Rae pressed her forehead to her sister’s apartment door. The coffee she grabbed before she caught her connecting flight two hours ago was a distant memory, and the exhaustion of spending half her day flying filled her bones.
But she was here now and looking forward to spending the weekend with Chloe, catching up with the rest of her family. Just being back in her hometown.
She pulled her cell phone from her purse and dialed.
“Sis, hey. I’m so sorry; I meant to call.” Chloe’s greeting was cheerful despite the exhaustion in her voice. “Did you land?”
Poor kid must be working late, though kid wasn’t really appropriate anymore. Chloe was only five years younger than her twenty-eight. Rae pushed sympathy into her tone. “About an hour ago. You must be swamped.”
“A little. We’re trying to get a demo together for E3, and QA found a bunch of last minute crap.”
Sometimes Chloe’s tendency to slide into industry lingo was difficult to follow. Fortunately, this time Rae kept up. E3 was a huge annual video game expo, and QA was quality assurance—the group responsible for testing the games Chloe and her colleagues wrote. “It’s no big deal. I’ll go grab dinner and meet you back here. How long do you think you’ll be?”
In any other city, Rae would have found an apartment, or at least an extended stay motel. That was for work though, and this was a vacation combined with looking for her next contract. Chloe offered up her guest bedroom to Rae for her use while she was in town, and it sounded a lot more comfortable than a generic room with no personality.
“I don’t know.” Chloe’s sigh echoed off the mic. “I’m sorry. Stop by and grab a key from me, so you can at least get settled.”
“Umm…” Rae didn’t want to hesitate. She shouldn’t care who else may or may not be in the office. The sliver of doubt lingered in her head, mingled with the piercing gaze of steel-blue eyes. Hungry kisses. Late nights. She pushed the memories aside.
“Come on. You can’t avoid him forever,” Chloe said.
No. But they were going on ten years, and that was a decent record. Chloe was right. A decade was a bit ridiculous. “I’m not avoiding anyone.”
“Glad to hear it.” Some of Chloe’s exhaustion vanished. “Stop by, grab my keys.”
At least it was a gorgeous evening. After Rae made her way back to her rental car, she headed downtown. She’d visited Chloe’s workplace a few times in the past. The drive would be pleasant. It was after five on a Friday afternoon, so traffic would be heading in the other direction, and if she was going to be downtown anyway, she could pick up dinner. See what was new.
The buildings grew taller and closer together as she traveled nearer to the center of Salt Lake City. Nothing comparable to the large skyscrapers on the East Coast, but the older architecture here was gorgeous. Granite three- and four-story buildings sprawled with arched windows, and columns holding the buildings all together.
Rae parked near a cluster of the century-old structures and made her way to one in the middle. She skipped the elevator—classic or not, the jerky ride kind of scared her—and took the narrow stairs to the second floor. The etched glass on the only door in the hallway proclaimed Cord, Incorporated.
She cringed at the brown paper taped to the glass hiding something. A chemical scent singed her sinuses. Was it being updated to add A Digital Media Company? She pushed inside and paused at the empty reception desk. No one was going to mind if she wandered back to Chloe’s desk. She knew the way.
Her earlier hesitation fluttered again, bringing her to a standstill. If Zach was here… She shoved against the thought with all her might. It didn’t matter. Chloe was right, it wasn’t as if they could avoid each other forever, and there was no way he still cared what had happened all those years ago. Rae needed to move past it as well.
“Rae?” A familiar voice tickled her ears
She grinned as she spun toward the sound. She hadn’t kept in touch with many people from high school, but Scott was one of her best friends. The person she could geek out with. Her confidant and anchor to sanity. He was also CTO—Chief Technology Officer—and co-founder of Cord. “Hey.” She threw her arms around his neck.
He returned the hug, lifting her off her feet. He squeezed tight before letting go. “You look good. I wish I’d known you were going to be in town.”
“Last minute plans. My next contract fell through, so I thought impromptu vacation.” She took a few steps back, so she didn’t have to tilt her head quite so much to see him. He looked good too. Then again, he always did. Almost a foot taller than her five four, with broad shoulders, and a flat stomach. He defied everything about the geek stereotype… Until he talked tech. He designed Cord’s graphics engine and so many other bits of underlying code for their games. When he got stuck on a brainstorming tangent, his ideas flew over a lot of heads.
