Category Archives: Chapter 11

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.

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