“Actually I don’t think it’s good for you or the business. If you break down, who do we have? The team’s not big enough to sustain without you. If you keep going like this, you’re going to be worthless in another week or two. Then what? What if something goes down and we really need you?”
“You’re making a big deal out of nothing,” I muttered, wondering what I could say for him to ease up.
As closely as I was working with Risa, I definitely had a better connection with James. When it came to work, he seemed to understand what I was looking for without really asking. A silent rapport that builds between two people who work closely for a long time already seemed to exist between us, and somehow that made this line of questioning more tolerable. But he couldn’t possibly begin to understand my life right now.
“All right, will you at least take a break? Let me take you out for something to eat.”
“I’m not hungry.” I wasn’t. I rarely was these days. I’d probably be waif thin like Sophia in no time, but not by choice. I simply had no appetite for food, or much else, for that matter.
“Okay, how about a walk. Just give me an hour and then I’ll leave you alone, I promise.”
I rolled my eyes.
He gave me an innocent but determined look that was hard to resist. I couldn’t fathom why he cared so much, but I couldn’t deny that it pulled at my heartstrings a bit.
I pushed away from my desk. “Fine. One hour. I have to finish edits on these contracts tonight.” I didn’t, but if pretending like I was fine for an hour meant getting out from under his relentless interrogation into my mental health, I would do it.
We walked down the block and James stopped in front of his motorcycle. He unhooked a helmet and handed a second one to me from a different compartment.
“Uh, no. I don’t do motorcycles.”
“I’ve been riding since I was a teenager. I promise you’ll be safe. I’ll go slow.”
“This wasn’t part of our deal.”
“There were no clauses about motorcycles. Jesus, Erica, you’ve been writing too many contracts.” He gave me a little smirk that melted my anger. “You gave me an hour. Relax, okay? It’ll be fun.”
I reluctantly put on the helmet, feeling a little ridiculous. He helped me buckle it and gave me a little pat on the top of the head that only added to my self-consciousness. I carefully took the seat behind him and we started moving.
The engine roared to life. He grabbed my hand and wrapped my arm around his waist.
I did, not caring how unprofessionally close it meant we’d be. I was suddenly and perhaps irrationally petrified of flying off as he eased out onto the street and propelled us ahead. I held on tight, trying not to totally freak out. He covered my hand with his own and gave it a squeeze.
I had no idea where we were going and didn’t bother asking. I finally relaxed a little, not enough to loosen my hold on him but enough to feel the thrill of the speed. We zipped through the busy city streets and past the cars that were still stuck in the rush hour traffic heading home after work.
We drove until we were riding along the ocean. The beach was mostly empty, dotted with a few runners and people kite surfing farther away from the shore. James parked and helped me off. We walked down to the beach together, slipping off our shoes at the end of the path.
The air was perfectly warm with the ocean breeze blowing over us. The waves crashed gently onto the shore. I didn’t come to the ocean much, but whenever I did, I had a really hard time worrying about anything. Something about the hypnotic and soothing motion of the waves and the endless horizon of the sea washed away the noise and the stress that had taken up residence in my mind. Even now, with everything I was dealing with, I felt a rare sense of peace.
I wanted to hold onto that for as long as I could. I made a silent mental note to get out here more. The long train ride would be worth it.
“Let’s go in.”
I laughed. “Are you kidding? Do you have any idea how cold it is in there?”
“I know exactly how cold it is. I’ve been swimming in the ocean up here all my life. Come on, don’t wimp out on me.” His lips curled up into a mischievous smile.
“No, thanks. I’ll stick with heated pools and warmer seas.”
He stripped off his shirt. The dark ink that peeked out under his sleeves was on full display now, the flames of an ornate design licking across his skin. He was undeniably gorgeous. He wasn’t as lean as Blake, but he was definitely toned. He’d spent a few hours in the gym, I guessed.
“You know what they say about salt water.”
I shot my gaze back up to his, embarrassed that I’d been gawking. People could look at tattoos, right? That was normal.
“What do they say about it?” My eyes wandered again.
“Ocean and tears are the cure for all ills. One dip in that ocean, and you’ll be as good as new.” He stood there before me half naked in his board shorts.
I tore my gaze away and drew a line in the sand with my bare toe. Ocean and tears, huh? If that were true, I’d be cured for all the tears I’d cried over these past couple weeks.
Before I could get lost in my own thoughts again, James hoisted me up and over his shoulder. The sand traveled below us too quickly as he carried me to the water.
“No, James. Let me go!” I screamed, trying to be legitimately angry, but I laughed as he waded in. I rotated my shrieks with uncontrollable laughter, kicking and trying to wriggle free from his grasp. He was past his waist now and I was really starting to worry. He wouldn’t really throw me in, would he?
“James, stop, don’t you dare! Put me down!”
“Whatever you say boss.” With that, he tossed me in, giving me just enough air so that I crashed loudly into the water. I sucked in a quick breath. The cold ocean water rushed around me, shocking my senses. I let myself sink until I nearly touched the sandy bottom. The buoyancy of my body and the undulation of the ocean brought me back to the surface a moment later.
I filled my lungs with another breath as James swam away. I smiled and swam after him as fast as my arms and legs would take me. He was going to get it now. He turned just in time for me to catch him. I leveraged myself on his shoulders and tried to push him down into the water with all my strength. The effort was pointless. Humoring me, he feigned the dunk. He disappeared under the water.
I stood there and waited. I tried to follow his path but lost him, feeling anxious and oddly giddy. The moment lasted long enough that I started to worry a little. I scanned the waters around me. Then his arms banded around my thighs and lifted me out of the water. I screamed again and giggled. He loosened his hold, and I slid down his body, slowly and, damn it, suggestively. There was nothing between us but the thin cotton of my clothes—leaving little to the imagination.