“Explain anyway,” he ordered.
“It’s embarrassing,” she warned. For a fleeting moment she considered elbowing him out of the way and smashing the laptop. Then there would be no more proof the pictures existed. However, she doubted she was fast enough, or strong enough, to get it from him. Also, replacing it would be costly, and if she was out of a job that would be even more difficult.
Ryder’s index finger made a continual circuit around the perimeter of the machine. “I imagine it is. However, I still want to know where the photos came from and whether I should be concerned about finding them posted all over the Internet.”
“Oh, God no. Marissa—my friend made them. She meant to be funny, although she didn’t really succeed. I mean, obviously I’m not laughing at those photos.” Liese motioned to the screen, her face reddening. Ryder continued to glare at her in silence. “She knew I thought you were . . . she wanted to . . . I—I—”
“You thought I was what?”
Liese ducked her head, focusing on his tie, which seemed the safest place to keep her eyes. “It’s really not appropriate.”
“And this is?”
Liese wanted to rewind her day and go back to the moment she’d misplaced her thumb drive. If she’d taken another minute to look around, or had the foresight to email the damn document to Ryder instead, she wouldn’t be in this position.
“No, sir.” Liese’s focus remained on the dark blue and silver pinstripes against a backdrop of white. A stray image of her fist wrapped around a similar tie popped into her head. In it, she was pulling his mouth down to hers, their lips a hair’s breadth apart.
“Look at me.”
She wanted to feel some sort of ire, but couldn’t. And though his words sounded like a command, a hint of yearning below their surface seemed to parallel her own. Liese held her breath, catching the movement of his hand out of the corner of her eye. Warm, soft fingers slid under her chin and tilted her head up, compelling her. And in that moment, the world inverted itself.
He was close, so close, too close—yet not close enough. She could see the flecks of blue in his eyes, fanning out into a vibrant green threaded with gold until they merged, creating the vivid aquamarine she wanted to drown in.
“I want to know . . .” His seductive whisper floated on the air around them, the thought never finished. His thumb swept back and forth along the edge of her jaw, a hypnotizing sensation, soothing and exhilarating, making her body buzz.
Liese raised a tentative hand, her fingers trembling as they grazed the fabric of his suit jacket. She couldn’t find her voice. No longer able to maintain the veneer of professional distance, she swayed forward; thankful Ryder appeared to struggle just as she did.
“I shouldn’t,” he murmured, inclining his head, his mouth only an inch from hers.
He wet the plush curve of his bottom lip with his tongue. She noted a pale, thin scar—an imperfection in an otherwise flawless face. Liese raised her gaze to his, the dark edge of desire mirrored there. The softest sound left her, somewhere between a sigh and a whimper. Ryder closed his eyes, cutting off her view of the emotional storm that raged behind them.
His fingers curled into her hair, tightening at the nape of her neck as his free arm wrapped around her waist. He stepped in, his body pressed against hers. This was nothing like the uncomfortable hug they’d shared weeks prior, nor the fleeting touches since then.
Liese’s eyes fluttered shut, lips parting in expectation. Just as she felt the warmth of his breath against her mouth, the school-wide public announcement system clicked on, an abrasive beep filtering into the room.
Liese became acutely aware of his erection against her stomach. Ryder’s mouth, so temptingly close, hovered above her own. Uncertainty paralyzed her.
“Mr. Whitehall, call for you on line four,” Betty, the office secretary, announced over the PA. A four-second pause ensued, wherein neither of them moved, followed by a repeat of the same message.
“Fuck,” Ryder exhaled, his breath warm against her cheek.
“Pardon?” He seemed to snap back into reality. His hand dropped from her hair, and he took a step away, putting some much-needed, but unpleasant space between them.
“Nothing.” Liese scanned the room, disoriented and unnerved.
In a particularly graceful move, he reached around her and grabbed the laptop. “I think I’ll take this with me. I expect to see you at the end of the day so you can explain why exactly you have pornographic images of the two of us together on your laptop.” He waited a beat and gave her a curt nod. “Have a good afternoon, Ms. Harper.”
And with that he walked out of her office, leaving her wondering if the almost-kiss had been a figment of her imagination.
“Oh my God. Oh my God. Oh my God.” Liese leaned against her desk and tried to calm her racing heart.
Ryder had her laptop. He had access to all of her saved porn. All of it. And there was a lot. Like, more than there reasonably should be. Beyond the doctored images of the man himself, she had a small collection of videos she definitely didn’t want him to see. She should never have brought her personal computer to work.
Even if he did seem to share her mutual attraction, once Ryder browsed the contents of the folder, he would probably fire her anyway. If he reported her to the board, she’d be forced to stand before a committee and talk about her porn problem. The potential consequences made her skin crawl with shame.
Liese spent the rest of the day in a haze of restlessness, petrified of the meeting to come. Yet while she worried about her impending termination, a small part of her fixated on what had almost transpired between them. Unless she was mistaken, Ryder had almost kissed her. Knowing she affected him that way lent her a dangerous sense of power. If the opportunity arose again she wouldn’t have the restraint to deny him. The evidence of his arousal pressed against her stomach had felt like a victory.
Level-headed and driven, Liese had always given her career precedence over her sex drive. In college she’d refused a serious relationship for fear it might interfere with her academic standing. As a result, her father hadn’t worried about her future profession. But, her mother’s concerns during her undergraduate years had centered on her love life.
She cringed to think how they’d react if she lost her job over porn. As a sex therapist, her mother had always encouraged Liese to try what “felt natural.” But Liese doubted her mom meant she should entertain a taboo relationship with her principal and allow Marissa to create photoshopped fetish porn to spur on the infatuation. She couldn’t know for sure, though, because her parents had gone on a backpacking expedition in Europe. They’d left in early September and wouldn’t be back for several more weeks. Communication had been limited to brief emails and attempted Skypings with poor reception.