The Heir & I: Taming The Playboy by Lara Hunter

“No, I’m sorry Sir. Oliver isn’t in yet; he has a full schedule of business meetings this morning and some very important commitments. The moment that he arrives, though, I’ll be sure to have him call you. Thanks, bye.”
The Heir & I: Taming The Playboy
The Heir & I: Taming The Playboy by Lara Hunter
With a prim smile I replaced my ivory phone receiver to its place in a crystalline cradle; the beam abandoning me moments later as I considered the subject of my abbreviated conversation: Oliver Clark, my employer of two years. Someone whose overall approach to life seemed very ‘abbreviated’ indeed, most of the time. This wasn’t the first time that I’d had to make an excuse on behalf of my tardy boss; it wasn’t even the first time this week. It was indeed the third time during a seven-day interval that Oliver was running late for work and his tardiness had nothing to do with an all-important business meeting. Unless, of course, you consider a fling with an emaciated blonde whose name he probably doesn’t even remember to be an all-important conversation, I seethed in silence. Of course, I probably shouldn’t be so cynical. His date might just be a redhead, and she may indeed have enjoyed one meal of some sort in the past month or so. And he might at least remember her initials, or at least spend the entire day referring to her as ‘babe,’ just to be safe. Here’s hoping. My friends often praised my incredible good fortune in landing my position; a well-paying job in which I served one of the most handsome and eligible bachelors in our tropical community of Bennington, Florida—not to mention one of the wealthiest. Harry Clark, Oliver’s father, was the CEO of Clark Industries, a billion-dollar company; and at the tender age of 28, Oliver was poised to take over the reins of a firm that made the vast majority of Fortune 500 companies look like thrift stores. It was Harry Clark, in fact, that had originally interviewed me for my personal assistant position; and while I’d been endlessly impressed by his polished, professional demeanor, I couldn’t help but question as to why my prospective employer wasn’t the man conducting the interview, as opposed to, well, the gent that probably helped change his diapers as an infant or, at the very least, hired someone to perform that all important duty. “Well the answer is simple,” he’d told me, suddenly grimacing as though he’d just been struck by an inexplicable but very powerful headache. “Oliver’s last personal assistant didn’t know how to type and she refused to learn, seeing as how a vigorous round of typing might imperil the state of her newly applied press on nails. The girl before her had very poor phone skills; she kept the office line tied up throughout the day, making repeated phone calls to a close female associate known as Buffy to share soap opera recaps and timely make up tips. And when she did answer a business call, she seemed to have a little trouble mastering the name of our company; the name Clark, it seemed, was just a bit too complex for her to enunciate. And, in lieu of classifying our mission statement under the heading, ‘financial services,’ she instead referred to Clark Industries as ‘the place where people make lots of dough’—in essence likening us to a fully functioning bakery.” “Let me guess,” I interrupted, pursing my lips in a show of keen curiosity. “Between them they had roughly no related experience for the jobs they were supposed to perform—though I strongly suspected that they performed very well in other areas, totally unrelated to their job descriptions but nonetheless very important to your son.” Harry Clark, a distinguished grey-haired man in his early 50s, pitched back his head and let loose with a sharp guffaw as he considered my all too accurate words. “Exactly,” he affirmed, pointing a confirming finger in my direction. “My son was basically allowing his hormones to choose his personal assistants for him and while he seemed to enjoy calling these girls into his office on a regular basis, I couldn’t help but notice that very little actual work seemed to be getting done throughout the course of these little work sessions. This is why I insisted on hiring his next assistant myself and based on your resume and excellent qualifications, Ms. Ashton, I do believe that you are the right person for the job.” I smiled. “Please call me Lily. And thank you very much for your kind words. I would very much like to accept this position.” Harry shook his head. “In my business, Lily, I can’t afford to hire someone as a sheer act of kindness,” he reminded me. “You just graduated cum laude with a degree in business and you also worked full time as an office clerk to work your way through school. That, coupled with the fact that you’re not as likely to distract my son from his everyday duties, makes you more than an ideal candidate for this position.” “Oh. Um, OK.” My beam dissolved as I wondered just how to respond to these last words. “Thank you, I guess?” Harry bit his lip. “You know, Lily, when my dear wife was alive she was always encouraging me—OK, demanding me, in no uncertain terms, to think before I speak. I’ve got to start doing that, especially in the presence of fine young ladies who emulate her sense of grace and decorum,” he offered, pinning me with an apologetic smile. “What I meant to say is, you’re a lovely young lady that dresses like a young lady. Most importantly, you’re a bright, well-spoken individual whose academic record is nothing short of excellent. You show a maturity and work ethic that certain people with a better head start in the business, not mentioning any names, of course, seem to lack.” “Not at all your son’s type, in other words,” I beamed anew, nodding in understanding. “Gotcha.” Harry said nothing; only leaned forward to engage me, his new employee, in a warm handshake and a conspiratorial wink. “I have the feeling you’re going to get along just fine here,” he told me. “Lily Ashton, do allow me to welcome you to Clark Industries.” Two years into my current assignment, I wasn’t altogether sure that Harry’s optimistic prediction had fully realized itself; not when I had to spend every other morning explaining my boss’ absence to clients and colleagues, and every afternoon making good and sure that the frequently idle Oliver returned his phone calls, answered his e-mails, and attended his business meetings. I never hesitated to display my firm and assertive side when dealing with Oliver, who in my opinion had a few too many ‘yes’ people lining his pay roll and filling his personal life. If I had to make him to-do lists every single day, and check back with him repeatedly just to ensure that the to-do did indeed get done, then I would—well—do it. Of course I realized just how fortunate I was to have any kind of sustainable, well-paying job in this economy. A job that allowed a single woman to afford a respectable home, a pretty nice wardrobe along with regular meals and essential toiletries and hygiene products was a bonus. I knew a good number of people my age who were still working retail, holding down at least two jobs just to survive, or living with Mom and Dad as they continued with their job hunts. I, on the other hand, had paid off my college loan just to trade it in for a new one; a down payment on a new car. And while my new set of wheels never would be coveted by James Bond or featured on the cover of ‘Wondrous Wheels Monthly’ (was there indeed such a ridiculous sounding publication currently in print?), it got me safely to work and back home again; also transporting me with grace and ease to and from the grocery store, the local library and the occasional movie—yep that’s right, I actually could afford to attend a matinee, first run showing of the film of my choice, with popcorn included, and an occasional side of licorice or even fudge drops. Not half bad, at that! As much as I sometimes hated to admit it, I realized that my current position just might be the perfect fit for my strong, no nonsense persona. I kind of enjoyed my unique role as the person that keeps Oliver Clark in line—most of the time, anyway. It keeps my instincts sharp and my mind alert, thus always providing for an interesting work day; sometimes infuriating and frequently exhausting, but interesting all the same. And being a professional thorn in the side of Oliver Clark does have its upside, I thought, as my office phone let loose with yet another robust ring. It never fails to make the day interesting, not to mention something of a challenge. Perhaps, though, this was the very position I’d been working and preparing for all these years; this is the job that would prove my worth in the professional world, building my strength and character, keeping my mind sharp and my energy high, preparing me for even more major professional and personal challenges in the future. I cringed as the phone rang yet again, no doubt presenting me with another stellar opportunity to excuse the rampant tardiness and outright absence of Oliver Clark. *** Oliver I always make it a point to start every business day at 9 a.m… well, that was when I usually woke up anyway; only this morning, I realized as I opened my bleary eyes and took a brief gander at my bedside clock, I had missed my daily objective by about 45 minutes. I’m sure it must be 9 a.m. somewhere, I reasoned, shutting my eyes tight. Shifting in the smooth ivory silk sheets of my elegant four poster bed, I caught a waft of perfume that finally stirred me awake; again opening my eyes wide, I beheld the vision of a tall, slender blonde who, in my present state of blissful respite, seemed angelic in demeanor. Of course, she was anything but in my bed last night. I grinned as she reached over to plant a sleepy kiss of good morning on my planed, bronzed cheek. Oh well, if I am going to be late this morning, once again incurring the wrath of my ever conscientious personal assistant, then Brandy made the experience well worth it. Or is it Candy? It was so blasted loud in that bar, I couldn’t rightly hear her. My vague contemplation was suddenly disrupted by the sudden, very jarring realization that I had a meeting scheduled in 15 minutes; a meeting that just happened to involve a very important client at Clark Industries, as well as my father and several of our most esteemed co-workers. “Blast it!” I said out loud, jumping from my bed as I rushed for my clothes closet. She’s going to kill me—and not slowly, mind you. She’ll filet me, flame broil me, and post my head above the office copying machine. If I feared the wrath of my venerable father, esteemed executive Harry Clark, then I stood in absolute terror of the 5’5” demon that sharpened my pencils and poured my coffee each morning; and on this particular day, I suspected that she just might spike it. I realized that I could never live without my assistant Lily Ashton; yet if I arrived late for just one more business meeting, I was pretty sure I wouldn’t live through the day. Now don’t get me wrong, Lily is a wonderful woman—kind, loving, and respectful of others. I can’t altogether blame her for coming down hard on me, after all, her job depends on me. If I can’t make good at the company, then both of our jobs are proverbial toast. Not that this possibility was likely, of course, considering that I was the only son of the company founder. Harry Clark had built his financial empire up from the ground level, investing blood, sweat and tears; and I was carrying on his legacy by imbuing my daily schedule with a steady stream of partying, promiscuity and rampant tardiness. And today, dear friends, I continue the tradition, I smirked, approaching my wardrobe closet with slow, trudging steps. Grabbing a sleek grey business suit from its place in my closet, I threw it over the planes of my tall, sculpted body as I ran a comb through the shoulder length strands of my thick, cinnamon brown hair. Racing into the bathroom, I splashed some fresh water across my cheeks and chin; widening my eyes in the mirror before me to inspect the results. Not bad for someone who’s working on, oh, about three hours’ worth of sleep. I winked at myself, turning with a flourish in the direction of the front door. Since I won’t be driving in rush hour traffic, I’ll probably make it to the office just in time—yeah, that’s right, I planned it this way. Lily is going to be so proud… No she won’t be, I reminded myself. She was going to kill me. And it was bound to be a slow, painful death. Rushing from the bathroom with frenzied steps, I waved a quick goodbye to my drowsy date; just now starting to rouse in my sheets as I headed for the front door. “Where are you going?” she murmured, blinking at me through a messy sheen of smeared mascara and a misplaced layer of bleach blonde hair. “It’s off to work I go, Brandy,” I flashed her a full-toothed smile as I made a mad dash for the door. “I’ll call you later.” I just barely heard the words, “It’s MANDY!” as I closed the front door behind me. Ooops. Jumping in the driver’s seat of the sleek ebony Jaguar that awaited me in the driveway, I turned the key in the ignition and ripped backward into the street that fronted my exclusive three-story townhouse; beginning the seemingly interminable five mile trek that would take me to my downtown office. As per usual, I managed to hit every red light and meet every pedestrian crossing en route to my destination; also managing to make half the trip behind a particularly slow moving postal truck that seemed to have an inordinate number of stops. Knowingly breaking the speed limit several times en route to my destination, I finally arrived at the 10-story, crystal planed building that housed Clark Industries; jumping from my car and hightailing it to the front double doors in a single smooth stride. My feet hit the ground in my office lobby moments later; yet just before I reached the brass handled door that accessed my personal office, I took a deep, sustaining breath and slowed my steps; pasting an easy smile on my face as I ambled casually through my office doors. 4…3, I mused silently, parting my lips to amp up my charming smile to what I hoped would be an irresistible voltage. 2, and….1. “Oliver! Get in here!” On cue my office walls reverberated with the sound of a sharp, shrill voice; one that belonged to Lily, my personal assistant of two years. And just how much longer she’ll remain in my employ, I’m downright afraid to ask. I turned my head to regard the curvaceous brunette who now stood stock still before her desk, hands planted firmly on hips as she returned my friendly smile with a look of pure evil. Although not a conventional or obvious beauty, Lily possessed an understated loveliness that expressed itself in smooth ivory skin and crystal blue eyes; both of which seemed effused this morning with a burst of angry color. “Good morning, Lily,” I greeted her, adding as my appreciative gaze raked the length of the knee length, jewel blue day dress that accentuated her generous curves, “You’re looking lovely today.” I accented my words with a charming, full-toothed smile that generally worked on the women that I happened to meet on any given day. Generally. “Thanks,” she snapped out, adding with a sideways glance at the grandfather clock that formed a far corner of the office. “But would you still classify this hour of the day as morning?” I chuckled. “Now I realize, that I am bit late for this morning’s meeting,” I admitted, adding as I stepped forward to take my hands in hers, “But thanks to the reminder e-mail that you sent me yesterday evening, I haven’t missed it entirely. As always, Lily, thank you.” Holding her gaze, I brought Lily’s hand to my lips for a light kiss. “You know I never could make it without you around here,” I reminded her, nodding in my own affirmation of my own sincere words. “You’re one of the brightest, most talented ladies I’ve ever met and you run this office so smoothly, without a hitch, not so easy to do, I realize, with me as your boss. And I also must say it.” With this I leaned across the desk, narrowing my eyes as I said in a softer, more intimate tone, “I never mind the sight of you first thing in the morning, especially when you’re telling me what to do. You know bloody well that, as always, I’m at your command.” I grinned as Lily broke our gaze, her cheeks flushing with a becoming blush as she took her hands from mine; raising to run them in a soothing motion through her smart brunette bob. “Just get on in there,” she ordered me, her tone softening as she turned for her desk. “Yes, Ma’am,” I saluted her with a smile, wondering as I turned away just what kind of a man could face up to the challenge of courting Ms. Lily; although, I figured, the attempt itself would be well worth the effort. *** Lily Blast Oliver Clark! Blast him! He is the most arrogant, annoying, and out and out gorgeous man I’ve ever met! Ooops. Did I just sat that out loud? Well, there’s really no use in denying the obvious. All dressed up in a grey silk suit, one that accented his tall, muscular frame to absolute perfection, Oliver shone in his masculine beauty. And with his bronzed skin, wide dark eyes and sculpted face, the dude probably would shine in a brown paper bag. He really should have just abandoned the whole executive career plan and become a friggin’ super model instead; walking the runways with rhythmic hips and pouting profusely for the likes of Abercrombie and Calvin or whatever those high fashion types call themselves… I’m too darned busy keeping this office afloat to catch up on my fashion and pop culture references! And I must admit that, in addition to his almost ridiculous degree of sleek masculine beauty, Oliver was quite the charmer as well; a full fifteen minutes after watching him disappear into his office, I still felt the heat of his stare, the feel of his full, warm lips on my hands, the lingering effect of his citrus-tinged scent… I still heard that smooth, deep voice echoing in my ear, singing my praises endlessly as he flattered and fawned over me. Sometimes I wondered if he was simply trying to flirt his way out of a full day’s work, or to quell my frequent and persistent irritation with a hefty dose of good ol’ fashioned charm. Furthermore, the feelings that he sometimes ignited within me were anything but old fashioned; often, Oliver stole into my dreams and daytime fantasies—filling my mind with provocative, deliciously forbidden images of him kissing me, holding me, whispering in my ear; saying and doing things that thrilled and excited me. Oh, I can control my daytime fantasies well enough, I suppose. Discipline and self-control is my middle name, or would that be two middle names? Three, counting the hyphenated term? Oh never mind, the point, and I do have one, is that during my waking hours I can redirect my wandering, somewhat fevered thoughts to my current work projects, duties and responsibilities, along with occasional, very warm and sentimental notions of my mom and dad back home, my poodle Riley, and just how darned well the Yankees are doing right now. Yet when I lay ensconced in my nice warm bed and my eyes drifted shut, I could do nothing to control the romantic, sometimes downright sensual dreams of Oliver Clark that flooded my psyche and, I hated to admit it, aroused my body to no end. OK Ashton, time for a cold shower and a big, harsh dose of reality, I told myself, sitting down hard in my chair and resting my forehead in my hands. I cannot even think of getting involved with that man in any way, shape, form, or—um—position. I’d always vowed never to get involved with anyone I worked with, especially not an employer that I (ahem!) worked directly under; of course, that promise was a lot easier to keep back in college, when I interned as a page for a 75-year-old senator with false teeth, chronic halitosis (possibly related to his previously stated lack of natural born teeth) and eight kids, 14 great grandkids, and five great grands at home. A gorgeous, single gent like Oliver was just a bit tougher to resist; especially when he insisted on flirting with me and flattering me on a daily basis. That is, when he bothered to come into work at all. So it was time for me to make my daily list of reasons as to why I really, truly should not consider a serious, or even casual, involvement with my employer. And it generally ran, as follows: 1. He’s my employer. It would be professional suicide for me to mix business and pleasure. 2. I’m not his type. Not that I could rightly be compared to the Creature from The Black Lagoon, mind you—it’s just that I’ve never rightly seen him with a woman whose bra size exceeds her IQ. Plus I choose to maintain my natural hair color, which doesn’t happen to be platinum blonde, and a somewhat natural make up aesthetic that doesn’t involve the use of false eyelashes, siren red lipstick or glitter eye shadow. If I was a stranger he passed on the street, I doubt that he’d even look my way. 3. I’m sure the man charms every mortal female who crosses his radar on a daily basis; from his accountant to his father’s maid to the gal who carries out his groceries at Costco. I should not take his attentions to heart. There, then; I had reasoned and stated, in no uncertain terms, three solid reasons as to why I should never even think about sparking a romance with Oliver Clark. Then why, I wonder, did I find myself making this same list almost every single day? Chapter Two ~ Oliver “And that, Ladies and Gentlemen, is why we need to close this deal and make the merger as soon as possible.” Taking my seat at the front of the conference room, I folded my hands before me and offered a genial smile to the associates that now applauded me; a smile that dissolved as I noticed that my father, seated tall and erect at the opposite end of our polished cherry wood meeting table, did not join his employees in their apparent enthusiasm for the ideas and concepts I’d just offered. Quite the contrary, I was now being pinned with a cool, hard stare I’d come to know all too well; one first directed at me sometime during my high school years, and that seemed to appear just like clockwork every few weeks or so. Soon our co-workers and clients approached me one by one, both to engage me in light, friendly conversation and to ask questions about the ideas I’d presented during the course of the meeting, some of which I was proud to say I could actually answer. Well, in part, anyway… the rest I pretty much bluffed my way through before making plans for dinner, tennis dates, evenings at the opera and theater, and (or so was the case with one junior executive who boasted an inordinate amount of cleavage and blonde hair, in that order) a late night rendezvous to be enjoyed at a later date, but not much later, or so we both fervently hoped. All the while, though, my father continued to pin me with a cold, hard stare that chilled me to the bone; causing me to turn away from him and try to lose myself in my conversations with our colleagues. I tried my best to prolong these interactions, talking about everything from the weather to the previous night’s Tampa Bay Rays game before resorting to really lame Dancing with the Stars and American Idol episode recaps; lame, not because of the overall quality of these shows, but because I never had caught more than 5 or so random minutes of either program. Finally as our colleagues said their goodbyes and cleared the meeting room, my father approached me with a small, forced smile as he said, “Good job, Son.” I nodded. “Thanks, Dad,” I grinned. “For being fashionably late this morning, I still managed to seal the deal.” “Actually, Son, you were a half hour late,” Harry told me, folding his arms before him. “And this isn’t the first time… not even the first time this week. And while you did deliver a polished, very slick presentation, you brought fluff to the table, not facts. Apart from the market research that Lily has done on your behalf, you did not bring a single solid statistic, original idea, or cohesive game plan to this project meeting.” I laughed. “Well what can I say?” I smirked, adding with a careless shrug, “They ate it up. The crowd seemed to love me.” Dad sighed. “They loved you, sure enough,” he confirmed, folding his arms before him. “And who wouldn’t? You’re handsome, you’re well spoken, and you could sell a Vogue subscription to a nudist. I, meanwhile, am the grizzled old man that stands behind the scenes and does all the real work. What’s going to happen when I retire, son? Your sly smiles and perfect hair alone aren’t going to carry our company into the future, especially not in this economy.” That famous smile went down a few watts as I considered these dark words. But only briefly. “With all due respect, Dad,” I squared my shoulders, staring my old man straight in the eye. “Most of the ideas I presented today did not come from you.” Dad nodded. “Oh believe me, I’m well aware of that,” he snorted, adding as he rolled his eyes, “I do believe it was Lily who came up with those facts and figures.” I shrugged. “Well, for the most part you’re probably right,” I conceded in a low voice, adding with a second shrug, “Isn’t that pretty much her job, though? She is, after all, my personal assistant, and we pay her very well to support me.” Dad had heard enough. “We pay you a lot more, Son, and for a job that you don’t do, not very well or thoroughly anyway,” he scoffed, adding as he pointed an authoritative finger in my direction, “And I’m sure that Lily shares my viewpoints. Sometimes I wonder why she doesn’t just get up and leave.” I said nothing in response, I just swallowed hard as I considered this unsettling possibility; as I actually tried to consider life without Lily. The very prospect, I realized, struck fear in my heart. But wait a minute. I was Oliver Clark. I didn’t need anyone else to survive; though the absence of Lily would make it mighty difficult. “I’ll be just fine, Dad,” I said aloud, adding as I forced a smile and clapped him on the back, “Listen, why don’t we just forget we had this conversation and go out for a pizza this weekend—or maybe dinner and a show?” Dad shook his head. “I would like for you to dine with me, son, but tonight,” he told me, adding as he pinned me with a sideways glance, “I only hope that you’ll break character by being on time for dinner this evening.” I froze. “Were we supposed to have dinner together tonight?” I asked, straining to remember which young female I’d have to call to cancel this evening’s planned rendezvous. “Oh, yes, now I remember, 6 o’clock at Le Jardin, right?” Harry shook his head. “Five o’clock at my house,” he corrected me, adding with a hard look, “Be there.” Returning in silence to my office, I closed the door tight behind me; the harshness of his tone ringing in my head as I considered my father’s dinner invitation. At least once or twice a month my father and I got together at one of our favorite restaurants to talk both business and personal matters. He almost never asks me out to the house. The way he was out and out glaring at me during the meeting, maybe I should insist that we meet in a public place. *** Despite my reluctance (read: out and out terror) I headed out that evening to the Clark family manor; a three-story ivory stone mansion that boasted stained glass windows, broad balconies and a sprawling front porch, vines of entwining ivy adorning the smooth, sandstone walls, and a luminous roof of domed crystalline. Not a bad place to grow up, I thought as I unlocked and opened a side entrance to access the family dining room. I smiled as I immediately recognized the lush gold brocade wallpaper and the French Impressionist watercolors that lined our family dining room; my grin broadening as I paused to think about the wonderful woman who had raised me between these elegant walls. I still could picture my mom seated on the edge of her favorite floral print couch, watching me with a smile as I played with blocks and super hero figures in the middle of the floor; or as we shared a special movie or TV show that we’d watched umpteen times—memorizing every line and singing every song. I thought tenderly about the close relationship I had shared with my mother as I stared out the panes of some elegant French doors to the back yard area where she and I once played and had long conversations about everything from school to our family life to my future. A future that I always thought would include her. I also paused to remember all of the delicious meals that we shared in our family dining room; I turned now to step into this room, adorned as it was with plush mauve carpeting, as well as a long table lined with a lace cloth, ivory linens and hand embroidered placemats. How I wished I was sitting down to enjoy one of Mom’s famous chicken dinners, with her by my side as we clinked our glasses together and shared one of our many private jokes. Instead I approached our table alone; drawing a deep sigh as I prepared for what I feared would be a far less pleasant meal. Taking my usual seat at the side of the table, I greeted Ellie, the adorable grey haired woman that had served as my family’s maid for the past 30 years, and thanked her profusely as she presented me with a silver platter topped with a steaming serving of turkey and dressing; along with some generous sides of seasoned vegetables and cranberry sauce. “My favorite!” I praised her, patting her shoulder with tender affection. Ellie nodded. “I thought that in anticipation of your chat with your father, you’d need all the energy you could muster,” she told me, shooting me what seemed to be a sympathetic glance. As if on cue, we were joined in the dining room by a stone faced Harry Clark; issuing a quick “Thank you” to Ellie as she set his dinner plate at the head of the table and made a hasty retreat for the kitchen. “Hey, Dad!” I greeted him cheerily, taking up my silver utensils between fingers that seemed to be trembling, just slightly. “This food looks absolutely delicious!” I froze as my father sat down in his seat with a hard, forceful flourish; leaning across the table to sear me with a gaze that nearly killed my appetite. “And you won’t eat a bite of it before listening good and close to everything your father has to say,” he barked, adding as he pointed an accusing finger in my direction, “You, Son, are a highly intelligent, very personable and inordinately striking young man.” I shook my head. “Is this your own special way of telling me off?” I blinked, adding with a defined smirk, “If so, then by all means, heap on the abuse. I do believe I can take it!” “You do indeed have a great many natural gifts,” Harry continued, searing me with a hard look. “And you are constantly abusing them, using them to cut corners, take shortcuts and make excuses. Measures you need to take quite often, as you’re constantly running late for meetings, that is, when you’re not missing them altogether. Your work reports are thin on substance and brim with filler; and your team members, including myself, are constantly having to cover for you as you continuously shirk your job duties and underperform on projects, that is, when you’re not bailing on projects altogether.” He paused here, stroking his chin in thought as he added, “And after a great deal of thought and consideration, I do believe I've discovered the reason for your behavior.” I shrugged. “My innately rebellious nature, which just screams of restless youthful insolence?” I offered. “Women,” Harry corrected me, and quick. “If you spend all of your time chasing around every pair of surgically enhanced breasts you see, then how can you concentrate on your work?” I shrugged. “Well what do you expect?” I looked him straight in the eyes. “I’m young, I’m healthy, and women happen to be drawn to me.” Harry nodded. “Indeed they are,” he allowed, adding as he shook his head slowly from side to side, “I’m finding, though, that our colleagues and clients at Clark Industries are not quite so drawn to you. I’m beginning to hear complaints about your apparent lack of interest in our projects as demonstrated by your tardiness and inattentiveness during meetings and work sessions.” I shook my head. “That’s just not true, Dad,” I objected, adding as I lifted my chin to prideful effect. “You saw our colleagues at that meeting today. They were eating out of the palm of my hand.” Dad sighed. “I did some follow up calls after the meeting, Son, and while our clients and co-workers do adore you as a person, they really didn’t learn all that much from the presentation,” he revealed. “And what little they did learn, came from the information that Lily provided.” He paused here, adding with a heavy sigh, “You’re the vice CEO of my company, son, and you approach your job with all the dedication and seriousness of a lackey just hired in the clerk’s office. Now, Oliver, I know that I’ve been going a little soft on you since your mom died five years ago. And believe me, losing my dear Irene took an incredible toll on my life as well…” I had heard enough. “Mom has nothing to do with this, leave her out of it!” I ordered him, adding more softly, “I’m just having some fun, that’s all.” Harry sighed. “I’m not saying that you should live like a monk,” he told me, adding with a shrug, “You just need to give up all the bimbos and find one good woman; someone who can help you get on track, who can give you focus and purpose in your life. And to help you along this new and sure to be difficult path… I’ve arranged for you to see a relationship counselor once a week.” I rolled my eyes. “As thrilling as that sounds, Dad, I do believe I’ll take a pass on that idea,” I told him, adding as I rose from the table, “I will make an effort, though, to make it in earlier each morning, and to concentrate more on our goals and projects.” Harry shook his head. “I’d