old you get. Attraction slays all lies. You can’t hide it.” The smile on Lou’s face was bittersweet. Though Alessa shared very little about herself, she revealed so much without ever knowing it. Lou understood Alessa’s hidden feelings, and wondered if Alessa knew Denny felt the same way. “Good luck tomorrow, if I don’t see you before then,” she offered before leaving, taking her empty bag of chips and astute, uncomfortable observations with her.


Chapter Four

CHAPTER FOUR

“I assume that your heart’s been bruised, I’d like to know you
You don’t know if I can draw at all, or what records I am into
If I sleep like a spoon or rarely at all, or maybe you would do? Or maybe you would do
If you walk my way I will keep my head, we will feel our way through the dark though I don’t know you
I think that I would do
I don’t fall easy at all.”
“I Don’t Know” –Lisa Hannigan

The crunch of the small gravel beneath her sneakers. The rushing breath out. The pulsing drum of traffic. Birds singing to the morning sun. Alessa heard none of those things that filled the park Sunday morning. She only heard piano keys playing in quick succession of each other, each measure building a more discordant feeling than the last, each building towards a crescendo that never seemed to peak. And then her phone rang, interrupting Philip Glass.

Alessa was more often than not inclined to ignore phone calls during her run. After all, it was her time for solitude, her only moment of relief from her racing mind. If her feet moved fast enough, her mind slowed and allowed her to just be. No more planning, no more fretting, no more calculating and devouring. Just stillness in the movement of her legs. But she was back to Fulton St and her run through the park over anyway.

“Yes,” she answered in a huff, trying to catch her breath.

“What are you doing? Please tell me you’re not at the office,” Lou said on the other end.

Alessa didn’t smile, but almost. “No, I’m not at the office. Just Sunday morning chores,” she answered as she jogged across the street and into the Richmond district.

“Well, how about Sunday morning brunch?”

“I’m not going out to Oakland today,” Alessa declined.

“No worries. I’m in the city. I know a fabulous little place, not far from you I think. Great Americanos. Interested?”

For a moment, Alessa was about to refuse, socializing with work colleagues wasn’t exactly her style. But then she thought of her day; her work was finished, her run over, her apartment spotless, her groceries bought, the novel she’d been working through now complete. She had nothing.

“Alright,” she agreed somberly, knowing she’d need to eat anyway. “Where? And when?”

Alessa took note of Lou’s directions and agreed to meet her at the café in nearly two hours, though Lou’s habit of arriving late more than likely meant it would be closer to two hours and forty-five minutes. Her walk back to her place was quiet, as it was relatively early yet. She had shut off her music, but kept the earbuds in to muffle any sound and instead tuned into the ever-decreasing pace of her heart beating in her ears.

Mr. Cho was out in his yard watering his plants when she walked up the drive. He called out to her and smiling, she went over to chat with her old landlord. Though he was in his mid-eighties, Alessa would have sworn he was no more than sixty-five, what with his smooth Chinese skin, glimmering eyes and verve of youth.

He asked how her run had gone, to which she replied invigorating.

“And your job good, too?” he inquired.

“Yes. It’s a lot of work, but I’m enjoying it.”

“Good, good. But still no boyfriend?” he asked sadly, frowning and shaking his head slowly.

She took a deep breath and smiled. “No. Not right now. I’m working too much.”

“Aw, you girls are lucky. When I was young, my father choose for me to marry, but you have choice.” Alessa considered his words, not knowing before he had had an arranged marriage. “But, I tell you truth. My wife, she very lovely, and I loved her instantly. Never once angry I marry her. A man is supposed to marry a woman. Just like he should have two arms. He can live with only one arm, but he is not complete.”

Alessa felt cornered, and so gave an uncomfortable smile. “Oh, Mr. Cho, I didn’t realize you were such a romantic.”

“No one immune to love,” was his simple reply.

