Jordan leaned against the corner of the hotel-room wall, watching Chloe work. Her hair was swept into a loose braid, and tendrils escaped to curl around her long neck. It was another of many reminders of why she was one of his favorite subjects when he drew. An invisible fist clenched around his lungs at the thought.
This was their tenth year at E3, one of the largest trade shows in the world for video game companies. It was the first year they struggled to keep their relationship together. Or maybe they never noticed all the cracks in its foundation before. Either way, he hoped—and she said she agreed—they’d take a little time for themselves while they were here, and figure out what they needed to do, to make them work as a couple. He didn’t want to lose her, but he couldn’t figure out what was at the heart of their disagreements lately.
“If you draw a picture, it’ll last longer.” Chloe didn’t look up from where she sat at the desk in the corner where she hunched over her laptop, but a teasing current undercut her words.
That was a better response than he expected. She’d seemed… off, since they checked in last night. Not angry, but also not quite here.
“I thought you liked to be watched.” He hoped to keep the mood light.
It took several seconds before she replied. “I do. I’m just…”
“What’s wrong?” He crossed the room, stopped behind her, and brushed her hair aside, to trace his fingers up her neck.
She leaned into his touch with a light sigh, her head tilting enough he saw the smile play on her lips. “Nothing. Everything. I can’t stop thinking about what a big deal this show is. But don’t stop what you’re doing.”
He understood her tension all too well. It was a big event for any video game company, but their employer, Rinslet Enterprises, had turned it into a ritual. A decade ago, a presentation gone bad led to the collapse of the company and a hostile takeover. A year later, the owners came back with a new company and a drive to make things work right the second time around. Chloe and Jordan played a huge part in a media spectacle that kept them in the public eye.
Since then, every year Rinslet was expected to have a better showing than before. They tried easing off a few times, but it never went well. Bloggers, reviewers, and magazines pushed for bigger. And this year, the pressure was back on Jordan and Chloe to deliver. Their panel demo was solid, though, and pouring stress into it now wouldn’t make things go more smoothly.
Could he convince Chloe of that?
He dipped his head and kissed along her soft skin. The faint honey of her shampoo filled his thoughts. “We’ll be fantastic. Don’t overthink this.”
Sometimes she was as bad as her sister—focusing on business before anything else and losing herself in the grind, instead of remembering the rest of the world existed.
“I guess.” The gasp that escaped her throat was intoxicating, making his pulse race.
“Better.” He trailed his lips over her shoulder and up her jaw, to her ear. “You’re too wound up.”
“Lot on my mind.”
Which was why he wanted her to unwind. Was he not conveying that, or was she not listening? A new idea sparked and danced in his head. If he drew Chloe into a fantasy, could he have her here with him tonight? A bit of verbal foreplay, some interactive teasing… His cock stirred at the building visuals. “What did you think of new sales rep they’ve got over at DM?”
She gasped when he nipped her earlobe. “Can’t say I talked to him long enough to form an opinion.”
“He’s handsome. Kind of cocky, but I bet he’s half-talk.” Talking about someone else as foreplay would be an instant turn-off for most people, but it was one of many things he loved about Chloe—the same thing that drew them together when they were eighteen. They both had an open perspective on sexuality. Everything was up for discussion, and nothing was taboo as long as they both agreed. Sometimes that involved a wicked fantasy about whoever caught their eye that day.
“Rumor is, he’s coming off a bad divorce.” Chloe’s response wasn’t quite as enthusiastic as he hoped for.
If he could keep her distracted, they could stay in the moment. “Which means he’s single.”
“Yeah. But I’m not.” No question this time. Chloe was annoyed.
Jordan pulled back, but kept his hand on her shoulder, thumb tracing lines along the exposed skin. “Tell me what’s wrong.”
She finally spun to look at him. “I’m just wondering if you were thinking we might have sex, any time in the near future, without you needing to think about someone else in order to get off.”
The words stung. The delivery and that she attacked something she always said she enjoyed notched his irritation. “That’s not fair. You know I’m here with you.” He couldn’t help speaking between clenched teeth.
“What brought this up?”
“Today. Last week. It’s been there for a while.” She dragged her fingers through her hair.
At least this argument was different from previous ones. “The option to talk is always on the table. You never have to let it gnaw at you.”
She narrowed her eyes and pursed her lips. “What makes you think this is okay?”
This wasn’t. Whatever was going on here was far from acceptable. “Because you said it is. You told me over and over, for years, that you enjoy it. The naughtiness. The kink.”
