“Sorry. I just needed…you to anchor me.”
“I’m glad you asked me for what you needed, instead of making me guess.” Wasn’t it ironic she opened up to him on their last night together? He brushed his hand over her silky hair, from her scalp to where it curled against her shoulder. “We’ve come a long way in a few weeks, haven’t we?”
“Mmm-hmm.” Ainsley pressed the side of her face against his chest. “I’ll miss this.”
It hit him then, the finality. It wasn’t just the Dom/sub relationship he’d miss; he’d miss her. Everything about being with her.
They stayed wrapped together for so long the room grew cold and Ben knew the fire had dwindled to cinders. He smooched her forehead and slipped away, covering her with a fleece blanket.
Ben restocked the wood stove. He crouched and warmed his hands, his thoughts racing a million miles an hour. His gaze moved to the loan paperwork waiting on the counter. It wasn’t too late. He could toss the envelope into the fire. They could continue exploring this thing between them.
Then what happens? You spend time together and you fall for her even more than you already have? You’ve no guarantee she won’t end it anyway, because you know she’s not convinced this is sustainable. She hasn’t acted like she’s bothered you’re ending it, besides the snippy comments she made at Rielle’s. So either way, you’ve still lost her and you’ve also lost the land.
He turned around. “Someone took a little cat nap.”
“Sorry.” She yawned. “Did you eat?”
“No.” He seemed to have lost his appetite. “Are you hungry?”
“Not any more. But I’ll leave it for you.”
“You’re taking off?”
She nodded and wrapped the blanket around her nakedness and headed for her clothes, which he’d picked up and placed on the chair. As she finished dressing, her gaze landed on the envelope on the counter. “Did you finish the paperwork?”
“Will you be around tomorrow if I have specific questions?”
She grabbed her purse and hastily threw on her coat.
Go to her. Tell her how you feel.
But he couldn’t.
“Goodbye, Ben. I’ll let you know when I hear about the loan.”
“I’d appreciate it. Drive safe.”
Then she was gone.
And for the first time in his life, his dogs didn’t provide the companionship he needed.
She’d probably get cauliflower ear from the hours she spent on the phone. Ainsley rubbed the sore appendage and switched ears. She didn’t get a chance to leave her office until lunch, and when she returned she noticed the blinds in Leslie’s office were closed, which was unusual. She knocked and heard a scratchy, “Come in.”
Leslie looked awful. Pasty skin, vacant eyes, red nose. She started to say something and ended up having a coughing fit. But she waved aside Ainsley’s concern and croaked, “Just a cold. Nothing to worry about.”
“Why are you here today? You should be home in bed.”
Leslie sneezed. Coughed. Then blew her nose. Twice. “Sorry. I’m behind. I can’t afford to miss a day.”
“How much are you accomplishing today anyway?”
“Probably not much.” She let her head fall back into the headrest. “I feel like death.”
“You should’ve called in sick.”
“I tried to, but Jenny transferred me to Turton instead of you. Turton said sick pay didn’t kick in for thirty days. So if I didn’t show up, my check would get docked. You know Roger and I are still trying to get on our feet after both of us being laid off for six months. I need this job. I’ll be fine. I’ve gone to work far sicker than this.”
“I don’t care. You’re going home. And I don’t want to see you back here until you’re really better. I will handle the sick pay issue with human resources, understand?”
Leslie sneezed and reached for a tissue. “Thanks, A.”
“Anything pressing I need to handle for you today?”
“No. Just cancel the loan appointments for this afternoon.”
She’d pass that job to Jenny. “Consider it done. Are you okay to drive?”
“I’m fine. It’s not that far. I might squeeze in a few hours sleep before the kids get home from school.” She handed Ainsley her appointment book. “The names and numbers are in here.”
Ainsley passed Turton’s office. His door was shut, as were his shades. She checked the time. He should be back from lunch by now. She wandered to Jenny’s desk. “Where’s Turton?”
Jenny stopped flipping through a magazine. “He’s taking the afternoon off as a personal day. Why?”
So it was fine for him to screw off? But he expected Leslie to stick around when she was hacking up a lung? “I hadn’t seen him since this morning.” She dropped the appointment book on Jenny’s magazine. “You’ll need to politely cancel Leslie’s appointments for today as soon as possible and tell the clients she’ll call them to reschedule.”
