Stop being foolish.
There it was again. The harsh mental rebuke. Cree knew she shouldn’t want any part of Stephen Silver, but she did. Thank goodness the pulsating beat of her desire wasn’t loud enough to hear. Then everyone else would know, too. That knowledge alone threatened to tear at the fibers of her self-esteem. Granted, Stephen didn’t touch normal. He claimed superb as his adjective. At six feet four inches with ocean blue eyes, regal nose, and strong jaw, he commanded attention when he walked into any room, the way thieves snatched purses.
No. She did not want any part of him.
Including this one, she thought, folding her arm across her scarlet sequined gown. She watched Stephen drift across the room, carrying an uneaten piece of cake in his hand, stopping at dinner tables, receiving air kisses, real smooches, and handshakes. Feeling like a drone in a beehive, Cree adjusted her clutch from one hand to the other and headed out the double French balcony doors. The cool, night air felt good against her hot skin, and she sighed into the fragranced embrace of the evening. Cree leaned on the balcony. Hidden under the spring night’s gloom, floral scents rose up and fragranced the air, surrounding her in perfumed delight.
Funny. The city of Greensboro decided to throw Stephen a ‘keys to the city’ celebration at his own home. Here, we’ll celebrate your accomplishments. It seemed entirely backwards to her. With a shrug, she inhaled, closing her eyes to increase the intensity of the garden’s aroma, so wonderful and light. Exhaling in regret, she slowly opened her eyes. All across the gently rolling land, darkness claimed trees, bushes, flower beds, and benches. Most people’s backyards didn’t look like Central Park. But then most people weren’t Stephen Silver.
Smirking, she thought about her boss. He had everything, even her love—albeit unrequited, though he hardly knew it. She, purely and simply, only ranked as just another of his many employees. The slices of vanilla and chocolate cake being passed out were physical puns on the name of his company—CAKE. He owned CAKE—Commercial Advertising for Kernersville Enterprises, an advertising firm in Greensboro. It had originally begun in Kernersville, a small town nestled in the Triad area, and hence the K in CAKE. Stephen moved the business to Greensboro within a short time after launching the company. CAKE also provided print, online, and television advertisement developments for area businesses and government offices.
“Now, there is a wonderful view,” came the deep resonant voice from behind her.
The triangle between her thighs warmed at the rich sound of it. He was like a keyless remote; he spoke and her legs unlocked. She caught herself melting and straightened up, tucking her rogue hair behind her ears. Tonight she’d stand her proverbial ground and not give in to whatever Stephen Silver wanted.
“Evening, Mr. Silver,” she said, hating the little pant that came after the words. Damn it—she sounded breathless, like his every other female want-to-be lover. Pulling from her gut, she summoned her courage and strength.
He pinned those eyes on her. Blue, but burning in their intensity, they threatened to incinerate all her resolve. Instead of hardening in her resolve, her heart skipped in response. That damn smirk appeared on his face as if he knew the effect he had on her.
“You know, when you refer to me as Mr. Silver, it makes me sound like an arrogant asshole, so please call me Stephen,” he said, breaking the thick silence.
“Yes, Mr. Stephen.”
He laughed, taking his hands from his pockets. “Just Stephen, please, Cree.”
“Yes, sir.” Cree wanted to dissolve right there or swallow her own tongue—whichever would get her out of a one-on-one conversation with her fantasy man. Once she thought it, she couldn’t unthink it. As her thoughts raced through her mind, she blushed at every fantastic detail of their pretend lovemaking she’d ever envisioned. The fantasies always featured him and they sprang forward in two second intervals, like some mental movie trailers of coming attractions.
He watched her intensely from beneath those thick blonde lashes. With a squeak, she issued a fast goodbye. Bolting for the doors, she nearly made it to safety, when he grabbed her arm before she cleared the entrance.
“Stay awhile. There are some things I want to talk to you about.”
His tone shifted, softened like wet wood left out in the rain.
“You want to talk to me—sir?” She allowed him to spin her gently around to face him.
She couldn’t pull the words back after they left her mouth. Inside she groaned at the weakness in them, but she had been too stunned to send them through her internal filter. They talked a lot about business things, usually with a group of other people, but one on one… alone? Goose bumps sprouted across her bare arms. She blamed the breeze.
He now held both her arms, his thumbs rubbing her bare skin, stroking her. They felt nice. If those two digits caused this much pleasure, what would two hands bring, oh, and not just his hands, but…
Stop! She halted that saucy line’s progression.
“I mean, what can I do for you, sir?” she added.
