Italian Heart

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Chapter 8

"So is this a date or what?" I asked Ari as he leaned on the side of the corporate town car.

He held the door open before sliding in next to me. I tried not to think too much of it when our legs touched, but when he didn’t move away, I reasoned with myself that he was doing it on purpose because he liked me. Maybe. Who really knew what men were thinking these days, but even through layers of cloth, I could feel that pull to be closer to him.

"Or what?" He raised his eyebrows in that flirty way of his that made me want to kiss him senseless. I turned away before I did something to ruin the moment. Slow. I could do slow.

“So tell me about Girasole. Are you going to pitch it to me?” I asked, suddenly excited at the chance for a mini-roleplay. Maybe it’d show me if he had a playful side.

Ari just looked at me and smiled, his head shaking as if he couldn’t believe I was so freaking adorable. Ok, maybe that was my own interpretation, but hey, a girl can dream.

“We don’t have water damage.”

“Sold!” I said, not wanting to sound unappreciative.

Ari laughed softly, as he reached for my hand. “You’re something special, aren’t you?”

Now, it was my turn to be noncommittal. I just shrugged and looked out the window, but his hand never left mine, sending waves of warmth from my fingers all the way to the tips of my toes. It’s funny, but the longer he held my hand, the longer I realized this was the one feeling I missed most about being with a guy. The one where he brushes his thumb over my knuckle and traces an invisible mark that I’d hold onto when we let go. But it was also a dangerous one, so I pulled my fingers slowly away as the car came to a stop outside a quaint, one-story restaurant that seemed to be more glass than brick and mortar.

“We’re here, Mr. Bellisario,” the driver said before raising the partition.

Ari opened the door and offered his hand before leading me toward the bar area, his fingers holding mine tight as he said his hellos.

The restaurant wasn’t what I expected, but somehow it worked. Girasole was all clean lines and spaces with contemporary furniture, contrasting charcoal gray walls against the daylight, square tables, and plush wide white seats. The bar area stretched along the left side of the restaurant and was more intimate, with a few booths in the corner along with the traditional seats near the bartender.

I looked at Ari for a moment, trying to figure out how he created such a modern atmosphere that was so unlike how he decorated his actual home. Maybe he was secretly into interior design. It’s not like I really knew much about him, so anything felt possible when it came to him.

“So what do you think, Miss Penn?” he whispered in my ear as I looked around, his voice sending a wave of heat through me and pooling at my core. “Is it right for your event?”

I paused for a moment, trying to compose myself, but then again, we were being playful.

“Mhm, I don’t know. Is it big enough?” I turned, dying to see how he would react. Even in my work heels, he was taller than me, and I felt the mood shift between us as he looked me over from head to toe, his eyes lingering at my lips.

“I’m sure it will suit your needs,” he said before leading me to the booth in the corner, waiving one of the waitresses over.

“What can I get you both?” a girl wearing a skin-tight black dress, stockings and flats asked as soon as Ari sat down. He gestured for me to go first, and I paused not sure of what I wanted. I didn't drink. And if I did, I was on a beach.

"May I have a..." Beach. Beach. What did I order at the beach? "Mai tai?” I asked, feeling like a complete idiot.

For a brief second, the girl gave me a look that said I wasn’t refined enough for her sexy-as-hell boss, but then the moment passed as she nodded and then looked to Ari.

“I’ll have one as well,” he said, shocking the hell out of the girl as she pursed her crayon-red lips.

“Would you also like your usual?” she asked, trying to make a point that she knew he was just trying to humor my choice.

“No, just the mai tai, Haley. Thank you.”

“I’m sorry, I don’t drink much. It’s the first thing I could think of,” I said as I pulled off my blazer and set it to the side. He did the same, shrugging out of his suit jacket and hanging it on the side hook of the booth before returning his attention to me.

“There’s nothing to be sorry for. So how was the rest of your day?” He asked as the drinks were set on the table. Haley apparently didn’t get the message because a glass with two fingers of whisky seemed to miraculously appear as well. He ignored it and took a sip of his mai tai.

“It went quickly. I had something to look forward to,” I said as I took a sip of mine. It was like being by the beach, and I sighed. I could use a beach trip. Or just a trip. Hell, I'd take a staycation after all of this.

