Zane’s space mobile pulls up to the front of the Core complex, his flammable eyes breaking from its windshield to land on my profile.


“Don’t forget your package,” he muses, gesturing to Michaela’s ‘Valentine’s Day present’ with an opulent, pointed stare.


My cheeks incinerate themselves all over again, my mouth going arid at the emphasis.


It’s official.


I’m never, ever getting over this.


I doubt he’ll let me.


All I know is I sure as fuck won’t be telling Michaela. Without a doubt, she’d never let me live it down for as long as I do. Plus, it’ll only lead to a whole other line of questioning that I’m not in the slightest bit prepared to deal with.


“A car will come to pick you up at eight,” are his parting words. He doesn’t elaborate or say anything else. All I can do is nod. Solemnly. Anxiously.


I head inside as he pulls away, hauling shopping bags that probably cost more to produce than my entire wardrobe put together—never mind what’s in them.


After a much-needed, cold-ish shower, I exit the bathroom, wishing I could let the water pummel tension from my muscles a little longer. But guilt of hydro waste won’t allow that luxury, not to mention, if I don’t get out now, I’ll probably end up locking myself inside and staying there for the rest of the night.


Tentatively, I take out the dress from its box, trying not to think about its currently absent price tag. I slip into it again, now in the privacy of my temporary home with no eyes but mine to watch. It practically molds itself to my body, gliding over every contour perfectly, looking even better than it did in the store.


It’s actually…sexy.


Which, kind of makes me feel sexy; a novel sentiment.


I’ve never been one for visual propensity—on myself or others. But now, I can’t help but indulge a little.


I actually contemplate wearing makeup, a thing that virtually never crosses my mind, save for the occasional mascara or lip gloss reserved for important and special events.


Hannah’s fundraiser was the first time I’ve worn lipstick in years, and the very first time I ever did in red. For a split second, I tinker with the idea of something bold. Daring.


The vanity is short-lived, however. This is my debut date and, while born of a charitable act, makes me incontestably skittish. The absolute last thing I need is to bring more attention to myself.


Matte and muted is more fitting, I decide. Appropriate.


Besides, even if I did want to get done up a little more than usual, I don’t actually own a lot of makeup. I’d have stopped by the apartment and asked Michaela for some of hers after the fundraiser, but I clearly wasn’t thinking that far ahead.


Hell, I wasn’t thinking at all.


How could I?


My brain was fried to a crisp; still reeling from the voice inside it, echoing a one hundred thousand dollar bid for a date by a man I wish I wasn’t so captivated by.


I can’t believe I’m actually about to go on said date.


I check my watch.


Christ, it’s already seven-thirty!


I spent longer in the shower than I realized.


I crank the wall-attached blow dryer to full blast, allowing the continuous gust of hot air to attack my locks as I flip and tousle like a madwoman, imploring them to dry quickly. Thanks to the superior styling tool, it only takes a few minutes.


I pull the now voluminous mane back, securing it in a full, frayed bun; flirty yet formal. This is still my boss, after all.


I slide into the heels, instantly recalling the sensation of large hands on my ankles. I can’t stop from reminiscing in spite of myself. The weight of his grip. His measured pace. The way his skin lingered…


Even now, long after the act, my cheeks flush at the memory. Absently, I tuck my bottom lip between my teeth, drifting into a momentary daze, my fingers grazing where his had, trailing the circumference above my feet as I admire them in shoes I’d never wear, let alone own.


I seriously have no idea how I’m going to pay him back for these. Or the dress. Despite his insistence-slash-nonchalance, I still feel one hundred percent wrong for taking either. Charity or not.


It doesn’t matter that he can more than afford them. I’ve never been on board with the idea of accepting arguably amorous presents from someone you’re not dating. Then again…I’ve never actually dated anyone. Still, while this is technically a date, we’re not actually going out.


Not to mention, I have zero interest in violating any fraternization policies, and certainly not with the head guy, within or outside of our workpla—


A sharp ring cuts through my thoughts, forcing my attention to its source. The pseudo-landline calls out a second time, a red light blinking atop its body.


“There’s a car outside waiting for you,” Hank informs when I pick up.


My heart clamors at the news, but I manage to croak, “Thank you. I’ll be right down.”


My skin prickles anew as I grab my clutch, my eyes darting around frantically, hoping I haven’t forgotten anything I might need.


With skyrocketing nerves, I pack on some more deodorant, figuring I’m going to need the extra protection given how profusely I tend to sweat whenever Zane is within a hundred-mile radius. Impulsively, I toss in a toothbrush and breath mints at the last minute.


Part of me feels absolutely ludicrous for doing so. I’m definitely not preparing for any lip-locking or anything even remotely close, but I don’t want to have any more reason to feel self-conscious around him.


His existence alone does more than enough of that all by itself.


I rush downstairs even as my mind urges me to stall, finding the task tedious in brand new stilettos attached to fraying legs.


A limousine stretches out in front of the entrance, obscenely long and luxe and conspicuous.


Edgar stands posted beside the all-black vehicle in a matching suit, bowing politely.


“Good evening, ma’am,” he offers a customary smile, opening the hindmost door.


I return it, the familiarity of his face and amiable disposition easing my nerves slightly, bringing some much-needed relief and a quick time-out before I have to face his regular and my anxiety soars all over again.


I slide into the rear, greeted by leather seats, plasma touch screens, two floating mini bars and ample leg room.


The definition of ‘excess’.


A bottle of champagne sits in a bucket of ice across from me. A set of flutes lie adjacent to it, perched on top of a compartmentalized, ottoman-like thing.


I eye the display, growing more and more inclined to have a glass—or the whole damn bottle.


For all my aversion to alcohol—even in stressful situations—every single time I’ve been driven to liquor up, Atlas Zane was involved in the process, somehow. It’s still crazy to think that, for someone who pretty much never drinks, I was hung over only two weeks ago.


On a Friday just like this.




Not like this.


Nothing like this.



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