love to believe you, Son, but unfortunately I don’t,” he sighed. “I’ve heard so many of your empty promises, and you manage to break them every time. So this time I’m going to have to force the issue. I’m going to have to insist that you see the relationship counselor, a wonderful lady named Ann Goldman, once a week. And until you get your personal and professional life in order, I’m also going to have to insist that you give up your late nights and your wild overnight dates.” Clutching the back of my chair with frustrated hands, I looked my father straight in the eyes and said, “And what if I don’t?” Breaking our gaze, my father cast his gaze to the table and said, “If you fail to comply with my request, son, then I’m afraid I’m going to have to take it all away from you. Your job, your inheritance, your future in our company… I will strip you of your job title and all of your benefits, including your credit line. It will all be gone.” I looked at him for a long moment, then nodded. “Fine,” I said finally. “I’ll talk to whoever you want, and I’ll show up for work on time, every day, and ready to work.” And when I go home at night, I added silently. I’ll continue to lead my life exactly as I damned well please. Chapter Three ~ Lily After a fairly uneventful weekend, I trekked back into the office at 9 a.m. Monday; my mind already formulating a comprehensive to-do list that would carry me through the week. When Oliver comes in at 10, I’ll have to remind him yet again to file that report on the McKenzie account and to return those phone calls to Ms. Fisher and Mr. Bingham; otherwise we just might lose those accounts. I rolled my eyes heavenward. Of course, the very assumption that Oliver Clark will arrive at work any time before noon may in itself be overly optimistic, if not downright far reaching in scope. As I cleared the entrance to my office space, I started to hum just a few relevant bars of that old chestnut ‘The Impossible Dream’; pondering as I did just how many items on my comprehensive to-do list would actually get ‘to-done,’ so to speak; and sometime in the next century, preferably. Honestly, I was just about to give up on that man; and judging from the reports that I was hearing about his performance, or lack thereof, at Friday’s meeting, his father was about to surrender the cause as well. When will Oliver ever learn? I mused, shaking my head from side to side in a show of sheer resignation. When will he learn that life isn’t a game and that his foolish actions, that is, when he even bothers to ‘act’ are putting our jobs and his company in danger? My musings were disrupted by the sound of a loud, sharp bump resounding from an adjoining office; one that just happened to be the private office of my previously mentioned boss, Oliver Clark. Of course, calling the place an office is only cautiously optimistic. I gritted my teeth as I considered just a few of the sights that I had witnessed upon scaling the confines of those four walls. The room more aptly could be defined a napping or, upon occasion, a trysting spot. One thing was for sure; no one opened the door to Oliver’s inner sanctum much before 10 a.m. at the earliest; and even this was an optimistic prediction for a Monday morning, given the usual, downright chaotic state of his weekend social schedule. On Monday mornings, from what I understand, he generally doesn’t make it out of bed by 10, let alone into the office, so unless the cleaning lady is making her rounds early this week, I’m guessing that the person currently rustling around in his office is not, in fact, him. So just who is making that noise? I pondered, freezing in my place as yet another loud bump resounded from the confines of Oliver’s office. Fearing the worst, I grabbed hold of a cast iron, silver polished horse statuette that sat at the edge of my desk; hoisting it high in the air as I walked with slow, cautious steps in the direction of Oliver’s office. My breathing suspended as I stepped through his doorway; and when I saw Oliver Clark standing at his filing cabinet, clearing the cabinet of dusty old folders and tossing them on the floor, I was pretty darned sure I’d never breathe again. “Oliver,” I sputtered, shaking my head slowly from side to side in a show of complete and utter disbelief. “What are you doing here?” Oliver shrugged. “I work here, Lily,” he replied, pinning me with another one of his dazzling smiles. “And since I managed to net us a new account this morning, I thought I’d better make some room in our cabinet for some new client files.” He paused here, those dark eyes narrowing in what seemed to be a quizzical look. “It turns out I have a question for you, as well. Why are you standing there with your favorite horse statue poised oh so gracefully above your head?” Glancing upward, I wondered at the vision of my own outstretched arms; holding up a statue that I’d obviously intended to double as a deadly weapon. “Um,” I bit my lip, adding as I began to wave and shift the sculpture back and forth in the air, “Actually I just washed and polished The Sterling Stallion here, so now it looks even more, um, sterling. Now I just have to air dry it.” Oliver nodded. “Well when you’re done, please take a moment to step into my office so we can have a bull session,” he asked, using a phrase that I’d only heard pass the lips of his father. “I have to discuss this new account with you, as well as update you on the status of some of our other projects; we really need to get moving on a few of these cases. I know I have a billion phone calls to make, e-mails to answer, and memos to write, so I need your advice on what to do first, so I can catch up as quickly as possible.” I froze in my place, my mind reeling as I fought to reconcile the words I was hearing with the person that spoke them. “Oh, well certainly,” I sputtered, casting a suspicious glance in his direction as I turned from his door. “Right away, Oliver.” Within minutes, Oliver and I sat in his office, discussing our current clients and projects as Oliver pressed me with a million questions; most of which, much to my amazement, actually made sense and were pertinent to our work here at Clark Industries. Even more shockingly, he actually took notes as we spoke and asked pertinent follow up questions; what was the flippin’ deal?! And he even made some surprisingly valid observations and suggestions regarding our company, its endeavors and its future. On this day, and on each day following, Oliver and I conducted additional ‘bull sessions,’ as he liked to call them; and I was utterly amazed to see just how little bull these sessions actually featured; quite the contrary, it was evident that Oliver had been doing a lot of reading, studying and actually thinking in the past few days—much to my continuing shock and unabated amazement. By the end of the week I was passing convinced that my boss had been abducted by aliens; and that said aliens had dropped an uncanny and equally striking duplicate of said employer square in his office chair. This very realistic Oliver clone returned his phone messages, answered his e-mails, attended all work-related meetings on time, and actually offered solid ideas and constructive advice during the course of these meetings. I no longer had to nag him into doing his job; and the only phone calls he refused to answer came, not from clients, but from various ladies who once had been objects of Oliver’s fleeting attentions, judging from their basic telephone manners. Then at the end of the week, Oliver did something truly unthinkable and totally out of character; something that seemed to confirm the idea that he’d been overtaken by alien forces or, I dunno, perhaps he’d suffered a stroke or similar attack that affected his mind and morphed his behavioral patterns. Coming to stand before my desk on Friday afternoon, he charmed me with a dazzling, white toothed smile and asked, “Any chance you’d like to have dinner with me tonight?” Doubling over behind my desk, I unceremoniously coughed up a stream of steaming hot coffee I’d just recently consumed, all over the surface of a memo I’d just drafted in reference to a new account. “I’ll just hop on my computer and retype that memo,” I murmured, shifting my office chair in the direction of my computer. Oliver chuckled. “And while you’re doing that, Lily, could you please consider my offer?” he asked, keeping his gaze trained on me as I hammered my keyboard with rough, distracted strokes. “Well, before I answer,” I shot him a wary glance over my sturdy shoulder, “I guess I’d just like to know why you’d like to have dinner with me.” Oliver shrugged. “I have no ulterior motives here, Lily. I’d just like to spend more time with you to get to know you a bit better,” he insisted, raising his hands before him in a defensive stance. “I’d also like to celebrate your two year work anniversary with an evening out at Le Jardin, my favorite French restaurant downtown. Not to mention the date; Valentine’s Day.” “Le Jardin?” My fingers paused on my keyboard as I heard the name of an exclusive eatery that had always lingered slightly out of my price range; the type of place where they actually have ladies room attendants to hand you your soap and the servers monitor your eating experience with expert precision, lest you be in need of additional breadsticks. “I’ve always wanted to sample their menu, but I never could afford to… that is, I never could afford to take the time to go. So, yes, I’d be more than pleased to accept your invitation.” The reference to Valentine’s Day flew over my head at first, though as I thought more and more about his proposition, the words stuck with me. Whatever could he mean? *** How long had it been since I’d actually been out to dinner? And with a man? It had apparently been quite some time since this bizarre combination of circumstances had touched and affected my life; seeing as how I had to clear the mothballs from, and hand wash, the basic black dress that had hung too long near the back of my clothes closet in direct proximity to the Frankie Says Relax T-shirt I hadn’t worn since the dawn of my teen years. Even so, I admired the way that this ebony frock flattered and accentuated my curves and I sought to enhance the effect by running a brush through my sensible bob and applying just a touch of rarely worn lipstick. Not bad, Ashton, I winked at myself in the mirror, but only briefly. Why, I wondered, was I making such a big fuss over a date with Oliver Clark? An appointment that, for all intents and purposes, probably wasn’t even a real date? Oh, sure, he’d invited me to a formal dinner at a nice restaurant and since he was a single man and I was an oh so available woman, and no one else was expected in attendance at this evening appointment, I guess it could for all intents and purposes be considered a date. I was sure, though, that the motivation behind this occasion was not even remotely romantic in nature. As I’d noted many times before, I was not exactly the type of gal that Oliver tended to date, and if he had any semblance of romantic interest in me, surely he would have expressed those feelings long before now.. He probably just wanted to pump me for more information about the way we do business at Clark Industries. Or maybe he’d finally come to realize my true worth and endless value to his company and really just wanted to find a way to say thank you in the form of a grand and impressive gesture that took the form of a gourmet dinner. Oh, does it really matter? It’s a free dinner with a passing handsome man, one that probably equals two months rent, at least at the dump where I currently reside, and is going to taste really, really good. I shot myself a sly smile in the mirror’s reflection before turning to answer the brisk knock that resounded from my front door. “I’ll be right there, Oliver!” My eyes flew wide moments later, as I swung open my front door to reveal a distinguished grey-haired man in a sleek black suit and matching cap. “Ms. Ashton?” he beamed. “At this point I’m sure of nothing,” I replied, tone blank as I looked over my visitor’s shoulder to see a shiny black limousine pulled up at my curb. “Is that ride mine? Or did someone in my neighborhood pass away?” The man laughed. “Rest assured that all of your neighbors are in very good health,” he told her, adding as he tipped his cap in her direction, “The car you see before you was rented by one Mr. Oliver Clark, to see you safely to Le Jardin restaurant where he will meet you for your dinner date.” I shook my head. “Oliver hired a limo?” I gasped out, voice barely above a whisper. “For me?” I got my answer soon enough, as my swanky hired ride swept me across town to the door of Le Jardin; a classically designed restaurant that boasted pure, gold-tinted sandstone walls, stained glass windows, and a domed roof that shone pure scarlet in the light of the setting sun. Stepping through the brass-handled doors that fronted this impressive structure, I gaped outright at the vision of splendor that lurked within; a spectacle accented in grand style by lace-covered tables, crystal chandeliers, assorted floral arrangements brimming over with scarlet roses, ivory orchids and pearl pink carnations, as well as lush examples of Impressionist art lining the walls of gold brocade. “Beautiful,” I breathed, standing stock still at the center of the restaurant. “Yes, Lily. You are.” Jumping at the sound of a deep, masculine voice that purred into my ear, I turned to face a vision of beauty that surpassed that of our ethereal surroundings. Adorned this evening in a black velvet dinner suit and sleek white satin shirt, Oliver was the picture of gentlemanly refinement. It’s a good thing I know better, I mused with a grin, my gaze all the while devouring the radiance of his full, moist lips, carved cheekbones and wide ebony eyes; eyes that seemed to brim with a strange glow as they raked me from head to toe. “Lily,” he said my name soft and sweet as he took my hand in his. “I never knew that you were so…” He didn’t need to finish his sentence; I saw its hidden meeting in the depths of his eyes. His gaze continued to hold mine as he lead me to our table; a plush candlelit setting that boasted crisp ivory linens and beautiful rose print china. Pulling out my chair for me, Oliver then took a seat beside me at the table; taking my hands into his and bringing them to his lips for a warm, affectionate kiss. “Thank you for joining me here tonight,” he told me, tone soft and sincere. “Not a problem,” I shrugged, adding as I raised a finger for emphasis, “Before we eat, though, I wanted to remind you to write your father a memo about…” My eyes flew wide as a smiling Oliver slipped a gentle finger across my lips; shushing me softly as he said, “No talk of work this evening, my dear. This night is for you to enjoy. And for once, dear lady, I’m going to take care of you.” He paused here, adding with a flirty wink, “Prepare to be coddled, catered to and totally spoiled, Miss.” Charmed and strangely excited by his words, I relaxed in my seat and gazed at my menu; trying my darnedest not to gaze at the handsome, affectionate gent before me. After ordering a meal on my behalf (a good thing, as for all my scholarly expertise I’ve never taken as much as a single French class), Oliver and I fell into what I considered a more normal, customary vibe of conversation; discussing our newest clients at the office as well as some old favorites. “I have to say, Oliver, I was impressed by your job performance this week,” I praised him, tipping my crystal wine glass in his direction as I took a primo bite of filet mignon. Oliver snorted. “You mean because I showed up and actually worked?” he deadpanned, arching his feathered eyebrows to sardonic effect. “Actually, Lily, I probably have you to thank for my turnaround at work. For two years you’ve had my back, keeping me on the right track and reminding me to file those reports, make those phone calls. And although Dad is never likely to name me Employee of the Month, I do still have my job, and, all things considered, I do believe I have you to thank for that fact.” I shrugged, grinning in spite of myself as I considered these words. “Well thank you,” I told him, adding as I tapped a reflective fork alongside my dinner plate, “I know I’ve been a bit hard on you at times, Oliver.” I took in my breath as, searing me with an intense gaze, Oliver covered my hand with his. “Oh, I don’t know,” he whispered, gracing me with a catlike grin. “I quite like it when a lovely lady gets rough with me. I’m always at your service, Miss.” Clearing my throat loudly, I welcomed the very timely arrival of our waiter; a jovial, crisply tuxedoed gent who set before me a steaming hot plate of coq au vin, buttered mashed potatoes and seasoned mixed vegetables; all served up with a sparkling beverage I immediately identified as champagne. “About the only time my drinks ever sparkle is when I slip some Alka Seltzer into my water after consuming yet another belly buster pizza for dinner,” I mused—and once I heard the peals of laughter that met this notion, I realized all too late that I’d been ‘musing’ out loud. “You, my dear, are an absolute delight,” Oliver praised me, raising his own frosted goblet to toast my apparently adorable antics. “I’m so glad we’re finally getting to spend some time together outside the office. I want to know everything about you, Lily. I mean, Dad has told me that you were an excellent student and earned a full-ride scholarship through college and that you completed an internship as a clerk at a law office.” He paused here, gracing me with an admiring smile. “You never cease to amaze me, Lily. And while I know all about Lily the student and Lily the professional, I’d love to know more about Lily the woman.” I shrugged. “Lily the woman doesn’t have much to tell you except for the fact that she doesn’t often speak of herself in the third person like this, that’s just weird. Seriously, though, there’s not much to tell,” I told him, setting my champagne glass on the edge of my placemat before taking my silver cast fork firmly in hand; attacking my thick, juicey side of coq au vin with unapologetic vigor. “I grew up in a working class home with parents who adored me but never spoiled me. Oh, they always made sure that I had nice, clean clothes and plenty of food to eat. And I always got what I asked for on Christmas day except that one time during my childhood when I wanted a unicorn that wore rainbow striped roller skates and sang the entire Backstreet Boys song catalogue. And that one time during my teens when I asked for Leonardo DiCaprio.” Oliver laughed. “Lucky Leonardo,” he arched his feathered eyebrows, adding with a wink. “I may not be Mr. Titanic, Lily; but if you ever again feel the need to put a man on your Christmas wish list, I’d be more than pleased to show up at your house wearing a bow…” “I’ve grown up a lot since then,” I interrupted him, my cheeks flushing as I felt the sudden, inexplicable need to change the subject, and fast. “As for what life was like back then, I was an honor student in school but stunk at sports and the vast majority of social activities. I didn’t make the cheerleading team or earn the title of prom queen, as a matter of fact, come to think of it, I didn’t even go to the prom. I stayed home instead to work on my senior project; a comprehensive study of dominating financial trends in the current world marketplace.” Oliver shook his head. “Lily, I myself work for a financial institution, and I have no idea what you just said,” he admitted, pursing his lips in an ironic show of thought. “Has anyone ever tested your IQ? Are you even human? Or could you just be a very cute alien sent from a distant universe to make us pitiful human beings feel all the more idiotic?” I laughed. “Well personally, I think I owe the bulk of my success to my work ethic,” I told Oliver. “My parents always insisted that I do chores around the house, and I went to work with them on a regular basis, to learn more about the work experience. Otherwise, when I wasn’t studying for the next big test or researching that all important essay, I mostly stayed at home and read.” Oliver nodded. “So what is that like?” he queried, leaning forward in his chair and pinning me with an intent gaze. I chuckled. “What is what like, Oliver?” I pressed between bites, arching my eyebrows as I added, “Being a perpetual social outcast throughout the entire duration of one’s school days? Or reading?” Oliver guffawed outright. “Well I must admit that I myself had little time for reading throughout my school days,” he revealed with a shrug. “I was too busy chasing girls, going to parties, and deciding what kind of luxury car I wanted for my 16th birthday, which I celebrated, by the way, by scoring a fake ID and sneaking into a night club.” I rolled my eyes. “Looks like not much has changed,” I observed. Oliver chuckled. “Actually, I would like to do some more reading. I recently realized, Lily, that my looks aren’t going to last forever and my money could disappear at any moment,” he told me, pinning me with a probing gaze as his tone turned oddly serious, especially for Oliver. “I really need to expand my mind, and books are a good place to start. Could you suggest some good authors for me, Lily?” I grinned. “Well I myself have always been partial to Jane Austen,” I reflected, adding with a shrug, “For her time especially she was an amazing writer, and her books always boasted the perfect blend of humor and romance.” I froze as my words were met with a catlike smile; one that further illuminated the features of my dashing date. “Ah romance,” he released on a purr, arching his eyebrows to sexy effect. “Now we’re talking. I’ll definitely check out your beloved Jane Austen, girl, but let me ask you in the meantime, do you ever happen to read any steamy romance? The real sexy stuff?” Oliver said the word ‘sexy’ in a low, soft growl that made my heart beat just a little bit faster. “Well, um…” I stammered a bit, feeling my cheeks flush as I considered his provocative words. “I’ve found that sweet romance can actually be more interesting and scintillating than the steamy stuff, where they’re about as sweet and subtle as the graffiti on the New York City subway.” Oliver laughed. “Oh I don’t know. I actually had a girlfriend once who read…” “You had a girlfriend that read?” I interrupted, almost spitting forth a stream of champagne as I did so. Oliver nodded, seeming as he did to totally miss the irony, not to mention outright shock in my tone. “While I don’t think she ever as much as touched anything resembling a classic, she loved to read aloud to me some sample passages from her favorite steamy reads,” he revealed, his tone low and sensual as he covered my hand with his. “And I loved acting out those passages even more. Tell me, Lily, do you like that idea? I could become your favorite romance hero in a heartbeat.” I had heard enough. “OK Clark, what gives?” I demanded, taking my hand from his. “Why all the candlelight, the wine, the compliments? It’s nice and everything, but I really didn’t believe that a second work anniversary warranted anything more than a pizza and maybe a raise.” I paused here, adding with lips pursed, “Now about that raise…” Disrupting my words with a long, hard sigh, Oliver shook his head as his gaze collided with the table beneath us. “I never could put anything over on you, Lily,” he finally looked up at me, adding with a shrug. “I need your help, now more than ever. My dad has given me something of an ultimatum; he says that, if my job performance doesn’t improve immediately, I stand to lose everything; my job, my inheritance, my whole way of life.” Sobering immediately, I grabbed Oliver’s hands across the table and said, “Hey Oliver, don’t worry about it. You’ve already been doing much better this week, and I’ll report as much to Mr. Clark. I’ll also do everything in my power to help you do even better…” “Would you consider posing as my girlfriend?” Oliver interrupted me, tone low and sincere. I froze. “Um, Oliver,” I sputtered, shaking my head from side to side. “Have you been drinking too much Chablis du Something or Other, or have I? Because I swore you just said…” “This is no joke, Lily,” Oliver shook his head, adding in an earnest tone, “Dad is insisting that I undergo relationship counseling. He also insists that I settle down with a sensible, reliable woman that I can really commit to. Someone who will keep me on the right track as I do my part to build up our business.” I nodded. “Has your father actually met any of the ladies that you date?” I frowned. Oliver chuckled. “Yes, once or twice, by accident and he despised each and every one of them,” he revealed, adding with a warm smile, “But he adores you. He would love to see us together, so I say we give him what he wants… in a totally false and deceptive way, of course.” “Of course,” I pursed my lips, adding as I dropped my fork and folded my hands before me, “And what exactly would I be getting out of this?” Oliver smiled. “Oh, not much,” he shrugged, adding with an expansive gesture, “Except, of course, for dinners at elegant restaurants such as this one, shopping trips at all of your favorite department stores (and, of course, I’ll simply have to establish a line of credit for you at each of these stores), front row seats at plays and ballets, staged at the finest theaters in town. Would that be good, for starters?” I looked at him for a long moment, then shook my head. “I don’t know, Oliver, this is all so sudden,” I shifted in my seat. “And I am not sure how I feel about lying to Harry, he’s been so good to me.” Oliver sighed. “Just think of it this way,” he reasoned. “You’ll be making the old man very happy. And, if all goes well, you’ll also be saving my rear.” And what a darned cute rear it is, I answered internally, and in spite of my best judgment, adding aloud, “Well it won’t be the first time I’ve saved your proverbial behind, now will it? This situation seems different, however. I’m not sure if I can do this.” Oliver nodded. “I know it’s a lot to ask,” he allowed, squeezing my fingers tender between his. “Listen, why don’t you think about it over the weekend and give me your answer on Monday morning?” I thought a moment, then nodded my agreement. “Fair enough,” I confirmed with a nod. The rest of our evening passed far too quickly for my liking. Oliver apparently felt the same way, as he culminated our date by insisting that he share the limo ride that would take me home. “Well, it is your limo,” I shrugged. “Have at it.” We said little during the ride home; and when we arrived at my modest brownstone home Oliver insisted on walking me to the door. “In this neighborhood,” I deadpanned, taking his arm as we began the long trek up the length of my sidewalk. At the door he turned to me, saying nothing as we stared deep into one another’s eyes. I couldn’t help but admire the ethereal vision of Oliver by moonlight; his bronzed skin and cinnamon hair both glowing in an almost angelic manner. I also couldn’t help but notice the way his cocoa hued eyes now illuminated with a certain emotion; something that seemed to reflect a definite air of pure romantic interest, or perhaps even passion. No, it couldn’t be, I must be mistaken. Yet the sudden presence of his lips across mine silenced my thoughts. I took in my breath as Oliver swept me up in his strong arms and pulled me closer than close; his full, moist lips massaging mine as he cradled me against his toned chest. Leaning into his kiss, I savored the feel of our entwining tongues as I sank into his arms; our mouths molding and rubbing together as his tongue continued to massage my mouth. Finally I broke the kiss; pulling away with a sharp gasp as I whispered, “Oliver, what are we doing?” He said nothing at first, only stared at me for a timeless moment before turning away. “Maybe what we should have been doing all along,” he said over his shoulder. These words, and his kiss, echoed in my mind an hour later, as I lay ensconced in the soft satin sheets that adorned my basic, wood upholstered bed; shutting my eyes tight as I tried in futility to will myself to sleep. While my imagination relived and repeated the magic of our first kiss, my conscious mind still wrestled with his insane proposition; an idea that I still couldn’t wrap my head around, let alone accept. Harry Clark trusts me. How will he feel if he finds out I’ve lied to him, deceived him? And how will I feel when I’m walking the unemployment line? I also wondered if I was really doing Oliver a favor by carrying out his deceptive little charade; or if I was simply aiding and abetting the continuation of a lifestyle that could cost him his future? As I came to a decision, my body finally relaxed in the depths of my bed. On Monday morning I’ll simply tell him that the answer is no. Of course, that answer was mighty easy to formulate when I wasn’t standing in front of him, staring into those big brown eyes. And when he wasn’t busy kissing away every ounce of good sense I had… Chapter Four ~ Oliver What was happening to me? I generally spent my weekends in the company of a hot young blonde, enjoying outdoor pursuits that included boating, parasailing, and horseback riding; plus indoor pursuits that included watching flicks on my big screen TV and… well, watching some more flicks on my big screen TV. And doing other things with my bevy of beautiful young companions that did not involve the use of any electronic devices; well, not on a general basis, anyway… Following my date with Lily, though, I managed to spend the next two days all alone and ensconced in my townhouse; my emotions veering wildly as I considered the events of Friday night. I couldn’t stop thinking about how beautiful Lily looked on our date, and the passion of her kiss; I just couldn’t believe I had worked with this woman every day and failed to notice her radiance, no, her out and out sexiness! Where, I wondered, had this amazing woman been hiding all this time? And why hadn’t I made more of an effort to bring out her sexier, more feminine side? Of course, I myself already knew the answer to this question; even I realized all too well the dangers of mixing business with pleasure. I had made the mistake of getting involved with several of my previous assistants, many of which I had handpicked because of skills and assets that had little to do with typing or even expert coffee making and had been forced to deal with the consequences. For a while I was careful never to pressure or in any way harass any woman in my employ. Indeed, given the number of kisses, embraces and pinches in delicate places I received on a daily basis, I was the one that often felt objectified and, mind you, I thoroughly enjoyed every minute of it, I had engaged in office affairs with a number of my previous assistants. And inevitably, the situation would blow up in my face; resulting in arguments, distractions, and lost work productivity. This is why my father had insisted on hiring my next PA himself; basing this hire on the education and intellectual qualifications of each candidate that applied, as opposed to, say, her measurements and makeup application techniques. In Lily Ashton, Dad had found an intelligent, capable woman that wasn’t likely to distract me with her obvious charms. Why, then, did I now feel ‘charmed’ to the point of distraction? Why couldn’t I stop thinking about the Lily in bloom; the glamorous, funny, sexy, and totally captivating woman that I was just really getting to know? I couldn’t remember the last time I’d spent such an enjoyable evening with a lady… and what a lady she was, amazing me with her charm, beauty and humor. I’d wanted to kiss her all evening; and when I finally did, the pleasure and excitement that I felt nearly overwhelmed me. Far more than a meaningless tryst, my evening with Lily seemed to symbolize a friendship and professional partnership that had suddenly caught fire; stirring within me certain emotions that I didn’t even know existed. Tenderness. Caring. Even a sense of boyish infatuation that actually made me blush every time I thought of her. Even as I basked in the memory of our date, replaying its events over and over again in my mind, I also felt wrought with an unfamiliar tension; an emotion also tied to the woman that seemed to be ruling my mind. I knew that the prospect of playing my girlfriend made her uncomfortable; and, as I mentioned earlier, I never wanted to make any of my employees feel harassed or uncomfortable, especially not the woman that aided and supported me so much, and on a daily basis. Yet as much as I hated to put her in this tough position, I myself was beginning to really like the idea of our little charade. I relished the idea of enjoying more time with this special, most enchanting woman; exposing her to the theater, the night life, all of the glitz and glamour that our beautiful tropical city had to offer; also showering her with all of the glamorous clothes and glittering baubles that a woman could ask for, trinkets that would do even more to bring out the hidden beauty that I now knew lie deep within her. And I just had to admit it; I also looked forward to stealing even more clandestine kisses from my new crush; tasting those cherry red lips, feeling that luscious body tense in my arms as desire tempted and overcame her. I vaguely wondered just what would happen if I tried to take things further; if I made a move to unleash the sensual beast that I sensed lie deep within her. Indeed, during the nights that elapsed between our Friday night date and Monday’s work day, I found myself plagued with sensual dreams of this siren I was just coming to know. Again and again I remembered her kiss and the passion it promised and I ventured to dream of what would happen if I