"Is that so?"

“Maybe." It was fun flirting with him. I didn't feel awkward. I just felt like myself and he actually liked it. "You know for a while I tried to make these, but I can’t get the portions right. It’s just one of those things, I guess.”

I took another sip, relishing in the light buzz it afforded me. It was rare that I had time to drink and enjoy the moment. All through college, I worked my butt off so that I could keep my scholarship and save my mom the money, but now I was starting to think that I was missing out on everything important.

“I’m glad you could join me. I have something I wanted to talk to you about,” he said, his voice controlled.

I looked at him for a moment and then sighed, knowing that this was probably when he told me about the personal assistant thing. Only problem was, I didn’t want to become an assistant. It would mean leaving behind my plans of moving on to Bane Events and Planning. A new position just opened up on their website and it wasn’t exactly what I was looking to do, but it was a start. If I could even get it. I owed it to myself to try.

“Uncle Oscar told me about the job,” I said as I took a sip of my drink to look occupied and casual. I’m not certain it worked, but I tried. “You want me to be your assistant to help with the transition.”

“He did? Well, that saves me some time. I suspect you’re against it, then?”

I shrugged. “It’s not ideal, but it really depends on what you want.”

“What I want?” Ari asked, frowning as he pushed the drink aside, unleashing the full extent of his stare.

My mind fumbled for a second, and for a second, I wasn’t able to form a coherent thought that didn’t involve me leaning in and kissing away all this tension rippling between us. Unfortunately, my logical side was winning out on this one. I had to be honest with myself and him. He needed to see where I was coming from, which in no way should involve my lips finding his.

“The way I see it, there are two options. I can be your assistant for the transition and then we can see what happens between us after, or we can date and I'll keep at the job search.”

“That’s not what I’m asking.”

“Actually, it is,” I said, laughing a little. “I’m not going to do both. It’s not who I am.”

“Who you are? What does that even mean?” he asked, his words cold and businesslike. “It’s not like we’d be doing anything other than working at ARK. My job there isn’t to seduce you before board meetings. You know this. It would be just like today, with Marjorie. We can help each other. Hell, I'll let you fire her if that's what it takes.”

My skin turned to ice when I looked at him, his demeanor changing so quickly I barely recognized the change from casual night out to the same defensive arguing Kyle and I used to go through on a daily basis. He would always say I was being pushy or opinionated, but I never believed him. Looking at Ari, I could see history was about to repeat itself, and I wasn’t interested. Never again.

“Because I don’t want to be the office slut,” I said as I pushed away the rest of my drink and reached for my phone, typing a quick text to Katie with my location before looking back to Ari. The warm and fuzzy feeling was now a stomachache, and I wanted to get away. This was all too much, and I wanted to run and never look back.

Ari gave me a look that said what others thought of me wasn’t important, but it was starting to bother me. He didn’t even try to see it from my perspective. He was just a better looking Kyle, but he was the same. They all were.

“Look, I don’t expect you to understand, but as a woman, I get treated differently.” I grabbed my purse, trying to find money to leave on the table so this wouldn’t be confused as a date. “You know, I graduated magna cum laude from Berkeley, made it here on my own dime, and I still get treated like I’m the rich kid who asked daddy for a favor. I don’t mind working my way up. I don’t mind putting in the hours, but did you ever stop and think that maybe getting a free promotion would make my life difficult? And what if we don’t work? What then? I’d look like a job jumper and have no recommendation.”

I braced my hands on the table, taking a deep breath to try and calm myself down but my heart was beating so hard I thought my chest would break open, and I was starting to see red. Bright, blinding red.

“I’m sorry. I didn’t realize how much it bothered you. I've obviously struck a nerve,” Ari said as he reached for my hand, but I pulled away. I was strong enough on my own. I didn’t need this.

“That’s because you don’t know me.”

As soon as the words left my lips, I regretted them, but what was it Churchill said about words? “We are masters of the unsaid words, but slaves of those we let slip out.” Well, these words were whipping me unconscious right now as Ari watched me with unflinching seriousness.

