Unbuttoning the CEO, page 11part #1 of The Suits Undone Series
The ensuing pause made Gracie’s stomach turn.
After what seemed like an eternity, Ms. Cantrell sighed. “Very well, Ms. Ramirez. I’ll have my assistant call yours and propose another date. Don’t miss it.” And then Ms. Cantrell hung up.
Gracie released the breath she’d been holding. All was not lost. And things certainly could have been worse. Ms. Cantrell could have refused to meet her altogether. She’d been given a second chance, and she wouldn’t screw it up.
With a roll of her tense shoulders, she faced Nic.
Wearing yesterday’s jeans and T-shirt, Nic greeted her with a sexy grin. His mussed hair jutted in dozens of different directions, a visual reminder of the many times she’d run her fingers through it last night.
“Good morning, Gracie.”
His voice slid over her like a protective veil. It comforted her. Made her forget her troubles. The difficult tasks she had to accomplish. And that was a big problem, because he wouldn’t be around in six months’ time, when LTN would border on collapse. He was too much. They were too much. Somehow their no-strings affair had transformed into a connection that tethered her to him, that made her want more.
She needed distance, both physical and emotional.
She reached for the second coffee mug in his hands. “Good morning, and thank you. Glad to see you’re comfortable in my kitchen.”
He nodded and sipped his coffee, watching her over the rim of his mug. “You had an appointment this morning?”
“I missed an important appointment this morning. I thought I set the alarm on my phone. Planned to be up at the crack of dawn to be sure I had more than enough time to go over my notes and get there early. The alarm on my phone didn’t go off.” She blew on the coffee, desperate to finish it quickly and head to the office.
His face turned ashen. “It was my fault. Your alarm, I mean. It went off, but I turned it off.”
Gracie’s mouth gaped. “You turned off my alarm?”
He set his mug on the side table and inched toward her. “I’m so sorry. I wasn’t thinking. You looked so peaceful. I watched you for a bit, planned to wake you up with a kiss, but then I fell back asleep.”
She slid backward, careful not to let the steaming coffee slosh onto her skin. He stopped advancing and planted his feet in the middle of the room.
Well, that was something, at least. She hadn’t been a complete idiot. Still, what was she thinking having him over the day before a big meeting? And that was the point, wasn’t it? She hadn’t been thinking. “It’s my fault, really. I should have timed your surprise better. Trying to do and be too much all at once. It’s a continuing problem.”
Gone. She needed him gone.
His eyes searched hers. “Is everything going to be okay? With the appointment?”
Gracie gulped the coffee and placed the mug on her nightstand. “It’ll be fine.” But that was just wishful thinking on her part. She strode to the closet and pulled out an outfit for work. “So I’m going to be busy this week. You?”
He stared into his mug. “Yeah. I’ll be busy, too. Probably won’t be able to come in for service hours. Is that okay?”
She didn’t hesitate. “That’s fine.”
Nic cocked his head to the side. After several seconds of silence, he left her bedroom. By the time he returned, he’d donned his sweater and she’d dressed.
Nic’s gaze followed her as she moved about the room. Ankles crossed, he leaned against her bedroom door in a lazy pose that was at odds with the chiseled angles of his face and the ever-present furrowed brow.
“I’m sorry you missed your appointment.”
“So am I,” she said as she strode past him to the bathroom.
Minutes later, as she gathered her purse and coat, a million thoughts swirled through her head. They’d agreed to a casual affair, but it walked and talked like something else—something like a committed relationship. She’d easily slipped into the role of the girlfriend despite her claim of wanting nothing more than someone to warm her bed. And she’d wrapped herself in the cocoon of their temporary relationship, forgetting those aspects of her life that made her who she was.
She’d never missed a work appointment. And given LTN’s dire situation, the mistake took on talismanic significance. If she didn’t focus on LTN, she’d be doing exactly what Hector Ramirez assumed she would—letting her passion for a man overrule her common sense. When would she learn to focus on only one aspect of her life? It had to be work or her love life, not both. Never both.