tempted her further, exposing her to a whole new world of pleasure that she just might find irresistible. Alternately, she might just slap me silly and call me out for the pervert I am. Somebody needs to give me a good slap right now, to straighten me out, to remind me of the fact that I’m entering into this arrangement with Lily just to please my father, and to keep my job and my inheritance. Of course I would continue to see my real girlfriends on the side; and, of course, Lily also would be free to see anyone she liked on the nights that we weren’t together. And I won’t be jealous at all, I insisted with a sniff. Finally Monday morning arrived. Awakening earlier than usual, I dressed up a bit in the royal blue suit I knew Lily liked; taking special care to comb my hair to perfection and splash on just a hint of the cologne that drove most of my dates insane. Of course, Lily wasn’t anything like those girls; and as I finally drove up to the impressive front entrance of our towering office building, I felt much like a nervous school boy ready to meet his teacher. I even felt my heart pound a bit as I exited my car, and I cleared the door of our office suite with no small degree of trepidation; meeting her with a questioning look as I approached her desk. “I’ll do it,” she told me, dispensing with all pleasantries as she folded her arms before her. “But on my terms. While we’re at the office, Oliver, we will remain strictly professional, focusing only on our work and on our clients. And while I’d be more than pleased to accompany you to any function, especially the ballet, and to allow you to purchase the occasional gift for me—preferably at Dalton’s Department Store, on the corner of Fifth and Main downtown, right next to Bozo’s Novelty Shop, where I also like to browse on occasion—I cannot and will not provide you with any, ur, personal services.” She paused here, thrusting her hand out in my direction. “Deal?” I took her hand in mine and rose it to my lips for a long, smooth kiss. For just a moment we stood in silence, staring at one another as memories of our special evening flooded my mind. “Deal,” I whispered, staring deep into her eyes. “And I’d very much like to discuss our arrangement further over dinner. Are you free Wednesday evening?” Lily thought for a moment, then nodded. “I’ll have to take a second look at my social schedule, but—oh, who am I kidding?” she scoffed, rolling her eyes heavenward. “Give me a free meal and another chance to play dress up, and I’ll be there. Just please keep in mind, of course, that I’m only doing this to help save your hide around here, and mine, for that matter.” I nodded. “Understood,” I reassured her, adding with arched eyebrows, “I only hope that, while you’re busy saving our hides, you’ll manage to have just a little bit of fun as well.” *** Lily So what was the big deal? I’d been to Dalton’s Department Store dozens of times; but usually only on Clearance Days, or during specially designated holiday sales. This time when I passed its impressive double doors, I was personally escorted back to a room filled with beautiful outfits custom selected for me; dresses and pantsuits emblazoned with my favorite colors of scarlet red, pearl pink and pure ebony; and although these clothing items varied greatly in terms of color and style, their price tags were nearly identical. “You. Have. Got. To. Be. Joking.” I shook my head in sheer wonder as I regarded these tags. “I mean, this is absurd. I don’t pay this much in rent each month.” I jumped as my words were met with a low, smooth chuckle; one emanating from the man who sat before me in a cherry wood chair at the center of the Dalton’s show room. “Don’t look at the price tags, babe,” Oliver said, himself sharply dressed in a sleek white pant suit, waving away my concerns with a dismissive hand. “Just the clothes. Pick out what you like, try it on, and let me know the verdict. Then I shall proceed to buy anything and everything you happen to like. Does that work?” I thought a moment, then nodded. “My name is not babe, Oliver. It’s Lily,” I informed him, even as I pulled a sleek scarlet dress from its place on a defenseless garment rack and secured it in my hot little hands. “And, yes, that works just fine.” Moments later I stood in the Dalton’s dressing room, facing the image of a woman I didn’t know. No, my space hadn’t been unexpectedly invaded by a creeper of the female persuasion. I was rather confronted by a mirror image that didn’t seem true to its source. Surely the raven-haired temptress in the sleek, knee length red satin dress wasn’t me. I had no idea that a single dress could be so transformative; accentuating my curves, illuminating my skin and setting off my freshly brushed hair. “Wow,” I breathed, turning with a flourish for the door of the dressing room. This same sentiment was reflected in the eyes of the man that awaited me in the showroom. “Lily,” Oliver breathed, surging from his chair to approach me at the center of the room. Taking my hand in his, Oliver raised it high above my head and twirled me in a dramatic flourish; his eyes devouring me from head to toe as he breathed, “A lily in bloom.” Snapping his fingers to attract the attention of a nearby sales clerk, Oliver instructed her to find a diamond necklace with matching earbobs; both of us marveling as she produced some brilliant baubles to accompany my stunning new dress. “My princess,” he breathed, his sturdy fingers feeling the dazzling gems that lingered at my throat—also grazing the sensitive skin that lay underneath. “You’re just glowing.” With gentle hands he turned me in the direction of a nearby mirror; allowing me to witness the shine of the diamonds as they glowed radiant in the lights above us. He expressed similar reactions to the next five outfits I tried on; four of which also struck a chord of awe in my slightly dazzled psyche. The pearl pink pantsuit ironically braided with actual, honest to God beads. The black velvet mini dress both sleek and sexy. The azure blue sundress that dipped low at the neck and flared becomingly at the skirt. The ivory lace gown that fell to my feet and rose high at the neck. Each of these apparel pieces was a work of haute couture, sure to render me the belle of the ball at any party, night club or formal function. Too bad the last outfit which was a lime green pantsuit that would make Marilyn Monroe appear drab and staid. “Breathtaking,” Oliver praised, applauding me in full view of the shop. “Bull hockey,” I replied, planting my hands square on my curvaceous hips. “Wait here while I slip back into the red number and we’ll head over to Le Jardin. It’s obvious that your hunger is affecting your eyesight.” Soon I found myself back at the site of our first formal date eating a luscious feast of French onion soup, tender, succulent beef bourguinon, creamy au gratin potatoes, and chocolate ganache. The food was heaven on a plate and my companion was heaven on legs. I’d fall just short of calling him an angel… “Enjoying yourself, Lily?” Oliver purred, breaking my train of thought irrevocably with his soft, dulcet tones. “I hope so, because I myself am thoroughly enjoying my time with you.” I snorted. “Now why on earth would I enjoy myself?” I sniffed out, rolling my eyes heavenward. “You’ve bought me a whole new wardrobe, each piece of which carries a price tag that equals my monthly car payment. And you spotted me a diamond necklace that bears a suspicious resemblance to the one my mom had to wait a quarter century for. Indeed, it took my dad all that time to save up for that bauble, which he gave to her as a 25th anniversary gift. Now you’re paying for me to eat a dinner to die for, most components of which I can’t easily pronounce.” Oliver chuckled. “Oh darling, don’t sell yourself short,” he chided me, adding as he ran his free hand through the tendrils of my hair. “I bet you not only could spell and pronounce each and every one of the dishes we enjoyed today, but you probably could tell me something about their origins, and the master chef that created them. Just like in the department store, when I bought you the Chanel perfume and you told me all about the wonderful life of Coco Chanel.” I nodded. “I must admit she’s an idol of mine,” I beamed. “In a time when women weren’t supposed to work at all, she worked her way up from nothing, creating an empire that took Paris and the world by storm. What an amazing woman!” “Well look who’s talking!” Oliver replied, eyes aglow with what seemed to be tender admiration. “Lily, most of the ladies I date couldn’t even pronounce Coco’s last name. They’d be asking me just which ‘channel’ was sponsoring the perfume, ABC or NBC. And now thanks to you, I have every intention of renting that movie you mentioned, that tells her life story.” I grinned. “Coco Before Chanel, starring Audrey Tautou and directed by Anne Fontaine—I’m a big aficionado of female directors, from Lupino to Bigelow,” I supplied. “Put it on your Netflix queue, I command you. And if you like, I could also recommend a lot of great books about Coco’s life.” “I insist on it,” Oliver agreed, adding as he raised my hand to his full, warm lips for a delectable kiss, “Providing, of course, that you watch the movie with me, filling me in, of course, on any gaps in Coco’s life that the film may have missed.” He paused here, nudging my shoulder with gentle affection as he added, “This is one of the reasons I love the idea of this arrangement, Lily. I want to see everything through your eyes, from the ballet to the theater, books to Broadway plays. I can’t wait to drink in more of your knowledge, both in and out of the office.” Covering his hand on my shoulder, I met his affectionate gaze with one of my own as I told him, “Well thanks to you, Oliver, I can actually own and wear some of Coco’s finest perfume and see some of the plays and ballets that until now I’ve only heard about,” I paused here, shaking my head in wonder at the very idea. “I have to admit it, Oliver, I can’t wait to get started. And if I happen to teach you a thing or two along the way, well, all the better.” I took in my breath as his fingers clenched mine. Slowly and deliberately his thumb rubbed my palm as he whispered, “And perhaps, Lily, I could teach you a thing or two in return. Things you just might enjoy, very much.” Clearing my throat loudly, I wrenched my hand from his and grabbed up my fork. “Behave, Oliver,” I chided him, adding as I gestured around us with a very proud and purposeful utensil, “Not in front of the stuffy French restaurant.” Two hours later we finished up a sumptuous three course dinner at the center table at Oliver’s favorite French restaurant; and I blushed in spite of myself as he called over a strolling violinist that strolled free across the plush ivory carpeting that lined the floor of the eatery. “Do you know ‘Ma Cherie Amour’?” he asked him. The violinist nodded. “Mais bien sur,” he affirmed, launching in to the opening notes of the signature love song. “He just said, ‘But of course!’” I clapped my hands, adding with a smile, “Those French lessons you’ve been giving me between our meetings are really starting to stick.” Letting loose with a melodious laugh, Oliver surged with a flourish from his seat and extended a chivalrous hand in my direction. “Care to dance?” he offered on a whisper, arching his feathered eyebrows in my direction. In lieu of a verbal answer I accepted his hand, standing from my seat to join him on the compact dance floor that occupied the center of Le Jardin. Taking me gently into the clasp of his strong, sturdy arms, Oliver pulled me closer than close as we swung across the crisp tiled floor; staring deep into my eyes as our hands joined and our gazes collided. “Now Oliver…” I let loose with a nervous laugh. “Let’s make this our first and last dance of the evening. We do have work tomorrow, and we’d better get to bed early.” I regretted my words seconds later, as the mention of the word ‘bed’ brought a curious gleam to Oliver’s cocoa hued eyes; a gleam that soon erupted into a narrow eyed leer that stole my breath. “Why Ms. Ashton,” he murmured into my ear. “I do like the way you think.” I had heard enough. “I meant that we should go to bed separately, at our respective homesteads,” I clarified, clearing my throat loudly. “We do, after all, have a meeting with your dad and our new clients first thing at 9 a.m…” Shushing me gently, Oliver pulled me closer to him and nestled my neck; his full, moist lips rubbing my skin “No more talk of business, Lily.” Oliver said my name like the sweetest poetry. “I want you to enjoy your time with me, my dear. Think of this whole experience… as your fantasy.” Without awaiting a response, Oliver pulled me closer to him; his luscious lips nestling my earlobe as he began to croon in my ear; singing the tender lyrics of ‘Ma Cherie Amour’ into my ear as I melted in response. Throwing my head back, my eyes closed as I basked in the sounds of a flawless melody; my heart pounding as he pulled me closer still. As my head lowered to rest in the cradle of his massive, sculpted chest, my mind swam with memories of our first passionate kiss—suddenly I felt his lips on mine, as I recalled with relish our momentary indiscretion. Only suddenly I realized that the kiss I experienced was no memory of times past. Oliver’s lips had claimed mine as he swayed me across the dance floor; bending my body backward in a thrilling dip as his smooth, full mouth rubbed and massaged my own. For a timeless moment I surrendered to his kiss; devouring his lips as our tongues entangled and the music surged around us. And then it happened. Of course it did. It just had to; as the violinist delivered the final notes of “Ma Cherie Amour,” someone just had to say it. “I’ll have what she’s having.” Bolting upright and out of Oliver’s arms, I bounded toward our table; collecting my purse and turning for the door. “I’m taking a cab home,” I said over my shoulder, avoiding Oliver’s probing gaze and vigorous words of protest as I trotted across the floor. “I do believe, Oliver, that we’re doing too good of a job enacting this charade. It’s starting to feel just a little too real.” These words echoed in my mind the next morning, as I walked with slow, trudging steps into our office suite; groaning aloud as I spotted a shiny gold bracelet awaiting me at the center of my desk, its gleaming surface catching the light as it seemed to await my arrival. This sight came as an unwelcome capper to a long and nearly sleepless night; one dotted with forbidden dreams of the man for whom I was beginning to develop a genuine affection. That is, when he wasn’t annoying me to no end. “Oliver!” I called aloud, rolling my eyes heavenward as my boss sauntered casually around the corner. “What did I say yesterday? I really do appreciate the gifts, but this gold bracelet is just too much…” “This is one of the bracelets I bought for you yesterday, at Dalton’s Department Store,” he interrupted me, making a broad gesture in the direction of the controversial bauble. “You wore it to dinner then, after our dance, you wrenched yourself so violently from my arms that your bracelet came off in my hand.” I froze. “Oh, I see,” I let loose with a self-conscious chuckle, quickly retrieving the lost bauble and affixing it to my wrist. “Sorry about that.” Oliver chuckled. “And I in turn am sorry if I came on a little too strong last night,” he allowed with a nod. “We’re having such a wonderful time together, and sometimes I get lost in the moment.” I sighed. “I’m having a wonderful time too,” I admitted, adding with a shrug, “I think we just need to remember to keep our heads about ourselves and, furthermore, to think with those heads as opposed to other, more delicate body parts.” Oliver nodded. “Never an easy proposition for me,” he muttered, tone completely serious. “I think I have an idea, though. Why don’t we have a day date this Saturday? I could meet you at the Remington Country Club, where my family has a running membership, and treat you to some tennis lessons.” I thought for a moment, then nodded. “It’s a public place, we’ll be out in broad daylight, and our only vigorous physical activity will involve a tennis racket and some—um—balls,” I finished weakly, adding with a curt nod, “Sold.” Chapter Five ~ Lily Driving up the tree lined boulevard that fronted the Remington Country Club, I basked in the vision of the ebullient florals that lined my route; the ruby red roses, golden hibiscus and lavender lilies that filled the meadow beside me. And in the midst of all this fragrant greenery was a man that himself resembled a sprite of the forest, with his thick, flowing cinnamon hair, round cocoa eyes and flawless features; if, that is, forest sprites ever made it a habit of wearing skintight blue jeans and a partially buttoned shirt. Oh, and freshly polished cowboy boots. “Sheesh,” I said aloud, grinning through gritted teeth as he waved to me from the midst of the meadow where he sat in the center of a checkerboard blanket lined with what appeared to be various food items. “He doesn’t have to be quite that hot, does he? I mean, really…” Just briefly I lowered my gaze to regard my own apparel for the day; a crisp white tennis dress delivered to me just that morning via the nice folks at Dalton’s; who, I’d noticed, had gotten a heck a lot nicer since my ‘benefactor’ had started paying my tab at the store; indulging my every whim and buying me just the perfect outfit for every occasion, including this one. My lovely white cotton tennis dress bore a V-necked pattern of pearl pink beads at the collar and flared flatteringly at the skirt; highlighting and accentuating my curvaceous form. Sure, the outfit is cute enough, Let’s just hope that my terminal cuteness somehow makes up for the fact that I can’t play tennis. Indeed, I can assure everyone that even Oliver is not going to ‘love’ my loves out there on the court. Pulling up to the side of the curb, I parked my car and made my way into the meadow, coming to an abrupt halt at the border of the blanket. “So you asked me to meet you on the tennis courts,” I told Oliver, adding with arched eyebrows, “It looks like you only made it half way to the courts before collapsing exhausted in the middle of this blanket.” Oliver laughed. “Actually Lily,” he revealed, spreading his arms across a spread that included thick, succulent ham slices, brie with crackers, succulent chocolate bon bons and a bottle filled with sparkling champagne. “I always prefer to have a bit of lunch before I play. Care to join me?” Soon I found myself sipping champagne and chomping on brie as Oliver proceeded to quiz me about pretty much every aspect of my earthly existence. “So Lily,” he asked at one point. “Did you always want to be a personal assistant?” I shook my head. “When I was kid, Oliver, I spent all of my time writing stories,” I told him, smiling at the memory. “All through my childhood, I swore to everyone who would listen that I was going to be a world famous novelist. My parents indulged me to a point, but always suggested that I have a plan B, which quickly shifted to plan A when I turned 16. My dad was starting his own business and couldn’t afford to pay someone minimum wage to answer his phones and schedule his appointments. I became his PA and what little money I did make, I saved away for college.” “And you did brilliantly at school, from what my father tells me,” Oliver praised, tipping a crystal champagne flute in my direction. “Still I wonder… do you still write stories?” I shook my head. “When it comes to fanciful, romantic stories, I’m afraid I haven’t had much inspiration throughout the course of my adult life,” I snorted. I took in my breath as Oliver surged across the blanket, covering my hand with his as he said, “Well perhaps we could change that, my dear. Perhaps I could inspire you.” Eager to change the subject instead, I cleared my throat and said, “So what about you, Oliver? Did you always want to take the reins of your father’s business?” Oliver shook his head. “Actually, much like yourself, I always had an artsy side,” he revealed, pulling his hands back as he seemed to take the hint. “I loved to draw and paint, and even had some work featured in some student art shows. My subjects basically included anything that didn’t move, from high school girlfriends to fast sport cars, usually ones I owned. Sometimes, though, I just liked to sit out in my mother’s garden and paint the roses and lilies.” I shook my head. “Honestly, Oliver, I never knew we had so much in common,” I declared, gracing him with a gentle nudge. “I myself used to pen poems about these very same subjects… the flowers, that is. I never had any hot girlfriends or sports cars to speak of, and since my mom never did maintain a personal myriad of plants, I usually ended up out in a field somewhere, penning verse about violets.” Oliver nodded. “At one time, Lily, just about anything could inspire me to draw, sketch or paint,” he admitted, tone soft and almost wistful. “My mom always encouraged and supported me, bless her heart, she came to every art show and even bought some of my work to put up in her study at home. She also encouraged her friends to check out and even buy my work. For a while I had a nice little business going, doing what I truly loved.” I smiled. “Your mom sounded like a wonderful woman, Oliver,” I told him. Oliver nodded, ducking his head as he seemed to reflect on the woman he’d lost too soon. “She was the absolute best,” he agreed finally, tone soft and sincere. “And when she died, so did my dreams. Dad basically told me to throw away my paints and get my mind on the family business. He even went so far as to throw away the paintings and drawings that Mom kept in her study. He said he wasn’t about to support some artsy type who was afraid of a hard day’s work.” I shook my head. “Oliver, I’m so sorry,” I told him, voice low and sincere. “I didn’t know.” Oliver nodded. “It explains a lot, doesn’t it?” he pressed me, adding as he raised his arms in a long, lazy stretch, “Maybe if I had been allowed to do what I really love, or at least give it a try, then I would be more committed to my work.” I nodded. “Perhaps. On a general basis, people are always at their best when they’re doing something they love,” I agreed, adding with a smile, “Though I must say it, Oliver. Now that you have managed to apply yourself at work, you’re doing a great job. I’m really beginning to wonder if there’s anything you can’t do. You’re a financier, an artist, a connoisseur of fine food and wine… and, from what I gather, you play a mean game of tennis. Care to demonstrate this last skill for me, out there on the courts?” Taking this as a definite hint, Oliver stood from the grass and offered me his arm; letting loose with a slow, very flattering wolf whistle as I also rose, giving him his first good look at my fetching new tennis dress. “You’re beautiful darling,” he praised, pressing two warm, full lips soft against my cheek as we cleared our green space. “Thanks,” I nodded, adding with eyebrows arched, “Do I look cute enough to distract you from your game today, thus lending me a mere sliver of a chance to win one match? Or at least tie?” Within moments I found myself standing on the green clay courts of the Remington Country Club; my plain white tennis shoes pounding the pavement as I ran back and forth; managing to strike every ball that Oliver shot in my direction—returning it clean and clear over the net, in the direction of my impressed opponent. “Excellent!” Oliver applauded me, all the while trying to keep up with my long, strong strokes and quick moves. “You’re a natural. And compared to many of my other dates, most of whom are scared senseless of chipping a fingernail or messing up their hair while playing, you bear a dangerous resemblance to a Wimbledon champion.” “You’re playing a real woman now, baby!” I exclaimed, delivering as I did a powerful stroke that sent our ball high into the air above us. “Watch out!” Losing myself in the game, I started to make exaggerated sound effects as well as coordinating decidedly uncoordinated dance moves as we played. Finally surrendering the cause, Oliver dropped his racket and doubled over in a fit of hysterical laughter, thus forfeiting our first match in my favor. “Sorry about that!” I grinned broadly, adding with a shrug, “I had to find some way to win that doesn’t involve the direct application of any skill or talent. Maybe next time, and as I improve at this game, I’ll be able to beat you fair and square.” Oliver nodded. “I’m sure you could,” he assured me. “Might I make just one suggestion, though? We need to shift your stance just a bit. Do you mind if I show you?” Nodding, I watched silently as he jumped the net in a single smooth flourish; approaching me with slow, sauntering steps and pinning me with an intent gaze. Soon he stood behind me, approaching close as he wrapped his arms around mine. “Just adjust your arms a bit, like this,” he spoke low near my ear. “And shift your legs, just like so.” I found it almost impossible to concentrate on his words; this owing to his strong, masculine presence right behind me. My back touched his hard muscled chest as my rear grazed his rock hard thighs. And though he didn’t press himself against me in a rude or coarse manner, his very presence nearly overwhelmed me. I felt his hot, crisp breath on my neck and inhaled his citrus-tinged scent; all the while all too aware of how beautifully and naturally my body fit against his. “Are you all right, Lily?” The sound of his deep, sonorous voice sent me over the edge, I turned my head to stare deep into his eyes. And I didn’t resist as, with a low but primal growl, he covered my lips with his. His hot, soft lips massaged mine as he raised his hand to my flushed cheek; his fingers mirroring their tender motions as he continued to kiss me senseless. Our mouths merged, our tongues intertwined, and our breaths mingled as we lost ourselves in the moment and in each other. For just a moment our public surroundings dissolved all around us; suddenly it was just Oliver and me, lost in a pleasant otherworld that threatened to consume us. Almost, anyway. “Somebody call 911! There’s a fire here at the Remington.” The sound of an all too familiar voice disrupted our paradise; bringing our heads up as we jumped apart from one another on the court. “Harry!” I cried. “Dad!” Oliver echoed. “The one and only!” Harry affirmed, dressed this day in his own fetching tennis outfit as he made his way across the clay court. Pitching his head back with a robust chortle, the generally reserved, distinguished Harry Clark stunned us with a playful wink. “Caught you!” he chuckled, pointing an accusing finger in our direction. Oliver froze. “Caught us doing what?” He bit his lip. Harry laughed. “Now, Son, you and I had ‘the talk’ quite a long time ago,” he reminded him with a smirk. “You know darned well what you were doing and for once you were doing it with a wonderful lady worthy of your time and attention.” Stepping forward on the court, Harry surprised me with a warm, sweet kiss; one delivered straight to the surface of my cheek. “I had heard the rumors around the office that you two had become a couple,” he beamed. “But I thought it was too good to be true. And may I say, young lady, that you have given me the greatest gift I could ever ask for; you’ve finally given me some peace of mind about my son and his future.” I took in my breath as a beaming Oliver wrapped his arms around my body; pulling me up against him as he said, “You were right about her all along, Dad. This one is a winner and a keeper.” “Indeed,” Harry agreed immediately, adding as he turned away, “Gotta go now. I’m meeting one of our biggest clients here for lunch and a game. I insist, though, on taking you kids out to dinner sometime next week.” Oliver nodded. “We’d love to,” he agreed immediately, taking his father’s hand in a warm but firm handshake. “Just name the time and day, Dad.” We smiled and waved as Harry took leave of the court; I waited until he was well out of ear shot before I turned to a silent Oliver and said, “That’s why you kissed me, wasn’t it Oliver? You saw him coming and wanted to put on a show.” He looked at me for a long moment before releasing my body; continuing to hold my gaze as he said, “No, Lily. That’s not why I kissed you.” I said nothing, only watched as he once again jumped our net and turned to face me across the court. “Game on,” he teased, with a sly smile. *** Lily In the wake of an afternoon that passed all too quickly, I soon found myself back at work; yet even as I answered phones and typed up reports, I couldn’t help but think about the man for whom I was doing all this work—a man that, or so I just realized, I never really knew. Previous to our tennis date, I had no idea that Oliver was a sensitive artist type disguised as a businessman; or, for that matter, that he had such a close and loving relationship with his mother; the revered woman people spoke about in hushed tones in the hallways and offices of Clark Industries. I had no idea of the warmth and good humor that lie beneath that cool, smooth playboy exterior. And although I’d always liked and felt an undeniable attraction to Oliver Clark, I now experienced a startling, even disturbing realization. I actually liked the guy. Oh no, I thought, shaking my head back and forth as I considered this downright absurd, even frightening notion. Please say it ain’t so. Really, though, what wasn’t there to like? I’d always been reluctantly but undeniably drawn to his good looks, smooth charm, and wicked sense of humor; one so very similar to my own (well, the sense of humor, that is). In a way, though, my quiet crush on Oliver always had taken the form of a forbidden guilty pleasure. I knew all too well that his carefree, lightning-paced playboy lifestyle was no match for my quieter, more introspective existence; one that centered on my work and was enlivened only by my interest in books, film and the arts. I previously figured that good ol’ Oliver would identify Georgia O’Keeffe and Frida Kahlo as cool chicks that he may or may not have dated at one point or another. Now, however, I recognized him as an inspired artist who was probably familiar with their works. And while he seemed to be a bit more lacking in knowledge in regards to great works of literature and their authors, plays and ballets, etc., he seemed very willing to learn. I could see his intense hunger for knowledge reflected in those gorgeous eyes and I wondered if at least a small part of that hunger could be aimed in my direction. A scary but strangely wonderful thought. I grinned in spite of myself, finally managing to hear the phone that had rung at least 20 odd times. Yikes! Wake up, Ashton. My eyes flew wide as I grabbed the receiver. “Hello, Clark Industries. This is Oliver Clark’s office.” “Hi there,” cooed the lass on the other end of the line, stopping just short of charming me with a fake Southern accent. “Is Ollie around?” I froze, biting my lip as my eyes narrowed in a fit of sudden anger. “Why no, he’s not,” I managed through gritted teeth. “May I take a message?” “Yes, you may,” the gal giggled, no doubt thinking me the luckiest person in the nation, if not the free world, for taking her phone message. “My name is Kelli. That’s spelled K-e-l-l-i.” “May I have your last name?” I tensed as a smooth, sexy chuckle met my innocent question. “Oh, I have no doubt that he’ll remember my name,” she assured me. “Given the downright fantastic evening we enjoyed together last week.” I nodded. “OK,” I said, scrawling down a phone message even I couldn’t decipher as I added, “I’ll make sure he gets this message the moment he walks in this morning. Have a nice day.” Without awaiting an answer I clicked off the call; raising my head to come face to face with the intended recipient of the message. “Morning, babe!” Oliver beamed, leaning forward to kiss my cheek. “Hey, I wanted to tell you how much I enjoyed our picnic and tennis game on Saturday. I so enjoyed getting to know you. I never knew how sweet and funny you could be; you’re so much fun to hang out with, and I’m amazed at how much we actually have in common. I felt like I was talking to an old friend I’d known for years. An old friend that, as an added bonus, looks friggin’ fantastic in a designer tennis dress. Who’d a thought it?” I stared at him for a long, silent moment; folding my hands before me as I ventured to gauge his level of sincerity. “Not I, that’s for sure. Just remember though that the word ‘babe’ appears nowhere on my driver’s license or social security card. My name is Lily,” I deadpanned, finally handing him his phone message across the desk in a short, brisk gesture that betrayed my irritation. “Please call Kelli with an I at your earliest convenience.” Taking the message paper firmly in hand, Oliver pinned me with a sheepish look as color flooded his bronzed cheeks. “Ah, Kelli, yes. Kelli is a model I met last month when she appeared in one of our corporate films,” he explained, voice wavering a bit as he continued. “We met last week to discuss further opportunities.” I shrugged. “Well according to her, your little business meeting went exceptionally well,” I pursed my lips, planting my hands on my hips. “From all accounts, it bordered on earth shattering.” Oliver shrugged. “OK, so we had a date,” he admitted on a long, hard sigh. “When we made this arrangement, Lily, I promised to spoil you and show you a good time. I didn’t promise to become a monk.” I guffawed outright. “Sorry,” I managed between peals of laughter, “I just pictured you in a long brown robe with one of those little beanie hats and sandals, chanting the lyrics of ‘I’m Sexy and I Know It.’” Oliver chuckled. “Well I’m glad you can laugh about