“Stephen,” she repeated with a hard voice, shoving her want as down deep as she could. Mentally, she rebuked herself for being silly. “I’m sure we can discuss business at a later date. Tonight the mayor just gave you the keys to the city for CAKE’s charitable contributions. Maybe you can…”
He shrugged off her words like they didn’t matter. “I do not want to discuss business, Cree. I want to talk about something more—personal.”
“No, um, listen, if you need me to, I can get Kevin,” she suggested. Kevin was Stephen’s personal assistant. She so didn’t like the sound of this.
They hardly had anything beyond business to discuss. Really. Until the moment he touched her arm, she thought that had been all they were ever going to do. Now he wanted to discuss something other than work. No, she definitely didn’t like the sound of this.
“No, sorry. I need your help. This cannot wait,” he said coolly. He must’ve realized he held her arms and quickly let her go.
The usual self-assured swagger left his voice and his face, and in their wake, a current of concern, perhaps even uncertainty, arose. Stephen briskly rubbed his face and turned away from her. Darkness swirled around the hills like a cloak around the ankles of a vampire—concealing and shaping simultaneously. Spellbound by Stephen’s crisp suit flanked with velvety blackness, Cree couldn’t take her eyes off of him, couldn’t leave him to whatever troubled him. If he showed her his usual arrogance, she could have left—but not this.
He reached the balcony’s overhang and gripped the stone edges. “I, Cree, where to begin…”
She had never seen him like this—on the brink of despair. To be completely truthful, she never saw him flinch, or not smiling and schmoozing. And she’d been with him since the beginning of CAKE.
“Stephen, what’s the matter?” She walked to him. Hesitation caused her to stop several feet away.
Even though she didn’t know what he wanted, she didn’t like this, not one bit. All signs hinted to trouble, with boldface, 72-sized font and capital T. All logic ordered her to get the hell up outta Dodge, but her heart pinched in concern for him.
He glanced over his shoulder and then away.
That spiked Cree’s curiosity. What could cause the great Stephen Silver to come to her, a mere manager that worked on the first floor?
He spoke quietly, so soft she had to close the distance between them to even hear. Now, inches from him, Cree caught the thread of his conversation, though she’d missed the first whispered words.
“…my father. So, you can understand why I will need one rather quickly, yes?” he finished and turned to her.
Cree saw the relief wash over him. Those ocean blue eyes threatened to engulf her.
“Yes, I agree,” she said, though she had no clue as to what she had agreed. All she could make out was that he needed someone to agree and he needed it fast, so she gave it.
Stephen broke out into a grin so wide, it reached ear to ear. His obvious relief showed completely apparent in his body’s stance. Relaxed, the issue over, his usual candor returned washing over him in waves. Cree watched him return to himself again. She scowled inside. Surely that had to be the biggest let- down of her life.
“That’s it, sir?”
His eyebrows shot up at her flat tone. “It? This is not enough. We have to do this thing right, Cree.”
She shrugged. He could do whatever he wanted on his own time. Tonight had been a total bust. Her stomach gently growled and she decided that a trip past the buffet tables might give her a snack before the long drive back to the city.
At that moment, Stephen Silver got down on bended knee. Still smiling, he took her hand in his and fished around in his pocket with the other hand.
“What are you doing?”
Cree’s heart leapt into her throat and threatened to squeeze further until it completely obstructed her windpipe. With her body tingling in warning, she couldn’t get her mouth to speak or her legs to run.
This can’t be what it looks like. Really?
“I’m making it official,” he said matter-of-factly. He glanced up at her face then, and frowned. “You have already said yes, I know, but this will just make it better.”
Better! Cree internally wailed. She rewound their conversation in her head. What had she agreed to that warranted this? When did she say yes to a marriage?
“Cree Caruthers, will you be my wife?” he asked, pulling a crushed velvet box from his pocket. He released her hand and removed the engagement ring. It glistened in the moon’s pale light.
Even with her nerves rattling she could tell the ring cost a lot of money.
She gulped and cursed her dry throat because she really wanted to vomit. This couldn’t be happening! Yes, she dreamed of marrying Stephen Silver, and yes, she had wanted that more than anything besides a PhD in medieval literature, but not like this…
“Please…” she managed and fell back a step.
“Excellent!” Stephen slipped the ring onto her finger before she had a moment to run. Though he had to reach and slip it on quickly, he didn’t appear to be out of sorts for doing it.
Cree snatched her hand back but it was too late. Her ring finger already felt too heavy.
Damn it for fitting. Damn her quivering heart and knocking knees.
“Stephen,” she croaked, her cheeks hot, her legs like rubber bands. “I’m not sure about this. Can we—“
He popped a kiss on her forehead and squeezed her now-engaged hand.
“Relax. I’ll be a good husband.”
He winked at her.