Ash to Steele (10 page)

   “I’m good, but thank you.”  Glancing around the reception area, I’m impressed with the vibrant colors.  

   Prayton makes himself a cup of coffee that makes me rethink my decision as I smell the wonderful hazelnut aroma.  The scent further beckons as he takes a seat next to me.  “My partner decorated the lobby and the offices.  Mr. Steele may be a genius with a myriad of palatable dishes, but he sucks at color schemes.” He wrinkles his nose and winks before taking a sip of his coffee.  “Sam about had a coronary the first time he saw where I worked.  Thankfully, Mr. Steele took my advice and let him spice things up a bit.”

   “He did an amazing job,” I offer sincerely, wondering about how much Breck’s grandfather must trust him in order to allow him to make major decisions on his behalf. 

   Prayton scoots closer to me, nodding his head to the closed door, “He does have a heart buried under his smug ass exterior.  Just thought you should know.”

   A smile curves my lips and I nod gratefully at Prayton, who rewards me with another friendly grin as I tease, “I guess he sucks at showing that, too.”

   Prayton lets out a hearty laugh, “Yeah, but, from what I hear, those are the only two areas where the man is lacking in anything.” His playful gaze turns inquisitive as he studies me.

   My cheeks flame from the silent interrogation before I feverishly shake my head, “I wouldn’t know.”

   Kind green eyes search me before Prayton lets out another loud laugh, “I had you pegged as a smart girl.”

   The door opens and a mixture of male voices pulls me away from the conversation. 

   “Here’s your man,” Prayton winks. 

   “He’s – he’s not my man.  He’s not my anything,” I stumble, my cheeks glowing again. 

     “Sure, honey, anything you say,” Prayton smiles knowingly before taking my hand and helping me stand.  “I’ve seen that look before.”    

   Self-loathing bursts through my veins.  I want to protest any form of interest in Breck, even if it would be a lie.

   “Don’t worry, you’re not like the others.  You seem to have class and a healthy dose of self-respect.  Be forewarned, though, you may be smart, but your head does jackshit to protect your heart.  I just hope your heart can handle his.”

   Prayton’s words swim in my head, making me a little unsteady as Breck takes a step towards me, his tall stature and hard business demeanor intimidating, “Have you eaten yet, Ms. Jones?”

   Ms. Jones? 
So, it is possible for him to be appropriate, even if it is just for show.  “No, I was going to eat after our meeting, Mr. Steele,” I give a little smirk when saying his name.

  Brecks steps closer, intentionally invading my personal space.  Giving a narcissistic smirk of his own, he takes my arm, just above the elbow, and pulls me a little closer, the light dancing in his eyes showing just how much he’s enjoying my discomfort.  “Good.  You can eat now; I’ve moved our meeting to Menton.  You’ll ride with me.”

    Something in his voice warns me to run.  I don’t.  Instead, I dutifully follow him while fuming silently.  I quickly try to calculate how much money I have left after rent and the electric bill that are due tomorrow.  It doesn’t take long to come to the conclusion that I don’t have much, especially not enough to be spending at one of the fanciest restaurants in Boston.  Too bad he didn’t make reservations at a fast food joint.

   “Sorry you had to wait,” Breck’s words are polite, but his tone is cold, as his eyes peruse the length of me while we wait outside for his car to be brought to the front of the building. 

   “Prayton kept me company,” I reply causally, refusing to let his demeanor affect me.  Inwardly, I smile at the approving glint in his eyes at my choice of wardrobe.  “We were discussing the décor.”

   “Ah, yes.  Sam, Prayton’s partner, is an interior decorator.”  Breck leans against the brick wall, his dark gray blazer opening further, showing off his toned abdomen beneath a thin white dress shirt and gray tie. Trying to focus on his lack of colorful choices instead of the sinew outline of his muscles, and a bigger outline evident lower, I give up on the hopeless attempt of distraction.  Who am I kidding?  Breck makes gray and white look like a classical piece of art. 

