“Maybe that’s a good thing.”
He was right. The anticipation of knowing the caliber of people I would be presenting with and subsequently meeting would have been unbearable. My panic this morning had been mercifully short-lived, and aside from the microphone incident, all had gone exceptionally well. Even so, I wasn’t about to give him any satisfaction by admitting that.
“This was great, but I don’t need your charity, Blake.” The meddling needed to stop.
“You think this was charity?”
“Well, it’s either that or an overelaborate ploy to get me into bed.”
“I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t.”
He threaded his fingers with mine. His other arm slipped under my blazer and pulled me up to him. I lifted to him, reveling in the warmth of his body against mine and the relief that always seemed to follow. His embrace was gentle but firm, giving me a taste of the strength of his body.
“Not going to happen.” The protest sounded as weak as my resolve. My free hand found a place on his chest, contoured over the curve of his pectoral. His heart beat strong and steady under my palm, mimicking my own as my body melted into him. The things we could do...
He pulled me closer, the semblance of complete self-control in his expression betrayed by the heat in his eyes. He angled his face above me, his lips a hair’s breadth from my own. My heart beat madly, silencing any lingering thoughts of protest. I couldn’t outrun this desire.
Yes. I inched my fingers around his nape and drove them through the silky strands of his hair and answered him. Sealing my lips over his, I drank in his scent and surrendered to the onslaught of sensations that having his mouth on me conjured. The tip of his tongue grazed my lips, coaxing them open to his. I parted for him on demand, eager to know if he tasted as good as smelled. His tongue darted in and found mine, taunting me with tiny licks that gave way to deeper strokes. His hands teased the exposed flesh between my blouse and my jeans, roaming over the jut of my hipbone. Mine stayed fisted in his hair and splayed over his chest. I was paralyzed with the fear that if I moved an inch, I’d lose control completely and climb him right here on the stage.
Whispers and the clicks from camera phones carried through the room. A small group of attendees were huddled at the back entrance, their faces hidden by their phones, which were pointed directly at us. Bloody hell.
I pushed away from Blake, who didn’t seem fazed by the paparazzi nerd crew who were probably minutes from tagging our embrace to the conference Twitter feed. Flustered and panicked, I grabbed my things and flew off the stage, making my way to the nearest elevator. Against my better judgment, I had lost control with Blake and now I was humiliating both of us.
“Erica!” Blake rushed up behind me. “Are you okay?”
His hair was mussed to hell, but I resisted the urge to fix it. I was too tightly wound, and a touch, however innocent, could annihilate my already perilously weak commitment not to sleep with him.
“Yes, I genuinely can’t wait to become the laughing stock of the conference.” I shook my head in disbelief, cursing myself for being so reckless.
“Hey, any publicity is good publicity, right?” He smiled. He reached for me, but I stepped back out of his grasp.
“Blake, you don’t get it!” I yelled, unable to control myself this time, which drew the attention of a few people passing by. Maybe they could catch this on video and post it to YouTube to complete my morning of PR self-destruction. I was shaking now. Too many emotions surged through me—exhilaration, blinding lust, and utter embarrassment.
“Shh, relax.” He put his hands on my shoulders. “I’m sure those kids don’t even know who we are, and if they do, it’ll just be a blip.”
Those kids, who were my age, very likely didn’t know me, but I couldn’t say the same about Blake.
“Whatever. I guess there’s not much I can do about it now.” I shrugged. My exhaustion was bone-deep now. I leaned back into the wall, feeling more depleted by the minute.
“Listen, I’ve got a few meetings this afternoon, but I want to take you out tonight.”
I sighed, willing to agree if it brought me closer to a nap.
“I’ll be the perfect gentleman,” he promised, but a dangerous flash of hunger clouded his eyes.
“You have a habit of offending me indiscriminately. Don’t make promises you can’t keep.”
The bell dinged and the doors opened. I retreated to the empty elevator, and miraculously, Blake didn’t follow me.
Just before the doors closed, he said, “I’ll pick you up at eight.”
* * *
I nursed a glass of wine and Alli started on her second espresso martini at one of the award-winning Italian restaurants in the casino. I filled her in on the details of the morning, including the highs of connecting with a handful of high-powered executives in the industry, and the subsequent lows of potentially discrediting myself by being caught in Blake’s arms, on camera, only moments later. I took a healthy gulp of my Pinot Noir at the remembrance.
“He’s persistent. But that doesn’t really surprise me,” Alli said.
“I can’t help but feel like I’m losing the war with him.” I picked at my pasta fra diavolo, torn by the way I felt around Blake. One minute I was cursing him out, and the next I had to harness every ounce of self-control not to give in to him.
“Erica, I know you’re hyper-focused on the business right now, but if you’re attracted to him, and he’s obviously super attracted to you, why not just go for it?”
“I’ve been through hell and back, Alli. You know this. The business is the first thing I’ve cared about in a long time. It’s kept me grounded, and if I screw this up because I can’t get a handle on my hormones, I don’t know what I’ll do.”
While getting a more traditional job was a remote possibility, I refused to accept failure as an option. Sure, I periodically experienced the-sky-is-falling moments, but I always pulled through stronger, giving more of myself and pushing us further than we ever expected to be. Under normal circumstances, I could juggle casual sex and work or school, but this wasn’t one of those moments. I needed to stay focused or risk losing everything.
“You’ve already proven yourself to him professionally. Do you really think he won’t respect you if you sleep with him?”
“Maybe. It’s not a chance I’m willing to take.”