She needed to get out of here, but first she had to face the man who stood at her apartment door.
She walked to him, unsure what to say. “So,” she said.
“So,” he replied.
Gracie sighed. “So I guess I’ll see you when I see you.” She winced when the words left her mouth. What an idiotic thing to say.
His eyes flashed in irritation, but he quickly regained his composure. “Right.”
Before she could apologize, he lifted her chin and dipped his head. The kiss was unexpectedly tender. She didn’t need it. But she wanted it. The purse at her shoulder dropped to the floor. She stepped into his space and threaded her fingers through the hair at the nape of his neck. Her eyes begged to close, but she forced them to remain open. Then she stepped back. “I have to go.”
“I know you do,” he said.
His voice, low and slow, held a hint of resignation. Good for him. At least one of them knew what was going on. As for her, she didn’t know her ass from her elbow.
* * *
Any doubts about Nic’s view of their relationship were extinguished later that week. After lunch on Friday, Brenda rang her office line. “Gracie, you have a special delivery.”
For a minute, she wondered whether Nic had sent her flowers. He’d never done it before, but maybe he wanted to thank her for his birthday gift, which, she could tell, he’d thoroughly enjoyed.
She jumped from her chair and left her office. Brenda stood just outside her door with an ivory envelope in one hand. “Expecting something?” Brenda asked.
Gracie grinned. “No, Ms. Nosy. I’m not.”
Brenda circled her and repeatedly sniffed the air. “I smell intrigue. I need gossip, Ms. Ramirez.”
In response, Gracie shuffled into her office and softly closed the door behind her.
As she walked to her desk, Gracie turned the envelope over and slipped her thumb through the flap. Expecting a note, she gasped when she saw five hundred-dollar bills. Then she saw the note tucked behind the cash. It read, The thought you put into the gift was enough. Thanks for an unforgettable experience. It was signed, Nic.
Gracie licked the front of her teeth as she stuffed the note and the money back into the envelope. Then she dropped into her chair. She’d given him a gift, and he’d thrown it back in her face. Why?
Gracie turned the question over in her brain so many times she had to shake her head to clear it. And then the answer came to her. This was a no-strings affair. It wouldn’t last. They’d agreed as much. And a gift of that magnitude was too personal, too familiar, too much for a casual affair like theirs.
When the arrangement was over—and there was no doubt in her mind that he’d move on—he would take a piece of her heart with him. She couldn’t stem that hurt, but she could lessen its blow. With this in mind, she devised a plan that would put them back in the casual space he so obviously wanted and she so obviously needed.
Her hands shook as she lifted the receiver and dialed Nic’s number.
He answered after one ring. “Gracie?”
“Was just thinking of you,” he said. “I’m having a crappy day and thoughts of you calm me.”
Gracie leaned into the receiver as though it would close the distance between them. Ridiculous. This chat was off-script and didn’t fit with her plan. “I was wondering if you’re available for a drink tonight. I’m heading to New Y
“What time?” he asked.
Papers rustled in the background, followed by several clicks of the keyboard. “How about seven o’clock? I have a project that I have to finish before then.”
“That’ll work. Let’s meet at the Berkshire Pub on Connecticut. Do you know it?”
“No, but I’ll have someone—”
He stopped mid-sentence.
“Yeah, I’ll get the address and meet you there.”
“Okay. Let’s meet at the bar. Have a better day.”
“You already took care of that.”
Gracie had no words. A pang of regret made her heart ache.
“Did you receive my delivery?” he asked.
“I did. And the message that came with it. I’ll see you tonight.”
She didn’t wait for his response. Gracie took the receiver and jammed it into the base. Then she picked up the receiver and banged it into the base several more times. With just a few words, he’d undermined her objective—to view him as nothing but the man of the moment. But then she looked down at the envelope on her desk. Well, if Nic wanted casual, that’s exactly what he’d get.
