“True,” I conceded, “but by letting him push a milestone ahead to the beginning of the quarter, you’ve set a precedent.”
“I know,” she said, rubbing her temples with her fingertips.
“But actually, I wasn’t coming in here to tell you what you’d done was wrong. I was coming in here to tell you I understand why you did it. I can’t really fault you.”
She dropped her hands, eyeing me cautiously.
“At this point in your career, I can’t be surprised you said yes to Papadakis.”
Her mouth opened and I could see a litany of curse words form on her tongue.
“Easy, firecracker,” I said, leaning forward and holding up my hands. “I don’t mean you’re na?ve; I’m not pulling the ‘seasoning’ card again—though it’s true no matter how much you hate to hear it. I mean you’re still building. You want to show the world that you’re Atlas—and to a Titan, that f**king celestial sphere weighs nothing. It’s just that it’s impacted the entire team, and over a holiday. I get why you did it, and I also get why you’re conflicted. I’m sorry this is hard for you, because I’ve been there.” I lowered my voice, moved a little closer. “It sucks.”
The room seemed to grow darker, the sun dipping behind the horizon just as I’d finished my sentence. Chloe watched me, face smooth and practically unreadable.
Well, unreadable to anyone else. Anyone who hadn’t seen that face a thousand times, the one that told me she wanted to smack me, kiss me, scratch me, and then f**k me.
“Don’t smirk,” she said, eyes narrowing. “I see what you’re doing.”
“Trying to build me up. Being a hardass, yet also my lover. Damnit, Bennett.”
“You’re going to f**k me in your office!” I crowed, my words colored with surprise and glee. “God, you’re easy.”
She stood quickly, walking around the desk and reaching immediately for my tie. “Damnit.” She unknotted it, wrapping it around my eyes and tying it behind my head. “Stop studying me,” she hissed into my ear. “Stop seeing everything.”
“Never.” I closed my eyes behind the silk fabric and let my other senses take over, inhaling the delicate citrus scent of her perfume, reaching to feel the soft skin of her forearms. I moved my hands slowly down her body and turned her around, pulling her back to my chest. “This better?”
Her quiet huff wasn’t for my benefit; it was a sound of genuine frustration. “Bennett,” she murmured, leaning back. “You’re making me crazy.”
I gripped her hips, pulling her to me so she could feel the hard line of my c**k against her ass. “At least some things never change.”
I blinked up to the flight attendant, who bent low to catch my eye and had obviously just said something.
“Would you like a beverage with your meal?”
“Ah, yes,” I said, pulling my brain from the memory of Chloe’s body, tight and coiled around me as I’d f**ked her over her desk. “Just some Grey Goose and a cup of ice, please.”
“And for lunch? We have filet mignon or a cheese and olive plate.”
I ordered the latter and glanced out the window. From thirty thousand feet up, I could be anywhere. But I had the distinct feeling I was headed back in time.
I hadn’t been back to France since my return to the States, when I met Chloe in person. For what felt like the hundredth time, I registered how that old Bennett didn’t feel familiar in the slightest.
Thanksgiving had been a revelation in part because, before Chloe, I would have also said yes to George’s demand without even a thought. Chloe was so similar to me in so many ways, it was actually a little frightening.
I smiled as I thought back to my mother’s advice:
“Find a woman who will be your equal in every way. Don’t let yourself fall for someone who’ll put your world before theirs. Fall for the powerhouse who lives as fearlessly as you do. Find the woman who makes you want to be a better man.”
Well, I had found her. Now all I had to do was wait for her to get here, so I could make sure she knew.
The path leading to our borrowed villa was covered in small, smooth stones. They were brown and uniform in size, and although they were clearly selected for their appearance and how well they fit the landscaping, it was refreshingly obvious that the grounds were meant to be enjoyed, not treated as a precious museum piece. Flower beds and urns lined both sides of the path, each spilling over with bright, colorful blossoms. There were trees everywhere, and off in the distance was a little seating area, screened from the rest of the yard by a wall of blooming vines.
