“You bet your ass you will,” he said.
I shook my head to clear it from the sound of his commanding voice. “So tell me about the house. Is it as gorgeous as I imagine?”
“Better. I mean, your company would obviously improve it, but damn. Max really outdid himself on this one.”
“Well, try and enjoy it. Sit in the sun, swim, read something trashy. Walk around barefoot.”
“Walk around barefoot? That’s an unusual request, even for you.”
I grinned. “Damn, I think I like this side of you. Pretty sexy when you take orders, Ryan.”
He laughed softly into the phone. “Oh, and Chloe?”
“I hope you didn’t pack any panties. You won’t be needing them.”
I spent the rest of the day at the airport, praying for a miracle or a flight to France. I got neither.
It took hours to locate my luggage, so by the time I finally walked through the door of my hotel room, I was ready to pass out. With the time difference it was too late, or too early, to call Bennett, so I’d sent him a short text while I ran myself a bath and ordered a bottle of wine, along with anything containing chocolate, from the room service menu.
I’d just climbed into the large tub—wineglass and chocolate cheesecake balanced precariously on the edge—when my phone rang. My hand fumbled around on the tile floor until I found it, and a smile filled me when Bennett’s face lit up the screen.
I smiled at his sleepy voice. This was the Bennett who would roll over in the middle of the night, limbs warm and heavy, sweet words mumbled into my skin. He’d always been so much better at all of this than I had, even from the beginning.
“What are you doing?” he asked, bringing my attention back to the phone.
“Bubble bath,” I said, and grinned at the sound of his groan on the other end of the line.
“Just going over some paperwork.”
I heard the creak of leather as he stood, the sound of feet padding across a tile floor followed by laughter. “Chloe,” he said, laughing harder now. “It looks like someone slipped a ransom note in here.”
“?‘Three observations about today: I didn’t get everything done on my to-do list, the salad you made me for lunch was delicious, and, most importantly, I love you,’?” he read, and then fell silent as he read the rest of the note to himself. When he finished, he grumbled, “I . . . fuck. It makes me insane that you aren’t here.”
I closed my eyes. “The universe is conspiring against us.”
“You know, there’s a part of me that wants to say none of this would have happened if you weren’t so stubborn, and would have just come with me in the first place.” I started to protest. “But,” he said, continuing, “your determination is one of the things I love most about you. You never settle. You’d never expect someone to do a job you wouldn’t do yourself. And you wouldn’t be the woman I fell in love with if you changed that. It’s exactly what I would have done. As usual. And also a little creepy to realize how alike we are.”
I sat up in the cooling water, bringing my knees to my chest. “Thank you, Bennett. That means a lot to me.”
“Well, I meant it. And you can show me your appreciation when you get that hot little ass to France. Deal?”
I didn’t get to France the next day. Or the day after that. And by day three I was actually trying to remember why hitching a ride on a boat had seemed like such a bad idea in the first place.
It’s possible I called Bennett more in those three days than in the entirety of our relationship, but it wasn’t enough, and did nothing to ease the hollow ache that had taken up permanent residence inside my chest.
I kept myself busy, but there was no denying I was homesick. I wasn’t sure exactly when it had happened, but at some point, Bennett had become it for me. As in it it. The One.
And it was f**king terrifying.
I’d come to this realization while out for a walk. My assistant had called, saying she’d been able to get me on an Air France flight later that night. My first thought had been of Bennett, and how I couldn’t wait to tell him I was on my way. I’d nearly sprinted to my hotel room.
But then I’d stopped, heart racing and lungs on fire. When had this happened, when had he become my everything? And I wondered, was it possible he was trying to tell me he felt the same way? I packed in a daze, throwing clothes aimlessly into my bag and collecting my things around the room. I thought back on how much he’d changed in the last year. The quiet moments at night, the way he looked at me sometimes as if I were the only woman on the planet. I wanted to be with him—always. And not just in the same apartment or bed, but for good.
It was then that I was struck by an idea so crazy, so insane, that I literally burst out laughing. I’d never been the type of woman to sit back and wait for the things I wanted to appear, so why should this be any different? And that was it.
Bennett Ryan had no idea what was about to hit him.
As impossible as it seemed, I was bored out of my f**king mind in this beautiful, enormous French villa. The place required no cleaning or handyman work, my VPN connection was so slow I couldn’t get on the RMG server to conduct actual business, and—perhaps most strangely—I felt like there were certain things I shouldn’t do until Chloe got here.
It felt wrong to dive into the infinity pool knowing she was stuck in New York. I didn’t want to walk through the vineyards bordering the house, because it seemed like something we should discover at the same time. Max’s housekeeper had put out some bottles of wine for us to enjoy, but surely only a giant as**ole would drink them alone. My claim to this house was hers, too. I’d still only opened one bedroom door, and slept there, not wanting to go through our options until she’d arrived. Together we would pick out where we would spend our nights.
Of course, if I said any of this to her she would laugh at me and tell me I was being dramatic. But that’s why I wanted her here. Something monumental happened to me the other day when I used the bat signal, and that sense of urgency hadn’t diminished, and probably wouldn’t until she was here and had heard what I had to say.
I walked through the gardens, stared out at the ocean in the distance, and checked my phone again, reading Chloe’s most recent text for the hundredth time:
Looks like Air France might have an open seat.
She’d sent this one three hours ago. Although it seemed promising, her previous three texts had been similar, and ultimately she’d been bumped from those flights. Even if she had left three hours ago, she wouldn’t make it to Marseille until tomorrow morning, at best.
