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Unbuttoning the ceo, p.9

Unbuttoning the CEO, page 9

 part  #1 of  The Suits Undone Series

 

Unbuttoning the CEO
 


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  “I don’t know. I thought we needed space. Figured you’d call me when you were ready.”

  “Correction. You figured I’d call when you were ready. And apparently that didn’t happen, and now you’re frustrated.”

  Nic threw his head back. “You’re right.”

  “If you wanted time apart, all you had to do was ask for it. We’re adults, Nic. I know you think you have to protect me from falling for you, but that’s my job. Protecting myself, that is. Worry about yourself.”

  He rose from the chair and motioned for her to sit up. “Scoot down. Put your head on my lap.”

  She sneezed. “I have cooties.”

  “Woman, must you challenge everything?”

  She sat up, and he slid on to the couch. Adjusting the pillow behind her, she settled into a comfortable position and dropped her head onto his lap.

  He groaned. “Good Lord, your head weighs a ton.”

  She turned on her back and looked up at him. “Are you trying to get kicked out of here?”

  His warm smile suggested he hadn’t taken the question seriously. Before she could tease him further, he squeezed his eyes shut, as though he had a migraine.

  “What is it?” she asked.

  Several seconds passed before he gave her an answer. “When I didn’t hear from you, I realized something.”

  “What?” she asked.

  “I worry about you.”

  Based on the frown that accompanied his declaration, she assumed he wasn’t happy about it. The knowledge that he didn’t want to worry about her stung. But she wasn’t a hypocrite, so she understood his reluctance to step outside the box they’d constructed for their relationship.

  She turned on her side to face him and placed her hand on his stomach. “I worry about you, too.”

  He responded by threading his fingers through her hair, intermittently holding a few strands and watching them drop against her cheek.

  “I’m sleepy,” she said.

  “Go to sleep. I’m not going anywhere.”

  Gracie reminded herself that he was talking about today, not forever. She shut her eyes, hoping sleep would help her forget that fact.

  * * *

  Gracie woke in her bed. True to his word, Nic slept beside her. She imagined him lifting her from the couch and carrying her to her bed as she continued to sleep. But her musings about such an intimate gesture didn’t last. Did he carry her to the bedroom because he expected to have sex with her? Was that the plan all along? After all, what else would a single, healthy male want to do on a Saturday evening?

  Gracie threw the comforter off her body and searched for her slippers. She dropped to her knees and groped the floor under her bed. “Mierda. Donde estan mis chancletas?”

  She shimmied out from under the bed and met Nic’s gaze. He lay across her bed with his torso perched over the edge of the mattress. “Care to translate?” he asked.

  “My slippers. I can’t find them.”

  Nic swung his legs over the edge of the mattress and stood. “I’ll help you look for them.”

  Gracie savored the tempting image before her. His hair jutted in different directions, and a faint dusting of stubble covered his jaw. A blue and black flannel shirt and loose jeans completed the sleepy lumberjack effect. She returned her gaze to his eyes and straightened her stance.

  “Feeling better?” he asked.

  She swallowed. “Much better.”

  Gracie waited, wondering when he would make his move. But he didn’t. Instead, he strode past her and bent over. When he stood, he held her slippers in his hands. She mumbled her thanks, and her stomach rumbled.

  “You should eat,” he said.

  “I made soup yesterday. Want some?”

  “I’d love some.” He batted his eyelashes and tapped his stomach. “I’m a big fan of grilled cheese sandwiches, too.”

  “I’m not making you a sandwich, Nic.”

  He shook his head and turned her toward her bedroom door. Gracie’s stomach somersaulted when his hands rubbed her shoulders. “Let’s go, sick lady. I can make myself a sandwich.”

  Minutes later, they worked in companionable silence. She pointed to the pan, he rummaged through her fridge for cheese, and she handed him two slices of bread from her pantry. Watching him with her peripheral vision, she poured her soup in a bowl and placed it in the microwave. As soon as the microwave door clicked shut, she turned and watched him prepare his sandwich. He moved around her kitchen with ease.