She was quiet as she considered his words, but quickly tucked it all away and granted him a smile, and dismissed herself saying she had to get ready to meet a friend for brunch. As she showered, they crept in, those disloyal thoughts that reasoned if she had been correct, if her belief that love was merely a sham, why should she feel a longing that only it could satisfy?

Thankfully, though Lou had arrived predictably late to their agreed time, her vivacious behavior and funny stories of her weekend rescued Alessa, pulling her from the deep, dark of her mind. After, Alessa was tempted to go to the office and fill her time working, but decided instead to stop off at the used bookstore not far from her place. She grabbed a Jules Verne she hadn’t yet read, and spent the rest of the day reading, finishing it that night before she went to bed.

On Monday, Alessa happily opened an ever-expanding task list at six-thirty that morning. Two hours earlier she had woken up with a clear mind that was voracious to be filled with whatever she could find, and so, instead of trying to go back to sleep, she dressed and headed to the office. She was pleased to find her responsibilities were fast-growing as more and more of the senior staff were beginning to rely on her for their research and memos. Two of them had even selected her to be part of their team for their new clients. Though she chastised herself for the thought, she hoped Denny noticed her success. She put it off as wanting to gloat that she had been the best choice despite his initial hostility toward her and her choice of school, but she couldn’t quite squelch the accompanying desire to have him stroke her hair and praise her for it.

Once her tasks were organized, Alessa dove in, her mind craving the activity. She was thankful for the increased case load, hoping somehow it would fill her mind with thoughts other than Denny, and perhaps give her an excuse to beg off late night work sessions. However, she soon realized that wasn’t the case; throughout the week, she had several meetings with the Mingo team, and at each subsequent meeting, she felt like a python’s prey, hypnotized by the sight of his sculpted forearms, or the smell of his crisp and musky cologne as he leaned near, or his fingers raking in his hair, or those eyes unsettling her with ever gaze. Her growing attraction fast became an irritant in her mind.

It was the Wednesday afternoon lull, and Alessa knew if she was going to make it until at least eight-thirty she would need to have a caffeine fuel-up. She was standing before the expensive and slightly complicated espresso machine in the employee lounge when the sound of feet approaching behind her slipped just under her consciousness. And then she smelled the spice that was him.

A warmth seeped into her chest as she felt his presence behind her. And for reasons unknown to her, she was frozen, unable to move, unable to acknowledge him, but allowing him to invade her very personal space. She waited, but for what she could not have named.

His right arm moved from his side and reached around her to the cupboard, his chest hitting her shoulder as he leaned in to retrieve a double-walled, glass mug. After setting it down, his left arm followed suit, reaching past her into the opposite cupboard. This time, more than his chest brushed her, and when she felt her entire back come into contact with his firm front she nearly whimpered and leaned forward, placing her hands on the counter, thinking to escape, seeking support to hold her upright. But her movement didn’t create any space between them as he only followed, pressing insistently into her. Grabbing the box of tea his hand had been searching for, he lowered his mouth to her ear, and in her surprise, she half turned to him, causing his lips to graze her skin. She shuddered from the electricity sparking down her spine.

“Your coffee’s done,” he informed her in a husky voice she could only think was the sexiest thing she had ever heard. And then he moved away from her, standing at the end of the counter to turn on the electric kettle. She stood, her body filled with a fine tremble, her anger, her confusion rising as she watched him open the box and rip open a packet and place the bag in his glass mug. He dispassionately watched the kettle until its button flipped, indicating his water was boiled. He poured the steaming liquid, the tea bag contents bleeding into the clear water with tendrils of gold. Denny picked up the cup and, as he turned to leave, looked her squarely in the eyes. His expression wasn’t light and smiling. It was intense and challenging. “Alessa,” he murmured with a nod of acknowledgment, and then left.

For the rest of the day Alessa felt brittle, keeping her head down and eyes cast up, watching out for him. But he kept his distance, and in his absence, she convinced herself her reaction had merely been an overreaction. She didn’t know what was worse, the possibility that something significant had happened, or that she was merely too sensitive to him.

