“I miss you, too. But . . . ahhh, I’m a little surprised. France is . . . really far and there’s so much to do and—”
“Not just France. A private house—a villa. It belongs to my friend Max, the one I went to school with? And it’s beautiful and huge and empty,” he added. “With a giant bed, several of them. A pool. We can cook and walk around na**d; we don’t even have to answer the phone if we don’t want to. Come on, Chlo.”
“I love that you threw in the walking-around-naked part,” I said. “Because that’s most definitely how you’d close the deal.”
He moved closer, clearly aware my resolve was breaking. “I pride myself on always knowing my opponent, Miss Mills. So what do you say? Come with me? Please?”
“Jesus, Bennett. It’s like ten in the morning and you’re killing me with the swoons here.”
“I debated tranquilizing you and throwing you over my shoulder, but that might make things sticky at customs.”
I took a deep breath and peered down at the tickets. “Okay, so we’d leave on the ninth and come back . . . Wait, is this right?”
He followed my gaze. “What?”
“Three weeks? I can’t just drop everything and go to France for three weeks, Bennett!”
He stood, confused. “Why? I was able to make arrangements and—”
“Are you serious? First, we’re moving in a month. A month! And we haven’t even picked out an apartment! Then there’s my best friend, who was cheated on by the world’s biggest asshat last week. And let’s not forget the minor detail called my job? I have meetings and an entire department to hire and move to New York!”
His face fell; clearly this was not the reaction he’d anticipated. The sun was behind him and when he turned his head, tilting it the slightest bit, the light caught his eyelashes, the angles of his face.
Ugh. Guilt swelled in my chest like a balloon. “Fuck. I’m sorry.” I leaned into him and laid my head against his shoulder. “That is absolutely not the way I meant to say all that.”
Strong arms wrapped around me and I felt him exhale. “I know.”
Bennett took my hand and led me to the small table in the corner of the room. He motioned for me to take a seat, while he took the chair opposite me. “Shall we negotiate?” he said, a challenge in his eyes I hadn’t seen since he’d stepped into my office.
This I could do.
He leaned forward, hands clasped and elbows on the table in front of him. “The move,” he began. “Admittedly, it’s a big one. But we have a Realtor; I’ve seen the top three contenders. You just need to decide if you need to see them, or if you trust me to choose. We can let the Realtor handle the rest and pay people to do the actual packing and moving part.” He raised a brow in question and I nodded for him to continue. “I know how much you care about Sara. Talk to her; see where she’s at with all of this. You said you didn’t even know if she was leaving him, right?”
“So we’ll cross that bridge when we come to it. And your job . . . I’m so incredibly proud of you, Chloe. I know how hard you work and how important you are. But there will never be a perfect time. We’ll always be busy, there will always be people who want our attention, and there will always be things that feel like they can’t wait. It’s a good exercise for you in delegating tasks—I love you, but you suck at delegating. And it’s going to be even more hectic when we move. When’s the next time we’ll have a chance to do this? I want to be with you. I want to speak French to you and make you come on a bed in France where nobody can just drop by on the weekend or call either of us away for work.”
“You’re making it very hard to be the responsible adult here,” I said.
I felt my mouth fall open and could do nothing but gape at him. I was just about to ask who this easygoing person was, and what they’d done with my boyfriend, when there was a knock at the door. I pulled my eyes away from a very pleased boyfriend to see a terrified intern walk in, staring at Bennett with fear in her eyes. No doubt she’d drawn the short straw and been sent down to retrieve the Bastard.
“Um . . . Excuse me, Miss Mills,” she stuttered, gaze locked on me instead of her real target. “They’re waiting for Mr. Ryan in the conference room on twelve . . .”
“Thank you,” I answered. She left and I turned back to Bennett.
I nodded, still a little off balance from his change in attitude. “Thank you,” I said, vaguely motioning to the tickets, but meaning so much more.
Travel had . . . never really worked out for Bennett and me. San Diego had been perfect while we were still tucked away in our own little bubble. It was when we tried to rejoin the living that it had all gone to hell. In a big way.
And then we’d planned to travel last Thanksgiving, and ended up canceling the trip because of work. We tried again in December; Bennett had been drowning in a huge fitness account that was set to launch just before the New Year, and we both had the Papadakis launch in early January. Somehow, though, I’d convinced him to come home with me for a long weekend over the holidays.
Bennett hadn’t wanted to—he’d been in the final stages of this huge campaign, had a family of his own to contend with. And a girlfriend who had spent the better part of the last year telling her father what a giant, overbearing dick her boss was, only to then finally admit she was ha**g s*x with this boss. This trip had disaster written all over it.
Bennett had been quiet throughout most of the flight, and when he hadn’t suggested we join the Mile High Club even once, I knew something was going on.
“You’re being awfully respectful over there, Ryan. What’s up?” I asked after we’d landed and were making our way to the rental car.
“Well, you haven’t made one inappropriate comment or referred to me riding, sucking, licking, touching, stroking, grabbing, or otherwise praising your dick once in the last three hours. I can practically hear you thinking and frankly, I’m a little concerned.”
He reached down and smacked my ass. “Better? Your tits look great in that sweater, by the way.”
“I’m meeting your father,” he said, pulling at his collar.
“And he knows what an as**ole I was.” I cleared my throat and he glared at me. “Can be.”
“It’s all part of the Bennett Ryan charm everyone goes on about,” I said, batting my lashes at him. “Since when did you apologize for that?”
He sighed. “Since we’re going to see your father. And if he owns a calendar, he would have figured out that I was sleeping with you while we worked together.”
