After the Island, by Katy Ames

ONE

Sadie pressed her forehead against the small oval window and watched the water dissolve into sand and rough grass beneath her. The dusty brown and gold blurred together before coming to an abrupt stop against the asphalt of the runway. Without lifting her head, Sadie closed her eyes and let the sun warm her through the Plexiglas. Between the somnolent hum of the engines and the heat from outside, she should have felt relaxed. Calm. As she typically did when arriving at one of her events. Even with her mental list of tasks running on repeat she should’ve been composed, her head clear, her nerves at ease. But she wasn’t. Not even close. 

Breathe, Sadie. Breathe.

“Ladies and Gentlemen,” the crackle of the intercom broke through her meditative chant. “On behalf of the pilot and the crew, I’d like to welcome you to Nevis. It is a beautiful day here in the West Indies, a very pleasant eighty degrees. A welcome change for all of you escaping the cold winter weather!”

The flight attendant’s voice had a cheerful lilt to it, friendly, warm, everything that Sadie had come to appreciate about the little island they’d just landed on. But as the plane came to a stop in front of the small airport, Sadie tuned out the woman’s instructions about customs and immigration and began collecting her things. Passport and phone in the outside pocket of her purse. Sweater folded carefully inside. Purse already slung over her shoulder, Sadie had her seatbelt unbuckled and was ready to stand the second the notification bell dinged in the tiny cabin. Despite waiting on the tarmac while the luggage handlers hauled out the gate-checked suitcases, Sadie was through the airport and out into the arrivals area in no time.

“Ms. Carter, welcome back!” It took Sadie only a few seconds to locate the source of the welcome.

“Peter! So nice to see you again.” Sadie embraced the older man who broke through the crowd of taxi drivers. Peter’s mouth cracked into a wide grin, his teeth a bright white against the smooth tan of his skin. Sadie grinned back. He reached for her suitcase but Sadie batted his hand away. “Don’t you dare. You know I am perfectly capable of doing this myself.”

“Yes, Ms. Carter. I do know. Just like you know how Mr. Baker feels about guests handling luggage.”

“Well, I won’t tell Mr. Baker, if you won’t.” Peter lifted one polo-clad shoulder in a shrug, but his smile didn’t dim. “Besides, I’m hardly a guest. Which means you should be calling me Sadie. None of this Ms. Carter business.”

At that Peter released a shout of laughter. “Whatever you say, Ms. Carter.” They made their way across the airport’s small parking lot and Peter opened the rear door of a sleek black sedan.

“Peter,” Sadie lowered her eyes in a teasing glare. “The back, really?”

“Absolutely, Ms. Carter. Mr. Baker might not be here to see you with your luggage, but he will certainly be in the front drive to see you get out of the car. Back seat for you. No arguing.”

“Yes, sir.” Sadie gave him one of her largest smiles and threw her suitcase in the trunk before he could protest. Without another word she slid into the cool darkness, listening to Peter mutter under his breath as he took the driver’s seat.  As Peter eased them out of the parking lot, Sadie opened the window and let the tropical breeze tangle her hair. The fragrant warmth and salty air should have relaxed her. It’s why people came to places like this. An oasis in the middle of the wide blue ocean. She wasn’t on vacation. Nothing like it; but Sadie desperately hoped that the sun would bake away some of the tension that had coalesced over recent months.

“Are you ready for this week, Ms. Carter?”

Sadie released a small sigh before turning her attention back to Peter. “For the most part, yes. The team has been fantastic. There are still a few details to iron out. There always are. But I have no doubt the client will be thrilled.” Glancing at the turquoise waves breaking against the beach just feet from the road, Sadie wondered, with a view like this, how could they not be?

“Mr. Donovan, he’s your VIP, yes? His name and head shot are all over the program notes that went through the departments last week.”

“Yes, he’s one of them. Mark Donovan. Co-founder and CEO of D&A International.” Sadie pushed her finger into a crease that had formed in the dark leather seat. “But, really, everyone in the group qualifies as a VIP. It’s an executive retreat. Twenty members of D&A International’s leadership team. Here for a week of regrouping and relaxation. A warm weather escape to reward themselves for a year well done and energize them for the one to come.”

D&A International, a software company that focused on enhancing corporations’ performance, was one of Sadie’s longest standing clients. She’d been running their events for years. Product launches at their corporate headquarters. Sales conferences for hundreds of their field employees. Awards ceremonies for their top performers. Retreats to high-end spa hotels for employees who exceeded annual sales goals. Events that required months of intricate planning, constant negotiations between client and venue, and a full-time staff to develop and execute day after day of highly-choreographed experiences for the lucky employees invited to participate.

But this week, this event was a first for Sadie. This time she was on her own. A team of one.

The planning had been no less grueling, no less precise. But given the small number of guests collecting at the hotel it didn’t make sense to have a full team in place. No, they just needed one: Her.

