Page 24 of Hardline (Hacker 3)

“Alex, we’ll be right back,” he said quickly.

In a blur, we left the table and found some privacy at the other side of the restaurant. The darkness wrapped around us. His body came close, seeming to force the air from my lungs. I waited for him to touch me. I needed him to touch me or I was going to break.

Gently, he brought his hands up and framed my face. I sighed, my earlier fatigue taking hold again. He tilted my head up, bringing us eye to eye. Those eyes that undid me, that stormed with darkness and passion—everything I had come to love about the man—stared down at me.

I love you. I wanted to tell him. I wanted to let the words spill out again and again until he said it back.


“Are you okay?”

He thumbed my cheek. More contact, every touch overwhelmed me. My eyes brimmed with tears that began to fall now. My hands went to his chest, wanting to feel his heat, his strength.

“I can’t do this, Blake. Not right now. I’m sorry... I just can’t.”

He hushed me and brushed away the tears. “I can take care of it, okay?”

“No, I can’t mess this up. I need to be there.”

“You aren’t messing anything up. It’s fine. I’ll talk to Alex. Go up and rest.” He gripped my shoulders and skimmed down my arms, resting there only a moment before he left. Before I could call him back, he was out of sight, and I was alone again.

I walked quickly to the elevators, my head down to hide the mess of my face. I brushed away my tears but they kept coming. What the hell was wrong with me?

Back upstairs, I scanned the empty room. Empty, like my hollow, painful heart. I wanted Blake here. I hated that he wasn’t, but I was in no condition to face Alex and talk business right now. Ironic, since that was the entire purpose for the trip.

Without undressing, I fell back into the unmade bed. I’d woken without his touch and here I was, barely surviving without it. I began to drift off, ready for home, praying that somehow I could wake up and start all over.

* * *

I took a seat at the head of the conference table and waited for the rest of the team to settle around me. After sleeping away most of the afternoon in the hotel room and on the red-eye home, I should have been rested. Some of the heavy emotional fog had lifted. Enough that when Blake eventually briefed me on his meeting with Alex, my brain reluctantly shifted back into business mode. The terms they’d agreed to were good, better than I would have pushed for or even asked for. I wanted to be surprised, but with Blake behind the wheel, I shouldn’t have expected anything less. All I needed to do was seize the opportunity while it was there and act now so we could stay ahead.

“How was San Francisco?”

Alli’s voice interrupted my wandering thoughts. She’d settled into the seat beside me. I met her brown eyes, wishing that somehow I could explain all of this to her. My sweet, loving friend. I didn’t know where to begin. How would I broach the topic of being punished by my future husband because I’d been caught in a lip lock with one of my employees when Blake and I had been broken up? God, my current dilemma sounded all kinds of fucked up.

“Good,” I lied.

My whole body ached, from the sex, sure, but hours had gone by without any real emotion between Blake and me. On the trip home, everything had been matter-of-fact between us. But I could sense his hesitation, the strain that came through with the short delivery of every word, the careful avoidance of my stares as I silently begged him for more. A look, a touch, anything to let me know we were okay.

Too wiped out to push him, I simply went through the motions. It was a remembered feeling, one I had brought on myself not so long ago when we’d been separated under very different circumstances. All of it wore on me now. I hated not knowing what he was thinking, and a part of me was afraid of what he’d say if I dared ask. I needed to believe that we’d get through this, that there was a light at the end of this tunnel. If I thought for a second that we couldn’t—that we wouldn’t—I wasn’t sure I could go on.

Gradually people pulled up their chairs, and I jotted down some last minute notes. I pushed down all the fears, silently refusing to let the events of the weekend derail my entire day. Despite everything, we had work to do, and I had to push on.

James dropped into the seat opposite Blake. The air grew thick around me, filling the space between them. It crackled with their distaste for one another. The clarity I was grasping scattered when I caught Blake’s stare. James shifted in his seat as Blake leveled a look so venomous, I wouldn’t have been surprised to find them at each other’s throats, literally, in a matter of seconds.

I cursed inwardly, questioning how Blake had convinced me to let him drive this meeting knowing James would be there too, right in the thick of it. I might have guessed that Blake would be looking for an opportunity to meet him head on, to start something that he could finish.

I hurried to speak and shift their attention to the matters at hand.

“This weekend Blake and I met with a prospective partner, Alex Hannon, who’s given us the go-ahead to refer ecommerce sales to his site, in return for increased exposure and commissions for us. We’re still working out the finer details, but this is a huge break for our growth, to expand beyond what we’ve been doing and broaden our reach. We’ll need to make some adjustments to our platform to maximize this opportunity.”

“Any updates with advertisers?” James asked, tempering my good news with the cold reality of the hit we’d already taken as a result of the competing site’s endeavors.

Alli chimed in. “No one else has pulled their account since last week, so maybe Risa’s grabbed all the low-hanging fruit, so to speak. Hopefully the rest remain loyal through this expansion.”

I masked a grimace. I had a few other choice monikers for Risa I would have rather used.

“What’s the timeline?” Chris, our resident Hawaiian shirt-wearing developer, spoke up.

“As soon as possible. I know it’ll be tricky to build this out while maintaining what we have. But I figure with what we’ve been through with the hacking attempts, we can multi-task easily on this. Sid, can you start looking into their API?”

Blake offered him a stack of papers. “I have the documentation for you. Alex and I went through it. Should be pretty straightforward to implement.”

Sid reached for it, his eyes wide. I cracked a small smile, not quite ready to celebrate but grateful at least to have Sid’s interest. Seeing the plan moving forward was a little scary. I was wandering into uncharted waters, but this was what we had to do. Sink or swim, and I was determined that we would survive. This opportunity with Alex promised to be the lifeline we needed.