She straightened her spine and cleared her throat. “About yesterday, Jess, I never meant to insult you and I apologize if I did. I believe your offer of friendship was genuine and I appreciate it. I don’t know many people yet, here in LA, and I could use a friend. You really are a warm and decent person, and I think you’ll make a great friend. So how about it?”
Say something, Jesse, please say anything, she thought wretchedly as she scanned his guarded expression for any sign of forgiveness.
He rubbed his chin with a knuckle. “Warm and decent, huh? That’s so sweet, it kinda makes my teeth ache.” He lowered his hand to his side and did a three-finger tattoo on the edge of the desk while gazing steadily at her, then he seemed to make an effort to shake off his mood. “Define friends.”
“Friends, you know, buddies. People who hang out, do things together. Who get along—maybe even like each other a bit. But no sexual innuendo, no kissing or inappropriate touching. Just friends.”
He grimaced, but his eyes told her he didn’t mean it. “Don’t you know when a woman labels a dude her ‘friend’ she’s giving him the kiss of death?”
“Hey, you’re the one who suggested we become friends and it’s the only kiss you’ll be getting, so take it or leave it.”
His brow relaxed and he smiled, his mouth taking up the humor that lurked in his eyes. “And what do you propose we do about the, uh, you know, physical attraction?”
His voice held a note of challenge. Instead of rising to it, she shot him a withering glance, while her heart pounded an erratic rhythm. What would they do about the physical attraction? That was the one part about this whole friends scenario she hadn’t thought through. This man with his teasing eyes and playful words could reduce her to jelly without even trying. And oh mama, could he rock her world when he tried.
She didn’t pretend not to know what he meant, deciding it might be fun to tease him the way he so often teased her. “I don’t foresee a problem, myself, but if you think it’s going to be difficult for you, I suggest you take matters into your own capable hands, if you get my drift.”
His eyes widened and he burst out laughing. “Okay, you win.” He shrugged in mock resignation. “Friends, it is.”
She planted her hands on her hips and lifted her chin, narrowing her eyes skeptically. “And you accept all the terms? No more lame come-ons?”
“Lame—” He rolled his eyes. “Yeah, whatever. Does that mean we can go out for dinner?”
“I have something quite different in mind, actually. I have a favor to ask you.” When he didn’t respond, Drey carried on briskly. “There’s going to be a marathon in February to raise money for charity. I thought the two of us could enter. We could train together and who knows, maybe it’d be fun. Registration is five hundred dollars, but it’s for a good cause.”
He stuck a finger in his ear and rubbed it, his expression thoughtful. “Let me get this straight. You want me to pay several hundred bucks for the privilege of running in a race where I’m likely to either puke or pass out? Why would I want to humiliate myself?”
“It won’t be that bad. It’s only a half-marathon, a twenty-one K.”
Jesse’s eyebrows rose in comic disbelief. “K as in kilometers? What’s that in miles? Like, thirteen?”
“About. That’s not so far, and we could run together every day to build our stamina. So what do you say?”
“I say I’d rather go out for dinner. Maybe a movie or the pub…”
“Aw, come on, Jesse. You aren’t even going to give this thing a chance? It’s for charity.” She paused, then changed gears, deciding to go after every man’s weak spot—his ego. “And here I thought despite the pretty face, you were a macho guy. Come on, Jesse, I challenge you. If I can do it, you can too.”
Her conscience protested that small deception but she pushed away the guilt. She couldn’t admit, just yet, that she was an experienced marathon runner. If he wasn’t keen on trying this now, no way would he go for it if he knew doing a half-marathon would be easier for her than most of her warm-up runs. And she figured making it a competition would be the best way to get him to agree.
His grin turned boyish, touched with self-mockery. “Even though it’s not how I imagined it, how could I possibly turn down the opportunity to work up a good sweat with you?”
DARE TO RISK ALL
“Morning, Tessa,” Ben and Travis chorused as she came down the hallway toward them the next morning.
She had arrived at least twenty minutes early, so why was Ben already at work? Sharing small talk and coffee with Travis in the hall outside their office. Brownnoser. And he’d effectively stolen the advantage of being the first to settle into the new office.
Ben’s gaze moved coolly, shamelessly, over her body in a deliberately appreciative manner. His sensuous mouth curved into a smile that made her legs go rubbery and had her wishing she’d chosen a pantsuit instead of the curve-clinging wool dress.
Not that she had any actual curves worth clinging to.
“Morning.” She smiled pleasantly at Travis first, then nodded briefly in Ben’s direction and turned her back on him, hoping he wouldn’t follow her into the office.
He did. And he closed the door behind him.
She went to her desk, using it as a barrier between them to help cope with his presence. Her temper tended to subside as quickly as it flared, and yesterday’s outburst already shamed her. After careful consideration, she realized she’d behaved unreasonably toward Ben. Because he was right—he had offered to stop before they’d made love, and she had been the one to convince him otherwise.
Despite not feeling very logical right now, common sense told her she shared in the responsibility for what had happened between them. She needed to put aside her personal feelings and concentrate on work. Because there was no room for personal feelings at the office. Not irritation, or resentment, and definitely not regret or any residual and unwanted desire.
She’d never be oblivious to the attraction of Ben’s sea-deep green eyes and flashing smile, but as far as she was concerned, that would be the extent of it. What had happened on the cruise was attributable to the circumstances, the romantic setting. Nothing more. Trying to continue with that type of behavior here at the workplace would be a recipe for disaster, or at the very least, she’d run the risk of losing her job. She’d always managed to keep her career goals clearly in sight. Now should be no different.
Ben shrugged out of his suit jacket and hung it across the back of his desk chair. He paced restlessly around the room, then moved to the window and stood in front of it with his hands in his pants pockets. Tessa surreptitiously watched his every move, enjoying and appreciating his casual grace and masculine beauty. As she grew aware of the direction her thoughts had headed, she irritably stopped herself and focused on her desktop instead. The photo of her and Lauren lay face down in the middle of her desk, and she placed it in its usual spot at the far left corner.
“The fellow who moved your desk and filing cabinet said something about hooking up your computer later this morning.”
“That’ll be fine,” Tessa muttered as she reached out and nudged the picture frame a fraction of an inch to the right.
Ben crossed the room to the computer table. From where she sat, Tessa caught a whiff of a sensuous blend of spice and citrus as he passed her desk. She swallowed. Hard.
“I take it this was Ed Hardy’s computer and now it’s for my use?” he asked after a moment.
“I guess,” Tessa agreed. Needing to concentrate on something other than how sexy Ben smelled, she dug in her drawer for her appointment book to see what she had on her schedule for the day. Morris wanted her to clean up any outstanding work by the end of the week, leaving her free to focus on new accounts with Ben. She had been developing some ideas to pitch for spec work, which were almost in the final stages and wouldn’t take long to finish once her computer was back up and running.
Ben walked over to her desk, folded both arms across his chest and gazed down at her. “Ya know, this polite stranger thing is getting pretty old.” When she looked up, he braced his arms on the edge of the desk and leaned in. “Are we talking to one another or what?”
Tessa dropped the book and flattened into her chair. That now familiar breathless feeling constricted her throat. His stance, his closeness, gave her an exhilarated, restless sensation. Her body reacted to the message she read in his eyes, little jolts of desire mingling with spurts of resentment. The treacherous way her body responded to him embarrassed her, and if she read his smug expression correctly, he knew exactly what effect he had on her.
No matter what or how she actually felt, her pride demanded that she prove this impertinent man wrong.