She was the head of the department, after all. She’d been in the position for years and had run the gamut of every unlikely scenario and unreasonable request that the pickiest client could throw at her. And she’d risen to department head through years of hard work. Hotel reservation lists, she’d done it. Explaining to drivers how to find her clients’ private planes by their tail numbers, she had it covered. Tracking lost luggage in almost-abandoned airports at midnight, it wasn’t one of her favorite things, but she’d do it. Because it was her job. Just like this was. And she was perfectly qualified for it. One week on a Caribbean island. With Mark Donovan and his band of executive buddies. With….

“And Mr. Avery?” Peter’s voice cut through Sadie’s thoughts.

“Hmmm, sorry?” That name. His name. It fell into the silence between them. “What was that, Peter?”

“Mr. Avery. He will be in the Sunset Villa?”

“Yes.” Sadie looked down at her hand, wrapped around the leather of her seat, knuckles white against the darkness. “Yes, he will.”

 

TWO

Despite Peter’s prediction, Mr. Baker was nowhere in sight when they arrived at the hotel. Sadie was relieved. She didn’t dislike Mr. Baker, exactly. But neither was she in the mood to deal with his inane conversation. About her trip. About her health. About how thrilled they were to have her at the hotel. About how grateful they were for her bringing D&A International to them. As if she – they – weren’t paying dearly for the privilege.

“I see the boss isn’t about.” Sadie reached her hand out for her suitcase as Peter pulled it from the trunk.

“Not on your life, Ms. Carter. Besides, you never know when he is going to jump out from behind a palm tree.” Sadie failed to hold back her giggle. As ridiculous as it sounded, one never knew with Marcus Baker. This hotel – the Seven Winds – was his domain. And there was no telling what little hole or crevice he’d emerge from.

Peter gestured to the doors leading into the hotel’s lobby. The entrance was deceptively simple. Two ebony doors took up the majority of the front of a small building that resembled a beach cottage, casually tucked under leafy palm and Poinciana trees, its bursts of red flowers licking like flames against the late afternoon sky. It was a charming entrance, cozy. But Sadie knew that what was beyond those doors was something else entirely.

“Peter, can you do me a favor and ask Grace to bring out the keys? I’m done in from all the travel and just want to get to my room. Besides, we should save all of the pomp and circumstance for when Mr. Donovan and his guests arrive.”

Peter cocked an eyebrow but didn’t argue. “Sure thing, Ms. Carter. I’ll give her a quick buzz.” He reached down to the small black button clipped to his shirt collar and spoke softly into it. Sadie heard the crackle of a radio from the almost invisible bud tucked into his ear before a quiet voice muttered a response. Their exchange done in a matter of seconds, Peter turned back to Sadie and gestured for her to follow.

“Grace will meet us at your room with your keys. Come, just a short ride and we’ll have you settled in.” Sadie joined Peter on the nearby golf cart, her luggage tucked securely behind them, and held on as they sped down the path through the two-story buildings that housed the hotel’s luxurious guest rooms. Sadie had gone through the arrangements with Grace thoroughly. Her room was close to the main part of the hotel, centrally located for their various functions. Within easy reach of any of the attendees who might need her. And on the ground level so that her commute would require nothing more than opening her terrace door and walking the hundred feet to the conference room where her clients would spend their mornings.

“Sadie!” Sadie hopped off the cart to see Grace, meticulous as always, walking towards her. The woman, roughly her own age, gave her a quick wave and warm smile. “Welcome back to the Seven Winds.”

“Thanks, Grace. Wonderful to see you.” Sadie snagged the hotel key cards that Grace held out before embracing her. They’d only met a few times before, when Sadie had visited the island to do pre-event site visits. But they’d spent so many hours over email and phone ironing out details that Sadie already felt close to Grace. “And thank you for all that you – that everyone – has done to prepare for this week. You’ve made my job so much easier.”

Grace gave a twinkling smile. “Always happy to help you, Sadie. And I’m glad that you’ll finally be able to spend some time on the island with us, not just popping in for a quick visit. Once this whole show gets wrapped up, I think we’ll need a little sun and sand time. Stick around for a bit after, keep me company on the beach?”

Sadie relished the idea of sinking her toes deep into the sand, off the clock, no one wondering where she was or what she was doing. “You have no idea how tempting that sounds.”

Grace’s smile morphed into a mischievous grin. “Just tempting, huh? Give me a few more days and it will be impossible to resist.” Peter had managed to wiggle the keys from Sadie’s fingers and had the room door propped open, the sounds of him shuffling her luggage around catching their attention. “Enough idle chit chat. I’d best get back. Marcus is on the prowl.” Grace gave Sadie’s hand a quick squeeze. “Stop by my office when you have a moment. You can keep me updated on all of the executive level drama.” With that she dashed back up the path.

Sadie retreated into the sanctuary of her room. Peter had pulled the curtains almost completely closed, the blushing pinks of the sunset peeking through a small portion of gauzy drape. Only the lamp near the bed was on and Sadie cast a longing glance at the expanse of cool, white sheets. Peter appeared by her side, returning the keys.

