Authors: L.J. Wilson
While Stefan showered, Vanessa remained in the bedroom. It was time to go to work, resume their everyday roles. Standing near the window, she’d cracked open the heavy curtain. It made Stefan feel like a vampire as he exited the bathroom. Jesus, he hated early-morning light. “Sleep well?” he managed. Stefan dropped his robe and started to dress, slipping into newly tailored trousers and taking his shirt from the wooden suit rack. Custom crafted to his measurements—33 waist, 34 length, European-fit dress shirt—Stefan liked the preparedness a suit hanger lent to the day. He slipped on his watch, noting the time. He liked punctuality and his schedule was full, starting with Aaron Clairmont.
“I slept as well as could be expected.” Rhythmed shirt-buttoning seized, and Stefan stared. Her answer was…
It was as disconcerting as last night’s round of kissing. At least she was dressed, looking more like corporate Vanessa Trudeau. The structured navy suit was pragmatic and tone setting. Regardless, it offered a tantalizing hint of what was underneath. It was one of the things that had first challenged Stefan—getting to what was beneath her corporate image. She sipped coffee, her red hair neatly groomed. “The bedroom turned out lovely. I didn’t get a very good look at it last night.”
He hummed agreement, returning to his shirt buttons. “Blindfolds will do that. Now if I can only get the adjoining living room, not to mention the rest of Abstract Enchantment to match—done on time and on budget.”
“You will. You always get what you want, don’t you?” Vanessa’s gaze ticked around the luxurious bedroom, Stefan’s glance following hers. It was a private venue that most definitely was not prepared with her in mind. She seemed too aware of his motivation.
“Vanessa,” he said, buttoning the shirt, “I’m sure my assumption is wrong, but from the tone of that remark, I’d say you’re jealous.”
“Don’t be absurd,” she said. “I don’t do jealous. But I am human, Stefan. I know my position with Windamere… with Abstract Enchantment, and in your life. However, fucking me in the suite prepared for the arrival of your fiancée… Well, call me a sentimental bitch, but I wasn’t completely comfortable.”
“How so?” he said, truly perplexed. Stefan returned to the mirror. He brushed a speck of lint from his trousers and dragged his fingertips through a hairline that could be described as receding. It was fine. Many women, including Vanessa, insisted it accentuated his salient bone structure. “As noted, our relationship has nothing to do with our personal lives. And professionally, circumstance insists I spend more time at Abstract Enchantment.”
“It just strikes me as an awkward, unnecessary location. That’s all.”
“Awkward… unnecessary location? If bending you over a frozen side of beef in the meat locker at our Miami Beach property didn’t offend you, I’m not sure why a brand new, luxury mattress should.” He continued to dress, choosing cufflinks, as if they were discussing what crystal to order for the bar. “The parameters of our relationship are clear, defined. Venue is negligible.” He stopped, offering the courtesy of eye contact—but mostly Stefan wanted to see her reaction. “This is why I’m beginning to feel like it’s something else… something more, which, as you said, is absurd.” He knotted the tie he’d selected. “Think about it this way, Ness, if I were engaged to a man, but harbored an occasional need for a particular woman, this wouldn’t even be a discussion. The two of us, we fulfill a specific sexual need. It doesn’t translate into what’s real.”
“Is that how you feel about me—just the lover who knows best how to satisfy the abstract enchantments of Stefan Gerard?”
He approached, taking the cup and squeezing her hands. “Yes, Vanessa. That’s exactly how I look at it.” Stefan glanced at her unpacked suitcase. “I’ll have that relocated to the carriage house later.” It was the designated spot that had been prepared exclusively for her.
She wiggled her fingers away and held his hands in hers, palms up. Vanessa studied them, her thumb rubbing over a deep scar on the left one.
“Were you anticipating a different response?”
“No… of course not,” she said, forcing Stefan’s fist closed and away. “I wanted the same. We agreed to terms ages ago, long before you ended up with that gash in your hand and met—”
“An excellent point,” he said, wagging a finger at her. “And didn’t you find yourself in nearly the same circumstance a year ago? Did I say a word when you talked marriage with… Oh, what was his name?” Stefan walked back to the mirror. He was unsatisfied with the knot in his tie and undid it. Knots went smoother when binding wrists.