this. For a moment there, Lil, I thought you were really angry with me,” he heaved a relieved sigh. “Listen, please be rest assured that I am thoroughly enjoying my time with you; every moment I learn something new about you, I see you in a whole new light. I’m not just seeing you for show, Ms. Ashton… I look forward to our dates, and I enjoy every one of them.” He paused here, adding with a sigh, “At the same time, Lil, even you can’t change a tiger’s stripes, especially not when I’m the tiger. You’re cool with me keeping up a healthy social life, right?” I thought a moment, then nodded. “You and I are two single people that are enjoying a mutually beneficial arrangement, for the greater good of our company. And, like you Oliver, I do have to admit that I am really enjoying our time together,” I assured him, adding with arched eyebrows, “I’m just glad that I answered the phone this morning, instead of, say, your father. The same man that is under the distinct impression that you and I are enjoying a mutually exclusive relationship. The same man that has been pressuring you for months to commit to one woman and, more specifically, a lady whose name does not happen to be Kelli with an i.” Oliver gaped. “You’re absolutely right. I never thought of that.” I rather enjoyed the look of sheer terror that crossed Oliver’s features. “Sheesh, Dad would have skinned me alive if he had answered Kelli’s call. Even worse, he would have cut off my inheritance, my credit line, my employment at his company and in all likelihood, my neck for good measure. I’ll be sure to tell Kelli—along with my other, um, friends—to call me on my cell phone from this point forward; never at the office.” I nodded. “Capital idea,” I affirmed, adding as I graced him with a full-toothed smile, “And, to match your very polite gesture, I promise to have all of my other dates contact me at home as well—lest anyone here at the office get the wrong idea. Or the right idea. You know, whatever works.” Oliver looked at me for a long moment, then met my words with a short, sharp nod. “Whatever works,” he agreed, adding as he turned away, “Just know this, Lily Ashton. I can’t tell you how much I enjoy spending time with you… and I mean that. And if you are dating anyone else, I am thoroughly and unabashedly jealous. Almost bitterly so.” Chapter Six ~ Oliver “So Oliver, I have to tell you something. I see a real change in you.” Lounging in a black leather chair that fronted her polished cherry wood desk, Dr. Ann Goldman regarded me, Oliver Clark, the patient currently stretched out on her silk-upholstered scarlet couch, with a bare, penetrating gaze. How I had come to thoroughly and officially hate that bare, penetrating gaze. “You say you see a change in me,” I repeated, regarding her with a curious gaze. “Is that a good thing?” Dr. Goldman, a bespectacled woman in her mid-40s, thought for a moment, then nodded. “For the most part, yes,” she conceded thoughtfully. “You show a renewed dedication to your work. Indeed, you seem to be quite enjoying your new clients and projects. Your eyes light up and your voice raises when you’re filling me in about all of your latest accomplishments. And your job performance, according to your father, has improved exponentially.” I pursed my lips. “Well I’m not altogether sure what exponentially means,” I admitted, adding with a shrug, “But it sounds good enough to me.” Dr. Goldman laughed. “It’s great, actually. Your dad feels as though he has hired a brand new employee. Someone who actually had to work his way up and apply himself to earn his rather sizable paycheck,” she praised me, adding as she ran an absent hand through her short stock of reddish brown hair, “Your father is also thrilled at the idea of you dating your personal assistant, Lily Ashton. He adores Lily, saying that, in terms of intelligence, strength and determination, she’s above and beyond any other woman you’ve ever seen.” She paused here, inclining her head in my direction as she added, “Now I have to admit it, Oliver. When you first started dating Lily, I was almost certain that it was all a ruse—that, in a half-baked effort to save your job and your inheritance, that you were ‘fake dating’ a mature, responsible woman just to please your father.” “WHAT?!” With a loud, sharp snort of indignity I lurched upward on the couch; fixing Dr. Goldman with the puppy dog eyes that worked on every woman but her—and Lily, of course. “How dare you accuse me of such a foul deed?” “She’s not your type, Oliver,” Dr. Goldman interrupted, just barely suppressing a sardonic smirk. “She enunciates. Moreover she can spell the word enunciates. She’s a personal assistant, not a personal trainer… or a stripper… or a spokesmodel, whatever the blazes that is. She actually knows the difference between Monet and Manet. She puts just as much thought into her life goals and future plans as she does her daily wardrobe choices, perhaps even more so, shock of all shocks. And she is fully aware of the fact that Helen of Troy is not a mini skirted techno singer from Michigan.” I had heard enough. “OK, your point is totally and officially made, so Lily wasn’t my type,” I rolled my eyes. “I guess I just never realized how good it felt to have a meaningful conversation with a woman; to share common interests, and laugh about things together. In the short time that we’ve dated, she has taught me so much about the arts, politics, everything. She’s just as much my friend as she is my girlfriend. I just adore her.” I paused here, wondering if I was saying my lines convincingly enough… because by God they were convincing me. “I can tell you really like her,” Dr. Goldman affirmed, adding in a lowered voice, “I also can tell, though, that you’re afraid to commit to her or, for that matter, to anyone.” I shrugged. “Look, Doc, I’m still young. And, for that matter, I’m still a man,” I reasoned, adding with a sly wink, “I still have some wild oats to sow, some personal fantasies to fulfill.” Dr, Goldman stared firmly. “From what you’ve told me, Oliver, it sounds like you’ve sewn enough wild oats for an entire rock band, not to mention roughly half the past presidents of the United States.” She pursed her coral pink lips to sardonic effect. “You’re not 18 anymore. I know a lot of men your age who are already married with a couple of kids. And for all of your bravado and multiple excuses, Oliver, I really can’t figure out why you can’t seem to commit to a woman. Yes, you’re a handsome young billionaire and something of a playboy, but underneath it all, I strongly suspect that you also happen to be a really nice man who likes and respects women.” I grinned in spite of myself. “Yeah, well don’t let it get around,” I joked, adding more seriously, “Listen, Doc, my mom, who I worship and idolize more than anyone in the world, even my father, always encouraged me to be a gentleman. She never allowed any disrespect of women on her watch, and I always found it very easy to agree with her viewpoints. I’m very proud to say that I have never raised my hand to a lady, or coerced her into doing anything she didn’t want to do.” Dr. Goldman nodded, meeting these words with a rare and welcome smile of encouragement. “That’s wonderful and, by all accounts, absolutely true,” she applauded me. “Yet while it is very true that I never have heard of you abusing, bullying, or taking advantage of women indeed, Clark Industries as a whole has an excellent record when it comes to the pay and treatment of its female employees, thanks to policies established by you and your father, but you can’t seem to commit to them either. Might that, per chance, also have something to do with your mother?” Again I bolted up from the couch, this time objecting in all seriousness, “My mother? She was a saint!” Dr. Goldman froze in her chair, her eyes widening as she saw a side of me she’d never seen before, and did not in any way seem to appreciate. “Sit down and lower your voice, Oliver,” she growled, looking me straight in the eyes. “Or I just may have to amend my opinion of the way you treat women.” Drawing a deep, sustaining breath, I plopped down onto the seat of her couch and said, “I’m sorry, Doctor. It’s just that I can’t bear to hear my mother’s good name besmirched or questioned in any way, particularly now, when she is no longer around to defend herself.” Dr. Goldman nodded. “From what both you and your father have told me, Irene does sound like a wonderful woman, truly one of a kind,” Dr. Goldman interrupted me, adding as she shifted her slender figure in the confines of her leather chair, “Your dad hasn’t seriously dated anyone since her death.” I shook my head. “How could he?” I said, voice low and sad. “She was the only woman for him. I’ve never seen a couple more in love. They spent every free moment together, and he never as much as looked at another woman. They were supposed to grow old together, but after that damned cancer diagnosis…” I paused, shutting my eyes tight as I choked back a sheen of unbidden tears. “It wasn’t fair. It just wasn’t supposed to end that way… for them or for our family. It just wasn’t fair!” I jumped then as the doctor leaned forward, fixing a sympathetic hand on my shoulder. “It’s all right to cry,” she reassured me, voice soft and gentle. “It’s also all right to admit that you just might be afraid to commit to a woman. You’re afraid that you might lose her, much like your dad lost your mom.” Shaking my head vigorously from side to side, I again jumped from my seat, this time grabbing my jacket and rushing headfirst for the door. “That’s a load of bull, Dr. Goldman. I will not listen to one more word of this blasted psychobabble,” I snapped, adding over my shoulder, “I tried to sit through this crap to placate my father, but I just can’t do it anymore. You just went too far.” Dr. Goldman bit her lip. “You know if you stop coming here, Oliver, I’ll have to report your absences to your father. And I can tell you right now that he is not going to be happy,” she told me. “Of course, I don’t want to force you to see me, and if you do come back, don’t do so in an effort to save your inheritance or put on a good show for your father; do it to save your life and your mind and, for that matter, to save your relationship to a fantastic woman.” I snorted. “I don’t need you to save my relationship with Lily,” I barked, swinging her office door open and saying over my shoulder, “I’m not even sure at this point what she and I are doing but we do it well and we’re not going to stop. I am not about to lose that woman.” Chapter Seven ~ Lily The next few weeks passed in a whirlwind for me, as Oliver treated me to one unbelievably grandiose, adventurous date night after another. Several times a week, and always on the weekends, he whisked me away to the opera, the ballet, the movies; and we always ended up in the front row, and often backstage to greet and rub proverbial elbows with the actors and actresses, dancers, decorators and set designers that made these grand productions possible. One evening he took me to a production of ‘Swan Lake,’ as performed by Vladimir Scotto—an ebony-eyed, golden-haired god of a ballet dancer that I had idolized since my teen years. I watched rapt from a front row seat as Vladimir and his beautiful co-star, a lithe redhead named Deanna Morgan, who originated from this area—floated with lovely, effortless grace across the stage; circling one another in peerless pirouettes before he raised her slender body high above his head, the music around them surging as their bodies merged with infinite poetic grace. “Wow!” I breathed, trembling in spite of myself as their ethereal dance continued to carry them throughout the motions and movements of a classic production; one I’d seen numerous times on PBS and via DVD recordings, but never live. The leading lady looked especially resplendent in a pearl-embedded tutu of ivory silk trimmed with a row of alabaster feathers that only served to enhance the effect. Vladimir, I noted, was no less resplendent in a sleek white suit; one that likened him to a radiant prince from a distant wonderland. My mouth fell agape as I beheld his lithe but muscular body; and I marveled outright at the smooth, graceful leaps that sent him soaring high above the stage; drawing thunderous applause as he achieved an equally artful descent. “Amazing,” I breathed, tearing my gaze away from the stage and aiming it in the direction of my equally awestruck date. Yet while my own awe had been inspired by the dynamic stage performance we witnessed, Oliver’s exalted emotions seemed to be inspired by an entirely different source. He was looking straight at me; and almost as though he never had seen me before tonight. His ebony eyes shone aglow with a warm, though indecipherable emotion; his mouth was turned upward in a loving smile; one that seemed to betray his deepest emotions. “Are you enjoying the show?” I asked softly, arching my eyebrows to curious effect. Oliver nodded. “Yes,” he whispered, adding as he graced my shoulder with a warm, affectionate pat, “And I’m enjoying you far more. It’s so odd, Lily, my parents made me sit through so many ballet performances as a young man and I usually spent the entire show checking out the ballerinas and chomping away on popcorn. Tonight, though, as I watch you watching the show and as you explain the story of Swan Lake to me, as your eyes light up and I see you smile, I now see the ballet in a whole new light.” I shook my head. “It’s me that should be thanking you,” I told him, raising my hand to cup his carved cheek. “This is a dream come true, Oliver. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve dreamt of seeing Swan Lake performed live and by a ballet dancer that I nothing short of idolize.” Oliver nodded. “Yeah, Vladimir is a cool guy and not that I’m any expert on ballet, but he does seem to be pretty darned good at what he does,” he acknowledged, though in a casual tone that made it sound as though he was referencing a particularly great pizza maker or automobile mechanic. “Pretty. Darned. Good,” I repeated, tone slow and disbelieving. “Oliver, this guy danced three seasons with the Bolshoi Ballet and originally performed this very same production center stage at the Kennedy Center in Washington, DC.” I paused here, staring up at the graceful, beautiful Vladimir with wide, inspired eyes. “It’s like he doesn’t walk, or even dance.” I continued, voice low and reverent, “He floats on air.” Oliver chuckled. “Well I’ll tell you one thing, babe,” he told me, touching my chin with an affectionate hand. “You are the one that’s going to be floating on air after the show, when you get the opportunity to go backstage and meet Mr. Twinkletoes.” For once I didn’t care if Oliver called me babe, and I didn’t even mind that he referred to my exalted dancing idol as Mr. Twinkletoes, well, not much anyway. He had just indicated that I would get the opportunity to meet Vladimir Scotto in person and immediately after the show, which was scheduled to end in just 15 minutes. “Are you serious?” I asked, voice barely above a whisper. “We have back stage passes?” Oliver nodded, whilst gracing me with a devastating smile. Answering his beam with one of my own, I joined the crowd in thunderously applauding the culminating dance number that completed and defined Swan Lake—also applauding the man that had made yet another one of my dreams come true. As the lights came up and other audience members moved in a line toward the door, I joined hands with Oliver and walked through the side stage door, my stride light and feather soft as I considered the prospect of meeting my idol. Soon we passed the closely guarded threshold that accessed the back stage area of the Starlight Theater; venturing behind the theater’s scarlet hued curtain to pass into a luminous room that seemed like another world. Marked by a carpeting of plush royal red and freshly polished antique furniture, this room also boasted classical art pieces depicting the beauty and majesty of dance. Flying toward the wall with excited strides, I immediately began to name the paintings and their artists; describing their individual meaning and importance to an entranced Oliver. “You know Lil, even as an artist myself, I never looked at these paintings in quite the same way that you do,” he praised me, adding as he admired the watercolor rendering of a ballerina soaring free through the air. “You know how to bring each portrait alive.” I shook my head. “Thanks, babe.” I used his own favorite pet name to affectionate effect. “The truth is, though, that every painting has a story. You just have to release it, to learn it and enjoy it.” “Very well said.” I jumped as my comment was answered by a deep, melodic voice; one whose rich, textured accent could not possibly belong to Oliver. I turned in a swirl to greet a man who himself likened a work of art; a tall, lithe gentleman with thick blond hair and wide ebony eyes. “Mademoiselle,” purred Vladimir Scotto, stepping forth with graceful steps to take my hand in his. “Miss Lily, I presume? Oliver has told me so much about you.” Gasping outright at this unexpected and rather shocking news, I turned to Oliver and squeaked out, “You two are on a first name basis?” Oliver shrugged. “Well, my dad does co-own the theater,” he told me, ducking his head in a sheepish manner. “Of course he does,” I said with a chuckle, adding as I returned my gaze to a smiling Vladimir, “I’m so honored to meet you. I own DVDs of many of your performances—in Swan Lake, in The Nutcracker, in Romeo and Juliet. I think I know every note and step by heart,” I paused here, adding as I bit my lip, “Um, perhaps I just overshared. You’re probably contemplating an emergency call to your security team. Right. About. Now.” Pitching his sculpted blond head back, Vladimir exposed his peerless white teeth as he guffawed outright. “You are right, Oliver,” he nudged his friend. “She is so charming. I am so glad you brought her back here to meet me. And I certainly hope that my performance this evening met her satisfaction and esteemed standards.” “Oh heck yeah it did!” I exclaimed, meeting Vladimir in a spirited high five as Oliver looked on with a grin. “Rock’n’roll!” After taking seats on a red cushioned couch that marked the center of the backstage area, Vladimir and I discussed the finer points of Swan Lake while Oliver watched with interested eyes. Eyes that shifted upward to note the arrival of the other star of today’s performance; a tall, slender redhead dressed in her elegant tutu of beaded, feathered ivory silk. I immediately recognized Deanna Morgan, the locally based prima ballerina that performed in several small ballet productions I’d seen at my college theater. As a matter of fact, I believe that she attended my college for a bit—at least before she got headed for Broadway. I wonder if she’ll remember me from freshman year bowling. Blast those physical fitness electives… Greeting Deanna with a bright smile, I extended my hand in her direction; my grin quickly dissolving as she rushed past my seat in a beeline for my wide eyed date. “Oliver Clark!” Deanna snapped, planting her oh so delicate hands on her ever so tiny hips. “I can’t believe that you had the nerve to face me after what transpired the last time I performed at this theater.” I froze as Oliver shifted beside me; meeting Deanna’s words with a casual shrug that belied his tense posture. “I’m sure I don’t know what you’re talking about, Deanna,” he offered, pinning her with a weak attempt at a charming smile. “I thought we had a perfectly nice date that evening.” Deanna nodded. “And we were supposed to have another,” she reminded him with a sniff. “Only after a long session of passionate lovemaking, you never called or e-mailed me once. And when I returned here last Christmas, to dance my signature role of Clara in The Nutcracker, you didn’t even bother to attend the performance!” “Guess his nuts weren’t big enough to face you again,” I murmured, adding as I tilted my head in her direction, “I’m not sure if you remember me, Miss. I’m Lily Ashton—you and I went to school together once upon a time.” After pinning my hapless date with one last savage glare, Deanna brightened immediately as she turned to face me with a broad smile of instant recognition. “Lily!” she exclaimed. “I do remember you! You were always the smartest gal in class, and you always cracked everyone up with your funny remarks. It’s so good to see you!” I nodded. “It’s good to see you too,” I returned, engaging her in the same warm, friendly handshake that had been denied me moments beforehand. “I’m so pleased to see you and may I say, Deanna, that you delivered a flawless performance tonight—absolutely beautiful.” Deanna nodded, and blushed very prettily. “Thank you, Miss Lily. You are so sweet.” She squeezed my hand, adding as she turned away, “Much too sweet, I must say, to be dating the likes of Oliver Clark.” And with these words, she was gone. As Oliver wriggled and shifted in his chair, seeming to hope with fervor that the ever convenient trap stage door that you used to see in old movies would open up and swallow him whole, a quiet Vladimir extended his hand to me. “Care for a tour of the stage area?” he asked. I nodded. “I’ve never cared more for a tour of the stage area,” I told him, adding over my shoulder, “And you, Oliver, are not invited.” Taking Vladimir’s arm, I ignored Oliver’s probing gaze as I followed my guide through the solid black door that accessed the stage area. My worries fell away the moment that my feet touched the stage; suddenly I found myself in a fantasy wilderness; the mystical world of Swan Lake. Now it was I who stood by the mirrored likeness of a lush crystalline lake; admiring the dew-glistened scarlet red roses and pearl pink carnations that adorned its surrounding bushes… yet not as much as I adored the man that now extended his hand to me; drawing me into his mystical world with this single grand gesture. Laying my palm into his, I allowed the dancer to draw me in to his smooth, sinuous movement; suddenly feeling as light as air as he moved and swayed me across the stage. Drawing me closer, Vladimir draped his lithesome arm around my waist and pulled me just a bit closer; suddenly my own arms wrapped around the shoulders that I’d admired from a distance so many times; staring into the deep, dark eyes I’d seen in my dreams; finally my body was pressed against the flawless form that often ignited my fantasies. With a contented sigh I sank happily into a dream of an embrace; all thoughts of Oliver fleeing my mind as my movements merged with Vladimir’s. Suddenly my body found a new grace, moving in flawless synch with his across a lighted stage. “A woman like you deserves to be treated like a princess,” he whispered in my ear, leaning my body backward in a poetic dip. “And as much as I like Oliver, I sense that he does not value you.” I nodded. “Your instincts are correct… most of the time, anyway, Oliver does not truly grasp and value everything I bring to his life,” I agreed, adding with a slight shrug, “Oh, don’t get me wrong. Oliver really is a good guy, he just needs to start exploring and showing off his deeper side.” I grinned in spite of myself as my words were met with a long, stunned silence, one immediately followed by the words, “Oliver has a deep side?” I laughed. “Trust me, he does,” I assured him. “It just needs to show itself on a more regular basis. You know what, though? I don’t want to think at this point, about him or anything else. Right now, Vladimir, I just want to feel.” I took in my breath as, erasing all distance between us, the dancer pulled me closer than close and said, “Feel this.” I took in my breath as, in a single smooth flourish, Vladimir’s strong arms encircled my waist and lifted me high above his head; elevating my body in an effortless arch that sent me soaring into the air. I felt like I was flying through the air; my heart and soul joining my body in a majestic cascade. For moments I was suspended in time and space; feeling at once his hands at my waist, his strong presence beneath me, and the encompassing atmosphere of the ebullient stage that threatened to consume me. I almost let loose with a groan of disappointment as Vladimir lowered me to the ground; a feeling that dissolved seconds later, as he pressed his full, moist lips against my cheek in a whisper soft kiss. “Thank you for this dance, Miss.” “Yeah, yeah, yeah. It was all beautiful and graceful and all that—but may I cut in now?” No, these words certainly didn’t come from me, but from the man who had escorted me to the theater that evening. Pinning us with a cool stare, Oliver held his arms open to me; grinning in triumph as a surrendering Vladimir released me into his care. “Sorry, babe,” the dancer whispered in my ear. “His father owns the theater.” I shook my head. “Yeah,” I assented, adding as I raised my chin in Oliver’s direction, “But he doesn’t own me. And if Oliver wants to dance with me, he can ask me politely.” Oliver looked at me a long moment, then nodded. “You’re absolutely right,” he assented, adding as he extended a chivalrous hand in my direction, “Miss Ashton, may I have the pleasure of this dance?” I grinned in spite of myself as I took his hand; cringing only slightly as a quiet Vladimir retreated from the stage. Soon the atmosphere brimmed with the sound of a jazzy, rhythmic tune; one that flew free and fast from an overhead stereo system. “How did you do that?” I asked him, floating forward into his arms as he pulled me closer to him. “Ownership has its privileges,” he growled, erasing all distance between us as he swept me up in his arms. I nodded my agreement, adding as I looked him straight in the eyes, “Just remember this much, Oliver Clark. You still don’t own me.” “No, I don’t,” he assured me immediately. “But maybe, just maybe, I could lure you around to my way of thinking. I’ll never own you, but at least let me show you a really good time.” With these sleekly spoken words, Oliver set our bodies in motion; swinging me around the stage with uncommon grace as his muscular body moved against mine. Although not as technically skilled as Vladimir, Oliver moved with a snakelike sliver that far surpassed his rivals in terms of pure, unbridled sensuality. Or maybe not so pure, judging by the way he was making me feel… Pulling back with a distinct sniff, I looked Oliver straight in the eyes; only noticing how those wide, dark gems glowed in the lights above us. I also couldn’t help but admire the way that his bronzed skin absolutely glowed in this very same light; along with the strands of cinnamon hair that fell soft against my shoulder. I then surrendered to his touch as we danced across the floor; his massaging hands rubbing up and down my back as he continued to undulate in my arms. My eyes shut as I suddenly imagined Oliver and me performing a far more intimate dance; one performed naked as we kissed passionately and rolled wild in one another’s arms. My body relaxed and my mind flew free as the fantasy intensified; transporting me from our public surroundings to a place of hot, sensual fantasy. I’d visited this same place many times in my dreams; but the presence and intensity of his red hot touch made it all the more real. Neither of us noticed when the music subsided; our bodies kept swaying closer together as fantasy consumed us. “So Lily,” Oliver whispered in my ear, gathering up my body in a loving hug. “Despite a few rough spots, I’d say that we still had a wonderful evening. What do you think?” Drawing back just far enough to open my eyes and grace him with a serene smile, I nodded and agreed, “Downright magical.” Chapter Eight ~ Lily Last night I slept with dreams of dancers in my head; two beautiful men whose grace and beauty enflamed my imagination and sparked my hottest desires. Alternately throughout the night I dreamt of moving and writhing in Vladimir’s arms; and, more intimately, in Oliver’s bed. Even in my sleep my heart pounded as I contemplated kissing and embracing that perfect body, of sinking in those delectable arms as our beings merged and we collapsed together in a fit of sublime, uncontrollable ecstasy. The first light of day, however, did much to tame and restrain my wild sensual imaginings. Indeed, as I wriggled and shifted in my sweat-laden sheets, I thought immediately of the uncomfortable scene that had transpired yesterday between Oliver and Deanna Morgan. I remember hearing the anger in her voice and seeing the pain in her eyes; and reminded myself that if I wasn’t careful, I would feel the same emotions I saw reflected in her eyes. Maybe it’s already too late, I mused, biting my lip as I sat up in bed. As it stood, I already felt my heart beat just a little bit faster every time I looked at or as much as thought of Oliver. Was it too late to save myself? I was glad at least that today was Saturday; I didn’t have to face Oliver at the office and if he tried to contact me, well, I guess I could just ignore any attempts on his part to call or e-mail me. As if on cue the phone rang, and after seeing the name Oliver Clark appear on my caller ID, I conveniently ignored the call. Rising finally from bed, I grabbed a shiny new paperback book from its place on my bedroom bookshelf and plopped back down on the edge of my floral print comforter. With eyebrows arched I opened the front cover of the thick, vividly illustrated romance novel; one that depicted a gorgeous couple in the throes of passion at the center of a pristine beach. As I began to read this torrid tale of lust and passion, I kept picturing the hero as my very own Oliver; and the heroine, conveniently, as little ol’ me. “Well, of course I’d picture someone who looks like Oliver,” I sniffed aloud. “I mean, this is a romance novel with a handsome man on the cover—one that, much like Oliver, boasts thick brown hair and big dark eyes.” Taking a casual look at the cover of the book, which I’d bought on impulse just last week at a local drug store (Why, I wondered, was I feeling so very romantic these days? It couldn’t have been the anti-itch cream or the super flex salad tongs I also bought at the pharmacy that day. Just sayin’). My eyes widened as they beheld the hero of my chosen tome; a striking blond man with sparkling blue eyes. Tossing the book aside with a hard, pronounced groan, I grabbed another book from the shelf; this one a spy thriller that, from all appearances, contained not even the slightest hint of romance or sensuality in its pages. Yet upon discovering that the hero of this second book was a strapping muscular dark-haired man with eyes as dark as midnight, I gave up the case and headed for my kitchen—determined to drown my concerns in a doughnut or two, and in a steaming hot cup of cocoa that I planned to render just a little bit Irish for effect. After this admittedly rocky start to my Saturday, I set about doing a craft project that involved the use of rainbow-hued beads and ribbons on an applique surface; one that did not involve the use of my cell phone, which—despite ringing several times throughout the course of the day—lay unattended on my night stand. The loud knock that graced my door just before 5 o’clock was not as easy to ignore. “Who is it?” I called from my kitchen table, making no effort to set aside my project or even leave my chair. “Oliver!” The smooth, deep voice of the bane of my existence resounded from my front entry. “Hi Oliver,” I greeted, adding in a stronger tone, “I’d love to talk to you right now but I’m really busy with a project. I wish you had called first.” Oliver’s hard sigh penetrated and echoed through a solid wooden surface. “Lily, I tried to call you four times today,” he informed me, adding in a softer tone, “I was starting to worry about you, girl.” I sighed. “Thanks for your concern, Oliver, but I’m just fine,” I told him, voice sharp and stiff. “And, as I said, I’m in the middle of a project right now. Whatever you have to talk to me about, could it please wait until Monday morning?” It was Oliver’s turn to sigh. “I dunno, Lil,” he told me. “Methinks the triple pepperoni pizza I brought you would be pretty darned cold by Monday morning. Plus if I keep all of these DVDs I rented today until Monday, I’ll be owing a veritable king’s ransom in late fees. I just might have to ask Dad for a raise.” “Movies?” I repeated, feeling my resolve abandon me at record speed. “And triple pepperoni pizza? Are there actually three varieties of pepperoni?” “Open the door and find out, Lily.” Gritting my teeth in frustration, I finally arose from my seat and headed toward the door, fully prepared to send my boss packing with a few well-chosen words. What went packing was the remainder of my resolve, which took a proverbial hike the moment I smelled that steamy pepperoni and got a gander at those equally steamy dark eyes, which greeted me with a penetrating stare as Oliver greeted me with a grin. He also came bearing a pile of DVDs and a bottle of sparkling champagne, how could I say no? “I have a great evening planned for us, Lil,” he told me, thrusting the pizza and DVDs in my direction. “I’m sure we do,” I replied, taking his pile of goodies with what could best be called a half-hearted smile, “Babe.” Soon I sat parked before my television set, browsing Oliver’s selection of rented DVDs as he stood in the kitchen; using my prized circular culinary cutter to divide our pizza into a number of spicy, succulent slices. “Fair warning, darling,” he told me, popping a stray pepperoni between his luscious lips as he continued, “This is as close as I get to cooking.” I rolled my eyes. “I’ll make a note,” I replied, grinning in spite of myself as I examined the titles of the films he’d brought for our enjoyment that evening. “Ah, so you decided to take my advice and rent ‘Coco Before Chanel,’” I grinned. Oliver nodded. “I can’t wait to see it,” he enthused, popping yet another random pepperoni between his lips as he added, “And if you look down farther in this list, you’ll see that all of these films are directed by women.” I nodded. “I noticed as much. And we have some great films here,” I acknowledged, my eyes widening in interest as my fingers touched the colorful DVD cases before me. “‘My Brilliant Career’ directed by Gillian Armstrong, ‘Bend It Like Beckham’ by Gurinder Chadha, ‘Orlando’ by Sally Potter, ‘Lost in Translation’ by Sofia Coppola.” “‘The Hurt Locker’ by Kathryn Bigelow,” Oliver added. “Wayne’s World, directed by Penelope Spheeris. Sorry babe, I’m a guy. I just had to throw an action flick and a comedy into the mix.” I nodded. “Hey, when it comes to movies I like it all,” I told him, clapping my hands together with girlish glee as I contemplated our impromptu movie marathon. “Sure, my mom and I could spend our entire Sunday afternoon drinking tea and watching Jane Austen adaptions, but only after my pop and I spent Saturday night watching classics like ‘Airplane’ and ‘Die Hard’.” Oliver nodded. “Marry me,” he said, tone matter of fact. “OK,” I agreed, adding in a tone of sublime sincerity, “Just don’t at any point in our marriage call me Shirley.” Soon Oliver and I sprawled side by side on my living room floor, our bodies coddled and cradled by a pair of luxurious feather soft down blankets; housewarming gifts that my mother had bestowed upon me two years ago. Our pizza lay between us as we alternately laughed and cried (OK, well, I cried openly and he just kind of sniffed and blamed it all on allergies) over our chosen films; and, once again, Oliver listened enraptured as I related background and trivia facts about the films we watched. I told him all about my college trip to Australia, where I actually visited the shooting locations of ‘My Brilliant Career.’ He told me about the time in college where he wrote a warm, inspired marriage proposal to Tia Carrere, the female star of ‘Wayne’s World.’ Hey, we all have our memories. Throughout the evening Oliver insisted on feeding me my pizza slices by hand. I reciprocated by filling his wine glass and kissing his carved, bronzed cheek at all too frequent intervals. As we watched our selection of DVD movies, we clutched each other’s arms during all the scary and dramatic parts and slapped each other’s backs as we laughed hysterically at the jokes and visual gags that marked other parts of our viewing experience. Finally, as we popped in the emotional, outright beautiful film ‘Lost in Translation,’ we nestled closer together on our blankets as our hands joined; with a soft, serene smile I rested my head on his broad shoulder and tried to focus my gaze forward in the direction of the wide screen TV mounted on the wall of my living room. Not an easy thing to achieve, when my captivating date insisted on shifting his own gaze in my direction and locking my gaze with his. The streams of luminous golden moonlight flew free through the panels of my nearby window; illuminating Oliver’s gorgeous features to bronzed effect. And the same degree of awe and wonder that I experienced, I witnessed also in the depths of his wide dark eyes. “The stars just light you up,” Oliver whispered, raising his hand to caress my cheek as he erased all distance between us. I did not resist as my enamored date graced me with his own version of a movie screen kiss; covering my lips with his as his tongue explored my mouth. At first gentle and coaxing, our kiss grew deeper and more intense as our breaths intermingled; now my passion matched his as I wrapped my arms around his shoulders and leaned into his kiss, my tongue lapping hungrily as his full, moist lips continued to devour me. As one strong arm wrapped around my waist and drew me to him, Oliver’s free hand massaged my shoulder before venturing lower still. Soon his agile fingertips rubbed and soothed my chest as his touch ventured dangerously close to the top of my breasts. Giving him a short nod that offered my assent, I took in my breath as Oliver lowered his hand to stroke my breasts; those same magic fingertips flicking my nipples through the surface of my sweater, as his nurturing palms caressed my upper chest. “Baby,” he rasped out, his chest flexing and his entire body tightening as he moved closer to me. “What are you doing to me?” “What are you doing to me?” I echoed his sentiments, my breath catching as my nipples hardened and the heart beneath began to pound. His intimate ministrations made my pulse quicken as he continued to caress me; and race outright as his hand lowered to tease my tummy. Breaking our kiss, Oliver shifted his perfect lips to my flushed cheek and nestled my face, kissing and licking as he whispered in my ear, “Lily, I know this is impulsive,” he growled, his smooth, deep tone massaging the word ‘impulsive’ to most delicious effect. “But I just have to say it. Since the moment I arrived here this evening, I’ve wanted to do nothing but touch and kiss you… I want you, Lily. I want to make love to you, here and now.” My eyes flew wide as I considered these words; breaking our gaze and pulling away from him, I sat upright on my blanket and folded my arms before me. “Lily?” Himself flying upward beside me, Oliver planted a concerned hand on my arm as he plead, “Please say something, honey. Have I hurt you? Offended you?” I shook my head. “You’ve tempted me, that’s all,” I assured him, bringing my knees up to my chin and wrapping my arms around my legs. “I must admit, Oliver, I’ve been thinking about it myself. As close as we’ve been getting, as much as we’ve been sharing, how could I not? We both know, though, that it would complicate things.” Oliver grinned. “Complicate me, baby,” he whispered in my ear, that long, silky tongue lapping ever so slightly at my earlobe. “Hard.” I rolled my eyes. “Seriously, Clark,” I released through gritted teeth. “Don’t you ever stop?” “When it comes to you, Lily? Never.” I gasped as an impassioned Oliver swept me up in his strong embrace, once again claiming my lips in a hot, passionate kiss. Once again sinking into his all-encompassing arms, I sighed contented as he lowered his head to my neck; smattering sweet baby kisses at my nape as his hands massaged my back. “Still tempted, Ms. Ashton?” he growled against my skin. “Would there, per chance, be anything I could do to make you even more so?” I answered him with a tight clasp that brought his flawless, muscled body closer to mine; sliding my hands up his planed back before entwining my fingers in his soft, dark hair. “There’s nothing more that I want to do than make love to you, here and now,” I whispered, adding with a sigh, “But it’s just too soon, and I’m afraid it would take our partnership—or faux mance, if you will—to a whole new level; one that we might not at all be prepared to face.” Oliver thought for a moment, then nodded. “So would you like me to go?” he asked me, drawing back to stare deep into my eyes. His soft, sad tone touching my heart, I shook my head and opened my arms to him. “Nonsense,” I told him with a smile. “We still have more great movies to watch, more jokes to tell, and more cuddling to do. And even though our pizza supply is running dangerously low, I’d be more than pleased to make some popcorn with melted cheese on top along with some hot cocoa to chase all that sparkly champagne.” A newly smiling Oliver offered me a handshake that seemed oddly redundant at that point; chasing it with a kiss. “You got a deal, babe,” he smiled against my lips. Chapter Nine ~ The next few months passed in a dreamy haze for me; as I spent my days working in an efficient, highly productive office that became a model for our entire corporation, and my nights reveling in a fantasy romance that seemed like something out of my wildest dreams. Every weekend, and sometimes during the week, Oliver would whisk me off to see a theater performance, a ballet (though none of these performances, I noted, featured Vladimir Scotto or Deanna Morgan—funny, that), an upscale sporting event like a dog or horse show, or perhaps a tennis match. The show experience always included front row seats and backstage passes; thus allowing me the opportunity to meet renowned Broadway stars, operatic icons, household name athletes, and—the piece de resistance—a show dog cocker spaniel that boasted better hair and more bling than I could ever dream of possessing. Woof! We would dine at the finest restaurants and shop at the best boutiques, coming away with exotic leftovers I couldn’t begin to pronounce and clothes by top designers. What I enjoyed just as much, however, were the quiet evenings that would find us ordering in, watching favorite movies and TV shows as we snacked on soda and popcorn; also sharing examples of our respective art forms. Oliver read with interest the short stories I’d written during high school and college, declaring my writing style fresh, humorous, and intriguingly romantic and praising the plush Victorian settings of many of my stories. “Nice to know you have a romantic side,” he told me one evening, emphasizing his words with a playful wink. “Perhaps I could inspire you with some ideas for a future story; one we just might act out ourselves, immediately upon its completion.” “Oh be-have,” I teased him, adding with my own teasing wink, “Or don’t.” And I marveled openly at his beautiful watercolors; many of which portrayed everything from city scenes to wildlife subjects. He brought towering skyscrapers (Many of which, come to think of it, he probably owned) and delicate, dew-glistened roses and magnolia trees to life with equal beauty and exquisite detail; imbuing his work with an exquisite blend of whimsical imagination and multi-dimensional realism. About five months into what I had affectionately come to know as our faux mance, Oliver announced that—in honor of my upcoming birthday—he planned to treat me to a special evening at a Victorian village in our community; a place that featured a gourmet restaurant and an old-fashioned dance hall, along with streets lined with classically designed shops that sold clothing, jewels and wares characteristic of that era. I arrived home the evening of my birthday to find a bright beribboned package on my front doorstep; a mysterious parcel that turned out to contain a stunning gown of pure red velvet with a lovely lace collar and cuffs; as well as some tender reams of ebullient lace that lined its embroidered front. After bathing with the bar of pure lavender soap also found in the package, I slipped into the fine fabrics of this exquisite, foot length frock and gathered the strands of my newly brushed hair into a sharp upsweep; also donning the pearl earrings and matching bracelet that Oliver had bought me during a recent shopping trip. Finally I stood before my full-length mirror, admiring the results of my Victorian makeover. I gaped at the way the hue of my scarlet gown enhanced the tones of my creamy complexion, and at the manner in which its impeccable fit flattered my feminine curves. My giddy, girlish smile faded somewhat as I heard a bizarre, high pitched sound emanate from just in front of my house; a sound that bore a highly suspicious likeness to a horse’s whinny. Running to my front door, I threw it open to reveal a gleaming ebony carriage lead by a pair of scarlet-bridled ivory stallions that continued to whinny and shuffle their hooves. Driving the carriage was the same distinguished, grey-haired gentleman that had escorted me to my first date with Oliver; though this time he was dressed in a long black velvet coat and smart top hat. Walking through my front door in something of a trance, I crossed the street with slow steps and approached the carriage; flinging open its polished black door to reveal a real life Victorian gentleman. Seated on a cushion of lavender velvet, Oliver was adorned for the evening in a sleek black suit, its silken textures perfectly tailored to enhance and highlight his muscular frame, and a ruffled white shirt; a handsome ensemble topped off most literally with a smart black top hat and a pair of shiny black leather boots; as well as a shiny gold pocket watch that hung on a chain from his embroidered pocket. “Good evening, m’lady.” Oliver greeted me in a flawless British accent, adding as he gestured toward an empty passenger seat adjoining his own, “Care to join me for a little ride?” We said little during our carriage ride to the Victorian village. We held hands and tried to take in our mutual transformation; one that had morphed us from sensible co-workers to a lord and lady from another time. I only managed to tear my gaze away from Oliver when we arrived at the village; a collection of buildings that shone in the moonlight in brilliant hues of lavender, taupe, pink, gold, and classic ivory—resplendent also in their presentation of stained glass windows and broad front windows. An hour later I found myself dining in a restaurant that, with its rich aura of homey elegance, likened a setting from an Austen novel, or even one of my own, slightly lessor known (OK, totally unpublished) works. With a broad smile Oliver held open the door of The Victorian Dream; allowing me access to a classically designed eatery adorned with sparkling chandeliers, lavish floral arrangements that brimmed with ruby red roses, and walls that were lined with gold brocade wallpaper and samples of hand painted Victorian artwork. A server clad in a sleek black tuxedo lead us to a central table; pulling my chair out and motioning for me to take my seat on a pink cushioned chair; one that sidled a table lined with polished rose print china, shining silverware, lace-bordered placemats, and a table covering of ivory lace that caught the light of a bank of candles glowing from its centerpiece. This light also cast my date in a most appealing glow; illuminating his carved, bronzed features, wide, cocoa-hued eyes and wavy, shoulder-length chestnut hair. “You look so beautiful this evening,” he told me, tone low and admiring as his gaze raked me from head to toe. “Thanks,” I grinned, adding as my own gaze took a long, admiring walk down the length of his muscled form, “So do you!” I listened with admiration as he proceeded to order them a classic feast of coq au vin, spiced potatoes, steamed vegetables and creamy chocolate mousse; then Oliver turned to me with a dazzling smile as he covered my hand with his. “Have I told you how gorgeous you are tonight, darling?” He leaned across the table, pressing his full, moist lips against my flushed cheek. “Yes,” I replied, pressing my lips against his forehead. “But do feel free to tell me again, Boss.” Oliver laughed. “Tonight I’m not the boss,” he told me, running affectionate fingers through my soft, feathery hair. “I want to be your Victorian gentleman, Lily… I’d love to be your fantasy.” I froze. “Well isn’t this a situation?” I snorted, shifting in my seat. “You want to pause our faux romance to have a fantasy romance instead. I tell ya Folks, ya need a program to keep up…” The laughter that I expected was replaced by a long, intense look; followed by a soft, sweet kiss, delivered to my lips. “Lily, I know this started out as a –what would you call it?—faux mance. In the months that we’ve been seeing each other, though, I can’t tell you just how much fun I’ve had with you and how much I’ve come to treasure our time together. You make me laugh, you make me think. I’ve really come to care about you, Lily.” He paused here, cradling my face in his hand as he stared deep into my eyes. “For your birthday, darling, I wanted to fulfill your fantasy… along with one of my own,” he whispered, adding in a sultry purr, “Come home with me tonight, Lily. Let me make love to you.” I made no verbal response to Oliver’s sweet invitation; just fought to regain control of my senses as they threatened to spin out of control. His gorgeous image, his provocative words, our romantic setting made my heart race and my pulse pound. Also pounding and pulsating, incidentally, were certain lady parts that I’d nearly forgotten were attached to my body. “Oliver,” I said finally, sitting back hard in my seat. “Of course I’m tempted, what woman wouldn’t be? How do I know, though, that I just won’t end up as one of your gal pals; one of those casual lovers that you have a little fun with before the two of you go your separate ways?” Oliver sighed. “Lily, the conversations that we’ve had over the past few months have been anything but casual,” he reminded me. “I swear I’ve told you things I’ve never told any other woman. I’ve never been so comfortable with a woman.” Again he paused, erasing all distance between us as he whispered in my ear, “Now just how do I go about making you comfortable with me? Perhaps, bella, it would help you to think of me as your Victorian count—a man that has come through time to romance and seduce you. Who longs to make those romantic fantasies that have been in your head all these years come beautifully, magically alive.” Even as his sinful suggestions managed to peak my desire as a line of sweat formed unbidden on my brow, I still managed a nervous chuckle in the face of his blatant seduction. “Well just so you know, in the literary version of Pride and Prejudice, Mr. Darcy never as much as kissed Elizabeth Bennet.” Oliver chuckled, nestling my neck as he whispered in my ear, “Just think of me as the sensual, much more biddable count that all the ladies turn to when Mr. Darcy won’t put out.” I laughed. “You certainly do have a way with words, Oliver,” I winked, adding as I turned my attention to a newly delivered plate of food, “Let’s have our dinner now and just see how things go.” Oliver rolled his eyes. “Once a personal assistant, always a personal assistant,” he snorted. “Everything—and I mean absolutely everything—has to be done in an organized and totally compartmentalized manner.” “That’s right!” I barked, adding as I pointed an authoritative fork in Oliver’s direction, “Now let’s hear less talking and see more eating—chop chop!” Between courses Oliver drank a toast to, “The best friend, personal assistant and faux girlfriend a man could ever ask for,” following the clash of our crystalline goblets with a passionate, full bodied kiss that didn’t feel fake at all. Seizing my lips in this passionate kiss, he devoured my mouth as our tongues entangled and our breaths mingled in the air above us. For just a moment I leaned into his kiss, smacking my lips against his as our hands joined between us. “Lily,” he whispered finally against my lips. “I want you. And you can’t deny that you want me too; I can feel it in your kiss. Why won’t you give in to me?” I rather savored his frustrated groan as I suddenly broke our kiss; pulling back from the table to fold my arms before me and fix him with a steely gaze. “I swear, what some males won’t do to avoid any and all public displays of dancing,” I sniffed, adding as I rose from the table, “You promised me that you’d show me around and, more importantly, swing me around the Victorian ballroom they have here. Now finish up your dinner and take me dancing.” Soon Oliver and I walked arm in arm out of the restaurant; traipsing along a cobblestone street lined with cast iron lattice work benches and tall, noble, Victorian style lamp posts. Pausing to stare into the storefronts of classically designed shops, many of which boasted engraved signs, peppermint striped awnings and walls of pure sandstone. I was thrilled as Oliver paused to buy me one precious gift from each store; a dew glistened red rose from the florist, a box of gourmet cream chocolates from the chocolatier, a vial of fine French perfume from a luxury boutique. Then he took me by the hand and escorted me through the doors of a beautiful building known as the Rose Ballroom. The gathered crowd seemed to part for our benefit as we made our way across the crisp tiled floor; both admiring the chandeliers that hung low from the ballroom’s domed ceiling, which also came adorned with a rendering of a winged cherub flying free across a jewel blue sky. I felt anything but angelic a moment later, as Oliver and I stopped beside an iced sculpture of a majestic swan; taking each other’s hands and staring deeply into one another’s eyes. Our gazes held as Oliver swept me up in his arms; pulling me closer than close as we launched into a vigorous, very romantic waltz. As our bodies moved in flawless time with the sound of classical music played nearby by a live band, I wrapped my arms around his muscled shoulders and drew closer to him. As we continued to dance and sway, I felt my being tense as I came to a startling, but quite unavoidable realization. I knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that I was developing feelings for Oliver Clark. I could no longer kid myself into believing that our romance was all for show; and that my emotions existed within the realm of friendship or even curious attraction. When Oliver left the room, I missed him; and when he came back I outright savored his beauty, his laughter, his charm, his very scent. I gathered from the glow that I saw in his eyes, by the tenderness and respect with which he treated me, that he just might feel the same way; but I couldn’t help but wonder if his feelings ran quite as deeply as mine and if he joined me in the opinion that this faux romance was anything but. As he dipped me thrillingly at the center of the floor, gathering my body in a warm embrace as again he touched my lips with his, I realized suddenly that I had my answer; and that I now was more than prepared to give him his answer in return. “Yes,” I whispered with a smile. An hour later I found myself ensconced in a far more modernistic setting; the living room of an upscale townhouse designed in clean, clear lines. It came as no surprise that Oliver Clark’s apartment just screamed bachelor pad, with its pure leather furniture, sunny beachfront murals and thick white shag carpeting. Yet as he invited me to lounge in the confines of his own private haven, Oliver still enacted the role of the romantic Victorian nobleman. He insisted on most literally sweeping me off my feet and carrying me across the threshold of his upscale bachelor pad; all the while whispering in my ear of the magical night that lay before us. “This night is all about you, Lily,” he purred. “Your needs, your pleasures. I am at your command.” Touching my lips with a gentle kiss, Oliver set my trembling body on the edge of the ivory cushioned couch that formed the centerpiece of his living room; kneeling before me to slip my feet from their tight, confining shoes and massage them to delightful effect. “Mmmm,” I purred, relaxing in my seat as my attentive date worked his magic fingers across the pads and heels of my tired feet. “You know, Oliver, if you ever get tired of this billionaire executive heir gig, you always could take up a side gig as a foot masseur.” Letting loose with a low, sensual chuckle, Oliver lowered his beautiful head to suckle my toes; seeming to relish the sharp, surprised moans that met this most pleasurable act. Holding my gaze he rose to his feet. For a long, timeless moment we just stared at one another, sharing a secret smile as we seemed to contemplate the night that lie before us. “Relax, darling,” he whispered hypnotically, adding in a soft, reassuring tone, “There’s nothing to be afraid of. Just let me do everything.” With this sensual declaration he descended on the couch beside me; taking my hands in his as he stared deep into my eyes. “I want to be sure that you’re ready for this, baby.” He leaned forward to smatter my flushed cheeks with a rain of sweet kisses. “That you really want this.” Leaning forward in a single smooth flourish, I touched his lips with a gentle kiss; my mouth rubbing and massaging his as I braced my eager hands on his broad muscled shoulders. “I want this,” I growled against his mouth. “And I want you. Now, Oliver.” Taking this as a cue, Oliver wrapped his arms around my back and pulled my body flush against his in a tight but gentle embrace; all the while kissing my hands, rubbing my neck and shoulders, and finally cradling me in his arms and rocking my body back and forth on the couch to engage me in a romantic cuddle. Pulling my body into his arms and holding me closer than close, an ardent Oliver continued his massage on a far more romantic level; running his hands down my back as he pressed his toned chest up against mine. “I swear you won’t regret this,” he blew into my ear, pulling me to him in a passionate clench as we collapsed in the comfort of whisper soft silk. “I plan to make this very good for you. I want you to feel loved.” “I want to be loved,” I released on a sigh, relaxing in his muscular arms. “By you.” Taking this as a cue, Oliver tilted his firm, hard hips against mine as he bowed his head to my neck; kissing and nipping its sensitive skin as I ran my hands through his silken strands. Writhing in his arms, I took a deep breath as my body was immersed in a wave of red hot arousal; one that intensified as, with bold hands, I unbuttoned his white silk shirt to reveal finally the massive chest that had filled my fantasies. Running my fingertips down the length of his taut, toned pecs and flawless washboard abs, I took in my breath as my lover repaid me in kind; reaching forth a daring hand to caress my breasts, all the while ravishing me with a hungry gaze that showed his blatant arousal. “I must have you now,” he released on a growl, rising to his feet with me in his arms and taking me to his bedroom. Much to my surprise, Oliver’s bedroom turned out to be a beautiful, very tasteful pastiche of ivory woolen bed linens with matching shag carpeting, shiny brass bedrails, and a pair of royal blue velvet curtains that enshrouded a pair of signature French doors holding court in a corner of the room. Tossing my body into a soft cloud of comforters that cradled and soothed my voluptuous curves, Oliver crossed the room in a few smooth strides and opened these curtains; releasing a spectrum of radiant moonlight that illuminated his golden form; one still draped in the silken coat that likened my lover to a Victorian count. But, I wagered, not for long… Chapter Ten ~ The next morning I awoke from a dream; my mind swimming with beautiful images of a night of passion, shared with the man of my fantasy. I imagined myself in Oliver’s arms, our bodies entwining and our hearts pounding as one; kissing, embracing, our arms and legs entwining, until finally we joined as one. Then I remembered with a sudden jolt that these visions I saw in my head were not dreams at all, but cherished memories. The vision that had lingered so long in my dreams finally was realized. Oliver and I had made love all night long; exploring each other’s bodies and fulfilling fantasies that had lurked in the recesses of both of our minds. Although I’d lost my virginity in college and had two lovers before him—both boyfriends with whom I’d shared year-long relationships—I’d never known the pleasure and tenderness I’d discovered in the arms of Oliver. Sure I’d had sex; but never before had I truly made love—at least not in the sublime, very special way we made it. Aside from being an expert lover, pleasuring me in ways I never thought possible, he was endlessly kind and patient; asking me if I was comfortable and if I was enjoying our experience; constantly asking me what he could do to make it better for me. “Just stay here with me,” I whispered, offering myself to him once again. As he brought me to pleasure again and again, he whispered to me of my beauty and kindness, my grace and wit; all the things he loved about me. He was whisper gentle one moment and expressed animal passion the next; yet always maintaining enviable control over his body and desires at all times. Our bodies seemed to merge as one as our hearts and souls followed suit. And after the loving reached its beautiful completion, he cuddled me soft and sweet in his embrace and whispered something in my ear. A softly spoken phrase that sounded suspiciously like, “I love you.” Suddenly I couldn’t wait to open my eyes and begin my day with Oliver; a man that I was now convinced was my real and true lover. Sex, after all, was not a part of our agreement; and neither were any declarations of true love. And, no matter how expertly planned or flawlessly well executed, no faux mance could carry this degree of intimacy or intensity. There was simply no way that he could deny the truth of our feelings for one another; just as there was no way I could deny that I was falling hard for Oliver. At once I felt an overwhelming need to hold and kiss my tender lover; to greet a new day with my new love, to talk about our newfound bond and perhaps even make love again—repeating in full the ebullient journey that had carried us through the night. Reaching my arm across his bed I felt nothing but cool, satin sheets; apparently I was the current sole occupant of Oliver’s dream bed. He must be downstairs, making me breakfast. I grinned, stretching my arms high above my head as I writhed like a cat in bed. Or else supervising his maid’s preparation of my breakfast. Whatever works. My cheeky grin dissolved abruptly as I saw a crisp piece of ivory white stationery laying on his pillow; one I retrieved with uncertain fingers as I struggled to focus my bleary eyes. “Always nice to start the day off with a love note,” I chuckled aloud, grabbing hold of the folded stationery and opening it with anxious fingers. Perhaps he found it difficult to express the feelings that we both share so he had to write it, instead of say it. My laughter and dreamy reverie were both silenced seconds later, as I read a note that sounded far more like an official office memo than a written declaration of love and passion. “Hi Lily,” the letter read. “Hope you’re feeling well this morning. Feel free to grab some breakfast in the kitchen and let yourself out afterwards. I headed into work early to catch up on some projects. I’ll see you there later today. Oliver.” My eyes widened as I reread the note three more times; a feeling of cold, hard shock overtaking my body as I considered his cool, formal words. My shock was equaled only by my complete and total revulsion; a feeling sparked by words that could not possibly have been uttered by the warm, tender man who’d cradled me in his arms the night before. No, this couldn’t be him. Crumpling the note in my hand with a heated sigh, I tossed it into a nearby wastebasket and jolted upright in bed; awakened in more ways than one. Was this, I wondered, the end result of a cold and calculated plan? First he tells me that we just have to date, for the good of the company; then he seduces me to get what he really wants before cutting me off cold? I just could not believe it. After being so cautious and guarded for so long, I’d elected just once to let down my guard. Just once I had let him in, opening myself to him. Just long enough to give him access to my heart, so he could break it. For a moment I buried my head in my hands and let loose with a single loud sob; a solitary tear creasing my cheek as I felt my heart drop to the pit of my stomach; shattering like glass as I considered his words and, just as important, his actions. “How could he do this?” I said aloud. “And how could I, knowing all too well about his playboy reputation, fall for his clever little ruse? I always think with my mind, not my heart… why would this man, of all men, make me let down my guard?” Shaking my head to clear it of its distressed haze, I sniffed back my tears and lifted my chin; steeling myself against the wave of emotion that threatened to overwhelm me. OK, so I had made a mistake; trusting a man when I’d clearly known better. And yes, it hurt, so very much but I would not allow it to destroy me. With a defiant sniff I sat up straight in bed; squaring my shoulders as I choked back my tears and held my chin up high. Setting my lips in a defiant manner, I balled my fists and gritted my teeth as a wave of raw, angry power suffused and flew free through my veins; lending me a needed second wave of power and resilience. After grabbing a wad of Kleenex from my purse and wiping my face clean, I arose from Oliver’s bed and vowed never to return. *** Oliver Oh, no. What have I done? These were the thoughts that assailed my mind as I sat frozen at my desk; not able to work or even pretend to be working (a skill that I had perfected to an art during my years at Clark Industries). My night with Lily had proven to me what I’d suspected all along; Lily and I cared about each other very much, more than we’d ever thought possible. We’d discovered so many bonds and common interests that we’d never known existed. I had ‘caught feelings’ for this amazing woman and I could tell through her touch, her tender kiss, that she felt the same way about me. It was magical. It was romantic. It had to stop. Now, if not sooner. Generally when I “caught feelings” for a woman, I cut off my feelings for her as soon as possible, cancelling all planned dates and conveniently forgetting to answer her phone calls or return her messages. Of course, there was no avoiding or ignoring Lily; frankly I would fear for the very life of any man that ever tried either grave mistake. And, well, I’m not sure if I could live without her… professionally speaking, of course. And she’s a great friend. That’s all I meant. I couldn’t run this office without the bright, reliable Lily, who, I’d had to remind myself all too many times these past few weeks, was simply not my type. Not by a long shot! I’ve got to stop leading her on, I mused, stroking my chin in a rare show of deep thought. She might think I’m really falling for her. And I’m not. I swear, I’m not. That level of involvement just doesn’t