“There are bottles of water in the fridge. Along with some fresh fruit and cheese. Wine is on the wet bar. Glasses, corkscrew.” Peter pointed to various places in the room, making sure she took note of the amenities hidden in shadow. “The restaurant is already open for dinner, but in-room dining is 24 hours as well. In case you decide to eat a little later.” Peter did a quick survey, making sure he hadn’t omitted any detail. “Anything else I can get you?”

“No, Peter. I’m all set. Thanks so much for your help. As always.”

Peter gave her a gentle pat on the back before retreating to the door. “Anytime, Ms. Carter. Welcome to the Seven Winds. We hope you enjoy your stay.” After flashing her a jaunty grin, he disappeared, leaving Sadie alone with her plans and an irritatingly persistent sense of unease.

 

THREE

If asked, Sadie couldn’t say when she’d first seen him. It had most likely been years ago, during her first event for D&A. Certainly at any of the two dozen since. Jack Avery was co-founder of the company and an ever-present figure at their high-level functions. He and Mark always huddled together at the bigger events. Suits custom tailored, dark colors, jewel-tone ties that always complimented the other’s effortlessly.

Thinking back on it, it would be wildly unfair to say that Jack didn’t stand out. In fact, Sadie was certain that Jack Avery garnered attention everywhere he went. He was too tall, too broad, too attractive to disappear into a crowd, however large. But she’d always been working, been focused on the fifteen tasks that pulled at her at any given time. That’s what life was like for her. A constant staccato of next steps, next cues, next speakers, next meals, next problem, next day, next night.

But while Sadie didn’t remember the first time she’d seen Jack, she certainly remembered the last. It had been four months ago. D&A International had brought their sales team to Colorado to enjoy some early season skiing and pre-holiday festivities. A party before the party. Her team had known that Jack Avery was scheduled to attend, but, due to an unexpected travel change, he’d arrived a day earlier than expected. His assistant had called Sadie to give her the head’s up just as Jack had pulled his rental car into the drive. She’d raced to the hotel’s front desk even while she had the head of reservations on the phone, quickly firing off answers as the woman magically rearranged inventory so that Mr. Avery would be able to check into his suite a day earlier than planned.

As Sadie scrambled across the wooden floor of the hotel’s lobby, wishing she’d followed her own advice and stuck to flats instead of heeled boots, she reminded herself for the thousandth time that she wasn’t saving a life, she wasn’t solving a world crisis. She was getting a hotel room. For a grown man. Who could definitely take care of himself. Especially given his assistant. And his fortune. But this was the service that D&A International paid for, and this was the service they would get. So as Sadie skid to a stop in front of the check-in desk and caught the erratic gesture from the front desk manager, she quickly turned around, smoothed down her skirt, affixed a smile to her face, and walked to meet Jack Avery as he stepped into the hotel’s lobby.

“Mr. Avery. A pleasure to see you. I hope you had an easy trip.” Sadie extended her hand and after only the slightest hesitation Jack reached out and wrapped it in his.

“Ms…?” He raised an eyebrow even as his lips curved upward into a small, friendly smile.

“Ms. Carter. Sadie. I’m leading the team for your event.”

“Well, Ms. Carter. Sadie. It is a pleasure to see you. Again.”

Sadie’s pulse had returned to its regular pace after her dash across the hotel. But even as she kept her eyes casually fixed on Jack’s, she realized that her hand was still clasped in his. As the heat from his broad palm and strong fingers seeped in and spread up her arm, Sadie’s heart began to race for an entirely different reason. Perhaps Jack caught a glimpse of discomfort on her face. Or felt the subtle shiver that raced across her fingers. Either way, he released her hand and took a step back, his smile easy, charming.

Sadie swallowed, hoping her voice would come out at a normal octave. “I’m afraid the hotel is putting the final touches on your room and you won’t be able to check in yet.” She cast a glance back at the front desk clerk who was industriously pounding away on the computer. “I’ve given them fifteen minutes to rectify the situation. In the meantime, I’d be happy to give you a quick tour of the property, show you where everything is taking place over the next few days.”

Jack shoved his hands into the pockets of his suit pants and rocked back on his heels. “What a kind offer, Sadie. And though I’m sure you’d make a charming tour guide, I see some of my colleagues in the bar.” Just beyond the lobby Sadie saw a collection of Jack’s co-workers relaxing, rocks glasses balanced on the arms of leather chairs, dark rumblings of laughter catching between the cracking of logs in the fireplaces lining the lounge. “A Scotch and a seat by one of those fireplaces is exactly what I need after today’s trip.”

“Of course, Mr. Avery. Please….” Sadie let her voice drop off as she gestured towards the bar. A bizarre motion, she realized, as if she was granting him permission to join his colleagues. But if Jack found it odd, he made no sign of it. Instead, he paused while he pulled a small square of paper from his wallet, scribbled something on the back, and handed it over to her.

Sadie plucked the paper from his fingers, careful not to brush his skin with hers. If she’d been less distracted she’d have realized it was a business card before staring at it for a second. She also would have realized what he’d written on the back. And, most likely, why. But with her brain still skittering over her odd reaction to his handshake, she looked blankly between the card and his face several times before he took pity on her.

“My cell phone number.” Still, Sadie’s face remained blank. “If you pass it along to the front desk they can just call or text. When my room is ready.”