Truly, I had never seen a more beautiful country home. The house was a soft red, the color of faded clay, and weathered to an absolutely gorgeous effect. White shutters framed the tall windows on the first and second floors, and more vibrant flowers lined beds against the doors. The perfume in the air was a mixture of ocean and peony.
Bougainvillea crawled up a trellis and framed the French provincial-inspired narrow double doorway. The top step was cracked, but swept clean, and a simple, soft green mat lay atop the sun-bleached concrete.
I turned, looking behind me at the yard. In the far corner and beneath several fig trees, a long table was covered in a brilliant orange tablecloth, the tabletop decorated simply with a narrow line of tiny blue bottles of different shapes and sizes. Clean white plates were spaced at even intervals, waiting for a dinner party to appear. A green lawn stretched to where I stood on the narrow porch, broken only by the occasional inground planter bursting with purple, yellow, and pink flowers.
I pulled the key from my pocket and entered the house. From the outside, it was clearly large, but it almost seemed to expand like an optical illusion inside.
Christ, Max, this seems a little excessive. I knew his house in the Provence region was large, but I didn’t realize there were so many f**king rooms. Just from the front door, I could see at least a dozen doorways connecting off the main hall, and doubtless there were countless other rooms upstairs and out of sight.
I paused in the entryway, staring at the enormous urn that looked like the larger cousin to a small vase my mother had in her dining room hutch; the cerulean blue base glaze was identical, and the same beautiful yellow lines bled down its curved sides. I remembered the gift from when Max brought it for my mother the first time he’d come home with me, over the winter holidays. I hadn’t realized at the time how personal the hostess gift had been to him, but now, looking around his vacation home, I could see the same artist’s work everywhere: in plates mounted above the mantel, in a handmade teapot and a set of simple cups on a tray in the parlor.
I smiled, reaching out to touch the urn. Chloe would completely lose it when she saw it; it was her favorite thing in my mother’s house. A feeling overcame me that we were almost fated to have come here.
After her birthday dinner in January, Chloe hesitated in the dining room, glancing at Mom’s impressive art collection in the hutch. But instead of going for the obvious gleam of the Tiffany vases or the intricate detail of the carved wooden bowls, she went straight for a tiny blue vase in the corner.
“I don’t think I’ve ever seen this color before,” she said, awestruck. “I didn’t think this color existed outside of the imagination.”
Mom walked over, pulled it from the shelf. Under the soft light of the chandelier, the color seemed to almost wink and change even as Chloe held it still in her hand. I’d never noticed before how pretty the piece was.
“It’s one of my favorites,” Mom admitted, smiling. “I’ve never seen anything this color anywhere else either.”
But that wasn’t entirely true, I thought, as I stepped away from the urn and walked to the mantel. The ocean here was that color, when the sun was high over the horizon and the sky was clear. Only then did it hit that exact same blue, like the heart of the deepest sapphire. An artist who lived here would know that.
On the shelf were three handmade santons, the small nativity figurines traditionally made by artists in Provence. All were obviously made by the same artist who made Mom’s vase, the giant urn, and the rest of the art here. He or she must have been local, whether still alive or not, but perhaps Chloe would have the opportunity to see some other pieces while visiting. The coincidence, the perfection of it, felt almost surreal.
The blues and greens of the platter mounted over the mantel caught the late afternoon sun and redirected the light, casting the wall behind it in a soft blue glow. With the wind blowing through the trees outside and the sunlight winking in and out of shadows, the effect was a bit like watching the surface of the ocean move in the wind. Combined with the crisp white furniture and otherwise simple decorating in the sitting room, it immediately made me feel calmer. The world of RMG and Papadakis, of work and stress and the constant buzzing of my phone, felt a million miles away.
Unfortunately, so did Chloe.