“Marcus,” she said quietly, returning to the window’s view. “I almost said yes to Marcus’s proposal before admitting… realizing that he wasn’t… ”
Crafting a better knot, Stefan viewed Vanessa via the mirror’s reflection. He had the disconcerting feeling she was about to say “you.” That
was the thing that had kept her from accepting Marcus’s marriage proposal. He almost laughed. It was ridiculous. “Look, whether we’re tennis partners, business partners, or bed partners, we agreed that real-world relationships don’t affect ours. It’s why
exist, Ness, to take us away from the pressures of the real world. That’s non-negotiable, correct… that’s our agreement.”
She smiled and sipped her coffee. He approached, the back of his hand softly grazing her cheek. “Absolutely,” she said. “That’s our agreement.”
“Good. Because I’d hate to think your odd mood is spawned from anything else.”
She brushed past him. “You flatter yourself, Stefan. Just because fucking you on the same sheets that your darling fiancée will occupy didn’t particularly appeal to me, doesn’t mean I’m questioning our arrangement.” She busied herself, shuffling papers around a soft leather satchel. “Kissing you was an in the moment reaction, nothing more.”
Stefan took Vanessa at her word—any other explanation would be complicated, messy. He wasn’t interested in either. But he also didn’t want to leave things off-balance. Their intimate knowledge of one another was nothing compared Vanessa’s insights about his business ventures—a fact that, on occasion, concerned him. She stood at the table’s edge, in front of the window. From behind her, his hands inched under the edge of her skirt. Even with the tight fit, he expertly shimmied it over her hips, the thong underwear a dismissive barrier. She had the greatest fucking ass—literally.
“Jesus, Stefan,” she said. “I have an appointment in ten minutes.”
Time. She had a point. Stefan checked his Rolex. “We’ll make it quick.”
On the suggestion, her legs parted and Vanessa’s hands crunched into the soft leather of her briefcase. He pressed into her body, the fabric of his trousers between them. Vanessa’s head bent forward. “Just unzip your goddamn pants and fuck me already.”
He didn’t follow her lead, not right away, only kneading harder into her. Stefan tucked a length of red hair behind her ear, whispering, “Whatever else gets in your head, Ness… don’t forget why we have this. Why it’s so good. It’s the rules that make it good. The rules when we’re in that mode and the rules when it’s just a simple fuck. You know that. Emotion would ruin it.” He thought about just making her come; there was twisted control in pleasure left partially unsatisfied. But pushing aside the thong, touching her, Stefan gave into his own need. “Christ… See what I mean?” He unzipped his newly tailored trousers and exposed himself. His inviting erection had the desired effect as Vanessa’s legs spread farther apart. It was an anxious, almost angry fuck, Stefan’s point and time constraints driving the moment. She melded into the act, bending more decisively over the table than she had the side of beef. Vanessa smoothed out her discontent, touching herself as the two of them came together, the table rocking as if it were on runners.
Moments later, with her skirt still hiked around her ass, Stefan spun her around. Vanessa’s face was flushed, her hair not as orderly. He stepped back and glanced down, seeing the slick glow of come trickle down her leg. He grabbed tissues from a nearby box. Instead of handing her some, he blotted himself dry, tucking his shirt and zipping his pants. “I assume that next time, here—Abstract Enchantment—won’t require a discussion.” Vanessa’s breathing was faster than her words. In fact, she seemed at a loss for further communication. She nodded, the delicate back of her hand gliding below her painted mouth. It was untouched, vivid red, and full. In the right circumstance, Stefan supposed her lips were rather kissable. Pity. This wasn’t that circumstance. “Good. And don’t worry, you needn’t come to the suite again. Next time we’ll have our own private space.” He kissed her on the cheek before grabbing his suit jacket and heading out the door.
Driving into the entrance of the old Rose Arch Inn put Aaron’s immediate angst in check. He harbored no memories of coming in this way. They never drove. He wasn’t sure why. It was just
, he and Ruby always approaching by boat. The renovation didn’t facilitate lingering visuals either, not like the ones that haunted him at three a.m. Abstract Enchantment looked nothing like the Rose Arch Inn or Aaron’s sacred memories. Only thoughts of the beach caused his jaw and stomach to clench. From what he saw, striding from the car to the door, it looked as if the lakefront renovations weren’t complete.