Sadie closed her eyes, silently cursing her stupidity. It was, of course, the solution she would have proposed if her brain had been functioning even a little. But, no. It had momentarily abandoned her. And there she stood, mute, a blush creeping up her neck as she mentally berated herself for being an idiot in front of one of her clients.

“Certainly, Mr. Avery. I’ll be sure they contact you as soon as your room is ready.” Trying to regain some credibility, Sadie continued, “If you’d like me to bring you the keys just let the front desk know when they call. They have my number. I’d be happy to save you a trip back to the lobby. I can deliver the keys to you at the bar.”

It wasn’t a peculiar offer. It was something her team did for their VIP clients all the time. Sadie had lost count of the number of times they’d checked guests in and met them at their cars, escorting them straight up to their rooms like they were foreign dignitaries. But Jack seemed startled by it, his head starting a steady shake before she finished speaking.

“That won’t be necessary, Ms. Carter. I’m perfectly capable of getting into my own room. I’m sure you have far better things to do than babysit me.” Catching the eye of one of his colleagues, Jack gave a brisk wave and headed their way. But as he passed Sadie he paused, dropping his head so that his mouth was inches from her ear. “Don’t worry, Ms. Carter. I’m a big boy. I’m capable of taking care of all sorts of things.”

If it wasn’t for the heat of his breath against her temple Sadie would have thought she’d imagined it. The implication, the innuendo. Which all but disappeared as Jack casually made his way over to the men scattered throughout the bar, tossing a drink order over his shoulder to a bartender, and lowering himself into one of the club chairs as if it had been left vacant just for him.

Sadie would have dwelt on it. Would have considered it odd. Would have dwelled on how inappropriate it was. But her phone rang, the name of her second in charge flashing across the screen. Another crisis that required attention. Not a life threatening illness. Or the collapse of a nation. But a crisis that she was paid to handle. Which is what Sadie headed off to do.

Sadie didn’t know that Jack sat in his luxurious chair in the bar watching her contemplate his words. Watching that flush creep back up her neck and linger, before it dissipated under the demands of her job. That he rubbed his fingers over his palm again and again, remembering the heat that had settled beneath his skin where they had touched. That he had no clue what Sinclair from Acquisitions shouted across the bar, causing Todd from Finance to slam his drink down so hard that whisky splashed across Jack’s calf, the dark stain spreading along the expensive fabric. That it wasn’t until the next morning, when he picked his pants up from where he’d dropped them the night before, that Jack even noticed the heavy stain marring his favorite suit.

Sadie didn’t know that the only thing Jack paid attention to after arriving in Colorado was her.

 

FOUR

Sadie was awake, jarred from her late afternoon nap by the air conditioner in her hotel room humming to life. Running her fingers through her matted hair, she swung her feet to the floor, shivering as they came into contact with the humid chill of the tiles. She hadn’t pulled the drapes completely closed before collapsing into bed, so the darkness of the sky was visible past the warm glow of her patio light. She twisted to catch the time on the bedside clock and was surprised to see it was only seven. That was one of the things she couldn’t get used to about the Caribbean. Coming from the east coast she associated warm weather with the long days of summer. But on the island, winter nights began almost as early as they did at home, even if the warm air never cooled.

As she rubbed the sleep from her eyes, Sadie’s phone rang.

“You arrive ok?” The cheerful voice of her assistant Lizzie greeted her.

“Yes, no problems. Peter was incredibly helpful. As always.” Sadie paced to where Peter had set her suitcase on the luggage rack and began rummaging through her clothes. “Just have a few things to take care of before some of the guests arrive tomorrow evening.”

“I tracked the boxes. They’ve all made it through customs. The details are in your email.”

“Perfect. I’ll ask Peter to collect them in the morning.”

“Anything you need from me tonight?”

“Nope, I’m all set. But thanks for checking.”

“Sure thing, boss.” Lizzie got quiet for a moment, before continuing, “Sadie?”

“Hmm?”

“You sure you’re going to be ok there? On your own?”

“Yeah, completely. Why?” It was an unnecessary question. She knew why Lizzie was asking. What Lizzie was asking. Lizzie had been there, after all. That night.

“You know why, Sadie. I just want to make sure you don’t…that you won’t….”

Sadie cut her off, “Lizzie, I’ll be fine. I promise.”

“And if you’re not?”

“And if I’m not?” Sadie involuntarily flexed her fingers around the t-shirt she had pulled from her suitcase. “I know I can count on you to rescue me.” She’d intended it to come out lighthearted. As a joke. But an uncomfortable silence fell between the two friends. Sadie cleared her throat. “And I have Peter here. And Grace. I’ll be fine, Lizzie. Promise. There’s nothing to worry about.”

Sadie could almost hear Lizzie’s lips curl up in a smile. It was what they always said. To the client. To each other. No matter how big the problem, there was never anything to worry about. “There never is, Sadie. Not with you. And….”

“And?”

“And if there is, I know I’ll be the first one you ring.”

“Exactly.”

“I’ll be at your beck and call, boss.”

