“Numbers fluctuate, predictions shift. We’re slipping behind, but he tells me everything can change at the last minute.” She shrugged and gave me a half smile.
“There’s still time. I’m sure he has the best people working for him.”
“He does, I know that. I just worry. He needs all his energies on this effort to pull through ahead.”
She held me in her gaze, as if she wanted to tell me more. I waited for her to continue.
“He speaks of you often, Erica. I know he wants a relationship, to make something out of this new development with you. But if you care for him, you’ll give him some space until the election is over. He needs to win this, and God forbid if anything came out about your relationship… It could be devastating. Do you understand, dear?”
I swallowed down the last of the champagne, hoping she couldn’t see the way her words hurt me. I hadn’t pursued him since our last meeting for this very reason. I hoped she understood that he’d invited me, not the other way around. She wasn’t being mean, but that didn’t lessen the sting of her feelings about my potential involvement in her husband’s life.
“Of course. I—I’ll keep my distance. Shouldn’t be hard since our lives don’t exactly overlap.”
She took my hand, gave it a light squeeze, and smiled. “Thank you.”
Feeling suffocated by her words, I scanned the room, already wishing I were connected enough to know any of the people around me, until I stopped suddenly on two familiar faces.
“Will you excuse me, Margo? I see a friend.”
She nodded. I crossed the room toward Risa, clad in a solid black gown with a dangerously low backline.
“Erica, hi! You look gorgeous.”
“Thanks, you too.”
She returned my smile and we both looked up to the gentleman I’d interrupted with my arrival.
“Erica, I think you know Max.”
“You look well, Erica.”
Max gave me a slow once over that ended with a slanted smile. I had forgotten how dashing he could look, his short blond hair and tanned skin contrasting against the bright white of his tuxedo shirt. In fact, I was surprised I hadn’t found Risa melted into a puddle at his feet based on her obvious and unabashed approval of the gorgeous men who’d graced our office. If I found her flirting at James’s desk one more time, I was probably going to have to say something. For his sake.
“Risa tells me the site is doing well.”
I glanced at Risa and realized, gratefully, that she had no idea what had gone on between us. I hadn’t seen or spoken to Max since Blake blew the deal we’d been minutes from finalizing. I’d flown out of the Angelcom boardroom in a tearful rage, unable to really explain what had happened. With that, our working relationship had been effectively severed, since Blake wouldn’t have anything to do with him when it came to investments, and vice versa.
“So far, so good. We have high hopes for growth now that we have Risa on the team.”
“No doubt. She’s been working the room like a pro.”
She slapped his arm playfully and laughed. “Well, Max has been introducing me, so I can’t take all the credit.”
Risa exuded a mix of excitement and bashfulness that most guys probably ate up. She was pretty and came across as sweet. She could get what she wanted though, and I was interested to see how she went about it. Especially with someone like Max. If she could play the high-powered playboy, I’d be nothing short of impressed.
The three of us made small talk until Max’s focus shifted from us.
“MacLeod. Good to see you. Enjoying the party?” Max reached out to shake the hand of the other tuxedo-clad guest whose dark brown eyes gleamed when they met mine.
“Working on it.”
“Erica, this is—”
“How are you, Mark?” I interrupted Max’s introduction and forced myself to hold Mark’s steady gaze. Inside, alarms were going off and my heart beat loudly against my chest. But I refused to show him any weakness.
“Much better now,” he murmured.
Max grinned, mirroring Mark’s lascivious gaze on me. I tightened my grip around my clutch and harnessed all my energies to appear polite and unaffected, keenly aware that my reaction to Mark’s proximity would be noted by those around us. Of course the two men would know each other from business dealings with Daniel’s firm, but Max was the last person who needed to know about my dark past with Mark.
I’d known I might see Mark here, and I’d swore I’d keep it together if by chance I did. If Daniel would be in my life, at any point, Mark would continue to make appearances. I couldn’t have a panic attack every time he did.
No longer a ghost, Mark had become real. All too real. A tangible creature with a name, a past, with vulnerabilities and weaknesses as real as my own. I tried to remember all this as he shamelessly drank me in.
“How about a dance?”
I masked my disgust at the suggestion. Max and Risa looked at us expectantly.
“Maybe later. I need a refill.” I tipped up my empty glass. I’d need way more than a glass to consider the request.
“I’ll get you one. Go, dance.” Max winked and took my glass.
Max had never given me cause to hate him. Even with Blake’s warnings, I had often questioned whether his intentions were as malicious as he’d made them seem. Now I hated him for reasons he’d never understand.
Mark captured my hand and pulled me to the dance floor, his grip tight. I moved mechanically to follow him, swept too quickly into the situation to game plan an exit. He slowed and swung me close to him. A wave of nausea washed over me at the sudden contact of our bodies. I tensed, certain that becoming physically ill on the dance floor would not bode well for whatever I’d hoped to achieve professionally tonight.
“Relax,” he crooned, bringing us so close his mouth was at my ear, his breath hot and moist on my skin.
Every place our bodies connected sent shockwaves of pain through my system. Years of loathing the man and the memories he’d given me were programmed into my brain, telling my body to fight. I clenched my jaw and took a deep breath through my gritted teeth, not because he wanted me to, but because I was determined to get through this without completely freaking out.
“Why are you doing this?” My voice was unsteady. I wished I sounded more in control than I felt.
“Can’t stay away. I think I’ve missed you. So glad I had Daniel invite you. I had a feeling you’d come when he asked.”