“I have no idea what you’re talking about.”
“This can’t happen. Anything with you and me. We’re on opposite sides of a fight, and I have too much at stake to put that aside. No matter how much I liked dancing with you.”
“I understand,” I said, “And I have a job to do. No matter how beautiful you are or how funny you are.”
“No need to flatter me,” she said.
“I’m not,” I countered. “You can’t tell me I’m the first man to call you beautiful?”
“No, not the first. But it’s been a while,” she admitted.
“Then everybody in this town is too nearsighted to know what’s in front of them. Jesus, look at you.
I touched her fiery, wavy hair, winding one long curl around my index finger and releasing it, watching it unwind. It was intimate, the slide of that auburn twist of silken hair around my skin.
“I shouldn’t want you as much as I do.”
“I know,” she said, her eyes never leaving mine.
I was still touching her hair, threading my fingers through it, surprised at how heavy it was, how springy to the touch like a live thing. I couldn’t stop touching it. She took another step toward me, as if she didn’t want me to stop.
“So I’m not getting involved. I’m here to do my job,” I said, my voice sounding far away.
“Right. And there’s no way I’d go out with someone who’s looking to shut down the plant and take my daycare down with it,” she said, swallowing hard.
The air between us was hot and alive. Her eyes locked on mine, unwavering, and my hand in her hair. All of it said something different from our words. I felt her shiver at my touch when my fingertips brushed her scalp. I couldn’t resist. I raked my fingers through her hair, palmed her head in my hand. I watched her lips part at the sensation, at the bone-deep knowledge that I was going to kiss her. That she wanted it, too. I let my gaze drift to her rosy, parted lips. I watched the rise and fall of her chest as she breathed heavily, anticipating my mouth on hers. When I drew her a step closer to me, she stumbled, her hand going to my chest. Her palm, the spread of her fingers seared into my flesh as if they burned my shirt away. I felt branded, taken in a way I never had before. I wondered if my hand in her hair felt the same way to her. I heard my own breath sawing in and out like I’d been running. The tip of her pink tongue peeked out as she wetted her lips.
I let go of her, withdrew my hand and stepped back smoothly. The almost kiss was the most intense caress of my life. I knew from the way she looked at me that she’d felt every stroke of my tongue as surely as if I had really kissed her.
“I’m not wasting our first kiss in a roomful of people,” I said. “Nothing against the Elk’s lodge.”
She nodded, “Right.”
“I’ll see you again soon.”
She nodded her agreement and went to join her friends without another word. I watched her walk away, enjoying the sight of her and the way she moved. But for some reason, I felt like I was left with flaming tire tracks up my back when she walked away. That woman was invested in the factory. I had a job to do. But there was no earthly reason why I couldn’t have some fun while I was in town. Fun that felt like it would burn down the world.
“So that was inconvenient,” I told my sister, Ella.
“What was?” she asked on our weekly phone call.
“They sent a hot guy to shut down the chicken factory.”
“He isn’t hot. You’re wrong. You’re just lonely. Get yourself a new pack of batteries and get this out of your system. A man who comes to town to close our only major industry has no right to be attractive. You are not attracted to him. You just miss having a boyfriend.”
“I don’t miss having a boyfriend, and I’m not horny. Or it’s not just that. He’s seriously attractive and charming. I haven’t been this attracted to anyone since—ever. And of course, it has to be fucking Ebenezer Scrooge or whatever because I couldn’t be attracted to a nice normal guy. It had to be my archenemy.”
“You got a cape now? Who has an archenemy in real life?”
“Trust me, El, if some dude is closing the plant and your job is collateral damage, he’s your archenemy.”
“I’m not saying he isn’t THE enemy. But how his he yours specifically?”
“Because. My daycare relies on the plant employees’ business. So he’s de facto attacking my livelihood as well as the well-being of my entire community.”