Aaron sat in the waiting area of Stefan Gerard’s office, taking in the sheen of the place. This space was fully renovated and operational. He supposed it was necessary. The overseer of such a large project would require a decent place to work. It was logical. Maybe it was just the level of polish that annoyed him.
He didn’t feel nervous, more a sense of impatience. Aaron breathed deep and tugged at the tie around his neck. The last time he wore one a judge had said, “
Regardless of your spotless record, it’s clear you’ve been living a covert life. I’m sentencing you to the maximum…
” Aaron tried not to think about that. He tried not to hand down his own judgments. This guy,
had a right to whatever he’d earned. And it probably didn’t start with a resume naming Biddeford Correctional Facility as his last-known address, kitchen help and laundry lackey as his most-recent positions. Aaron stared at the espresso machine across the room, the chic leather sofa squeaking under him. He’d declined the miniature-size cup Shauna, an attractive office assistant, offered. The air mixed with the smell of nearby sawdust, bitter coffee, and Shauna’s perfume. He did his best not look as out of place as he felt.
Twenty minutes passed and there was no sign of Stefan, though a tall redheaded woman appeared out of nowhere. She looked like an upscale version of Chloe Pike. She also looked startled to find Aaron seated there. But surprise shifted to curiosity, making Aaron feel like he was wearing prison orange. The woman rattled off a to-do list to Shauna, who took feverish notes. In between, she glanced at Aaron. There was familiarity in the redhead’s voice, most sentences starting with “Stefan said…” or “Stefan wants…” But Aaron couldn’t pinpoint her position, employee or co-worker—definitely not his boss. Vanessa (the name he’d picked up from Shauna) finally left. She stopped at the end of the corridor and tugged at the hem of her skirt. Then she turned, pasting a flirtatious smile on Aaron. He didn’t know what to do with that and refocused on the espresso machine. Moments later a man came toward him—the same one he’d seen at his homecoming party. Aaron heard his name being called, an extended hand reaching out. He followed through, shaking it with rusty etiquette.
“My apologies, Aaron—it is Aaron, correct? An unexpected delay put me behind this morning.”
Aaron nodded, feeling a smooth, if not manicured, hand under his grip.
“Stefan Gerard. Fascinating,” he said, looking Aaron over. “I’m not seeing a family resemblance. Are you sure you and Honor are related?”
“Uh, yeah… Honor, she and our brother, Jake, got the blond genes.”
“And quite the personality, I might add. Won’t you come in,” he said, leading Aaron toward his office. Without being asked, Shauna followed with espresso for two. “I must admit, I’m rather fond of your sister.”
“Me too,” Aaron said.
Stefan took his seat behind a modern glass desk. “Of course you are.”
Aaron remained standing, awkward silence riding shotgun.
Stefan pointed at a chair. “This might go better if you decided to sit.”
Leave. He just wanted to fucking leave. Aaron couldn’t say why, but the early-warning signs he had about Stefan wouldn’t let up. For Honor’s sake, maybe for her benefit, he took Stefan’s advice. “Right. Thanks.”
“I suspect this interview will be a bit different than most.”
“Yeah. I don’t suppose I’ll dazzle you with my resume.”
“No need,” he said, waving him off. “Honor vouches for you, and I understand you earned a college degree while you were…
Away? He must have taken vernacular tips from Honor. “Yes, a degree in business.”
“And before you found yourself…
what did you do?” Stefan cleared his throat. “Legally, of course.”
Really? Are you sure you don’t want to hear about the best drug-trafficking routes in and out of Nickel Springs…
Aaron forced himself on point, answering, “Aside from manual labor, I was a general building inspector with the city. I oversaw commercial projects. I, uh… I also assisted Honor some when she was getting her catering business off the ground.”
“All that would be useful here. Honor assured me there’d be plenty of reasons to put you on my payroll. I think this will work out splendidly. I happen to be in need of someone with your exact skill set.”
“My exact skill set?”
“Why yes… assuming salary won’t be an issue, when can you start?”
“Really?” Aaron said, eyes narrowing. “Just like that?”
