I feel right at home when I step off the elevator. The sixty-second floor of the Bateman Building in downtown has been the home of Knox Industries executive offices for fifty years. Which means that before Brenton even began working for the family business, the two of us would come here to visit his father, pressing our faces against the glass as we stared in fascination at how everything on the streets below seemed so miniscule.
Everything seemed so simple when we were kids. But now I’m walking into his office as his (fake) fiancé, wearing his grandmother’s engagement ring, a few days after getting the seal of approval from his parents. All of it is still a bit surreal, and to be honest, I’m not sure I’m emotionally mature enough to handle any of it.
The dinner at the Knox mansion went surprisingly well. Harrison and Colleen were perfectly lovely, gushing about how they’d always considered me a daughter anyway, and they couldn’t wait for it to be official. It was all very warm and fuzzy, but I couldn’t help but feel a twinge of guilt as we kissed Brenton’s parents goodbye for the night. If everything went according to Brenton’s plan, a year from now, the engagement would be over. I guess it hadn’t occurred to me before that it’s more than just the two of us that are affected by all of this.
“Good morning, Raina,” Tana, Brenton’s assistant calls out with a warm smile as I approach her desk.
“Good morning, Tana,” I match the brightness of her smile. “How’s that kitten of yours?”
The last time I came to meet Brenton for lunch, she had told me all about the Scottish Fold she was a few days away from adopting.
“Mischievous but adorable,” she sighs happily, her entire face brightening instantly at the mention of her kitten.
“Perfect,” I reply, glancing up towards the dark wooden doors that closed off Brenton’s office from the rest of the executive suite. He had protested when his father first gave him the office, pointing out that it wasn’t fair that a worker with no experience get such a nice setup, but Harrison insisted, saying that as the Head of Operations, no one would respect Brenton if his office wasn’t the same as all of the other executives. “Is he in his office?”
She shook her head. “He’s in a meeting, but go on in and I’ll let him know you’re here.”
“Okay, thanks,” I flash her another smile, pausing when I notice a strange expression cross her face. “Everything alright?”
“Yeah, sorry,” she assures me. “I was just admiring your ring. It’s gorgeous.”
“It was his grandmother’s,” I say automatically, because for some reason, that’s become my default response to people commenting on it. It’s what I said to the barista at the coffee shop this morning as well as the woman who rode the elevator with me.
Tana is practically cooing. “That’s so sweet.”
“It is, isn’t it?” I scrunch up my nose, thinking I would enjoy the looks of envy a lot more if any of this situation were remotely real. “Thanks, Tana.”
With one more nod, I walk around her desk, pushing open the heavy wooden door and closing it again behind me once I’m inside Brenton’s empty office. Normally, when I’m alone in someone else’s room, I’d probably snoop through their stuff. But seeing as I know pretty much everything there is to know about Brenton, I know I’m not going to find anything remotely interesting.
So, I settle for the next best option: taking a nap. Kicking off my shoes, I lay down across the entire length of the dark green leather couch on the side of the room, sighing contently as I close my eyes and wait for my fake fiancé to return. I’m not sure how much time has passed when I hear the door open, but the shut eye definitely left me feeling perkier, so I’m all smiles as I keep my eyes closed and say, “I’m pretty sure this is the world’s most comfortable couch and I one hundred percent plan on stealing it.”
“Good to know.”
My eyes fly open as I realize I don’t recognize the voice. Sitting up straight, I turn my head to see an extremely attractive male standing just inside the now open doorway. He’s tall, from what I can tell, with dark brown hair that’s worn buzzed short on the sides and long and floppy on the top so it can look effortlessly tousled when it falls into a pair of piercing blue eyes. He wears an army green button up, rolled at the sleeves to reveal a symphony of tattoos, covering every inch of his forearms, all the way down to the tops of the hands that are shoved into the front pockets of his khaki pants.
“You’re not Brenton,” I say as I push myself to my feet and smooth out the skirt of my dress. Of course he’s not Brenton. I’ve literally never seen this gorgeous specimen of a human in my entire life. I’m would definitely remember if I had.
“I’m not,” he smiles easily, a twinkle in his eye, and I wonder if he’s amused by my bare feet or the fact that I was taking a nap at 11:30 in the morning. Either way, I’m slightly embarrassed. “But don’t let me stand in the way of the heist.”
“Obviously, I wouldn’t steal it in broad daylight,” I reply, using the arm of the couch as a way to keep my balance as I slip back into my heels, thinking that’s a great opening line. “Any master thief knows that you have to wait until dark.”
“Of course,” he laughs, taking a step towards me. “Because that’s when all the cops are asleep.”
I’m enjoying the fact that we seem to be on the same page humor wise, but I’m also distrustful of the fact that there’s a complete stranger in Brenton’s office, so I cross my arms over my chest as I walk towards him. “Yep. Who are you?”
