“I’m not sure all the lunch and stuff is a good idea,” I say.
She waves me inside. “You’re worried I might get attached to your friends?”
I shrug. “It might complicate things later on.”
“Don’t worry, boss,” she says with a hint of irritation. “I know how things are.”
She busies herself getting her purse, but I wonder if I’ve offended her. I’m not trying to dictate who she can have as friends, but surely she must understand what’s what. I walk over and grab her elbow. “Don’t call me boss,” I say.
“How about sir?” she says with a snarky rise of her brow. “Or maybe master?”
“Hey, Sawyer,” Bass says, emerging from his bedroom. “Damn. You clean up nicely.”
I tug on the ends of my sleeve cuffs. “Glad someone noticed.”
“I noticed,” Aspen says. “You just didn’t give me a chance to say anything.”
She runs a hand from the breast pocket of my tux over to the lapel, smoothing it out as she goes. I feel the tightening in my shorts as I realize it’s been so long since I’ve had a woman, that even a touch as innocent as this is giving me a semi.
“So. Big night,” Bass says.
“Yeah. Everyone will be there right down to the guys who make the decision on whether I get to stay or go.” I open up the door for her. “We’d better get going, our ride is double-parked. I’ll catch you later, Bass.”
I help her into the town car, making sure her long dress doesn’t get caught in the door.
She smiles up at me. “You’re getting better at this,” she says.
“I just don’t want my date to look like her dress came from Goodwill.”
She rolls her eyes at me. “Of course you don’t. So, how do you want me to play this?” she asks. “Do you just want me by your side, or do I need to pull out the dreamy eyes and fawn all over you?”
I laugh, thinking of the other times she’s looked at me that way. Her looks make me hard, too.
“I usually don’t let girls get all touchy-feely with me in public, so if you do, that will send a strong message to the powers-that-be.”
“Dreamy eyes and grabby hands it is,” she says.
“And kissing,” I say. “I think we’ll need some of that. Remember that salacious kiss at the pizza place?”
She tries to hide her smile. Yeah, she remembers it, alright.
“Some of those will do,” I say.
I think I see her cheeks pink up, but the sun is setting so I can’t be sure. One thing I am sure of is that she’s nervous. Her hands are fidgety. I put a hand on top of them to calm her. “You don’t have to worry, Aspen. It’s basically just a big dinner party.”
“When are you going to get it through that thick skull of yours that I don’t live in your world? To you this may be just a dinner party. To me, it’s a bunch of high-priced suits and their plastic wives who will be judging me into next week. We may be pretending, but that doesn’t mean I don’t care what people think of me.”
“Everybody loves you. Haven’t you been reading the articles?”
She shakes her head. “No, I don’t do that anymore. I just know what Bass and Denver and some friends from school tell me.”
“Well, it’s all good. You are the proverbial girl next door. You’re exactly what I needed you to be. Everything is perfect.”
She shifts uncomfortably as she stares at my hand on top of hers. “Yeah, we’re the perfect couple, aren’t we?”
“Is something wrong?”
“No. I’ll just be glad when this is all over.”
I get a strange feeling in the pit of my stomach. “When what is all over, tonight or our arrangement?”
“Tonight,” she says.
Another strange feeling washes over me. I think it might be relief.
The car comes to a stop. I squeeze her hand when I see all the people pouring into the venue past the photographers on the red carpet.
Aspen’s eyes go wide. “You didn’t say anything about a red carpet. Oh, my God, is that Jennifer Lawrence over there?”
“Come on. We’ve been photographed a hundred times by now. And you look terrific. Just think of all the great things they’ll say about what a hot couple we are.”
She turns to me and gives me a hard stare. “Is that all you care about? How hot we look together?”
“All I care about is saving my job, Aspen. And if us looking hot together makes that happen, then yes.” I reach up and run my thumb across her pouty lips. “Now paint a smile on those lips and earn your paycheck.”
She looks at me. I can tell she wants to argue, but she doesn’t. She inhales deeply and blows out a breath so long and slow I can practically see the tension leave her body. “Fine,” she says. “I’m going to be the best damn girlfriend money can buy.”
“That’s the spirit,” I say, just as an attendant opens the car door for us to get out.
