Unbuttoning the CEO, page 5part #1 of The Suits Undone Series
“Do we get to dress up?” Karen asked as they climbed into the taxi.
“We do. First, I feed you. Then we shop.”
Gracie gave the taxi driver her address, and Karen snuggled against her. “I’m so glad I’m here, Gracie. It’s going to be a wonderful evening.”
* * *
Gracie needed to use the restroom. As she’d anticipated, the performance captivated her senses—and undermined her ability to gauge when she’d sipped too much water. As soon as the intermission began, Gracie left her seat and sprinted out of the auditorium. Karen trailed behind her.
“Enjoying the show?” Gracie asked Karen as they waited in line.
“I am. It’s incredible. I had the urge to use the restroom a half hour ago, but I didn’t want to miss a second.”
“I know what you mean,” Gracie said as she rushed into the stall.
Minutes later, she and Karen met outside the restroom and debated whether to order wine. “I think I’ll pass,” Karen said.
“I’m going to order a glass. Go ahead back to your seat. No need to wait for me.”
Karen nodded and walked away.
Gracie turned toward the bar, enjoying the slight twirl of the black jersey dress she’d worn for the occasion. Stepping around two middle-aged women in the middle of a warm hug, her eyes rounded when she saw a familiar figure.
Nic—waiting at the bar. With a woman. A beautiful woman with a slim figure and a stylish, pixie haircut. And she was a very possessive woman, if the hand grasping at Nic’s waist was any indication.
Gracie’s mouth dropped as she took him in. He’d replaced his signature outfit—a sweater and jeans—with a slate gray suit that hugged his broad shoulders and long legs. He’d combed his hair back, too, and the effect devastated her: Every feature on his face, from his pale green eyes to his bow-shaped lips, fought for her attention. She watched this stranger, noticing the details that had transformed him from a casually dressed computer consultant to the striking businessman before her. The starched white shirt. The red silk tie. The Italian leather shoes. To say that he cleaned up well would have been an understatement.
At first, Nic’s face revealed nothing about his mood. But then he appeared inattentive and distracted, glancing between the watch at his wrist and the program in his hand. At one point, he gritted his teeth when the beauty next to him kissed his cheek.
Gracie’s stomach twisted. Afraid she’d have to speak to Nic with that woman by his side, she dove behind the middle-aged women, one of whom wore an elaborate red hat that provided the camouflage Gracie needed.
The woman with the red hat leaned toward Gracie. “What is it, sweetheart?” she asked in a low voice.
“I don’t want someone to see me,” Gracie replied.
The other woman’s eyes brightened with excitement. “Is it a man?”
“Yes, yes, a man,” Gracie said. “A very handsome one. But he happens to be here with a date.”
The woman straightened and searched the crowd, presumably for the handsome man in question. “Oh, the rat. We’ve got you covered.”
And they did. Literally. The two women shifted to stand hip to hip as Gracie crouched behind them. “On three, we’ll step back and walk to the auditorium doors,” said Hat Lady. “One, two, three.”
They shuffled backward and to the right as other patrons watched them in amusement. It took them fifty awkward steps to get Gracie to safety. When they reached the doors, Gracie scrambled inside the auditorium. Her saviors followed her.
“Thanks so much,” Gracie told them as she turned around.
“No, thank you,” they said in unison.
“That was fun,” Hat Lady observed. “Good luck dealing with that man.”
“Oh, no worries. I won’t have to deal with him. There’s nothing going on between us. But it would have been awkward. So, um. Yeah. Thanks again.”
Hat Lady reached for Gracie’s hand and patted it. Even she knew Gracie was deluding herself. “In any case, good luck,” she said with solemn eyes.
But Gracie wouldn’t need luck. Seeing Nic with another woman had reminded her that she knew nothing about him. And it wasn’t due to a lack of trying on her part. Given this evening’s events, Gracie repeated her mantra: Don’t let him distract you, don’t expect much, and engage on your terms.