“Bodhi,” he says, removing a hand from his pocket to hold it out towards me. “Bodhi Beesley. I went to college with Brenton.”
I slip my palm cautiously against his, still not quite convinced. Brenton and I didn’t go to the same college, so it’s not like I knew all of his friends. I guess I’d have to wait until he got here to find out if this guy is telling the truth. In the meantime, I might as well keep the conversation going. This man is too beautiful to just allow him to walk away. “Raina. Brenton and I shared a bathtub when we were three.”
He lifts one eyebrow in surprise as he drops his hand from mine, but his response shows that he’s up for the challenge. “Do you still have joint custody?”
“I was splashing out too much water so I was reduced to visitation rights.” I admit, cracking a smile as I start to relax. There’s a warmth spreading in the pit of my stomach; a sense of calm and happiness and I decide that I definitely want to feel it again.
One side of his mouth lifts into the sexiest smirk I’ve ever seen and the volume of his voice lowers as he says, “You’re a bad girl.”
If I were weaker, I would have gulped. I can feel my heart rate spiking and the temperature in the room rising, but I know better than to allow any man to think they’ve had any sort of effect on me, so I make sure my gaze is direct when I reply, “The worst.”
Something flashes in his eyes and I can’t tell whether he’s impressed or intrigued or both, but his smirk widens as he says, “Just how I like them.”
My lips part for me to respond, because there’s no way in hell I’m letting him have the last word, but before I can say anything, the door opens wider and Brenton steps into the office, smiling widely as he says, “Good, you’ve met.”
I feel like I’ve been doused in a bucket of cold water. Brenton entering the conversation reminds me that while I’ve been flirting with this handsome stranger for the past few minutes, I’ve completely forgotten about the guy who’s supposed to be my fiancé. And that can’t happen. Because if this whole fake engagement thing is going to work, I have to be on my game at all times. I can’t afford to get distracted by hot guys with tattoos and muscles.
So, I take a small step backwards and quickly breathe in and out to calm my nerves before smiling wickedly at Brenton. “Bodhi’s telling me all your dirty little secrets from college.”
Brenton doesn’t seem concerned in the slightest, laughing as he comes to stand beside me after tossing his pad portfolio on his desk. “I’m sure he has a lot to draw from after our stroll down memory lane last night.”
He’d mentioned he was meeting up with a friend for drinks last night, so I guess this Bodhi guy is legit. And I can’t decide whether that’s good or bad.
“You two have a hot date?” I ask, and because I’m not sure how much Brenton has told his friend about our relationship, I add, “Should I be worried?”
It turns out that I made the right decision in assuming that Bodhi’s not aware of our arrangement, because Brenton slips his arm around my waist and says, “Of course not, babe. You know I always come home to you.”
I find the gesture comforting and it’s kind of a relief to know that the fact that our engagement isn’t real is still our little secret. It’s safer if we’re the only ones who know.
Bodhi’s gaze has been flicking back and forth between us during our exchange, and realization dawns on him when he processes Brenton’s term of endearment. “You’re the fiancé.”
There’s something strange about his expression when he speaks that I just can’t place, and I wonder, if like me, he’s feeling guilty about having inappropriate thoughts about the woman his friend is supposed to marry. “I am.”
“Good to meet you,” he shoots me a small smile, “You know, when Brenton first told me he was engaged, I thought he was kidding.”
I guess that’s not surprising considering Brenton hasn’t been in a serious relationship, well, ever. “And now?”
“Well,” he shrugs, “you’re real.”
There’s an awkward tension in the room and I don’t like it, so I decide that it’s time for us to relax a little.
“Or so you think,” I point out. “Maybe I’m a hologram.”
Brenton rises to the occasion immediately, piping up and saying, “You know, being engaged to a hologram would actually be kind of cool.”
“And so much less work,” I reply.
He and Bodhi both laugh and I can tell by the fact that Bodhi’s shoulders have relaxed that whatever thoughts he was having a few moments before had been erased from his mind. He rocks back in work boots, his smile growing. “You’re a lucky girl.”
“Am I, though?” I scrunch up my nose in mock disgust.
“To be honest, I’m not even offended,” Brenton chuckles. “You guys ready for some lunch?”
Bodhi seems unsure, pausing when Brenton gestures towards the door. “I don’t know how I feel about being a third wheel.”
“Oh please, we’re not sickening to be around,” Brenton assures him. “Besides, I want the two of you to get to know each other since Bodhi’s gonna be around for a while.”
I’m not sure why, but I’m pretty sure my heart stops beating for a nanosecond. “Oh?”
Bodhi smirks. “Yeah, well, Brenton practically begged me to move here.”
“Begged is a strong word,” Brenton says in his defense, “I asked very politely. Multiple times. Over the course of a few months.”
Laughing, I squeeze his shoulder sympathetically. “So you were super subtle.”
“Yep,” he replies, not looking the least bit embarrassed.