“Thanks, Lizzie. You’re the best.”

Sadie hung up and began rummaging around in the fridge under the wet bar. As promised, she found an enormous platter of fruits and cheeses. A collection of crackers and nuts were neatly organized on the granite countertop. All within easy eyesight of a bottle of wine. Cheese, wine, and carbs. All a gal needed to get the week started off right. And, hopefully, calm the nervous flutters that had occupied her stomach for the past several days.

With a plate of food and glass balanced in one hand, and the bottle of wine tucked under her arm, Sadie slid open the door to her ground-level terrace. After placing her little feast on the patio table, she switched off the light, giving her eyes time to adjust to the moonlit night. The path that separated the buildings from the lawn was lined with flickering lanterns. Their glow was strong enough to guide guests along the smooth stones, but not enough to compete with the main show of the night: the stars.

In the islands, away from the sprawl of cities, the stars were almost overwhelming in quantity. In D.C., Sadie could see seven – max eight – on any given night, the ambient light from buildings and streets swallowing the rest. But here, there were too many to even begin to count. Millions of brilliant pinpricks puncturing the deep navy sky.

Sadie could see the reflection of the moon off the ocean just a few hundred feet in front of her. The shadow of a palm tree cutting across her vision as it swayed. The fresh sting of salty air. And the warm breeze that carried it to where she was comfortably tucked into a chaise.

“It’s a perfect night, isn’t it?”

That’s what he’d said to her. That last night in Colorado.

That week had been a success all around. Mr. Donovan had even pulled Sadie aside to give her and her team quick but thorough thanks before disappearing back into the jovial throng of his employees. While she knew everyone at D&A International appreciated their work, members of the executive team rarely stated it so openly. So Sadie had found herself thrown off kilter by his forthright praise. And she hadn’t been paying attention to the man who’d broken free from the crowd to stand so close that his arm brushed hers.

At his voice, Sadie jumped.

“Sorry, didn’t mean to startle you.” Sadie turned to the side and was forced to tilt her head back, chin almost completely raised, before her eyes met Jack Avery’s. She knew they were hazel. She had looked. She was human, after all.

At first glance Jack was cleanly, severely handsome. Straight lines, square jaw, strong chin, heavy brow. But, during her surreptitious moments of observation, Sadie had noticed the features that softened him, that made his classic good looks charmingly lethal. The heavy waves of dark hair that he could never quite tame, thick strands often dropping to sweep across his forehead. The dimple that winked from his cheek when his wide lips parted in a genuine smile. And his eyes. Large. Framed with thick lashes. A haphazard concoction of greens and browns, shifting with the light, with his mood. And always watching.

At that particular second they were watching her as she tried to step back, to put some space between them. To give herself some breathing room. But instead of gaining distance from Jack, Sadie found herself backed up against the rough exterior of the log cabin-style hotel. She felt her head make contact before the rest of her body, the back of her skull bouncing against the wood before she stepped forward again. She squinted her eyes, more embarrassed than anything. But Jack raised one hand, as if to smooth down her hair, check for any lumps.

“Are you alright?” Jack dropped his hand as Sadie waved it away. But one second later he was using it to cover a little grin that danced across his lips. “I just came over to say thanks. For everything this week. I swear. Didn’t plan on scaring you or causing physical damage.”

“I’ll make note of that when I file for workman’s comp.” Jack’s grin vanished, his shoulders tensing. It was Sadie’s turn to grin. “Kidding. Goodness. Besides,” Sadie ran her hands down her dark hair, “you didn’t even draw blood. This doesn’t even begin to rate when it comes to work-related injuries. Grading only begins when we have to call the paramedics.”

“A hazardous job, then?”

“Oh, you have no idea. Electrocutions. Maiming. Lacerations. Near-suffocations. The next time a client demands that we dress up in a full-body Abominable Snowman costume, remind me to say no. Full stop.”

Jack half-laughed, half-choked. “You’re kidding?”

“I wish. Never again.”

Jack’s eyes wandered down her, running from head to toes and back up again. “I think you’d make a terrible Abominable Snowman. For the record.”

“Are you impugning my dress up skills, Mr. Avery? Because, I can assure you, I have talents that would blow you away.” This time there was no mistaking Jack’s laugh, a warm chuckle that rumbled through his torso and lit something bright in his eyes.

“Ms. Carter, I have no doubt that your talents, dress up or otherwise, are of the highest caliber.” A pang of heat hit Sadie in the chest as his lips formed a more intimate smile. “I was merely observing that you are too tiny to be convincing as a mountain-dwelling snow beast. That, and you smell entirely too good.”

Sadie’s eyebrow lifted as Jack held her gaze. She hoped he interpreted it as disdain. Even haughtiness. And that it would distract him from the way her pulse increased as he watched her. As he bent his head as if to confirm just how good she smelled.

“You’re welcome.” Sadie was impressed that her voice sounded normal, no indication of how keyed-up she felt.

Jack, his body still canted towards her, raised a mirroring eyebrow.

“You said you came over to tell me thanks for this week. So, you’re welcome.”

