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Unbuttoning the ceo, p.4

Unbuttoning the CEO, page 4

 part  #1 of  The Suits Undone Series

 

Unbuttoning the CEO
 


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  “We’ve just lost another source of funding,” she said. “The situation is getting bleaker by the minute. I’m just frustrated. It’ll pass.”

  She bowed her head and placed her fingers at her temples.

  Although he wished to, he knew better than to ask the board to help. The board wanted Ethan to serve his sentence quietly. A donation to LTN—which, under the company’s policy, couldn’t be made anonymously—surely would undermine that goal.

  Plus, he wasn’t ready to reveal who he was. If Media Best gave LTN money, Gracie would look up the company and learn he was its CEO. Ethan liked the way she looked at him now. That would change once she knew who he was.

  After he finished his community service hours, he’d figure out a way to help her. For now, though, he’d do what she asked of him. He stepped closer to her desk. “I’ve got something that might help.”

  Her head whipped up. “You do?”

  Ethan was drawn to the hope that shone in her eyes. He sat in front of her desk and gave her the sheets of paper in his hand. “This is the list of potential donors you asked me to create.”

  She looked down at the papers, blinking rapidly—to stem the tears, he guessed.

  “It’s in two parts,” he continued. “The first part lists all potential donors. The second part lists donors I think are a good fit for the organization—they’re techies, they’re interested in education, they’re interested in issues affecting seniors, and so on.” As Ethan had planned, Media Best was not on the list.

  She studied the list, and then she smiled. “Thanks so much, Nic. This is wonderful. I’ll ask Brenda to start making information packets. I’ve got the letter of introduction ready to go.”

  “I’m glad I could help.”

  She set the list on her desk and sat back in her chair. “You’ve been incredible. I hate to admit it, but I’m glad you’re a speed demon. I’m lucky to have you. Well, I don’t have you. I mean, LTN is lucky to have you.” She blew out a breath and rolled her eyes.

  Ethan stared at her, not trusting himself to say anything. Her eyes were dark and hooded, and her chest rose in a steady tempo. He fisted his hands at his sides and leaned forward, pulled in her direction by the force of their mutual attraction. The desk was no barrier to the pull between them.

  Her shoulders rose as she took a long breath. “Am I wrong in thinking you want to kiss me?”

  And as soon as the question left her mouth, Gracie’s eyes went round.

  Ethan was surprised, too. Okay, then. No more avoiding the issue. With shaky hands, he smoothed the tops of his thighs. He could be honest about this. “I’d like to, but I’m not sure it’s a good idea.”

  Her eyes fluttered, and then she opened them wide, waiting for him to say more. She watched his every move, her gaze following his hands as he searched for something to do with them. Ethan wanted to hide, but somehow he knew there wasn’t a place he could run to get away from this . . . thing between them.

  “Are you uncomfortable with the situation?” she asked. “Because you’re here to perform community service?”

  That wasn’t the reason, but he couldn’t tell her the truth. Not yet anyway. “It’s complicated, Gracie. There’s a lot you don’t know about me.”

  Her eyes widened in alarm. “You’re not married, are you?”

  “No, I’m not married.”

  “Engaged? Girlfriend? What?”

  “No, no, and hard to explain. It’s just . . . I can’t be in a relationship right now. My choice.”

  She set the papers on her desk, the tremor in her hands betraying her composed demeanor. Her gaze swept over the list, and then she looked up at him. “I’m sorry. Those questions were inappropriate. Let’s pretend they never came out of my mouth. Believe me, I’m not usually this forward. I just . . .”

  She was torturing him. Absorbing the questions in her eyes, he suspected she really wasn’t sure whether he was attracted to her. Ethan could disabuse her of that notion easily. But he wouldn’t.

  Ethan drove fast. He liked his women faster. Gracie was different. She didn’t saunter, didn’t bat her eyes, didn’t lick her lips, or do any of the other things some women did to try to catch his attention. Flirting didn’t appear to be in her repertoire, and that fact alone signaled danger ahead should he try to pursue her.

  What’s more, he considered himself an honorable man, one who wouldn’t start a relationship on a foundation of lies. Sure, some assumed he was a player, but when it came to the opposite sex, he’d always been honest about his intentions. He couldn’t afford to change his record now.

