Category Archives: Chapter 04

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.