“I’m not allowed to come here now?”
I hesitated, briefly considering whether that was an appropriate concession to make. Seeing him under any circumstances was risky though. “I don’t think it’s a good idea, Blake.”
“Let me get this straight. You’re breaking up with me, for no reason other than you need space to figure out your life. And now you’re cutting me out of the business that I’ve invested four million dollars into, and you’re expecting me to just back off? No questions asked?”
I leaned back into the wall, the exhaustion taking its hold on me again. “You’re not here on business. If you were, we’d be having a very different conversation.”
“You’re right. I’m not.”
“Then you should go.”
I turned my head, avoiding his eyes. He lifted his hand slowly and turned me back, forcing me to meet his gaze, intense and full of determination.
“You’re running away from something. Maybe me, but guess what? I’m not letting you this time. You need time to figure things out? Fine, but we’re figuring them out together. Let’s go back home and talk this out.”
Panic welled up. I’d never survive one-on-one with him like that, telling half-truths until he was somehow convinced. He’d keep on this way, stopping in on me, tracking me down until I gave him an answer that made sense. The more we hashed this out, the weaker my arguments would feel and sound. He needed to believe me, once and for all because if Daniel saw us together… I couldn’t go there.
“I don’t need time to figure out what I already know.” I brushed his hand away. “There’s nothing you can say to change how I feel. I’m going to pay you back as soon as I can, but I can’t have you involved with the business right now. I’ll talk to Sid about taking over the lease as soon as possible, but you’ll get your rent either way.” I made myself believe it and met his gaze. I couldn’t let him doubt it, risking everything because I couldn’t end this right.
He bridged the distance between us, catching my face in his palm with renewed determination. My breath caught, and I fought every instinct not to kiss him. His lips were so close. His ragged breathing matched my own.
“You love me.” He clenched his teeth as he uttered the words, as if they burned him.
I went to war with the magnetic force between us even as I felt myself slipping, losing control. You have to protect him, I reminded myself. His life depended on it.
“If you love me, you’ll let me go.” My heart broke at Daniel’s words used against the man I loved.
Tracing the hard line of his jaw, I felt it soften under my touch. I pressed up on to my toes to kiss him gently. One last kiss. He angled to deepen the kiss, but I pushed him back before he could.
I was all the way down the hall when he finally spoke.
“Don’t come back, Erica.”
His words leveled me. My insides twisted at the possibility of losing any chance for our future. I turned to face him, scared of what I’d see in his eyes. His hands fisted at his sides and his jaw clenched tight, the muscles bulging.
“If you end this now, don’t bother coming back.”
With trembling hands, I opened the door to the office and disappeared inside, closing the door on everything that was most precious to me.
The rest of the week passed in a blur. I barely left the office. My once welcomed focus on work had degraded into a compulsion to keep moving forward despite my lack of sleep. Even when I was sleeping, the visions that haunted me weren’t conducive to real rest.
Somehow, the fatigue and the pressure I put on myself to keep working masked a lot of the pain. The giant gaping hole in my chest where my heart used to be didn’t seem so devastating when all I pretended to care about were numbers and lists and driving the business forward with breakneck speed. Everyone at work was keeping up. At this rate, maybe I wouldn’t need Daniel’s money after all. I’d wanted to pay Blake back as quickly as possible in any case.
I was in the middle of a meeting with Risa when Daniel called. I let her know I needed to take this and waited to pick up until she had gone.
“Erica, I’m downstairs. I’d like to speak with you.” His voice was cold and commanding. “Come out the back.”
I hung up and let Risa know I was leaving for an early lunch. I pushed the back door open and found Connor at the wheel of the Lincoln idling in the alleyway. Daniel was leaning against the hood smoking a cigarette, wearing his usual dark suit and white collared shirt. The picture of the politician, I thought, as my mind raced through the reasons for his being here. Marie, Blake… I couldn’t speak for the fear that had gripped me then.
I shook my head, more out of confusion than to really answer him. “What’s wrong?”
“Nothing. Let’s get some lunch.” He pushed off the car and flicked the cigarette away. He opened the car door and motioned for me to get in, his expression unreadable.
I forced myself to move. Once upon a time, I had warmed upon seeing him, even as intimidating as he had come across at times. I once welcomed our time together, and now I had to force my limbs into action to join him in the car.
“Connor, take us to O’Neill’s.”
I took a few deep breaths, trying to calm my nerves. O’Neill’s sounded innocent enough. Maybe he did just want to have lunch. All those sleepless nights had ratcheted up my anxiety enormously.
“What did you want to see me about?”
“I meant to come see you earlier, but I thought you could use some time. How are things with Landon?”
A wave of relief came over me that Blake was safe, quickly replaced by a reminder of the pain of our separation.
“I wouldn’t know. I haven’t seen him in days.” I stared out the window, hoping he wasn’t going to make me regurgitate the details of our breakup.
“Good. He seems to have accepted that, I gather.”
I shrugged, trying to ignore the ache in my chest at the thought that Blake might have given up on us finally. That’s what I wanted, right? I hadn’t heard from him all week, a fact that gave me solace and tormented me all at the same time. I swallowed against the tears that burned my eyes. Now was not the time for that.
“Did he mean that much to you?”
His voice was softer than I expected, and I turned to face him, blinking away the wetness. I swore I saw a flicker of pain there, though I reasoned I was only projecting my own.