  Despite all this, he knew his resolve wouldn’t last long if he hung around. He had to get out of here. He stood and straightened his jeans. “I’m going to head out for the night.” Then he turned and walked toward the door. He was on the verge of escaping, his hand on the doorknob, when her voice called out to him.

  “Nic?”

  He wasn’t Nic. Not in his real life. And hearing her call him by that name reinforced his belief that walking out the door was the right thing to do. But he wasn’t going to be rude about it, so he turned to face her. “Yeah?”

  “I don’t care. Whatever it is. I just—”

  Her head lowered.

  “What were you going to say?” he asked.

  She blew out a soft breath and raised her head to the ceiling. He was sure she had no idea the move exposed her neck, enticing him to lick his way from there to her lips. She lowered her head and shook it. “Nothing. Never mind. I thought . . .”

  The insecurity in her voice shattered his resolve. Propelled by his need to correct her misimpression of the situation, he strode across the room. She swiveled her chair toward him and braced her hands against the armrests, her big, brown eyes watching his progress. When he reached her, he bent to her eye level, cupped the sides of her face, and kissed her as she rose from the chair.

  She stumbled into him and wrapped her arms around his waist, humming her pleasure as he deepened the kiss. Her lips were soft and warm, just as he knew they would be. Wanting more of her body on his, he shifted so he could sit on her desk and nestle her between his legs.

  He maneuvered his hands under her curtain of hair and brushed his fingers along her neck. He breathed in the smell of lilacs, welcoming the onslaught of sensations overtaking him. She ran her hands along his waist and slipped them under his sweater, her soft fingers trailing a slow path across his skin. Heat spiraled from his stomach and radiated through his limbs. And soon, his erection strained against his pants. He was rock hard. Painfully hard.

  She groaned when his thighs squeezed her hips. “More,” she whispered.

  Her voice held no pretense. Every single one of his actions did, however. She had no idea who he really was, which meant he had to stop. With regret, he dropped his hands and shifted her to the side so he could stand. Backing away with his hands in the air, he chastised himself for being so careless. “Sorry. That shouldn’t have happened.”

  Her steady gaze held his. She wasn’t even trying to tempt him. She just did. After a taut moment of silence, she licked her lips and returned to her chair. “It’s okay. I understand.”

  Ethan barked out a laugh, and she regarded him with a dazed expression. No, she didn’t understand. But he wasn’t going to enlighten her. “See you next week,” he said. Then he turned and walked out the door.

  CHAPTER FIVE

  Confused by Nic’s behavior, Gracie invoked her fail-safe method for dealing with inscrutable men: She called her best friend and asked her to come over for a Girls’ Night In.

  But Mimi had her own issues to contend with. As she sat on Gracie’s couch, her hands gestured in so many directions Gracie closed her eyes for fear of getting dizzy. “My boss is such a jerk, and it gets him off, I swear,” Mimi said. “I wish I could leave my job.” She finished her rant with a huff that ruffled her blond bangs.

  Gracie hugged a pillow and gave her friend a knowing smile. “But you won’t. You love your wo
rk.”

  “Yeah, everything except for having to work with him.”

  “Hmmm,” Gracie responded. Then her thoughts turned to Nic. He wasn’t a jerk. Perplexing maybe, but never a jerk.

  Mimi slapped a hand on the sofa cushion. “And just yesterday, he tried to embarrass me in front of the team.”

  “Did he?” Gracie asked.

  “Yeah. In the middle of the meeting, he walked to me, pulled me from my chair, and threw me on the table.”

  “Hmmm,” Gracie murmured.

  “And then he lifted my skirt and began feeling me up in front of everyone.”

  Wait. What did Mimi say? Gracie shook her head. “Hold on. Back up, back up, back up. What did he do?”

  Mimi threw a sofa pillow at her. “I knew you weren’t listening to me. And I guess it’s only fair. I’ve been going on and on about Sir Jerk-a-Lot when you have more pressing matters on your mind. The floor is open. Discuss. Share. Tell Mimi your problems.”

  Gracie groaned and hid her face in the pillow. “There’s a guy.”