“If you’re here for Chloe, I’m sorry, but I need her here tonight. No exceptions, even for you.”
“She told me. I’m just her to borrow her key.” Rae wasn’t surprised Chloe hadn’t mentioned the trip. When Chloe landed the head writer job a few years back, she and Scott left any conversation about Rae off the table, especially at work. Chloe earned the position on her own merits and wanted people to know it, instead of thinking her older sister pulled strings with the boss. Rae agreed with the decision. Even though Chloe’s talent was no longer in question, some habits died hard.
Scott rested hand at the small of her back, and pointed her away from the side of the offices where desks sat. “They’re all in the war room.”
Concern brought back the earlier foul taste the new glass etching left in her mouth. Almost a year ago, Cord had been subject to what Chloe referred to as a no-lube violation; Rae interpreted this to mean hostile takeover by Digital Media. As Rae understood it, things had been all hands off from the new parent company until just a few months ago, when they started to sink their claws in. “Is it that bad?” Rae asked
“I’m stealing my people’s Friday night. What do you think?”
“How bad is it? I know Chloe’s version. Give me some substance.”
Scott raked his fingers through his hair, puffed out his cheeks, and exhaled. “One of their top executives is going to be in the office interviewing everyone to see who’s vital to the group, and they’ve upped our E3 delivery from video to fifteen-minute playable demo.”
So, probably staff cuts on top of extra work plus babysitting. “Ouch.”
“Yup.” Scott steered her toward an open door emanating an eerie atmosphere. No talking, not even whispered conversations, interrupted the clack of fingers on keyboards.
No one looked up from their computers, and the air in the room was heavy with tension. The round table was strewn with cords and laptops. Empty pizza boxes sat in the corner, and she suspected the building cleaning staff had been by recently, or the trash would have overflowed with Mountain Dew cans.
Despite the almost tangible stress, and the mess, the setting energized Rae. She loved what she did for a living, but if she could land a job as something like director of finance for a video game company, she’d do it in an instant. Too bad jobs like that were few and far between.
Rae recognized some of the bowed heads, worshiping the gods of overtime. Jordan—Chloe’s boyfriend and Cord’s head of art and character design—sat at the far side of room, the largest screen almost blocking him from view. Chloe was next to him, pen in her mouth, brow furrowed. The relationship between Rae and Chloe would have been more obvious, but Chloe dyed her hair black, kept her skin pale, and loved her heavy eyeliner. Unlike Rae who didn’t work to hide her dirty-blond hair or avoid the sun at all costs.
Mason, the head of development, must be here too. Rae’s gaze skittered to a stop when she saw him. Or rather, the person standing next to him. Butterflies whirred to life in her chest, and her heart paused. Bent at the waist, arm on the back of Mason’s chair, pointing at something.
Zach. He looked better than in the industry magazines. The cover of Forbes definitely hadn’t done him justice. Blond hair pulled into a ponytail that landed just past his collar, perfectly pressed slacks and button-down shirt, and a slender, sturdy frame. God, he looked better than he should, and that wasn’t fair. Not that she should care. Their shared past was just that—in the past.
“Look who I found.” Scott’s announcement sounded unnaturally loud. Several people jumped, and everyone turned toward them. Except Jordan, headphones on, volume apparently cranked up.
Zach’s gaze met Rae’s for the briefest second, and her breath caught in her throat. Something unreadable flashed across his face—surprise? Hope? Irritation? Just as quickly, a neutral smile appeared, and he turned back to Mason.
“You made it.” Chloe bounded from her chair and crossed the room. She gave Rae a brief hug then pressed a key into her palm. “I’m really sorry. Make yourself at home, keep in mind there’s probably nothing but Dew in the fridge, and with any luck, the head slave drivers won’t keep us here too late.” She turned to Scott. “Kidding, of course.”
“Of course.” He sounded more amused than annoyed.
Chloe returned to her seat and nudged Jordan, who looked up long enough to wave. Rae exchanged a few more hellos, including a polite hi directed at Zach, promised Scott they’d catch up when he was only neck-deep in work instead of in over his head, and made her way back toward the stairs.
“Rae, wait up.” Zach’s voice triggered the same memories and insecurities she’d convinced herself were inconsequential a few moments ago.