“What if I want something else?”
“Then tell me what that is.” His calm and creeping arousal vanished in a cloud of frustration.
“What if it’s boring and simple? Like confirmation you’re here with me, not simply using me while you fantasize about someone else. And don’t you dare talk to me about kink. What would all your squealing fans think if they knew Mr. Master-of-Tentacle-Porn art has only ever seen one pair of tits in person?”
That was a low blow. “Sorry to be so hands-on boring. Is that what this is about? You want sex to be more real?”
“I don’t know what I want.” She turned her gaze to the carpet. “I just know it’s not this.” She stood and brushed past him.
He grabbed her arm. “No. We don’t do this. Walking away isn’t us. We talk things through.” Except, apparently what they actually did was pretend to talk and brush everything under the rug until it became a festering wound.
“And that’s all we do.” The frustration in her words reflected that spilling through him. “Talk and talk and talk.”
“And fuck. And have fun. And enjoy each other’s company. And make an amazing team. How is that not enough for you?”
She wrenched free of his grip. “It’s not. I can’t be here right now.”
He clenched his jaw until it ached, and still barely checked the desire to have the last word. If she wasn’t going to finish the conversation, there was no point in chasing her down. The door closed behind Chloe. She’d never done that before. Almost ten years together, and neither of them ever walked away in the middle of a disagreement. Fuuuuuck! The scream echoed in his head, digging for an outlet and not finding one.
Chloe sat at the hotel bar, blinking back the tears and trying to ignore the sting in her throat. She hadn’t wanted to pick a fight with Jordan, it just came out that way. He must think she was nuts, going from zero to pissed off in a matter of seconds.
When he started down the familiar path of fantasy though, it dove straight to her insecurities. All the questions that had taunted her for months that she couldn’t put words to finally had a form. Was there more to them than just talking about being adventurous? Did he want to be there with her, or was she just a hole while he thought about someone else?
No. She knew the last one wasn’t true.
She hadn’t told him everything. It didn’t make sense until she stormed away. They’d put on this persona for the public for so long, her biggest worry was that what they did behind closed doors was just as much of a show. They never acted on it. Were they just frauds?
She didn’t have any idea what the answers were. It was so much easier to find resolution in angst when she was writing it for game characters.
On top of that, the stress of their looming demo still gnawed at her gut. Even if she had the focus to dive into it to distract herself, she left everything upstairs in her rush to put some distance between her and Jordan. Things wavered between them for months. This trip was going to be their chance to figure it out, and what happened upstairs felt like a revelation. Except she did a shitty job of explaining her logic, and made things worse instead.
She’d been nursing a single Coke and not-crying for almost an hour. She should either find someplace else to clear her head or go back upstairs and… What? She wasn’t ready to face Jordan yet. Didn’t have any idea what to say to him.
Someone sat on the stool next to her, but she ignored them. The bar was full of executives and salespeople here for tomorrow’s show. Most of them recognized Chloe, but if she kept her head down, stared blankly at her phone, and pretended she was doing important work, no one bothered her.
“Are you all right?” A pleasant female voice wove through and disrupted Chloe’s woe-is-me-dom.
Chloe looked up to find a gorgeous pair of blue eyes studying her, attached to an attractive brunette. The woman’s straight hair fell to her shoulders, framing a round face, and she looked about the same height and age as Chloe. Fellow short-girl. Chloe wasn’t sure if she wanted to ask how the woman got her hair not to frizz in this heat and humidity, or tangle her fingers in the dark strands, lock lips, and find out what flavor drink the stranger had.
Chloe shook the random impulse aside and tried to summon a smile. I’m dandy. The sarcastic retort slid into Chloe’s skull. I’m sitting out here because my boyfriend and I are fighting over you. Well, not you specifically, but the concept of lusting after people who aren’t us. How fucked up is that? “I’m good.”
“If you’re sure…” The woman fiddled with her wine glass. Even in the dimly lit bar, she looked immaculate. Jeans without a crease, a sweater that probably cost more than Chloe’s entire T-shirt collection, and not a single hair out of place. If she was with the E3 group, she was working for a company in such a different league from Rinslet, Chloe had probably never heard of them. “I’m Liz, by the way. I’m sorry to crash your night, but”—she gazed around the room—“I thought I was in the mood for company, and I’m not.”
Chloe furrowed her brow and studied her. “Chloe. And how does that make sense?” At least the strange statement gave her a new place to focus.