“Perhaps we should set this aside for a while. It might be healthier if we step back until after the month is up,” he said, reaching for the whisky. As if remembering what it stood for, he stopped, but it was too late. The gesture was noted.

“I’ll consider your offer and have an answer by tomorrow,” I said as I swiped my phone from the table and checked to see if she responded.

“So that’s it then?” he asked as he watched me in disbelief. “And what if you say no? Does that mean you’re giving us a try or will it be a refusal of both?”

I tried to blink through the frustration building in my chest, but I didn’t have an answer. Maybe Ari wasn’t what I needed in my life. I wanted freedom and adventure. I was ready to be spontaneous, and here I was considering a job at the place I hated because it meant that after, I’d know Ari well enough to decide his datability.

My phone blinked and buzzed, Katie’s picture popping up on the screen. She was here.

“If you’ll excuse me,” I said as I slid out of the booth, purse and blazer in hand. “Something’s come up. I’ll see you tomorrow.”

“Sophie, really? You’re just going to leave me here like this?”

A few people at the bar looked over at us before minding their business and returning to their conversations.

“I’m not leaving. I’m doing what’s best for me. No one seems to think that that matters anymore, but I do,” I said as I watched his green eyes darken. “I told you I needed to think about it. I’m doing that.”

He just shook his head before I pivoted on my heel and walked out of the restaurant, making a bee-line for Katie’s SUV. He may be like Kyle, but my traitor heart panged a little when I stole one last look back, stealing one final glimpse of my past before Katie’s smile brought me back to reality.

“Get in, babe,” she called from the open window. “It’ll be ok.”

I buckled myself in as we headed toward the apartment, my mind filling with so many what-if scenarios I was going to go brain-dead before we got to the main door. All I kept thinking about was what if he never offered that promotion? What if we'd just tried to be normal and waited for the real date Saturday? My life would have been different.

“Thank you,” I said, breaking the silence. It was our rule. We didn’t make the person in need of help talk first. She needed to go first.

And this was me going first.

“Oh, thank god. I thought you’d make me wait forever. Do you want me to swing by ARK to get your car?”

“Nah, it’s safe there. All I want to do is go home,” I said as I turned my phone off. It was about to die anyway, but I didn’t want to know if Ari called or texted. I needed a complete detox for the night if I wanted to figure everything out.

She parked the car in the underground lot before swiping the key card for the garage elevator.

“Either your stomach’s coming on to me or you’re hungry,” Katie joked as my stomached growled again.

“I’m so hungry, it’s not even funny,” I said as the elevator doors opened on our floor. “I skipped lunch knowing I was going to happy hour after. We never made it to the food part.”

“Yeah, I may have skipped work today. I mean the partners were doing a spa day anyway, so I’m pretty sure they didn’t even listen to my well-acted sick voicemail.”

“Which one this time?”

“Miley a la flu. I held my nose, practiced a few verses of The Climb, then drank some milk so the cough was nice and phlegmy. It was a real tear jerker.”

“You work way to hard at the wrong things, you know that?” I asked as I closed the curtains and flopped onto the couch.

“What can I say? I’m an artist,” Katie said before grabbing herself a glass of wine and offering me some water and a bag of chips to bide me until dinner. “So what happened?”

“He wants me to be his personal assistant, but we both know that that means,” I said as I took a long swig.

“Office sex.” She nodded and took a sip of her pinot.

I just laughed. “No, everyone would think we’d be having office sex. Do you know what that would do to my reputation? Even if we weren’t dating anymore, I’d be that girl.”

“Yeah, that girl having amazing sex with the boss,” she said before holding her hand up. “Sorry, sorry, I’ve been reading Fifty Shades again. Josh thinks I’m going a bit overboard comparing him to Christian Grey, but come on girl, imagine just one night roleplaying that shit.”

“So not helping, Katie,”

“Sorry, I’m just trying to lighten the mood. I hate seeing you so sad. I mean, here’s what you have to do, and it’s going to sound simple, but it’s not,” she said, her face turning serious. “Take some time and figure out what you want. If it’s working as his assistant, do it. Pardon my French, but fuck all those jealous bitches who try to shame you from taking that promotion. Seriously, this is your life. You worked hard. Do what you want.”