  The domestic scene freaked her out. She didn’t want him in her kitchen. He’d leave memories there. But she couldn’t kick him out. That would be rude, wouldn’t it? Yes, of course it would.

  With a spatula in his hand, he gave her a saucy smile. “The key to the perfect grilled cheese sandwich is—”

  “Lots and lots of butter?”

  He scoffed at her suggestion. “No. You have to know when to remove the sandwich from the pan. The cheese has to be gooey, and you can’t burn the bread. It’s a science.”

  “I had no idea making a grill cheese was so complicated. You make it look easy, though. Actually, now that I think about it, you look good in my kitchen.”

  Nic’s hands stilled, and the spatula hovered over the pan. “This is the extent of my skill in the kitchen. But don’t worry. One day you’ll find a man who’ll make you a three-course meal.”

  Gracie received the message: That man won’t be me, Gracie. Okay, she understood what this was, but did he have to be so blunt about it? Saved by the beep of the microwave, Gracie grabbed a dishtowel and retrieved her bowl of soup. She set the piping hot chicken noodle soup on the counter and fished in the pantry for saltine crackers.

  She avoided his eyes as she walked around the counter and sat on a stool. “There’s water and juice in the fridge.”

  Nic removed the pitcher of water, set it on the counter, and sat on the stool next to her.

  The air pressed on her from all sides. She sipped on the soup, but the broth lacked flavor. Her cold had compromised her taste buds. She wanted to throw the spoon in the sink and return to bed, but she didn’t want Nic to know she was upset, largely because she didn’t know why she was upset. A sideways glance revealed only a few bites of his sandwich remained. It figured.

  Then it dawned on her. She was supposed to be having fun with him. She’d told him she wouldn’t get attached. Promised there’d be no histrionics. And she’d meant it. How low would she be if she pulled a bait and switch now? That wouldn’t be fair to him.

  It was time to readjust her Spanx and keep their interactions light and airy. “When’s your birthday?” she asked.

  “November fifth. Why?”

  “Just wondering.”

  “What about you?”

  “May twelfth.”

  He said nothing. But he didn’t have to. They both knew they wouldn’t be celebrating her birthday together. By then, the affair would be over.

  She wouldn’t dwell on that fact. “Can you arrange to take the day off for your birthday? I’d like to take you somewhere.”

  He turned his face toward her. “I think I can swing it. Where would you like to take me?”

  “It’s a surprise,” she said with a grin.

  He returned her smile. “Keeping secrets from me?”

  “Yep,” she replied.

  Nic’s face flushed, and he lowered his gaze to his plate. “It’s never good to keep secrets.”

  Gracie placed a hand over his. “What’s wrong?”

  She stared at his profile, catching the descent of his long eyelashes as he closed his eyes. Like a turtle withdrawing into his shell, he caved inward, shoulders slumped. Gracie ached to comfort him, but she didn’t know what was wrong. She’d stumbled upon a private moment and wanted to retreat into the background, to let him wrestle his demons in his own way.

  Nic straightened and lifted his plate. “I’m going to head out. Still have some work to do this weekend.” He rose and placed his plate in the dishwasher. “I’
m glad you’re okay. I’ll see you next week.” He kissed her forehead and strode out of the kitchen. Seconds later, she flinched when the door clicked shut.

  She wouldn’t press him. It wasn’t her place. She’d focus on having fun with him. Whatever issues he was grappling with, she was sure they had nothing to do with her.

  CHAPTER TEN

  Gracie hoped Nic would enjoy his birthday surprise.

  “Where are we going?” he asked.

  As she drove her car, she snuck a sideways glance to gauge his mood. He tapped his hands on his thighs as he peered through the passenger side window. Nic liked control, and in this moment he had none. Gracie liked having him at her mercy.

  As she made her way onto the Beltway, Nic blurted out, “We’re going to Virginia?”

  “Yup.”

  “A vineyard?”

  “Nope?”

  “The Caverns?”

  “Nuh-uh.”

  He sighed and tapped the dashboard. “Can you give me a hint?”

  Gracie reined in the giggle that ached to escape her lips. “It’s something you like to do.”

  “Something relating to computers?”

