“I’m sorry you’ve been bruised so often because of me. I should have protected you from myself. I’ve been set to a default for a long time. Sort of like, I attack before I can be attacked. You’ve been on the receiving end, days, weeks, months, and you’ve handled it like no one else ever could have.” I try to speak but he shakes his head and continues.
“Every day, every minute, I’ve only ever been sitting there, looking at you. What I’ve done to you has been the worst mistake of my life.”
“It’s okay,” I manage to say. “It’s okay.”
“It’s not. I don’t know how you’ve coped with me. And I’m sorry.” He drops his mouth to the bruise on my ribs.
“I forgive you. You forget, I’ve been a complete bitch to you.”
“But you never would have been, if I’d just smiled back.”
“I wish you had.” My voice breaks traitorously. I may as well have said, I wish you loved me. I hold my breath. With his crazy-intelligent brain, I know he’s joining the dots seconds behind me. I struggle up the bed, but he crawls easily over me, and lays my head on his pillow.
“It made no difference. I loved you the moment I saw you.”
I’m falling backward, through his bed. He loops an arm around my waist. I jerk like he’s caught me.
“You love . . . What? Me?”
“Lucinda Elizabeth Hutton. One and the same.”
“Lucy, heiress of the Sky Diamond Strawberries dynasty.”
“Could you show some ID so I can be certain?” His eyes are lit and the smile I love best of all is glowing on his face.
“But I love you.” I can hear how incredulous I sound.
He laughs. “I know.”
“How do you always know everything?” I kick my feet against the mattress.
“I only figured it out a few minutes ago. Your heart has been breaking.”
“I can’t hide anything from you. It’s the worst.” I try to put my face into the pillow.
“You don’t need to hide anything from me.” He takes my chin in his fingers and kisses me.
“You’re scary. You’ll hurt me.”
“I guess I’m a bit scary. But I will never hurt you again. Anyone who ever does will find out about scary.”
“You hate me.”
“I never have. Not for a second. I have always loved you.”
“Prove it. There’s no way you can.” I am satisfied that I’ve thrown out the unwinnable challenge. He rolls onto his side and rests his cheek on his bicep. My heart is pounding.
“What’s my favorite color?”
“What kind of blue?”
“Bedroom blue!” I point at the wall. “The walls. Your shirt. My dress. Pale Tiffany blue.”
He tugs me to sit, then goes to the end of the bed. He opens his wardrobe door, and I see all of the shirts hanging in color sequence.
“Josh, you dork.” I start to laugh and point, but he grabs my ankles and drags me to the end of the bed. There’s a full-length mirror, and I see myself, at long last sitting on the bed in his robin’s-egg bedroom. His walls are the blue of my eyes. I’ve been a bit slow.
“But that’s the prettiest blue in the world!”
“I know. Good lord, Lucinda. I thought I’d be busted the moment you saw this room.”
He sits on the bed behind me, one knee up, and I fall back into the perfect cradle of his body.
“How somebody can’t recognize their own eyes, I’ll never know.”
“Seems I didn’t recognize a few things. Hey, Josh.”
“You love me.” I see him smile in our reflection at the confusion and wonder in my tone.
“Since the moment I saw you. Since the moment you smiled at me, I felt like I was falling backward off a cliff. The feeling has never stopped. I’ve been trying to drag you down with me. In the worst, most ill-conceived and socially retarded way possible.”
“We’ve been so awful to each other.” I feel his cringe, and his hands begin to stroke me. “I mean, how can we even begin to start again?”
“Time for a new game. The Starting Over Game.”
I smile. Eyes bright, dazzling, full of hope and certainty this merger will be the most exciting, passionate, challenging thing ever to happen to me. “Nice to meet you. I’m Lucy Hutton.”
“Joshua Templeman. Please, call me Josh.” I see the blinding flash of his smile in return, and now I’m properly crying. Tears running down my neck.
“Sounds like heaven coming out of your mouth.”
“Josh, please. We’ve been colleagues for one minute, you’re rather flirtatious. Let me hang my coat.”
He unclips my bra. “Allow me.”
“Thank you.” We are playing the Staring Game in the mirror, and his eyes begin to darken. He fills his hands with my white skin.
