Chadwick gave her a look that she’d seen before—the one he broke out when he was rejecting a supplier’s offer. A look that blended disbelief and disdain into a potent mix. It was a powerful look, one that usually made people throw out another offer—one with better terms for the Brewery.
He’d never looked at her like that before. It bordered on terrifying. He wouldn’t fire her for keeping her private life private, would he? But then everything about him softened as he leaned forward in his chair, his elbows on the table. “If this happened several months ago, what happened this weekend?”
“This weekend. You’re obviously upset. I can tell, although you’re doing a good job of hiding it. Did he...” Chadwick cleared his throat, his eyes growing hard. “Did he do something to you this weekend?”
“No, not that.” Neil might have been a jerk—okay, he was a cheating, commitment-phobic jerk—but she couldn’t have Chadwick thinking Neil had beaten her. Still, she was afraid to elaborate. Swallowing was suddenly difficult and she was blinking at an unusually fast rate. If she sat there much longer, she was either going to burst into tears or black out. Why couldn’t she get her lungs to work?
So she did the only thing she could. She stood and, as calmly and professionally as possible, walked out of the office. Or tried to, anyway. Her hand was on the doorknob when Chadwick said, “Serena, stop.”
She couldn’t bring herself to turn around and face him—to risk that disdainful look again, or something worse. So she closed her eyes. Which meant that she didn’t see him get up or come around his desk, didn’t see him walk up behind her. But she heard it—the creaking of his chair as he stood, the footsteps muffled by the thick Oriental rug. The warmth of his body as he stood close to her—much closer than he normally stood.
He placed his hand on her shoulder and turned her. She had no choice but to pivot, but he didn’t let go of her. Not entirely. Oh, he released her shoulder, but when she didn’t look up at him, he slid a single finger under her chin and raised her face. “Serena, look at me.”
She didn’t want to. Her face flushed hot from his touch—because that’s what he was doing. Touching her. His finger slid up and down her chin—if she didn’t know better, she’d say he was caressing her. It was the most intimate touch she’d felt in months. Maybe longer.
She opened her eyes. His face was still a respectable foot away from hers—but this was the closest they’d ever been. He could kiss her if he wanted and she wouldn’t be able to stop him. She wouldn’t stop him.
He didn’t. This close up, his eyes were such a fine blend of green and brown and flecks of gold. She felt some of her panic fade as she gazed up into his eyes. She was not in love with her boss. Nope. Never had been. Wasn’t about to start falling for him now, no matter how he complimented her or touched her. It wasn’t going to happen.
He licked his lips as he stared at her. Maybe he was as nervous as she was. This was several steps over a line neither of them had ever crossed.
But maybe...maybe he was hungry. Hungry for her.
“Serena,” he said in a low voice that she wasn’t sure she’d ever heard him use before. It sent a tingle down her back that turned into a shudder—a shudder he felt. The corner of his mouth curved again. “Whatever the problem is, you can come to me. If he’s bothering you, I’ll have it taken care of. If you need help or...” She saw his Adam’s apple bob as he swallowed. His finger stroked the same square inch of her skin again and she did a whole lot more than shudder. “Whatever you need, it’s yours.”
She needed to say something here, something professional and competent. But all she could do was look at his lips. What would they taste like? Would he hesitate, waiting for her to take the lead, or would he kiss her as if he’d been dying to do for seven years?
“What do you mean?” She didn’t know what she wanted him to say. It should sound like an employer expressing concern for the well-being of a trusted employee—but it didn’t. Was he hitting on her after all this time? Just because Neil was a jerk? Because she was obviously having a vulnerable moment? Or was there something else going on there?
The air seemed to thin between them, as if he’d leaned forward without realizing it. Or perhaps she’d done the leaning. He’s going to kiss me, she realized. He’s going to kiss me and I want him to. I’ve always wanted him to.
He didn’t. He just ran his finger over her chin again, as if he were memorizing her every feature. She wanted to reach up and thread her fingers through his sandy hair, pull his mouth down to hers. Taste those lips. Feel more than just his finger.
“Serena, you’re my most trusted employee. You always have been. I want you to know that, whatever happens at the board meeting, I will take care of you. I won’t let them walk you out of this building without anything. Your loyalty will be rewarded. I won’t fail you.”
All the oxygen she’d been holding in rushed out of her with a soft “oh.”
It was what she needed to hear. God, how she needed to hear it. She might not have Neil, but all of her hard work was worth something. She wouldn’t have to think about going back on welfare or declaring bankruptcy or standing in line at the food pantry.
Then some of her good sense came back to her. This would be the time to have a business-professional response. “Thank you, Mr. Beaumont.”
