The only person I allowed to sit on my office desk was Nola. Others who’d tried to do the same found that I could be very disagreeable when I wanted.
However, when Orlando strode into the corridor and plopped his shapely ass on my desk, I had to be very careful about my temper. So I started with a nice, “Good afternoon, Mr. Walker.”
He gave me a grin that made Quinn and Madison, who’d just returned from the kitchen with coffee, giggle and say, “Good afternoon, Mr. Walker!” before they gave me significant looks and laughed once they turned the corner.
Orlando chuckled and turned to look at me. “I got some interesting news,” he told me, “and even though you blew me off, no matter how hard I tried to finally have a lesbian friend - “
“I’m sorry,” I said, giving him a mock-confused look. “I’m not following.”
His grin widened. “Well, it’s obvious you’re a lesbian, babe. That’s the only reason I could come up with for your to not want - “
“Oh, so everyone who doesn’t want to have sex with you is officially non-straight,” I snipped, arching my eyebrow. “Get off my desk.”
“That’s not nice,” Orlando cocked his head. “So you’re homophobic, even though you’re part of the community yourself.”
I closed my eyes, counted to three, and opened them again. With utmost patience, I said, “I have nothing against lesbians, or being called a lesbian,” I said levelly, “but the sheer arrgoance behind your statement, as if you’re the epitome of masculinity and if a girl doesn’t fall for your good looks, then she won’t fall for any other man’s, is just ridiculous. Now, get the hell off my desk.”
He looked honestly confused at my statement, as if he was thinking, But I am the epitome of masculinity. However, he simply shook his head and, still seated on my desk, said, “Let’s get to the news then. First, the Workeen dudes are invited to my dad’s birthday party, so they need to be included in the guestlist.”
Since he was talking business right now, I took a note and scribbled down, even though I wanted nothing more than to get physical and shoved him off my desk by force.
“Second,” he continued, “I consulted my Dad about one of the dishes we picked, and he said he would like there to be tarte tatin as part of the dessert menu, so make sure the catering is notified.”
I scribbled it done, making notes to tell Nola and shoot emails to the dining hall, because they needed to be notified of everything.
“Last but not least,” he continued, “will you be my plus one?”
His words didn’t compute at first; I simply kept on scribbling, until I reread what it was I wrote down and my head snapped up, my eyes snared on his smirking face, aghast. “What?”
Now, he dropped off the desk and leaned his elbows down instead so his face was only inches away from mine, his electric blue eyes dancing with mirth. “I need a date,” he said, the smirk still flirting with his lips, “and I want you to be my date.”
Hell to the no. “Let me get this straight,” I said slowly, the shock leaving me in favor of blatant disbelief. “You want me to be your date to your father’s birthday party, after I’ve explicitly and repeatedly rejected you on two fronts.”
His face split into a full-on grin that was full of determination. “That’s right.”
I stared at him. “Why?”
He straightened back up. “A few reasons,” he said as he started pacing back and forth before my desk. “You’re atypical to everything I know, and you act differently than the society women I’m used to. That makes every interaction I have with you exciting and fun.”
To my shock, he seemed to be sincere about this, his voice easy and his face lit up from within, as if he was truly enjoying himself in my company.
“You’re also pretty in that girl-next-door way which is cute,” he continued, and stopped in his tracks to give me an appreciatie look. “And you got these stunning eyes, which is also a plus.”
I simply stared at him, unable to wrap my head around the fact we were having this conversation right now.
“And,” he leaned his elbows back on the desk, and this time there was a secretive grin on his face, “you won’t be able to attend the party any other way - a party that is going to be the bomb - so I’m getting you the best ‘in’ you could ask for.”
There was something in his eyes now that was ingenuine. His voice, too, had an undertone I couldn’t quite trust. He had an ulterior motive here, a motive I couldn’t be sure of. “And if I say no?” I asked, my face serious, my eyes searching his, trying to get that secret out of him.
His grin twitched before he mock-sighed. “Then I’ll have to get real mean,” he said, and there it was, an ominous gleam in his eyes.
This look made me want to slap him and run away at the same time. Maybe I could do both. Or maybe, I could act like an adult and keep an eye on my temper. “My answer is no,” I said carefully, my voice controlled, waiting for the other shoe to drop now that I threw down the gauntlet.
He straightened again and, wordlessly, took out a piece of crumpled piece of paper from the pocket of his tailored teal trousers. He unfolded it, straightened it, his face almost impassive, and then slid it on the desk toward me.
I looked down, felt my face go white as a sheet. “Where did you get this?” I asked, my voice trembling, as I read the title, the columns, my gaze raking over the black-and-white picture…
“Archives,” Orlando said easily, as if this was nothing to him, but when my eyes rose to him, I saw him watching me closely.