suit my lifestyle. It’s just not my style, in any way, shape or form. My troubled meditation was disrupted by the opening of my office door; and the entrance of a cool, stone-faced women I hadn’t seen in ages. I sat straight up in my chair and steeled myself against the return of Pre-Faux Romance Lily; a woman that sometimes looked at me like it was my last day on earth. Or so she hoped. “Your faxes,” she announced, tone cool and crisp. “And your phone messages.” Dropping a small pile of papers at the center of my desk, she seared me with cold, narrowed eyes as she turned for the door. “Thank you, Lily,” I matched her formal tone, adding as I cleared my throat, “Look, I’m sorry that things got out of hand last night. I mean, I know we both enjoyed ourselves but it probably wasn’t wise. It wasn’t part of the original plan. And as badly as we both wanted to be together, I’m not altogether sure that we should have let things go that far.” Lily nodded. “Oh, after reading your brisk, rather short correspondence this morning, I realized just what a grave mistake we had made,” she agreed all too readily, folding her arms before her chest as she continued to send a steady supply of daggers from her eyes to mine. “I think, in fact, that we may at this point want to cut off all contact outside of work.” I sat stock still, my eyes flying wide as I considered these words. “Well we might not want to go that far,” I sputtered, adding with a weak shrug, “Maybe we could just cool things off a bit for a while… just take a step back and stick to a more casual dating plan.” Lily arched her eyebrows. “Everything has to involve a plan, doesn’t it Oliver? And do you really believe that things could get cooler than they presently stand?” she asked, tone very cold indeed. I looked at her for a long moment, then shook my head. “No, I suppose not,” I agreed, tone soft and sad. Meeting my words with another curt nod, Lily turned with a flourish for her office, in the process managing to slam the door that separated the work spaces and, today more than ever, the space between us. For a moment I sat still and quiet in my seat; trying to process in my mind the events of the last few moments. Or, more truthfully, the events of the last few weeks. Lily and I had been working together for so long; she was my support system, my chief assistant, my right hand woman. I guess this is what happens when you have both of your hands all over your right hand woman, I snorted, burying my forehead in my hands. Something told me that things never would be the same between Lily and me and this thought filled me with so much sadness and regret. What was happening to us? What was happening to me? Heaving a long sigh, I shook my head briskly to clear it of a sad, very confused haze, finally turning my attention to the pile of messages that lay unread on my desk. I cringed all over again as I saw the name scribbled at the bottom of the first message; one that belonged to my father, the ever honorable Harry. R. Clark. ‘Call my office right away Son,’ the message read. Picking up the receiver of my nearby office phone, I dialed my father’s office number and cringed as he answered in his eternally officious tone, “Good morning, Harry Clark.” “Hi, Dad,” I mumbled. “What’s up?” “Oliver!” he bellowed out, voice loud and booming. “It’s about time you returned my call. Listen, I hope you haven’t forgotten about the Chamber of Commerce banquet we have scheduled next Friday.” “Oh of course not!” I chuckled. “We go every year to represent Clark Industries, it’s always fun.” Dad snorted. “Well I know it’s always a fun for you,” he said with a sigh. “You usually manage to get drunk by mid-evening, offering loud and inappropriate commentaries on all of the speeches as your bimbo date for the evening, and it’s a different one every year, giggles along in agreement and accord, in the meantime not beginning to understand or take anything away from the content or messages of any of the speeches. But since you’ll be bringing Lily this year, I have every confidence that things will be different.” I froze. “You want me to bring Lily this year?” I queried, eyebrows arched as I tapped some nervous fingers across the surface of my desk. Harry sighed. “No, I want you to bring the queen of England, or if she’s not available, that cute ol’ gal who does those insurance ads on TV,” my father deadpanned. I hate it when he does that. “Of course I want you to bring your girlfriend, my loveably knuckleheaded son. Connecting up with that woman is the smartest thing you’ve ever done, both for yourself and our company. I have no doubt in my mind that she will represent us beautifully, as she always does.” “I know she would…” I release on a sigh. “The only problem is…” “There is no problem that can’t be solved before Friday night,” Harry told me, tone hardening. “I’m sure you realize how important this event is for our company and, consequently, for you and your position at the company. I want our beloved Lily to be there, not only so she can represent our company, but so she can keep an eye on you.” It was my turn to sigh. “OK, message received,” I relented. “Lily and I will both be in attendance at the banquet next Friday.” Dad paused. “Good, just make sure of it,” he said finally, tone low and grave. “Don’t mess things up with Lily, Son. She’s the best.” Chapter Eleven ~ Lily For all intents and purposes, I should have been having the time of my life. I sat like a queen at a central table in a lovely banquet hall; a room bedecked with plush tables covered with cloths of scarlet and topped with exquisite crockery and velvety red linens. Above me were glittery crystal chandeliers that hung from a vaulted ceiling. Before me was a glorious mural depicting a garden of roses in radiant bloom. Beside me was a painfully gorgeous man bedecked in a pressed black tuxedo, his hair slicked back to glamorous effect and his bronzed skin and cocoa eyes shining in the lights above us. Of course, I reminded myself, I didn’t look half bad myself. Rejecting Oliver’s offer to take me shopping; spending my own money on a beautiful teal green frock that fell to my feet; a sleek satin number that came with a matching hat and a chapeau that set off my brushed, coiffed dark hair to lovely effect, if I do say so myself. This was a gown of my own style and choosing, purchased with my own hard earned money. In a way the dress reminded me of the one that my favorite literary character, Scarlett O’Hara, wore at a pivotal point in the famous novel ‘Gone with the Wind.’ Scarlett wears the dress to prove a point; to show the world—and that pesky if undeniably hot Rhett Butler, that scoundrel—that she is both prosperous and strong. OK, so I didn’t make this blasted dress from my own, seriously altered curtains but I did drop a sizable amount of dough on this reasonable facsimile. And I wore it with pride, drawing the attention of my handsome date. “You look beautiful, Lily,” he praised me, regarding me with a good, long look before retraining his gaze ahead of him. “That dress is ravishing.” “Thank you,” I assented, nodding stiffly as I took a seat across from him at the table, the farthest I could possibly sit from him without escaping to another table altogether. It pained me to think that, if this event had taken place one month or even two weeks earlier, we would be thoroughly enjoying ourselves right now; talking and laughing as we snuck kisses and shared private jokes. We’d be having the time of our lives, clutching hands beneath the table as we enjoyed intimate conversations about… well, about everything. Now we sat as far apart as possible avoiding each other’s gazes and directing our attention to the moderator who now announced the commencement of the chamber of commerce dinner. Immediately I slipped into a personality mode that could only be called mechanical; smiling, laughing and nodding at all the appropriate places as the moderator and the keynote speaker delivered their speeches. I chewed and made complimentary noises as we ate a gourmet dinner; a meal of succulent lamb, seasoned mashed potatoes, steamed vegetables and a rich chocolate fondant that, on an ordinary basis, I would have enjoyed very much. Tonight, though, I just didn’t seem to have much of an appetite. I was grateful for the presence of the food, as it gave Oliver and me something to talk about—a little bit, at least. “Great eats,” I said at one point. “The best,” he agreed, daring to look at me, and only briefly, for the second time that evening. “I know the chef who caters all of the chamber events, and he’s a great guy. He could make a hamburger taste like filet mignon.” “Well he certainly delivered on this meal. I’m not getting on the scales for a week,” I followed up, diving headfirst into my beloved chocolate fondant. “Me neither,” he agreed, seeming to study his own dessert with unusually intent eyes. “Nope, not for a week. At the very least.” All too sadly, this fascinating conversation was disrupted by the formidable presence of Harry Clark, who suddenly appeared before our table as he slapped me on the back. “Hello Lily! So glad you made it this evening,” he winked, standing to his full, formidable height and straightening the bow tie on his classic tuxedo. “You look beautiful this evening. Doesn’t she just look radiant, Oliver?” “She does,” Oliver confirmed, adding with a faint smile, “By the way, Dad—hi.” “Hi,” Harry greeted him, finally turning his attention to his smirking son. “You cleaned up pretty well yourself tonight, Son and I see you’re drinking water with your dinner. Lily is having a great influence on you.” I shifted my gaze to my dinner plate as Oliver replied, “Yes—yes, she is. Of course, as always.” Harry nodded. “Well then why don’t you take her out on the dance floor?” Harry gestured behind him, in the direction of a sharp tiled dance floor at the back of the banquet hall. “I must say, Son, it’s rather rude of you to sit here stuffing your face when you could be dancing with your lovely gal here.” Following the direction of his gesture, I pursed my lips as I saw happy couples converging on the dance floor; joining hands and merging bodies as the atmosphere around them filled with the sounds of a string quartet that now struck up the music at the back of the floor. Dining together was one thing; how was I going to step onto the dancefloor, a sharply tiled expanse with mirrored walls and a crystal chandelier overhead, with a man that I’d rather drag into the squared circle? Nonetheless I smiled politely as Oliver offered me his arm; following him onto the floor as a beaming Harry looked after us with a wide smile. “Let’s try to make this look good,” Oliver whispered, gathering me into a loose embrace as we finally hit the floor. “Why should I?” I hissed on a whisper, pulling back to create distance between us as he swung around in a broad circle. Oliver sighed. “It’s for the sake of my job, and, since you work directly underneath me, your job as well,” he told me, his moves forced and mechanical as he swung me around the floor. I snorted. “Was that what I was doing that night we spent together?” I snapped. “Working underneath you?” Oliver shook his head. “Lily, you know better,” he insisted, pulling me just a bit closer as he spoke low into my ear. “What we did that night was a special, magnificent experience. Why can’t we just keep it as a treasured memory and go on doing what we’re supposed to be doing?” I shrugged. “I’m not even sure what that is anymore,” I admitted, resting my head lightly on his shoulder. “How can we just go on like nothing happened? How can we just forget something that, in my mind at least, was pretty darned unforgettable?” Oliver stopped stock still at the center of the dance floor. “I’m glad it happened, Lily,” he admitted finally, staring deep into my eyes. “It was beautiful, it was like nothing I have ever experienced. We weren’t just messing around, we were making love. It just can’t happen again. It complicates things too much.” I shook my head. “What you mean to say is that you felt something when we made love,” I insisted. “You felt something for me, as a person and a lover, not just as a friend and a trysting partner, and it scared you to death. And until you’re finally willing to admit that, I’m not sure if I can continue this little charade.” I took in my breath as he swept me up in his arms, drawing me closer than close. Oliver shut his eyes tight and inhaled my scent; his hands scaling my back and stroking my hair as though he was memorizing my every trait and feature. For a moment I smiled as I sensed his closeness; sensing also an imminent confession of his true feelings for me. My smile dissolved, and my heart broke, as he whispered in my ear, “My dad was watching us. He frowned like he sensed that something was wrong.” Breaking our clench, I stepped away from my dance partner. “Something is wrong,” I told him. “And while I have no wish to hurt Harry or to harm his company, I do need you to realize that you, Oliver, have hurt me.” Oliver said nothing; only gathered me up in two strong arms and pulled me close to him once again, this time whispering in my ear, “I’m sorry. I never wanted to hurt you, Lily. You’re so special to me. I do care about you. It’s just that I’m confused right now, about so many things.” He paused here, giving my body an affectionate squeeze. “One thing I’m not confused about, however, is that I need to keep my job and my family together and in order to do that, I need you now more than ever. Could we keep on seeing each other just a little while longer, for Harry’s sake?” “I don’t know, Oliver,” I snapped in immediate return, freezing in his arms. “At this point I feel like I’m being taking advantage of, even used. And it’s not as though I owe you any favors. If anything, Oliver, you owe me for all the pain you’ve caused…” Oliver sighed. “You owe me nothing, Lily,” he assured me. “As I said, though, this is for the sake of your job and, as I said, for the sake of my father. Will you do it for his sake?” I thought for a moment, then nodded. “I’ll do it for Harry,” I relented with a sigh, adding with arched eyebrows, “Does he look any happier now?” Oliver chuckled. “Apparently he’s no longer concerned,” he replied, adding with a laugh, “He’s sitting at his table, balancing his checkbook.” Joining in his laughter, I continued to move and sway in his arms as our bodies relaxed; falling into an easy rhythm in time with the romantic, classically inspired music. “This music is beautiful, I must admit,” I admitted with a shrug. “And as usual, Clark, you do know your way around a dance floor.” Oliver shook his head. “Only because I have the best partner this evening,” he whispered, pulling my body closer to his as I sank in his arms. “And for all evenings.” Once again I rested my head on Oliver’s shoulder, and he tightened his hold around my waist. Oh make no mistake, I was still angry at him, but he did know how to cut a rug. I even smiled slightly as he pressed two tender lips against my cheek. “You’re the best, Lil,” he whispered in my ear. “Yeah, well don’t let it get around,” I shot him a smile as the song ended, and we broke our clench to applaud the band. “These guys are good.” For the first time that evening, Oliver grinned. “They are, and I’m very glad you’re having a good time finally,” he smiled, opening his arms to me. “Care for another dance?” I nodded. “Sure,” I assented, adding as I turned away, “Right after I make a requisite trip to the little girls’ room.” Moments later I found myself standing at the center of a restroom generally only seen in those old classic movies. The soap dishes alone were so bloody peerless that I could see my reflection in them. The floors beneath me bore such a shiny sheen that I feared them freshly washed, meaning that I presently lived in fear of slipping and sliding in my inordinately high heels and collapsing face first on the inhumanly immaculate floor. When I slipped into the spacious, upscale cubicle that contained the restroom’s more personal accommodations, I saw a beautiful piece of porcelain furniture that on first glance anyway, looked more like a freshly upholstered porcelain chair, you know, the kind in which debutantes park their surgically sculpted rears. I emerged from the restroom to encounter two new visitors to this bizarrely decadent scene; one of which, of course, was a uniformed attendant that stood poised to hand me a swanky velvety towel. The other came in the form of a slender blonde who absolutely devastated in a slinky backless dress, one whose pure golden color blended in with her bronzed skin. “Good evening,” I nodded, smiling graciously as I approached the bank of gold-fauceted sinks that fronted the deluxe lavatory (I wasn’t even about to call this place a rest stop). “It will be for you,” the woman sniffed, tossing the locks of her long golden hair with a certain air of barely concealed annoyance. Immediately I recognized the airy, high pitched voice that flowed between the woman’s cherry red lips. Less recognizable was the cold stare and catty words that seemed to be coming from the mouth of a total stranger. “Do I know you?” I arched my eyebrows. The blonde nodded. “I do believe we talked briefly on the phone a few months ago,” she sniffed, folding her slender arms before her. “I’m Kelli.” I froze. “With an i?” I asked finally, nodding as my memory cleared to reveal the brief phone conversation we’d shared months earlier. Kelli smirked. “The same,” she clarified. I nodded, noting suddenly that the bathroom attendant was leaning her plush capped head forward at a most distinct angle, at once very interested in our conversation. “You used to date Oliver,” I thought out loud, slipping my hands inside the overpriced sink and activating its faucet, wondering vaguely if moderately hot water could be used as a weapon of defense—that is, if the need arose. Kelli threw back her flawless head, letting loose with a perfectly executed haughty laugh. “Yes, I used to date Oliver,” she sniffed. “But our relationship is ancient history by now. I haven’t seen him since last night!” Withdrawing my hands from the sink, I planted them instead on my hips and looked her straight in the eyes. “How do I know you’re telling the truth?” I inclined my head in her direction. Reaching immediately into the blue seashell purse that hung haphazardly from her slender shoulder, Kelli withdrew a metallic cell phone from its depths and pressed a few buttons; ultimately displaying a glossy photo that told the truth of the tale. Standing beside Kelli was none other than Oliver Clark, my date for the evening; although his face was partially obscured as he kissed Kelli senseless. “I took this shot just last night, when Oliver and I hit the dance floor at Club Freak,” she sneered, shoving the phone in my face. “I’d be more than pleased to show you the photos we snapped of what happened next, but I don’t want to end up in jail for decimating pornography over my phone.” I grinned. “Decimating,” I repeated, adding as I slapped her back, “You just managed a four syllable word. I’m beyond impressed, Kelli with an i.” Her smirk dissolving, an enflamed Kelli shoved her phone in her purse and actually threw a silencing hand up in my direction. “Impressive,” I said aloud, adding as I stroked my chin in a show of deep thought. “I didn’t think that anyone over the age of twelve struck the ‘talk to the hand’ stance anymore.” Gasping outright, Kelli graced me with a second impressive hair flip before turning for the door. “What-ever.” She managed yet another brilliant comeback, adding over her skinny shoulder, “Oliver is just a little bit like a politician, isn’t he? He has his fun with the actresses and models, then insists on bringing his Jacqueline Kennedy clone to formal functions… just for show. I, on the other hand, came on the arm of the drummer in tonight’s house band. A man that is at least honest about his taste in ladies.” I laughed. “Well, all things considered, I’d say I’m doing pretty darned well tonight,” I called after her, adding with a broad beam, “I’ve been compared to Scarlett O’Hara, Vivien Leigh and Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis during the course of one evening, you, on the other hand, just compared yourself to a porn star.” Kelli stopped stock still for a moment; silently fuming as her tiny brain made a desperate attempt to come up with a scathing response. “What-ever!” she finally exclaimed, making a beeline through the door. Bursting out into laughter, the aging bathroom attendant engaged me in a congratulatory high five as I myself turned for the door, leaving her a generous tip as I bid her goodbye. My beam dissolved moments later, as I headed back in the direction of the dance floor where a smiling Oliver awaited me with open arms. “Care for another dance?” he invited me, speaking loudly over the opening strings of a classic waltz. “No,” I snapped, even more loudly. “I would, however, like to have a talk. Now.” Soon Oliver and I found ourselves ensconced in an elegant sitting room adjoining the banquet hall; a room furnished with floral print furniture, plush carpeting and lush examples of Victorian artwork. Ignoring our posh surroundings, I slammed the door behind me and came to stand stock still before a silent, wide eyed Oliver. “Lily, what’s wrong?” he asked, shaking his head from side to side in a show of disbelief. I smiled, but not kindly. “Oh not much, Oliver,” I told him, adding with a shrug, “I just hate it when I go to take a leak and end up in a verbal confrontation with one of your girlfriends.” Oliver gaped. “Did I just hear Lily Ashton say the words, ‘Take a leak?’” He arched his eyebrows, voice barely above a whisper. “I just heard a no class bimbo tell me that she was in a relationship with you,” I told him. “I believe her name was Kelli?” Oliver relaxed, his shoulders slumping as he let loose with a round of loud, raucous laughter. “Well if I’m in a relationship with Kelli, it’s the same relationship that I enjoy with a great number of young women throughout this city.” Oliver rolled his eyes heavenward, adding more seriously, “As I’ve said before, Lily, I never promised to give up other women during the course of our arrangement. You knew just what you were getting into when you agreed to our set up.” I had heard enough. “You also promised to be discreet,” I reminded him. “Making out with your date on the dance floor, all the while allowing her to record your activities via her cell phone, is hardly what I would call discreet.” Oliver bit his lip. “Well I am sorry you had to see that, Lily,” he repented, shuffling his feet beneath him. “And you’re right, I did promise to be discrete.” He paused here, adding with a reassuring smile, “I promise that in the future, things will be different.” I nodded. “Well you’re right about that,” I readily agreed, adding as I lifted my chin to proud effect, “As of this evening, Oliver, I’m ending our arrangement and, for that matter, my employment in your office. I quit.” Oliver shook his head. “Lil, don’t make decisions when you’re mad,” he sputtered, holding his hands up before him in what seemed to be a defensive stance. “Don’t overreact like this—remember our agreement, and everything that you’re getting out of it. The clothes, the jewels, the dinners…” “The broken heart?” I interrupted him, planting my hands on my hips. “When we made our little agreement, Oliver, our bargain did not include my body or my heart.” Oliver nodded. “I am sorry that I let things get out of hand,” he allowed, adding as he looked me straight in the eyes, “I must point out, however, that I never forced you to do a single thing you didn’t want to do.” “True enough,” I admitted, adding as I pointed an accusing finger in Oliver’s direction, “You did, however, say a number of things that lead me to believe that you truly cared about me—up to and including, ‘I love you.’ When we made love, you told me that you loved me.” Oliver froze. “Sometimes in the heat of passion, we say things…” he sputtered. “Things we don’t mean?” I snapped, looking him straight in the eye. Oliver nodded. “Don’t misunderstand me, Lily,” he released on a sigh, “I do care about you, very much, and I find you endlessly charming, kind, smart, and attractive… but you and I both know that we would never work as a couple. In fact I’m not altogether sure that I would ever make a decent husband, or even serious boyfriend, for any woman.” He paused here, adding with arms outstretched, “I would, however, like to be a better son to my father, and a top employee at his company. And just think about how deeply it will hurt him if we end our arrangement.” I shook my head. “You mean if we stop lying to him?” I countered, adding as I turned for the door, “I don’t want to hurt Harry any more than you do, Oliver—but isn’t he going to think it’s passing odd if we just keep on dating, without ever moving in together, getting married, vacationing together, etc.? And what if he happens to see you out with another woman? This isn’t going to work, Oliver, for any of us, especially not for me. Perhaps it’s time he learn the truth about you, Oliver, just as I have.” “Wait!” Rushing to catch up with me, Oliver placed two hands firmly on my shoulders and pinned me with an imploring gaze. “What am I supposed to do without you, Lily?” he asked, his fingers digging into my arms as he pouted profusely. “What will happen to our office, to all our projects? What will happen to me?” Shaking off his hands, I stepped around him and cleared the room in a few smooth strides. “Frankly my dear,” I said over my shoulder. “I don’t give a damn.” Lily After spending a near sleepless weekend perusing the wanted ads of my local newspaper and pointedly ignoring Oliver’s calls, I trudged with slow, reluctant steps into my office on Monday morning; appearing just before 9 a.m. to collect my personal belongings and be on my way. I just couldn’t believe it had come to this—that all of my hard work and dedication could possibly result in this convoluted mess of a situation. I never should have agreed to Oliver’s ridiculous plan, I sighed, facing my good old reliable work desk for the last time. I knew him—and myself—better. I allowed my emotions to cloud my better judgment, which is something I swore I’d never do. Clearing my desk surface and its drawers with a low, dispirited sigh, I froze as I heard a loud bump emanate from Oliver’s office. And here I was hoping he’d come in hideously late, like the good old days, and manage to miss my visit altogether, I sighed, nonetheless lifting my chin and squaring my shoulders as I turned in the direction of an office door that seemed poised to open. Oh well, it doesn’t matter. I’m more than prepared to face him this morning—along with any arguments or obstacles that he might try to place between me and the office door. My mouth fell agape moments later, as that door opened to reveal the elder Clark. Immediately Harry and I exchanged friendly smiles—although mine, admittedly, was a bit forced and strained as he stepped into my work space. “Good morning Harry,” I greeted him, adding with a sheepish grin, “You’re probably wondering as to why I’m cleaning out my desk this morning…” “Don’t say another word, Lily,” Harry interrupted, holding his hands up before him. “I overheard your argument with my son at the chamber of commerce banquet.” I froze. “You did?” I whelped through gritted teeth. “Really?” Harry chuckled. “With your volume, Lily, I suspect that the folks that live three streets overheard your little exchange,” he deadpanned, adding as he rubbed his temples at the memory, “If not three states. And I must say that my son deserved every word of it. As much as I hate to say it, Oliver can be such a jerk at times—such an out and out cad. I cannot believe that my son put you in such an uncomfortable position—asking you to lie to me, and everyone around us, for the sake of some stupid ruse. He honestly thought he could deceive me into thinking that he was a changed man.” Lily sighed. “Well in some ways, Harry, I do believe he has changed,” I revealed. “His work performance has improved tenfold, he shows up on time, he’s even getting new clients for the business. And I also sincerely believe that he loves you and, for that matter, that he loves and misses his mother very much.” I paused here, adding with a hefty sigh, “On a personal level, though, he hasn’t changed enough to save our relationship, that is, our arrangement, that is, whatever the hell has been going on here these past few months. And, although I hate to say it, I can’t continue to work by his side, not for one more day.” Harry nodded. “I understand, Lily; no one could rightfully expect you to feel any differently,” he allowed, adding as he rolled his eyes heavenward, “Heck I brought the guy into the world, and I’m not sure if I want to work with him one more day.” Lily chuckled. “Well since he has improved so much in the past months, I suggest that you keep him on the pay roll, and—for that matter—in the family,” I grinned, but only briefly. “I’m afraid, however, that he will have to find a new personal assistant. As much as I hate to say this, today will be my last day at Clark Industries.” Harry shook his head. “Nonsense, Lily, you’re not going anywhere. I’m not going to lose one of my best employees because of my son’s foolishness. He may not realize what a treasure he has in you—but, believe me, I do,” he told me, raising an authoritative finger for emphasis. “This is a big company, and I have plenty of executives that would appreciate the services of a top notch personal assistant. You could continue to work in this same building, but in a different wing, enjoying a new job with an increased salary, and never have to come in contact with Oliver.” Immediately I froze, the words “increased salary” prompting me to set aside my packing box just for a moment. “After everything that has happened, you seriously want me to stay on with the company?” I asked, eyes narrowed in confusion. Harry nodded. “You haven’t done anything wrong Lily,” he reminded me. “As I said earlier, I am not going to allow my son’s irresponsible actions to cost me one of my best employees. I want you to stay put, Lily and instead of taking that rather unwieldy packing box all the way down to your car, why not just move it up to office no. 432, just one floor up from this one?” “Office 432?” I yelped, nearly dropping the blasted box square onto my toes. “Isn’t that the office of Trisha Vance, the head of marketing? That woman is a legend in the field and aside from all the projects she oversees here, she’s the president of the Women in Marketing Association. I can’t tell you how much I admire Trisha.” Harry beamed. “The one and only,” he affirmed with a nod. “She is currently in need of a new marketing assistant. I think that you two strong, feisty women would have a great time working together and coming up with new ideas, not to mention putting a fresh new spin on projects and procedures that this company was built on. I can’t wait to see what the two of you have to come up with in terms of exciting new projects for our company. That is, Lily, if you accept my offer.” “I accept!” I bellowed, running forward to engage a laughing Harry in a vigorous handshake. “Absolutely, and without reservation!” Harry guffawed outright. “Well Lily, I do believe I’ll accept that response as a tentative, conditional acceptance of my offer,” he deadpanned, adding as he slapped my back, “Now head on up to Trisha’s office and get to work! Pronto!” *** Two weeks later “So Lily, tell me what you think. Hit me with another one of your amazing ideas!” Sitting before the polished cherry wood desk of Trisha Vance, I took a moment to reflect on what a marvelous turn my professional life had taken in the past 14 days. I now served as an executive marketing assistant for the amazing Trisha Vance; and I was just that, her assistant—not her surrogate mother, her ‘brains behind the scenes,’ her damage control specialist, or her foil. Now Ms. Vance, or Trisha, as she encouraged me to call her, did value my opinion and asked me for my input on a regular basis; but, unlike Oliver, she supplied me with supreme guidance and detailed instructions on every project, not to mention weekly cash bonuses for good performance, always a plus. Trisha always credited me for my good work, singing my praises to an ecstatic Harry Clark and everyone else that would listen. She held my work up as an example to our colleagues and co-workers, encouraging them to emulate my creativity and work ethic. And today, much to my delight, she was requesting my ideas for her upcoming presentation to a Junior Businesswoman’s Club; one that met regularly at the chamber of commerce and that involved high school honor students from throughout the area. “I would suggest that we make a PowerPoint presentation that details all of the different finance careers available for today’s enterprising young woman—including the requirements, income levels, benefits, qualifications, and educational requirements attached to each job,” I told her. “Then at the end of the presentation, you could quiz the students about the information you taught them—those who answer correctly can win some small prizes—pens, notebooks, rulers, etc.