The following day, the entire team regrouped for another meeting. Alessa’s mood was darkening considerably when she forced herself to believe he had meant nothing by his invasion of her space, and she had reacted like a silly, flighty schoolgirl with an over-romanticized crush. But at the meeting, Denny once again asked her to stay late that day to work on more translations and to begin drafting proposals for the Seoul office.

She was inclined to say no, to flat out refuse, but she couldn’t. Not really. Not when she knew this case—her very first—was positioning her to begin serious advancement. And so, biting her cheek, attempting to refrain from scowling, she nodded, and then turned and left the conference room. This time she didn’t even attempt to force herself to work. Instead, she immediately grabbed her running clothes, changed and hit the pavement hard. She was just emerging from the elevators when she bumped into Denny.

His surprise at her sweaty, red-faced appearance was evident, before he silently slipped past her onto the elevator, his appraising gaze never leaving her. Alessa stood, watching him watch her, and did not try to hide her scowl this time, which only served to make him smile in a dark, smirking fashion.

Damn! In that one look he had stripped everything she had just gained from her run. Quickly changing and getting back to her desk, she attempted to get back to her work, but the smell of his cologne, the feel of his chest pressed against her, those eyes kept resurfacing in her mind, making her dread the coming evening. And then, before she was even truly aware of it, she was up and marching to his office. She knew he wasn’t there, but still her eyes darted about, making sure he wasn’t about to reappear.

“Hi, Clare,” she smiled brightly, feigning ease. “Mr. Ashbury isn’t here, is he?” she asked, trying to sound hopeful.

“No, he left about thirty minutes ago,” the middle age blonde informed her.

“Will he be back soon, do you think?”

“No, he’s at a deposition the rest of the afternoon. Can I help you?”

Alessa tried to look disappointed. “Well, it’s only that I knew he wanted me to work on some more of the Mingo translations this evening. I was hoping to get them done A.S.A.P. You couldn’t help me out could you?” she looked hopeful again.

Clare gave her a smirk and raised eyebrow. “Hot date?” she tittered and stood up to find the files for her.

Alessa gave a nervous chuckle, her first impulse to deny it, but then thought if it could help… “Ah, something like that. Let’s just say I’d like to get it over with as quickly as possible.”

After a few minutes of digging, Clare found what Alessa was looking for. “Thank you so much. I owe you,” she replied sweetly as she quickly left his office. As she had hoped, she was able to get through the translations quickly enough that by six, she was finishing up the last few pages. There was still no sign of him, and she hoped to have the work completed before he returned. She was willing to sacrifice her evening run to power through, especially as she had already had a run that day. It was nearly six-thirty when she laid the files, the translations, and the key components for the draft proposal on his desk.

As fate would have it, when she punched the down arrow and the elevator doors opened, Denny was emerging. Again he looked surprised to see her and then asked where she was going.

“I hope you don’t mind,” she said with an edge of smug victory in her voice, “but I went ahead and completed the work for you. It is on your desk.”

“But-” he started, surprised.

“I didn’t want to keep you from your evening, especially if I could get it out of the way.” As she stepped on and turned to him, she now held the triumphant smirk. As the doors were closing, she gave him a two-finger salute, confident and cheeky.

Denny could only smile after, completely aware of her attempt to avoid him and his own sharpening resolve to capture her.

“Clare,” he shouted as he walked into his office. She was rearranging files in one of the cabinets. “You gave her the files, Clare,” he said almost in a whine, coming round his desk to view them. As promised, there they sat in the middle, a haughty trophy gloating her win.

It took her a moment to understand who he meant. “Oh, well, she needed to get out of here as quickly as possible. I think maybe she has a date,” she confided with an almost giggle.

