Luke the tyrant continued his ‘Make Everyone Miserable’ campaign over the course of the next month or so. Somehow, Michael became his favorite employee and that gave him ample opportunity to make Gabi’s life a living hell. He saddled her with all of the work that he was supposed to be doing on top of her own work. She didn’t complain, even when Ryan pried, because she didn’t need a man to bail her out. She was confident that eventually, Luke would see through Michael’s facade and she would be rewarded for her patience and hard work.
Gabi and Ryan spent every evening together, recovering from the nightmare that was their work life. Sometimes they watched movies, other times they just talked. But every night they would fall asleep on her couch and Gabi would wake up alone in her bed. Ryan had bought a toothbrush that was now in the holder next to hers on the counter of the double sink in her bathroom. He had taken over one side with his intoxicating cologne, body wash and shampoo neatly tucked into the corner. His laundry was mixed with hers and every morning, she woke to the smell of his delicious waffles. She knew that this was not normal friend behavior but he made her so much happier than she had been in a very long time and she didn’t want to ruin that. So she left it alone.
The last week in January, Luke called a staff meeting. Gabi was headed to take a seat next to Michael much to her dismay but was surprised when Ryan appeared next to her and pulled out a chair for her, next to him. She tried not to blush and sat down, placing her planner on the table in front of her so she could take notes. They tried to keep their interaction at work to a minimum as not to attract suspicion. It wasn’t exactly prohibited for them to see each other but there would be a lot of red tape to go through if anyone found out.
Luke stood up to address the group. “You all have been working hard and have done a great job maintaining your trajectory. In the short time that I have been here, I’ve seen that my baby brother is capable of handling things on his own. With that said, I will be leaving at the end of February.”
He waited impatiently for the chatter that erupted at his announcement to die down before continuing. “Every year, there is a winter summit at our national headquarters in New York. It takes place the second week in February. Normally we would have announced who was attending further in advance but it slipped my mind with all of the changes we've been making here.”
“So,” he said pulling out his tablet. “Here are the people who are attending. If your name called, you must attend; This is not optional. Obviously Ryan and myself, Heidi Stevens, Michael Wilkerson, Gabriella Perez,...”
Gabi didn’t hear anything after her name. She would miss her mother’s birthday for the first time ever. Any other year, she would be mildly upset but she was especially angry because it was her mother’s fiftieth and they had been planning a huge celebration for months.
Ryan must have sensed her tension because he grabbed her hand beneath the table and squeezed it in encouragement. He did this without taking his eyes off of Luke.
This time Gabi did blush and tried to ignore Michael glaring at her.
Luke eventually dismissed the employees who weren’t going on the trip so he could brief those who were going on all the important details.
“We fly out Sunday morning at 5am from Bush International airport. Any sightseeing you want to do, do it Sunday afternoon because we will be in meetings all week. You will need some kind of formal attire for the gala that will take place Saturday evening. We will return Sunday afternoon.”
He closed his tablet and looked up. “Questions?”
Heidi raised her hand timidly.
“Yes Miss Stevens?”
“Um, I have a daughter--”
“Then you’ll need to secure childcare,” Luke replied coldly. “Anyone else? No? Good. Obviously all accommodations will be covered by the company. If you have further questions, direct them to Ryan.”
He turned to his younger brother. “You can handle that can’t you?”
Gabi hadn’t noticed that Ryan had never let go of her hand until he squeezed it so tightly it was almost painful as he glared at Luke. “Of course I can.”
“Great. Meeting dismissed,” Luke said, before striding out of the conference room.
Gabi quickly let go of Ryan’s hand and stood up. “Will I see you tonight?” Gabi whispered as Ryan pushed back his chair to stand.
“Uh, I’m not sure,” he said with a frown, rubbing the back of his neck. “I have some, uh, stuff I need to take care of.”
“Oh,” Gabi replied, trying to hide her disappointment. “Okay that’s fine. I guess I’ll see you tomorrow.” She started to walk out to the conference room but Ryan grabbed her wrist lightly.
“Gabriella? You rode here with me,” he said. “I have to take you home.”
“Don’t worry about it,” Gabi responded with a tight smile. “Heidi can give me a ride. Have a good afternoon Mr. Cole.” She nodded at him and headed back to her office.
Once she was inside she put her head on her desk and groaned. Why had she gotten so upset with Ryan? She felt silly and out of control so she threw herself into her work and left promptly at five, being careful to avoid Ryan and taking an uber home instead of burdening Heidi.
Gabi walked into her kitchen and dropped her keys on the counter when her phone rang. She smiled when she saw who was calling.
“Hey girlfriend! Where have you been?! I feel like I haven’t talked to you in ages!”
“I guess I’ve been busy with work,” Gabi replied, looking in the fridge for something to cook for dinner.
“Busy with work or busy with Ryan?” Angela asked with a hint of teasing in her voice.
Gabi laughed. “I guess you could say both...considering I work for him!”