She paused on the top step and turned to face him, pulse hammering, smile forced. “Hey.” What’s wrong with me? He’s just another guy. She tugged on the sleeves of her peasant blouse, shifted her weight from one foot to the other, and waited.
Stop. The command filled her thoughts. She wasn’t that awkward eighteen-year-old anymore, the one who caved to his every whim until the only way she could make herself stop was to leave. She needed to stop acting like teenager with her first crush. “What’s up?”
He stepped onto the stair with her, putting him close enough to feel his heat. He hovered over her five-foot-four by several inches, and she had to tilt her head back to look him in the eye. The faint scent of spearmint gum and a hint of cigarette smoke evoked more recollections of her past to the surface. She swallowed and shoved the thoughts aside.
He raked his gaze over her, lingering on her chest, before dragging his eyes back to her face. “You look good.”
Second time she’d heard that in just a few minutes. Maybe she wore jetlag better than she realized. “Thanks.” Wow, this is awkward. Or she was projecting. A mental deep breath fortified her. She was a professional with a solid career who bailed Fortune 500 companies out of bankruptcy. There was no reason to treat this as anything more than a casual conversation. Reassurances locked in place, she relaxed. “So do you. CEO looks good on you.”
He chuckled. “Let’s hope Digital Media’s royalty agrees with you. I’m glad I caught you. Do you have a minute?”
This was okay. Nice, casual, polite. What had she been stressed about? She focused on his face. “Looking at the situation in there…” Not that she was tempted to stare at the rest of him or anything. She nodded toward the office. “I’m guessing I have more time than you.”
“Probably. Listen, I know it’s been a long time, and we didn’t part ways on the best of terms…”
A clipped laugh escaped her throat. Heat flooded her face. “Sorry.”
His mouth twisted in amusement. “Exactly. I’d rather be friendly than not, so I wanted to say it’s behind me, and I hope I’m not the only one who feels that way.”
It wasn’t exactly an apology, but it wasn’t as if she could demand anything from him. His high school assumptions—that they’d marry, go to the same college, she’d stay at home while he worked—were the impetus for setting out on her own. Really, it almost didn’t seem fair to demand he say he was sorry for showing her how much she needed a change in her life.
“The past is in the past.” She smiled.
“Good.” He shifted his weight, bringing him closer. “Because every time you came to town, hung out with Scott, spent time with my crew, I wondered if that would be the time. The trip you finally decided to apologize. I understand now it’s never going to happen.”
“Excuse me?” The question came out louder than she intended, but she let her surprise and indignation propel her words. “Why would I apologize?”
His narrowed eyes told her that hadn’t been the right answer. “No one else can do it for you.”
She stumbled through memories of the way they parted. The quiet irritation, the resignation as she walked away. “I’m not the one who was unreasonable.”
He sighed. “Of course. My mistake.”
The edge to his tone scraped through her, leaving her insides raw. “No. Don’t do that. Tell me. What am I supposed to apologize for?”
He looked back toward the office. “You’ve got places to be that aren’t here. I won’t hold you up.”
“Wrong.” Smug, she lingered when his attention shifted back to her. “You don’t get to toss that out like it’s nothing and then brush me off.”
His smile was back, and something dark but playful danced behind his eyes. What the hell was he up to? He took a step closer, his toes nudging hers where they rested on the edge of her sandals. “Maybe, maybe not, but your walls are down now. The bullshit pretenses are out of the way.”
God, she’d forgotten how irritating he could be when he wanted the upper hand. “Fuck, Zach.” She hated that he could twist a word or a phrase just right to get a reaction out of her. At the same time, she adored his talent for evoking those feelings. “Do you want an apology or not? If so, tell me what for.”
“The way you left.”
The memory had been hovering in the back of her head all evening, and now it surged to the forefront. She grabbed the hurt and fury it brought, trying to use them to smother the thrum of her pulse caused by his nearness. This was anger; it wasn’t attraction. “You wanted me to give up everything, before I even got started with life, so I could stand by your side. I’m not the one at fault for that.”
He tilted his head, bringing his face closer. “I never said that. You assumed.”
