Logic implied that this thing with Ryder wasn’t going to benefit either of them professionally. But Liese’s center of logic was fried. She wanted more. More touch, more sensation, more of whatever he was offering. Fueled by hormones, she hurried to hide the evidence of their near-encounter. Scanning the floor, she spotted the button from Ryder’s pants beside the leg of her desk. She retrieved it and tucked it carefully into the top drawer of her desk.
Once her office loosely resembled its previous state, Liese shoved the piece of paper he’d given her into her purse. Leaving the scene of the crime, she opened the door and peeked out to check the halls. They were empty, but without the raucous sounds of students in the corridors, the echo of her heels made her feel conspicuous.
A soft whirring soon joined the noise of her shoes as the custodian buffed the floors down an adjacent hall. Liese slid a sidelong glance in his direction. She tried to be stealthy and would have managed if not for her footwear. He paused as she moved into his field of vision, and he raised a hand in greeting. Liese returned the gesture but didn’t stop to chat as she normally would have, because today was no normal day.
Rounding the corner, she ran headlong into the one person she was actively trying to avoid. She flailed, clutching Blake’s shirtsleeve to stop from falling right into his chest.
“Shit! Sorry.” He grabbed her upper arms to steady her. “You’re just leaving now?” He didn’t let go immediately. She could feel his eyes on her, searching her face.
Her insides churned as she struggled to look him in the eye. “I had a few things I wanted to take care of, in case I can’t come in tomorrow.” It felt as though she had a sign on her forehead that read: Illicit Encounter in Progress.
“Good idea.” Blake pressed the back of his hand to her cheek. “You’re really warm, and kind of sweaty.” His nose wrinkled. Liese would have laughed if she didn’t think she might vomit.
“I feel pretty awful. Maybe it’s the flu.” Her voice cracked, and she rummaged for her keys so she could look away. She really hated lying.
Apparently he bought it, though, because he threaded his arm through hers, drawing her to his side. “Let me walk you to your car.”
“It’s really not necessary,” she said weakly. On any other occasion she would have appreciated his chivalry. Today, however, his attentiveness made her paranoid.
“I’ll feel more comfortable if I know you aren’t passed out beside your car.” He guided her toward the main entrance. No didn’t seem to be an acceptable answer.
The temperature had dropped since morning, as it often did in late November. An unseasonably chilly wind whipped through her hair and bit at the exposed skin of her face. She curled into Blake’s side, hiding from the frosty fingers of autumn as they hinted at winter yet to come. The damp heat of her skin cooled rapidly, and she huddled deeper into her jacket.
They shuffled quickly down the sprawling staircase to the parking lot. When they reached her car, Blake released her arm, and she gripped her key with a shaky hand, pushing it into the lock.
“How did your meeting with Whitehall go, anyway?” he asked as she opened the door and tossed her purse and empty laptop case on the passenger seat.
“It was fine.” Liese leaned inside the car and slipped the key into the ignition. The engine turned over, and she cranked the heat.
She held onto the edge of the door, wanting very much to get inside and drive away. She looked up at him expectantly, wrapping her arms around herself to keep the chill at bay.
“You’d tell me if Whitehall did something inappropriate, right?”
“What?” Panic constricted her throat and made her voice too high.
Blake’s eyes narrowed. He took a step closer and peered down at her. “Did something happen?”
“God, no,” Liese replied, her eyes darting away. “He’s never been anything but professional with me. Why? Is there something you’re not telling me?”
“Is there something you’re not telling me?” Skepticism hung thick in the air between them.
“No.” A spike of anxiety shot through her. “Now answer the damn question, Blake. Has Ryder done something untoward with another female staff member? Is that why you’re asking?”
“What? No.” He huffed in irritation. “Until you showed up, most of us wondered whether he’d become asexual.”
“What do you mean, until I showed up?” Liese shuddered against the wind and gave the parking lot a furtive once-over; Ryder’s vehicle was gone, and she had no idea how much time had passed since he’d left her office.
Blake puffed out a breath and ran his hand through his hair. “I don’t know, Liese. It’s just the way he is with you. I don’t like it. It’s like he’s too engrossed in what you have to say. How long was your meeting today?”
“What does the length of our meeting have to do with anything?”
“Nothing. Never mind. Forget I mentioned it,” he said, his tone softening. “Look, you’re beautiful and young and intelligent and driven. As your friend, I worry.”
“Why?” Curiosity made her ask, even though she wasn’t sure she wanted to hear the answer.
“Because I see the way he looks at you, even if you don’t.”
“I appreciate your concern. I really do, but you have nothing to worry about.” Liese hoped she sounded more convincing than she felt.
“Maybe I’m being overprotective and a little too brotherly.” Blake flashed an apologetic smile. “And if I am, please feel free to tell me where to shove it. Just be careful. I don’t want to see you taken advantage of.”
Liese sighed; she hated the guilt weighing down her limbs. “I can hold my own. If Ryder ever tries anything, I’ll use the hidden power of my knobby knees to hit him where it counts.” Her teeth chattered as she tried to smile. It felt more like a grimace, a product of the cold and the fabrication.
Despite his dubious expression, Blake eventually relented, giving her room to breathe. “You should go. Standing out here listening to me lecture you isn’t going to make you feel any better.”
Liese lowered herself into her seat and tucked her legs inside the car, welcoming the blast of heat as it warmed her face.
Blake leaned down to eye level. “Just promise you’ll tell me if he does try anything he shouldn’t.”