  “C’mon, Nic. Where’s your imagination? No more hints. Just sit back and relax. We’ll be there in fifteen minutes.”

  Nic shifted in his seat, wiggling until he found the right spot. “Fine,” he said. Then he peered out the window again. And he started tapping on his thighs again. This time, though, the nervous activity was accompanied by a cheerful whistle. After a minute, he caved. “A driving range?” he asked.

  “No,” Gracie said. “Give it up, Hill. We’ll be there soon.”

  * * *

  Gracie’s car exited the Beltway. Ethan had no clue where they were headed. Gracie hummed as she drove, purposefully ignoring his repeated requests for more clues as to their destination. After a few minutes, the paved road met gravel. Then a sign came into view. THE BELTWAY INTERNATIONAL SPEEDWAY.

  Ethan got out of the car and met Gracie at the driver’s side door. “You’re taking me to an auto race?”

  “No. That would be boring.” Her dark shades failed to hide the glee in her eyes. She held out her hand and smiled at him. What a compelling image she made. Her wavy hair danced in the wind, and her tan skin glowed with vitality. “Come with me,” she said.

  Ethan had no choice but to take her hand.

  The racetrack was no more than two hundred yards away. He’d never been to one, and the silence surprised him. A tall, wiry man with a bushel of red hair and a warm smile greeted them at the entrance to the track. “Hiya, folks. You here for a track experience?”

  Gracie stretched her hand out to the man. “We are. Well, he is. My name is Graciela. And this is Nic. I’ve arranged for a half-day experience for him, in celebration of his thirty-second birthday.”

  “Well, all right,” the man said. “My name’s Tyler. What’s your experience, Nic? Ever ride on a professional racetrack?”

  Ethan stared at Gracie. She’d put a lot of thought into this, and he didn’t deserve it. “I . . . uh. No, no experience on a track. I’ve always wanted to get on one, though.”

  “Ah, I’ve got a newbie,” Tyler said. “That’s always fun. Can you operate a manual transmission?”

  “I can,” he answered.

  “Great. Your package includes an orientation that will cover the equipment and driver safety. You’ll get fitted for a helmet and tracksuit. Then you’ll have five turns out on the beginner course. How’s that sound?”

  Ethan searched for the right words but couldn’t find them. “I’m. . . uh . . . I’m floored.”

  Tyler drew a baseball cap from his back pocket and placed it on his head. “She arranged a great surprise for you, didn’t she?”

  Ethan threaded his fingers through Gracie’s as he pulled her to his chest. “Yes, she arranged the perfect surprise.” Then he lowered his face and brushed his lips against hers.

  “Well, all right,” Tyler said with a smile. “Come on with me, then.”

  Tyler ambled ahead of them to a building to their right.

  Ethan placed his arm over Gracie’s shoulder. “This is too much, Gracie. My birthday isn’t special. A gift like this must have been pricey.”

  Gracie smiled up at him. “Accept it and enjoy it. I insist.”

  He nodded, but his stomach churned. He didn’t want her to spend money on him. He didn’t know about her financial means, but given that she ran a nonprofit, this gift was probably a setback. If he made a big deal about it now, though, he’d hurt her feelings, so he promised himself to address it afterward.

  Forty-five minutes later, Ethan ambled toward the racetrack in a red and blue tracksuit. The suit was snug, but he didn’t give a rat’s ass about the fit. He was pumped. Adrenaline coursed through his veins. His inner roar matched the rev of the race car’s engine. She was a pretty, sleek machine, and Ethan couldn’t wait to get his hands on her steering wheel.

  Gracie pecked his cheek. “Have fun.”

  Ethan watched her walk to the stands and sit on a steel bench. He turned and Tyler handed him a helmet. Crew members poked and prodded the racing car as another member tugged on Ethan’s helmet to be sure it fit properly.

  After a thumbs-up from Tyler, Ethan climbed into the car. The car’s vibrations reverberated through his body, causing his heart rate to spike. He welcomed the whiff of engine oil that filled his nostrils.

  One of the members gave Tyler the sign of a checkmark, indicating that the car was ready to go.

