The breath left her lungs as she said the words. She’d practiced them a dozen times, but there was a massive difference between talking to her own reflection and saying them aloud to the man of her dreams.
Lori lifted her chin and forced herself not to fidget. She was a professional. In theory, anyway. She could survive this.
“What did you say?”
She shivered as Jackson’s deep, velvety voice rolled over her.
“I quit,” she said again, proud when her voice didn’t waver. “I’d offer to give two weeks’ notice, but I doubt either of us wants to draw this out. Better if I leave today and make a clean break. I already have a few candidates for my replacement in mind.”
The man behind the desk said nothing as he studied her. How many times had she been on the receiving end of that piercing blue stare?
I can take it one last time.
Because after today, she’d no longer be an employee of Sinclair Enterprises and she’d never again have the intensity of the CEO’s gaze centered on her.
Chin up, shoulders back. Can’t crack now.
She wouldn’t waver when it had taken so long to finally pull the trigger.
Lori was the perfect executive assistant. Calm in a crisis, prepared for anything, ready to jump in at a moment’s notice. For years, she’d worked alongside Jackson Sinclair, the genius who controlled a billion-dollar empire. Years of seeing him flash his smile as he closed deals for amounts that made her mind boggle. Years of being his patient shadow, ready with all the information he could possibly need at her fingertips. Years of watching him look at everyone but her.
And she was done.
I deserve more than being the afterthought of a wealthy man.
But while that was all true, it didn’t prepare her for the reality of standing in front of him, telling him she was walking out of his life forever.
I should have done this in an email. Or with an HR army at my back. Coming alone was a mistake.
Jackson rose slowly to his feet. He rounded the desk, buttoning his black Armani jacket as he moved toward her. The damned thing fit his body as if it’d been made for him. Which, knowing Jackson, it probably had.
It always seemed utterly unfair to her that he’d been blessed with a brain that never stopped and a body that drew every eye in the vicinity to him. How many times had she wanted to brush the dark hair back from his eyes or cup that chiseled jaw?
Even in her heels she’d have to stand on her tiptoes to reach those full lips. And how she’d wanted to. Far too many fantasies had played out on an endless loop in her head. Ones where she’d trip and he’d catch her, pulling her up against that rock-hard chest. Or better yet, she’d lean over him to look at a briefing only to find herself pulled onto his lap.
Or skip the pretense all together. Just lock the door, pop the blouse, and see where the afternoon takes us.
They’d been good fantasies. Her faithful companions for years, really. They’d been the reason she hadn’t moved on when other opportunities had presented themselves. The reason she’d turned down invitations to dinner from men much closer to her league.
They were the reason she couldn’t leave him.
“If it’s about money—”
She laughed, cutting him off. “It’s not.”
“Then what? You have to admit this is sudden.”
But it’s not. If you’d ever paid any attention to me, you would have seen this coming.
“It’s time I moved on,” she replied. “I don’t want to be your assistant forever.”
He shrugged. “Then pick a job. We can find you a different position if you aren’t feeling fulfilled. What do you want?”
You. I want you. A lifetime with you.
But those weren’t words she could say. She knew him better than anyone did, and that particular confession would send him sprinting from the room. She was not the woman for Jackson, and it was time she faced that truth.
“I want to leave,” she said. “Please let me go.”
He stopped before her, those icy blue eyes seeing far more than she ever wanted him to. “I don’t let important things slip away without a fight.”
Things. Not people. I’m just an accessory to him.
Her heart cracked a little more even as she lifted her chin higher. She could do this. She just needed to focus and remember the hours she’d spent practicing. Sure, her mirror might not have been the greatest stand-in for Jackson, but the basic routine was still the same.
Say your speech and get the hell out of Dodge. Enough of this.
“It’s time for me to branch out and tackle new challenges,” she said, the words rote. “I will always appreciate my time here and the skills I’ve learned. I thank you for many good years at Sinclair Enterprises. It will be hard to leave it behind.”
“Then why are you going?”
“Because I’m moving forward with my life and no longer feel that the goals of the company and my personal endeavors align as they once did.”
“Stop it.” He touched her then, his hand cupping her arm as he pulled her closer. “Stop talking to me like I’m HR.”
Her heart beat faster as she stared up at him.
“You’ve stood by my side for years. We’ve holed up in this office working till dawn more times than I can count. Don’t you think you owe me more than this?”
“This is a job, and I’ve given my notice. That’s all there is to say.”
His gaze dropped to the hand touching her arm. She waited in silence as he processed her words and did her best not to let his nearness divert her attention.
Focus. Ignore that scent of his. What is it, Eau de Torture by Calvin Klein?