Out of the corner of my eye, I saw a small figure emerge from the back of the house and place a platter of food on the table closest to the pool. Another peek at the clock on my phone told me that I’d managed to kill a few hours, and it was finally time for lunch. The house had come with a cook, a fifty-something woman named Dominique, who baked bread every morning, and, so far, served some variety of fish, fresh garden greens, and figs at lunch. Dessert was handmade macarons or tiny cookies with jam thumbprints. If Chloe didn’t get here soon, Dominique would have to roll me to the door to greet my lady friend.
Beside my plate was a large glass of wine, and when I looked over at Dominique, she’d stopped at the threshold of the back door, pointed to the wine, and said, “Le boire. Vous vous ennuyez, et solitaire.”
Well, shit. I was bored, and I was lonely. One glass of wine couldn’t hurt. I wasn’t celebrating—I was surviving, right? I thanked Dominique for lunch, and sat down at the table, trying to ignore the perfect breeze, the perfect temperature, the sound of the ocean not even a half mile in the distance, the feel of the warm tile beneath my bare feet. I wouldn’t enjoy a single second until Chloe was here.
Bennett, you are one pathetic navel-gazer.
As usual, the fish was incredible, and the salad with tiny tart onions and little cubes of a sharp, white cheese packed so much flavor that before I knew it, my wineglass was empty and Dominique was at my side, quietly refilling it.
I began to stop her, telling her I needed no more wine. “Je vais bien, je n’ai pas besoin de plus.”
She winked at me. “Puis l’ignorer.”
One bottle of wine down and I began wondering why I hadn’t bought a villa in France myself. I had lived in the country before, after all, and while the memories were bittersweet—time away from friends and family, a grueling work schedule—I’d lived here in a time of my life that felt so short in hindsight. I was still young. I was still starting out, really. Thank f**k Chloe and I had found each other when we still had our whole lives ahead of us.
Hell, if Max could find a gorgeous place like this, I could find one that was even more lush and beautiful.
The wine had left my limbs warm and heavy, my head full of rambling thoughts that seemed to have no reason. How insane would it have been to know Chloe in my early twenties? We would have torn this place up, and probably lasted only a weekend. Isn’t it amazing how you meet the person you’re meant to meet, when you’re supposed to meet her?
I fumbled with my phone and texted Chloe: I’m so glad we met when we did. Even if you were an enormous pain in my ass you’re still the best thing that ever hapened to me.
I stared intently at my phone, looking for an indication that she was replying, but nothing. Had her phone died? Or was she asleep in the hotel? Could she text on the airline? I did the mental calculation, knowing she was six hours? Seven hours behind . . . ? No, too complicated. I smiled at Dominique as she poured me another glass of wine, and I texted Chloe again: Not drinking all of the winembut what I have is dellicious! I promis to save some for you.
I stood, tripping over . . . something. I frowned down at the lawn and wondered if I’d stepped on a small animal. Discarding the thought, I walked into the garden, stretching my arms and letting out a long, happy sigh. I felt relaxed for the first time since I’d last f**ked Chloe, which was about a zillion years ago. With a full stomach and a bit of wine in me, I realized I hadn’t taken the time to plan for Chloe’s arrival at all. We had some things to get out of the way first. We had some talking to do, some planning.
Would I lead her to the garden, pull her down onto the lawn with me, and make her listen? Or wait for a quiet moment over dinner and then go to her, guiding her out of the chair and close to me? I knew what I wanted to say—I’d gone over the words a million times in my head on the flights here—but I didn’t know when I would say it.
Best to let her be here a few days before dropping the hammer.
I closed my eyes, leaned my head back, and tilted my head up to the sky. I let myself enjoy it for just a beat. The weather was spectacular. The last time I’d been outside in the sun with Chloe was at a barbecue at Henry’s the previous weekend, and it had only been marginally warm. After a day in the sun and wind, we’d gone home and had some of the laziest, quietest sex I could remember.
I opened my eyes and immediately clapped a hand over my face in the bright sun. “Ow. Fuck.”
Dominique appeared several yards away and pointed to the front gate. “Allez,” she said, telling me to go. “Se promener. Vous êtes ivre.”
I laughed. Hell yes, I was tipsy. She’d poured the entire bottle of wine for me. “Je suis ivre parce que vous me versa une bouteille entière de vin.” I think that’s what I said.
With a smile, she lifted her chin. “Allez chercher des fleurs dans la rue. Demandez Mathilde.”
This was good. I had a task. Find some flowers. Ask for Mathilde. I bent to tie my shoe and headed out of the property, toward town. Dominique was a wily one, getting me drunk and then sending me off on errands so I wasn’t moping around the house all day. She and Chloe would get along swimmingly.
Not a half mile down the road, there was a small storefront with flowers spilling out of every conceivable container: vases and baskets, boxes and urns. Over the door was a small sign written in looping script that said simply, MATHILDE.
A bell rang as I entered, and a young blond woman stepped from the back into the small main room of the store.
Greeting me in French, she quickly gave me a once-over and then asked, “You’re the American?”
“But I also speak English,” she said, her thick accent curling around each word. “And it is my store, so we’ll practice for me.”
She raised her brows flirtatiously, as if to challenge me. She was beautiful, no doubt, but her lingering eye contact and sexy smile made me a touch uneasy.
And then it hit me: Dominique knew I was bored and lonely, but she probably had no idea that I was waiting for Chloe’s arrival. She’d filled me with wine and then sent me to the hot young single woman down the street.
Mathilde moved a little closer, adjusting some flowers in a tall, slim vase. “Dominique said you were staying at Mr. Stella’s.”
Her laugh was husky and quiet. “Yes, I know Max.”