Her eyes flashed. “You are the most—” She broke off suddenly, evidently realizing what she was saying.
He was suppressing a smile as he asked, “What was that? What am I?”
She just glared at him.
“The best boss ever, to arrange for a massage for you? Please don’t thank me for that. It’s just part of my generous nature.”
Eric enjoyed the memory of Julie’s frustrated expression for a few minutes after she left to go down to the spa. In three weeks, he hadn’t succeeded in provoking as much of a reaction from her as he had today, and he still didn’t understand why she’d cracked a little this afternoon.
But after a few minutes of chuckling to himself and thinking through what was going on in her head, he got worried about tomorrow again and sat stewing about it for over an hour, until Julie came back to the suite.
Relieved to have a distraction from his worries, he asked, “How was it?”
“It was fine,” she said rather primly.
“That’s it? Just fine?”
“It was good. Thank you for arranging it.”
He let out a huff of amusement. “You’ve decided to behave yourself again, haven’t you?”
“I always behave myself.”
He shook his head. “I wonder.”
“Is it all right if I take a shower?” she asked. “I’m covered with all the oils they used. We can do the emails afterward.”
“That’s fine. I’m going to order room service. What do you want?”
“Oh, anything. I don’t need anything expensive.”
He was a little disappointed by her response to the massage. He had been hoping to hear more about what she’d thought.
Now that he’d had time to consider it, it wasn’t really surprising that she’d never had a massage. She didn’t appear to be a woman who indulged herself, except maybe in the occasional pretty nightgown. She’d spent years putting her life on hold to take care of her parents. He wondered if it was only selflessness that had prompted it or maybe something else.
He still didn’t feel like he’d gotten a handle on her, even after a little more than three weeks. It was frustrating, since he could usually size people up in the space of an hour or less.
She was a mystery, and he still hadn’t solved her.
He wanted to, though. More and more.
In a half hour she came back out to the sitting room wearing a pair of knit leggings and a tunic top. Unfortunately, the top was long and loose, so it hid the most interesting parts of her body.
“The food should be here in a few minutes,” he said.
“Good.” She sat down on the couch near him, picking up the laptop again. “Shall we go through more of those emails?”
“Nah. I don’t feel like it now.”
He felt restless and impatient and anxious whenever he thought about tomorrow, and he didn’t like how helpless it made him feel. He’d found the specialist at Duke. He’d been confident that the doctor would be able to find out what was wrong with Maddy and fix it. He didn’t know this new specialist, and he didn’t like his daughter being passed along like this.
“Okay. What shall we do?”
He supposed if he said they should have mad, passionate sex, she probably wouldn’t work for him anymore. Instead he stretched out his good leg, rubbing the thigh, and said, “Tell me about the massage.”
She sighed. “It was fine. I already told you.”
“But fine doesn’t tell me anything. Did you enjoy it?”
“Yes. For the most part. Some of it was painful.”
“Yeah, but that’s the best part.”
Her cheeks flushed slightly, which was intriguing. He had no idea what she was thinking about that had triggered the reaction. He was certainly capable of double entendre, but he hadn’t been making one at that moment.
He let it slide, since he knew she’d never admit to whatever she’d been thinking of. Instead he said, “You should do more for yourself.”
“What do you mean?” She didn’t look offended, the way she had before. She looked almost curious.
“I mean you should do more nice things, just for yourself. You don’t have massages. You don’t get your hair done. You don’t get your nails done. You don’t buy a lot of nice clothes.”
“My clothes are fine.”
He chuckled. “Sorry. Didn’t mean to insult. But I meant do something for yourself that’s more than just
. That you really enjoy. Why don’t you indulge yourself?”
“I know this is something you have trouble understanding, but I don’t think indulging yourself is the main purpose of existing.”
“And you think I do?”
“No,” she said, stepping back from her previous comment, as if she thought he might be offended. “Just that you do indulge yourself a lot.”
“Why shouldn’t I?”