  Mimi laughed. “There’s always a guy.”

  “No, he’s a man. Smart. Sexy. Genuinely kind to the Gray Ladies.”

  “What’s his name?”

  “Nic.”

  “So what’s the problem?”

  “I met him through LTN. He’s been ordered to do two hundred hours of community service.”

  Mimi’s eyebrows shot up in her typical what-the-fuck fashion. Gracie cringed. She could see how Mimi would get the wrong idea. “What did he do?” Mimi asked.

  “He’s a fast driver. One too many tickets.”

  “Okay, so he’s redeemable if he learns to slow down. Don’t want to get on a soapbox, but driving too fast has consequences for other people, too. But that isn’t the real problem, is it?”

  “No. I’m interested, but he’s holding back for some reason. And it’s not because of the usual suspects. No wife, no girlfriend. I asked.”

  “Gay?” Mimi asked.

  “I don’t think so. His kiss was way too hot. He was conflicted about something, but trust me, it wasn’t about his sexuality.”

  Mimi’s eyes rounded, and she grabbed Gracie’s forearm. “You kissed him?”

  Gracie’s ears warmed under Mimi’s shocked appraisal. “Yes. And I practically begged him to. It was so embarrassing. But I got over the embarrassment. Very quickly. Because it was hot. So incredibly hot. Like molten-lava hot.”

  “Okay, okay. I get it. It was hot.”

  Gracie dropped her head. “But then he backed away. And now I’m with you, sitting on the couch, where I’ll sit for another hour while the gallon of ice cream we ate makes its way through my body. Yuck.”

  Mimi smiled. “Maybe he’s just skittish about commitment. They usually are.”

  Gracie shrugged. “Maybe.”

  “Back to the kiss. What did he taste like? Mint? Burritos? What?”

  “What does it matter?” Gracie asked.

  “Just answer the question.”

  Gracie thought about it. “Um, minty, but more like citrus or something fruity.”

  “Like gum?”

  “Yes, probably.”

  “He planned on kissing you then.”

  Gracie stared at her friend. “You can tell that just by the smell of his breath?”

  “The point, my innocent, is that he took the time to freshen his breath. He was hoping it would happen.”

  Gracie pinched the bridge of her nose. “That is not the kind of high-level analysis I’ve come to expect from you, Mimi.”

  Mimi waved her comment away like a pesky fly. “Men don’t require high-level analysis. They eat, they sleep, they shit, they have sex. All the crap in between is meant to ensure women don’t confuse them with apes. He’s into you, but he doesn’t want you to find out something about him. It’s your job to figure out what he’s hiding.” Pointing to the laptop on Gracie’s desk, Mimi said, “That thing-a-ma-jig called the Internet might be helpful. You’re familiar with it, right?”

  Gracie whacked Mimi’s shoulder with the pillow she’d been smothering for the last minute. “I refuse to look him up. I’m not a stalker. Besides, I have his address and his social security number. What else do I need?”

  “May I remind you that a serial killer has an address and a social security number, too?”

  “Ah, but every serial killer doesn’t have a letter from his lawyer confirming that he has no record of anything other than speeding tickets, right?”

  “Not bad. But don’t jump in without getting to know him more.”

  Gracie understood Mimi’s concern, but since Gracie didn’t intend to explore a relationship with Nic, she set that concern aside. “Don’t worry. I don’t plan on pursuing him. Besides, I think you’re right. He’s probably skittish about commitment. Forget I said anything.”

  “I’m your best friend, Gracie. I don’t forget anything you say, except when you ask me to return something I’ve borrowed.”

  “Well, forget about this. My ass is still smarting from the last time a man bit me in the butt.”

  Mimi waggled her eyebrows. “Sounds kinky, my pet.”

  Gracie’s gaze flew to the ceiling. “Gutter brain. I’m talking about Neal.”

  Neal. Her biggest mistake. The man who slotted women into two categories: women you marry and women you have sex with. It was bad enough to learn he’d ruled out a future with her. That had battered her pride. But when she learned he was stringing along another woman, Gracie had wished him every nonlethal venereal disease known to man. Fast-forward one year, and surprise, surprise, she was pining for a man who had no interest in her. Would she ever learn?