“Mr. Gerard, I didn’t just return from serving my country or end up here because I’m eager to work my way up the corporate chain. In fact, my most-recent stint with chains is the kind they shackle around you on ‘take you to court’ day. So with all due respect, why is it you’re willing to do my sister this grand favor?”
Stefan’s gaze moved between Aaron and a pen putting fiery strokes to a paper on his desk. “Direct, aren’t you?”
“It generally avoids trouble. What do you want from Honor?”
“I don’t want anything from your sister. As noted, I’ve grown quite fond of her. In the course of friendly conversation, she confided that you’d earned an early release from prison.”
“But not the details of my incarceration?”
Stefan was quick to hold up a hand. “It’s not my business. It might cause a false judgment, and I don’t want to do that. Honor assured me it wasn’t… Well, it wasn’t representative of the real Aaron Clairmont. I don’t think second chances should come with strings. Do you?”
“That’s generous of you.”
He shrugged, sipping from the tiny espresso cup. “Your sister conveyed a difficult situation. I’m in a position to help. Please don’t make more of it than that. Of course, if you’re not comfortable with the arrangement...” Stefan put down the cup, his hand breezing toward the door. He waited.
Aaron tensed. The ball was in his court. “I, uh… Sorry. I’m not used to people doing things without an ulterior motive—standard op in my
“I appreciate fair skepticism. However, I assure you that your sister has absolutely nothing to do with my intentions.”
Aaron pulled in a long, low breath. Believe him or don’t. “I’m sure whatever you’re offering in the way of salary will be fine. I’m not exactly in a position to negotiate, am I?”
“Interesting. I was having that same conversation just last night… Anyway, when can you start?”
“Today, if you want.”
“Excellent,” Stefan said, dropping the pen. He reached across the desk, palm turned slightly upward as he offered his hand to Aaron.
He hesitated for a moment and then shook it. “That… that’s, um, quite a scar,” Aaron said, noting the contrast between it and his new boss’s otherwise neatly man-manicured hands.
Stefan glanced at it, brushing the thumb of his other hand over it. “Yes, the result of a Good Samaritan deed—a puppy locked in an overheated vehicle. I should have been more careful, but the poor creature looked so desperate. I broke the window without thinking.”
Aaron tucked his own hand in his pocket, knowing his scars didn’t come with such an altruistic explanation.
“Well, we have a short deadline and many items on the agenda. Tully Weeks is my head contractor. You’ll answer to him as well as take direction from me. I do, however, have a special project that I’d like you to oversee.”
“My fiancée will be arriving next week.”
“Your fiancée?” Aaron said, catching the surprise in his own voice. “I, uh… Honor didn’t mention that you were engaged—not that it’s my business… or hers.”
“Didn’t I mention that to Honor? Hmm,” he said, tapping the pen on the desktop. “I thought certainly I had. We’re very excited about the wedding—California, next month. Regardless… the executive bedroom we’ll be using is complete. It’s a luxury, one-of-a-kind space. I’d like to make certain the adjoining suite is also finished. Tully will provide you with details. I’d like somewhere comfortable prepared so I can continue to work if my fiancée would like to retreat to quieter surroundings. Do you think you can handle that?”
Aaron was still digesting the fiancée part of the equation. Apparently, any romantic vibe was Honor’s imagination. He nodded. “Yeah, sure. It shouldn’t be a problem.”
“Very good,” Stefan said, rising. “This will work out fine. I’m sure of it. Shauna will take care of all the employment details—I understand there needs to be some communication with…”
Aaron swallowed. It had the distinct taste of humiliation. “Yes. You’ll need to verify my employment with my parole officer.”
“No worries, Aaron. As I said, Shauna will see to it. You needn’t think about it again.”
Both men stood. While Aaron was a few inches taller, he felt less than small. In fact, considering, he’d probably come off like an ungrateful ass. “Uh, before… if I was abrupt… ”
“No worries,” Stefan said again, patting the shoulder of Aaron’s suit jacket. “After everything you’ve been through... Well, as I said, this is a no-strings fresh start. I’ve accomplished quite a bit in life—an excellent job, a beautiful wife-to-be, a brilliant future… I’m merely paying it forward. And your situation presented an opportunity for me.”
“Sure… right…” Aaron turned to leave, saying softly, “Glad I could be of help.”