“I haven’t said it yet. It’s a bit presumptuous to accept thanks that haven’t actually been given, don’t you think?”

“Any more than telling a woman you barely know how good she smells and what a bad yeti she’d make?”

Jack barked out a loud laugh, his hair catching the soft glow of the fire as it fell back. “Touché, Ms. Carter. But seeing as it’s too late to begin this conversation all over again, why don’t we just skip ahead to the good bit.”

“The good bit? Can there be a good bit after near-concussions and insults?”

“Surely that’s the best time for the good bits. Especially when it involves you joining me for a drink.”

Sadie felt the flush that had flared in her chest shoot to her face while her arms tingled with nerves. She couldn’t have a drink with him. He was her client. Not just a client, but a founding principal of the company. Jack Avery. Co-Founder and Executive Vice President of D&A International. Brilliant. Successful. Charming. Handsome. Which made her want to join him all the more. Sadie was attracted to his brilliance. She understood his drive, hoped to emulate his success in her own field. And Sadie certainly wasn’t immune to his charm. It was so tempting to say yes. Which was all the more reason why she needed to say no.

“Thank you, that’s a very nice offer. But I’m afraid I can’t.”

Jack bent down slightly, bringing his eyes closer to hers. “Sadie Carter, how many events have you done for us?”

“Twenty-four. Twenty-five if you count this one.”

“And how many times have you been able to sit down at the end of one and relax over a good drink?”

“Every one. Just as soon as I get home.” Or as soon as she got to the airport, but Jack didn’t need to know that.

But he wouldn’t give up. “I haven’t kept count of the number of times I’ve seen you.” Jack rested one long finger on Sadie’s arm briefly before withdrawing. “More times than I can recall. And not once have I seen you sit down. You are always moving, always going.”

“It is my job, Jack. Your company doesn’t pay me to sit around and watch things happen. It pays me to make sure that everything happens flawlessly. It pays me,” she pointed at herself, “to keep you,” she redirected her finger at him, “happy.” And the second the word was out of her mouth she regretted it. Because she saw Jack’s face light in triumph.

“Thank you for arguing my point so succinctly. Because that is what you will be doing now. When you get a drink with me,” Jack rested one hand across the broad plane of his chest. “Keeping me – the client – happy.”

***

She could have said no. If she’d really wanted to, Sadie could have said no and Jack would have backed off, no question. He wasn’t an asshole. Her entire team knew who they were, the entitled jackasses who thought they could ask for a little something extra, who thought they deserved a little something more. But Jack wasn’t one of them. If Sadie had really not wanted to spend another minute with him, he would have accepted her refusal and walked away, head high.

But Sadie hadn’t said no. Because the entire time they stood inches apart, talking, Sadie wanted to stay. She was thrilled with how the week had gone, how well her team had done, how pleased both Mr. Donovan and Mr. Avery were with their efforts. She wanted a moment to celebrate, to revel in it. She wanted to sit down for once and give her feet, currently covered in fashionably warm but tragically uncomfortable boots, a much needed rest. So, she agreed.

“Ok, Mr. Avery. I’ll concede to you, this once.” But before Jack was able to gloat, Sadie continued, “On two conditions. First, we agree that this is a drink – one drink – that I am accepting from you as a token of thanks. Not,” Sadie looked at him sternly, “as a requirement for keeping you, the client, happy. Understood?”

Jack sketched a tiny bow, which came off as oddly charming despite the small space he had to work with. “Perfectly understood.” He turned and headed towards the glass-paneled door that led to the bar inside. Over his shoulder he asked, “The second condition?”

“We stay here.”

“Here?”

“Yes. As you said, it is a perfect night. Why waste it inside when we can just as easily enjoy it here?” Sadie shifted her gaze past Jack to the patio behind him. It was autumn in the Rockies; the night air was crisp and laced with the bite of cold. But centered on the patio was the hotel’s generous fire pit, the flames high within the stone walls, soft light and warm air spreading out to reach them. The hotel had wool blankets scattered across the furniture. Café lights hung above their heads. They would be warm, they would be well lit, and, most importantly, they wouldn’t be forced to press themselves into the cozy and increasingly crowded bar inside. They could stay politely distant, professionally cordial.

“I suppose I should argue, since I’m the one buying the drinks. But,” Jack saw her start to protest, “since it isn’t an unreasonable stipulation, I agree. Though, if I lose any extremities to frostbite you are going to have to be dealing with my workman’s comp suit.”

Sadie smiled, small but genuine. “I’ll take my chances.”

She picked a pair of chairs close to the fire and flagged down a server while Jack snagged a nearby blanket.

“Ms. Carter, what can I get you this evening?”

“Hi, Cody,” Sadie greeted the young man before directing him to Jack. “For you, Jack?”

“Whisky, neat.”

“Bourbon on the rocks for me, please, Cody. Thanks very much.”

Cody disappeared back into the bar, and Sadie turned to find Jack looking at her with a surprised expression.

“What?”

“Nothing. Just, not what I expected.”

“What? That I know his name? That’s Cody. He’s been here all week. Has worked long hours for us every night. The least I can do is know his name.”

