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Unbuttoning the ceo, p.13

Unbuttoning the CEO, page 13

 part  #1 of  The Suits Undone Series

 

Unbuttoning the CEO
 


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  “Thank you, Daniel. They’re beautiful.” Lydia Ramirez looked at her husband as she sniffed the flowers. “Hector, I need your help in the kitchen.”

  Her father looked up. With a slight narrowing of her eyes, Gracie’s mother told her father it was time to haul his butt to the kitchen. Before her mother breezed out of the room, she directed a pointed stare to Gracie. “Tell him,” her mother mouthed.

  Yes, she supposed she could use a few minutes to undo her father’s machinations and make clear to Daniel she only wanted his friendship. She crossed the room and sat next to him.

  Daniel continued to swipe his finger across his phone, shuffling through the pictures of his deep-sea diving adventure. “Want to check them out?”

  Gracie reined in her annoyance, reminding herself that Daniel wasn’t the villain here. “I’d love to. But later. Can we talk about what’s going on here?”

  Daniel set his phone on the coffee table. “Your father, you mean.”

  “Yes, my father. I know he means well, but you and I know this isn’t going to go anywhere.”

  “We do?”

  “Yes, yes, we do. We’re friends, Daniel. Or at least I’d like us to be. And we would be if I didn’t feel uncomfortable around you.”

  Daniel drew away from her and regarded her with round eyes. “I make you uncomfortable?”

  “Daniel, when a woman says she isn’t interested, that should be the end of it.”

  “But what if she’s playing hard to get?”

  “I can’t speak for most women, but I’m not playing hard to get. And you should err on the side of assuming a woman means what she says. These can’t be new concepts to you.”

  A flush spread across Daniel’s cheeks and he dipped his chin. Oh, my goodness. These were new concepts to him. Gracie clasped her hands between her knees. Now she understood why she appealed to Daniel: She said no to him, and that anomaly held his interest.

  After several seconds of silence, Daniel raised his chin and stared at her. “Okay. Got it. You’re not interested.” He rose from the couch and faced her, extending his hand. “Friends?”

  She took his hand and stood. “Friends.”

  “What are you going to do about your father?”

  “You mean the mule in the kitchen? Nothing. Eventually he’ll realize that my career comes first, whether or not he approves. I won’t let him force me into a relationship.”

  Gracie’s mother called them into the dining room. Daniel motioned for her to proceed him. “Why can’t you have both?”

  Gracie recalled her missed meeting with the president of the Bentley Foundation. “Because one of them will always suffer.”

  She’d been distracted by Nic the day she missed that appointment. Caught up in spending time with him. In bed. Had she thought she could carry on an affair with Nic and not become distracted? The idea made her laugh inside.

  LTN needed her undivided attention. Trying to navigate a no-strings relationship with Nic took more effort than she could give to the task. And the role she’d played in that car—treating him as nothing more than a sex object worthy of a quickie and a ride home—was her worst performance yet. She’d been on the receiving end of such treatment with Neal. Unlike Neal, she wasn’t able to do justice to the role, nor did she want to.

  The answer to her quandary was clear: It was time to end the affair.

  CHAPTER FOURTEEN

  The ding of his iPhone startled Ethan out of a fitful sleep. Reaching for the phone, he paused when his torso connected with the empty space next to him. Graciela should have been there. Instead, she was in New York.

  He squinted at the phone and saw that she’d sent him a text:

  Would you mind meeting me at the coffee shop on Kalorama at 4?

  Shouldn’t take long. G.

  Ethan dropped the phone on the night table and settled on the bed. Fuck. She was going to cut him off. And he knew why. Gracie had offered him a casual arrangement, and he’d agreed to it without much thought as to whether it was in her best interests. From the beginning, she’d pretended to want what he wanted—a casual affair.

  True, her father had conditioned her to believe that a committed relationship would threaten her professional goals, would make her lose her focus. And Ethan had seized on that belief to justify being with her. But Gracie clashed with her father because they disagreed on a fundamental point: a woman’s ability to successfully manage a career and a family. Gracie didn’t see it yet, but she longed for a serious commitment, and what she and Ethan shared was anything but serious.

