It never should have happened.
He was my project manager, and I was the daughter of Wentworth Cunningham, the man who gave him the job. We both should have known better, but me most of all.
The truth is, I was selfish. Before my life went haywire, he was just Ian: hardworking and generous, sweet and serious. I used to tease him about his hair—which was dark and curly like mine—just to try and make him smile. I’d remind him that we were working for the greater good, but he would only see the work we hadn’t done yet: the orphanage we had yet to renovate, the resources we had yet to allocate. He was the kindest and most selfless of all of us working at the Chiang Mai division of Cunningham Cares International.
After my father’s death, Ian became my crutch.
I shouldn’t have rushed back to Thailand after the funeral. I see that now. My brother pushed me into it, sure, but it’s not like he had a gun to my head. Frankly, I thought it would be good for me. Put my suffering in perspective.
Instead, I found myself looking at Ian.
Ian’s attractive. There’s no denying that. He’s lean and muscled from long days spent sweating under the sun. His skin is always tan, and no matter how often he shaves, there’s a perpetual dusting of stubble on his chin. He has these soft gray eyes that seem to look right into the very core of your being. The day I returned to work in Chiang Mai, those eyes were so full of concern for me that the hollowness I’d been nursing deep in my stomach seemed to dissipate, just for a second.
That night, after everyone else was asleep, I went to his room. And Ian—sweet, responsible, serious Ian—didn’t turn me away.
Afterward, he touched my face in the dark and said, “This can’t happen again.” But a month later, when I broke under the hollowness and crept to his room a second time, he took me into his arms once more and helped me forget.
It happened the same every time: I’d go to him, we’d lose ourselves in each other, and then he’d tell me, “Never again.” But he’d hold me close as he said it, whisper it against my hair, and we both knew it was a lie.
I don’t remember when it became every night. I spent months drowning in the haze of his tenderness, losing myself in the comforts of his touch, the sweetness of his lips, the soft encouragement of his voice. He loved me, and I needed that love. I needed his warmth on those dark nights. I needed his gentle looks during those long days.
I didn’t care what he needed.
And when it came to a head, when he finally voiced the words that lay between us, I did what every heartless coward does when she’s cornered.
I’m a bitch.
Mr. Charles Haymore, (whose brass name tag has been polished to a flawless shine) has been prattling on about my new job responsibilities for the last ten minutes, but the only thing I can focus on is the giant chocolate crumb dangling from his mustache. It’s huge. I’m surprised he can’t feel it brushing against his lip. But I suppose it takes a very special kind of crumb to defy the laws of gravity and cling to salt-and-pepper-whiskers for half an hour or more—especially when the owner of said whiskers can’t seem to shut up—so maybe that’s part of its magic.
I fold my hands in my lap and nod politely, trying to hold his gaze. It’s hard enough to keep from looking at the crumb, but I’m also fighting the urge to glance around the room.
We’re sitting in the room that used to be my father’s study. I thought it was over the top even then—all dark bookcases and gloomy paintings—but now it’s friggin’ ridiculous. Whatever designer redid this place apparently decided that my family lived in another century or something. I’m almost surprised they decided to keep the working electricity.
“Any questions, Ms. Thomas?”
It takes a minute for Mr. Haymore’s words to register. I’m still not used to hearing that name.
“No. No questions.” I give him my best smile. Show those teeth, my father used to say. A bit of charm and a smile go a long way.
He gives a single nod. “Your responsibilities will shift from day to day depending on my needs. One day I might have you running errands, and the next you might be responding to emails. I carry responsibility for many of the daily functions of this facility, and as such, you too will be responsible for tasks of great importance. I trust that’s acceptable?”
“Yes, sir,” I say a little too enthusiastically.
He shoots me a stern look and slides the last piece of my employment paperwork across his desk. “My last assistant didn’t find herself up to the task.”
“I assure you, sir, that I’m up for anything you throw at me.”
He looks at me for a long moment, then nods again, apparently satisfied with his assessment. “All employees are required to meet certain standards of behavior for the duration of their contract. You are to wear your name tag at all times while on duty. You are not to smoke or partake in alcohol while on the premises, and any evidence of intoxication is grounds for disciplinary action. Any subsequent slip will result in an immediate dismissal. Am I understood?”
I nod. “You are.”
It’s actually a bit of a pity that he’s such a drab old bore. If he were a little younger, a little narrower, a little less stuffy, I might try to soften his unpleasantness. Help him unleash the wild nature he’s hidden beneath that perfectly pressed suit. I’ve never been with a hotel’s General Manager before. Or anyone in the hospitality industry, really. Do they leave mints on your pillow after sex?
Unfortunately for Mr. Haymore, even I have standards. And you’re supposed to be staying away from men for a while, I remind myself. And I’m off to a roaring start—I’m not even two months into my self-imposed celibacy and I’m so desperate I’m looking at this guy.
As if he can see into my brain, Mr. Haymore says, “It goes without saying that fraternization with guests is strictly prohibited. And any… relations with fellow employees will be done with discretion or not at all. Is that clear?”
“Crystal.” That should make it a little bit easier for me, at least.
“Not that I imagine you’ll have much time for such activities,” he continues. “The press event starts on the twenty-first. That’s less than two weeks from now, and we open our doors the week after that. The next couple of months are crucial, and you will be expected to respond to my requests at a moment’s notice.”