Denny turned to look at her, his eyes squinting and a frown on his lips. But, as he considered it, he didn’t think that was the case. Her expression as the elevator closed had nothing to do with another man. “Unlikely,” he said at last, laying his brief case down and divesting himself of his light coat.

“Well, I’m finished up and headed out. Need anything else?” she asked as she closed the drawer.

Denny only shook his head, already browsing through the work Alessa had left behind. He stayed around another few hours, but his idle hand could only sketch her likeness as his mind was filled with her face.

The following day, all the smugness that had been present in her demeanor the evening before was quickly fleeting as she opened her tasks list and saw several large research projects marked as urgent by several of the senior staff. Alessa was also assigned to attend two meetings that day. She took a deep breath and began working. Around two-thirty, she got an instant message from d.ashbury.

I need you to work with me this evening on Korean and Japanese commerce law for the proposal.

Alessa’s stomach dropped, and while she couldn’t say the sensation was wholly bad, it was enough of a warning to tell her spending any amount of time with Denton Ashbury would be a mistake.

And I need a life outside this office. Didn’t I demonstrate yesterday that we don’t need to meet? I can get the work done if you’ll just hand it over.

But this isn’t simple translations.

It’s research. I can still do it by myself.

That’s what you think. But you’re not up on Japanese law, so you need me.

She had no reply at first. I don’t need you.

🙂 you do and you just don’t know it.

And that’s what you think. Fine. Can we meet now?

Can’t. Busy with something else. It’ll have to be later.

When she didn’t immediately answer, he sent her another message.

What if I bribe you with food from Aria?

That did give her pause. Aria was one the best Korean eateries in the neighborhood. But sharing meals together was a definite intimacy that Alessa knew she should avoid at all cost. But it was Aria, some part of her pleaded. And she hadn’t had Korean in weeks. And it was Denny.

If I agree, will you think it was only because of the food?

I promise to not let that hurt my feelings. But of course, I don’t have to get it at all if you don’t want.

I didn’t say that. I mean…we’ll have to eat, right? Fine. See you later.

🙂

Alessa felt both weighed down and effortlessly lifted up at the same time. But when she realized she felt like what a giddy girl must feel planning a date, she harshly chastised herself and pinched her arm as punishment.

It was before seven when she received another instant message from d.ashbury.

Ready?

She wanted to reply she would never be ready for him, but didn’t like that as an answer, didn’t approve of what that implied.

Can I have another twenty? Finishing up a memo.

Fine. I’ll order for us. Any special request?

Kimchi soup and bulgolgi.

When she realized she was staring at the IM screen waiting for his reply, she shook her head, disgruntled at her eagerness and turned back to her work, her fingers flying as rapidly as they could to finish the report.

Food’s here. My office. the IM chimed just as she was hitting ‘send’ for her finalized report.

His office. She frowned as she sat back and craned her neck to look off in his direction. Granted, she couldn’t see him for all the desks, half-walls, and corners, but she could feel him sitting there all the same. She could feel the tension beginning, and with a mild snarl, grabbed her computer and headed his direction.

There were plenty of others still droning on with their work as she walked to his office, and for a moment she was uncomfortable thinking how it might appear to share a meal with Denny in his office. But there seemed little other recourse and so she lifted her chin high and passed by as if they didn’t exist.

Denny was standing behind his desk, opening wonderful-smelling containers of Korean food when she reluctantly entered. His suit jacket was off and his red suspenders were elegant and bright against his crisp white shirt. His sleeves were rolled up to his elbows, those fantastic forearms showing again. His brown hair looked rakishly disheveled, less tame than he typically wore it during the day. Rougish, she admitted, and tried to console herself any woman with eyes would find him attractive and so to not be concerned over the increase in her pulse.

He clearly assumed they could eat at his desk, as he was placing her food in front of the chair she had first occupied while being interrogated during her interview. She slowly approached, but then quickly moved past her apprehension, believing many women may be attracted to him, but she was rare enough to not let that interfere with her work.