As if she could hear my thoughts from where she sat on a plane headed over the Atlantic, my phone buzzed in my pocket and her unique text chime rang out in the silent room.
Pulling my phone from my pocket, I glanced down and read the message: Mechanic strike. All flights canceled. I’m stuck in New York.
“What do you mean grounded?” I said, gaping at the woman on the other side of the counter. She was about my age, with freckled cheeks and strawberry-blond hair pulled back into a sleek ponytail. She also looked like she was two seconds from strangling me and every other person in the international terminal at LaGuardia.
“Unfortunately we’ve just been informed of a mechanic union strike,” she said flatly. “All Provence Airlines flights in and out of the airport have been canceled. We’re terribly sorry for the inconvenience.”
Well, she didn’t sound very sorry. I continued to stare, blinking rapidly as her words sunk in. “Excuse me, what?”
She arranged her features into a tight, practiced smile. “All flights have been canceled due to the strike.” I glanced over her shoulder to the Provence Airlines departure and arrival screens. Sure enough, CANCELED was emblazoned across each line.
“You’re telling me I’m stuck here? Why didn’t anyone tell me this in Chicago?”
“We’d be happy to help you make accommodations for the night—”
“No no no, that’s impossible. Please, check again.”
“Ma’am, as I told you, there are no Provence Airlines flights taking off or landing. You can check with the other airlines to see if they can accommodate you. There’s nothing else I can do.”
I groaned, letting my forehead fall to the counter. Bennett was waiting for me, probably sitting outside in the sun at this very moment, laptop open and working like the overachieving loser he was. God, he turns me on.
“This can’t be happening,” I said, straightening and giving the attendant the most pleading expression I could muster. “The sweetest jackass in the world is waiting for me in France and I can’t screw this up!”
“Mkaaaay,” she said clearing her throat and straightening a stack of papers.
“There’s no way to tell. Obviously they’ll try and resolve the issue as soon as possible, but it could be one day, it could be more.”
Well, that was helpful.
With a dramatic sigh and a few muffled swear words I dragged myself from the counter, in search of a quiet corner to call my assistant. Oh, and to text Bennett. This was not going to go over well.
I maneuvered through the crowd, through the throngs of stranded passengers taking up virtually every flat surface in the Provence Airlines terminal, and stopped at a tiny alcove near the restrooms.
“What the f**k do you mean ‘stuck in New York’?!” he shouted.
I winced, pulling the phone from my ear before taking a much-needed calming breath.
“It means exactly what you think it means. We’ve been grounded, no flights in or out. I’m having a few people check with Delta and a few other airlines, but I’m sure everyone else has already done that, too.”
“This is unacceptable!” he roared. “Do they know who you are? Let me talk to someone.”
I laughed. “Nobody here knows or cares who I am. Or you for that matter.”
He was silent for a moment, long enough that I actually looked to see if I’d dropped the call. I hadn’t. The sound of birds singing filled the line, a wind chime off in the distance. When he finally did speak, it was in that low, steady voice I’d become so accustomed to. The one that still sent goose bumps along my skin. The one he used when he meant business.
“Tell them to get your ass on a plane,” he said, enunciating every word.
“Everything is overbooked on every plane, Bennett. What the hell do you want me to do? Catch a ride on a boat? Use a portkey? Simmer down, I’ll get there as soon as I can.”
He groaned, and I could tell the moment he realized he couldn’t argue or charm his way out of this. “But when?”
“I don’t know, babe. Tomorrow, maybe? The next day? Soon, I promise.”
With a resigned sigh he asked, “So what now?” I heard the sound of a door opening and closing, the tinkle of soft music in the background.
“We wait.” I sighed. “I’ll get a room, maybe get some work done. Maybe I can check out those apartments while I’m here. And then I promise, the first available flight out of here? I’m on it. Even if I have to take out a few businessmen with the heel of my shoe—I’ll get there.”