Her eyebrow lifted slightly and I could see her struggling to not gloat in my direction. But then her face transformed into a puzzled expression and I realized I’d been full-on grinning at her, hoping to see some of her trademark sass. I put on the best scowl I could manage as I walked into my office. It only hit me when I closed my door that I hadn’t seen her smile once since we’d come back and heard her on the phone.

My head wasn’t in the game. I had a few things to show Mr. Ryan before he left for the day, had to get some documents to legal for signatures, but I felt like I was walking through wet sand, the phone conversation with my dad looping endlessly through my thoughts. As I walked into Mr. Ryan’s office, I stared down at the papers in my arms, realizing how many things I’d need to organize today: plane tickets, someone to pick up my mail, maybe even a temp for while I was gone. How long would I be gone?

I registered Mr. Ryan was saying something—loudly—in my direction. What was he saying? He came into focus in front of me and I heard the end of his rant, “. . . barely paying attention. Jesus, Miss Mills, do I need to write this down for you?”

“I realize you get your rocks off on being an epic dick to me, and I’ll admit that sometimes it’s actually kind of sexy, but I’m having a horrible, awful day and would really appreciate it if you would just not speak. To me.” I was close to tears, my chest constricting painfully. “Please.”

He looked like he’d been blindsided, blinking rapidly as he stared. Finally, he spluttered, “What just happened?”

I swallowed, regretting my tantrum. Things were always better with him when I kept my wits. “I overreacted to being yelled at. I apologize.”

He got up and began walking toward me, but at the last minute he stopped and sat down on the corner of his desk, fiddling awkwardly with a crystal paperweight. “No, I mean, why is your day so horrible? What’s going on?” His voice was softer than I’d ever heard it outside of sex. Except this time, he wasn’t quiet to keep a secret; he was quiet because he seemed genuinely concerned.

I didn’t want to talk to him about this because part of me expected him to mock me. But an even larger part was beginning to suspect that he wouldn’t. “My dad has to have some tests. He’s having trouble eating.”

Mr. Ryan’s face fell. “Eating? Is it an ulcer?”

I explained what I knew, that it had started suddenly and an early scan showed a small mass on his esophagus.

I stared at him. “I don’t know. Can I?”

He winced, blinked away. “Am I really that big of a jerk?”

“Sometimes.” I immediately regretted it, because no, he’d never done anything to make me think he’d keep me from my sick father.

He nodded, swallowing thickly as he stared out the window. “You can take whatever time you need, of course.”

I stared at the floor, waiting for him to continue with the list of the day’s tasks. But silence engulfed the room instead. I could see in my peripheral vision that he’d turned back and was watching me.

“Are you okay?” He’d said it so quietly I wasn’t even sure I heard him right.

I considered lying, wrapping up this most awkward of conversations. Instead, I said, “Not really.”

His hand reached up, dug into his hair. “Close my office door,” he said.

I nodded, oddly disappointed to be so quietly dismissed. “I’ll bring the notes from legal for—”

“I mean close the door, but stay.”

I turned, walking across the plush carpet in complete silence. His office door closed with a heavy click.

I turned the lock and felt him move closer until his breath fanned warm across the back of my neck.

“Let me touch you. Let me do something.”

He understood. He knew what he could give me—distraction, relief, pleasure in the face of surging panic. I didn’t reply because I knew I didn’t need to. I’d closed and locked the door after all.

But then I felt his lips, soft and pressing against my shoulder, up my neck. “You smell . . . amazing,” he said, untying my dress where it fastened behind my neck. “I always smell like you for hours afterward.”

He didn’t add whether that was a good thing or a bad thing and I found that I didn’t care. I liked that he smelled me even when I’d gone.

With his hands sliding to my hips, he turned me to face him and bent to kiss me in a single, smooth movement. This was different. His mouth was soft, almost asking. There was nothing tentative about the kiss—there was never anything tentative about him—but this kiss almost felt more adoring and less like a battle being lost.

He pushed my dress from my shoulders and it pooled at my feet as he stepped back, giving just enough room to let the cool air of his office wash his heat from my skin.

Before I could process the soft delivery of these new words he threw me a smirk and leaned to kiss me as he grabbed my panties, twisted and ripped them.

I reached for his pants but he stepped away, shaking his head. He moved his hand between my legs, found smooth, wet skin. His breath grew faster on my cheek and his fingers were somehow careful and hard, his words coming out deep, filthy, telling me I was beautiful, I was so dirty. Telling me I was a tease, and how good I made him feel.