In Nic’s case, she’d simply keep him at arm’s length and go about her business. Now, if she could just get her body to cooperate, she’d be in good shape. Actually, the Internet offered a quick fix for that. She made a mental note: Go online and buy a vibrator.
Nic stifled a groan when Calliope raised her hand. The woman was relentless. Her fourth interruption would be no different from the last. He was sure of it. They were twenty-five minutes into the half-hour workshop on social media, and Calliope had monopolized most of it. Much to his chagrin, Gracie stood at the back of the room, smiling at Calliope’s antics.
“Yes, Calliope?” he asked.
Calliope smoothed her hair and peered over the computer monitor. “Tell me about selfies, Nic. Let’s say I want to send a picture of myself to someone special.”
Calliope turned sideways and winked at Mr. Crandon. The man’s pointy ears wiggled, and his listless body perked up, ready to give the topic its full attention. Ethan worried the man would keel over if Calliope continued to verbally stimulate him.
Ethan walked to the front of the room. “Yes, you can use social media to send selfies, but you can also send selfies using your smartphone.”
“Are there any restrictions on the kinds of selfies I can send over the Internet?” Calliope asked. “Will a provocative selfie get me in trouble with Big Brother, for example? Not nude per se. I’m thinking along the lines of a very sheer nightie.”
Ms. Rubio and Willa snickered. Ethan, on the other hand, wanted to gag. Calliope had to be older than his mother. He’d always chosen to believe that his mother and father did not have sex. But Calliope was debunking that myth in front of his eyes. And speaking of eyes, the images that bombarded him were eye-gouge-worthy. In his head, he begged the images to go away.
“Ms. Brill, I can’t give you legal advice about the kinds of selfies you’re contemplating, but coincidentally, you can look up your question on the Internet before you send a selfie to someone.”
Calliope nodded and began to type away.
Gracie covered her mouth and walked to the front of the room. He hadn’t seen her in a week. As she strode to him, Ethan realized he missed her. But he didn’t like the impersonal way she regarded him. He sensed she was pissed at him.
True, the last time they’d been together, he’d sprinted out of her office like an Olympic relay hopeful. But her neutral stare didn’t suggest resignation; upon closer inspection, he saw fire in her eyes. She wanted to pummel him. He had the distinct feeling he’d unknowingly ventured into knee-to-the-groin territory.
“Good to see you, Gracie.”
“Nice to see you, Nic. Thanks for running the workshop.”
“Calliope was a challenge, but otherwise it was really fun.”
Gracie nodded, skirted around him, and walked out the door.
Ethan stood there like an idiot. Calliope cleared her throat and jerked a thumb in the direction of the door. Right. He had to go after her and find out what was going on.
She was talking to her assistant, Brenda, outside her office when he caught up with her. “May I speak with you in private?”
Gracie nodded and walked into her office. He closed the door and strode to the front of her desk. Gracie stood, too—as she flipped through a stack of papers on her desk. Her hair was fastened in a sleek ponytail, emphasizing her sultry eyes and high cheekbones.
She sighed and raised her head, donning a bored expression. “What can I do for you, Nic?”
“Is everything okay?”
She stared at him. “Everything’s fine.”
“Okay,” he said.
“Okay,” she repeated.
She wore a red dress that fit the contours of her body, and the belt at her waist fastened with a neat bow. He suspected the dress would fall open if he tugged the ends of that belt, leaving her almost bare and open to him. As usual, such thoughts convinced him it was time to back away. “Just wanted to be sure. I’ll see you next week.” He turned to go.
“Nic?” The tone of her voice matched that of a woman who was ready to squeeze his balls—to inflict pain, not pleasure.
“Yeah?” he asked as he placed his hand on the doorknob.
“Did you enjoy the performance this weekend? At the Kennedy Center, I mean.”
Ethan turned around slowly. “Is that what this deep freeze is about? You saw me at the Kennedy Center with a woman?”