Something in his grin changed, making him look almost wicked—the very best kind of wicked. “Better than sir, but still. Call me Chadwick. Mr. Beaumont sounds too much like my father.” When he said this, a hint of his former weariness crept into his eyes. Suddenly, he dropped his finger away from her chin and took a step back. “So, lawyers on Tuesday, Board of Directors on Wednesday, charity ball on Saturday?”
Somehow, Serena managed to nod. They were back on familiar footing now. “Yes.” She took another deep breath, feeling calmer.
“I’ll pick you up.”
So much for that feeling of calm. “Excuse me?”
A little of the wickedness crept back into his smile. “I’m going to the charity gala. You’re going to the charity gala. It makes sense that we would go to the charity gala together. I’ll pick you up at seven.”
“But...the gala starts at nine.”
“Obviously we’ll go to dinner.” She must have looked worried because he took another step back. “Call it...an early celebration for the success of your charity selection this year.”
In other words, don’t call it a date. Even if that’s what it sounded like. “Yes, Mr. Beau—” He shot her a hot look that had her snapping her mouth shut. “Yes, Chadwick.”
He grinned an honest-to-God grin that took fifteen years off his face. “There. That wasn’t so hard, was it?” Then he turned away from her and headed back to his desk. Whatever moment they’d just had, it was over. “Bob Larsen should be in at ten. Let me know when he gets here.”
“Of course.” She couldn’t bring herself to say his name again. Her head was too busy swimming with everything that had just happened.
She was halfway through the door, already pulling it shut behind her, when he called out, “And Serena? Whatever you need. I mean it.”
Then she closed his door.
This was the point in his morning where Chadwick normally reviewed the marketing numbers. Bob Larsen was his handpicked Vice President of Marketing. He’d helped move the company’s brand recognition way, way up. Although Bob was closing in on fifty, he had an intrinsic understanding of the internet and social media, and had used it to drag the brewery into the twenty-first century. He’d put Beaumont Brewery on Facebook, then Twitter—never chasing the trend, but leading it. Chadwick wasn’t sure exactly what SnappShot did, beyond make pictures look scratched and grainy, but Bob was convinced that it was the platform through which to launch their new line of Percheron Seasonal Ales. “Targeting all those foodies who snap shots of their dinners!” he’d said the week before, in the excited voice of a kid getting a new bike for Christmas.
Yes, that’s what Chadwick should have been thinking about. He took his meetings with his department heads seriously. He took the whole company seriously. He rewarded hard work and loyalty and never, ever allowed distractions. He ran a damn tight ship.
So why was he sitting there, thinking about his assistant?
Because he was. Man, was he.
Her words kept rattling around in his brain, along with the way she’d looked that morning—drawn, tired. Like a woman who’d cried her eyes out most of the weekend. She hadn’t answered his question. If that prick had walked out several months before—and no matter what she said about what ‘we decided,’ Chadwick had heard the ‘he’ first—what had happened that weekend?
The thought of Neil Moore—mediocre golf pro always trying to suck up to the next big thing every time Chadwick had met him—doing anything to hurt Serena made him furious. He’d never liked Neil. Too much of a leech, not good enough for the likes of Serena Chase. Chadwick had always been of the opinion that she deserved someone better, someone who wouldn’t abandon her at a party to schmooze a local TV personality like he’d witnessed Neil do on at least three separate occasions.
Serena deserved so much better than that ass. Of course, Chadwick had known that for years. Why was it bothering him so much this morning?
She’d looked so...different. Upset, yes, but there was something else going on. Serena had always been unflappable, totally focused on the job. Of course Chadwick had never done anything inappropriate involving her, but he’d caught a few other men assuming she was up for grabs just because she was a woman in Hardwick Beaumont’s old office. Chadwick had never done business with those men again—which, a few times, meant going with the higher-priced vendor. It went against the principles his father, Hardwick, had raised him by—the bottom line was the most important thing.
Hardwick might have been a lying, cheating bastard, but that wasn’t Chadwick. And Serena knew it. She’d said so herself.
That had to be why Chadwick had lost his mind and done something he’d managed not to do for eight years—touch Serena. Oh, he’d touched her before. She had a hell of a handshake, one that betrayed no weakness or fear, something that occasionally undermined other women in a position of power. But putting his hand on her shoulder? Running a finger along the sensitive skin under her chin?
For a moment, he’d done something he’d wanted to do for years—engage Serena Chase on a level that went far beyond his scheduling conflicts. And for that moment, it’d felt wonderful to see her dark brown eyes look up at him, her pupils dilating with need—reflecting his desire back at him. To feel her body respond to his touch.
Some days, it felt like he never got to do what he wanted. Chadwick was the responsible one. The one who ran the family company and cleaned up the family messes and paid the family bills while everyone else in the family ran amuck, having affairs and one-night stands and spending money like it was going out of style.