“Then maybe you should have clarified.” Her response came out weaker than she intended. Stupid hormones, taunting her with memories of when things were good between them—the heat, the taste of his kisses. “Because I remember you spewing a lot of bullshit about how you pictured my future.” She wasn’t sure how the conversation turned volatile so quickly, but now they’d started, she wasn’t willing to back off. This had been bubbling in the back of her head for years. “Your life plan to have two kids right out of college. To let me use my degree as a backup. For me to stay at home while you finished graduate school?”
“I never said any of that.”
What was he playing at? “Never directly. It was just in every single plan you ever made when you talked about us.” Maybe she shouldn’t have said that. It dredged up more reminders. Those telling her they’d actually planned a future together at one point.
“You could have talked it through with me, instead of jumping to conclusions, and running halfway across the country to avoid me.” The emotion was gone from his face. “It was supposed to be our plan. Not mine.”
Why hadn’t she ever heard this before? “Scott never—”
“Of course he didn’t. This is between me and you, not some third party intermediary.” Some of the fire faded from his voice.
“Of course.” She didn’t know what else to say. He’d just taken a decade-old grudge and made her question her every memory of the situation. The way he bounced rapid-fire from apology, to accusation, to resignation left her head spinning, and none of it erased her desire to rise on her toes and kiss him.
He tucked a strand of hair behind her ear. Her neck went stiff. She wasn’t going to sink into this. Regardless of who meant what back then, he was a master of manipulation, and she learned a long time ago she didn’t need that in her life.
His thumb brushed her cheek. “There was probably a better way to approach this, but I was shooting from the hip.”
“Did you just admit to being wrong?” It took the last of her restraint to keep the joke in her question and the waver out.
He gave a short laugh. “Don’t get used to it.”
She couldn’t help her smile, but she still wouldn’t sink into his touch. A couple more inches. A tilt of her head, and she’d be leaning on his hand. A shift in another direction, and they’d be kissing. She just had to step in and rest her palms on his chest. She licked her lips.
His smile grew, and he leaned closer.
She stepped as far back as was possible in the narrow stairwell, and broke all contact between them. She let out a tiny exhale as air and sensibility rushed in around her. “At least you’ve still got that knack for distracting me from the real issue.”
He pinched the bridge of his nose. “You really think that’s what this is?”
What else could it be? Ten years of avoiding each other, and she wasn’t the only guilty party there, and now everything was just supposed to be okay between them because he said hello? “You tell me. That’s what I did wrong before, isn’t it? I didn’t ask you to clarify?”
“Goddammit, Rae. How can you be hearing every word I say and still not understand any of it?” He kept his voice quiet—she assumed so no one in the office could hear them, but his irritation was almost tangible.
And she felt the same. “Right. I forgot this was all my fault.”
“No. You fucked up. I fucked up. I’m not putting this all on you, but I am asking you to stop and think for a moment. I’m swallowing my fucking pride just being out here, and you can’t meet me halfway?”
Guilt wormed its way into her thoughts, along with a glimmer of reason. “Maybe, possibly, a little bit I might have blown some things out of proportion.”
He twisted his mouth, and his tone was flat. “Maybe?”
She ducked her head, feeling a bit bitchy for tossing his attempt to make peace back in his face. Especially since he had one really good point that shouted in the back of her mind in his voice. She had left without ever talking it through with him. Walked away based on her own assumptions and fears. “Probably.”
“For what it’s worth, I am sorry.” His sincerity drew her gaze back up.
She managed a smile. “Me too.” “Excuse me.” A male voice interrupted from somewhere below them.
She looked down a few stairs, and found herself face to face with a FedEx delivery guy. She jumped in surprise. Her hand flew to her hammering heart, and she choked on a nervous laugh.
The man glanced up from his clipboard, and handed Zach an envelope. “This one’s for you specifically.”
Zach took the letter, jaw clenched.
“See you around.” The FedEx man’s voice trailed off as he headed back to his truck.
“First name basis with the FedEx guy?” Rae teased, more because she wasn’t sure what else to do than because the situation called for it. “You really do make it a point to know everyone.”
Zach blinked and shook his head. “Something like that. I’m sorry. I need to get back to my office.” His voice was quiet, gaze never leaving the envelope as he flipped it over and over in his hands.
“Yeah.” She didn’t think he heard her. She had no idea what was in the letter, or if he even knew, but whatever it was drowned out any remaining chance of finding a resolution to their reunion tonight.
She shuffled back to the parking garage, the entire conversation replaying in her head. Weirdest start ever to a vacation.