Authors: Rosalie Stanton
Kenzie held his gaze as long as she could before shifting focus to the elevator’s far left corner. “Look,” she said, “I just can’t do this now.”
“I’ve only been with one other man, and he tore me up.”
“I’m not going to answer for another man’s crimes.”
“I’m not asking you to,” she said. “But I am asking you to understand that honesty is important to me.”
“I think you’d be hard pressed to find anyone for whom honesty isn’t a virtue.”
“You’re making this hard.”
“I’m just trying to keep up,” Lennon countered.
“I don’t regret what happened here, but…does it really have to mean anything? Can’t it just be what it was?” Kenzie looked at him again, but didn’t maintain eye-contact for more than a few seconds. “I’m not asking you to answer for Hunter. You’re a thousand times the man he is. But I’d hope you could at least understand why I might be gun-shy about anything more than…this.”
There was nothing for a moment. She didn’t look at him and he didn’t respond. How long they remained like that, she didn’t know. When Lennon moved again, it wasn’t toward her, rather to collect the file and the tape she’d left on the floor. He closed the space between them and pressed both items against her chest, at last directing her attention back to his warm, albeit hurt eyes.
“Take these,” he whispered.
“I don’t want them.”
“They’re both yours.”
“I already told you I won’t be responsible for you losing your job.”
“Not even for your brother?”
“No. We’ll find another way for Scott. I can’t walk away knowing whatever I do here affects your career.”
“It doesn’t. Whatever happens is on me, not you.”
Kenzie shivered. “Lennon…”
“Take the tape, at least.”
A bitter laugh rumbled through his throat. “The tape won’t do shit for me now that I’ve had the real thing.”
While she knew he meant what he said, he didn’t object when she pressed the video against his chest.
Kenzie held his gaze before her attention dropped to his lips, a twinge of yearning and regret echoing through her. It would be easy, she knew, to cast aside her doubt and hesitation and fall into a haze of sex and blind, foolish optimism. Very easy, especially for how genuinely good she believed him to be, in spite of the pain of experience. It would be different with him. It wouldn’t be like anything she’d had before.
Different, however, wasn’t good enough. She needed more. She needed something she couldn’t name.
The longer they stayed here the more twisted her thoughts became, especially when Lennon looked at her the way he looked at her now. He wanted to kiss her.
The pang in her chest intensified. Another second and she’d cave…but that second never came. The shadow of lips ghosted over hers before the elevator jolted and the lights flickered on again, blaring out the emergency bulbs. Kenzie nearly lost her balance in surprise, but Lennon grabbed her arm and held firm. She didn’t realize what had happened until the doors to their makeshift prison dinged and slid open, revealing the stark hallway through which she’d treaded a lifetime ago.
“Shit,” Lennon whispered.
Kenzie breathed steadily, her stomach knotting.
Reality had come crashing back.
A week had passed since Kenzie had seen Lennon’s face. Felt his hands on her body. Heard his laugh rumble across her skin. A week since a drunken teenager had taken a joyride in Daddy’s Porsche and crashed into the circuit box across from Lennon’s building, knocking out the power on the whole block. A week since she had stumbled into the cool St. Louis night, autumn air kissing her cheeks, something in her chest breaking.
She couldn’t remember if she’d said anything to Lennon before bolting for freedom. The second the elevator doors slid open, the world had come crashing down on her. To be fair, she’d known what would happen. Her time with Lennon was borrowed, and pretending otherwise was nothing more than wishful thinking.
And a week later, she thought. Wishfully.
Her decision regarding the Buckingham file had been an easy one. There was no way she could walk away from what had transpired with a clear conscience if it involved selling Lennon up the river. No matter if she had his blessing, no matter if this was his gift to her, no matter what it meant to her brother or her future—Lennon didn’t deserve whatever the senior partners would throw at him. Kenzie knew Howard Martin, Lennon’s direct superior, would put him through the wringer. Therefore she hadn’t hesitated. From Lennon’s building, she’d driven to the Doran and Gage building and left the file with Benny, the man who had second shift at the front desk.
A week had passed, and she hadn’t heard a damn thing. Not from Lennon, not from Kayla Bryant—who wouldn’t take her calls, not even for an explanation why she’d fallen through on the bargain. Kenzie couldn’t stand being out of the loop, but this was what she’d wanted. This was for what she’d asked. What she told Lennon to give her.
Nothing. Nothing at all.
For whatever reason, reminding herself she’d gotten what she wished for did little to ease her aching heart. And her heart didn’t have a good reason to ache. Her time with Lennon had been amazing, no doubt, but Kenzie refused to fool herself.