We make our way up the red carpet and stop several times to pose for photographers. For one picture, Aspen leans into me and puts her hand inside my tux jacket, right over my heart. I look down at her and smile. Damn, she’s good. This will make for one hell of a picture.
Luckily for Aspen, we’re seated at a large table with Brady and Rylee. Caden and Murphy are across the room with some other teammates. Rylee helps when people come by and ask questions about Aspen and me. She gushes about how cute a couple we are and how perfect we are for each other.
By the time dinner is over, we’ve become the talk of the benefit. And when the dance floor opens up, I pull Aspen onto it so everyone can see us dance.
“Isn’t this a little over the top?” she asks when I dance as close as I can get to her without being overly indecent.
“They’re eating it up,” I say. “See that guy over there with the bald head by the bar? He’s my manager. He hates me. And I’m sure he hates this. Us. I’m sure it’s why he hasn’t introduced himself to you like everyone else has. He’s been watching us closely all night.”
“And he makes the decisions?” she asks.
“He and Jason, the team owner who you met before dinner. Jason has the final say, which is good, because if it were only up to Rick, I’d be long gone by now.”
I feel a tap on my back and turn around to see Rick standing behind me.
“Mind if I cut in?” he asks. “I haven’t had the chance to meet your lovely date.”
I don’t miss the fact that his words are dripping with resentment and sarcasm.
Aspen shakes her head just enough to let me know she doesn’t want to dance with him. But I step aside anyway. She’s got this. And maybe this is exactly what I need to get him off my back.
“Okay, but I can’t stand being away from her for too long.”
He laughs disingenuously. “I don’t blame you.”
I back away and watch the two of them dance and talk. I even see Rick laugh a few times. She’s charming him. It’s goddamn perfect.
Then halfway through the song, Conner cuts in and dances with Aspen. Then Spencer. Then Benham. I feel myself getting angrier by the minute watching Aspen laugh with all of them. I can’t seem to help myself when I storm forward and push Benham out of the way. I hold up my hand and stop Cole, who looks like he was going to be next in line.
“That’s it for dancing with my girl,” I growl at them. “She’s all mine for the rest of the night.”
Aspen giggles as Benham and Cole back away. “Wow, you are getting good at this. You’re very convincing as the jealous boyfriend.”
I narrow my eyes at her, wondering what the hell she’s talking about. “The press needs to be taking pictures of us, not you with them.”
She lunges forward and into my arms. Then she whispers, “Dance with me, Tom Sawyer.”
The drinks she had at dinner are definitely kicking in. She presses herself against me and I put an arm around her to pull her even closer. I’m not much of a dancer, but with her I don’t even have to try to be. It’s like we move together in a way I’ve never moved with anyone else. Then again, I don’t dance much. Not like this anyway.
“Is that a gun in your pocket?” she jokes, looking down between us.
“Well, what do you expect when you’re grinding yourself against me?”
Amusement dances in her eyes. Then I look at her lips. Her cherry-red lips that I’ve been wanting to kiss all night. I don’t even look around to see if any cameras are pointed at us when I lean down and capture her mouth with mine.
She tastes good. She looks good. She feels good. My mind goes crazy thinking back to the night I had her. She has no idea that she’s the only woman I’ve ever wanted more than once. And the thought of it makes me even harder. If I don’t pull away, I’m bound to throw her against the nearest wall.
“Is everything okay?” she asks when I take a step back.
“Yeah.” I put my hands back on her waist, trying to keep some distance between us. “I just need to think of something other than your lips for a minute or I can’t promise I won’t take you into the back hallway and have my way with you.”
She follows my eyes down to the front of my trousers and laughs. When her eyes find mine again, she’s blushing. And she bites her bottom lip. Holy fuck that’s sexy.
I raise my eyebrows at her. “It can be arranged, you know, you and me finding a dark hallway to get it on.”
“While that might just be the most romantic proposition I’ve ever gotten, I think I’ll pass,” she says sarcastically.
“Come on, Aspen. Do I really have to go five more months? You can’t tell me dancing like this with me doesn’t do anything to you. I can tell it does. We’re both adults here. Why can’t we just let it happen? It’s clear we’re hot for each other.”