Denny sat down with a sigh, and Alessa followed suit, putting down her computer and pulling her chair closer. Once settled, she set up the different condiments for her bulgolgi. Lastly, she opened her kimchi soup, the aroma quickly wafting up to her and making her stomach growl.

Denny watched her and caught the small smile that lifted her lips when she opened her soup. And then she took her first, cautious, slurping bite. He smiled, sitting forward to eat his own food, certain he had heard her moan before sliding the spoon free from her mouth.

They ate in silence a few minutes, attention to the extreme heat of their dishes being priority. When they settled into their food, Alessa reached for the files she knew they would be going through. Denny said nothing, but allowed her to distract herself from his presence.

As she flipped through the pages, scanning what was written there, she came to one with a drawing inked at the bottom left corner. It took her a moment to realize just what she was looking at. It was her. She blinked and looked up. “You drew this?”

Denny noticed the image he had left behind the night before in his distraction. He made no reply but lifted his eyes to her.

“You drew me?” she continued to ask with a thoughtful frown, her finger tracing the etched lines defining her nose, her mouth. “You’re very good,” she offered with admiration and surprise in her voice as she studied the lines of her likeness. She looked back up at him, a smile of pleasure on her face.

He realized she wasn’t troubled that he had been sketching her, but rather, was impressed with his ability. “Thanks,” he said with a soft smile.

“Where did you learn to draw?” she questioned as she began eating her food again.

“I’ve always enjoyed drawing. Have drawn as long as I can remember. When I was little, of course I drew cars and robots. In high school I became very interested in buildings, architecture. Actually, I lightly considered it as a career. Took a few art classes in college.”

Alessa’s expression was intrigued, and then took a look around his office. She saw all the great pen and ink renderings that tastefully decorated his office walls, even an art piece resembling a skyscraper made of wire sat on the small coffee table in front of his sofa. She could clearly see his décor as a holdover from his first aspirations.

“Then why law? Why not architecture? Knew you couldn’t make it?” she questioned with one of her cheeky grins, repeating his own bombastic line of questioning from her interview back at him.

Denny gave a self-deprecating smile and accepting shrug. “No, things just change.”

“What sort of things? You clearly still like it,” she argued, indicating with a nod around his office to all the architecture elements.

He sighed. “Well, my father convinced me to give law a try. And I found I liked it well enough.”

“Really? Is he a lawyer?” she asked before taking the last bite of her soup.

“No. He’s a rancher. But he always wanted to be one, I think. He’s interested in politics.”

“Then why’s he a rancher?”

Denny chuckled. “I think it’s the same reason I’m a lawyer. My grandfather was a rancher. Actually, it’s my mom’s father. When my parents married, he gave them the family ranch, sort of forced my father into it.”

“I can’t imagine anyone just falling into ranching. It seems like a lifestyle you’re raised in to, and less of something you choose, like mechanic,” Alessa mused with a frown.

“Well, my dad’s from Texas. He came from farming so it wasn’t alien to him, but I think he had wanted to do something else with his life. Met my mom while working in Dallas. When they got married and my grandfather gave them the ranch, I think she sort of influenced him to come here. And you’re right; it’s a way of life and it leaves very little for anything else, like pursuing a law degree.”

Alessa nodded in understanding. “And now you’re the lawyer your father always wanted to be.”

Denny nodded.

“You resent it?”

“No, of course not. Well, not really. I enjoy my work. I’m good at it. I’m of the belief that everyone should go to law school, even if not to be a lawyer.”

Alessa was considering his words when he asked, “How about you?”

“Isn’t that a question you should have asked me at my interview?” she said without looking up from her bulgolgi.

Denny’s face broke into a sheepish grin. He noted her voice held little bitterness, and so he teased back, “I suppose I was distracted by other things.”

“Hm, like what?” she asked, herself absorbed by her yummy food.

“You,” he answered simply.

