Page 15 of Hardline (Hacker 3)

“Good. We’re good.” His cheeks reddened.

I fought a smile. “I’m glad to hear it.”

He unfolded himself from the chair quickly. “I’m taking off. I’ll see you tomorrow.”

I waved him off and got lost in thought. I doodled on my notepad until the loss of revenue I’d tallied a few minutes earlier was surrounded with an ornate design. Maybe Sid was right. Why couldn’t the answers be easier to find? Every major decision I’d made lately seemed to be reactionary. What happened to the time when we were driven by ideas, not survival? We’d secured the finances from Blake to grow and carry on, but if I didn’t figure my way through this, his investment would dwindle quickly. I cringed at the thought of failing him. He’d opened so many doors for me, and all for what?

I was about to give up when a thought occurred to me. I shuffled through my desk drawer until I found a card. I took a deep breath to calm my nerves and dialed the number on it.

* * *

We stepped into the cool air of Abe and Louie’s, the heavy door closing out the light that flowed in with our entrance. My arm hooked around Blake’s. The steak house’s maître d’ disappeared to prepare our table, and Blake turned me, pinning me to his chest. My breath hitched at the sudden contact, our closeness in plain view of anyone nearby.

“Bring back anything?”

I smiled as the memory of our first chance meeting came back to me. Even then, he’d taken my breath away.

“A few. I was ready to haul you into a coat closet and kiss that smirk off your face.”

He hummed, tracing my lower lip. The hunger in his eyes had my heart beating against my chest. “Not too late for that.”

“True. But I don’t want to get kicked out before Marie gets here.”

“You think they’ll kick us out for this?”

I sucked in a sharp breath. He cupped a hand at my nape and planted a chaste kiss on my lips. The other slid around my waist to hold me as he dipped me back. I smiled under the soft press of his kiss, wrapping my arms around his neck.

“You’re quite the romantic these days, aren’t you?”

He grinned and pulled me up, not loosening his hold around me.

“Still celebrating, I take it?”

My loving gaze shifted toward the door, the voice there reminding me that we were far from alone. Marie walked closer, a dark-haired man behind her. Curiosity, pride, and love shone from her eyes, and the look hit my heart. Blake loosened his hold so I could go to her. She pulled me into a warm hug. `

She whispered in my ear. “Congrats, baby girl.”

“Thank you.”

She stepped back and looked up to the man who was at her side now. He was tall, nearly six-feet, with short black hair and olive skin. His dark eyes captivated me for a moment.

“Erica, I’m Richard Craven. It’s a pleasure to finally meet you.”

He captured his hand in mine as I reached out.

“Likewise. I’ve heard so much about you.”

Tall, dark, and unwilling to commit. I looked between him and Marie. Marie, the woman who could be my mother but always seemed to strike me as too youthful and vibrant for her age, somehow looked even younger beside him, her expression soft and almost girlish in his presence.

Blake came up beside us. “Richard, I’m Blake Landon.”

Richard grinned and shook his hand. “We meet at last.”

Blake’s eyes narrowed.

“We’ve attended a few of the same events around town. I’m a journalist, so I’ve been there to cover local stories and what not.”

“I see. Well, it’s a pleasure to meet you formally, Richard. Should we eat?”

Marie clapped and smiled. “Let’s.”

Blake caught my hand and nodded toward the approaching maître d’.

We settled at our table, and Marie peppered me with questions while we waited for our meal. Where and when would we have the wedding? Who were we inviting? When I was going dress shopping? I answered as many as I could. Blake and I would need to figure out some basic wedding plans before anyone else had the chance to pump me for details. Not having answers was driving me crazy and adding to the mountain of anxiety I was already dealing with.

I turned my attention to Blake’s conversation with Richard, desperate for an escape.

“Do you write for a specific publication?” Blake asked.

“I have a staff position at the Globe, but occasionally I write for others.”

“Richard is asked to travel quite a bit,” Marie chimed in.

“What kind of stories do you report on?” I asked.

His gaze shifted to me. Something passed behind his eyes. Curiosity, vague interest maybe, but I couldn’t put my finger on it. “The type of reporting I do really runs the gamut, but I take a special interest in political coverage.”

“Do you enjoy it?” I hoped the disinterest wasn’t evident in my voice when I asked.

A charming grin lifted his lips. “What isn’t entertaining about politics?”

I could think of a thing or two. I laughed lightly, unwilling or maybe unable to give him an honest answer that wouldn’t open a can of worms not conducive to polite dinner conversation.

“What about you, Erica? Do you have any interest in politics?”

“Not especially, no.” I put my napkin on the table. “If you’ll excuse me a moment. I have to use the ladies room.”

“I’ll join you, dear,” Marie said.

“So what do you think?” She freshened her makeup in the mirror, brushing gloss over her bottom lip.

“About Richard? He seems great. Definitely very charming.”

She shot me a sassy grin. “He charms the hell out of me.”

I rolled my eyes and laughed. “TMI, Marie. Anyway, I thought things were kind of rocky with you two? What changed?”

“He was traveling for a while, and we didn’t see much of each other. Honestly, I really thought things had fizzled between us. The past couple weeks have been different though. I don’t know. It’s hard to explain, but maybe we’ve just passed a certain point with each other.”

“I guess that’s good, right?”

“It’s good enough for now. I’m having too much fun to push the issue. What about Blake? You must be on cloud nine.”

I smiled, warming at the mere thought of him. We’d been apart for all of four minutes and I missed him. Was I ever hopeless.

“I am, yeah. He caught me completely off guard, so I think I’m still getting used to the idea of all this marriage stuff.”