The Berkshire Pub bristled with energy. As Ethan scanned the bar, he noticed several men in suits standing together in groups, clinking beers and speaking to each other boisterously. They aimed to relax, to let the stress of the workweek go and just hang. He understood that goal all too well.
The place was small and packed. And nothing like the kind of pub he’d expect Gracie to frequent. The sconces hung on the walls at least ten feet apart and did little to inject the place with either light or cheeriness. And his shoes protested each step along the sticky floor.
A group of women sat at a table near the bar. As he approached the counter, their voices lowered. Ethan nodded at the women and sat on a stool in the center of the bar, turning his head once again to search for Gracie.
Minutes later, he knew without looking that she’d entered the pub. The men to his right continued to talk, but their gazes landed on something behind him, and their boisterous discussion of the upcoming Sunday Night Football match-up disintegrated into vague generalities followed by distracted uh-uhs and yeahs.
He turned around in his stool. In seconds, he scanned her from head to toe, taking in the slim black skirt that molded to her lithe body, the sheen of gloss on her bow-shaped lips, and the waves of hair that fanned around her. Her absent gaze gutted him—because it skated over the men in the bar as if they were all strangers to her—him included.
He’d play along, but he’d play on his terms. He willed her to look at him simply by the force of his stare. And she did. Then, slowly and purposefully, he turned around and raised his hand to get the bartender’s attention.
“Let me have a Wild Turkey, neat, and make it a double,” he said.
The bartender nodded and moved away.
Gracie took a stool several feet to his right, away from the clump of men that appeared to be shifting closer to her. She removed her trench coat and placed it on the stool beside her. Ethan angled his body in her direction and watched her out of the corner of his eye.
Not surprisingly, one of the men in the clump—a tall, wiry man with shellacked hair and a tailored suit—made his move. Raising the glass of whiskey the bartender placed in front of him, Ethan turned to Gracie with a question in his eyes. She nodded, but he wasn’t sure what she’d communicated. Everything is okay, Ethan. I’ve got this? Or: Come over here and make sure this guy doesn’t harass me?
He waited. And watched. And he ached. Because he wanted to claim her as his, with a fierceness that made his fingers twitch as they held his drink. She spoke briefly with the man, laughed, and dropped her head. Then her hand lifted several strands of hair and tucked them behind her ear. Fuck. She was flirting with the guy? He’d give her two minutes to play out her hand. Nothing more.
The man by Gracie’s side moved her trench coat and sat on the stool beside her. Ethan clenched his jaw when the man leaned into her. Playtime was over. Ethan rose from the stool and strode toward the couple that would never be.
Gracie’s eyes widened as she watched his approach. Rounding them to stand on Gracie’s free side, Ethan set his boot on the bar’s foot rail and leaned into her. “I’ve had enough,” he whispered in her ear.
Gracie turned her face in his direction. Her lips, wet and plump, called to him. “Excuse me, do I know you?”
Gracie’s companion leaned over. “Is there a problem here?”
Ethan stood and stretched out his chest. “There’s no problem. The lady has a choice. I’m asking her to choose me.”
The man’s eyes flickered between Ethan and Gracie. “Do you know each other?”
Gracie lifted her glass and swirled the red and gold concoction with her straw. Then she took a dainty sip and stared straight ahead. “I don’t know him,” she replied.
“Dude,” the man said to Ethan. “There’s a code. You’re breaking it.”
“Dude,” Ethan replied. “I’m more interested in what the lady wants. Can’t fault me for that, can you?”
The man took a step back and assessed his competition. Ethan crossed his arms and waited. He hoped his narrow-eyed gaze would be sufficient to chase the man away. He didn’t need trouble. Not anymore.