That drew her attention and she lifted her head with a mild look of shock before her eyes narrowed. “As I recall, you were distracted with being a jerk,” she commented drily and looked back down at her food.

Denny replied with a smile of his own before rebuffing, “And I would argue that if I acted like a jerk, and I’m not admitting that I was, it was only because I was distracted by you.” She didn’t look up, but he could see her beginning to blush. Her head sank a little lower on her shoulders.

“You shouldn’t be so easily distracted by unimportant things,” she mumbled, still not looking at him. “And besides, you already did admit it when you apologized,” she returned, unable to let him have the last word.

But Denny was not to be out done, and after storing her first statement away for future pondering, replied. “I would point out that if you will remember more accurately, I only apologized if you took offense to any of my words. I didn’t expressly label my behavior in such terms as ‘jerkish.’ But, I would only make that last point if I were interested in the argument,” he said, squelching any further discussion on it. “But I’m not. I am more interested in why you still haven’t answered my question,” he reminded her.

“Well, it was just one of those things, you know? It’s a career and I had to pick one,” she supplied.

“Then how about your parents? You said they lived in Walnut Creek?”

Alessa sighed. “Yeah. My mom does.”

“Not your father?”

“Parents are divorced,” she reported flatly.

“I’m sorry,” he offered, though he knew it probably sounded obligatory. “So where does your father live then?”

“Here in the city.” He watched her read what was in front of her, noting the matter-of-fact manner she gave her answers.

“So any brothers or sisters.”

Alessa gave a gentle head roll before taking a deep breath. “Yeah. A sister.”

“Oh, really? Younger or older?”

She gave a hint of a smile. “Younger.”

“And where does she live?”

“With my dad. She’s my half-sister.”

“And how much younger?”

“She just turned fourteen. She’s quite something,” she admitted, finally breaking into a genuine smile.

“Something, huh? How?”

“Well, she’s talented in just about everything. She’s very intelligent, beautiful, sweet.” She was still smiling as she looked off into the distance, dreaming of her sister.

“Are you sure you aren’t talking about yourself?”

Her eyes flew to his for a split second before she lowered her gaze, her cheeks flaming red.

“So she lives near you. That must be nice you can see her so often.”

His behavior as though nothing untoward had been said pulled her from her embarrassment. “Yeah, I guess.”

“You guess?”

“Well, it’s not actually that easy. I didn’t get to see her a lot growing up because I lived in Walnut Creek with my mom. And by the time she was a kid, I was in college hell-bent on doing well in law school. And now I work here. It’s hard splitting the very little free time I have between her and my mom.”

“Your mom remarried?”

“Bill. He owns a small engine repair shop.”

Again he noted the flat affect of her voice.

“Of course I want to hang out with Cadence all I can, but my mom needs me,” she supplied, a little sadly.

“And why is that?”

She gave a little shake of her head and frowned. “She doesn’t do well.”

“And she doesn’t have any other children?”

“No. Just me. She couldn’t really have kids after me. In fact, I think she was lucky to have me,” Alessa answered thoughtfully.

“Anyone would be lucky to have you,” he stated with all the sincerity of a sunrise.

Alessa’s eyes lifted to his, their intensity making her chest tighten. Without another word, she turned her attention to their work. She spoke to him as he ate, and together they devised a very rough idea of a marketing strategy to expand in Korea and Japan.

The following week, rain poured down on the Bay Area, forcing Alessa to stick to the treadmill and carry an umbrella everywhere. On Tuesday morning, Clare stopped by Alessa’s desk to inform her Denny wished to speak with her. She nodded and shut down her work with clenched lips.

She had tried to convince herself that he was only a work colleague, that nothing out of the ordinary was happening between them, in her. And yet, as she knocked on his door and watched him sitting there, her eyes casting about to look over the art on his walls, something more intimate than colleagues flared in her. She knew she was being fanciful, but then he spoke.