Gracie blushed. “You said there was no wife, no girlfriend.”
“And I told you the truth,” he replied. “I went to that performance with her to fulfill an obligation. There is no woman standing between you and me.”
Gracie’s shoulders slumped—just enough to alert him that his last comment upset her. “Fine,” she said. “You don’t owe me an explanation. And I’m sorry I even brought it up. What you do in your personal life is your business. Obviously.”
Ethan wanted to roar in frustration. She was right. He didn’t owe her an explanation, but he wanted to give her one just the same. He couldn’t bear the distrust in her eyes. Not when he knew she had other reasons to distrust him. If he went down, he wanted to go down for something he’d actually done—like lie about who he was.
The reasons he hadn’t disclosed his identity were still valid. He didn’t need the publicity. Had promised the board he’d keep the court sentence out of the press if he could. And frankly, he didn’t know Gracie well enough to be sure she wouldn’t reveal his identity to anyone else. But he was tempted to tell her anyway, just to wipe that look from her face.
“I’m sorry,” Gracie whispered. “I’m letting my past experiences with men cloud my judgment. That isn’t fair to you.”
“What experiences?” Ethan asked.
She crossed her arms over her chest. “We’re not having this conversation.”
“My intro to Psych class taught me to listen for clues. You brought it up, which means you want to talk about it.”
She stared at him.
“Look, I’m just trying to understand where you’re coming from,” he pressed.
Gracie inhaled and sat in her chair. “A year ago, before I came to D.C., I’d been dating a man. We’d been together for two years, and I thought we’d get married. I was wrong.”
“He cheated?” Ethan asked.
He was surprised. What kind of jerk cheated on a woman, let alone a special woman like Gracie? The man must have been an idiot, and Ethan was glad he was out of Gracie’s life. “I’m sorry.”
Gracie waved away his apology. “You didn’t do anything. Apparently, I was too focused on my career. He felt neglected. Didn’t think I was the homemaker he needed.”
Ethan didn’t know the guy, but he knew bullshit when he heard it. “That’s crap. He was an asshole, plain and simple.”
Gracie nodded her head in agreement. “You’re right. And you did nothing wrong. It’s me. I’m hypersensitive when I think I’ve been misled . . . especially when it comes to issues of infidelity.” Then she appeared to realize the implication of her words. “I . . . uh . . . of course, I’m not suggesting we’re together . . . but . . . uh . . . I thought we connected . . . and I . . . I’m going to shut up now.”
Ethan didn’t dare smile, but he wanted to set her at ease. “Gracie, my issues have nothing to do with another woman. I just don’t have it in me to be in a committed relationship. I tried it once, and it didn’t work. I can sense you’re looking for something I’m not prepared to give.”
“You’re wrong,” she said.
The steely determination in her voice surprised him. “I am?”
“Yes. I’m looking for a no-strings affair. Think you’re up for it?”
It took Ethan several seconds to process her question. When his brain cleared, the questions left his mouth in a torrent. “Wait a minute. That night at the diner. What was that bit about wanting to have a quiet life? The kids? The solid man? The guy who’d have dinner waiting for you when you came home? Was that a load of crap?”
Gracie angled her head and stared at him. “No, that wasn’t a load of crap. It was the truth. But I didn’t say I want that right now, did I? I’m a busy woman, Nic, and if you haven’t noticed, I have an organization that’s on the verge of collapse. I don’t have time for a serious relationship right now.”
He wasn’t sure where she was going with this declaration, but he was curious enough to hear her out. “I’m listening.”
“Look, you said a woman wasn’t keeping us apart. And I assume a man isn’t keeping us apart either.”
She peered at him, waiting for his response.
“You’re right on both counts,” he said.
“Okay, then,” she continued. “You don’t have it in you to be in a stable relationship, and I don’t have the time or inclination for a relationship, either. I know you’re attracted to me.” Her breath hitched. “And I can’t believe I’m admitting this, but I’m lonely.”
