My phone dinged.
B: I’m leaving work in twenty minutes.
I silenced my phone, ignored Blake’s message, and turned my focus back to Alli. She tucked a lock of long brown hair behind her ear and continued to update the team on the weekly stats for our Internet startup, Clozpin. I listened attentively, grateful to have her back on the team.
Alli had been back in Boston only a few weeks, but she was finally sharing a city and an apartment with Heath again. Heath was happy, she was happy, and I was thrilled to have her reclaim her position as the marketing director after the debacle with Risa. I’d invited Alli back even before letting Risa go for sharing confidential information about the company.
I winced at the thought. Alli was a fountain of optimism, but Risa’s betrayal still stung me. I hadn’t heard from her since our last meeting, and somehow the silence between us filled me more with dread than anything else. I wanted to doubt her ability to start a competing site with Max, our almost-investor and Blake’s sworn enemy, but the unknown worried me. What if they successfully lured our advertisers away? What if they were able to build something that was legitimately better and filled a need that Clozpin didn’t?
With the kind of money Max was bringing to the table plus Risa’s inside information gleaned directly from everything I’d learned in my short tenure as CEO of the company, anything was possible. And something about the way she left, filled with so much venom and resentment, spoke to every insecurity I had about running a business. I was still fledgling, without a doubt. I wanted to believe I could hold my own, and in many ways I had, but I had a lot to learn.
Another text message arrived on my phone, no less distracting as it vibrated against the glass top of the conference table.
I rolled my eyes and quickly tapped out a reply. I knew he’d pester me until I acknowledged him.
E: I’m in a meeting. I’ll call you after.
B: I want you naked in my bed by the time I get home. You should leave soon.
E: I need more time.
B: I’ll be inside you within the hour. Your office, our bed, your choice. Wrap it up.
The air in the room was suddenly too cool against my hot skin. I shivered and my nipples beaded, grazing uncomfortably against my shirt. How did he do that? A few well-placed words, delivered via text no less, had me checking my watch.
“Erica, do you have anything else you want to cover?”
My eyes locked with Alli’s. She cocked an eyebrow like maybe she knew I wasn’t paying attention. All I could think about were the consequences of keeping Blake waiting, and the physical response to that anticipation was already becoming difficult to ignore. I corralled my thoughts away from Blake’s promises and back to the present.
“No, I think we’re good. Thanks, everyone.” I collected my things quickly, eager to get moving. I waved off the rest of the group, and they dispersed to their workstations. Alli followed me into my partitioned office.
“What’s up with Perry? I didn’t want to bring it up at the meeting since it’s kind of an odd situation.”
“Not much. He emailed me again, but I haven’t replied yet.” I didn’t have time to get into the complexities of that situation right now if I wanted to meet Blake’s deadline.
“Are you thinking about taking him on as an advertiser?”
“I’m not sure.” I was still conflicted on the matter.
Her big brown eyes were wide. “Does Blake know he reached out to you?”
“No.” I gave her a pointed stare, making it clear without words that I didn’t want him to either. The last time I’d seen Isaac Perry, Blake had him pinned to the wall by his throat threatening to de-limb him if he dared touch me ever again. I didn’t want to make excuses for Isaac’s bad behavior that night, and I didn’t want to forgive him any more than Blake did. But this was business.
“He’s not going to be happy if you end up working with him.”
I stuffed my laptop into my bag. “You think I don’t know that?”
Blake’s associations colored more strategic business decisions than I cared to admit.
Alli leaned against my desk. “So what are you going to do? Perry must be offering something impressive if you haven’t completely shot him down yet.”
“Perry Media Group represents a dozen multimedia publications that span the globe. I’m not saying I trust him, but I can at least hear him out.”
She shrugged. “Whatever you think is best for the company I’ll support. I don’t mind dealing with him directly either, if you’re more comfortable with that.”
“Thanks, Alli. I’d rather get to the bottom of this myself though. We can talk about it more later. I need to head out. Blake is waiting for me.”
“Oh, are you going out?” She brightened immediately, her business persona vanishing, replaced by the energetic best friend who made every day a little brighter.
“Um, we have plans. I’ll see you later,” I said, trying not to sound cryptic before slipping out of the office and waving my goodbyes.
A minute later I stepped outside into the early August heat. Rush hour traffic pushed by, and my phone rang before I could take my first steps toward home. I groaned and fished it out of my purse. Blake could be maddeningly persistent. When I retrieved it, a Chicago phone number appeared instead.
“Hello?” I answered tentatively.
“Yes, who is this?”
“It’s me, Elliot.”
I brought my hand to my mouth, muffling the sound of my shock at hearing my stepfather’s voice. “Elliot?”
“Do you have a minute? Is this a bad time?”
“No, this is fine.” I pushed through the doors of Mocha, the café downstairs, for a reprieve from the heat. “How are you? I haven’t talked to you in forever.”
He laughed. “I’ve been busy.”
I smiled to myself. I hadn’t heard that sound in so long.
“Of course. How are the kids?”
“They’re doing really well. Growing up too fast.”
“I bet. How’s Beth?”
“She’s fine. She’s back to work now that the kids are in school, so that keeps her busy. We’ve both got our hands full.” He cleared his throat and took an audible breath. “Listen, Erica, I know I haven’t been very good about keeping in touch. Honestly, I feel terrible about it. I really wanted to come to the graduation. Things were just really hectic here—”