  Tyler leaned against the car and pointed to the track. “The car is wired to maintain a speed no higher than a hundred miles an hour. You’ll hear a beep if your speed approaches a hundred, then if you go over that, we’ll flag you down. Fast and steady is fine. Too fast means you won’t be able to control the car, and we can’t have that. I’ll coach you through it on the two-way.”

  Ethan adjusted his body in the car’s cramped quarters. “Got it.”

  “Any questions?” Tyler asked.

  “No. I think I can handle a hundred.”

  “Under one hundred is the goal.”

  Ethan squinted as he looked at the track. “I hear ya.”

  “Get your bearings and you should be all set.”

  His bearings. Right. He searched for Gracie in the empty stands. She tapped at her phone. Eventually, she looked up and waved. No one had ever given him such a thoughtful gift. That thought blew his mind. Poised to circle the track at a hundred miles per hour, he reined in the range of unfamiliar emotions barreling through him. Ethan checked his mirrors, located the clutch, and pushed the gear shift into neutral. And then he was off.

  * * *

  Ethan’s gaze followed Gracie’s backside as she climbed the stairs to her apartment.

  She spoke over her shoulder. “Your birthday celebration isn’t over.”

  “It isn’t?”

  “No, I have something else planned.”

  He tugged the bottom of her coat. “You’ve done enough.”

  She reached the top of the landing and spun around. “Don’t stress. It’s just cake.”

  Ethan smiled. “Did you make it?”

  She slipped the key in the lock and pushed her front door open. “I’m not a baker. Cooking’s my thing.”

  He followed her into her apartment and closed the door, shucking his jacket off and tossing it on the couch.

  “I’ll be right back,” she said.

  Ethan waited. It was the middle of the day on a Tuesday, and he hadn’t checked his e-mail or voice mail. Not once. Incredible.

  He circled her living room, taking in the homey space. He hadn’t paid attention to the décor until now. But now he searched the space for clues about Gracie’s personality. A red couch dominated the space, accented by brown and rust-colored fabrics. Gracie loved pillows. Like her office, the space included fun touches, including candleholders in the shape of people doing yoga poses.

  Gracie padded into the room, and Ethan tu
rned.

  Fuck.

  She stood barefoot, wearing a black negligee and a tremulous smile. “Hi.”

  Ethan swallowed. And swallowed. And swallowed some more. “Hi.”

  With her hands behind her back, Gracie took slow steps until she stood in front of him. “I’d like you to indulge me. Do you think you could?”

  “Whatever you need, I’ll make it happen. I promise.”

  Gracie licked her lips and her gaze darted around the room. With one hand still behind her back, she led him to the couch. “Come sit.”

  Ethan sat on the couch and waited. Gracie dropped her arms to her sides, one hand holding a black scarf. “I’d like to blindfold you.”

  “And do what?”

  “That’s just it. I don’t want you to see what I’m doing. And I don’t want you to expect it. I think it might be fun.”

  “Have you ever done anything like this before?”

  “No. But I’d like to try it. With you.”

  A myriad of emotions battled in Ethan’s head. Don’t do this, you selfish son of a bitch. She’s telling you it’s special for her. Let her give that to someone who’s not lying to her. But she wants this. And how can you say no to her? She knew going into this that you wouldn’t commit to her. She told you she didn’t have time for more, didn’t she?

  Her voice silenced the angel and the devil chattering on his shoulders. “Never mind. It was a bad idea.”

  “No, it’s not a bad idea. It’s a great idea actually.”

  Her tight expression transformed into a hopeful one, her big, expressive eyes confirming that he’d made the right choice. “Are you sure?” she asked. “Because we don’t have to—”

  “Gracie, I want to.”

  She bit her lip and nodded. “Okay.” She held out the scarf. “Could you remove your clothes and put this on?”

  Ethan watched the rise and fall of her chest. “Sure.”

  He removed his jeans. Next, he pulled off his sweater and T-shirt in one fluid motion. He folded the scarf several times, and then tied it around his eyes.

  Gracie’s warmth pressed against him. “I’m waving my hands. Can you see anything?”

 
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