Jack shook his head, that perennial half-smile fixed to his lips. “No, not that. The bourbon. I would have guessed red wine.”

“You would have guessed correctly. I love red wine. Cab especially. The heavier, leggier the better. But I also love bourbon. And beer. I enjoy a wide variety of things, Jack.”

“Just goes to show, then.”

“Show…?”

“I should be careful what assumptions I make about you.”

“That, Jack, is the first thing you’ve said tonight that I agree with, one-hundred percent. That, and that I make an awful yeti.”

That’s when Jack did it. He smiled. Fully, brightly. And straight at her. Dimple on display. Smooth lips spread across even teeth. His eyes crinkled in the corners, the green hidden in the depths sparking in the glow of the fire. And at that moment, as her breath caught and her lips curved into a smile to match his, Sadie knew one thing for certain: she was in trouble.

***

They talked. At first it was just about their week in Colorado. The presentations he’d given. The way she had persuaded the hotel to make fifty-dozen holiday cookies for a Christmas party in September. Then they compared notes about past D&A events and Sadie was surprised at just how many Jack had attended. New York three months before. Chicago the year before that. San Francisco, Kapalua, Miami, and London before those.

“Should I start to worry?” Jack asked her.

“Worry?”

“That I’m so forgettable? How many cities have we been in together? In the same hotel, in the very same room? I try not to let my ego run away with me but, damn, this blow might be more than I can take.”

“First of all, you say ‘room’ as if you’re talking about a small space, like I ignored you from across a dining room table. We are talking enormous ballrooms, Jack. Tens of thousands of square feet. My mother could be on the other side of those rooms and I wouldn’t notice her.”

“Let alone some guy you barely know.” If Sadie hadn’t been tilted towards him, her body seeking his warmth in the cooling night air, she might have missed his wounded tone. But she did notice and felt an odd impulse to sooth him.

“I never stop moving when I’m working one of these things, Jack. You said so yourself. If things are running as they should, if you aren’t a problem to solve, I rarely have time to stop. And there is no way for me to keep track of every single person present. Regardless of how charming or attractive.”

Sadie’s eyes widened in surprise even as the last words fell off her tongue. For a moment she thought Jack hadn’t heard. Or hadn’t been paying attention. But Jack lifted his eyes from his whisky glass, his hazel fixing heavily on her green, refusing to release her gaze for several heartbeats. Damn bourbon, damn bourbon, damn Jack. Sadie felt the heat of a blush against her neck and cheeks, and knew that Jack could see the embarrassment spread across her skin.

Slowly, as if he didn’t want to startle her, Jack reached out and brushed his knuckle down her cheek, pulling away just below the slope of her jaw. “Too warm, Sadie?” A small shiver raced through her at the timber of his voice, the tremble belying the fact that her flush didn’t have a thing to do with heat. Not from the fire, anyway. “We can move back a bit, if you aren’t comfortable here.”

“No,” Sadie gave her head a rapid shake. “No, I’m perfectly comfortable. No need to move.”

“If you’re sure.” Jack inhaled once more, deeply, before dropping his eyes to the rocks glass squeezed tightly in Sadie’s hands. Under his scrutiny Sadie tried to relax her fingers, let some of her tension dissipate. “You still have a way to go with that,” he nodded at her glass. “So I suppose I should carry on entertaining you. As you finish.” His lips quirked up on one side. “As my way of showing appreciation for all of your work. And,” he tapped one finger on her knee closest to him, “for finally deigning to acknowledge my presence. However charming or attractive.”

Sadie couldn’t help it. She laughed. Jack was teasing her. With his words, with his touch. And she was enjoying herself, thoroughly.

***

Sadie had hoped staying outside, where there was plenty of space and thinning crowds, would help her keep her distance. But as the mountain air got progressively colder, Sadie got progressively closer to Jack, trying to stay warm. The fire had dwindled and by the time they were finishing their second drink, she and Jack had their legs pressed together under their shared blanket. Touching as they were, Sadie couldn’t hide her.

“Cold?” But even as Jack asked the question he was replacing his glass with her hands, chaffing her chilled fingers between his warm ones.

“Probably a sign that we should go inside.” Sadie struggled to keep her voice even as Jack blew warm air into their cupped hands, his lips grazing the outer edges of her fingers. God, they’re warm.

Her chill gone, replaced by surging heat, Sadie jumped from her seat, the blanket falling to the ground. “Jack, thanks very much for the drinks. I appreciate it. But it’s late and definitely time I head inside. Pack up, get ready for my flight tomorrow.”

Sadie scolded herself for being disappointment that Jack didn’t protest. She was the one saying goodbye, the one bringing their evening to an end. And now he was standing, giving no sign that he wanted her to stay. No indication that he missed the heat of her body as much as she missed his.

“You’re probably right. No sense risking bodily harm staying out here all night.” Jack headed for the doors that led from the patio into the lobby, bypassing everyone still gathered in the bar. Sadie followed him through the first floor of the hotel, both headed for the elevator and their respective floors. A silence settled between them. It wasn’t uncomfortable. But Sadie still found herself fidgeting, her brain testing out all of the ways to say goodnight without sounding indifferent. Or saying goodbye without sounding desperate to say the very opposite.