“No excuses. And from now on, you will transfer all employee calls dealing with sicknesses and absences to me, not Turton. Understand?”
She lowered her gaze to the planner. For once, Jenny didn’t have a smart remark.
Ainsley finished verifying Ben’s financials. She should probably wait to send it off to the main office, but since Leslie was already behind, she didn’t want to add to the burden with a straightforward loan request. After she made copies, she stuffed the originals in a next day envelope.
Sealing that envelope gave her a strange feeling of finality she wasn’t ready for. She’d liked how things were growing and changing between them. Not only when he slipped into Dom mode, but when he was just Ben.
She’d miss the way he called her angel. The way he’d growl it against her skin. She’d miss the way he pushed her to accept what she was. The way he wouldn’t let her hide from herself or from him. The way he gave her what she’d needed for so long but hadn’t the guts to admit it she’d wanted.
This was temporary. And he’d rather have the money than you.
How long had he known he’d needed a loan? And what would he have done if she’d refused to help him? Would it have strained their Dom/sub relationship? Or ended it completely?
No way to know now, but she couldn’t help but feel a little used and a lot disappointed.
Through all her questions and doubt about what could’ve been, she still felt his pull. She wondered how long she could stay away from him.
Not long, as it turned out. But she’d convinced herself it was a matter of necessity, not personal choice.
She paced, clutching the phone. “Ben? Are you really busy right now?”
“Why? What do you need?”
Then she felt ridiculous and almost gave him a breezy, Oh no reason, just calling to see how you are, rather than coming across as incapable.
“Ainsley? What’s wrong?”
“I don’t want you to think I’m inept or that I only called because I needed something, although both those statements are true—”
“Take a deep breath, angel, and tell me what’s goin’ on.”
“My bathroom sink is leaking and I can’t figure out what’s wrong and I can’t get ahold of the landlord.”
“I’m on my way.”
“Really? Just like that?”
“Just like that. Be there in fifteen.”
She gathered the wet towels and tossed them in the tub. After piling clean towels on the toilet, she sat on the floor, listening to the drip drip drip of water into the plastic pail beneath the sink.
When her cats tore down the hallway she knew Ben had arrived, even before he called out, “Ainsley?”
“In here,” she yelled back. Her heart flipped over when he entered the bathroom. The man looked even sexier carrying a toolbox than he did carrying his toy bag.
Ben flashed her a brief smile and, “Hey,” before crouching down with his toolbox. “When did you notice the leak?”
“After work. I was in that cabinet this morning and it wasn’t leaking then.”
He turned on a flashlight and the beam arced inside the cabinet. He stuck his head under the sink. “Looks like the nut to the cold water valve is loose. Here. Hold this.” He handed her the flashlight and he rummaged in his toolbox. When he found the tool he needed, he scooted under the sink. “Can you point the light where I’ve got the pipe wrench?”
“Sure.” In such tight quarters, she pressed her body to the outside of the cabinet and held the light steady.
A couple of hard clanks, a loud screech and then water spewed forth.
Ben jerked back, hit his head under the sink and yelled, “Fuck.”
“Hold that flashlight steady.”
Water was still spraying everywhere.
Another loud clank and the water stopped abruptly.
“Some idiot forgot to turn the water off before he started fucking with the pipe.” He grunted. “That was fun. Can you hand me a towel?”
“Thanks.” When Ben backed out from beneath the sink, Ainsley gasped because he was soaking wet—hair, face, neck and shirt.
“Look at you. I’m so sorry.” Ainsley ducked into the cabinet and used a bath towel to sop up the mess. “What’s the diagnosis?”
“The pipe threading is stripped because the calcium deposits are abrasive. You’ll have to use the kitchen sink until your landlord can get this fixed. I don’t have the right plumbing supplies.”
When she backed out and stood, she noticed Ben had removed his shirt. Look at that. Broad shoulders, pumped-up biceps. Smooth skin. Even as her brain yelled stop, her fingers heard go. She traced the hard ridge of pectoral muscle. “You never really let me touch you however I wanted.”