“Alessa, come in. I have a deposition this afternoon, and I thought it would be good if you joined me. It’s for an architecture firm that deals with restoration projects. They’re suing the Sloan and May Historical Preservation Trust that finances restoration of historical properties here in the Bay Area. Philip—that’s the CEO of the architect firm and my friend—thinks the trustee, Mr. Arnold Sloan, has emptied it, and that’s why they’ve refused to pay this year. Today I’m building a case to petition for access to the bank accounts. The client is one of our smaller ones, and so I haven’t burdened the firm with assigning too many underlings to it. But I thought perhaps it would be good experience for you. Interested?”

It was a great chance for something new, and to get out of the office. She nodded. “Yes, that sounds good. What time?”

Denny looked at his watch. How many people still wore a watch, she wondered. “We’ll need to leave by one-fifteen at the latest. And it will probably take all afternoon.”

Again she nodded, already arranging in her head what she needed to prioritize and organize so she could leave her work guilt-free. “Yes, I think I can manage that,” she said, the prospect of getting out of the office and yet working at the same time suddenly making her excited. She smiled.

“Good,” he nodded once, but then caught her with his gaze, and she suddenly wondered if it was a good idea to go anywhere with him.

Alessa returned to her desk and worked until Denny sent her an IM at one, asking if she was ready to go, to which she replied she would meet him at the elevators in five. She wasn’t certain what she needed to take with her, especially as she had done none of the work for the case, but decided her laptop was always handy, her legal-pad a no brainer, and various supplies, such as pens and post-it notes, but didn’t know beyond that. Slipping her phone into her rain jacket, she made her way to the door.

On her way, she bumped into Josh Caplin who immediately asked her where she was bound. “A deposition.”

“Hm, got cases of your own already?”

“Not quite. I’m being allowed to sit in. Maybe I’ll help out if Mr. Ashbury needs me.”

He smiled at her. “Good. Hey, I was wondering, when you get back this evening if you wanted to go out for food instead of ordering take out? You know, break the monotony of our late nighters.” He was smiling, and though the offer seemed harmless enough, she could tell by his posturing this was his first step down the path to an official date.

Alessa had had to decline numerous offers over the years, and had learned to tailor each answer to the context of her preexisting relationship to the guy. Random men in bars or at parties were a lot easier to reject, with a simple ‘no’ or short sentence that she was ‘unavailable,’ but those with whom she had some sort of working or academic relationship required delicacy if she was to avoid a hostile turn in their treatment of her. They were likely in a position to know if her refusal was based on a lie and would need a stern enough word to end any further pursuits, but not so brutal or unkind as to offend them. The key was to leave them with their manhood intact, to make the rejection not about her attraction to them or their masculinity, but some external situation she couldn’t control.

“No, thank you. I brought my dinner, as usual. I try to avoid eating out as much as possible,” she replied, turning to look at the numbers clicking up above the elevator, wishing it would go a little faster, wishing Denny would show up and scare him off. As she was puzzling over her desire for Denny to save her, Caplin continued on.

“Don’t you ever break that rule?” he pushed with a grin meant to be charming.

“Not often, and certainly not to simply break monotony. Plus, I really have a ton of work, especially now that I have to leave the office this afternoon. I’d better stay and push through.”

“Okay, but you have to let me take you out this weekend, help you relax. You need a life outside the office, you know,” he continued to insist, as he turned to leave.

Alessa was just about to speak when Denny rounded the corner, his expression terse. He came to stand next to Alessa and gave Caplin a look that sent the associate running. Neither said anything as they waited for the elevator to arrive. Though he didn’t look at her and said nothing, she could feel his near-angry displeasure, and didn’t understand her need to explain that she had no intention of dating Josh. In the end, she satisfied herself with the argument that nothing unprofessional had been said by either she or Josh, that she wasn’t interested in Denny so she didn’t need to salvage his feelings for her, and it was none of his business at any rate.