“I want to go out.” I stood, looking over my drab business wear and business shoes. “I want to have fun and feel amazing. I’m so sick of sitting around being boring and doing boring things. Can we?”

“YES! Oh my god, yes. I have the perfect dress for you to wear, and you have those sexy heels you’ve been just staring at all year. We’re doing this.” Katie jumped up from the couch, sloshing a little of the wine onto her shirt.

“Josh, baby! We’re going out!” she shrieked before dancing around a little.

“Not tonight, hun. I’ve got to get this proposal in. Go on without me.”

Katie just shrugged before rushing over, kissing him lightly on the cheek, and then dragging me to her closet for the dress.

“Ok, this is the plan. We go to this adorable bar by Posh. Grab some food. Then hit the club for a while. I hear that DJ Harlequin makes an appearance every once and a while and that girl can seriously make things happen.”

“And Josh doesn’t care? Wasn’t he like really overprotective senior year?”

“Eh, not anymore. We have this rule where we don’t want the other missing out on stuff just because we’re dating but basically dancing is cool, accepting drinks too as long as we see the bartender make it, and so long as the guy doesn’t make a move, I’m golden.”

She pulled me into my room and held out the heels I practically drooled over when I saw them in Saks. Thigh-high black boots that were absolutely to die for, and I promised myself that I’d wear them, but the most exercise they’d gotten thus far was my breaking them in as I vacuumed.

In an attempt to keep up the mood, I turned on our go-to playlist and began dancing around the room. God, it had been so long since I actually didn't care. We were just here, dancing like idiots to our college party anthems, and I felt a small part of myself come alive again to remind me everything was going to be ok.

“My god, I haven’t seen you this happy since we met sophomore year, and you were so far gone in that jungle juice I thought you were hitting on me,” Katie said as she finished curling her gorgeous auburn hair into beachy waves before motioning for me to sit so she could work on mine. Let’s just say, I wasn’t allowed to curl my hair anymore after I lacerated a section off. Thankfully it was toward the end but still. I was still not ok.

“I’ve been so focused on what I thought was important that I think I forgot the whole point,” I said as I shook out my hair so that it was easier to curl. It ended up just poofing out and looking awful, but I knew she could work her usual magic.

“Exactly! We're going to drink and dance and have fun. You might be running on zero tomorrow, but they can’t fire you on your last day,” she said as she sprayed one section with anti-frizz serum. “Seriously, all you have to do is be a functioning adult, eat, and then leave. Think you can handle it?”

“Psh, as if. Knowing Marjorie, I’ll be preparing the hundred meals in the back after she accidentally cancels the caterers.”

“If that’s the case, text me. I’ll call in reinforcements.” Katie finished up with some toxic-smelling hairspray before setting the curler down and smiling over my shoulder. “You look so hot, babe. If I went for girls, I’d be all over you.”

“As if,” I said as I stood, pulling down the skirt of my black bodycon dress with this sexy-as-hell cut out back that made it look like the entire dress from mid-back up was held together by a single strip of fabric that ran down my spine. “You’re not my type.”

“Ok, baby, we’re leaving,” Katie shouted to Josh as we walked out of my room. Josh stopped dead for a moment, appraising Katie’s silver dress and heels with appreciation before smiling toward me and giving me a friendly wink.

“Knock ’em dead, ladies,” he said before returning to Katie for a kiss. “Not too dead, right? I don’t want them getting any ideas.”

“I make no promises.” Katie leaned in for a better kiss, but Josh seemed too focused on something else and she ended up with his cheek. That was weird. Maybe this was part of their new thing.

After double checking that we had our phones and money, we left quickly, giggling profusely and trying not to kill each other in our heels as we linked arms and started off toward the main road like two vixens on the hunt for fresh meat.

“God, I feel amazing,” I said as two men in suits gave us the nod. I gave them my best sexy smirk before turning toward Katie and watching her reaction to all the attention.

“You know being in a relationship is great, but I miss this. Sometimes I want to be thought of as hot and unattainable too,” she said as she hailed a cab for us, quickly rattling off the address before the car zoomed off toward the bar.