We manage to convince Bodhi that he should definitely come to lunch with us and treat him to the wonder that is the fixed price all you can eat glory of Sushi Palace.
“What do you do, Bodhi?” I ask once we’ve received our food. I’m curious, because if Brenton asked Bodhi to move to town, he must have had some sort of reason. Something beyond just wanting to see his friend again.
“I own a contracting company,” he replies as he pulls apart his chopsticks and positions them between his fingers.
Brenton’s already shoved a tuna roll in his mouth, but he still speaks. “He’s gonna help me with the expansion.”
“With the inn?” I clarify.
A few months ago, Knox Industries acquired a rundown Victorian style estate on the edge of the city that Brenton planned to turn into a bed and breakfast. It’s a project he’s extremely excited about, and honestly, hearing him talk about it is one of the many reasons why I didn’t hesitate to agree to be his fake fiancé.
Because despite being raised to one day run his family’s empire, Brenton also happens to be really fucking good at his job. He’s imaginative and hardworking and determined and on his way to greatness. And it would suck if he’s roadblocked by a guy as incompetent as Lucas Whaley. Which is why I’ll do whatever I can to help Brenton gets to where he wants to be.
“Yeah, you know, the space is gonna need a lot of renovation,” Brenton explains. “And Bodhi’s the best.”
I grin, my eyes twinkling in Bodhi’s direction, because I know Brenton’s not the type to hand out free compliments. His cheeks have tinted a little pink and I do my best not to think he looks adorable. “That’s some endorsement.”
“Yeah, well, it’s true,” Brenton pipes up.
“So how long will you be in town?” I ask, knowing I want this information more for my personal use than just general knowledge. There’s no denying that I’m attracted to Bodhi, but that won’t be a problem if it turns out that just because he’s going to be here for ‘a while’, doesn’t mean I’ll actually see him on a daily basis. He’ll probably be extremely busy with the renovation and I hardly ever visit Knox Industries work sites.
But he shits on all my plans to avoid interacting with him repeatedly when he says, “I’ll stay as long as you want me to,” and Brenton follows up with, “So, a very long time.”
I curse inwardly as realize the implications of Bodhi being a more regular fixture in my life. Because it’s not like we’re just going to be strangers who happen to live in the same city. He’s a good friend of Brenton’s, which undoubtedly means many more sushi lunches. And I’m just going to have to deal with that. No matter how convenient it would be for me to not have to spend extended periods of time with Bodhi while wondering how his lips would feel against my skin, Brenton could use all the friends he can get. This is a stressful time for him and it will only become even more so once he’s CEO.
So, it looks like I’m going to have to be mature about all of this. Shooting Bodhi my warmest smile, I say, “Good. I need some new people to hang out with.” I gesture towards Brenton. “This one’s starting to get on my nerves.”
Rolling his eyes, Brenton mumbles through a mouthful of tempura. “It only took a quarter of a century.”
“You guys are a great couple,” Bodhi laughs as he picks out his next roll. Although his smile is wide, there’s something about the way his eyes darken that makes me think he has some sort of tragic past that’s left him jaded about relationships.
“Shh, we don’t want anyone to know,” I whisper as though he’s just spilled a state secret. And in a way, he almost has, because the news of our engagement hasn’t been released to the press yet.
Furrowing his eyebrows in confusion, he nods towards my left hand. “You’re wearing a ring.”
“Yeah, but no one knows whose it is,” I point out.
My this time, Brenton’s finished chewing, so he explains the situation. “My parents are going to want to throw some big fancy engagement party eventually, but for now we’re keeping it on the down low. The official statement to the press won’t be released until the end of next week.”
“Why so late?” Bodhi asks.
Since Brenton took the last one, I take this one. “They’re announcing the opening of the inn on Friday and they don’t want news of the engagement to overshadow it.”
As I finish talking, I realize how ridiculous that sounds. They’re two entirely separate matters, and the announcement about the inn could probably be pushed back to date closer to the actual opening. But considering we’d spent a lengthy amount of time at family dinner the other night discussing the timeline, it seems as though it’s a pretty important issue.
“Gotcha,” Bodhi replies. His gaze is fixated on me, as though he’s waiting for me to slip; waiting for me to give away that I have any sort of doubts. But I’m stronger than that, so I keep my chin up and stare right back, even though the intensity of his stare is making my heart race, until he realizes that I don’t give anything away that easily, and says, “Then I guess we’re just gonna have to celebrate between the three of us.” Reaching out, he grabs his water glass and lifts it in the air. “Here’s to you two. May you have a long and happy life together.”
Brenton and I do the same, all three of eventually clinking our glasses together. As I take a sip of my water, I watch Bodhi closely, deciding that if he’s going to be around for a while, I may as well take the opportunity to figure out what he really thinks about this entire situation. Because he sure as hell didn’t believe a word he just said.