It was more than just archives. It was a part of an article that never saw the light of the day. It wasn’t just in the archives; it was supposed to be buried down so hard, that only highly classified keywords could track it down. Orlando was filthy rich, could’ve hired anyone to do a background check on me, and he probably hired the best because he was a condescending little prat, which had led to him finding… this.
But what was even more scary than that, was that he realized that he could hurt me with it. Blackmail me with it. Had he talked to Nola about me? Did she tell him I wasn’t one to share a lot about my past? Or did he somehow get it from our short and very few interactions?
Whatever it was, it meant one thing: I’d underestimated Orlando Walker. There was a streak of intelligence there that I’d overlooked because he’d been acting like a pompous prick, and now it was coming to bite me in the ass.
I put the piece of paper in the shredder. It mattered not if I did that, since he could probably reprint a copy anytime he wanted, considering he probably got the original on his computer. But it was better than leaving this paper lying around in the office. “I’ll be your date,” I said flatly, not looking at him as I opened my calendar on the computer and, under the date of the birthday party in a couple of weeks, I typed in, Orlando’s plus-one. “But don’t think that you won.”
Orlando’s smile was dazzling. “Why not? From where I’m standing, everything went according to plan.”
I shot him a quelling look. “Blackmailing me can only get you so far. So if you think you can blackmail me into other stuff, say, like, sleeping with you, then you’re in for a rude awakening.”
He feigned surprise. “Who said anything about blackmailing, though?” he asked. “I just showed you the paper. I didn’t say what I was going to do with it.”
I blinked. “What?”
He grinned, his eyes twinkling. “I kinda like knowing something exclusive about you others probably don’t. And having a leverage over someone, in my world, is always a good thing.”
Fuck me. “So you didn’t plan to blackmail me at all?” I asked, trying to process what I was hearing and failed.
“I didn’t say that, either,” Orlando winked. “Now, I really have to go. Make sure you’re dressed appropriately for the high society, so if you need me to give you money so you can buy - “
Hell to the freaking, fucking no. “Get out of here before I rip your pretty face off,” I snarled.
He shot his hands up to the air, laughing loudly. “God, we’re going to have so much fun, mio angelo.”
Once he was gone, I remained seated in my chair for a few more moments, before I finally couldn’t take it and ran to the toilet, emptied my stomach in one of the stalls, and used all of my powers to not have a panic attack right then and there.
Nola was frowning. “What I don’t understand,” she said as we walked through the ball gowns aisle, “is why Orlando couldn’t have just picked some high society girl like he usually does.”
“Beats me,” I said monotonously as I checked one of the gowns. The ridiculous price tag made me let go of it real quick. “Whatever his reasons are, I’m just glad I can attend this event, since it’s going to be a pretty spectacular one.”
That was, of course, a lie. I’d never been much of a party animal when I was in high school, and after the few parties I’d gone to in uni ended kind of badly, I hadn’t minded sitting out on all of Wayla’s events. I’d attended only one, in my first week as Nola’s PA, and that had been more than enough for me to last a lifetime.
But I wasn’t going to tell Nola the real reason why I agreed to go with Orlando, and since she said she didn’t mind me fucking him, I guessed she wouldn’t me accompanying him to his father’s birthday party. I was proven correct - Nola really didn’t believe that Orlando had the capability to genuinely like a woman for more than just sex, which worked in my favor her - but as to the reason why he’d asked me to begin with, that she couldn’t fathom, and I wasn’t going to enlighten her. God knew how she’d react if she knew that Orlando simply found me amusing.
“Oh well,” she said, and then picked a dress. “Why don’t you try this one? It only costs a thousand bucks.”
“Which means I’ll have to skip a month’s rent to afford it,” I told her with a grimace. “Isn’t there anything here that wouldn’t require me to sell a kidney?”
Nola sighed. “It’s a high-class event, Paige,” she informed me as if I didn’t know that already, “and since you’re Larsen’s son’s date, you need to make an effort.”
I groaned and checked another dress. This one wasn’t so bad; in fact, it was a simple dress the color of emerald green, with a generous V neckline and a bare back. When I checked the price tag, it showed only a five-digit number I could actually afford. “Will this make the cut?” I asked Nola, showing her the dress.
“Oh, it’s lovely,” she smiled, fondling the hem. “It looks cheaper than the others, but it will do. Try it on.”
When I tried it on, I couldn’t help but fall in love with the dress. After those first two years at uni, I kind of let myself go in terms of self-pampering; all I ever wore was simple clothes meant for comfort, and hell, I couldn’t even remember the last time I applied makeup. To own a dress like this, which was just the type I liked - tight in the chest, flowing airily from the waist and below down to my knees - made me feel like I might be able to regain some part of who I used to be.