The tension didn’t fade as the afternoon proceeded, but seemed to grow in hostility as she bumped him with her umbrella when they got out of his car, and he introduced her as “just an associate.” He didn’t look at her once during the entire proceedings, making her feel small and inconsequential, and the he snubbed her offer of a pen when he couldn’t find his own.

It was rush hour when the deposition was completed, and the two still hadn’t spoken, as Alessa continued to repeat to herself that she had done nothing wrong and wouldn’t be the first to break the silence, no matter how childish it made her. The rain had finally let up, but traffic was heavy as they stood on the sidewalk waiting for Denny’s driver, the sound of a thousand car tires rolling over the wet pavement filling their angry silence.

Alessa was stewing, her irritation growing with each minute at what she perceived was his immature reaction to another man mildly hitting on her. She felt him look at her, and, determined to give him the full force of her ire, she turned to glower at him. She only registered his look of fear and surprise the moment before he grabbed her and spun them around so he placed his body between her and the street. It all happened so fast, but as the town-cross bus roared past, Alessa was protected in his arms from the giant, plunging wave that rose higher than Denny’s head, before crashing down upon him to completely drench his entire back.

For a second, the two only stood wrapped in each other’s arms, stunned by the assault, their eyes wide and mouths agape, and then Denny’s face broke into a huge grin and Alessa couldn’t contain the laughter.

“Oh, Denny,” she gasped between peals, reaching up to wipe the water from his brow and eyes. “You look like a drowned rat!” As she touched him with firm, slow swipes, his grasp around her waist tightened, pulling her closer into him. And then Alessa felt herself instantly heat as she was held in his intense eyes, his smile shifting into something infinitely warmer. For just a moment, she allowed the natural progression of things, allowed him to pull her into complete contact with his body, allowed her palms to drift to his firm chest, allowed him to lean down to her, his lips drawing nearer.

“Sir! I am so sorry!” his driver called, rushing up from the car he just parked. “You’re drenched!” he exclaimed, failing to notice the almost-kiss he just interrupted.

Denny watched Alessa quickly regain her wits, the fleeting moment now gone. He hated the trepidation he saw in her face, her discomfort, not just mild embarrassment at being caught nearly kissing the boss, but fear of the intimacy itself, the disquiet of a would-be-kiss. She quickly pulled herself from his arms, her hands quickly brushing down herself as though she wished to brush off the feeling of his body against hers.

“Yeah, that’s what I get for being chivalrous,” Denny replied drolly, his eyes finally leaving Alessa to look at his own soiled state.

“Should I take you home now?” the driver asked him.

“Uh, that’s okay,” Alessa allowed. “I can catch a bus back to the office,” she offered, eager to simply get away from him.

“No. I’m not made of sugar; I’ll survive a little water. Plus, it isn’t out of the way to drop you off on my way home,” Denny maintained, not allowing her to get away from him so quickly. He could tell she was about to argue so he took a step toward her, grasping her gently at the elbow. “Don’t argue. I insist. Now, come on,” he guided her back to the car, both sliding in the door the driver had opened.

Again, the ride back to the office was quiet, but the tension between the two backseat passengers was different. Alessa sat as far against her door as she could, her body leaning towards it with her eyes focused intently out. Denny looked over at her, studying her, his eyes drifting down her arm to where her right hand rested on the seat next to her. Next to him. The impulse to place his hand over her slender one was strong, making him sigh as he looked out his own window.

Alessa kept repeating to herself what an idiot she was, and Denny kept replaying the fear in her eyes as she backed away from him. What he saw convinced him it wouldn’t be a simple case of wooing Alessa, he needed to know more, to outsmart her, to play her into his hands.

“Thank you,” she had whispered just before the driver opened her door and she slipped out without looking at him once.

Denny watched as she scurried up the few steps to the entrance of the building, a disappointment filling his voice as he instructed the driver to take him home. On the way, he pulled out his phone and called Max. If anyone could take his mind off Alessa, she could.