She gave a little shrug. “I don’t know. Nothing’s wrong with it. But I don’t have the resources you have, and if I spent too much time indulging myself, I would feel…a little selfish.”
“You think it’s selfish to take care of yourself?”
“I do take care of myself. I was talking about indulging myself.”
She was being serious. Absolutely serious. Her eyes were holding his, as if she was trying to express something real to him.
It was strangely exciting, for her to open up to him that way—about anything. He wasn’t going to let the conversation slide back to their normal interaction. “But there’s a point, isn’t there, where focusing your energy so much on other people means you’re giving them all the power over your life.”
She frowned and shook her head. “I don’t care that much about power.”
“Yes, you do.” He was thinking deeply, trying to put his thoughts into words. “You care about giving up power, just going with whatever happens to you. I wonder if it’s a way of never really taking risks.”
She gasped, her eyes flashing briefly. “I do take risks. You think coming to work for you wasn’t a risk for me?”
He gave a half shrug. “Maybe. But not really. You agreed to very specific terms for a short period of time. You signed a contract, so you were protected. It wasn’t a real risk.” He gazed at her face, feeling the strangest sense of entitlement, of protection, as he looked at her—as if she had become his responsibility. “For once, you should try letting someone in, I mean really in, to your most secret inner life you keep completely private. That will be a real risk.”
For a moment she really heard him and understood him. He saw her expression change, as if his words had made an impact.
Then her head snapped up. “Look who’s talking.”
“What do you mean?”
“How often do you let people in? You go through life trying to take all the power, and I guarantee it’s for the exact same reason.”
“I don’t take power.”
She laughed softly. “You really believe that, don’t you?”
He frowned, feeling a surprising wave of self-consciousness as he tried to think through his life. “I don’t. I mean, I know I yell a lot and order people around, but I’m not really a bad guy.”
“I know you’re not a bad guy. I didn’t mean you take power in order to treat people badly. But you still try to control everything.”
He wondered if she was right. He’d never even thought about it before.
He had no idea what to say, and what he wanted to say was making him uncomfortable, so he was relieved when there was a knock on the door.
Room service was here. The server came in and set up the food and wine on the table. The table setting was complete with flower arrangement and candles.
Eric had not requested the romantic trappings, but he was used to this sort of treatment, so he wasn’t even surprised.
He signed the check and was startled when, after the server left, Julie asked, “Did they think we’re a couple or something?” Her cheeks were slightly flushed.
She was startlingly lovely in the candlelight. Eric almost lost his breath as he wheeled over to his place at the table. “Who knows what they think? What does it matter? Eat your food before it gets cold.”
He sounded more brusque than he’d intended, but it evidently made Julie feel better. Her expression composed itself, and she sat down across from him at the table.
Julie couldn’t remember the last time she’d been out on a romantic date—a genuinely romantic date, rather than what she had with Ned.
Not that she was on a date now, of course, but it kind of felt that way, with the candlelight, the flowers, the lovely silver tray covers, and Eric’s handsome face across the table from her.
For a few moments, she let herself imagine that that was what this was—a date with Eric Vincent. She tried to conjure up an approximation of how she might feel, if it were really happening.
The fantasy lasted only a few moments.
“This steak is overdone,” Eric said, shaking his head after he cut into it.
“Do you want to call down and get them to bring you another?”
“Nah. Not worth the effort.”
She checked her steak. Eric had ordered for her—getting one of the most expensive things on the menu for her instead of something inexpensive, as she’d requested—and he’d rightly guessed that she preferred her steak to be cooked medium. Hers was nicely pink inside. “Do you want mine?”
“No. It’s fine.”
“Well, you obviously aren’t pleased with your steak.”
He frowned at her, shadows flickering on his face from the candlelight. “I can eat a slightly overdone steak without falling apart, you know.”
She managed to hide a smile. “Okay. That’s good to know.”
He gave her a suspicious look, as if he could tell she was trying not to laugh at him. “I suppose your boyfriend never complains about his steak when he plans a romantic meal for you.”