“No happy ending,” she murmured. Kenzie sat in her parked Oldsmobile outside the last address she had for her prince of an ex, Hunter. The asshole responsible for this whole mess. The dickhead who had shaken her sense of self in ways she’d always sworn no man would. The fuckwit who had cheated on her, degraded her, then sent a sex tape to her boss. She had no idea what had brought her here—why she would want to see him, of all people. And yet, one week after confronting a side of herself she hadn’t realized existed, she found herself drawn to a dusty corner of the shadows she somehow couldn’t dodge.
After finding Hunter pounding some redheaded bimbo blind, the course of action had seemed inevitable. Kenzie had gone home, packed, and left. She hadn’t bothered waiting around for a half-hearted apology—especially given Hunter’s verbal callousness upon being discovered. Figuring “Whups, I tripped,” would be his best attempt at a legitimate excuse, she’d checked into the cheapest motel and began piecing her life together. Women who waited for their man to explain in small words why they deserved to stand on the shit end of infidelity were the weakest sort of creature. Kenzie didn’t need an explanation. All she’d needed was the nearest exit ramp.
While she stood by her actions, with some distance between the breakup and now, Kenzie supposed the one thing she’d missed was an attempt at closure. Of course, the notion of needing closure after dumping a cheating scumbag who’d wasted too much of her time likewise struck her as hopelessly cliché and pathetic, but when it came to Lennon…god, she didn’t know. In replaying every conversation she’d had with herself since leaving the elevator, since forfeiting her shortcut to fixing her immediate future in an effort to save the man’s career, Kenzie kept dead-ending on a question she couldn’t afford to dead-end.
Kenzie expelled a deep breath, shivering, flexing her fingers around the steering wheel. Still no good answer. Yes, her actions had made sense at the time…but a sort of sense that lacked, well, sense. She’d kept herself sane by issuing small self-reminders of those things she had already established—things she knew to be true, and not subject to interpretation. Despite all the secret crushes and water-cooler talk and buying each other pastries and fanciful daydreaming, it took a misunderstanding on top of a lie on top of deception to get them anywhere near the neighborhood of honesty. Excuses mounted and, though she’d like to deny it, a good amount of blame lay at her feet. Perhaps she and Lennon would have worked in one of the fairytales he’d woven—the ones in which they met in any other part of their lives except where they currently stood.
A different Kenzie, a more confident Kenzie, might have taken the plunge. Might have done something like risk her job or her dignity or whatever else to see if her cute, hopefully single boss were interested in catching a movie over the weekend. No matter what happened between her and Hunter, no matter how she felt about it now, pretending that sort of infidelity didn’t hurt hadn’t done her any favors. And maybe, just maybe, that was the ultimate gift her night with Lennon had given her. A chance to reevaluate where she stood, regain her footing, and emerge stronger and wiser when it came to the big bad world of boy-meets-girl.
Then again, maybe she’d thrown away the prospect of something truly wonderful because she was a big goddamned scaredy cat.
Kenzie sighed again, at last pulling the car keys from the ignition. No sense pretending anymore. She couldn’t move forward without getting this part effectively behind her. Like taking off a Band-Aid, the sting wouldn’t seem so obvious if she did it quickly. Thus Kenzie climbed out of her car and marched intently toward the front door.
It took a moment for life to stir inside the house after she rang the bell. Just long enough for a strain of doubt to permeate her mind like a bad fog. Then the door opened, and Hunter’s face appeared like a villain through the mist. He hadn’t changed much—not that she had expected it. His height seemed impossible now that she had grown accustomed to Lennon. His eyes, rich and brown, betrayed confusion and a mask of intelligence she had almost forgotten he possessed. His brown hair hung longer than she remembered, but then she was always the one who reminded him when it was time for a trim. He didn’t have that person in his life anymore.
Kenzie didn’t know what to expect. A sneer, a rude comment, a laugh. The Hunter in her head, the one she’d last caught with his pants down, wasn’t one for tact or humility. Yet for a sliver of an instant, she would have sworn something resembling regret flickered across his face.
“McKenzie,” Hunter said. He blinked and looked her up and down—not in the male way, but rather as someone might size up an opponent. “You look good.”
“You look like shit.”
He didn’t, but she wanted to say it.
A half-smile flirted with Hunter’s lips. “I know.”
Kenzie’s eyes narrowed. “I came over here to tell you you’re an ass.”
“To be fair, I knew that already. How have you been?”
“You look good.”
“You said that already. And I look fantastic.”
He nodded. “Agreed.”
“Being nice. It’s throwing me off.”
Hunter grinned and stepped aside in offering. “I’ve missed you. Come on in.”
“Or stand out here.” His stance relaxed. “It’s entirely up to you.”
“Out here’s fine.”
His smile, if possible, became friendlier. “Okay.”