  Now that the end of their relationship loomed, Ethan wondered whether he was capable of giving her more. But giving her more would mean he’d have to reveal his true identity, and although in the grand scheme of things his identity didn’t mean much, the fact that he’d lied to her would mean a lot.

  He didn’t deserve her, but he wanted her nonetheless.

  Yes, the pleasure of being inside her floored him. But he was prepared to admit that the pleasure was rooted in the connection he felt to her as a person, as a friend. She comforted him, made him laugh, and pushed him to think beyond his typical assumptions. Her observation that he was running from something still shocked him. Because it was true. And he hadn’t absorbed that truth until Gracie forced him to.

  Could he face her disapproval when he told her the truth? If he wanted to be with her, there was no other option. And what did he have to lose anyway? Because if he didn’t do something, she would cut him off this afternoon. He was man enough to admit that he didn’t want to stop seeing her. No, he wanted more, not less.

  But he’d have to go about it carefully. He would convince her that he was committed to being in a steady relationship. Then he would share his history with her and explain his reasons for withholding a part of himself. His reasons had nothing to do with her and everything to do with his circumstances. She’d understand, wouldn’t she? He’d make sure of it.

  But first, the fun part: convincing her that he was all in. Ethan scratched his chin, waiting for a brilliant idea to materialize. Unfortunately, nothing came to him. His eyes darted around his bedroom and landed on an empty take-out carton resting on his nightstand. An idea formed. Brilliant. Just brilliant. He texted Gracie a single word in response: Okay. Then he jumped out of bed, eager to put his plan into action. It was time to go shopping.

  * * *

  Carrying two heavy shopping bags, Ethan struggled into the vestibule of Gracie’s multi-apartment brownstone. He dropped the bags on the floor and entered the three-digit code to buzz her apartment.

  “Yes?” she asked.

  “Gracie, it’s Nic. Can you buzz me up?”

  Her muffled response crackled through the intercom speaker. “Sure. C’mon up.”

  When he reached the second-floor landing, Gracie waited at the door. She wore leggings, a long sweater, and wool socks that slouched around her ankles. Her face bore no hint of makeup, and her hair was tied in a high ponytail.

  Her eyebrows rose in surprise when her gaze landed on the shopping bags in his hands. “Hi. What’s all this?”

  Ethan’s clammy hands caused him to lose his grip on one of the shopping bags. What the hell was wrong with him? He fumbled to recover the bag and moved closer to her. “Could I explain inside?”

  Gracie stepped back and swung the door open. “Of course. Sorry.”

  He followed her into the living room and noticed the half-full glass of wine on her coffee table. “Rough weekend?”

  Her high-pitched laugh ended with a sigh. “Not at all.”

  He raised an eyebrow and waited.

  She dropped onto the couch and tucked her legs under her. “You’re right. I didn’t have a great time. My dad arranged for a suitor to join us for lunch on Saturday.”

  Ethan’s stomach dropped. Did she plan to cut him off so she could date this guy? He set the bags on the floor and sat next to her. He clenched and unclenched his fists, pretending to warm himself after braving the biting
November wind. “How’d that turn out?”

  “It was uncomfortable. He’s a friend of the family. His parents and my parents, I mean. My father would love for us to get together. My mother, thank goodness, is on my side. I made it clear to Daniel that it wasn’t going to happen. But I was annoyed I had to have that conversation to begin with. Needless to say, I wasn’t pleased with my father’s shenanigans.” She clapped her hands, signaling the end of that part of the conversation. “So anyway. I’m dying to know the deal with the bags.”

  Ethan leaned forward and placed his elbows on his knees. She untucked her legs and leaned forward, matching his pose. “What is it?” she asked as she nudged his knee with her own.

  Ethan straightened and turned toward her. “I want to cook dinner for you.”

  Gracie drew back and scanned him from head to toe. “Are you sure? Because you look like you’re being walked to the gallows. Is your cooking that bad?”

