Hardwired

Author: P Hana

Page 8

   

My gaze fell to the $10,000 chip that sat in my palm, amounting to more than all my historical roulette winnings combined.

“What’s this for?”

“For being my lucky charm. I wouldn’t have won without you.”

He gave me a playful smile that, combined with the thrill of having seen him win, almost made me forget how angry I still was. This might work with other girls, but I wasn’t about to be paid off.

“I can’t keep this.” I handed it back to him.

“I insist. Come on, let’s get out of here before another number drops.”

Reluctantly, I put the chip in my clutch, and we walked away without looking back.

* * *

“You look different. I barely recognized you.” Blake leaned in close so only I could hear him.

Alli and Heath were deciding what tapas to order while we waited for our tequila flights to arrive. We had wandered into a cantina with Vegas flair bordering the casino floor to celebrate, and Heath was already charming the hell out of Alli, leaving me to contend with Blake. His warm breath drifted over my neck, giving me instant chills. I tried not to imagine what his lips would feel like there instead. His proximity bordered on unacceptable, and he smelled amazing—like clean, spicy, sexy male. Someone could bottle that and make millions.

“Yeah, not exactly boardroom attire...” I consciously tugged down the hem of my dress, which barely covered the essentials now that I was sitting. If he looked me over one more time I might burst into flames right here.

“I prefer it.”

There were hundreds of beautiful women in the bar, and plenty of them were eyeing Blake. What luck, to not only run into him, but to also be trapped in his crosshairs while Alli flirted shamelessly with his brother.

“Are you here for the conference?” I asked, eager to change the subject.

“Mostly.”

“Blake’s here for business. I, however, am here for pleasure.” Heath winked at Alli.

He was laying it on thick, and Alli was eating it up. I couldn’t tell if she was genuinely interested or just doing really good PR. I hoped it was the latter.

“Actually, Heath is my VP of business development. Technically he’s here for the conference too.”

“Yes, whenever Blake’s work takes him to Vegas, my involvement in the company becomes suddenly very important,” Heath said. “We have very important titles, but most of us just sort of orbit around Blake here. He does all the real work.”

I waited for Blake to reply but only his jaw twitched. He seemed different somehow, more serious than I’d seen him before. He appeared relaxed, controlled, but I sensed tension beneath the calm countenance.

Alli broke the silence. “Sounds like Erica. She’s our fearless leader.”

Blake was about to speak when the waiter arrived with enough tequila shots to guarantee some seriously poor decision-making later in the evening. I picked mine up tentatively, making an agreement with myself and the tequila that this would be my first and my last. I couldn’t trust myself around Blake as it was, and tequila made me do crazy things.

Heath raised his in the air to toast.

“What shall we toast to?” I asked.

“To winning,” he said, and our glasses clinked.

I could drink to that, and I tossed mine back, grabbed a lime, and sucked it hard to salve the burn of the liquor.

For the next hour or so, Heath regaled us with his stories—adventures in Sin City, backpacking in Europe, and the opulence of living in Dubai. Charismatic and funny, Heath was a magnetic force of his own. Alli asked him questions and kept him talking, which was almost a relief. I was still pissed at Blake and didn’t feel up for sharing any tidbits of my personal life with him.

“Can I get you another drink? Something different?”

I shivered at the depth of Blake’s voice, effectively distracted from the show of Alli’s and Heath’s interactions.

“I have to speak on a panel in the morning,” I said. “I should actually call it a night.”  It was almost two a.m. local time. The long day was starting to catch up with me, but I wasn’t so sure about Alli. “Do you want to head up, Alli?”

“Um…” She looked to Heath.

“Hang out with us for a while,” he said softly.

She looked back at me, saying yes with her eyes, which were lit up like Christmas.

“Are you sure, Alli?”

“Yeah, I’ll be up in a bit. Don’t worry about me.” Alli glowed. The tequila was already winning.

“We’ll make sure she gets home in one piece,” Heath promised.

I almost believed him. Normally I would have guilted her into leaving for her own sake, but I didn’t want to spoil her fun tonight.

Blake stood up with me. “Let me walk you up.”

“No, thank you. I’m fine.”

“I’m heading back too. We can walk together.”

I relented, fairly confident I could survive the next ten minutes alone with him.

We made our way to the elevators and Blake ushered me into an empty car, his hand resting on the small of my back. The unexpected contact warmed me through to my core. We stood side by side as the doors closed. My fingers drummed the railing anxiously.

“They seem to be hitting it off,” he said, breaking the silence.

“I noticed. Your brother is very charming.”

“He’s a handful.” He shook his head and ran his fingers through his hair.

“Alli can be too. Maybe they’ll keep each other out of trouble.”

Blake raised an eyebrow, looking doubtful.

Silence descended again. The hum of the elevator seemed to amplify the energy between us, as if my attraction to Blake had somehow become audible and now radiated in the silence. Clearly I had underestimated how long ten minutes with him could be.

When the elevator stopped at my floor, Blake walked me out and escorted me down the hallway to my door.

“Here we are,” I said, hoping our goodbyes would be brief.

Instead his hand trailed from my back to my elbow and down my arm until we were hand in hand again. He traced tiny circles in my palm with the pad of his thumb, and I was uncertain in that moment if the sensation had caused actual pain. It was an undeniable shock to my system, almost electric, traveling to my fingertips and other areas.

“Blake, I—”

My body was rioting against the tyrannical misgivings of my brain. His face was mere inches from mine, intoxicating me with his scent once more, reminding me of the first moment we met.

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