   Folding his arms, his eyes narrow as he studies me.  A tilted smile spreads across full lips that seem to have the power to control my intake of air.  “Sam is a man.”

   “Yes, Prayton mentioned that,” I state, slightly breathless.

   “He’s Prayton’s partner, as in life partner, not business partner.” His smirk is infuriating.

   “I gathered that,” I respond calmly, pulling myself together.

   “I see, and what exactly do you think of that, preacher’s girl?” Breck smiles tauntingly.

  Stepping closer to Breck, I fix my gaze steadily on his, “What I think is, no matter what someone’s beliefs may be, they should not treat anyone differently because of his or her life and/or religious choice.  There are too many battles waged over differences when everyone deserves be treated with respect.  We are all different.”

   Breck glares at me.  I can feel his anger; it saturates the air. “You make it so damn hard to dislike you!” he yells, pushing away from the wall.  Raking his hand angrily through his hair, he steps closer, his gaze ruthless, punishing. 

   The wind blows wildly, causing my hair to sweep across my face.  Wishing I brought my jacket, I brush the wayward strands away, trying to tame the confusion and all the other unpleasant emotions rioting in me.  Part of me wishes I could read what’s going on behind Breck’s animosity, but, when he steps even closer, his stance beyond intimidating, I change my mind.  Nudging out my jaw, I ask, “That’s a bad thing?”

   Breck takes a wisp of my hair, sliding it between his fingers before releasing it, swearing loudly and backing away.  “Yes!  Yes it’s a bad thing!  It’s a very bad thing, especially when I’m trying like hell not to like you!”

  My cheeks flush.  Anger joins the toxic mix of emotions, and it’s me who steps towards him this time, yelling, “I never asked you to like me!”  Turning on my heel, I start to walk away, but stop.  The wind continues to blow bitterly as I stand motionless, a war raging inside as my conscious is telling me to keep moving, to just forget about the man who can only leave me in heartache, but it’s my foolish heart that compels me to turn back around.  With an angry sigh of frustration, I stare straight into his steely, dark, brooding gaze fixated heatedly on me, “Why?  Why do you not want to like me?”

   “Because you’re a pastor’s daughter.”  His eyes burn through me with his elucidated statement. 

   “You dislike me because of my father’s chosen profession?” I ask, outraged and stunned by the absurdity. 

  “No.  I
want
to dislike you because of your chosen decision to blindly follow his doctrine.” He leans towards me, tense, challenging.  “Have you ever had a mind of your own, or have you always followed his commands like some little puppy?”

   “You don’t know me or my father!” I snap, hurt and angry, but mostly hurt.

   “I know enough about you to see that you are completely lost here.  Jess told me that you moved to Boston because of your paintings, but I think you left because of your boyfriend.  From what I’ve seen, you want to make things happen, but you are too timid to do anything about it. You lived behind your father’s beliefs for so long, you have no clue how to live or feel now that you’re out on your own.  I’ll give you credit, you made the first step towards your own life, but if you never take the next, moving here will mean nothing. You’ve locked yourself in your apartment after work, scared to go out.  The first night at the bar, you couldn’t even finish dancing with that man.”

   “Jess told you that?” I ask, angry at him, at her, and at me for knowing he’s partially right.

   “Only some of it, the rest was easy to figure out on my own.”

   “I didn’t come here to be ridiculed by you,” I state firmly.  “The only reason I’m here is because of the presentation tomorrow night.  I won’t put up with your discordance of the preconceived ideas of who you
think
I am.  I think it’s best you present the design.”

   I turn to go, but Breck’s next words hold me in place, “You want me and that scares the hell out of you.”

   “Right now, I want to be as far away from you as possible,” I seethe, spinning around.

   I stand in front of him, not running like hell when everything inside of me is screaming at me to.  He makes no move to leave, either.  It’s like there’s some twisted game of chicken going on between us and both of us are too childish to lose.

   The attendant parks a sleek black Alfa Romeo at the curb.  “Your car, Mr. Steele,” he states, holding the keys out to him.