  Ethan dropped his head and laughed. “I’m doing this wrong.” He reached for her hands, placed them on his thighs, and covered her hands with his. “I want to be the man who gets to cook for you. More than once.” His voice broke on those last few words.

  Gracie moved her hands and pressed them between her thighs. “We were supposed to meet later today. So I could end this. Nothing dramatic. Just a simple explanation that our arrangement is more than I want to handle right now.”

  “I know.”

  She jerked back. “How’d you know?”

  “The car.”

  “The car?”

  “Yeah. I knew something was wrong when we fucked in the car.”

  Gracie flinched at his words. “Way to change the tone of this conversation, Mr. Romance.”

  He dragged a hand through his hair and cracked his neck, appearing frustrated and then unaffected in the space of a few seconds. “I came here to ask for a commitment. Forgive me if it isn’t coming out like a sonnet. I want to be with you. It’s that simple. If it’s not what you want, just tell me and I’ll go.”

  Ethan held his breath. Maybe she genuinely didn’t want to be in a committed relationship. Maybe he’d miscalculated the extent of her feelings for him. Her furrowed brow certainly suggested that she was torn. What the hell was she contemplating over there?

  “Please don’t misunderstand. I appreciate all this,” she said as she waved her hands in the direction of the shopping bags. “But I’ve got a lot going on right now.” She stood and wrapped her arms over her middle. “LTN’s future is bleak. If I don’t turn things around, I’ll be headed to New York by start of the fiscal year.”

  The possibility that she’d leave the city had never entered his mind. “Which is when?”

  “March first of next year. I just don’t think it’s wise to get serious about anyone under the circumstances. I have to focus on LTN. I hope you can understand.”

  What could he say really? If he said he didn’t understand, she’d think he didn’t understand the pressure she was under. And he understood it all too well. He searched for something to say that would change her mind about them, but the rigid set of her jaw warned him away. “I can respect that. I guess I’ll go then. Keep the bags. There’s nothing fancy in there. Spaghetti and meatballs, an old family favorite.”

  She nodded.

  He studied her for any sign that she didn’t want him to leave. Hoped she’d call him back. As he neared her door, his hope diminished. His hand wrapped around the doorknob at the same time her finger tapped him on the shoulder.

  He spun to face her. “Yeah?”

  “Stay. We could make dinner together.”

  Right. She’d just ditched him. Hanging around would make him bleed out. Thanks, but no thanks. “That’s okay, Gracie. I think I should head home.”

  She held her hand out to him. “Friends?”

  Sure, he’d be professional about it, but friends? Was she serious? He couldn’t be her friend, not when he longed to plunge inside her and make her shout his name. Not when he wanted to talk to her in the afterglow of great sex. Not when he wanted to brand her as his woman. Not when he wanted to wake up to her warm smile. It would be too hard.

  Surely this was payback for what he’d done. Remembering he was a good liar who didn’t deserve her anyway, he grasped her hand and gave it a firm shake. “Friends, it is. See you next week.”

  He shouldn’t have sought her out in the first place. There were literally hundreds of community service organizations where he could have completed his service hours. But he’d led with his dick, lost his heart along the way, and now he was fucked.

  Not so nice to meet you, Karma.

  CHAPTER FIFTEEN

  For several weeks, Gracie barricaded herself in her office when Nic visited LTN. She’d pop out to say hello and then scurry back to her office. She spent most of her days fielding phone calls from potential donors, updating the board on any leads, and devising alternative sources of funding.

  They’d talked a few times, about superficial matters—the weather, their respective plans for the holidays, and Calliope’s antics. Each time, though, she yearned to run her fingers through his hair and draw him in for a searing kiss. She wished she could trust herself to be with him, to enjoy his company without losing herself in him. But given the roller coaster she’d ridden during their brief affair, Gracie knew he’d consume her.

  She needed a weekend in bed, with a book and hot cocoa for company. Instead, she was scheduled to attend a charity awards dinner at Mimi’s request. If it weren’t for Mimi’s observation that she could use the event to promote LTN, Gracie would have declined. Now she needed a dress and would have to brave the holiday crowds to find one.