It was close to 10 by the time we split an appetizer, a burger, and a few drinks before we headed over to the line for Posh. It was at least thirty people deep, but we figured it would move fast and we had to make a game plan anyway because apparently I wouldn’t stop talking about Ari and Katie wasn’t having it. I thought I barely mentioned him at all, but she insisted I had a problem that only strong alcohol and dancing would cure.

After crossing the street, we were about to make our way toward the line before a man in black tapped us on the shoulder and told us we could go right in. Which usually was a perk for people who planned night events but definitely wasn't the norm for us common event planners, and especially not the interns.

I honestly thought that stuff only happened in movies, but then again, what would I know? I was always the person walking by the club, not trying to get in or breathe too deeply for fear of choking on the clouds of body spray wafting through the doors.

Katie let go of my arm as the club was revealed from behind sheer black curtains, dropping us right in the middle of a pulsing, colorful party. Music vibrated over my body as I felt the waves of the base hit me at full force, and it was amazing. I smiled over at Katie as we watched the two stories of the club sway and grind to the unbelievably addictive beat of DJ Harlequin as she played one of my all time favorites. It was straight out of a dream.

“Yours or mine,” Katie asked, snapping me out of my thoughts as we approached the bar. I looked over one of the suits who was blatantly ignoring the girl at his table for one long look at us before answering.

“Mine,” I said, feeling bold.

The bar was crowded as usual, but the bartender worked toward us swiftly, noticing that Katie’s DD cleavage was on full display.

“It’s my friend’s birthday,” she shouted over the music. “She’s looking for something fun!”

On cue, the bartender grabbed two shot glasses and told us to close our eyes. I tried to peek, but he just shook his head and waited for me to follow his rules. He was pretty cute, with a set of gorgeous blue eyes that had me blushing as I waited for him to let us know when.

“On the house, ladies,” he said before sliding them to us. They were tall shots that were bright red and looked fantastic.

“Cheers,” I shouted over the music.

“To a night of some well deserved fun!” Katie said before we clinked our glasses and downed the liquid. My senses cleared as the cherry-flavored vodka burned through down my throat and straight into my bloodstream. In a few minutes, I was convinced I was about to supernova from all the adrenaline pumping through me. I grabbed a bill out of my pocket and motioned for the bartender to come back.

“One more for each of us,” I said as I slid over a twenty.

Katie gave me a look, but the bartender smirked as he filled the glasses, pushing back the money.

“We’re good. Have fun, ladies.”

I downed the shot without clinking, loving the way it felt to be so freaking reckless, and my body hummed in response.

10,000 feet up in the air...turn up the love and I’ll be there...

“I love this song!” I shouted to Katie before pulling her toward the pulsing colors of the dance floor. Shades of blue, purple, and green flared to the music, sending us a hundred years forward with the futuristic vibe. Katie and I didn’t wait for partners as we started dancing and swaying, the shots working their way into our hips before the second song even ended.

For a second, I felt blissfully at peace with the world. Everything felt amazing, from the brush of my dress against my skin to the adrenaline that moved through me like liquid fire. Even Katie seemed to notice because she was smiling and giggling like we were just sophomores again, lost in in the moment. It was exactly what I needed.

Movement to my right caught my eye as a guy approached, his stride radiating interest. Without even being asked, I sidled up against the blonde suit-type, moving my hips until I entered the oblivion of dance ecstasy. He followed my hips, molding his body against my back until we were only separated by our clothes, and boy did it feel right.

The image of Ari flashed across my eyes for a split second, reminding me of why I was really here, but I suppressed the thought and enjoyed my partner’s company. I wasn’t in a relationship. I didn’t know what Ari and I were, but it definitely wasn’t boyfriend/girlfriend yet. Hell, after today, we were barely anything at all.

I looked around as the song shifted, the guy never stepping away because it was clear that a few others were interested in cutting in. Fortunately for us, there were more guys than girls, so we’d have dance partners all night.

One song transitioned into another, and before I knew what was happening, Katie and I were following the pulses to a T, moving our hips like we were Beyonce for the night. And hell, maybe we were. Maybe Beyonce was so sexy because being like her meant being confident, alluring, and not being ashamed to want to be anything but fierce.

Well, you know what? Tonight, I was going to be fierce.

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