“I’m nothing if not efficient,” I answer with a grin I am far from feeling. But when he bends down to give me a kiss, I duck out from under his arm and make my way to the chairs in front of his desk—ignoring the sudden wariness in his eyes as I do. “Is there something specific you wanted to talk to me about?”

“Actually, yes.” He clears his throat and walks back toward his desk as well. But instead of sitting behind it—in his chair—he perches on the edge right in front of me.

“I got a call from Viola today. She’s still got a few weeks left on her maternity leave, but she’s decided she wants to stay home with the baby, so she quit. Which means,” he says with a grin, “we have an opening for a full-time office manager. And since you happen to be an amazing office manager, Gina enthusiastically agrees that if you want it, the job is yours. Permanently.”

Chapter Fifty-Three

   Short of saying that he loves me, it’s pretty much the worst thing he could tell me right now. Because I am already in love with the job. I love the people here, I love what I do, and I’m good at it—no matter what my father thinks.

But I also know my father is right about some things, too. Including the fact that taking a job where I am fucking the boss is a definite step backward. I’m determined to take my life back—to turn myself around—and falling into the same pattern I had with Karl would be a mistake. A big, giant mistake, one I would have no excuse for making. Not when I can see the problems coming from a mile away.

“Nick,” I say after several long, awkward seconds go by.

He lifts a brow, and now he does move to sit behind his desk, like he knows that, whatever’s coming, he’s not going to like it. “Mallory,” he responds in kind.

“I appreciate the offer, I do. But I’m going to have to pass on it. In fact, I came into work today planning to tell you that I’ll stay until you find someone to take my place but that I think it would be best if I don’t work here.” Meeting his eyes when I say that is one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do.

But I’m not the same Mallory who never fought with Karl, the same Mallory who spent so much of her time running away from conflict that she couldn’t tell if it was there or not half the time. I’m working too hard to put that woman behind me. No way am I going back to her now.

So I meet Nick’s eyes when I say this—and because I do, I see the quick flash of surprise and the even quicker flash of hurt that he manages to bury as fast as they come.

“Is this because of Karl?” he asks, his tone even and eminently reasonable. “Because I would never behave like he does, Mallory. Your job is safe here no matter what happens between us.”

I take a deep breath and blow it out slowly, because this is the part I’ve really been dreading. “Actually, I wanted to talk to you about that, too.”

“That?” he says, arching a brow. “When you say that, you mean us, right?”

“Yeah.” I clear my throat. “I’ve been thinking—”

“So it wasn’t a matter of you not being able to sleep last night. You left—so worried about facing me that you didn’t even take the time to get dressed—because you were freaked out.”

“I wasn’t freaked out,” I lie. “I just thought we should have some space, and I didn’t want to wake you.”

“More like you didn’t want to face me.” He leans back in his chair and stares at me through narrowed eyes. “I’m curious. Were you so desperate to get away that you would have run home naked if you hadn’t found my shirt?”

“No! Of course not,” I tell him, ignoring the fact that he’s managed to hit uncomfortably close to what my thought process was. “I’m pretty sure I’d get a really big fine from the HOA for that.”

He ignores my attempt at levity. “What’s really going on here?”

There’s something about the way he says it—and the way he’s looking at me—that gets my back up. I’m not sure what it is, as he’s being perfectly polite and reasonable, but there’s something there that pisses me off and has me snapping back at him, “This isn’t working.”

“Really?” He lifts a brow. “Because I thought it was working pretty damn well.”

“But you’re not the only one in this relationship. And I happen to think it’s a really bad idea for me to be fucking the boss.”

His eyes narrow even further at my deliberate crudity. “Is that what you think this is? You fucking the boss? Me fucking a hot employee?”

Again, there’s that tone—direct, demanding, brooking no argument—and it makes me want to throw something at him. And then it hits me. It’s his cross-examination tone.

“Don’t talk to me like that.” I spring out of my chair.

“Like what?” The second brow goes up.

“Like I’m some witness for the other side and it’s your job to poke holes in my story. Karl used to talk to me like that, coming at me like a lawyer every time I disagreed with him. I hate it.”

“That’s not what I’m doing—”

“That’s exactly what you’re doing. I put up with it from Karl for our entire marriage because I didn’t think I deserved better. There’s no way I’m putting up with it from you, too.”

“Don’t.” Nick’s voice cracks like a whip. “I am nothing like your ex-husband and you know it, so don’t you dare use some bullshit comparison between us to justify what you’re doing here.”

“What I’m doing here?” I repeat, incensed. “Please, Nick, tell me what it is I’m doing besides objecting to being talked to like some kind of criminal.”

“I’m not that kind of attorney, Mallory,” he growls. “I don’t fucking cross-examine witnesses. I file tax paperwork and write letters. And how the hell did I suddenly become the bad guy? You’re the one breaking up with me here—and comparing me to your limp-dick sleaze of an ex-husband while you’re doing it.”

“Yeah, well, you’re acting a hell of a lot like him right now,” I shoot back. “Do you always throw a fit when you don’t get your way?”

“I do when the woman I’m falling for hands me a line of bullshit a mile long and expects me to buy it.” He comes out from behind the desk so that we are standing nose to nose and toe to toe now. “You want to know what’s really going on here?”

“Oh, please.” I gesture magnanimously. “Enlighten me, oh wise one.”

“You’re scared.”