“Which floor?” Jack’s fingers hovered over the elevator buttons.

“Five, please.”

Jack pushed one button.

For a split second Sadie thought he was planning on following her to her room. Then she remembered that Jack’s suite was on the same floor.

Get a grip, Sadie. Seriously.

The ride was short, the elevator chime dinging as the doors opened to an empty floor. Jack motioned for her to go ahead and Sadie tried not to pay attention to just how close he was behind her as they walked down the hall.

“This is me.” Sadie turned to see Jack motioning to a door. He stood relaxed, one hand pushed into a pocket, the other brushing back a lock of dark hair.

“Thanks, Jack. For the drinks. And for the chance to sit down, for once.” Sadie couldn’t prevent the smile that spread across her face. “I enjoyed it.” Without thinking, Sadie stepped towards him and rested one hand on his sleeve, “And I promise to notice you next time. Regardless of how big the room.”

She’d meant to tease, to wave him off with a casual remark and a cheerful smile. But she’d miscalculated.

Jack’s easy stance disappeared the moment her hand touched his arm, his eyes darkening at her comment. Sadie had just enough time to feel the air shift around her, to catch an inhale of his cologne, before she found herself pushed against his guest room door. His eyes were so close to hers, watching. For what, she wasn’t sure. Panic? Permission? When she made no sign of either, Jack’s eyes dropped. First to her mouth. Then to the rapid pulse at the base of her throat. Down to where her chest was rising and falling, one deep inhale away from touching his.

Sadie’s mouth had gone dry; she brushed her tongue against her lower lip, tasting the slightest hint of bourbon. That one small movement was enough for Jack.

The space between them disappeared as Jack brought his body flush against hers. Sadie could feel the strength of him, the hardness, down her entire length, where his chest touched hers, his hips pressed against her abdomen, his legs pushed between hers. Her eyelashes fluttered and she almost dropped her head against his shoulder, a wave of dizziness striking her. But Jack caught her face with one hand, his fingers tracing lightly against her jaw, tilting her up to meet him.

“Sadie….” Jack whispered her name against her lips, his eyes never leaving hers. The intensity she saw in those hazel depths, it caused her breath to catch and her body to relax at the same time. In anticipation of his onslaught. In acceptance of it.

Sadie let her head fall back against the door and pushed up on her toes. Jack spread his fingers, pressing them along the delicate skin behind her ear and threading them into her hair. Then his lips were there, brushing hers. Gently. As if he was giving her a chance to change her mind, to push him away. But Sadie only wanted him closer. Which Jack realized when a little moan escaped her as the tip of his tongue met the seam of her lips. He deepened his grip in her hair while Sadie flexed her fingers against the muscles of his chest, their heads angling to give each other deeper access.

Sadie relished Jack’s sigh as he took her mouth. But her heart seized when she heard a quiet but precise “oh, shit” from down the hallway. So instead of his hand curling around her hip and hers sinking into the strength of his shoulder, Sadie and Jack pushed themselves rapidly – awkwardly – apart.

Sadie brushed her hands down her thighs and straightened her shoulders before turning in the direction of the voice. She hoped she didn’t look as unraveled as she felt when she met Lizzie’s startled expression. The two women exchanged a rapid, wordless communication. They had worked together for a long time. Had weathered work crisis after work crisis. Lizzie didn’t need to say anything for Sadie to know that her assistant was astonished and horrified by what she’d seen. Any more than Lizzie needed Sadie to say out loud that she felt the same about being caught.

Sadie shook her head as she saw Lizzie look beyond her. At Jack. Sadie didn’t move, didn’t turn to see the expression Jack gave Lizzie. She stayed rooted to the floor, hoping her legs would remain steady long enough to get her back to her room.

“Sorry, Sadie,” Lizzie whispered from where she stood, before turning around and dashing down the hallway.

Sadie would have to find her, talk to her. Explain. Though what she would explain, she had no idea. Sadie wasn’t clear on what had even happened. How had she and Jack gone from a friendly conversation safe in a crowd, to being alone, clinging to each other with every possibility of disappearing together into his hotel room? She winced at the thought of having to discuss it with Lizzie. But there was no way to ignore it, not with her job and her reputation with her top client caught in the balance.

“Sadie.” Jack had been silent and motionless for those few awful moments, but as he said her name, Sadie finally turned to face him. When his fingers brush her hand, she pulled back, stepping away from him, trying to get herself to the safety of her room.

“Goodnight, Jack. I really do need to go.” She couldn’t bring herself to meet his eyes; she focused on his right temple instead. “Thanks again.” She waved lamely between them before turning away. Before she was able to take another step, Jack wrapped his fingers around one of her hands. He didn’t try to pull her back, or even turn her around. He just stopped her from escaping.

“Don’t forget your promise, Sadie.”

She was still facing the other direction and was surprised he heard her whisper, “My promise?”

“To notice me.”

* * *

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