  Gracie shut down her desktop. As she gathered her personal belongings, Nic’s familiar form filled her office doorway.

  Gracie steeled herself against the attraction that continued to bind them. He watched her, saying nothing. How was she supposed to look at him and not remember his touch, his kisses, the pleasure she’d experienced at his hands?

  He looked no different than usual. His mouth, however, was set in a firm line that warned her she might not appreciate what he had to say. “Duty calls, but I wanted to give you something before I left. May I come in?”

  “Of course.”

  He stepped back and reached for an object on the floor outside her office. When he moved through the doorway, he held a wrapped box in his hands. “It’s a gift. I purchased it before . . .”

  Gracie stood and reached for the box. “Thank you, but you didn’t have—”

  His nostrils flared. “I know I didn’t have to. I wanted to.” He lifted his face to the ceiling and ran a hand through the back of his hair. “I just wanted you to know that you meant something to me. I thought you’d like this.”

  He was close, watching her with wariness in his eyes. Gracie smiled as her heart thudded in her chest. This was what he did to her. Made her forget where she was. Made her vibrate with need until she thought she would burst. She relaxed her features and ventured an unaffected response. “Should I open it now?”

  “Sure.”

  The giftwrap was exquisite. A gold foil tied with a silky dark blue bow. Underneath, a nondescript box shrouded his gift in mystery. She opened the box, peeked inside, and pulled out a small statue. A reproduction of Degas’s famous sculpture. La Petite Danseuse de Quatorze Ans. Little DancerAged Fourteen.

  The shield around Gracie’s heart cracked. If Nic were quick enough, he might be able to fight his way inside. “It’s lovely, Nic.” After studying the statue at length, she said, “There’s something about her pose, face tilted upward as if she’s relieved, her long legs out of position. That statue has always stirred something in me. A young woman forced to be someone she doesn’t want to be. It’s always intrigued me. And I can see now that it reminds me of you.”

  He stepped closer to her. “Is that what you see?”

  His voice was so low she could barely hear it. Her gaze fell to his lips and an image of he
r tugging on them with her own flashed in her brain. “Yes.”

  “Gracie, what do you see when you look at me?”

  Gracie swallowed and set the sculpture on her desk. “I see a man.”

  “What else?”

  “I see a man who’s tired, burdened by something.”

  Nic stepped closer to her, close enough to permit her to feel the warmth radiating from his body. “What do you see now?”

  Gracie’s torso inched closer to him, but she pressed her toes against the bottom of her shoes, desperately needing an anchor. “I see a man who wants me.”

  “Gracie, I want you so much it hurts.” He reached out and took her hand, lifting it to his lips. “Here.” To his crotch. “Here.” To his heart. “And most of all, here.” He moved a few strands of hair away from her face. “Give us a chance. Please.”

  Gracie couldn’t resist him. Decided it was foolish to try. But she had no idea what kind of chance he was asking for. “What do you want exactly?”

  “I want to be your lover. For as long as you’ll have me.”

  “What if things don’t work out with LTN and I have to return to New York? What then?”

  “I have confidence in you. You’ll find a way to keep LTN’s doors open. I’m sure of it. But if not, we’ll deal with it. Somehow.” Nic’s knuckles grazed her cheek. “I want to be with you. It’s that simple.”

  Gracie wanted him to envelop her in his arms. She wanted to be swept away by him. Wanted to trust that he meant every word. “Okay.”

  He raised his eyebrows and regarded her with wide eyes. “Okay?”

  “Yes.”

  He smiled. “Okay.” He looked around him as though he hadn’t expected her to acquiesce. She grabbed his chin and rose to meet his lips. Back in his element, he fused his lips with hers and pressed her back until her butt hit her desk. He rested his hands on her desk, caging her with his body, with his heat. His lips moved from her mouth to her neck and Gracie’s core ached for his touch.

  A wretched text tone sounded from his cell phone. It figured they would be interrupted. Gracie tried to place the melody. “‘Bad to the Bone’? That’s your text tone?”

 
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