“I was going to go back to my room, but it’s too quiet up there. Which is confusing, I realize. I can’t explain it. I want people around, but not to have to talk to them.”
“But you’re talking to me. Not that I mind, but it disrupts the concept of not having company.”
“I was over there”—Liz nodded at the other end of the bar—“and people kept trying to talk to me. No one’s approaching you. Or rather, they start to, and then they stop. I was hoping if I sat next to you, they’d leave me alone too. Not that I understand why they’re steering clear of you. You’re cute.”
Chloe’s cheeks heated. When was the last time such a simple compliment caught her off guard? When was the last time she got one that sounded sincere? “I’m also scowling. And most of these guys see me as one of the boys.” The reality of the words jarred her and soured in her gut.
“I see.” Liz fiddled with her left ring finger, making twisting motions though there was no jewelry. “Do you mind if I sit here anyway? And if you want to talk, I’m happy to listen. You look like maybe you could use a friend.”
Chloe had friends—an office full of guys who got her quirks and loved gaming as much as she did. And who were also Jordan’s friends. It was as if her job at Rinslet made up her entire adult life. “You said you didn’t want to talk.”
“This is a thank you for passively saving me from everyone else.”
Chloe smiled. “You’re welcome to join me.”
“Do you want another drink? God, that sounds like I’m hitting on you. I just noticed you made that glass last a long time.” Liz waved the bartender over.
How long had Liz been watching her? Chloe wasn’t a big drinker on most occasions, but especially not during the week. “They don’t have anything on tap I like. My red of choice is fizzy, full of sugar, and comes in twelve-ounce cans.”
“And they’re all out of Code Red? The horror of it.” Liz’s wink and accompanying smirk were enough to make Chloe smile. Liz looked at the bartender. “Another glass of the house red for me.”
Chloe looked at the bottles lining the wall. “On second thought, I’ll have the same.” Maybe it would knock loose whatever was stuck in her head. Or clear out the stubbornness keeping her from going upstairs.
Seconds later, two glasses were placed in front of them. Chloe hesitated, not sure what came next. She felt like a little girl, out of her element, and wasn’t sure why. It probably had something to do with the attractive, elite woman, sitting next to her as if this were the most natural thing in the world. An awkward silence descended between them, as they sipped slowly not making eye contact. Chloe racked her brain for words of any sort.
“Are you here with them?” When Liz spoke, it startled Chloe. “You said most of these men know you. I apologize; I’m new to the industry. So if you’re one of the voice actors or something…”
At least she didn’t ask if Chloe was a booth babe. “I’m Senior Vice President of Community and Writing for Rinslet Enterprises.”
“Wow.” Liz’s surprise sounded genuine. “They’re huge, aren’t they?”
Chloe wasn’t sure if she was grateful or a little wounded her title didn’t carry more weight here. Was she trying to impress this woman? “We make a lot of games.”
Liz fiddled with her glass. “I didn’t realize.”
“It’s okay. I can’t tell you who the rock stars of the investment world are, either.” Chloe took a sip of her wine. It was sweeter than she expected. Pleasant. She drained the rest of the glass before she realized what she was doing. “But I promise, we’re popular. My brother-in-law is part owner of the company, which has everything and nothing to do with why we’re here.”
“Oh.” Liz’s enthusiasm vanished in a flash. “Be careful with that.”
Defensiveness spilled through Chloe. She wasn’t in the mood to defend the fact she earned her job. “It’s not like it’s favoritism.”
“What? No, I didn’t mean that at all. I bet you’re crazy talented, but working for family can be complicated.”
The praise warmed Chloe’s cheeks. Or it was the wine—she wasn’t sure. “He’s been my boss longer than he’s been part of the family.” It wasn’t completely true. She’d always reported to his business partner. She’d also spent most of her career proving her job was based on her merits, and that she didn’t beg it from Zach, in some sort of pity bid.
“Then never mind.” Liz finished her drink.
“No fair backing out after a statement like that. You have to explain yourself.”
Liz shook her head, but she was smiling. She waved the bartender over again. “More?”
“Sure.” Chloe held out her glass.
At Liz’s prompting, and with an extra twenty slid in his direction, he filled both fuller than before, then left them alone.
Liz took a long sip. “It’s not really an interesting story. I work with family, so I have some experience.”
Chloe shifted on her seat to get comfortable, and for a moment her head spun. Did she eat dinner? It didn’t matter. A single glass of wine or two wouldn’t impact her that strongly, and it wasn’t as if she had to drive home. “I’ll show you mine if you show me yours.” She giggled. Maybe she did need to lay off the wine.
