Page 41 of Hardline (Hacker 3)

I tossed my napkin onto the table and looked past him, hating the fresh reminder of how I’d hurt him. Before I could slip much further into my pout, he caught my hand and pulled me up and onto his lap.

“I don’t want to talk about the what-ifs of not being together, in any capacity. I love you. I want to marry you. Nothing’s as important as making that happen. That bond, that promise, is the only paperwork I’m interested in having between us.”

I sighed. I wasn’t going to win this argument. I rested a hand on his chest, feeling the slow rise and fall of his breathing. His heart beat there, feeding the flesh and blood of the man who I loved so much it hurt. “I hope you know I would never—”

He lifted a finger to my lips. “I trust you, and believe me when I say I’m not worried about it. About Angelcom, is it something you want to do? I mean, I wanted to vote you in while I had them all by the balls, but if you really don’t want to do it, you don’t have to.”

“I think it would be fun. And I agree it would be nice to have some more insight into everything you do. It’s scary of course, but it would be a good experience for me. You’ve taught me so much already.”

“Good.” He threaded his hand through my hair and pulled me down for a kiss. My mind reeled a bit as I reveled in the softness of his lips. His firm but loving hold around me, anchoring me against him. Amidst the sweet moment between us, I stumbled over all this...progress. That part of me that had wanted to hold back and protect myself for so long now seemed very small, almost childish. Giving Blake my trust, all of it, had already changed things between us more than I could imagine. In a very good way.

This shift reminded me of something less positive. I pulled back, searching his eyes.

He reached up and brushed a strand of hair back from my face. “Everything okay?”

“There’s something I wanted to talk to you about.”

I went to move, but he held me there.

“Tell me.”

I hesitated a moment. “Isaac came to the office yesterday.”

“Did he.”

The displeasure that left his lips was less of a question and more of a threat. I toyed with the fabric of his shirt. I wasn’t so sure I liked talking about people he despised in such close proximity.

“He reached out to me a couple weeks ago. I ignored him at first, not knowing how I wanted to handle dealing with him in light of what he did.”

“You didn’t mention it.”

“I didn’t, but I am now.” I looked into his eyes, trying to convey that this too was progress, even if it was packaged in news that he didn’t like. “I didn’t want to upset you, and I wanted to think through it a little on my own also. He wants to advertise with us. It wouldn’t be a small account either. It would span all the publications relevant to our market, which would be an enormous coup for us.”

“You can’t bring him on as an advertiser.” His voice was flat, without a shred of doubt.

“I had a feeling you’d say that, and I understand your reasons. Obviously I share them. For what it’s worth, he seemed genuinely sorry. Outside of that incident, he seems fairly harmless.”

“Anyone with that much money and power is far from harmless.”

“Then with all your money and power, what makes you any different?”

He lifted his eyebrows. “Do I come across as harmless to you? Because I’m in love with you doesn’t mean I’d hesitate dismantling someone who threatened you, me, or either of our businesses.”

“True enough. It would help us bridge the revenue gap while we roll out these changes with Alex, but I suppose it’s not a risk worth taking.”

“You’d pay for it later, I can guarantee it. Everything comes with a price.”

I studied him a moment. “What’s between you two?”

“As if trying to force himself onto you isn’t enough of a reason to hate the man?”

I slanted my head, a silent call for his honesty. “I know there’s more. You knew him before we met, and you didn’t like him much then.”

He sighed and released his hold on me. He patted my ass in a way that said, Shoo.

I frowned. “No. You can tell me right here while I’m on your lap.”

His expression didn’t change for a moment, and I worried he might not agree. Finally he blew out a breath and began to speak.

“As long as I knew Sophia, Isaac had been in her circle of friends. She modeled for his shoots and they’d known each other for a while. When I ended things with her, he came to her rescue. He played the hero, and oh, did he play the part. I’m certain he only wanted to fuck her, and who knows, maybe he did. When we broke up, he made a point to demonize me to her and others. I didn’t really care what everyone else thought. I cared more that she felt like I abandoned her.”

“But you didn’t abandon her.”

“I told you before, she didn’t take it well. She was clean when we broke up, and she couldn’t understand. It took a lot of willpower for me to not go back to her if only to see her stop hurting. But it wasn’t just the drugs. In reality it was the last straw. The distance when she was in rehab just polarized how different we were. How it would have never worked.”

“Did you love her?”

He drew his lips drew together. “I don’t know. We said it, but I can’t tell you if what I felt then was love. I wanted to take care of her, and she thrived on being taken care of. It worked for a while, but I can’t say that was love. It wasn’t anything close to what we have, Erica.”

I chewed my lip, trying like hell to ignore the jealousy that coursed through me.

“I’ve thought about what you said, about exiting from her agency. Financially, it could be damaging for her if I did. I own more stake in it than anyone. I invested heavily when she started to help get her off the ground. Beyond that, Heath is also invested. I’m not sure what his thoughts are on the matter, but he seems hesitant. Their relationship is different. They have more of a friendship, a connection that she and I didn’t. Maybe because they went through a difficult time in their lives together and have come out of it. I don’t know, but a part of me doesn’t want to push Heath on it if I don’t have to.”

I looked past him, trying to hide my disappointment. Making James work from home wasn’t exactly convenient for me either. I tightened my lips into a firm line as resentment set in. Blake slid his palm over my cheek and turned me slightly, regaining my attention.