Gracie shifted in her stool and stood between them. “Gentlemen. Let’s break this up.” Then she turned to Ethan and placed her hands on his chest. “Let’s go,” she said with a nervous smile.
The man raised his eyebrows and his jaw dropped. “That’s it? You’re leaving with him?”
Gracie nodded. “That’s it. I’m leaving with him. My choice.” When she reached for her belongings, Gracie’s hands shook. She lifted a few bills from her wallet and set them on the counter. She raised her hand to get the bartender’s attention. Pointing between them, she said, “That’s for both drinks. His and mine.”
She grabbed Ethan’s hand and strode toward the pub’s exit.
Behind her, Ethan’s mind raced. He understood the game, but he didn’t understand her motivation. And she hadn’t appeared all that comfortable playing it in the first place. Was she trying to prove something to herself? To him? Outside the pub, he stopped walking, causing her to fall back against him because he still held her hand.
“What’s going on, Gracie?”
“Nothing, Nic. I was just having a little fun. I thought you’d enjoy it, but I didn’t expect you to get into a brawl at a bar.”
“That guy wasn’t going to fight me.”
“Lucky him, I’m sure.”
She again grabbed his hand. “Let’s go.”
“Where are we going?”
“To my car. It’s parked in the lot across the street.”
Ethan trailed behind her. Her odd behavior defied explanation. He wished he could get inside that head of hers, but he knew from experience that women were puzzles that couldn’t be solved so easily.
* * *
Gracie’s heels struck a staccato beat as they hit the pavement, matching the rapid drum of her heart.
She’d planned to entice Nic under the guise of anonymity. What man didn’t fantasize about having sex with a stranger? Oh. Right. The man who walked beside her, apparently. He and his furrowed brow could shove it.
“Let’s take the stairs,” she said.
They climbed the stairs in silence. The echo of their footsteps grew louder as they approached the door on the second floor. Or maybe that was the pounding of her heart. She had no clue what she’d do when they reached her car. But she needed to act fast. She whipped off her trench coat and folded it over her arm as she trudged up the stairs.
She’d parked her car at the far corner of the lot, hoping it would afford them the privacy they’d need. An hour later, it
She grabbed her key fob from her purse and unlocked her car. “Get in the passenger side,” she said. “Give me your jacket.”
He angled his head but did as she asked. Then, in silent acknowledgment of her plans for him, he reached for the seat control and pressed it to accommodate his long legs. Gracie threw their jackets in the backseat, and then she climbed in after him. He helped her by raising her skirt as she sat on his lap.
Her Camry was small, and Ethan was large. The cramped quarters heightened her awareness of everything about him.
He squeezed her waist. “We could do this in my bed. It’s large and comfortable, and we could roll around in it all night.”
“Too tidy,” she said. “I want this.”
“Are you sure, Gracie? Because we—”
“Nic, please. This is what I want. I don’t want to wait. I don’t want to think. I just want to feel. It’s a simple fuck. It doesn’t have to be complicated.”
His hands left her sides. “Fine. This is your show. Take it away.”
So she did. She unbuttoned his jeans and slid his zipper down. “Rise up,” she commanded. When he raised his ass off the seat, she tugged down his jeans and his boxer briefs to his thighs.
His cock sprang to attention and stood stiff as a board. “What are you going to do about your panties?” he whispered.
“Who says I’m wearing any?” she asked as she raised her skirt higher.
Nic’s eyes closed on a long moan. “This is the sweetest torture.”
She bunched her skirt at the waist and circled her ass on his thighs. “Isn’t it, though?”
“Shit, Gracie. You’re soaked. Move closer to my cock. I need to feel you there.”
She did as he asked. Then she laced her fingers around his neck and leaned in for a kiss. His mouth engulfed hers, the pressure of his lips against hers almost painful. She delighted in it, savoring his tongue. His frenzied exploration of her mouth matched her frenzied undulations against his erection. They engaged in a whirlwind of activity that seemed impossible in the tight space.
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