A readily agreeable Hunter was something she had never encountered, and Kenzie would be lying if she said it didn’t throw her a tad off her game. Still, history had taught her—and well—that the man never did, said, or volunteered one thing without reaching for whatever was in it for him. The best option seemed to be say her piece in full, then hit the road.
“It didn’t work,” Kenzie said, raising her chin. “Well, it worked, but not the way I think you wanted it to work.”
“What didn’t work?” He frowned. “Or did?”
Okay. This was getting insulting.
“You know damn well what tape.”
A beat passed, and the color in Hunter’s face slowly drained away. His eyes fluttered closed, a cringe creasing his brows.
“Oh, fucking fuck.”
“I sent the tape.”
“To your boss.”
Kenzie nodded. “Yes.”
The cocky smirk, the knowing laugh, the seemingly charming eyebrow waggle all failed to make an appearance. In their stead stood pod-Hunter, now moon-pale, his jaw slightly agape and his eyes wide with horror. “Shit. Shit, shit, shit.”
“I thought I’d lost it.”
“You lost several things,” Kenzie said helpfully. “Least of all me.”
Hunter shook his head. “No, you don’t understand. Goddammit, how could you understand?”
He held up a hand. “I’m sorry, all right? Things haven’t exactly been easy since you left.”
“And that’s my fault, how?”
“It’s not. Look, McKenzie—”
“It’s Kenzie,” she said, balling her hands into fists. “Just Kenzie.”
“All right, then. Just Kenzie.” He huffed a deep breath. “A while back, I got stinkin’ drunk.”
That sounded more like the Hunter she knew. Kenzie crossed her arms and cocked her head.
“I was pissed at you—”
“Pissed at me?”
“And me,” he said, his hands flying up. “More with me than you. I fucked things up between us—”
A dry laugh rumbled through her throat. “You’re telling me.”
“Would you let me talk?”
“Why should I?”
“Because this is one of those times when shutting up will get you what you want.”
Kenzie snickered again. “And what is it I want?”
“I. Am. Sorry.” He accented each word with a clap. “I’m sorry for what happened and sorry that I was a dipshit and sorry for what I said and sorry for getting drunk and I’m definitely sorry for sending that tape to your boss.”
Cold, hard astonishment washed away the anger to which she was so desperate to cling. Seemingly without effort, Hunter had managed to throw her world out of order, and not for the reason she expected. Not in his usual style Kenzie stared at him for a long moment, then swallowed and looked away.
Hunter sighed again. “Look,” he said, “this is about…I don’t wanna think how many years too late, but you and me? A bad idea.”
“And I knew it too. I wanted you then, and I wanted to prove everyone who said I wasn’t good enough wrong. I just didn’t want it bad enough, I guess.”
Kenzie pursed her lips. She’d had this dream before. Now was typically the time her alarm went off.
“I don’t know how else to say it,” Hunter continued. “But there it is. I was horrible. I’m trying now not to be, ’cause horrible kinda blows. Facing you I knew would be the worst, because you brought out the worst in me.”
She flinched, a spike of anger rousing to life. “So it’s my fault?”
His face fell. “No, dammit, that’s not…look, that came out wrong. I was my worst around you, but that wasn’t your fault. There’s…so much shit in my head. I’ve thought about a lot of things since you left, and that’s what I wanted to say.”
“This was before or after you sent the tape to my boss?”
“That was one of the stages.”
“Of me being a total dick. And angry at you for leaving, which—I know—makes fuck-all sense.” Hunter drew in a steady breath. “I swear, McKen—Kenzie, if I’d been sober, that never would’ve happened. I was just pissed and upset and completely shitfaced.” He paused. “Did you get in trouble?”
Kenzie squared her shoulders. “No. I didn’t get in trouble.”
“I didn’t find out why I was fired until last week.”
Again, Hunter deflated, but he had enough decency not to act surprised. “Fucking fuck. It was so long ago…I thought maybe, if there was a chance I had done it, maybe you got it first or had a cool enough boss—”
“I did have a cool boss.”
A boss who had made her tremble and come, damn near weep with pleasure. A boss who had invaded her heart whether or not she wanted him there. Standing before Hunter, the representation of everything she despised about the male gender, wisps of anger fading despite her attempts to hold them, her refusal to attempt anything more with Lennon stung.
“You had a thing for him, huh?”
Kenzie blinked, her cheeks warming. “How can you tell?”
Hunter smiled softly. “I’ve seen that look before. So I really blew it.”
“No. Well, we didn’t start…we…”
“You seeing this guy?”
“Not exactly. We, ah, spent a few hours together a week ago. When I found out why I was fired.”
“Stuck in an elevator. Long story. He didn’t mean for me to get fired, but I had distracted him. Because of the tape.”