—that come emblazoned with the Clark Industries logo.” Trisha smiled. “Brilliant!” she congratulated me, running perfectly manicured fingers through the silvery upsweep of her perfectly coiffed hair. “You know, Lily, every day I continue to be more and more eternally grateful that Oliver Clark is such a royal screw up!” I guffawed outright. “Well Trisha, I myself am pretty thrilled with my new position,” I nodded affirmably. “It’s challenging, it’s exciting—I feel so valued here.” Trisha nodded. “Rest assured, Kid, you are valued here—you definitely have some job security with me,” she assured me, adding with eyebrows arched, “I don’t suppose you’d like to come with me to the Junior Businesswoman’s Club next week? I think it would be wonderful if the girls could make the acquaintance of not one, but two successful businesswomen who excel in their fields.” I said nothing for a moment, only tried to fight back the sheen of unbidden—but very happy—tears that threatened to flood my eyes. “Thank you so much,” I assented, voice barely above a whisper. “I would love to go—if, that is, I’m still welcome at the chamber in the wake of my recent theatrics at their banquet. If I can offer any or all of those young ladies the same hand up that you’ve offered me, then it will be well worth the trip.” “And if these enterprising gals get to meet and be inspired by the amazing Lily Ashton, then the trip will be well worth it for them as well,” Trisha agreed with a grin. An hour later I sat in my neat, spacious cubicle; typing up a marketing report for my boss as I listened to a new classical CD I’d bought the weekend before; a relaxing collection of fine crafted melodies that, on an ordinary basis, would ease the rigors of my work day. Today, though, the third song on the CD sounded far too similar to the lovely stringed waltz I’d heard the night of the chamber of commerce dinner; the same waltz that had filled the atmosphere as Oliver and I shared our very last dance. My fingers stilled on my computer keyboard as my mind swelled with unbidden visions; images of a stunningly handsome man dressed in a black tuxedo, pulling me close to him, dipping me, whispering to me. Then I pictured this same man drawing me into a passionate clench, kissing me senseless as our naked bodies joined together in the silky sheets of his bed. I basked in memories of the single, very pleasurable night we spent together; the sublime ecstasy I’d experienced in his arms—and that, I knew all too well, I’d never feel again. Shaking my head to clear it of its frenzied haze, I sighed deeply as I wondered just how long it was going to take for me to get over Oliver Clark; the man who managed to enflame and infuriate me all at once. Isn’t that usually the standard thing that happens when somebody falls in love? The thought sprang to my mind just as unbidden as the fantasies that had preceded it; eliciting a low groan as I shook my head from side to side. Why was I doing this to myself? I had an amazing new job and more income and benefits than I’d ever dreamed of having; in addition, a rather handsome—and very single—young clerk had just been hired in Trisha’s office. And, to sound as much like an overly flattered junior high schooler as possible, I think he likes me! Yet it wasn’t the cute blonde Kirk Taylor that invaded my dreams at night, shattering all of my earthly defenses as he made love to me again and again. Other nocturnal visions were even worse, as they brought back memories of the laughter and conversation Oliver and I had shared during our months together; all of the good times that had managed to deliver so much romance and excitement to my life. That was no faux-mance, I concluded, pursing my lips to thoughtful effect. At least not for me. Suddenly I heard some steps on the staircase that bordered my office; followed by a loud, resounding knock on my cubicle door. That even sounds like his knock, I mused, adding as I turned from my desk, but I’m probably just imagining things. Nevertheless I suddenly found myself wishing that it would be Oliver on the other side of the door; that he would be waiting with open arms and a warm, sincere apology. Not that a simple apology would be enough to fix things, but at least it would be a start. My spirits plunged moments later, as I opened the door instead to reveal a clerk instead of a Clark: the beaming, affable Kirk Taylor, who offered me a bright smile as he asked, “So how’s your day going, Lil?” Forcing a smile in return, I shrugged my shoulders as I stepped back to grant him entrance into my office. “Pretty good so far,” I affirmed, adding as my beam became more genuine, “Trisha and I just had another amazing brainstorming session today—she’s always so open to my ideas.” Kirk nodded. “Isn’t she the coolest?” he agreed, his gentle blue eyes sparkling to flattering effect. “Trisha is the best.” “She is,” I affirmed, reclaiming my seat before my desk as I motioned for him to take the chair that sat beside my door. “When I heard I was going to be working for her, I had a major Wayne and Garth era ‘We’re not worthy, we’re not worthy’ moment, that’s for sure.” I jumped as Kirk doubled over, meeting my little quip with far more hysterical laughter than it rightly deserved. I, meanwhile, frowned a bit as I recalled the movie marathon that had proven a highlight of my romance with Oliver. “You’re so funny, Lil,” Kirk praised me, obviously oblivious to my sudden shift in mood. “I have to say you’re my favorite part of my job here at Clark. You’ve taught me so much, and you’re patient and kind—you’ve really been a Godsend to me since my arrival here.” “Why thank you,” I blinked hard, adding as I arched my eyebrows, “I’ve never been credited as an ethereal product of divine intervention before, but OK!” Another round of hysterical laughter met this comment; followed by the coy wink of those adorable baby blues. “You’re too much, Lil.” Kirk shook his head, adding in a lower, more tentative voice, “Say, are you doing anything for lunch today? I mean, I don’t know that many people around here and I have a lot of questions about my new job. Do you like Chinese?” I shrugged. “I like it just fine, but my stomach doesn’t always favor it,” I admitted, adding with a slight smile, “Besides, I brought my lunch today—Trisha expects a completed report on her desk by 4:30 this afternoon, and I’m afraid I’ll have to work through lunch.” I cringed inwardly as Kirk’s smile dissolved, and he met my words with an awkward nod. “Oh,” he said, folding his hands before him and shuffling his feet. “I understand, of course. You’ve just started a new job, and you have a lot on your plate.” He paused here, brightening noticeably as he added, “But Friday night will be here before we know it, and I’m sure we’ll both be more than ready for a break. Why don’t we go for drinks?” I thought a moment, then shook my head. “Usually, by the time Friday night rolls around, I’m nothing short of exhausted,” I admitted, adding with a smirk, “I have to keep my usual weekend date with Ben, Jerry and Chris.” Kirk arched his eyebrows. “Ben, Jerry… and Chris?” he inquired, his tone reflecting a bizarre mixture of confusion, offense and possible arousal. I nodded. “Every Friday night since… well, for a while, I collapse on my couch with a pint of Ben and Jerry’s—a different flavor each week, just to change things up—and take in a Chris Hemsworth film festival—a different movie each week.” “Oh, I see…” Finally taking the hint, Kirk stood up from his seat as he surrendered the cause. “Well if you ever change your mind Lily, just let me know.” I smiled. “Will do,” I told him, sending him off with a friendly wave. “I have a feeling, though, that it’ll be a while.” Chapter Twelve ~ Oliver Sure, it had only been two weeks; but in my mind, it seemed like a virtual eternity. One too many mornings I opened up my office door to both silence and disorder; walking into an office that I alone occupied—and, by God, it showed. My files were in disarray. My answering machine flashed wild with a collection of unanswered phone calls; voicemail messages that I did not have the time nor the inclination to answer. My office was both dusty and disorganized and my colleagues and co-workers greeted me with indifferent glances and outright scowls; expressions that seemed to scream, “You screwed up—and royally.” I didn’t much care about their opinions; who was I, Oliver Clark, to care about what a bunch of underlings thought about the boss’ son? I did, however, care about the feelings of my boss; a man who also happened to be my father. Dad had barely spoken to me since the chamber of commerce banquet; though he did inform me, via a brief and very uncomfortable phone call, that he had overheard my heated confrontation with Lily, and that he was as a result moving her to another office, effective immediately. My own position with the company, meanwhile, was in immediate danger; it was up to me to find a new personal assistant, and to make up for my deception by procuring new clients and maintaining a solid working relationship with our existing clientele. In the meantime, I feared that my status as Harry Clark’s son was in just as much danger, considering the fact that, since the night of the banquet, I had not been invited to any more corporate functions—or, for that matter, to any more family dinners, ballgames, or evenings out at the ballet or theater. I really didn’t even feel very welcome at business meetings or office functions; oh, I still attended them whenever (very coldly) requested, but the ideas that I offered at these corporate functions were seldom warmly received. I just didn’t know what to do. How could I make things right with him? How could I explain away or apologize for my actions of the past months? My father barely looked at me these days and, well, that hurt. It didn’t hurt as much, though, as the fact that Lily Ashton joined my father in the singular act of wanting absolutely nothing to do with me. We rarely saw each other in the hallways of Clark Industries; as a matter of fact, I’d managed to catch fleeting glimpses of her ducking into conference rooms and ladies restrooms (where she knew that even I would lack the nerve to follow her) in an attempt to avoid me. And it went without saying that the phone calls and e-mails I’d sent her in the wake of the chamber of commerce banquet had gone unanswered and, in all likelihood, discarded. Of course, I mused, my last attempts to contact her all had taken place more than 10 days ago. Could it be that she had cooled off by now—that perhaps she would be open to at least having a conversation with me? I could only hope so because, dammit, my heart and body ached for Lily Ashton. More accurately, they screamed for her. I so missed my bright, beautiful, wonderful Lily—in my arms, in my bed, in my home, in my office. She was the one who had kept me together these last two years and, since the beginning of a faux mance that turned all too real, she had kept me happy—beyond all words and measure. Not that I wasn’t happy before—and, I quickly reminded myself, I would be happy again. With a bevy of willing young beauties at my disposal, I did not need a steady girlfriend to give me what I needed. In order to keep my job and, for that matter, my sanity, I needed to find a new personal assistant as soon as possible. Over the past few weeks I’d interviewed no fewer than 10 women for this position; most of them ex-girlfriends who had worked under me in the past—in more ways than one. During the course of these interviews, I was reminded quickly as to why their periods of employment with me had been mercifully brief. Some of them couldn’t type and chew gum at the same time and a few couldn’t even manage to walk and chew gum at the same time. And rest assured, they all chewed gum—constantly, and to the point that their dialect was nearly indecipherable. I couldn’t have these people answering my phones and greeting my clients; so while I did manage to make a few dates during our mercifully brief job interviews, rest assured I made no offers for long term employment. Today, however, I was offered a glimmer of a hope in the form of an interview procured through a personnel agency; one with an individual named Leslie Peterson. The moment that Leslie walked through the door, I couldn’t help but notice a few things about my prospective employee. Leslie, it turned out, was completely bald and in possession of a 5 o’clock shadow. Leslie also came complete with a speaking voice that was significantly deeper than my own. “Are you the person who came to apply for my personal assistant position?” I queried, cocking a curious eyebrow as I engaged my visitor in an unbelievably firm handshake. The man nodded. “Les Peterson, at your service,” he barked. “I just got out of the military and am looking for a PA position much like the one I used to hold in the Army, where I held down a desk job after coming home from Iraq.” I smiled. “That sounds great, Les,” I told him, adding as I inclined my head in his direction, “Do you have a resume handy, and would you be willing to take a typing test?” A half hour later I escorted my new personal assistant to his desk and although I was most hopeful about the talents and contributions he might bring to my agency, I felt very odd about seeing someone else in Lily’s chair. Indeed, I thought with a sigh; there would never be another Lily Ashton. Chapter Thirteen ~ Oliver That weekend I enjoyed one of the dates I had made with one of my interviewees; a recent college graduate who—when she wasn’t out hunting for a personal assistant’s position for which she wasn’t remotely qualified—was balancing a promising career as a model/actress. Or was that an actress/model? Oh, I suppose I had a nice enough time with Courtney—that was her name, wasn’t it? We caught a quick dinner at a seafood joint, took in a movie, then headed back to my place, and of course to my bed; a place where, eight hours later, we still laid ensconced between my sleek satin sheets. And, oddly enough, we reclined with our backs facing each other; seeming to cling to our respective sides of the bed with a sure sense of pure determination. The passion that we’d shared had been hot enough, I guess, but strangely devoid of feeling; for a while we’d devoured each other like hungry animals, we’d done little in the way of talking, cuddling, laughing together, or even deep kissing. Our encounter—indeed, our entire date—just seemed to lack the intimacy that I’d shared with… well, with a certain other woman I just couldn’t seem to get off of my mind. When I looked at Courtney, lying golden and naked in the sheets of my bed, I saw a beautiful, golden blonde without a single physical flaw. What I did not see, however, was the keen light of intelligence that shone through in Lily’s eyes, her speech, her every move and mannerism. And while Courtney’s bedroom techniques were impressive enough—indeed, I was pretty sure she’d been an acrobat at one time or another, before she’d opted to pursue an alternative career as an actress/model/rather ineffective personal assistant—she didn’t hold and cradle me, the way Lily had—making me feel loved and appreciated. And now that the cold light of morning shone itself so brutally on our encounter, I had no desire to spoon or canoodle with the fair Courtney. I heaved a sigh of relief when she finally opened her eyes, rolled over and said, “Last night was fun, babe, but I have to get to the gym.” After dressing in opposite corners of the room and saying our goodbyes with a quick, awkward kiss, Courtney took leave of the premises; leaving me finally and mercifully alone. Now then, I plopped myself down on the corner of my bed, blowing out a gust of frustrated air as I considered my weekend plans. The weekend is still young. I have theater tickets for tonight, along with a dinner reservation at Le Jardin. The only question is, which lovely young lady will do me the honor of being my date this evening? Kelli, for her part, hadn’t spoken to me since the chamber of commerce banquet. No worries, though; my not so little black book brimmed over with names of ravishing young women—most of which, as so many had duly noted beforehand, boasted generous cleavage and flawless features. Ultimately, though, I found myself dialing the number of an older lady named Ann, whose digits did not reside in my little black book. “Dr. Goldman?” My voice trembled as I heard the sharp, very authoritative “hello” that could belong only to my resident psychologist, Dr. Ann Goldman. “I know it’s been a while, but I really need to talk to you.” Soon I found myself ensconced in a luxurious office space adorned with neat, upscale furnishings and painted in soft pastels and assorted soothing shades. Yet I felt anything but soothed as I sat on the hard edge of a lavender cushioned chair; one located at the square center of a room where people confessed their greatest sins. And, I supposed, I was there to tell mine. “I guess I really screwed up, Doc,” I told Dr. Goldman, releasing my words on a hefty sigh. “Ya think?” Dr. Goldman replied, no doubt offering her most sensitive, astute professional assessment of my particular situation. “Oliver, there’s no need to tell me about how you lied to your father—or, furthermore, how you involved an innocent woman in your deception. Harry told me everything, the day after the chamber of commerce banquet.” I nodded. “Neither one of them is talking to me,” I revealed, adding as I shook my head from side to side, “And while I understand, of course why Dad is angry, seeing as how I deceived him about my relationship with Lily, just to save my own hide, I’m not as clear as to the cause of Lily’s anger. I mean, she agreed to our plan from the beginning and, I must add, she got a lot of expensive clothes and jewels in the bargain.” Dr. Goldman nodded. “She also got a broken heart,” she reminded me, staring me straight in the eyes. “Tell me the truth, Oliver. Did the faux mance get just a little too real? Did you sleep with Lily?” I sighed. “Yes, OK, we did sleep together,” I admitted, wincing in my seat as I added quickly, “But I in no way forced or coerced Lily to go to bed with me. I in no way threatened her job, and used absolutely no physical force at any point in the encounter.” “Did you seduce her?” Ann pressed, arching her eyebrows to curious effect. I shrugged. “Yes, I suppose I did,” I released on a sigh. “It was her birthday, and I wanted to make her feel good—to feel special and valued. I do care about Lily—very much, in fact. I just think now that it may have been a mistake to go all the way, so to speak.” Dr. Goldman leaned forward, locking our gazes as she said in a low tone, “Why was it a mistake, Oliver? Were you afraid that she was getting too involved in the situation—or perhaps, that you were?” I sat back hard in my chair, suddenly feeling as though I’d been punched in the gut. “You don’t need to answer, Oliver,” Ann allowed, raising her hands between us. “I’ve gotten the idea from our recent visits that you’ve come to care about Lily, far more than you’re willing to admit. You in all likelihood cut her off after your night together—not just to save her feelings, which you ended up hurting anyway, but to save your own. And at any rate, you sent her mixed messages and, as an end result, you broke her heart.” She paused here, her voice amplifying as she added, “You managed to drive away the only good, smart quality woman you’ve ever dated not to mention one hell of an employee. She could have saved you, Oliver, both personally and professionally, and you completely and totally ruined everything.” “Correct me if I’m wrong, Doc,” I interrupted her, sinking lower and lower in my seat until I feared falling out of it completely. “But I thought it was your job as my analyst to make me feel—oh I dunno—better about my life? I gotta say that, so far today, you’re doing a passably sucky job of that…” “I’m not one of your yes people,” Ann interrupted me in return, adding in a somewhat softer tone, “I do want to help you, Oliver, but you have to help yourself first. You have to ask yourself as to why you hurt and drove away the best thing that’s ever happened to you.” I thought a moment, then sighed. “I’m not sure, Doc,” I revealed, tone low and weary. “I know you implied earlier that, after losing my mother, I might be afraid to let a woman into my life—to let her love me. Maybe there is something to that, after all.” I paused here, adding with a shrug, “Or who knows? Maybe I’m just a jerk.” For the first time that day, Dr. Ann Goldman laughed. I was beginning to wonder if she was capable of emitting that particular emotional expression. Good to know she can. “If I were you, Oliver, I’d go with your first theory,” she assured me with a smile. “You’re not a bad man—you’ve just made some very bad choices. And before you make even more of them, you have to find out the reasons behind your behavior. You have to learn your failings and—more importantly—address and correct them. Only then can you make things right with Lily, with your father—and maybe even with yourself.” I thought for a moment, then nodded. “I guess I have a big task ahead of me, don’t I Doc?” I sighed, adding with a confirming nod, “I have to make things up to my dad, and of course to Lily. And, some way or another, I have to get that adorable, amazing woman back into my life.” Chapter Fourteen ~ Oliver I left Dr. Goldman’s office that day with a renewed sense of spirit and purpose and with a new wave of energy that really revitalized me. Once again I felt like the old Oliver Clark; confident, powerful, and determined to go after what I want. And what I wanted, beyond any shadow of doubt, was Lily Ashton. Oh, don’t get me wrong; I was not in love with this woman. I was still a happily unattached bachelor who planned to remain that way, probably for the rest of my life. No attachments meant no pain, right? At the same time, my session with Dr. Goldman made me realize that I probably did lead Lily on and hurt her and in the process, I realized, I hurt myself. I missed my friend, my assistant, and—yes—my lover. And while I still had no intentions to make Lily my wife, I also had no intentions of going through my life without her. She was way too valuable to me, in so many different ways. All I had to do, I reasoned, was remind her of all of the benefits she could derive from our arrangement: the clothes, the jewels, the dinners, the theater tickets, the fun. The friendship. The intimacy. The love. Wait a minute now; when I said love, I didn’t mean that long lasting and eternal stuff they talk about in greeting card commercials. Having said that, I had to recognize the fact that Lily and I were an unbeatable team—a team whose members understood, supported, and comforted each other whenever needed. To a certain extent, we did indeed need each other and now all I had to do was convince Lily Ashton of this undeniable fact. Starting Monday, I’m hatching a plan to get Lily back, I mused, now charging with smooth, confident steps on the cobblestone path that lead away from Dr. Goldman’s office. Just how am I going to do this? Well, as Lily’s favorite literary character would say, ‘I’ll think about it tomorrow. Tomorrow is another day.’ OK, so technically—since this was Saturday, I wouldn’t be seeing Lily until the day after tomorrow. No worries. The day after tomorrow was still, it was safe to say, another day. So with that in mind, I hopped into my trusty roadster and headed in the general direction of Dalton’s department store. The moment I passed through the brass double doors that marked the entrance of this upscale boutique, I was immediately greeted by a gaggle of familiar looking shop girls who demanded in unison, “Why didn’t you bring Lily?” Freezing in my steps, I considered my answer with care before saying, “Well I asked her to stay at home today, so I could buy her a surprise gift—a present, ladies, that I want to shine as the best and most beautiful token of my affection.” “Are you planning to propose?” the ladies replied, once again in unison. How do they do that? “No, no ladies, nothing like that—I simply want to buy her a gift of greater meaning—something that shows her I really do care.” “OK Clark, what did you do?” OK so the gals didn’t actually give voice to this last sentiment; but I could see this sentiment reflected in the cold stares and beset frowns that currently flared in my general direction. “All right, Ladies, so I’ll admit it,” I released on a sigh. “I’ve messed up—and royally. Any help you can give me would be greatly appreciated.” After considering an assortment of extravagant offerings that any lady might love—anything from velvet clutch purses to silk dresses to fragrant perfumes brewed and blended in the heart of Paris—I eventually came to face the infamous Dalton jewelry counter—the place where so many of my unfortunate dollars had disappeared without a trace since my courtship with Lily began. After taking brief glances at variations on gifts I’d given her before—everything from diamond necklaces to ruby bracelets to emerald rings—I finally heaved a resigned sigh and turned in full to face the angel’s chorus of sales clerks that awaited my final decision—with baited breath, or so it seemed. “All of these trinkets are beyond beautiful, Ladies,” I told them, adding with arms outstretched before me, “Somehow, though, they’re just not enough. I need something so special, so beautiful, so meaningful, that she won’t be able to resist… it.” I finished my sentiment on an awkward note, shifting my gaze away from the ladies and back in the direction of the jewelry display that, while certainly not lacking in beauty or grandeur, failed to offer the one golden (or, for that matter, diamond, emerald, ruby or cubic zirconia) token that would win my lady back. Did I just say, ‘my lady’? I thought silently, adding with the firm, decided shake of my head, Well she is one of my ladies—and a good friend at that…That’s all I meant, of course. My troubled meditation was cut short by a sharp nudge on my shoulder; one delivered by a petite blonde shop girl that went on to hand me a radiant gem: a luminous scarlet-hued rose that seemed to be culled from the finest, most sparkling crystal. “What is this?” I asked, handling the crystalline token with cautious, delicate fingers; admiring the way that the rose’s luminous petals caught the beam of the overhead light. The clerk shrugged. “It could be anything Lily wants it to be,” she told me with a smile. “A lovely centerpiece for her bedroom dresser, her dining room table, her desk at work or maybe just a keepsake that she stashes away, taking it out whenever she thinks of you—which, we all hope, would be often sir.” I stood in silence a moment to gaze upon the beauty of this most exquisite gem; an opulent piece that seemed to radiate with scarlet-tinged beauty and an invigorating wave of sublime glowing warmth. I had no idea if this gem would affect Lily in the same way that it reached out to me but I hoped that by giving it to her, I could send some of the warmth and pleasure that I felt right now in her direction—that this rose of beauty would convey the emotions that I found so tough to express. I actually have no idea what to say to her, I mused. But hopefully, though, this little beauty will do my talking for me. Aloud I directed the gathered sales clerks to, “Wrap up this little gem and charge it to my store account. I’ll take it.” The moment I arrived home, I removed the wrapped rose from my shopping bag with delicate fingers and placed it with care at the center of my briefcase; closing the lid on what I saw as the key to my future with Lily Ashton. It was this same briefcase that I carried with careful hands Monday morning, as I took the case into my office and placed it squarely on the desk of my new personal assistant, Leslie Peterson. Opening the lid, I removed the wrapped rose and slid it across the desk in Leslie’s direction. “Wrapped in this tissue, Les, is a precious gem that I can’t possibly trust to interoffice mail,” I told him. “Please deliver it to office no. 432, directly into the hands of Ms. Lily Ashton.” Les nodded. “Will do, boss,” he agreed, adding as he handed me a neat pile of slick white paper, “Here are your faxes for the morning.” I smiled. “Thanks, Les,” I told him, adding as my grin broadened, “Not only for the faxes, but for doing such a great job here since you started last week. And, for that matter, for being a male. And, for that matter, for not spelling the name Leslie with an I at the end. All of these contributions are making my job—and my life—a lot easier right now. And all are much appreciated.” Les looked at me as though I’d just lost my last marble; even so he nodded sharply and said, “No problem, boss. I’ll try and keep it up.” Chapter Fifteen ~ Lily “Absolutely, Trisha. I’ll have it ready for you by noon.” Clicking the “off” button on my office cell, I returned the phone to its home on the edge of my desk and shifted my head upward; jumping as I came face to face with an unexpected visitor. I immediately recognized the tall, balding man as Leslie Peterson, Oliver Clark’s new executive assistant here at Clark Industries. What I didn’t recognize was why on earth he was standing in my office today, a pearl pink gift bag in his hand. “Good morning, Mr. Peterson is it?” I forced a polite smile as I continued, “How can I help you today?” Offering no verbal response, Leslie Peterson reached deep into the bag and withdrew a piece of cream-colored stationery emblazoned with the Clark Industries logo. “Lily,” he read aloud. “I really hate to do this at work, but I must make amends for being such a royal jerk. Please accept the gift of this jewel, and tell me that we are once again cool. I was a fool. And since I can’t think of a word that rhymes with Oliver, I guess I’ll make my mark, by signing this letter from Mr. Clark.” Ignoring the stunned, slightly horrified expression that met his rather atrocious attempt at poetic verse, Leslie once again reached into the bag; this time withdrawing a wad of tissue that seemed to hold a mysterious gift. “Just so you know,” he said finally, raising his head until our gazes locked. “The gift was personally selected and purchased by Mr. Clark. I thought up the gift bag—I have a wife, unlike Mr. Clark, and I understand the importance of presentation. The poem, well, not to brag but he and I composed it together in just under five minutes.” “Unbelievable,” I said. And boy, did I ever mean it. Leslie, totally misunderstanding the bitter irony that lie just beyond my words, beamed brightly as he considered this response. “I know, isn’t it?” he asked, adding with a shrug, “Mom always told me I should have skipped the military and business school, opting instead to become a poet and balladeer.” Without further hesitation he plopped the tissued mystery gift squarely at the center of my desk; gesturing for me to open my present as he kept close, careful watch. Heaving a sigh of deep resignation, I peeled away the tissue until my gift was revealed before my disbelieving eyes. I gasped in spite of myself as these efforts unveiled a radiant crystal rose; an exquisite jewel that caught the light and shimmered in all its beautiful, luminous glory. “Beautiful,” I breathed, basking for just a moment in the vision of the rose. Leslie nodded. “So you like it?” he asked, tone cautious and hopeful. Tearing my gaze away from my shiny, glittery gift, I stared my messenger straight in the eyes and said, “I love it, Leslie—just as I’ve loved every single flashy, expensive gift Oliver has ever given me. But while he showered me with jewels and clothes, dinners and theater tickets, he never gave me the gifts I wanted the most.” Leslie thought a moment, then shrugged. “Well just tell us what you want,” he urged me. “A necklace? A gown? Heck, with his bank account the boss probably could even foot a boat or a car…” “Stop it!” I interrupted him, jumping to my feet as I added, “Just stop it, and advise your boss to do the same thing. The truth is, Leslie, that the things I need don’t carry a price tag. Love. Genuine caring. Respect. Those are the things I most needed from Oliver. It was these same things he just could not provide.” Leslie sighed. “This probably isn’t my place to say this, Ma’am, but don’t you think you’re being a bit tough on our boss?” he implored. “I mean, I know that I’ve just met the man, but he seems nice and sincere enough.” I nodded. “Oh he’s plenty nice,” I agreed, adding as I rolled my eyes heavenward, “To every woman he meets—that is, if you can classify those overdone bimbos he dates as actual, honest to God women. And while he may be sincere to a certain extent, he certainly didn’t hesitate to deceive his own father about our involvement.” Les shook his head. “Well I don’t know anything about all of that,” he admitted, adding as he spread his arms expressively before him, “And like I said, Lily, I probably don’t know Oliver quite as well as you do—a good thing, considering the fact that we’re both painfully heterosexual males.” He paused here, adding in a lower, more serious tone, “I’m also a pretty intelligent male, and I can see when a man is in love.” I froze a moment, considering these words as my gaze again rested on my admittedly stunning jeweled gift. Finally, though, I stood from my desk with the rose in my hand, holding it with definite intent over my waste can; one conveniently located just next to my work station. “I’m not altogether sure that Mr. Oliver Clark knows the meaning of the word love,” I declared. “And until he figures it out, and is ready and willing to express his feelings to my face, I’m afraid that I am unable to accept any more of his gaudy, overpriced gifts.” With this I released my tight hold on what I was sure was a very fragile crystal rose; watching with a bitter smile as it descended into my waste basket. My grin dissolved as, with a deep-seated groan, Leslie surged forward and intercepted my pass; catching the discarded jewel before it shattered in so many pieces at the bottom of my trash bin. Holding the rose close to his chest with almost comical protectiveness, Les regarded me with a cold stare as he stepped away from my desk. “Ma’am, my boss spent a fortune on this gift,” he scolded me. If you won’t accept his present, then