  “Neal was a jerk,” Mimi said. “And he didn’t deserve you. You can’t base your life decisions on a relationship that was going nowhere from the start.”

  “True. But I can learn from my mistakes. I need someone who’s open, who knows how to communicate, who thinks I’m worth making a commitment to.”

  “And you’ll find him,” Mimi pressed. “Your special someone is out there. You just have to be willing to find him.”

  “You know, behind that badass exterior lurks an eternal optimist.”

  “If you repeat that to anyone, I’ll arrange for sex toys to be delivered to your office on a daily basis. In clear packaging.”

  Gracie’s eyes widened in disbelief. Mimi was a nutcase. “Anyway, nothing’s going on between Nic and me. And I’d like to keep it that way.”

  “Bullshit,” Mimi said.

  Gracie groaned. Then she face-planted on the couch. Denial was getting her nowhere. “Bullshit is right.”

  * * *

  The gods granted Gracie a reprieve, because Nic was a no-show the week after “the kiss.” He’d left a message with Brenda, informing Gracie that he’d been called away on unexpected business. Right. He was on the run, and she couldn’t blame him. Not when she’d all but thrown her panties in his face when he’d tried to warn her away. She searched her surroundings for her self-respect. She needed it back. Yesterday.

  Thankfully, her younger sister Karen’s impending visit distracted her from her thoughts about Nic. Karen would be staying the weekend, and Gracie was looking forward to spending time with her.

  A senior at New York University, Karen planned to attend medical school after college. Her determination to do so meant she had little time for social pursuits. Gracie worried that her baby sister was too focused on her career, but Gracie held her tongue. Arguably, Gracie had the same problem, so she wasn’t sure what she would say to Karen to convince her to change.

  Gracie arrived at Union Station more than an hour before Karen’s train was scheduled to arrive. She wandered the enormous station, marveling at its resemblance to a shopping mall. Small, nationally recognizable shops dotted the second level. The first level bustled with the activity of both travelers from far away and people who commuted to work from Maryland or Virginia. After a rest stop at a small coffee shop, Gracie walked to the waiti
ng area where she would meet Karen.

  She didn’t wait long. Karen was among the first travelers to barrel through the double doors that led to the station platform. Karen squealed when she saw her big sister, and Gracie, who was just as excited, rushed to Karen and enveloped her in a tight embrace. “Oh, gosh, Kar. You’re growing up so fast.” And it was true. Her “baby sister” was a woman, and for the first time Gracie understood her father’s desire to protect his girls from harm. She still didn’t agree with his views, but she understood their motivation.

  Karen rolled her eyes. “Gracie, stop. You sound like Mom. Now, take me to your fabulous apartment and feed me sumptuous food worthy of the goddess I am.”

  “Rice and beans, right?” Gracie asked with a smile. Karen was a sucker for the staple of her mother’s Puerto Rican kitchen.

  The corners of Karen’s eyes crinkled in delight. “Of course.”

  Gracie grabbed Karen’s bag, slung it over her shoulder, and linked arms with her sister as she led her to the taxi line.

  As they waited on the long line, Gracie shared her exciting news. “I have a surprise for you.”

  Karen twisted her long hair into a bun as she searched Gracie’s face. “You’re pregnant.”

  Gracie choked on her laughter. “Uh, no. That would require Immaculate Conception, and I’m certain there are others more worthy of such a miracle.”

  “Okay, we’ll talk about that sad fact later. What’s the surprise?”

  “We have tickets to see the Kennedy Center’s production of The Dancer. Tomorrow night.”

  Karen’s eyes widened with excitement. “No way.”

  “Yes, way.”

  As a teenager in New York, Gracie had spent hours wandering the most famous museums in the world: the Guggenheim, the Museum of Modern Art, and of course, the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The District had its fair share of wonderful art museums, but New York museums held a special place in her heart.

  Given that she loved art, she could not miss the Kennedy Center’s production of The Dancer, a musical based on Edgar Degas’s famous painting Little Dancer Aged Fourteen. An LTN board member had offered her the tickets, and she’d snapped them up like a hungry crocodile. Karen, who loved the performing arts, would be the perfect “date” for the show.

 
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