Diego would be at that event, too.
I forced the thought out of my head and turned to Nola. “What do you think?”
She smiled. “It looks awesome on you, and the color really makes your eye pop. I don’t know about you, but I’m sold.”
I was sold, too. “Then I think we’re done here.”
We walked out of the posh clothing store, the green dress folded neatly in my shopping bag, and went to have some lunch in a nice Mexican place we liked. Once there, Nola ordered a margarita, which was very unlike her, since she only reserved drinking for after hours.
Concerned that maybe she’d taken the news that I was to be Orlando’s date harder than I thought, I asked, “You okay? You never drink during the day.”
“Well, I’m almost done with work for the day, so I don’t mind making an exception,” she grinned, latching her mouth over the straw the moment the cocktail arrived.
I still wasn’t convinced, but I let it go as the food arrived. We were silent for a while, munching on the spicy goodies, before Nola suddenly asked, “You said you know Rios form uni, right?”
The chicken got lodged in my throat as I swallowed. After we’d left the wine shop a few days ago, Nola had asked me about it on the drive back to the city. I simply told her that he was a tutor, and he taught me a few times - which wasn’t a lie, exactly - and that was the extent of our relationship. When she asked me how come I didn’t recognize his name, I didn’t say that he used to go by Rivero and not Rios, and just said that I didn’t think the world would be so small as to make our paths cross again, which, this time, was the absolute truth.
So it made me wonder what she was trying to get at right now, and my gut feeling, which always knew things before I did, said it wasn’t going to make my day any better. “What about it?” I asked nonchalantly, ignoring the deep-rooted rage at the simple mention of his existence.
“How was he in the… relationship department?”
And that quickly, memories I’d fought to forget swam to the forefront of my mind, blurry yet vivid, making me feel such a sudden wave of despair, I had to suck in a breath.
“I’m just wondering,” I said, “because, in my opinion, if you love someone, you won’t ditch them to spend a day with another girl, one she hasn’t even been introduced to properly. Friends or not,” I arched an eyebrow, “it sounds weird to me.”
Diego chuckled, but it was a hollow sound. “What makes you think I love her?” He asked, his gaze piercing.
“That’s the thing,” I said, trying not to squirm under his scrutiny, “I don’t think you do, and it begs the question why you’re with her.”
I shook my head, but they kept on coming.
“You looked like you liked him liked him! You looked as if it was only the two of you in the entire universe!”
“He’s supposed to hate you as much as you hate him! He’s supposed to be with stupid fucking girlfriend! Why the hell would he make amends with you, who called him an asshole every moment you could?!”
“I’ll break up with Milo, then, and I’ll make Diego see that we are meant for each other.”
Stop, stop, stop -
“Don’t stop,” I breathed out, my mind full of hazy fog of lust, need, passion that was yet to be fulfilled. “Please don’t stop.”
He looked torn, agony making his eyes shine. He wanted this. He wanted to lung at me again. He wanted to press against me, wanted to be inside me as much as I wanted him to be inside me, wanted -
But he denied himself that. He denied us. Because he wouldn’t come back to me, into my arms, and finish what he started.
They wouldn’t stop coming -
“Don’t you get it? This shouldn’t have happened!” He snapped, grabbing my wrist when I attempted to hit him again. “You can do so much better than me, don’t you see that?”
Diego throwing himself over me to protect me from the explosion, murmuring one word -
“Paige? Are you with me?”
Nola’s voice snapped me back to the present and I blinked, finally managing to push the memories back to their rightful place. “Sorry,” I said hastily, “just tried to remember what he was like relationship-wise in uni.”
Nola frowned. “You had a weird look on your face when you did that.”
“It’s because that nothing I could think of was good,” I said, and it might’ve been the most truthful thing I’d ever said to Nola in the two years we’d known each other. “You shouldn’t go out with him,” I told her, and for once, it had nothing to do with my own feelings. “From what I know of him,” which, despite everything that had happened between us, was still not a lot, “he can’t hold a relationship to save his life.”
My friend and boss studied me for a few long moments, before she smiled. “Well, it was years ago, wasn’t it? He might’ve changed.”
I gave her a sad smile. “I highly doubt it, Nola, so if you want my advice, it’s to not hold your breath and find someone else who’ll be worth your time.”
Of that, I was sure. People change, matured, as the years passed, that was for sure. I knew I had changed since my uni years. But Diego Rivero had some serious baggage, baggage I had no clue as to its nature, and that kind of baggage couldn’t so easily disappear, not even after almost six years.