“I grew up on a strawberry farm. It’s named after me.”
“I love strawberries. I’m so lovesick, I eat them constantly. Can I nickname you Shortcake? It’ll be a dead giveaway that I love you.”
“You love me! We’ve only met a minute ago.”
“I do. I’m sorry, but I work fast. I hope it’s not too forward of me to say, but your eyes are incredible, Lucy. I die when you blink.”
“You’re smooth. What do you know. I love you too. So much. Every time your dark blue eyes hit me, I feel like I get a mild electric shock.”
I reach behind me to tug off his T-shirt. He helps me out and pulls it off.
“I’ve been wondering since I met you—granted, only minutes ago—what you’ve got under this shirt. My goodness, your body. But I want you for your mind, and your heart. Not this impressive disguise.”
He looks at the ceiling. “I think I’ll paint my bedroom this weekend. I’ll probably feel annoyed the whole time I do it. And I’ll happily farewell my current girlfriend, a tall boring blonde called Mindy Thailis. She’s not you and it eats me up. It makes the fact I sleep alone and desperately celibate in this Lucy-blue room even more romantic when I eventually tell you.”
He slides me in between his sheets and spoons behind me. My cheek is pillowed on his bicep, and he kisses the side of my neck. I’m shivering.
“Sounds like a good plan. It’ll pay off. Desperately, huh? So, pray tell, what is the aim of the Starting Over Game?”
“The same as all the others. For you to love me.”
“Mine was to make you smile. How lame.”
“I laughed my ass off every day on the drive home from work, if it makes you feel any better.”
“I guess. But you’ve won. I’m going to have to know forever you’ve won all the games.” I’m sure my mouth probably has a sulky pout to it. He rolls me onto my stomach and begins to kiss up my spine.
“Do you trust me now that you know everything?”
For a moment we shimmer against each other; my skin trembling for the touch of his lips.
“Yes. And if you get the job, I will be happy for you.”
“I already resigned. My last day was Friday. Jeanette came in and did the paperwork. I’m on vacation now.”
“What the fuck?” I blurt into his bed.
“I don’t want anything that means I can’t have you. There’s nothing worth it.”
“But I didn’t have a chance to compete against you.” I don’t know whether to laugh or scream.
“You still have to do your interview against the other candidates. From what I’ve heard, one of them is a real contender. The independent panel might decide you’re completely incompetent.”
I elbow him and he laughs.
“But you’ll always know you could have gotten it. When we fight I’ll be worried you’ll bring it up.”
“I’ve worked out a solution. Something so Machiavellian even you will deem it a perfect solution. It retains all of the competitive bullshit we thrive on.”
“I’m scared to ask.”
“I’m the new divisional finance head of Sanderson Print. B and G’s most bitter rival.”
“Josh. What? No.”
“I know! I’m an evil mastermind!” He drops a kiss to my nape and I squirm away and roll over.
“How on earth did you manage that?” I feel faint.
“They’ve been pestering me for ages about coming over for a chat. So I did, and I told them I wanted to work on their completely fucked-up financial situation before they completely fold. They said okay. No one was more surprised than me, but I hid it well.”
“Is that why you took a day off?”
“Yeah. And I needed to buy you a Matchbox car. They took forever to give me my formal offer. That’s why I never needed help to beat you. I didn’t want to beat you.”
I smooth my hand over his shoulder, the glorious curve of his arm. “So that’s that.”
“I had to make a few conflict of interest statements.”
“Such as?” I watch his eyes crinkle in memory.
“I disclosed that I’ll be in love with the soon-to-be chief operating officer of B and G.”
I can just imagine him telling them, cool and calm.
“You didn’t. Were they okay with that?”
“My new boss seemed to think it was kind of sweet. Everyone’s a romantic. I had to sign some nondisclosure stuff. If I tell you anything, I will be sued. Luckily, I have a good poker face when it comes to you.”
“Oh man, how angry was Mr. Bexley? He’s not a romantic.”
“Furious. He was on the verge of calling security. Thankfully Helene came in and defused things. Once I told them my reasons for leaving, they were pretty understanding. Helene said she’s always known it.”
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