   A snide smile spreads across my lips as Breck is once again forced to end the standoff first. 

   “You’re such a brat,” he whispers, all anger vanished as he takes the keys, thanking the attendant and opening the passenger door.  

   His whiplash of emotions leaves me feeling disconcerted.

   “Are you just going to stand there, Ms. Jones?” Breck asks, an imposing smile daring me to go with him.

   “Is this the professional Breck I’m talking with right now, because I don’t know anymore, and I refuse get in the car with the narcissistic, holier-than-thou Breck?” I counter.

   The attendant’s gaze falls, but not before I see his ghost of a smile. 

   “Interesting choice of words, Ms. Jones,” Breck replies coolly, amusement dancing in his eyes, “but I do believe we have a presentation to discuss as mutually agreed upon, unless you no longer want to hand over ownership of the design.”

   I shouldn’t get in the car, which is exactly the reason that I do.

   “What happened to your Hummer?” I ask after a few minutes of awkward silence.

   “This is the company car, a perk of the position,” Breck explains, his words void of the excitement and pride that I would expect out of a man being able to drive such a gorgeous vehicle.  Running my fingers across the cream leather seat, I glance at the dashboard, not recognizing the function of most of the buttons. 

   “Enjoying the luxuries of life?” Breck asks, his gaze unable to decipher as he waits on my response.

   “It’s beautiful, but not my style.  I would be afraid to get it dirty or scratch it,” I answer honestly. 

   “I prefer my Hummer,” he replies simply, staring out the window when we’re stopped at a red light.

   The sky is painted with vibrant hues of pink, orange, and fire red.  My gaze shifts to Breck, watching how the fading sun glimmers against his features. In that moment, witnessing the light dance against his chin, shimmering on the faint stubble left after an early morning shave, his blue eyes ablaze, and the tint of his full lips, dark, forbidden, making me want to feel them against my skin, he is the most breathtaking man I’ve ever seen, and that does scare the hell out of me. 

   He’s doing nothing to purposely intimidate me while he drives, but I’m stricken by his commanding presence.  The way his strong hand rests on the gear shift, how his blazer falls against the seat, leaving a premium view of his chiseled torso, and the masculine girth of his shoulders, arouses me into a fevered candescence.  Heat pulses through my veins, scorching every pore, burning lower, turning into liquid flames. Shifting in my seat, a small gasp escapes before I can squelch it. 

   His eyes lock on mine, igniting the flame into a wildfire. “Emma?” he questions in that deep, smooth voice of his.

   I need out of this car, away from him.  The concern in his eyes is too much, and I turn my gaze towards my window, knowing that what I need is
him
.  I don’t know why, but it doesn’t matter; I just do.  The need to feel him touch me, kiss me, make love to me, burns wildly, and nothing I do seems to be able to quench that need.  This is insanity.  I’ve known him for six days. 
Six days!
I am going insane; there’s no other explanation for the intensity of desire imprisoning me when he’s around. I’ve heard of sexual frustration making people do crazy things but how can I be frustrated from something I’ve never experienced?

   “Emma?” he asks again, his voice sharper this time.

   “Sorry,” I breathe.  “I’m fine, just hungry.” My cheeks flame at my words. 

   “We’re almost there.”

  
Thank goodness

   Less than five minutes later, Breck pulls to the curb and a valet opens my door, helping me out as Breck walks around, placing his hand against the small of my back.  Thanking the valet, I try not to imagine how Breck’s hand would feel pressed against the naked skin of my lower back instead of over my blouse.  We are taken directly to the back of the restaurant to a table covered in fine linen.  I take a moment to glance around the room, admiring the sophisticated atmosphere as Breck orders a bottle of wine in perfect French, piquing my curiosity.

   Pulling out my chair, his hand never leaves my back until I’m lowered onto my seat.

   “Prayton said you are a genius with palatable dishes, are you the head chef at Kylianna’s?”

   “No,” he replies, a faint smile curving his lips. 

   “What do you do there?”

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