“Whatever,” she scoffed. “I know you two have the hots for each other.”
Gabi bit her lip and frowned. She hadn’t told Angela or Lizzie about her current situation with Ryan. Primarily because she didn’t understand it and didn’t want to have to try to explain or hear a chorus of “I told you so” from her best friends. Still, she felt bad lying to them.
“We do not. And besides, you know I’ve sworn off men forever.”
Angela snorted. “Yeah right. Only if forever means ‘when your vibrator dies’.”
“Har har har Ang, I’m serious! I’m never putting myself in the position to get my heart broken again. IF, and that’s a big if, I feel I need a man to fulfill my sexual desires, I can easily find a guy with no strings attached. So stop trying to force the issue.”
Angela sighed. “I just want you to be happy Gabs, you know that.”
Gabi was quiet for a moment. “I know.”
“Oh! I almost forgot why I called you! I got into med school!”
Gabi almost dropped her phone. “Seriously!? Oh my gosh Ang that’s incredible! Congratulations! You should have led with that you weirdo!”
Angela laughed into the phone. “Sorry! I just haven’t talked to you in awhile and you know I worry about you.”
“This calls for celebration! I figure Nico’s got you Friday night but are you down for some lunch and retail therapy Saturday? I’ve got a business trip next week and I need a formal gown.”
“Ooooh business trip? Will Ryan be on this trip?”
“I know, I know. I’m sorry.”
“It’s okay. I’ve got to go though; I have a couple of reports to finish.” She hesitated for a moment. “But to answer your question, yes, Ryan is going on the trip. Okay bye!”
She hung up the phone but not fast enough to miss the sound of Angela squealing with excitement.
A few hours later, Gabi was curled up on her couch watching television, feeling oddly lonely without Ryan when her phone pinged with a text message.
Are you awake?
It was Ryan.
Gabi’s fingers hovered over the keyboard as she hesitated to respond.
Of course I’m awake. It’s 9:30.
Can I help you with something Mr. Cole?
What’s with the “Mr. Cole” business?
Gabi ignored his text and went back to watching This is Us. Her phone pinged again a few minutes later.
Are you ignoring me?
She groaned and angrily typed out a response.
What do you want Ryan?
For you to open the door. It’s getting hard to text with my hands full.
Gabriella just open the damn door.
Gabi hauled herself off of the couch, grumbling under her breath as she made her way to her front door and opened it.
Ryan was standing there holding a huge teddy bear and a single rose.
“What the hell are you doing?” Gabi asked, folding her arms across her chest.
“You were mad at me,” he said, peeking out from behind the enormous bear. “I don’t want you to be mad at me.”
She fought to keep the smile off of her face. “And you thought this obnoxiously large stuffed animal would make me forgive you? I bet you don’t even know why I’m mad at you.”
“I hoped it would be a start. And of course I know why you’re mad at me.”
She shook her head, beckoning for him to come inside. “Impossible. I don’t even know why I’m mad at you.”
Ryan chuckled, setting the bear down in the entryway as she closed the door. When she turned around, Ryan caught her by the waist, making her gasp in surprise.
He pulled her close and leaned down to whisper in her ear. “You’re mad because I broke our routine. You’re mad because no matter how hard you’re fighting it, you know there’s something between us. You’re mad because I won’t push you away so you can maintain your membership in the ‘all men are evil’ cult. But you know what I think?”
“Wh, what?” she asked, her voice coming out shaky.
“I don’t think you’re mad at me. I think you’re mad at yourself.”
Gabi cleared her throat, trying to ignore how amazing his warm breath felt on her neck, triggering an arousal so strong she felt weak in her knees. “And what makes you say that? Why would I be mad at myself?”
“Because you want to see where this goes. You want to try to have something with me, but it goes against everything you’ve told yourself.”
She pushed him away gently, not really wanting him to move. She was relieved when he didn’t. “You’re absolutely right. I will not put myself in the position to get my heart broken. And that’s what will inevitably happen if I get involved with you.”
He pulled her closer and she felt his excitement pressing on her stomach. “Is that really what you think Gabriella?”
He stepped back and released her, his eyes clouded over in hurt. “Really?”
“No! Yes!” She groaned. “Hell, I don’t know Ryan! You make me feel things that I haven’t felt in years. Some things that I’ve never felt! And that scares me.”
She reached over and put his hands back around her waist. “And who told you to let go of me?” she asked angrily.
Ryan’s lips twitched upward as he tried not to smile. He took one hand and brushed a stray curl out of her face. “Tell me what you want Gabriella.”
“I, um, uh.” She blushed and dropped her head. She hated how weak she felt when she was this close to him.
Almost as if he was reading her mind Ryan spoke. “Gabriella look at me. You’re in control here. I am happy to simply be your humble servant. Tell me what you want and I’ll give it to you.”
Gabi felt a surge of confidence flow through her. She wrapped her arms around his neck. “I want you to kiss me.”