She was so surprised by the comment that she almost choked on a bite of potato. She knew he was curious about Ned—probably just because he was slightly bored, was used to knowing everything, and didn’t like anything kept from him—but she’d assumed she was the only one inspired by the table setting to think about romantic dates.
“Well?” Eric prompted when she didn’t say anything.
She reached for her glass of red wine and took a slow sip to stall. Then she answered, “He’s never yet complained about his steak.”
“We’ve gone out some. I wouldn’t say it’s serious.”
His face relaxed slightly. “Really? Why not?”
“It takes a while to know whether you want to be serious with someone, doesn’t it?”
“Uh, yeah.” He gave her a little smile. “So he does take you on romantic dates, then?”
“We go out. He doesn’t spend a fortune on dinner, like this meal must have cost. He doesn’t have that kind of money.” She wasn’t sure why she was defending Ned to Eric. She wasn’t even very excited about Ned. He was just a nice guy who had happened to ask her out.
But it felt like Eric was trying to get the upper hand in some way, and she didn’t want to let him do it.
“What’s your dream date?” he asked, still working on his steak. It must not have been too overdone, since it was quickly disappearing.
“What do you mean?”
“Your dream date,” he repeated.
The first thing that popped into her head was him. Eric. Whether she wanted it to be that way or not, he had somehow become her dream date.
“I mean, what kind of date would make you most excited?”
“You mean a person I’d go out with?”
“No. The date itself. The most romantic date you can think of. What would it look like?”
“That’s a strange question.”
“Is it? I’ve asked a lot of women the same question, and it’s always interesting and informative to hear the answers.”
She let out a little sigh. Nice to know she was just one in a line of a lot of other women. “I don’t know.”
“Yes, you do. Tell me.”
She gave him an annoyed look.
“Why won’t you tell me?” he asked, looking amused and interested and infuriatingly adorable. “Is it that embarrassing?”
“No, it’s not embarrassing. It’s not really that unusual, probably.” There was no reason not to tell him the truth, and he would just pester her until he got an answer. “I always used to dream of going on a romantic picnic.”
His eyes widened. “Seriously?”
“Yeah. Not just a regular picnic, though. It would be in the evening, and there would be candles and music and china and crystal champagne glasses. And we’d sit where we overlooked some beautiful vista. I can’t tell you how many times I imagined that date when I was younger.”
“Who were you with, in your fantasies?”
“I never really knew. The guy was always faceless.” She laughed when Eric looked surprised. “Seriously. He was always just some attractive, faceless guy. What I was daydreaming about was the experience itself and how I’d feel.”
She leaned back in her chair, exhaling slowly as the discussion conjured up so many memories. “I’d spend a long time planning out all the details. And it always ended up being very convoluted, because I’m practical like my mother, and I kept thinking of complications. What would we do about the bugs? How would we get all the dishes and glasses there without breaking? What kind of food could we have that wouldn’t end up all over our shirts?” She laughed. “Eventually, I’d get so caught up in the practicalities that the romantic feelings would vanish. I guess that’s the way it happens in real life too.”
“You think so?”
“Yeah. Don’t tell me you’re a secret romantic.”
“Of course not,” he said, cocking an eyebrow at her.
“So what’s your dream date?”
He shook his head. “It doesn’t really matter to me, as long as it ends up in the bedroom.”
She gasped indignantly.
“What?” he asked, raising a hand in mock defense. “What did you expect? I’m a guy. You didn’t think I was nurturing daydreams about romantic picnics, did you?”
“No. I didn’t.”
They were silent for a minute. Julie was thinking about what Eric had just told her, and she was also enjoying her food.
Then Eric broke the silence by asking, “So your mom was really practical?”
“Oh, yeah.” Julie smiled, feeling a little bittersweet, thinking about her mother. “She was a mountain girl, Appalachian all the way. Practical, resilient, completely self-sufficient. There were no romantic fantasies in her life—at least, none she’d ever admit to.”