at least allow me to return it to him in one piece.” I thought a moment, then nodded. “Fine then,” I allowed, waving him away with a dismissive gesture. “Tell Oliver to give the jewel to a woman that wants it—and him.” Chapter Sixteen ~ Lily The moment that Leslie Peterson cleared my office, my rejected gift clutched tight in his hand, my mind and spirit soared with a renewed strength; not to mention a refreshed sense of confidence. Until this point I had questioned my ability to say no to Oliver Clark; to resist the charming, irresistibly handsome man that had changed my life and claimed my heart. Ah, but I just had: I had rejected his empty charms, and the beautiful, pricey gift that was just as colorful and appealing as he was. Don’t ask me how I did it; somehow, though, I think I finally came to realize just what I needed from Oliver Clark—and it wasn’t his charm, his money, or even his expensive gifts. It was the truth—and the courage to tell it. I needed him to approach me face to face, and to be honest and forthright about his feelings for me. Sure, currency and charm were always nice; but the “c” word that I needed him most to express was commitment. I needed him to acknowledge the fact that the feelings between us were all too real and to express true appreciation for the things that I brought to his life. If I had indeed managed to change Oliver Clark, then I needed him to show it—by expressing a true desire to make things right, to at least try to join me in turning our faux mance into a real and very meaningful relationship. When would he realize that instead of spending all that money to buy me expensive presents he should instead spend a little more time in my presence; looking into my eyes and sharing his feelings for and intentions toward me? Only he knew the answer to this question—or maybe he didn’t, and that was the whole problem. At any rate, I for one felt better than I had in ages; confident and prideful in the knowledge that I was the woman that had put Oliver Clark firmly and directly in his place. Surely the women of the world will honor me for this singular accomplishment. Maybe I’ll get a plaque, a lovely and tasteful floral bouquet, maybe even some decorative candles in my favorite scent and a gift certificate to my favorite sushi bar or miniature golf course. And while my mind and spirit reveled in this knowledge, in this out and out victory on behalf of all womankind, my heart and body weren’t so sure. Both still ached for want of the man that my brain so reviled; and while my waking hours were filled with the duties that came as part and parcel of my wonderful new job, my nights remained plagued by dreams of that devil; that man that still never failed to arouse and intrigue me. I now knew, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that I could in fact resist Oliver Clark; only some parts of me didn’t exactly want to resist him. And I bet I can tell you just which parts, I rolled my eyes heavenward, sitting up straight as I welcomed yet another visitor to my office—this one substantially more welcome than the last one. Office clerk Kirk Taylor came strolling into my office with a manila folder in his hand; depositing the parcel on my desk with a bright, friendly smile. “Please tell me that this interoffice delivery a. is intended for Trisha, not for me and b. is not coming directly from one Mr. Oliver Clark,” I returned his smile, but through gritted teeth. “Um… yes, it’s for Trisha and no, it’s not from Mr. Clark,” Kirk assured me, arching his eyebrows in a quizzical fashion. “Are you OK, Lil?” I shook my head. “At this point, Kirk,” I admitted. “I’m sure of nothing.” The light laughter that I expected in response to this remark was replaced by an intense, curious stare; one that my visitor aimed in my direction as he parked himself on the edge of my desk. “Lily, can I level with you?” he asked me, voice low and intimate. “Can I tell you the total and absolute truth?” “No,” I replied, shaking my head from side to side with absolute certainty. Ignoring my caustic reply, Kirk went right ahead and said, “People around this office have been talking about you and Mr. Clark—and, by exercising the refined art of eavesdropping that I learned from dear ol’ Mom—I’ve come to hear your story, piece by piece. And now I understand why you didn’t want to go have drinks with me the other day.” I shrugged. “I don’t know what to tell you, Kirk,” I told him, adding as I shifted uneasily in my seat, “Things are just really complicated right now. I don’t think any sensible, reasonable man would want to get himself involved in the only slightly organized mess that is my life right now.” Kirk shook his head. “In my mind, Lily, things aren’t so very complicated at all,” he insisted, adding with his arms outstretched before him, “You know that you deserve better than some playboy who disposes of his women much faster than he does his silk monogrammed handkerchiefs. You really do want to get over Oliver Clark—chances are, though, you’re not going to get over him unless and until you give someone else a chance.” He paused here, leaning forward to affix my shoulders with two strong, tender hands. “Look, Lily, I know I don’t have his money—but I also don’t have the little black book that isn’t so little at all. And I do believe I can cough up just enough spare change to cover a round of drinks at Jubilee dance club this weekend. Why not forget your troubles for a night and come dancing with me?” Lifting my head to stare straight into his eyes, I took a moment to savor his warm, sincere words—and, for that matter, the simple masculine beauty of the blue-eyed blond that had said them. I opened my mouth to issue yet another lame excuse to his kind invitation; only to surrender the cause seconds later and say, “Yes, Kirk. I’d love to go out with you this weekend.” Chapter Seventeen ~ Lily Saturday evening came around far sooner than I would have liked; indeed, I must admit that I didn’t particularly look forward to my weekend dance date with Kirk. I really didn’t feel much like dancing or dating at all; wishing instead that I could just stay home, put on a movie, drink a soothing glass of wine, and fall asleep in front of my home entertainment center. “Yeah,” I chortled aloud, pulling myself from the surface of my day bed and walking with slow, trudging steps in the direction of my bedroom. “If only I could just stay home and watch one of the movies that Oliver and I enjoyed during our infamous movie marathon, drink the vintage wine that he used to share with me, and eventually nod off to dream about the man that bought me that wine in the first place. Grand plan, Ashton.” Kirk was right, I decided. If I ever hoped to get over Oliver, I would have to at least try to date other gents or, at the very least, to get out of the house and try to have some fun instead of just basking in memories of all the fun evenings I’d enjoyed in Oliver’s company. Stepping out of the sweater and jeans that I’d worn throughout the day, I opened my closet door and browsed with listless, casual fingers through the assortment of expensive, brightly colored frocks that hung unused or neglected on its wrack. All of my most beautiful dresses came directly from Oliver and I wondered with a sigh just how many times his name would cross my mind throughout the course of a single day. It would seem terribly tacky to wear a dress that he gave me on a date with another man. Deciding finally on a basic black dress I’d bought on my own several years ago, I slipped it over my head and took a brush to the strands of my tangled dark hair; combing them into some semblance of order as I wished I could do the same with my addled senses. I didn’t bother putting on a lot of makeup that evening; opting to just apply a light layer of light brown eye liner and a coat of ruby red lipstick. I was inspecting the results in the mirror when I heard a loud, sharp knock resounding on my door. Here goes nothing, I mused with a sigh, adding as I trudged with listless steps in the direction of my front door, and that’s about what it will feel like, I’m afraid. Nothing. Forcing a smile for the benefit of my visitor, I opened my door to reveal a modestly dressed blond in a T-shirt and jeans. “Hi Lily,” Kirk greeted me with a grin. “You look nice.” “Hi, thanks,” I replied, widening my forced smile as I added silently, “Oliver never would have worn a T-shirt and jeans on our date. Along the same lines, he never would have told me that I look nice. He would praise my beauty to the high heavens. And, come to think of it, he wouldn’t have come to my door at all, at least not to start off a really special evening. He would have sent his chauffeur ahead of him, to—what do those really fancy schmancy types call it?—fetch me directly.” Following Kirk downstairs to the front entrance of my apartment building, I saw through the panes of my glass encased doors the very reason that Kirk’s chauffeur didn’t come ahead of him to “fetch” his date. Indeed, those that owned lime green hatch back cars made in the early 90s usually didn’t come complete with hired drivers. Shaking my head to clear it of its critical haze, I reminded myself that Kirk’s kindness and character more than made up for his modest means. Even so, the conversation that we shared en route to the dance club did little to show evidence of Kirk’s dynamic, exciting personality. “So Lily,” he cleared his throat loudly as he made several attempts to rev his engine—and mine too, apparently. “Like I said, you look super cute tonight. I’m glad you decided to come out with me. I sure hope we’ll have fun.” “I do too,” I agreed, with as much enthusiasm as I could muster. Soon we completed our mercifully short trek to Jubilee dance emporium; a modest, single level mirrored building on the sketchy side of town. Olli never would have brought me here, I mused in silence, gathering close to my muscular date as we walked with brisk steps into the club. Taking our seats at a corner table, I coughed roughly as my senses were assailed with a cloud of smoke; a haze no doubt inspired by the circle of avid smokers that surrounded us in the club. These same senses underwent a second assault as they were struck with the shattering notes of a hard rocking heavy metal tune; one that managed to drown out all attempts at conversation that transpired between my date and myself. Finally Kirk just motioned for me to write down my drink order, which he then passed on to a waiting waiter. “This seems like a really cool place!” Kirk screamed above the music. “Don’tcha think?” “Oh yeah!” I replied, flashing an awkward thumbs up sign in his direction. “The best!” OK, so maybe the conversation-killing music was a blessing in disguise. Finally Kirk suggested that we get up and dance and as we walked hand in hand toward the rickety wooden dance floor that formed the center of Jubilee, I recalled the many passionate, heartfelt dances that had transpired between Oliver and me. Somehow it didn’t feel the same when Kirk took me into his arms; his own arms loose and tentative as he swung me around the floor. Keeping a respectful distance between us, we moved out of synch and even stumbled a bit as we tried to match the rhythm of the song. Twirling slightly away from my date, I stumbled backward against the tall, muscular body of another dancer on the floor. Turning with a flourish to apologize to the gentleman I’d just jarred on the dance floor, my mouth fell agape as I faced the man whose image haunted my mind. Refined and handsome in a sleek black dinner suit, Oliver Clark looked strangely out of place on a stained, rickety dance floor and suddenly I wondered if he was something out of a dream. But when he said, “Good evening, Lily,” his voice sounded all too real and in lieu of answering his very polite greeting, I turned and ran from the floor. Racing through the crowd in the direction of the door, I cleared the club entrance in seconds; emerging in the moonlight to cover my face with my hands, letting loose with a loud, sharp sob that released my long held sorrow. How could I ever escape that man? And even if I resigned from Clark Industries, how could I escape his memory? My troubled meditation was soothed somewhat by the sudden presence of two strong hands on my shoulders; hands that I simultaneously hoped and feared belonged to Oliver. Raising my head, my gaze locked with a pair of eyes that were blue, not brown. “Are you all right, Lily?” Kirk asked me, tone low and gentle. Nodding, I stood upright and squared my shoulders; forcing a faint smile as I replied, “I’m OK, thanks. I think, though, that maybe you should take me home now.” Kirk looked at me for a long moment, then nodded. “I think you’re right,” he agreed, adding in a lower tone, “I don’t have a chance here, do I Lil? You really are in love with that man.” I bit my lip. “I’m sorry, Kirk,” I offered with a smile. “I know this sounds hopelessly clichéd but I do hope we can still be friends. Good friends.” Wrapping his arms around my shoulders, Kirk nodded as he turned my body in the direction of the parking lot. “We can, dear,” he affirmed, adding with a gentle nudge, “Now let’s get you home.” Chapter Eighteen ~ Oliver Saturday evening came around far too early for my liking; particularly as this night provided a dismal capper to a downright miserable week. I had to admit it; Lily’s rejection of my gift had left me disgusted, frustrated and more than a little stunned. What did this woman want, anyway? I had given her the prettiest, most expensive gift I could find. What more could I do? Did she just enjoy torturing me? During the week, of course, I could bury my worries in the pile of work that filled my office inbox. I’m proud to say that my relationship woes did not destroy the newfound momentum I’d established at work; even my father, another person I’d managed to royally tick off, stopped briefly in my office to deliver a brief, roughly spoken compliment (“Good job, I suppose,” were his exact words) regarding my recent performance on an important project. OK so I didn’t expect the dude to nominate me for Employee of the Year anytime soon but at least I saw some remote hope for our relationship. Not so when it came to Lily. And while I could forget this fact during the work week, it wasn’t easy to do so on the weekend—the time I usually spent with Lily. I spent all day Saturday moping in my apartment; finding no easy escape route from my exhausting, stifling haze of complete and utter misery. Around 5 o’clock that evening, I had had enough. No woman was going to make a weepy, emotional mess of Oliver Clark—and if she didn’t realize what a find she had in me, then I would just call up one of the many beautiful women who did appreciate and want to be with me. OK, so the first five women I called had already made plans for the evening; the sixth had just come down with an inexplicable headache, and the seventh seemed to be having problems with her phone—or at least that seemed to be the case, given the loud click I heard in my ear the moment I said, “Hi, it’s Oliver.” Finally, though, I scored a date with Kelli—what was her last name again? Elated that Lily and I were no longer dating, Kelli agreed to meet me at the Jubilee dance emporium that evening and while this low rent night club was not on my list of favorite haunts, I supposed that the loud music—paired, of course, with the company of a gorgeous woman—would dull my senses and drown out the memory of another woman; one that at this point seemed unattainable. Two hours later I sat at a table across from the lovely blonde Kelli; dressed that evening in a sharp black spaghetti strap that showed off her slender body to glorious effect. Leaning forward across the table, I ran my fingers through her luxurious mass of thick golden hair and stared deep into her wide blue eyes; seeking to lose myself in all her beauty. Strangely, though, I felt not even a twinge of excitement as I laid my eyes on this striking woman; and when she spoke, I found it very difficult to focus on her words. “I’m glad you called me, thanks for that,” she told me with a grin. “About all I was planning to do tonight was my nails and maybe check out the monster truck rally on cable.” I stared at her, not sure quite how to respond to this empty, banal sentiment. Lily would never say anything so—well—dumb. And she’d never thank me for going out with her, I thought silently, adding aloud, “Glad you could make it, Kelli. Would you like a drink?” Soon Kelli and I occupied our mouths with copious reams of cheese sticks and alcoholic beverages; blissfully stilting any and all attempts at genuine conversation. And when they were gone, I invited her to dance. The moment we hit the dance floor, Kelli flung herself into my arms and ground her nubile, voluptuous body against mine; searing me with a blatant gaze of narrow eyed seduction as she thrust her chest against mine and gyrated her slim, fit hips in my direction. Normally I would be turned on by such a blatant advance, especially when performed by such a hot, alluring woman. Somehow, though, I felt repulsed by her display of crude sexuality; I felt myself stiffening against her, and not in a good way. Lily would never make a spectacle of herself in front of all these people. Kelli stepped away from me to show off what appeared to be her advanced twerking skills. Impressive. In an impulsive move I swept my date’s body up tight in my arms; not in a fit of passion, but in an attempt to reign her in a bit. Then, settling my head on her shoulder, I allowed my gaze to wander disinterested across the width and breadth of the dance floor. My body tensed as I immediately recognized someone I knew; a Clark Industries clerk named Kirk Taylor. “This seems like the type of place that a no account, working class loser like him would frequent,” I sniffed silently. “I kind of wonder, though, what kind of girl he’s scored for a date.” I jumped in spite of myself, and my blood ran cold, as my question was met with a shocking, downright unbelievable answer. “Lily…” I breathed aloud, recognizing at once the voluptuous brunette that danced with Kirk. “No, it can’t be—when she could have a rich, successful guy like me, why would she waste her time with a lackey? This just doesn’t make one bit of sense.” I cringed as my previously flirtatious date froze in my arms; at once pulling away from me to pin me with a cold, condemning stare. “I said all that out loud,” I told Kelli, biting my lip as I added, “Didn’t I?” Kelli said nothing, just left my arms and gestured broadly in Lily’s direction. “Go ahead, Oliver,” she demanded, planting her hands on her hips. “Your mind and heart are already with her—not with me. Your body might as well join them.” I froze, staring with an open mouth at the woman that—for all intents and purposes—had just put me in my place. “Why Kelli,” I breathed. “I do believe that’s the smartest thing you’ve ever said. By a long shot.” Obviously not taking this as a compliment, my angry date turned away from me with a hale and hearty, “Screw you, Oliver Clark!” Shaking my head at her ire, I dismissed Kelli with a casual wave and turned to face the woman that really mattered; one whose lush, voluptuous body now collided with mine at the center of the dance floor. The instant that she turned to face me felt more like an eternity. For a timeless moment I stared into her wide, expressive eyes, not knowing quite what to say or do. “Good evening, Lily,” I muttered finally, breathless as I awaited her reaction. I cringed seconds later, as—once again—Lily Ashton turned away from me. Chapter Nineteen ~ “Just so you know, Oliver. I can’t always accommodate weekend appointments—especially not first thing Sunday morning.” Seated behind her desk with her back straight and stiff, Dr. Ann Goldman folded her arms before her as she continued, “So what did you need to talk to me about this morning? That couldn’t possibly wait until Monday morning?” I sighed, hanging my head as I finally gave voice to an undeniable truth. “I’m in love with Lily Ashton,” I revealed. “There, I’ve said it. I can’t deny it any longer. I am madly, passionately in love with this woman, and I need desperately to get her back into my life. I’m nothing without Lily, and I don’t want to live one more day of my life without that wonderful, brilliant, beautiful woman.” Dr. Goldman nodded. “Well it’s good that you’re finally willing to admit what the rest of us have known, for quite some time,” she told me, adding as she cocked her head in my direction, “The only person that doesn’t know this, as a matter of fact, is Lily. So how do you plan to show her your love?” I shrugged. “I don’t know!” I exclaimed, adding as I spread my arms in a desperate gesture, “Just the other day I bought her an expensive and very beautiful gift, which I handpicked at her favorite department store—a gift she rejected and sent back to my office. If she rejects such a grand gesture, then what on earth will she accept?” Dr. Goldman sighed. “Oliver, don’t you get it yet? Haven’t you been listening to what I’ve told you all along? Lily Ashton is an intelligent, independent woman. You can’t buy her love. You have to tell her, to show her.” I nodded. “OK, so how do I do that?” I pressed her. “I mean, I’ve never had to express myself in words or even actions to a woman. Usually the gifts, the dinners, the trips, just said it all for me.” Ann nodded. “That’s probably because, as I said before, Lily is a very special woman. And you in all likelihood feel more for her than you do for all the other woman combined,” she offered, adding as she leaned across the desk and fixed me with an apprising stare, “All you have to do, Oliver, is tell her what you truly feel—how you truly feel. Speak your heart. Then show her your heart—sweep her up in two loving arms and never let her go.” I thought a moment, then nodded. “So that’s really your professional advice?” I asked her, smiling slightly. “Is this what they taught you to say in psychology school, when a man asks you for advice on how to pursue a serious relationship with a woman?” Dr. Goldman shrugged; then out and out shocked me with a girlish grin and an excited, high-pitched giggle. “That’s my advice as a therapist, and as a woman,” she told me, adding with a sly wink, “Go get her, Oliver.” Chapter Twenty ~ Lily It was with slow, trudging steps that I made my way into the offices of Clark Industries; greeting Monday morning with a sense of dread that clutched the pit of my stomach. I didn’t particularly want to see Kirk this morning; our car ride home Saturday evening had been so awkward and stilted—we both seemed relieved as he finally and mercifully dropped me off at my front door. Yet while I could manage polite smiles and empty conversation for the kind, good-natured office clerk, I honestly didn’t know what I’d say or do if I ran into Oliver and just how, I wondered, would I continue to work at Clark Industries without associating in any way with the boss’ son? As the harsh light of Monday morning flowed free through my bedroom window, I’d been sorely tempted to call in sick—or maybe even dead! Eventually, though, I pulled myself out of bed, threw on a freshly pressed pant suit and headed into the office. Trisha needs me. Harry Clark needs me—and even if he didn’t, I can’t allow his son to mess up my career—or, for that matter, my life, I mused, lifting my chin as I trudged up the stairs en route to my office. And really, what are the odds that I’m going to run into Oliver today, or—for that matter—anytime soon? Since I switched jobs, we’d pretty much managed to avoid each other—working on different floors, eating lunch at different times, and studiously avoiding words and eye contact during that rare company meeting. And especially in light of the events of last weekend, I had the feeling that he’d pretty much be keeping to his side of the building. My spirits lightened as I considered this fact and while my heart still hurt at the memory of last weekend—indeed, at the memory of the last few months of my life, and the grand romance that now seemed like a lost dream—I realized that I owed it to myself to steel myself against all thoughts of Oliver and go on with my life. Committed and newly energized by this fresh, empowering concept, I actually smiled as I passed the threshold of Trisha Vance’s office suite; my mind reciting all of the projects and tasks that were likely to consume my day. This smile dissolved seconds later, as I saw that a particularly conscientious co-worker had preceded me into the office; and it wasn’t Kirk or even Trisha. My eyes flew wide as they beheld the vision of a gorgeous, muscular man; a bronzed god that came complete with thick, dark hair, wide ebony eyes, bronzed skin and sculpted features, and a tall, muscular frame currently draped decoratively across the surface of my desk. He was a handsome, smiling dream of a man who could stir the heart of just about any woman. And never in my life had I ever been more sorely tempted to just haul off and slug another human being, and hard. In the interest of saving my job and, for that matter, saving myself from imminent criminal prosecution, though I swear to you not a jury in the land would convict me—I opted for plan B; looking Oliver Clark straight in the eyes and saying, “Unless you are here on company business, Mr. Clark, I would highly suggest that you get off of my desk and out of my office.” Unphased by these rough words, Oliver met them with a short, sharp nod as he folded his arms before him. “Actually, Ms. Ashton, I am indeed here on company business,” he told me, more than matching my official tone. “If I don’t get to talk to you this morning, I won’t be able to do a lick of work today or, for that matter, to go on living my life.” I rolled my eyes. “That’s a lame line, Clark, even for you,” I barked, adding as I waved him away from my desk, “And to be honest, I have a lot of work to do this morning—and I’m sure you do as well. I’m sure that your father would really appreciate it if we both got to work.” Oliver shook his head. “Lily, please,” he pleaded, tone low and sincere. “I need to talk to you!” “I don’t want to talk to you,” I insisted, walking with brisk, purposeful steps in the direction of my corner filing cabinet. I froze in my steps as I heard a loud, sharp sob erupt from the throat of my onetime lover.Wheeling around with my mouth agape, I marveled at the appearance of a single tear as it creased Oliver’s carved cheek. “You don’t have to talk to me,” he told me, visibly fighting to retake control of his voice and his emotions. “Just listen to me, Lily. Please.” Moments later I too sat on the edge of my desk; facing a still emotional Oliver as I said, “You have five minutes, Oliver.” Oliver shook his head. “I’m afraid, Lily, that my story might take a little longer to tell,” he told me, adding with a heavy sigh, “It’s the story of my life.” He took a deep, sustaining breath and shut his eyes tight; seeming to transport himself to another place and time. Then he opened those same eyes and said, “Lily, as you know, I’ve always gotten what I wanted in life.” “Until you met me,” I interrupted, folding my arms before me. Oliver shook his head. “No, actually, there were two other times in my life when I couldn’t keep the girl,” he said, voice barely above a whisper. “Back in college, Lily, I dated a very special young woman named Andrea. She was warm, funny, beautiful, smart—everything a sensible man would want in a woman. Oh, but I couldn’t be sensible—after being a good boy and staying faithful to Andrea for six months, I got drunk at a frat party and woke up the next morning with a cheerleader.” He smiled as I slapped my forehead with the palm of my hand—but only briefly. “You don’t have to say it, Lil. I was a fool,” he admitted. “And no matter how much I begged and pleaded, she refused to forgive me. Within one year she was married to the captain of the football team; she made me look like a fool.” I shook my head. “You made yourself look like a fool,” I reminded him. Oliver nodded. “I know that, now,” he assured me, adding as he rolled his eyes heavenward, “Believe me, I know that all too well. At the time, though, I was far more ashamed of myself for giving my heart to a girl—just so she could break it. I hated the way I felt—the depression, the guilt—and I vowed that I never would feel that way again. If you put all of your eggs in one basket, I reasoned, saving your love for just one woman, then you give her way too much power over you. And so set the course for my adulthood.” I nodded. “Well, this does explain a lot,” I allowed, adding as I cocked my head in his direction, “You did say, though, that there were two women that broke your heart. Who was the second?” I cringed in spite of myself as Oliver’s head bowed, and a second tear cascaded the length of his carved, bronzed cheek. “Ma,” he choked out, clenching his hands before him. “I tell you, Lily, the cancer that killed her just about finished me as well. I vowed that, with all of our money, with all of her connections, surely we could save her—dammit, I would find a way to save her. And when I couldn’t do that—well, let’s just say that the pain I felt during my break up with Andrea was nothing compared to the anger, the hurt, the helplessness and desperation that I felt as I watched my mother die in front of my eyes.” Now it was my turn to let loose with an unbidden tear; one that fell free down my cheek as I clutched Oliver’s hands in my own. “As close as I am to my own parents, Oliver, believe me when I say that I dread and have nightmares about the day that I lose them,” I revealed, adding as I shook my head from side to side, “I can’t even imagine the pain that you felt—that you still feel. Especially when your mother was struck down so young—in the prime of her life.” Oliver nodded. “Suddenly the one pure and true love of my life was gone,” he agreed, clutching my fingers between his as he added, “Along with my only true guidance and moral compass in life—aside from my dad, of course. But Mom’s influence over me was so much stronger and more keenly felt. Sure, I could drown out all of Dad’s lectures and his loud voice—but if I made my mother cry, which happened on occasion, it tore at my heart.” I said nothing for a moment, just pinned a sad eyed Oliver with a long, intense look. “And how do you think your mother would feel if she knew about your lifestyle now?” I asked softly, arching my eyebrows to curious effect. “I never wanted to ponder the answer to that question,” he answered immediately, adding with a shrug, “So I just started limiting my thoughts and feelings in general. In an effort to fill the big hole in my heart, I just gave myself over to pleasure. I tried to drink, party and sex the pain away—making sure to make no binding emotional attachments in the process.” I nodded. “Sounds like a plan, Oliver—maybe not a very good plan, but a plan nonetheless,” I told him. “So now I’m simply left with a single, but very important question: Do you ever plan to change?” I took in my breath as Oliver pulled me forward, answering me with a soft, gentle kiss; one delivered squarely on my lips as he whispered, “I’ve already changed, Lily. You’ve changed me. You reminded me of what it’s like to feel—to feel love, caring and attachment to another human being—and also pain and loss. During the time I’ve spent with you, Lily, I’ve felt more alive than I have in such a long time. And to tell you the truth, that scared the hell out of me.” I thought for a moment, then nodded. “So that’s why you ran away from me after we made love,” I thought out loud. “It wasn’t that you didn’t care enough. It was that you cared too much.” Oliver nodded. “I honestly thought that I wasn’t capable of handling all those feelings,” he admitted, adding as he once again leaned inward to fix me with an intense, unyielding stare, “What I really can’t handle, Lily Ashton, is living one more day without you. You’ve got me, Lily—my heart, my body, my mind. I don’t want to be with anyone else—and I just hope against hope that you feel the same way.” I nodded. “I do,” I readily agreed, adding quickly, “But just remember, Oliver, that I’ve had my share of heartbreaks as well—the last of which was suffered when the man that I’d just given my heart and body to deserted me. How am I supposed to trust you, Oliver?” My eyes flew wide as my impassioned lover swept me up in his arms; holding my body closer than close as he buried his head in my shoulder. “I can’t answer that question,” he whispered in my ear. “What I can do is promise to make it up to you every day for the rest of our lives—to love and care for you, to dedicate my life to making you happy. Because you, Lily, have shown me the true meaning of happiness.” Reaching behind him on the desk, Oliver retrieved a plain plastic bag that I hadn’t noticed before; handing it to me as he said, “I have a gift for you, Lily—but it’s not like the others that I used to try and buy your love. This, my dear, is something truly personal.” Opening the bag with careful fingers, I withdrew what appeared to be a framed and mounted painting; a small but finely detailed water color that depicted a lavender water lily in all its fragrant, dew-glistened glory. “This is beautiful, Oliver,” I breathed, adding as I shifted my gaze to his, “Who is the artist?” “I am,” Oliver nodded, adding with a shrug, “It seems that a very special woman has inspired me to start painting again—and I have named my first watercolor in five years in her honor. It’s called Lily in Bloom.” I said nothing, only put the painting aside and swept its artist into a warm embrace that bespoke my love. “I love you, Oliver,” I whispered. “I love you,” he told me. “My Lily in bloom.”


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