He just stood there, mouth open, a dumbfounded expression on his face, no doubt.
“Okay, if you must know, I’m horny, too,” she continued. “And if we go into this knowing exactly how it’ll turn out, what’s the harm? We enjoy each other for as long as we want to.”
Ethan stuck his hands in his back pockets and rocked on his heels. “What if one of us wants to end it sooner than the other?”
“Then we go our separate ways. No hard feelings. No drama. In fact, if it will help, we can set a time frame on the arrangement.”
Ethan couldn’t believe he was considering it. Sure, the conversation wasn’t all that different from the conversations he’d had with other women he dated, but every other time he’d been the one to initiate the conversation. “What did you have in mind? For a time frame?”
Her eyes gleamed and she stood a bit taller. “When you complete your community service hours, we’re done. You want to move on, get in here and complete your service hours. You want our arrangement to last a little longer, come in every other week instead.” She paused. “That is, unless I get tired of you first.”
Ethan regarded the perplexing woman in front of him. He’d met her only six weeks ago, and yet he knew this wasn’t her style. Gracie wanted hearth and home. But she was asking him for sex. “There’s a catch. There’s always a catch. What is it?”
Gracie sighed and snaked a hand around her neck. “No catch. But there are two conditions.”
“Catch. Condition. Same thing.”
“Are you going to risk this deal over semantics?” she asked.
“Fine. What are your conditions?”
“First, no one at LTN can know about it. Second, you get no special treatment on service hours. I won’t sign off until you’ve completed your hours. With those conditions in mind, do we have a deal?”
Ethan considered her. She talked a good game, but her hand trembled as she twirled a pen in her hand. And she bit her bottom lip as she waited. He could nibble on that lip for her, the devil on his shoulder taunted.
Ethan took a step toward her. “So let me see if I understand what you’re proposing. When I’m done with my service hours, we go our separate ways. No questions asked. No further contact.”
“And if I say no?” he asked.
“Then we carry on as before.” When he said nothing, she waved a hand between them. “But I suspect this tension will need to be released eventually. And what happens then? I’ll tell you. We’ll prowl around each other, we’ll undress each other with our eyes. Maybe I’ll imagine what it would be like to have nothing but slick, naked skin between us.” She tilted her head and shrugged. “Not sure where
Ethan wanted to pant. His sweet Gracie played dirty. She might not have been in her element, but she was warming to the task quickly. She was a seductress with a sense of humor. And she’d zapped him of his strength to resist her. What’s more, he was powerless to deny himself the opportunity to feast on her delectable body without the risk of an ugly scene when he walked away.
But he couldn’t forget the lie that would always stand between them. She wouldn’t know his real name. But they would agree never to see each other again. In that case, would his true identity matter?
A series of thoughts ran through his brain. He wasn’t all that impressed with the man he faced in the mirror. A man who made high-level decisions when all he really wanted to do was sit in front of a computer and design software. Somewhere along the line he’d lost that man. He wanted to find him again. She offered him a way to do that—even if it was temporary.
“Let me think about it,” he said.
But he knew damn well he wasn’t going to turn her down.
* * *
Gracie gnawed on her lip as she watched Nic consider her proposal. What the hell had she been thinking? Sure, she’d delivered the proposal with the ease of an experienced femme fatale, but the contents of her breakfast were riding on a roller coaster inside her stomach.
The idea was perfect. Nic didn’t want forever, and she didn’t want forever right now. In fact, she questioned whether a long-term relationship was something she should aspire to anyway. If she didn’t expect forever, she wouldn’t be disappointed when it failed to materialize. Problem solved. Now all she had to do was stay focused on LTN and keep a check on her emotions as she embarked on a tawdry affair with Nic. Well, she hoped it would be tawdry.
What was he thinking about over there? The more he thought about it, the more she became convinced he was going to turn her down. It was time to activate the femme fatale sequence, and Houston better not have a problem this time.
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