Liz’s laugh erased more of Chloe’s hesitation. “I’d like to see that,” Liz said. “My best friend and my brother… Actually, it’s kind of convoluted.”
“Try me. You might think it’s simple to plot a video game, until you have to figure out how many permutations there are for Character A to piss off Character B and still accomplish their goal.” Chloe took a large swallow of her drink.
“Here goes, then. My best friend hired me to keep her books. Then she became business partners with my brother and got engaged to him…”
“Awkward.” Chloe’d been there. Not quite like that, but close enough.
“More than you realize. When they were dating, I didn’t want to see them get hurt. Either of them. Which meant keeping them apart. At least I thought it did. So, temporary flash of insanity or insecurity or self-realization—whatever you want to call it—I kissed her and told her I loved her.”
Okay, so Chloe hadn’t made a mistake like that. “Do you?” How was it this simple conversation with a total stranger made Chloe more relaxed than she’d been in weeks? Months?
“I adore her more than almost anything, but not romantically. She’s pretty, though. Adventurous. Amazing.”
“I want to be like that.” The words came out sadder than Chloe intended, and she shook the melancholy aside. “How amazing would that be? I mean—pretty, adventurous. Doing whatever sounds like a good idea at the time.”
“Aren’t you already?” Liz studied her. “You’re attractive. You’re letting an almost total stranger hit on you in a bar. It has to count somewhere on the putting-yourself-out-there scale.”
Hit on her? The off-the-cuff remark warmed Chloe’s cheeks further. They had to be scorched red by this point. “I’m all talk.”
“That’s where it starts, isn’t it? You have to be able to imagine it, before you can do it?”
Chloe didn’t want to wander down any path that related to what she could imagine versus the things she’d actually done. That led back to the fight with Jordan, and… When did she finish her drink? “Anyway. Siblings suck. So do their partners. And your best friend? She missed out. I think you’re gorgeous.” Open mouth, insert foot. Way to go, Chloe. She snapped her jaw shut before she could make fool of herself.
If the compliment and rambling bothered Liz, it didn’t show in her smile. “Thank you. The feeling’s mutual.”
Wow, the conversation got personal fast. How did they go from talking about working for family to sexuality? “Without a doubt. And I still say she’s missing out. I’d make out with you in a heartbeat.” Damn it. Where did that come from?”
“I just kissed her. It wasn’t like we found a dark corner and groped each other.”
“You have to start somewhere.” Chloe leaned closer, using the bar top for support, and paused with her face inches from Liz’s. The soft scent of lilacs mixed with liquor teased her, and she searched Liz’s eyes, unsure what she was looking for. She leaned in and pressed her lips to Liz’s. Her heart stalled when the gesture wasn’t returned, but then Liz kissed back. Chloe’s pulse whimpered and raced in response, spilling through her, tingling in her fingers and toes, and spreading along her skin.
Liz settled a palm on her cheek, and Chloe sank into the softness of skin on skin, smooth lips, a hungry mouth…
Something clattered in the background, and someone laughed. Jordan. Chloe jerked back, eyes wide and heart hammering against her ribs. “I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have done that. I’m seeing someone. I should have said that up front. Christ, I’m sorry.”
“No. It’s okay. I mean, attached? Of course you are. I don’t expect—” Liz caught her bottom lip between her teeth.
Chloe stood and wobbled before finding her balance. “I need to get back to my room.”
“Can you make it okay?”
Chloe started to nod, then thought better of it. “I’m fine.”
Liz walked her to the elevator. Chloe wasn’t sure what else to say, so she mumbled, “Thank you,” when she reached on her floor. Fortunately, her room wasn’t far. As she slid the key-card into the lock, she turned and saw the doors slide shut, blocking Liz from view.
Chloe slipped inside. It was dark, and silence rushed in to envelope her. She wasn’t gone that long, was she? A glance at the clock on the microwave told her it was after eleven. Apparently she really was gone a while.
She padded to the bedroom off the main suite. As she reached the doorway, Jordan rolled onto his side, away from her, and pulled the comforter tighter over himself.
Her gut clenched. “Jordan?” she forced his name out. “Can we talk?”
He didn’t answer. Frustration welled inside with guilt and too much alcohol on an empty stomach. Chloe undressed and slipped into bed. Was it too melodramatic to think of this as the day they fell apart?