“I had to face your family after all that, too. I’m sure Mina told Henry about the Bathroom Incident, and if Henry knows then Elliott knows. And if Elliott knows . . . oh my God, your mother knows we had sex in her favorite bathroom . . . when Joel was there on a blind setup to meet me.” I smacked my palm to my forehead.
“Yeah, well, my family practically walks around wearing Team Chloe shirts under their regular clothes so it’s a little different.”
We reached the door to the rental agency and I took his hand, stopping him. “Look, my dad knows who his daughter is. He knows I can be a little spirited—”
It was my turn to glare. “And he knows I give as good as I get. You’re fine.”
He sighed and leaned forward to rest his forehead against mine. “If you say so.”
Dad let out an evil whistle as he circled the shiny black Benz now parked in his driveway, boots crunching in the snow. “Always figured there was only one reason a man would drive a car like this: compensating for something. Wouldn’t you agree, Benson?”
“Bennett,” he corrected under his breath, before smiling tightly over to me.
“It’s Christmas, Dad. All the four-wheel-drive vehicles were gone.”
As we sat around the table, my father stared at Bennett like he was trying to match him up with a face he’d seen on the news. “Bennett, huh?” he said, shooting a skeptical eye over his wineglass. “What kind of a name is that?”
“My mother was a bit of a Jane Austen fan, sir. My brother’s middle name is Willoughby so I like to think I got off easy.”
Dad didn’t even crack a smile at that. “Named after a character in a romance novel? I guess that explains a few things.”
“Your first name, Frederick,” Bennett said, with a small smile. “It’s a good name, if you don’t mind me saying so. Frederick Wentworth is also the hardworking, self-made protagonist in Persuasion. My mother made me read all of Austen’s novels when I was in high school, and I generally do what my mother tells me.” He took a bite of his dinner, chewed, and swallowed before saying, “That advice also includes dating your daughter.”
“Hmmm. Well, be careful with her,” Dad said, glaring at Bennett from across the table. “My hygienist’s boyfriend is in the mob, and I doubt anyone would miss you.”
He looked at me, eyes wide and innocent. “What?”
“Mark’s boyfriend is not in the mob.”
“Of course he is. He’s Italian.”
“Trust me. I’ve met him. Drives a black car with very dark windows. Mark called him Fat Don at the office party.”
“His name is Glen, Dad, and he’s studying to be a CPA. He’s not in the mob.”
“I don’t know why you have to be so damn argumentative all the time, Chloe. God only knows where you get it.”
At that point Bennett started laughing so hard he had to excuse himself from the table.
Later, after Bennett won my father over by letting Dad beat him at Monopoly—how anyone would believe Bennett Ryan lost a game involving money, I’ll never know—he snuck in from the guest room and climbed into my bed.
“You’re going to get us busted,” I said, already climbing on top of him.
“Hmm, I don’t know. Can’t tell you how many times my dad busted me for sneaking out when I was in high school, and I was very quiet.”
“Can we not talk about your dad right now? It’s seriously distracting me from how hot it’s going to be to f**k you in your teenage bed. And Jesus, Chloe. Are these even considered underwear?” he said, twisting his hands in the tiny straps of my panties and pulling. Hard.
“Oh my God!” I whisper-shouted. “Those were new and—”
“You loved it,” he finished, grinning. “Just doing my part to uphold tradition.”
I wanted to argue but 1) he was right and 2) I was distracted as Bennett slid the torn fabric to the side and slipped a finger inside of me. He took my hip in his other hand, encouraging me to move over him.
“Like that,” he said, lips parted and eyes trained between my legs. “Fuck—take your shirt off.”
Ripped panties forgotten, I nodded, lifting my T-shirt over my head and tossing it behind us. He slipped in a second finger and I sped up, the bed frame squeaking softly beneath us.
Bennett sat, whispering “Shh,” against my mouth. “Sit up a little.”
I shifted onto my knees and watched as he pushed his pajama bottoms down his hips.
“Are we really doing this here?” I whispered. The bed was too small, the room too hot and too quiet—and my dad was just two doors down. It was stupid and inconvenient and I couldn’t remember wanting something more.
I switched on the small lamp so I could see him better. His lips were swollen, his hair a mess, and his grin was totally ridiculous when he said, “I f**king love you, you filthy f**king girl. You want me to watch?”
I did, way too slowly to get me anywhere, but the perfect speed to make his eyes grow to the size of saucers before he stretched to kiss me. He mumbled something against my lips, his tongue moving lazily against mine. He was all soft noises and hands everywhere, his c**k sliding over my cl*tbefore finally pressing slowly into me.
It was a blur then, the feeling of being so full, of warm breath and warmer skin. Bennett sucked on my nipple, teeth dragging while I slid over him. I was so lost to everything else that I didn’t even notice the familiar squeak of the hinge on my bedroom door.
“Oh for the love of Pete!” my dad yelled, and suddenly it was legs and arms and blankets being tossed everywhere. I heard the distant flailing of my father as he rushed back down the hall, muttering about his little girl and sex in his house and telltale signs of a heart attack.
Let’s just say that neither Bennett nor I had ever been so grateful for anything as we were for the NDSU football player who needed an emergency root canal the next morning and whose coach, an old friend of my father’s, insisted that only Dad could handle it. Dad was at the office, waiting on their arrival from Fargo before the sun was even up.
No, vacations never really seemed to work out for us.
Guilt ate away at me the rest of the morning. I shouldn’t have been so hasty to tell Bennett it was impossible. Here he was, trying to be flexible, and I was the one telling him to consider work. What the hell was wrong with me? I tried to catch him between meetings. I tried to meet up with him for lunch. The closest I got was passing him in the hall, a group of executives babbling around him like fanboys around a celebrity.