“Whatever is wrong, I can fix it,” he said at last, those eyes returning to hers.
“No, you can’t,” she whispered. He couldn’t be someone he wasn’t. She’d never want him to try. This wasn’t on him. It was her stupid heart that had crossed professional boundaries. Her ridiculous crush that was driving her away from the best position she’d ever had.
But if she didn’t go now, she’d be stuck wasting her life while she watched him from the sidelines, and that scared her more than anything else.
An expression she couldn’t name raced across his face before it was gone so fast she wasn’t even sure whether it had just been her imagination.
Her breath caught in her throat. He’d never looked at her the way he was now. There was a healthy dose of disbelief, but there was also something else. A desperation, almost, to make her stay. People didn’t walk away from the Sinclairs. Not without a damned good explanation, and what could she say?
“Sorry, I’ve fallen hopelessly in love with you and I don’t think that will lead to a productive working environment.”
They didn’t exactly make Hallmark cards for sentiments like that.
Steeling herself against the hardest thing she’d ever had to do, she stepped away from his touch.
“I’m sorry,” she said. “I really am. But I’m not staying. All my projects have been either wrapped up or passed off to the right people. A temp is already in my office and my top interview picks are scheduled to come in tomorrow during your mid-morning lull, so it shouldn’t take too much of your time. You’ll be fine without me.”
“Have you been headhunted to another company?” he demanded. “Is that it? Running off to join my rivals?”
“Never,” she breathed.
He paced around her. “None of this makes any sense.”
Maybe, but you’re not the person who needs to be okay with this decision. I am. “I don’t have anything else to say.”
“No, you came in here with your bland, practiced lines that don’t say anything at all and expected me to, what? Shake your hand and wish you well?”
She held out her hand to him. “Yes.”
He eyed her outstretched palm like it was a snake. “Like hell.”
“Give me a damn reason.”
With a sigh, she let her hand drop. Closing the distance to him, she allowed herself one tiny slip. Rising to her toes, she brushed the lightest of kisses to his cheek, closing her eyes for the briefest of moments, before stepping back.
“I’ll never forget our time together or the work we accomplished. And I know with all my heart that you will be fine. This is a very small bump in the road for you and you’ll be back on your feet by next week with a new assistant who’s even better than I am. Promise.”
“There’s no one better.”
Her heart twisted. “Just wait and see,” she whispered. “You’ll forget all about me in no time.”
Truer words had never been spoken. It was just too bad she’d spend a lifetime remembering him.
With a last long look, she turned and walked from the office.
In a daze, she made her way back to her desk and grabbed her purse and the last packed-up box. The rest were already in her trunk. She’d said her goodbyes and exchanged tearful hugs with the other EAs. There was nothing left to keep her here.
Her throat was tight as she rode the elevator down to the parking garage. She managed to keep it together almost all the way to her car. But the moment she sat behind the wheel there was no stopping the torrent of tears that came from a broken heart.
She’d done it. She was free.
And for the first time in years, she was well and truly alone.
Throwing her box into the passenger seat, she dropped her head to the steering wheel and sobbed as if her heart had been ripped from her chest.
Go home. Get out of here and fall apart in the comfort of your own apartment. That’s where the wine lives.
Wine sounded like the very best idea she’d ever had.
Lifting her head, she glanced at herself in the overhead mirror and grimaced. There was no saving the mascara streaked down her face. Brushing at it in a halfhearted attempted to remove the smudges, she fished her keys from her purse and started the car.
Time to leave.
I have get away. To put as much distance as I possibly can between me and Jackson.
Then maybe she could get over him and heal. They’d just been a victim of their circumstances. That was all. It wasn’t his fault he’d never been attracted to her any more than it was hers for falling for the wrong guy.
She’d put a city between them and everything would work out. Life would go back to being normal once again.
Her tires squealed as she took a corner faster than she should have.
Slow down. Breathe.
The exit was almost there. She could see the sun shining beyond Sinclair Enterprises. She was so close.
Until a man stepped into her path.
Lori slammed the brakes but it was too little too late. Her car crashed into the man, sending his body tumbling over the hood before he disappeared off the side.
“Oh God, oh God, oh God,” she chanted as she finally pulled a car to a halt and jumped out. She ran over to the prone figure laying on the ground with his back to her.
“Please be alive,” she begged. “Please don’t let me have just killed a man.”
Gripping his shoulder, she gently rolled him over and bit back a cry.
She hadn’t plowed into just anyone. No, the man she’d had to go and mow down with her car was the very person she was trying to escape.
“Oh God. Jackson. What have I done?”